EW speaks with the disqualified Drag Race queen's victims about her mainstream return, including confirmed performances in upstate New York.

By Joey Nolfi
February 18, 2021 at 04:51 PM EST
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Tamron Hall sent shockwaves through the RuPaul's Drag Race fandom over the weekend when she announced that disgraced entertainer Joey Gugliemelli — also known as drag queen Sherry Pie, who was disqualified from the show's 12th season in the wake of numerous allegations of catfishing and exploitative manipulation — would give his first public interview in nearly one year on Tuesday's episode of the Emmy-winning journalist's talk show. Amid news of the daytime discussion, three of the performer's catfishing victims spoke to EW about the program's potentially dangerous decision to spotlight the controversial figure's return to the mainstream — a move those close to the New York City actor say they believe began brewing shortly after his ouster.

In the months following production on season 12 in mid-2019, multiple people (including some longtime friends of Gugliemelli) accused the performer of posing as a female casting director named Allison Mossie, who corresponded with the victims through email. Gugliemelli pretended to be Mossie's production assistant, and claimed that he was acting as a liaison between the targets and his boss, who was supposedly casting for roles in various media projects. His accusers say he subsequently duped them into submitting degrading and sexually explicit audition tapes to Mossie in the hopes of landing acting jobs that did not exist. Gugliemelli also allegedly paid one man to take steroids over the course of a year to bulk up throughout the audition process. (Gugliemelli, through a representative, did not specifically respond to the allegations of sexual exploitation and coercion of steroid usage, but he told EW that he takes responsibility for posing as Allison Mossie and engaging in catfishing and manipulation.)

In March 2020, days after season 12 premiered on VH1, several people came forward with their stories about Gugliemelli, who eventually issued a vague apology in a Facebook post that did not address specific claims against him, though he was ultimately disqualified from the ongoing Drag Race competition (the network and production company World of Wonder would later donate to LGBTQ charities in response to the scandal) despite completing the initial round of filming as a top-four finalist.

Gugliemelli's Facebook post indicated he was sorry for causing "such trauma and pain" and that he was "horribly embarrassed and disgusted" by his actions (which were not specified), and later said his behavior coincided with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in March 2020.

"I know that the pain and hurt that I have caused will never go away," he continued at the time, "and I know that what I did was wrong and truly cruel."

Though his tone was apologetic, of the three victims that spoke to EW after Gugliemelli was booked on Hall's show, all claimed that, over the past year, they haven't heard from the person who catfished them after the scandal made national headlines. The only correspondence that Ben Shimkus — a former friend, college classmate, and collaborator of Gugliemelli's, who was among the first round of victims to come forward with a story involving the creation of a series of audition videos he submitted for one of Mossie's fake stage plays — says he received from Gugliemelli is a voicemail left on March 4, 2020 (the day Shimkus publicly shared his story). And the last place Shimkus expected to hear Gugliemelli's voice nearly 12 months later was on a national talk show.

"Absolutely not," Shimkus, who identifies as non-binary, quickly responds when asked if they approved of Hall's interview with Gugliemelli — in which Hall spoke to the drag artist about his actions, what he was doing to fix the situation for his victims, his alleged deletion of the video submissions he compiled, and his mental health. Hall later touted the fact that Gugliemelli had generally admitted to the victims' accusations on television, an act Shimkus also criticized.

"Tamron seems very pleased with herself for having exposed a sexual predator who is actually able to admit the fact that this happened. But, he did that a year ago [in his Facebook apology]," he continues. EW has further reviewed text messages that one of the victims, Danny Marandola, says he received from Gugliemelli, in which he admitted to deceit, lying, impersonation, and "pushing" steroids that "hurt [a victim's] body" over time.

Each of the victims EW spoke to confirmed that, before announcing Gugliemelli's guest spot, no one from The Tamron Hall Show invited them to participate in Tuesday's episode. (Representatives for The Tamron Hall Show did not provide EW with a comment on several inquiries about the series' booking process for this interview.)

