Behind the Beard: SCRUFF’s Johnny Skandros Speaks

Written by | Lifestyle

Johnny Skandros

Johnny Skandros—photo by Michael Blase

How a self-confessed introvert reinvented himself — and in the process changed the way men connect with each other around the world.

Not all superheroes have a secret identity, and just as it’s an open secret that Tony Stark is Iron Man in the Marvel universe, everyone understands that Johnny Scruff and Johnny Skandros are one and the same. But while Robert Downey Jr. plays a pair of fictional characters, both Johnnys — Scruff and Skandros — are facets of a very real person with a constellation of dimensions within.

Skandros is known around the world as the founder of Scruff, the gay dating application where men exchange photos, texts and preferences before deciding whether to meet in real time. What sets him and his company apart is that while his competitors provide a service, Scruff offers a community. Subscribers see the app as a kind of cyber-mancave where they can present themselves as bears, jocks nerds and twinks — or reject those archetypes altogether to reveal nothing more than an interest in men.

In seven years, Skandros and his team have built Scruff into an international empire worth a fortune — at least on paper. Such success comes with perks and pitfalls, says Skandros. The details of his daily life remain just indistinct enough to stoke the myth of Johnny Scruff, the beefy app mogul with a Midas touch for men and money. “A certain amount of those assumptions you just have to brush off,” Skandros shouts over the din of a noisy bar in Chelsea. He’s grateful for his company’s success, but says that Scruff only recently provided the means “to live comfortably for the first time in my life. I’m certainly not rolling in millions, and we’ve invested a lot of money back in the business. People also think my life is hypersexual, and I’ll admit I’ve partied like a rock star. But I’m not hooking up all the time.”

Skandros started life not in the spotlight, but not far from it as the only child of two Las Vegas musicians who met playing for Wayne Newton. In order to make a living, his father went on tours that lasted months at a time. His mother quit show business and went back to school to become an elementary school teacher, often taking her infant son in tow.

“I kept playing until I went into labor,” says his mother Stephanie. “It was hard. Johnny had a lot of difficulty with allergies and needed a significant amount of care while his father was on the road. I decided over a three-year period to spend as much time as I could raising my child. But I also felt blessed. I never pushed him into anything. He would come home, and he was always so … driven. All through elementary school, between soccer, karate, gymnastics and swimming, he was a dedicated student,” she remembers. “You could see he was a very independent learner and curious about anything and everything.”

He was also essentially fatherless. “Not having had a father in my life,” Skandros says in retrospect, “I’ve always searched for strong male role models. I think that’s why I was drawn to bears and the scruffier crowd. They are almost like the big brothers and father I never had.”

Early on, his mother had an inkling about her son’s identity. “I had suspected Johnny was gay,” she says casually, “and I was very content with that. I knew eventually when he was ready, he would tell me.”

Skandros remembers that moment well: “It’s a difficult process, coming out. But I’m lucky in that I come from a very loving home. I recall coming out to my Mom in the kitchen where she was cooking me her breaded chicken. And when I told her, ‘Mom, I’m gay,’ there was some crying involved. I think she had to take a moment to process. But she also bought me a car at 16 and used to let me go out to gay clubs and dance until six in the morning. So long as I kept my grades up, that was fine with her. And looking back, maybe that’s how I’ve had my fingers on the pulse of the gay community for so long — because I started so young.”

Here’s Johnny

This week Skandros is in New York to celebrate Scruff’s seventh anniversary and to help christen the company’s new offices, which he now sees only as an occasional visitor. Two years ago, he left Manhattan behind to live closer to his family in the Vegas suburbs. At the same time, Skandros’ role in the company he created has been pared back to allow him some much-prized downtime when not crisscrossing the world as Johnny Scruff, company ambassador.

