Spring means events, parties and going out. Going out in Toronto means crossing paths with a certain familiar face, an icon in these parts. To be honest, after not seeing him around for a while I was getting nervous. With the state of gay in Toronto changing almost daily, his presence can hardly be taken for granted. Over the years, we’ve seen ourselves through his eyes, flipped to his column immediately when picking up Fab magazine, and made sure he was on every guest list ever… so, where’s he been lately? I attended the recent fabulous PFLAG gala that honoured Sharon Gless, and the first thing I did upon arrival was scan the room for him in vain. Yes, Wizard of Oz’s Lisa Horner served up a great tune from the show, while Rosie O’Donnell and I camped out on obscure Streisand songs (shout out to Ro, the only other person I’ve met who liked Funny Lady) and politicians swarmed PFLAG president Irene Miller for photo ops, but the man whose arrival truly heralds a fabulous time ahead was nowhere to be seen. Finally, my date nudged me and my worry turned to relief. Swanning down the grand staircase, elegantly turned out in brown leather, was Rolyn Chambers.
After a decade of authoring Fab magazine’s Deep Dish column, Rolyn is still known more as a name than as an individual. “People are surprised at how down to earth I am. They expect me to be a really obnoxious crazy person or super queeny, but I’m a person who’s attending and observing, just like them.” Chambers is well established as Toronto’s own Michael Musto; Shinan Govani might have wider distribution, but he lacks Rolyn’s irreverence and ability to make a great entrance. Don’t make the mistake of calling him a gossip columnist, though; he’s a deeper dish than that. “Even my editors referred to it as a gossip column, but I never saw it that way. My challenge was to keep it as diverse as possible. I didn’t want to do just clubs. Every week I tried to include something artistic, a fashion event, a gala. It was never ‘so-and-so did this,’ but stories about what I did on the weekend.”
Since Fab has gone the way of Rita MacNeil (too soon?) the usual cries about the death of the Village and the party scene are being raised. To be honest, I’m starting to get alarmed myself, but Rolyn puts it in context for me. “Some clubs closed, some clubs have moved, and it’s an evolution with new people.” He firmly resists subscribing to the notion that the Village is dying. “When I first started going out and meeting people, everyone was talking about these clubs I’d never heard of because they’d closed. Ten years later, I’m like that now, but there’s still places to go out!” Besides the club-opening/club-closing circle of life, has he noticed any changes? “The club scene is getting smaller and more spread out. Once you could go dancing seven days a week — at a real dance club, not somewhere like Crews. Evolution.”
The year 2013 will see the evolution of Rolyn Chambers. He is taking some time off but confirms his column will return, in Xtra, with a narrower focus on galas and fashion shows. He also has not one but two books in development, one an autobiography centred on his stint at St Marc Spa. He’s had an interesting life path for someone who studied sculpture and installation at OCAD, and though his decade at Fab allowed him to pal around with everyone from supermodel Iman to Premier Kathleen Wynne, he misses being an artist. “Every time I’m in a gallery, I get sad. I’m going to focus on my art, doing things with photography.” Rolyn has few regrets, but after 10 years he’s ready for a new page and cites an episode of Sex and the City: “There’s Carrie, at the top of her game, but she’s lonely. Sometimes I feel like that, and I often go out alone. I’m still single. I’ve got my good friends and I have my club friends; I love going out, I love the thrill of meeting new people, but the loneliness is palpable.”
In terms of his life at Fab, Rolyn is reflective. I’m touched to see the man known for wild outfits and witty one-liners become introspective and self-critical. “Your writing style changes over time, and sometimes you’re under pressure. I ended a Pride column inappropriately once. You go through life’s peaks and valleys, and I saw Fab for a few years as a part-time gig; I was just having fun going to these parties and everyone knew who I was, but I could have parlayed it into something more. Maybe writing for a bigger magazine? I regret not taking advantage of the position when it was at its height.”
Well, by my view he has much to be proud of. Fab’s annual underwear issue was stagnant until Rolyn took creative control: he came up with the concept, chose all the underwear, made all the accessories, the costumes, styled the entire event, made the background and wrote the copy. “I did the entire underwear issue,” he proudly proclaims. “For so long I thought of it as a fun little magazine and didn’t take it seriously, but some people grew up with Fab. Some people came out because of Fab… and it has deep meaning for different people.” For many of us, this art student turned zine maker turned columnist turned local institution named Rolyn has been our pied piper. Congrats on a long run, Mr Chambers. We’re all looking forward to your next chapter.