Members of the RuPaul's Drag Race community quickly spoke out against that decision, including All-Stars 2 contestant Detox and Gugliemelli's season 12 castmate and fellow New York City queen Jackie Cox. In a tweet that has since garnered nearly 25,000 likes, Cox publicly called on Hall's show to invite Gugliemelli's victims to be part of the conversation prior to the interview.

"Being a performer and public persona is not a right, it is a privilege. Sherry relinquished this privilege by their actions," Cox tweeted. "Giving Sherry a spotlight without the forethought to reach out to victims is irresponsible, immoral, & wrong."

Still, the interview went forward. Before speaking to Gugliemelli, Hall began the episode with a disclaimer addressing the intense online backlash her show has received for booking Gugliemelli. Hall qualified her ability to do the interview by referencing her 30 years of experience in interviewing tough subjects, from murderers to rapists, across posts at NBC News, MSNBC, and on the Investigation Discovery series Deadline: Crime, in which she probes true-crime cases. She also indicated that she would not give any "free passes" to Gugliemelli throughout the discussion. "This interview is what we say every day on the show," she said, "Let's talk about it, and that's what we're going to do."

Gugliemelli's accusers say that Hall's eventual probing of the incident didn't go far enough, and that she seemed more interested in defending her right to do the interview than asking Gugliemelli important questions that held him accountable.  

"I didn't need to be on the show, but when Tamron went on a tangent lecturing people [about her right to] bring on the bad guy… everything is right when you've done your due diligence to understand what kind of impact this person has had," says Marandola. "Speak to the victims so you have a strong understanding of the situation to be able to respond to the perpetrator. It's more about that, for me, than needing to have a platform; it's needing to be respected by the interviewer."

Shimkus adds: "Accountability in this circumstance doesn't exclusively mean the words 'I'm sorry.' There are lots of things he has to atone for. Just a simple 'I apologize' on Facebook or a national TV show with no regard for what any of the victims are looking for, without asking us specifically what he wanted, I can't accept that."  

According to Nebraska-based actor Josh Lillyman who, in 2017, says he formed a close relationship with Gugliemelli as part of the cast for the Crane River Theater's productions of Hairspray and The Little Mermaid, much of the media coverage surrounding his experience shaped an untrue narrative that suggested the victims' naïveté in allowing themselves to be taken advantage of.

But Lillyman, who says Gugliemelli coerced him into masturbating on camera as part of a fake audition, feels that he was taken advantage of by a friend he'd come to trust with his dreams of becoming a successful actor. It's a dark web of deceit he says the Hall interview didn't address in substantial fashion, and Lillyman indicates he could sense the manipulation happening throughout the interview, right down to the way Gugliemelli presented himself on camera.

"It was very much like the classic breakup video on YouTube, where the girl is wearing a baggy sweater with no makeup. It's relatable. He had a beard, he wasn't all done up, he was wearing normal-people clothes. It didn't faze me," he says of Gugliemelli's attire during the conversation. "I understand his intentions. He was somber, and he's typically not. He's extremely outspoken and energetic. The way he presented himself, it was very apparent what he was doing."

Lillyman also says Hall didn't extract "any resolutions or reparations" that could've helped bring the victims closure, and that he wasn't convinced that Gugliemelli appeared sincere in his intentions to fix what he did or listen to what his accusers think is an appropriate path to atonement.

"Tamron was quick to bring on [someone] from Twitter," he continues, referencing the segment's inclusion of commentator Ryan Mitchell, who joined many social media users in defending Hall's credentials as a respected journalist ahead of the interview, before joining her on air to discuss anti-Blackness in the Drag Race fandom while stressing that Gugliemelli does not represent the entirety of the LGBTQ+ community.

But, Lillyman persists: "If it was so easy to bring on a writer to talk about things that happened, how difficult would it have been to ask one of the victims to come on the show?"

It's that lack of input from the victims, Shimkus says, that hurts the most, and it's what inspired him to track the show's team down instead. They say their father eventually found one of Hall's producers on social media and put the pair in touch.

