(Photo by Peppa Bear)
What makes a “Bear” a “Bear“? Ask ten different people (assuming that the person you ask is even familiar with our unique queer lexicon!), and you‘ll likely get ten different answers… although most of the definitions will surely involve a mention about hot hairiness or beautiful bulk. Joe Mannetti-- a multi-titular, passionate community activist and performer-- is both hotly hairy and beautifully bulky… and he embraces his role as a bona fide Bear icon in a big way. But Joe’s dedication to the community-- to the Bear World and to the GLBT community at large-- goes way beyond his notoriety as a woofy pin-up. For starts, Mannetti is a dedicated and skillful fundraiser. He was named “Bear Fundraiser of the Year 2009” in "The Best of the Bears" Poll… and at the time of our interview at the dawn of 2011, he was busy as ever planning his next big thing. Joe is a member of Sandy Reinhardt’s philanthropic org Mama’s Family, where he was named “Mama's Care Bear” for his dedication to our community. These accolades are just the start of a long list of titles. Joe is also (get ready!) Mr. Southern California Cub 2006, Mr. Long Beach Pride Bear/Cub 2008, Mr. Los Angeles Bear 2008, Mr. Southern California Bear 2008, Prince with The Imperial Sovereign Court of All Connecticut, and Mr. International Daddy Bear 2009. Joe is also an Ambassador of Hope 2010 for The Dab the AIDS Bear Project, a community-based organization of concerned citizens infected and/or affected by HIV and AIDS. Their goal is to prevent new cases of HIV while helping to empower HIV-positive citizens, through awareness and education.
Joe was raised in New York, lived in California for 23 years, and now calls Connecticut his home. He is also a performer as well as an activist, having been seen in Todd Stephens‘ “Another Gay Movie” and most recently in Doug Langway's "Bear City" in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as "Hot Daddy Bear”. But this underused actor is seeking to be seen on the big screen in a much bigger way. (Casting agents, are you reading this?!) As articulate as he is affable, Mannetti has a Master’s Degree in Counseling, has worked as an HIV testing counselor, and is a busy freelance writer whose work has appeared in "All Bear“ and other magazines. I guess you can say, Joe Mannetti is… smarter than the average bear! Mannetti spoke to Jed Ryan about the Bear community, his goals for 2011, and much more!
(Photos by Christopher Leonhardt)
JR: Hi Joe! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me! So, as one of the most visible members of the international Bear community, what defines a “Bear” in your opinion?
JM: Hey! Thank you for taking the time to allow me to be a part of this interview. It’s a great honor. Most visible? Me? Well, I suppose that I cannot argue with that remark. There is a lot of me “exposed” all over the place – for better or for worse. I am clothed more often these days than in the past. I catch less colds now. In response to your question about what defines a “Bear,” I am inclined to say that Bears should remain indefinable. By that I mean that Bears should avoid becoming too mainstream or easy to categorize. In my opinion, the core of what defines a “Bear” is a willingness to embrace diversity while rejecting pretentiousness. I think that the original physical traits that were identified as “Bear-like,” such as huskiness, a rugged blue-collar look, and facial and body hair were about celebrating a more “mature” look as opposed to the boyish “Twink” image that was all the post-AIDS rage in the LGBT media at the time. But times have changed, and it’s only natural that the Bear should morph into something that reflects the changing times. Today we have Transgender Bears, Leather Bears, Muscle Bears, and an assortment of other people who identify as “Bears.” I think that’s a good thing. I also think celebrating a more developed and “mature” and “earthy” look is also a good thing. None of us stay young forever, and not all of us want to be Fashionistas. We should still be able to feel like viable and desired members of the community regardless of a lack of designer labels while proudly allowing ourselves to celebrate looking our age. It’s not all about the youthful boyish looks that a “Twink” represents. At the same time, I like seeing “Bears” mix with Chasers who like them and vice versa. “Bears” also wouldn’t suffer any damage by doing more outreach with LGBTQ youth. All of us benefit from connecting effectively with young people. Just my humble opinion.
JR: Well said! Now, as a bona fide expert on the subject, where does the Bear Nation stand today as we enter 2011?
JM: Well, I wouldn’t call myself an expert. But, based on my own experiences and observations, I’d say that the Bear “Nation” today is at a crossroads. It’s odd. There is currently a lot of media buzz about marketing Bears online, in movies, and in magazines. But if you speak to the majority of LGBTQ youth today, you will discover that many of them don’t have a clue about what “Bears” represent at all in our communities. But, interestingly, I have found that a lot of them are very aware of the Transgender communities. I think that “Bear” and “Leather” have been predominantly about “adult” activities and the adult members of our LGBTQ communities. So, it makes sense that many LGBTQ youth might not feel included or a part of those scenes. But many LGBTQ youth might grow up to be “Bears” or “Leather” folk. So, if the Bear movement wants to thrive, I think that it has to start mentoring and connecting with young people more effectively. It also has to get back to connecting with people of all ages on a more grass-roots level again. Media marketing and online promotion can never replace the power of real community connections and outreach.
