If there was The Sims: Gay Brunch, the most successful character would be based on entertainment guru Paul Zahn (IG: @PaulZahn) – a snappy dresser with the perfect daytime scruff, and master of the sassy chat with the ability to make a mean cocktail. He could easily play the perfect boyfriend or that bestie who makes getting into trouble look fancy. And the killer? He gets paid for it. Paul’s personality is in high demand as a beverage brand ambassador, BravoTV.com reporter, and on-air lifestyle expert. His quick wit and love of all things entertainment have put him on televisions across the nation, on red carpets in front of every kind of celebrity you can imagine. We chatted about red carpets, television, and, of course, cocktails.
Most of us extroverted gays are blessed with the gift of gab, from brunch gossip or reality TV show recaps to political repartee. We can certainly talk.
I was always a Chatty Cathy. Growing up, my father used to ask me, “Do you just talk to hear yourself talk?” And I always replied, “YES!” Now, I explain to my father that I get PAID to talk so it all worked out. I have always enjoyed being around people and socializing!
We will literally talk to everyone while avoiding working a normal job at all costs, even in our youth.
One of my first paying jobs was standing outside of a costume store, dressed as Captain Hook (wig and all!) trying to get people to go inside. I was probably 11 years old. The outfit was cute, the check was nice, and I was available. Booked and blessed, henny!
Paul’s love of the gab and being front and center as a precocious youth saw him in school plays and musicals and then off to New York to work the East Coast stage, showing a little skin on the way.
I performed Off-Broadway in NYC and always say Broadway performers are the MOST talented in the world. While working Off-Broadway, I performed in Broadway Bares for six years. Volunteering with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was one of the most artistically and personally rewarding experiences of my life. I even shared a stage with icons like Cyndi Lauper and Fran Drescher – so you can imagine how fun that was!
His career path and natural celebrity curiosity would take him to his first professional gig, hosting and producing for Time Warner Cable. He was also a contributor to OK! TV/Celebrity Page TV as a part of their Entertainment Team. He also took part in the Yahoo/Coca-Cola PreShow at The American Music Awards, co-hosting the live show with celebrities like Lance Bass, Kandi Burruss, and Jordin Sparks, as produced by Dick Clark Productions. Those of us in the biz know that hosting gigs don’t usually come with a handbook and most times you are given a microphone and maybe a tip sheet with poorly xeroxed copies of celeb headshots and, if you are lucky, the title of their latest project.
I covered movie premieres, press junkets, and even co-hosted the official American Music Awards Pre-Show. I was thrust into the gig with little preparation but was lucky enough to interview everyone from George Clooney and Jennifer Garner to Sir Ben Kinglsey. And yes – you address him as SIR. It went well if you don’t count my interview with Jeremy Piven, who walked away mid-interview because I said his movie would be available On Demand. I was wrong and he did NOT like that! I just laughed and kept rolling with the punches – that’s what you need to do!
Approaching a celebrity can be like approaching a sleeping tiger. You never know what you are going to get when they focus in on you. Will they be the affable guest? Or the challenging opponent?
My approach when interacting with celebrities – whether it is creating an event for them or interviewing them – is speaking to them like they are human. I have experienced so many cringe-worthy interactions where people approach celebrities and speak to them like they are aliens or superhuman. I always ask how their day is going, how the kids are, compliment something they are wearing – much like you would to a friend. It sets the tone of familiarity and levels the playing field. The celebrities typically enjoy the day to day banter. And if you do need to ask them something personal or pressing (because your producer or editor requires this at times) – I wait until the end.
Red carpets and phone interviews can be super tricky. Some celebrities just do not like to talk without a script. Incredibly, standup comedians and comedic actors can sometimes be the most challenging. They either feel lost without their routine or like to match wits with the interviewer. And then there is the off chance that the celeb does not like to get personal – like at ALL.
One celebrity I was interviewing literally would not give a specific answer, so I just tried and asked even more specific questions. At the end of the day, I am a freelance writer – so without any “meat,” my story will not get greenlit by my editor. If things are not going anywhere when interviewing on camera, I just shift into timely topics – what is your favorite Christmas song? What is your favorite vacation getaway spot for the holidays? This way, you have some content to be used by producers.
Breaking into the hosting arena isn’t just showing up and looking pretty in front of the camera. There are the business development and marketing you must do for yourself. How you conduct the business side of your hosting persona is just as important as what you do in front of the camera. The time you see on camera is usually paved with a road of obstacles.
I have had development deals to produce and host my own projects with major television production companies get shelved, which is frustrating. I have had deals go south right before production started with the major production companies. I have also had managers that have asked me to change who I am when going into meetings – and that is not going to happen!
From the start of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Bravo TV almost twenty years ago, the idea of what an on-camera gay host should look like has continually shifted. There is still the stereotype of how a host should appear and act – the gay host robot.
I have had talent managers in the past ask me to “butch it up” or tell me “I’m not gay enough.” I was not aware there a “gay barometer” – do they sell it at GAY-MART? Unfortunately – that sort of conversation does not go well with me. So, I parted ways with that manager. I have had major entertainment shows say they like me “but they are looking for more diverse hosts.” The challenge of being a host is that you are not playing a role like an actor- you are being yourself. The critiques are quite literally about you, as a being. I do not take things personally and know I am not for everyone or for every outlet, but it can be a lot to take in.
