By: Al Ballesteros

“If someone would have said to me when I was a kid one day my parents would be in the audience cheering me on in a gay pageant, I would have said you were crazy” says Tony Ardolino, an accomplished actor, director, and producer who was recently crowned Mr. Gay World USA representing the state of Maine.

The contest featured 35 contestants representing different US states and was held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida at the end of 2021.  As Mr. Gay World USA, this new title will be taking Tony across the country to promote goodwill and the community values which the title seeks to promote in the world.  Tony will also travel to South Africa to represent the United States in the Mr. Gay World contest to be held later this year.

Originally from New Jersey, Tony has lived in New York, Los Angeles, Maine, and even Singapore.  Tony has a busy schedule which includes work on numerous community projects, his film career and also taking on the duties associated with the Mr. Gay World, USA crown holder.  As part of various pride celebrations to be held this month, he will be making stops in several cities and states, riding in parades, singing at a beach pride event and even making a return to the high school he attended.

In the midst of all this newfound stardom, Tony is quick to talk about his community work, his personal mission and values, the community he loves and especially the youth he hopes to have a positive impact on for the better.

Adelante:  Tell us about the Mr. Gay World USA experience?
Tony:  I’m kind of a country boy and I found myself among this group of gorgeous gay men from around the country.  I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.  And my two parents sitting in the audience was amazing.  I felt like a kid at Disneyland.  The contestants were very diverse, of different ages, body types, cultures and ethnicities.  I was more excited than nervous and I just wanted to have fun, be myself, and hopefully make it to the top 12.

The first round in the competition was an interview question where the contestants would be scored on their answers.  Tony waited all day until it was his turn to go into the interview.  “I answered the questions honestly and from my answers, I saw the judges getting emotional and I thought, I could win this this contest as long as I stay true to myself.”

Adelante:  How did you get recruited to the contest?
Tony:  I was dating a guy at the time that was into pageants.  I thought how cool it would be to participate in one.  It seemed like something so different, like the gay Hunger Games. So when the opportunity came I took it.

Adelante:  How did you find the other contestants?
Tony:  Everyone was so excited to be there! When we got to the final 12 you could tell the pressure was on and I remember hoping whoever wins, I just hope they are nice and kind.  I knew the person would be touring the country and I thought that was important to represent our community, a nice person.

Adelante:  What was your experience like growing up a gay kid in New Jersey?
Tony:  I knew I was gay when I was in the third grade but I hid it.  I was a happy kid and very creative and artistic.  But as much as I wanted to shine, people in my town tried to dim me. So I got bullied a lot as a young kid.  At a young age, I was called a sissy and every name in the book and that was hard.  But from that it gave me a push to be the best that I can and It made me stronger.

Adelante:  How did you deal with the bullying?  Did you get help? Were you out?
Tony:  I didn’t want to be a victim, even as a kid.  At some point, I pushed back.  I remember having to stand up and defend myself in the fifth grade, and I did. My family always had my back. They were my best friends, and still are to this day.

Then I went to high school, and I remember thinking I needed to get out of my town and I thought if I did get out of there, I could make something of myself.  So, after high school, I moved to Los Angeles.  I still was not really ‘out’ at that time.  I eventually had the opportunity to move to Singapore for work.  When I got to Singapore, I was so far away and I decided to just live as my true authentic self.  I eventually stopped hiding and came out of the closet when I was 24.

Adelante: Did those experiences influence your work and mission today?
Tony:  For sure.  I want to be a voice for the younger generation.  I grew up as a big brother with three little brothers.  But I myself didn’t have anyone to talk to.  I was not out and struggled with my sexuality and kept it a secret. I felt it was my curse, but now I realize it’s my magic.  So in light of that experience, I thought if I can be there for people who are just like I was, I can perhaps help them and be that big brother to talk to.  So I started a community project called My Gay Big Brother.  It is a show we do on Instagram Live where people write to us and we answer their questions on the live feed in front of the public.  People write in questions, like maybe someone is in the closet or is afraid of a health issue like HIV and they may not want to or have anyone to talk to, so they write to the show.

When I was a kid, I felt so lost.  I remember when I first had sex with a guy, I felt so scared. Back then all there was nothing being taught in schools for LGBTQ youth about sex education.  It was tough as a young person and I wish I would I would have known that you don’t have to be scared, just be smart.  I was scared to come out as gay. For instance, I was scared I would lose my parent’s love. But there they were at the Mr. Gay World, USA contest routing for me.

Adelante:   What caused the fear about being gay?
Tony:  I wanted to be an actor and I was afraid I was not going to get cast or I would be out in a bubble.  I thought I would be discriminated against and would never get to live out my dreams.

Adelante:  What changed?
Tony:  After I came back from Singapore, I was myself and more of the person I wanted to be.  I love who I am. I knew I had to tell my parents I was gay.  They’re my best friends.  My dad was so funny and told me he would always love me.  My mom was scared, not because I was gay, but because she was fearful of how the world was going to treat me as a gay man.  Now, she’s not so worried about that because she sees that I’m ok. She sees I’m proud and comfortable with myself and now she’s my biggest fan.