They remember telling the producer shortly before the interview that the victims Shimkus spoke to did not want the show to move forward with the episode, as they felt it was dangerous to enable Gugliemelli by giving him a platform to share his story without input from those he harmed. Shimkus says that, after speaking with her, the producer eventually asked them to submit a video response to air during the episode, though Shimkus declined. They later shared a portion of a recording of their interaction with the producer on social media, which appears to depict the producer telling Shimkus that the intent of the Gugliemelli interview was to "solve" the situation — a notion that doesn't sit well with Shimkus, as they suspect that Gugliemelli receiving a nationwide podium might inspire sympathy for an abuser, and could dissuade other victims of abuse from coming forward.

"It's provocative," states Shimkus, who speculates that Hall's team didn't lead with the victims because they're not as well-known or alluring as a drag queen who was booted from a popular reality show for controversial reasons. "Not because it's exposing anything that's new, it's exclusively about having clickbait. If [Hall] was trying to solve this, she would've asked us what we wanted to solve."

Gugliemelli's accusers who spoke to EW all say they've had little success pursuing legal action — both criminal and civil — against him, including Marandola, a New York-based actor who says he took steroids at the urging of Gugliemelli, whom he met while managing nightlife events at the Ritz Bar and Lounge in Hell's Kitchen. Marandola says he participated in roughly 800 rehearsals and media submissions for one of Mossie's fake projects (with Gugliemelli pretending to be her production assistant) over a two-year period through December 2019 — the steroid usage for which, he says, left him with lingering depression, a prescription for SSRIs, and visits to an endocrinologist to remap his hormonal levels.

Marandola says his experience with Gugliemelli was traumatic on its own, and he felt his dormant anxiety from the ordeal return when he heard about the Tamron Hall interview.

"It's scary to think [Gugliemelli] could have any possibility of going back into the real world or being accepted by the community again. I wasn't upset at first at Tamron having [him] on… but then I couldn't sleep last night, and I realized it was because of my anxiety around the idea that people may see [him] on this show and feel like mental illness is a real thing, but [he] wasn't under the spell of mental illness or something out of [his] control," he says. "[Gugliemelli] was incredibly calculated and structured with it. That's not a normal mental illness; that's dangerous, predatory behavior, and there is a difference. That's what I'm bothered by."

Marandola says that for him, the Hall interview seemed like a manipulative tool in constructing a sympathetic narrative for Gugliemelli, a fear bolstered by an interaction he had with one of Gugliemelli's ex-friends of eight years, Kevin Rayo, a classmate at SUNY Cortland. Marandola recalls catching on to Gugliemelli's plot in late 2019, and a subsequent interaction with Rayo that alarmed him. He says Rayo believed that Gugliemelli was planning to use his mental health diagnosis as a defense against legal action Marandola might take against him. Rayo confirms to EW that this conversation happened in January 2020.

"I was like, 'This is real, and I hate what I found out you've done, but this is a very real thing, and you need to be prepped for the reality that's coming at you. You're going to get sued,'" Rayo tells EW of the phone call he had with Gugliemelli. "He was like, 'I know he's looking for lawyers, but he can't sue me. How foolish would he look suing a mentally ill person?' I was like, 'But you're not!' but he said he was getting a psychiatrist to verify that he is mentally unstable, and that he had borderline personality disorder."

Gugliemelli tells EW he doesn't remember saying that exact quote to Rayo, explaining: "If I did say something of that nature, it certainly would never be my actual feelings. I'm not here to victim-shame anybody, and I don't think I have." Instead, he says his intention in doing the interview with Hall was to "help in whatever way of healing" he could perform for the victims and the queer community.

"I felt like I needed to apologize to the victims and to the masses… It's a better [platform]," Gugliemelli says. "This isn't me launching my comeback tour… I'm not performing. I'm not seeking out gigs right now, I'm just trying to heal the wounds that I've caused in the community because I know how much I've hurt this community that I do love so much, and how much I've hurt these people that I do love so much."