Body image in the industry is slowly evolving. Though most gay hosts you see on-air will only fit in an extreme slim fit pant, times are changing. For those of us old enough to remember, Entertainment Tonight changed their news desk to a glass, no-front version so viewers could see Mary Hart’s legs. Now, the shift is towards personality rather than looks and that kind of thinking (along with Mary Hart’s career) is a thing of the past. You can thank social media for that.
The way people consume content has completely changed over the past 10-20 years. Talent has direct access to an audience via social media and the internet. In the ‘80s you needed a major studio or record label to “approve” you to get your content to the masses. Now, people control their own content so the Issa Rae’s of the world can create, put out their work, and then get the major players on board. The approval process has shifted and changed – and I think it is great, because body image/appearance is not the driving force anymore. It is the talent. Look at shows like The Voice – perfect example.
Getting older in the industry also helps with ideas of body image. Having a consummate resume speaks for itself as does the idea of not having to compete with up-and-comers.
Being a host and entertaining expert is a lot less pressure than when I was an actor or model in my 20’s. People book me for my personality and expertise and not my looks, so I do not get those requests from photographers to pose nude or in provocative manners anymore.
However, I do try and maintain a healthy lifestyle. I go to the gym, drink lots of water, eat a healthy diet, and always wear sunscreen. After a few bouts with skin cancer – that is mandatory. And I have a great dermatologist who helps with “little arrangements,” to quote Walter Mercado.
In addition to his entertainment work, Paul has developed and marketed beverage brands with everyone from Fergie to 50 Cent to Pitbull. He has also worked on iconic spirit brands like Absolut Vodka, Malibu Rum, Disaronno, and Midori. During COVID, he has hosted a myriad of live tastings for his clients digitally. But perhaps one of his best stories deals with one of our gay Divas pre-fame.
Years ago, I worked for Absolut Vodka in New York City. Absolut had a big focus on LGBT causes, and we sponsored a big event every year for an LGBT magazine, and a little know pop star attended. She had one single barely below the Top 100, but she had a voice that I loved. I oversaw the VIP room and all she wanted was vodka drinks, so we made sure she had them. Plenty of them. As the night was winding down, the Absolut team came to the VIP lounge and we all got our spirited sipping on. Fast forward to the end of the eve and this pop star was quite tipsy and fun. The issue, that I found out much, much later was her age – 19. It was Adele! She was a lot of fun!
As the go-to party guy with the booze, especially as a gay socialite, how does being the cocktail man work with being successful in a career?
Hosting events and working for spirits companies can be overwhelming at times. I work hard and play hard but try to keep a balance in life. Pre-COVID, I would rarely be out on a weekend because so much of my week is absorbed either hosting events for a spirits company or attending events as press. As I have gotten older, I really pick my battles when it comes to what and how I spend my free time. And water…lots of water!
Who knows when we will be hosting parties again? But when that time comes, Paul will be taking notes. The biggest faux pas?
Running out of ice, not having enough passed food and drinks, and long lines at bars at special events, are things that irk me. It is not brain surgery, people.
COVID has certainly changed the way we view get-togethers, social events, and even what we want to talk about. Paul has kept the party going with the addition of tech skills into his arsenal. Zoom happy hours have been a thing, why not make them a quality experience? Alcohol consumption has increased during COVID by 14%, not bad considering the bars are all closed.
I have learned how much of an extrovert I am during COVID. I have always enjoyed being around people so isolating has been tough. I have also learned that I am nimble. I am beyond grateful that we have these phones that we can broadcast from and so thankful for all the television hosts and producers who have allowed me to join their show from the comfort of my living room.
Hopefully, 2021 will be kinder than 2020. How should we party on New Year’s Eve?
New Year’s Eve will look quite different his year but that does not mean you cannot have some fun. This year, I am all about gratitude – so why not take some time during your in-person or Zoom soiree to share some things you are grateful for this NYE. I also recommend some fun signature cocktails.
The party scene may look very different for the next year or so, but Paul is focused on delivering his content any way he can. During COVID he has Zoomed in on numerous talk shows throughout the nation to share his lifestyle tips and cocktail goodness. On the personal front, he is working on a book and still dreams of that white, picket fence fairy tale. So, any single Prince Charmings out there – do not forget the ice.
RECIPES FOR ALL OCCASIONS:
BRUNCH/NEW YEAR’S HANGOVER
The Velvet Coffee Kiss
1 oz. Vodka
3/4 oz. Disaronno Velvet
1/2 oz. Tia Maria Coffee Liqueur 1 shot of espresso
Build all ingredients in iced mixing tin. Shake and strain over fresh ice. Garnish with an espresso bean.
2 oz. THE BUSKER Irish Whiskey
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters, 1 dash orange bitters
Build all ingredients in mixing glass with ice. Stir. Strain into coupe glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry.
Spiked Italian Apple Cider
1.5 oz. Appleton Estate Rum 1/2 oz. Disaronno Originale 1/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz. ginger syrup
3 oz. apple cider
Build all ingredients in iced mixing tin and shake. Strain over fresh ice. Garnish with dehydrated lemon.
(Featured Image Photo of Paul Zahn by Patrick Rivera, www.patrickrivera.com)
Last modified: December 3, 2020