Adelante:  “What are some of the biggest challenges that are in our community?
Tony:  Judgement.  I think judging from the inside of our LGBTQ community is just as big a problem as those who judge us from outside our community. I love this community with all my heart and soul.  I have so much respect for this community.  But at the same time, it’s a little challenging when I see the judgement that happens inside our community.  It is judgement in relation to topics like age, status, looks, race, etc.  Sadly, older gay people are sometimes written off by younger LGBTQ people when it is because of them and the fight they went through that we have the freedoms today that we enjoy.

Adelante:  What types of questions do you get at My Gay Big Brothers?
Tony: We get questions and messages from families of gay people saying it would have been good to have something like this around when they were younger. We did a Mother’s Day show and an aunt of a gay man wrote in.  She told us her nephew committed suicide years ago because he was gay and she wished this type of openness existed when he had problems and that perhaps he could have found people to talk to.  That might have saved his life.  It was very emotional and even my mom got emotional when I read the message.  It felt like that young man was in our presence.  He had a secret that he saw as a curse and it wasn’t.

I wish I could have gone back in time and talked to that young man so that he could have lived and not committed suicide.

Adelante:  What do you hope to do in your role as Mr. Gay World, USA?
Tony:  I want be an inspiration for kids.  I want to be a voice for people who don’t have anyone.  I want to be a light for someone who may feel like they are in a tunnel in total darkness.

Now I’m going to schools and youth groups and I’m working with an organization named Campus Pride. We have a lot of things scheduled.  I’m also doing visits at a lot of the college campuses across the country.

I also am publishing a children’s book titled “Gill the Merboy” available in July. It’s a story that focuses on a little Merboy who shows kids that boys can be mermaids too and that the greatest treasure of all is being yourself! I also produced an award winning short film and web series called “Far Far Away- an LGBTQ twist on the classic fairytales” which you can find on YouTube. I believe representation is so important in media because somewhere in the world there is an LGBTQ kid who may feel hopeless, but they can see theme selves in a story- it sparks that magic that tomorrow maybe they’ll find their prince, tomorrow maybe they’ll find their happily ending, tomorrow things will get better. That’s hope and that is one of the strongest things our community has.

Adelante:  What kinds of questions do you get asked when you’re out there talking to youth and youth groups?
Tony:  How to deal with your parents.  A lot of questions about family.  I’m close to my family so I can relate to the questions. There are questions about parent’s expectations. Many say their parents have expectations of them, like going to college, to get good jobs, get married, have kids, and then they may realize their parent’s dreams are not the life they want to live.  I tell them my story or try to make them laugh while we discuss those difficult issues.

Adelante:  Do you see yourself having a family and kids of your own?
Tony: Yes.  One day. My goals are to be happy, whether that’s having kids or a husband, I’d love to live ‘happily ever after’ with a family and kids, but I don’t want to plan ahead.  I just want to be in the moment and enjoy this amazing adventure I am blessed to live.

Adelante:  This is gay pride month, what does this mean to you?
Tony:  It’s just an amazing thing because it’s like a history lesson.  When you think about it, not long ago in the 1950’s a gay couple could not walk down the street holding hands and that is so important for us.  Those people back then were the ones that fought the fight so that I could live this life.  They fought so that I could sit in a car with a crown and wave to people.  I think Pride is about celebrating who we are as a community but also remembering how we got here.  Also, how important it is to protect our rights.  I’m sure many people today think this is just a fun parade, but it’s actually celebrating who we are and saying we will not let the past repeat itself.  It also says to the larger community that we are not going anywhere.

Adelante:  What is your definition of community?
Tony:  I’ll give you an example.  I’m part of a community event committee and just last night we had to vote for which flag we would display.  There’s a gay flag that is more modern and inclusive and has the asexual sign and then there’s the traditional gay flag.  That was the vote.  So, which flag do we support to represent us?

When the vote got to me I remember thinking, nobody should be left behind.  A community is basically a family.  There were people in the group that thought we should keep things the traditional way, but I feel we should be inclusive.  We’ve all felt left out at one time or another and we should try to be inclusive.

Adelante:  You mentioned you’re going back to make an appearance at your high school?
Tony:  Yes. I’m going back to my old high school to make an appearance as Mr. Gay World, USA.  The very high school I was made fun of every day I now get to go back and be celebrated. It’s a full circle I guess.  I’m excited.

As one can glean from this interview, Tony is a very special person with a mission that is focused on doing much good.  The Mr. Gay World, USA pageant surely crowned the contestant focused on making the world a better place through his work advocating for the up and coming younger generations.

We wish Tony the best in these endeavors and we also will be routing for him when he competes in a few months in South Africa for the Mr. Gay World Title.  We will keep our readers posted on how that progresses.  You can visit Tony on his Instagram at @tony.cannoli.