I first set eyes on Dirk Shafer in 1995, when his mockumentary, Man of the Year, hit theaters. Dirk’s 1990 appearance in Playgirl Magazine turned into a “Man of the Year” cover story in 1992, and launched a year of appearances on talk shows like Donahue, Jenny Jones, and Sally Jesse Raphael to promote his “reign” as every woman’s dream. Although Dirk was gay, he remained in the closet to help float the Playgirl fantasy, and after he came out publicly, the movie was his way of telling what that experience was like for him.
Dirk was undeniably handsome and crazy photogenic, but what struck me most seeing him on screen, was his sense of humor. He wasn’t afraid to make fun of himself, and the circumstances surrounding Playgirl.
Man of the Year’s impact on gay culture was substantial, not only because Dirk was funny and easy on the eyes, but because it was a deeply personal story about living in the closet and choosing to come out in a very public way. This was 20+ years ago, before Will & Grace, before Ellen, and long before marriage equality was even a possibility. Over the years I’ve heard countless stories from gay men who were deeply moved by Dirk’s story, many of whom were even inspired to come out themselves because of him.
As a director, Dirk excelled at pinpointing what was funny and universal in a scene. This quick beat always makes me laugh, and exemplifies the comic sensibility we shared.
One of my favorite images of Dirk is the last scene of the movie. It’s an LA cliché, but for Dirk it was true — he was a clown at heart with a passion for directing.
Walking out of the theatre, I remember thinking wow — that is my ideal man. Not only gorgeous, but smart and most important, funny. I immediately wrote him into a pilot I was working on, called Enough About You. The character’s name was Dirk (groundbreaking), and he was the neighbor to Gunnar, a character based on me (my first personal trainer was Gunnar Peterson, who has since become an uber-celebrity trainer. I thought Gunnar was the coolest name ever).
A few weeks after the screening, I ran into Dirk in person for the first time at the grocery store on my block, and had to introduce myself. He was as warm and funny in person as he was on screen, and we immediately hit it off. When we left the store, we walked together towards my house, and I told him I had written him into my pilot as the wacky neighbor, and we laughed at how much we both loved the wacky neighbor sitcom cliché. When we reached my house and I said “Well, this is me…” he pointed across the street and said “Well, this is me!” Turns out the man I had written in as my wacky neighbor had just become my actual wacky neighbor.
We both got such a kick out of that rom-com moment, and it was all the push we needed to become fast friends.
At the time, I was a student of the Law of Attraction, a decade before Oprah brought it to the mainstream, and writing Dirk into existence as my neighbor was more evidence of how the law was working in my life. Manifestation has since become a startling and predictable force in my life.
Enough about You became my first paid writing gig when it was re-purposed as a recurring column in Detour Magazine. It’s based on characters I love (my friends) and I am currently working to bring it to TV. Whoever ends up playing Dirk will have some huge clown shoes to fill.
It was easy to see why Dirk and I became friends – we had so much in common. I have a very close family, and Dirk was equally crazy about his — their support was an important part of his first film and his sister Deidra even played herself in it.
We were both writers, and both romantics — we both had Streisand’s “What’s Up, Doc?” in our Top 10 favorite movie lists.
We both grew up dancing, and both have embarrassing musical theater clips floating around.
Dirk had a healthy self-image for obvious reasons, and that’s one thing we did not have in common. Case in point: Dirk loved Halloween and always dressed up – I hated Halloween and never did. There are literally thousands of pictures out there of Dirk in costume – I don’t think I have ever taken a picture of myself on Halloween.
As a model, Dirk had to be into physical fitness so it made sense for him to get into personal training. He began training celebrity clients like Katy Perry, Lucy Lawless, and Amber Thiessen. He also trained me and my partner Sam off and on, and even though he never let us rest for more than 60 seconds, he always made us laugh.
Dirk began training Eric McCormack just as Will and Grace began to take off, and it was a joy to watch. He loved Eric to death and was so proud and excited to be a part of such a hit show – He even appeared on one episode as “Blaze.”