“I created Johnny Scruff for several reasons,” he explains. “First, it was a way to personalize the brand and connect with our members, and I think people are able to relate better to a person than a company. I wanted to be accessible to people. I also felt it would be liberating to create a new identity especially one aligned with a brand and a community I was proud of,” he says. “Creating an extroverted persona allowed me to challenge myself to take on new roles and be front-facing, and that was something I really wanted to do.”

Skandros with Mom

Skandros with Mom

A decade ago, Skandros moved to New York fresh from USC expecting to work in film. He also knew that despite his inherent shyness, he could make a mark as a gay filmmaker. “I found it very liberating being gay,” he says, “and film is a medium where you could reach the community at large. I worked really hard to get into film school, and I didn’t get in right away.”

Still, Skandros found enough success as a film editor to earn good money and ended up working on several commercials that aired during the Super Bowl. But he wasn’t happy. That’s when Eric Silverberg approached him with an idea.

The pair met through a mutual friend in 2004 and remained in touch while Silverberg completed a business degree at MIT in Boston. On the weekends, he would drop down to New York to hit the clubs with Skandros and his friends. Though Silverberg initially returned to California after graduating, he says “it was always a lifelong dream to live in New York. So on January 4 of 2010, I moved. I also told Johnny I had been looking into iOS code and thought that we could make a better app than the ones that were out there, which were all of a piece, and pretty salacious. I wanted to build a brand that people would be excited to be affiliated with so that when couples were answering questions about how they met, they could be proud to say they met on Scruff.”

“I’m a 200-percent-or-nothing kind of guy; I’ve been that way since I was a kid. But it’s gotten me into trouble. I’m the guy who doesn’t want the party to stop. I ended up in the hospital.”

With Silverberg developing code and Skandros focused on marketing strategies, they began beta testing, first with an app they called “Husband Material”, then with “West Fourth”, a name they hoped would invoke images of the early ‘70s gay liberation movement. Neither iteration went anywhere.

“We knew the idea would work,” Skandros says emphatically. “I had faith in Eric — who had come out of MIT and worked for Google. But Eric was still learning, and remember that the code itself was still fairly new back then. He basically taught himself how to make it work. But at the same time, we’d already done a lot of testing and had very little to show for it. We were on the verge of shutting it down.”

Just as they were about to pull the plug. Skandros dropped into a local spot called Bar-Tini. “On certain nights,” he recalls, “they would have crowds with beards and guys who were not so fashion-forward or hipster, but just really friendly people, and I felt like I’d found my group. This one night, the guy I was talking to rubbed my face and said, ‘I like your scruff,’ and a light just went off in my head.”

He hastily arranged to meet his partner over sushi. “’It’s not over,” he told Silverberg. “No one joined before, but I have the fix. We’re going to call it Scruff and reach out to bears. It’s a community that’s already in place. This is the future here. Then I went home, shaved my head, grew my beard and changed my name to Johnny Scruff.”

Growing Pains

In order to nurture their venture, both moved back in with their parents. Skandros delicately outlined the idea to his Mom. “He put it in very gentle reserved terms,” Stephanie says with a laugh. “There’s some part of him that believes I’m naive, and he began by saying: ‘In the gay community there’s a group that refer to themselves as bears, Mom. They don’t shave their faces and chest hair and so on.’ “ This was news to Stephanie. “Bears? I didn’t know that term. ‘Is it a small group?’ I asked. He said, ‘Mom, the bear community is huge and I have an idea for an app that would work for these guys and bring them all together in one place that we would provide.’ And I said, ‘Great.’”

Subscribers were soon joining at a rate of 10,000 a week for the next six months. “That’s a testament to a working code and a name that clicked with the community,” says Skandros. Still, apps appear and vanish again with no guarantee that any will last, and dating apps are among the most daunting.

Silverberg explains that running a chat app in real time with globally grounded content puts enormous stress on any system and can be a staffing nightmare too, because “it’s hard to find people who code who share an interest in both of those things.”