JR: How true! So… we’ve talked about this many times: Being a newer subculture, The Bear community doesn’t yet have the same history of tradition, or philanthropy, or political motivation as… let’s say, the Leather community. Do you see the Bear World eventually moving in that direction?
JM: The Bear community has certainly engaged in its share of fundraising for many important organizations that support our LGBT communities. But, IBR (International Bear Rendezvous) is coming to a close after seventeen years while IML (International Mr. Leather) is still going strong in its thirty-first year. That contrast is worth exploring. The Leather community has a rich history of radical political activism. I think that Bears can do more of that too. There is nothing wrong with partying and socializing. But you can do that in conjunction with effective outreach that makes a statement about very important community issues. The Leather community built itself on that foundation. The parties and play themselves represent a radical stance against convention while also promoting freedom, sexual diversity, and the right to stand out radically with uniforms as an out and proud LGBT individual. Leather was NEVER about blending or assimilation. Therein lays the difference between “Bears” and the Leather community. Bears can blend as regular blue-collar people who dig the t-shirt and jeans look. They are not pretentious. They welcome anyone, and they blend easily with similar crowds from Straight communities. So, while both Bears and Leather advocate diversity, Leather is a lot more radical about standing out and making a loud statement that does not assimilate as readily with Straight society. I guess that I am saying that the Bears might consider developing more of a political bite that will give them a more radical edge if they want to grow. Don’t give up the social stuff. Just add to it. I truly believe that Bears could benefit by making diversity more of a core issue along with celebrating the “Bear” look that is central to their identification.
JR: One of the oft-discussed issues in the Bear community is the division between so-called “muscle bears” and “chubby bears”, as well as size discrimination in the GLBT media.
JM: I like muscles. I like beefy guys. I like otters, wolves, and smooth guys too. I am not crazy about “A-List” anything. So, I see absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating muscles, beefy big sized people, smooth, or hairy as long as there is not a class system bunch of bullshit going on with each category. But, come on, we all know that size discrimination exists and even “Bears” have their “A-List” Bears, etc. I am more known for the lists and parties that I am not included in than the A-List people or events others get invited to regularly. That’s my badge of honor, and I wear it proudly. In the words of E.E.Cummings, "to be nobody but yourself--in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else--means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight; and never stop fighting." To address the issue of the GLBT media, well I think that it’s the same issue that you have with Non-GLBT media. It’s governed mostly by a bunch of self-serving snobs who don’t give a shit about REAL community or true public tastes. So, it becomes a game of a select few in power trying to dictate fashions, trends, and norms to the masses. It’s a power thing. Now, as far as “division” goes WITHIN the various Bear groups out there, I think that we have to explore how cohesive the Bears were about ever actually building a “community” from the start. Leather is a TRIBE that is loyal and supportive to the MAX of all of its members. Bears have individuals who are some of the most loving, generous, and dedicated people when it comes to supporting community issues. But I don’t know that what the Bears have developed is the same as what the Leather community has over the years. Of course, it’s different. That “difference” might be worth exploring just as much as why IBR is closing and IML still continues.
JR: There are so many worthy causes that benefit the queer community. Which of those causes do you feel most passionate about. Why?
JM: Right now, my focus is on improving support services for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, Transgender people, individuals seeking recovery from crystal meth addiction and other substance abuse issues, senior housing for our aging LGBTQ friends, and ANYTHING connected to supporting LGBTQ youth! We have a horrible homeless problem impacting our younger and older generations. They deserve shelter where they can feel connected and safe. As far as this whole “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” business goes, of course I respect and support the efforts of LGBT people who bravely choose to serve in the military. Of course, it is their right. No argument. But, truth be told, I would much rather see more effort and protesting directed towards ending wars altogether than fighting for the right to send our people out to die in them. I am also not enthused about seeing young Latino, Black, and financially disadvantaged people being sacrificed as the first to die since so many of them are so aggressively recruited into the military. I question the ethics of the entire military system, and I am not really gung-ho about inclusion into it if you want to know the truth. But then I am a “Dinosaur” from a different era when Flower Children were protesting “Make Love, Not War!” during the Vietnam years. Ironically, a vast majority of American people reportedly feel that the current wars like the one in Afghanistan are just as much a tragic loss of lives – most of which are civilian lives. So, it is a mystery to me why so many LGBT people are expending so much time and money fighting for the “right” to serve in the military right now. I understand the equal rights deal. I question the priorities in terms of the focus being placed on this issue as opposed to others.
JR: Who is an example of a guy who identifies as a Bear who is a great role model?
JM: I cannot think of one off the top of my head since, personally, I think that a REAL bear doesn’t strive to kiss anyone’s ass by being a role model!
JM: There are LOTS of great leaders that I have met, with and without titles, who make a positive difference everyday in the community. So, let’s see, if I had to pick ONE above the others I’d say Dr. Les K. Wright, who founded The Bear History Project and wrote “The Bear Book” and “The Bear Book II“, because he is a Bear who recognizes the importance of sharing Bear history. His writing, community outreach, and public speaking have all enhanced connecting the Bear community to their roots.