Dirk’s looks and charisma were always an undeniable presence, no matter what he was doing. When Dirk was dressed for a date, he looked like a promo for the next Bachelor. When he went skiing, he looked like an ad for skiwear. When he hung out at the pool, we could have been shooting a cologne ad. If he jumped on a horse, it looked like Rodeo Magazine.
We went to an awards show together once, and after I spent 2 hours getting ready with a face mask, Crest white strips, self-tanner, and a new outfit, I still looked like a Far Side character. Dirk took a breath mint and ran his fingers through his hair and was ready for Annie Leibovitz.
Eventually I got used to it, but every once in a while he’d pick me up for something and I’d look at him and just shake my head. Infuriating.
Dirk began work on his second movie Circuit at the same time Sam and I started HERO magazine, and the next 20 years of friendship was a happy blur of El Coyote margaritas, Costco runs, and dinner parties in the hills. We both worked in gay media so there were endless film screenings and festivals, fundraisers and silent auctions, HRC and GLAAD awards, and Pride parades and festivals. We shared surreal celebrity moments like scrunching into a limo with Bruce Vilanch, or partying with Jennifer Tilly at the Montage Laguna Beach — Dirk took the notorious photo of me grabbing for Jennifer Tilly’s breast. I would explain this picture if I could, but I can’t.
Dirk continued to pitch scripts around town while building his personal training business, and ultimately fell in love with and got certified in Pilates. I love this interview one of his clients did — it captures Dirk’s warmth, humor and excitement about Pilates.
Ageism and obsession with youth is obviously prevalent in our society, but it’s significantly worse in the gay community. When I turned 40 I felt like I became invisible — I was no longer comfortable going out to clubs or even walking around West Hollywood because I didn’t feel like I belonged. In my 20s, gay culture gave me a home — the adolescence I had missed. But the WeHo scene was designed for that age group, and at 40 I had simply aged out.
Getting older wasn’t easy for Dirk either – even with his stunning looks. There was a whole new crop of hot guys on the scene, and Dirk was considered part of the “old guard.” So it’s hard to imagine the courage it took when Playgirl invited him to put himself back on the cover of the magazine that started it all, but this time shirtless and 50 years old. He worked his ass off to get his body cover ready again, and of course the cover looked amazing. But more than that, the image symbolized one man’s 50-year journey, from fear to love, from shame to acceptance, from the shadows to the light. The magazine may be a punchline, but that cover represented a hero’s journey for many gay men — including myself.
Dirk had a lot of fun with the new cover, and his pilates practice continued to thrive. Meanwhile I had been offered a position as a writer/producer for Ellen Degeneres, and by 2015 Dirk and I both seemed to be at the top of our game.
Nothing could prepare me for what was to come.
In 2012 I lost a very close friend of mine, Sam Brown, to pancreatic cancer. Sam was a successful comic and writer, and someone whom I cherished deeply because he could always make me laugh — even at the very end.
Whenever I’d leave Sam’s house, instead of saying goodbye, Sam would yell, “Stay white!”
It was just his inappropriate and racist way to crack me up. The day after Sam’s funeral, I was feeling especially empty. I went to the bathroom and noticed one of my Airbnb guests had left their Crest toothpaste on the counter when they checked out. In large letters, the package read “STAY WHITE.” My jaw dropped. For me, it was one of those magical moments — a glimpse behind the curtain of life.
I was not prepared to get another glimpse behind the curtain with Dirk.
In 2015, Dirk and I had been trying to get together for months, but kept rescheduling – we were both working so much and just couldn’t make it work.
One day I suddenly decided to digitize my DVD of Dirk’s Man of the Year. I had gone digital years earlier and didn’t even own a DVD player any more, so I fished out Dirk’s DVD and set it on my kitchen table as a reminder. Over the next 24 hours, everyone who came to the house saw the DVD and asked me about Dirk. Each time I told them Dirk’s story, how we had met, and what he was up to these days. I hadn’t seen Dirk in months but suddenly I had spent 24 hours talking about him. I made a mental note to joke with him about becoming his PR agent.