Speaking to EW anonymously, a public relations representative who facilitated the interview on Gugliemelli's behalf says he became interested in helping the performer explore his right to tell his story.

"I'm not saying what he did is right, I'm not condoning it, I think what he did is awful. But, there are two sides, and he should explain why he did it and show that he has empathy," he explains, adding that he does not represent Gugliemelli but only helped bridge the gap when a producer at The Tamron Hall Show who reached out to him to court Gugliemelli for an interview because of the PR expert's connections to the queer community. He confirms Gugliemelli paid him for the work out of his own pocket but says he has no plans to work with the artist beyond this. "I'm not here to promote him and say, 'Give him another chance and book a tour,' that's not what I'm doing," he adds. "I had to talk him into doing this. He's a very insecure person and very introverted, but you have to own it [and] say you're sorry… [he said] 'I probably would've continued if I hadn't gotten caught.' It allows him to have a second chance in life."

But, as Gugliemelli's accusers say, that approach stands to cause longstanding damage to the LGBTQ+ community and their emotional wellbeing. According to a source close to the situation, who spoke with EW on the condition of anonymity, Gugliemelli said he was floating the idea of a comeback show as early as the spring of 2020. EW has confirmed that Gugliemelli performed a pair of shows in upstate New York as recently as November 2020, after previously denying to EW that he had performed any shows throughout the year.

"It's just a space I performed at twice. There was no money or anything like that. It was very limited, testing out material that I'd been working on," Gugliemelli says of a pair of shows that occurred throughout the year, which he estimates were attended by approximately 15 people per set. "It was very few people… it's a space that I know the person who owns it personally. It's not like a venue."

In the hours after the Hall interview, Gugliemelli told EW he "wouldn't come back" to performing right now, and that he "didn't do" any shows in 2020. "I wasn't talking to anybody about doing anything in New York or doing anything anywhere," he continued. "There were people asking the people who were representing me at the time if I was still performing and they'd check in with me and I'd tell them how I was feeling and where I was at. I really was out. I really was not in it."

As of press time, Marc Katz of Spectrum Talent Agency is still listed on the Sherry Pie website as a booking agent for Gugliemelli's club appearances in drag. Katz did not respond to EW's request for clarification on the status of Gugliemelli's representation with Spectrum. Gugliemelli tells EW that Spectrum still checks his social media accounts for him, but says he is unsure of whether or not he has a contract with them for bookings.  

Marandola says that, if Gugliemelli was "really doing the work, it's not about other people's approval or attention, it's about you doing you and moving on with your life. This is an act for publicity." His experience working in New York City nightlife — and his familiarity with how bars book entertainers based on public clout — also makes him fearful that Gugliemelli could be granted a path to resurgence on the bar and club circuit.

"It's shocking that the people who are backing her and representing her are doing this. It's not even about money at this point," Marandola says. "What a horrible representation she is from this community, and she's getting another platform to be another example of somebody who is very manipulative and such a poor representation. The queer community has enough trouble fitting into the heteronormative structure that our world lives within, but the queer culture, the gay, the drag, the trans, all of that, when that's put together in a gross package like Sherry, people remember it."

Lillyman compares the groundwork The Tamron Hall Show potentially started to rapper Chris Brown's career reinvention following his assault against Rihanna in 2009.

"People don't typically learn very well if they don't suffer any consequences. I imagine him five years down the line completely returning to normal, doing what he did, and everyone forgot about it," he says. "Chris beat up Rihanna, he was sorry, and now he's making music and famous again, and everybody forgot. I wouldn't want that to happen [here], but what can I do to prevent that? I have no idea."

"It seems like I'm at the mercy of the public and news agencies," Lillyman concludes, suggesting that what stings the most is the lack of control the victims have over how their abuser — and those who elevate his platform — navigate the presentation of their trauma. "I wouldn't wish what happened to me on anybody else, and I guess that's all I want: Joey not being able to do it again."

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