Once they finally saw more money coming in than going out, the pair returned to Manhattan. With other apps bedeviled by “bots” — those fake profiles used to lure members away to other sites — Scruff made user support its priority. “We have a global team who gets back to you right away in person,” says Silverberg. “That shows a kind of institutional commitment that’s helped to differentiate us from everyone. Good luck trying to figure out how to contact any of the major sites people know by name. Our contact info is front and center on the home page.”

But stress also took a toll. Servers would crash, and Skandros would throw up. He also began having issues with a faltering libido, and even hormone therapy didn’t seem to help. “I was constantly stressed out and I wasn’t eating right,” he admits, adding , “I was also indulging in all of the fun New York City has to offer. We’re all human beings at the end of the day, you know? It’s nothing I’ve spoken about before.

“The truth,” he says leaning in, “is that for years, my goal ­— my heart and soul has been Scruff. I didn’t care about John Skandros. I’d spend all day working in the office and be out at night constantly promoting. I probably neglected the person I was born, but I’ve created a person I’m proud of in a lot of ways. I got known for going up and hugging and kissing members and buying round upon round of shots for crowds at bars. One night, I spent like $4,000 on shots for the entire crowd at Gym Bar in Chelsea, and Eric thought I was crazy, because this was in the early days. But my goal was to walk into a bar and not have anyone say, ‘What’s Scruff?”

As their reputation grew, Scruff also became a bigger target. Apps came under fire for undermining gay culture by discouraging people from going out and meeting in ways other than online one-on-one. Skandros sees it as a sign of of society in flux. “Apps have certainly changed the way we meet,” he’ll agree. “We’re able to connect quicker. In terms of gay nightlife, gay bars is how we met before and then technology changed that. But that started changing with AOL when the Internet happened, right?”

He maintains that gay people still find opportunities to gather. “I see events thriving more than ever,” he says. “That’s why we host them and we pack the place wherever we go. It’s why we were very proactive about creating an events section on Scruff, and we sponsored more than 400 of them last year because of that feedback that apps are killing gay nightlife. We’re connecting people faster than ever before, and on a global scale. You’re just not restricted to the bar down the street anymore.”

What about concerns that the apps have effectively become dark alleys in cyberspace where predators roam at will? Skandros strokes his stubble and scans the ceiling in silence. “It’s genuinely painful to hear stories of people having bad experiences,” he says finally. “I can tell you that any reports of bullying are handled immediately. They’re investigated by a Scruff support staff member within 24 hours. We take harassment very seriously, and that too has helped create a space where people come and feel welcome.”

Beyond that, Skandros believes that putting your image and desires up for public review always involves risk . “You’ve got to have thick skin when you’re out there, especially in matters of the heart.

Skandros with Eric Silverberg

Skandros with Scruff co-founder Eric Silverberg

“When bad things happen, I have to remind myself,” he says, “that I helped create something that has done a lot of good.” To that end, Scruff provides millions of dollars in free space to promote nonprofits who work with the LGBTQ community. The app also helps protect people in practical ways. The company introduced an advanced pop-up advisory for travelers visiting foreign countries where same-sex encounters risk prison time, or worse.

For the first two years, Skandros was so immersed in building the business he had no idea he’d unwittingly signed away part of himself. “That’s when I realized that the name Johnny Scruff didn’t belong to me,” says Skandros. “And If we ever sold the company or I was told I couldn’t use my name anymore it would be tough, because I’m used to walking into a bar and hearing people call me me Johnny Scruff. That’s my name now. But I also had to put my business hat on and remind myself that I’m living my life and identity as a person and a brand that I’m proud of, and that’s my job.”

Skandros and Silverberg huddled over the matter. “Eric and I spoke, and in no way do I blame him,” says Skandros. But that in a nutshell explains his public dual identity. “I’ve fluctuated between Johnny Scruff and Johnny Skandros in the media — just in case Johnny Scruff ever has to go away.”

