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From the decibel of the shrieking at this weekend’s New Yorker Festival discussion between Chris Colfer and Susan Morrison, anyone who’s not familiar with Glee (does such a person exist?) would assume Colfer was a teen heartthrob. And perhaps he is in a newfangled sort of way. As the openly gay actor — whose character Kurt Hummel has become a touchstone for LGBT teens — sat down with Morrison, articles editor of The New Yorker, he admitted he still is surprised by the enthusiasm of his fans. At one point, after the hundredth or so round of claps or “awwwwws” or squeals from the overwhelmingly teen-girl audience, even Colfer had to joke, “Sheesh, you people. Take a cold shower!” Despite his playful remarks, Colfer affirmed that he takes his responsibility as a role model seriously because, before he was a postmodern heartthrob, he, too, was a victim of bullying.

Despite his confidence on stage, Colfer told Morrison that his rocket launch to fame has been a hard adjustment. “To be famous is to stand on a pedestal and give the world permission to tell you all your flaws,” he said. Even today, for every letter he receives thanking him for being an inspiration, he still gets plenty that are “the same stuff people said to me in middle school.” In fact, Colfer was home schooled for most of middle school because the bullying was so bad. “I was very tiny,” he quipped, “I spent most of my time stuffed into lockers. Thank god for cell phones, or I’d still be in there.”

He returned to public school for high school. “I went to a school much worse than McKinley,” where Kurt and the other Glee kids attend, Colfer said. He continued, “I wasn’t honest with myself in high school” because the constant bullying convinced him he “couldn’t get lower” than being gay. Colfer, who had always wanted to be an actor and had joined a local dinner theater ensemble at age 11, became active in theater and debate. He credited his forensics coach Mikendra McCoy with helping him embrace his own identity when she told him, “If you own who you are, no one can hold you against you.”

With that advice, he developed the signature quick wit that fans love about Kurt, a part that was written specifically for Colfer. For example, other boys would yell at him, “Hey, what’s sex with men like?” and he’d shoot back, “Don’t you remember?” Still, the scars of his school years made it “incredibly overwhelming” when the success of Glee made him a household name practically overnight. “I was suddenly the face of this thing that I thought was the lowest thing to be,” he said.

Now 21, Colfer has grown more comfortable in his own skin. Whenever he does feel the pressure of fame, he simply takes a cue from Kurt and McCoy and owns his identity. That’s not to say Colfer doesn’t still have some things in his past he’d like to hide. “Somewhere in L.A., there is a closet full of horrible audition tapes of me that’s going to hit YouTube,” he joked. “I’m going to lose all credibility.”

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