The next morning, I got a text from my cousin Evan: “Paul, tell me this isn’t true…” with a link to a story on a gossip site saying that Dirk had been found dead in his car.
I assumed it was a hoax, but felt instantly sick and fell to the couch. I clenched my phone and started texting friends we had in common — no one had heard anything. There was only the one story online, so I began to relax a bit. I sent a text to Dirk, and waited anxiously for a response to put the rumor to rest.
It never came.
A few hours later, the emails and texts began coming in, and a mutual friend confirmed the story was true. His family had been notified and were on their way to LA.
The next few days were a challenge, as his friends and family struggled to figure out what happened. Although sadly, many of us in the gay community have become accustomed to sudden, unexpected deaths from young, healthy men.
Recreational drug use from cocaine, weed, GHB, and ecstasy to the more insidious meth is pretty common in LA, and Dirk and I both had “partied” over the years — both together and apart. But for Dirk it was more of a struggle – and I am only comfortably sharing that now because Dirk openly discussed his own challenges with sobriety over the years, and because his cause of death is now public knowledge — a combination of cardiovascular disease and recreational drug use.
Since Dirk was a celebrity, his death was covered in both gay- and mainstream media, including LA Times, NY Times, Deadline, etc. so speculations as to cause of death were a primary focus. He ended up being on 3 different news cycles – first the day he died, then a few weeks later when the preliminary autopsy report was released, and then again 6 weeks later when the final results were in. So the reports on the cause of death seemed to just keep coming, and unfortunately it’s now even a part of his Wikipedia entry.
So why even mention it here, in what is meant to be a tribute to him?
My fear is that because the drug angle was compelling and “media friendly,” it’s how he would be remembered. I wanted to make sure that my experience with the tornado of joy and hilarity that was Dirk Shafer was shared not only with those of us who knew him, but also with those who never had the chance.
Dirk was a gifted artist — he was passionate about his life and his relationships, and about helping people. He would give his friends the shirt off his back (honestly any excuse to be shirtless). He chose to face his biggest fears when he came out as gay under extreme public scrutiny, and then wrote, directed, and starred in a movie to help document the experience and help others who were facing the same fears. His second film Circuit explored the circuit party scene, the dangers of drug abuse, and the gay community’s delayed adolescence and struggle for self-acceptance. He didn’t have the answers, never claimed to, and never judged — he used his art to ask questions of his audience, and to get people talking — and it worked. He wrote about the issues that he himself struggled with, but he wasn’t preachy — if he could entertain people and make them laugh and think, he was happy.
He dedicated the last 20 years of his life to helping others on their journey to heath – through personal training and later through Pilates. And at 50, he once again overcame his own insecurities and put himself on the cover of a magazine known for its worship of young and beautiful male bodies. He showed the rest of us that we don’t have to disappear as we get older – we just have to remind people that we’re still here.
It’s always painful and surreal to visit a loved one’s house after they’ve passed — it took me a few weeks to finally get up the courage. Thankfully, Dirk’s best friend and soulmate Alex was there to make the visit easier. I helped move some furniture, and as Alex was cleaning and sorting and boxing, he told me to help myself to anything of Dirk’s I could use. After grabbing a frame, pilates mat, Man of the Year poster, and some books, I ambitiously pickup up a pair of Dirk’s jeans.
I should have known better. When I got home I tried them on and it was like trying to stuff a watermelon into a condom. These have now become my “target weight” jeans, and Dirk would be thrilled to know that even in death he’s still pushing me to lose weight.
We had a private memorial for Dirk at Hollywood Forever, just blocks from my house. It’s a spectacular setting — I still can’t believe the setup. His ashes are literally interred next to Mickey Rooney’s, overlooking a swan filled pond with the Hollywood sign in the distance. 20 feet away is a tombstone for Toto, the dog from the Wizard of Oz. I mean, if you asked Dirk to describe his ideal (and possibly gayest) resting place, this would have been it.