New Identities

In 2013, Skandros moved uptown in a big way. “It was my first big boy apartment,” he laughs. “The business started doing really well and that’s about the time we first started turning a profit and finally taking some money for ourselves. But at the end of the fifth year, my Grandma was getting ill, and I was just burned out and I needed a break. I wasn’t growing in the office anymore and I’d be at my desk just twiddling my thumbs and thinking, ‘Gosh, I want to be out with the community now. I want to be with my Mom; I really want to be with my Grandma.”

Skandros soon learned Stephanie’s mother was dying. “It was the darkest time in my life,” he winces. “In the beginning, I liked wearing a lot of hats and for a long time I had to. But as we made more money, we were able to hire people. Eventually, you have to let go and delegate to other people who you trust, which is difficult to do when it’s partly your company and identity at play.”

Was it tough leaving the office? Leaving New York? “You bet it was,” Skandros admits. “I was so used to the routine and these people are family to me. Eric and I had been friends before Scruff, and then we built the business together. But when I decided to step back, he was all for it. He said, ‘If this is what you need to do, do it.’”

Stephanie recalls her son telling her that he was afraid that staying in New York would make him sick. “He said, ‘I need a break,’” she remembers. “And so I told him to come home.”

“It’s about trying on new identities. Don’t be afraid to experiment with yourself until you’re happy with the result.”

Skandros returned to Nevada, but vestiges of his New York lifestyle tagged along behind. “I consider myself a very sex-positive individual,” he’s quick to add. “I’ve had a of of amazing experiences and I’m not ashamed of exploring my desires. But it’s easy to take things to excess. This is prevalent in our community, and my heart goes out to people who are struggling. I’m a 200-percent-or-nothing kind of guy; I’ve been that way since I was a kid. But it’s gotten me into trouble. I’m the guy who doesn’t want the party to stop. But I ended up in the hospital with pancreatitis and the doc said, ’You need to slow down.’”

So he did. He changed his diet and got a trainer. He was also able to devote some quality time to his ailing grandmother. “He saw the last few months of my mother’s life and was wonderful support for her,” Stephanie says. This time, the fix Skandros found was something internal. Stephanie beams, “It’s amazing how far he’s come the last year and half since she died.”

Part of Skandros’ newfound peace of mind comes from puting some breathing room between himself and his alter-ego. Like Iron Man, Johnny Scruff is a larger-than-life sexy suit of armor; it may protect his vulnerabilities but also hides some of his identity. “John Skandros is shy, studious and introverted,” he muses. “I was a bullied kid and a film nerd. I’ll never forget looking in the mirror and saying to myself, ‘I’m going to become this guy.

“I’ve always faced body issues and it’s been a challenge to find comfort in being in my own skin,” Skandros concludes. “Initially one of my attractions to the bear community, and later the Scruff community, is that they really do come in all shapes and sizes. I see guys who are comfortable with their weight and I admire that, and it helped me become more comfortable myself. I had long hair and glasses and was a bit overweight. So it’s about trying on new identities and new clothes — a lot of people go through this. I changed myself for the better. I love my beard and I think it’s healthy to change things until they’re working for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment with yourself until you’re happy with the result. My belly, seven years ago? I’d have been self-conscious about it. Now, I’m proud of it and I’m happy with it. It sounds cheesy, but that’s what the people from Scruff gave me: Confidence.”

But what Skandros learned from being Johnny Scruff might surprise a few people: “I do have a traditional side,” he says, running his fingers through his hair with a wry smile. “I’m also very open-minded and I’ve seen and experienced a lot. And I don’t judge anyone unless you’re hurting someone. Because of Scruff, I really was able to find my sexuality and have a variety of experiences, but at heart I suppose I’m really more traditional. I mean, I’ve seen triads work. I’ve seen them not work. I’ve seen open relationships work; I’ve seen them burn to the ground. But when I do find that right guy, I know that — at least in the beginning — it would be monogamous. For the moment I’m open to possibilities, because who knows what’s going to happen five years down the line?”

Want to see how “Woof” came to be? Johnny explains in our exclusive video.

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Last modified: September 25, 2017

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