That was obviously a tough day, and I fell apart during the service, seeing the slideshow of photos of my friend as Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow” played. After, as we were walking along the pond to Dirk’s final resting place, I noticed several cemetery staff members walking parallel to us in a sort of spread out line. When I asked what they were doing, one of them gave me this gift of a response: “It’s mating season and sometimes the peacocks can become aggressive.”
Attacked by horny peacocks at a funeral? God how I wish Dirk could have heard that — it’s exactly the kind of scene he would have written.
According to shamanic traditions, the peacock represents immortality, grace, and dignity, and their absurd cries serve as a reminder to not take anything seriously — even beauty and death. What a beautiful lesson to show up for the loss of my dear friend.
We all have people in our lives that we instantly fall in love with. There is a connection that transcends space and time so we feel together even when we are apart. To me they join a panel of people in my head — Alex, Derek, Andrew, Laura, Sam, Todd, Rachel.
My college roommate Devon who moved to England and I didn’t see for 25 years, and when we finally reconnected in London over a 6-hour dinner and drinks and hookah it was like no time had passed. I felt as connected to him at that dinner as I was when we lived together 20 years prior. These are the people I’ve internalized that make up a part of who I am. They are permanently seated in the panel in my head, bearing internal witness to every terrible decision I make.
Dirk was one of those people and suddenly it was like the architecture of my mind had collapsed — the whole panel was out of whack.
Dirk and I also shared an undeniable spiritual connection. As it turns out, after not seeing him for months I felt compelled to suddenly pull out Dirk’s movie the morning he died, before anyone even knew. How could that have been anything else but a visit from Dirk telling me goodbye?
My last conversation with Dirk was funny, surreal, and very Hollywood. In 2013 I had won 2 Daytime Emmys as part of the writing/producing team at the Ellen show. And even though I do find a way to drop that sentence into just about every interaction I have in LA, in this case it’s actually relevant to the story. It was my first job in TV, and that 2013 ceremony was obviously a thrilling and unforgettable night. In 2014 however, I was no longer on the show, but had been nominated again in the writer and producer categories. What most people don’t know is that if you’re nominated for an Emmy, you have to buy your own tickets ($900 to attend both ceremonies), and since I wasn’t working in 2014 I couldn’t afford to attend (if we won again I’d have to pay an additional $900 for the statues. I know, #FirstWorldProblems, but still — when you’re not working, $1800 is a lot).
This is why during the Daytime Emmys ceremony in 2014, the year they decided not to air it on television, I was eating dinner alone at a sushi restaurant, watching Twitter to find out if we had won. It was such a bizarre Hollywood moment, and Dirk was the person I wanted to share it with. He had a last-minute training session and had to cancel dinner, so he kept me company by texting me as I ate sushi, drank wine, and waited for the results.
And now the win seemed even more ridiculous. Dirk had been on countless talk shows and magazine covers, directed 2 award-winning films and was now hustling for Pilates clients to pay rent. I had 4 Emmys and couldn’t afford a ticket to the ceremony. More than 20 years after we’d met we were still in total alignment, joking about how fucked up Hollywood was — and how we were even more fucked up to still wanna be here.
It was the last real communication I’d have with Dirk, but one I’ll never forget.
I kept procrastinating writing this tribute, because nothing I could write could possibly sum up who Dirk was to me, and to so many people in his life. And I don’t want to end it, because I just don’t know how to say goodbye.
Dirk was one of my longest adult relationships, and saying goodbye to Dirk is acknowledging my own mortality. There are so many experiences I wanted to share with him that I know now will never happen.
And that’s a hard pill to swallow.
My sweet, beautiful Dirk. I will never forget your kindness, your compassion, and your talent. You were a big part of the reason I loved LA, and why I returned again after a 3-year break. I miss your laugh and the ever-present sparkle in your eye. Thank you for your friendship, your boundless joy, and for being such a powerful light in my life for so many years. You will always be my brother, and I will carry your spirit within me until the day I die.
And if there is an afterlife, I have no doubt you’ll be my wacky neighbor.