JR: And, Joe, who is YOUR biggest role model, in the Bear World or otherwise?
JM: Tarzan. Seriously, I always fantasized about being Tarzan. From the first time I witnessed Gordon Scott in those 1950s Tarzan flicks, I knew that I was Gay. I also knew that I wanted to live like that and be around men who acted like Tarzan. You walk around naked in the jungle, eat a banana, screw out in public under the sun, grunt, wash your ass in the river, and start all over again. How could I not want to be like Tarzan and hang with him being sweaty and bare-assed in the jungle? That was my dream growing up. It still is my wet dream now that I am grown up.
JR: I’m gonna have to put some of those 1950’s Tarzan flicks on my Netflix queue! So, in the past you have been very open about your work in the adult film business, as well as the after-effects it had on some of your philanthropic work. Looking back, do you see that experience as generally positive, generally negative, or mixed?
JM: As a rule, I don’t believe that is healthy to beat yourself up over the past. What’s done is done. Why “should” all over yourself? Did I have some fun while I was doing it? Hell yeah! Was I treated well? Sometimes I was, and sometimes I wasn’t. But, I put my foot down about no drugs on the set, no anal sex without condoms, and I insisted that the producers help me promote outreach at fundraisers that I hosted for HIV/AIDS support services and other community needs. They did by supplying me with DVDs for raffles, etc. Did I make a profit off of it? Are you kidding? We are talking about Bear porn here! The ONLY folks who profit generously from it are the producers! The performers get nothing but a notorious reputation and a lot of recognition balanced with intolerant judgment from the public! But, I did it because I was a rebellious exhibitionist with a super high sex drive. So, I fit the criteria for being a porn performer in Bear flicks. It turned out that more than a few folks out there apparently liked watching me in them. So, I wound up doing it for about four years on the side. It was never a full-time gig, and I never intended or expected to be known for my work in Bear porn. It was a mixed bag in terms of what I experienced. The only truly AWFUL experience I had was when I posed for AMERICAN BEAR magazine (Issue 56) back around April of 2002. The photographer, Peppa Bear, was BRILLIANT! He was just such a phenomenal photographer! The shots he took are still some of the best ever taken of me, I think. He and his partner were wonderful, truly wonderful, to me. They picked me up at the airport, put me up at their beautiful ranch home, and they even threw me a surprise birthday party at the end of the shoot. But the guy who was in charge of the magazine at the time was a BASTARD! He insulted me. He insulted the photographer. He was incredibly rude and arrogant – a total shit. Later, I found out that my experience with him was typical from other models and photographers who had also worked with him. You can imagine how this could make you feel being abused like that when you are taking off your clothes for the first time to pose for pictures that would be published in a widely read magazine! Eventually, it seems that it got to the point where nobody cared to work with him anymore, and his version of AMERICAN BEAR folded. When I heard, I wasn’t at all surprised. But, in a way, that experience typifies what a lot of baring it for adult stuff in the Bear media can be like some of the time. I had my share of putting with crap from a lot of rude amateurs who weren’t very skilled or kind with anyone. But I also actually did meet some very talented photographers and very decent performers who I am happy to have as friends to this day. In fact, many of them helped me at a lot of my fundraisers with very generous donations and volunteer work. So, it’s all good. Everything is an opportunity. You can make just about any experience work in a positive way, I believe. Do I advocate working in porn? I advocate the freedom to choose and make your own decisions. Does it exploit and prostitute people. It can. But working in corporate America can make you feel just as much like an exploited prostitute. So, why throw stones? What do I think of the people who judge me for having done porn? Fuck ‘em. I actually have in a few cases. So, there you go. It takes all kinds.
JR: Wow! That said, what would you say to anyone who wanted to get involved in the jizz biz?
JM: Think about it carefully. If you are doing it because you think that it will make you rich and famous, think again. In most cases, doing Bear porn will leave you broke and infamous. It can follow you around all your life. Once you have done it, you cannot erase it. So, you better not be the type who worries about your reputation or what others think of you. Be true to yourself. Ask yourself if you can really swing with all the trappings that go with this deal. Be honest and realistic. I like thumbing my nose at convention. I thrive on being a non-conformist. So, I did it. I also had my boundaries, and I also knew when to stop. I always made pursuing an education in an outside field my goal, and never made porn my main focus at all. It was a side thing. I am not a role model. My life is not a blueprint to copy. Create your own original life. Don’t copy mine. Fer Chrissake, why would you want to duplicate anything about my life? I have been struggling with it for almost fifty years now, and I still cannot figure it out! If you find the secret on how to be Joe Mannetti successfully, then PLEASE let me in on it!
JR: (Laughs) I will, I will! Similarly, if you find the secret on how to be Jed Ryan successfully, then you let ME in on it too, please! So… having appeared in many magazines and movies, you are viewed by many guys as a sex symbol. But what do you personally find sexy in a guy?
JM: I guess I do have a “type.” Anyone who has seen my Bear porn probably assumes that I am a voracious power-Bottom who LOVES super-hung MuscleBears. Actually, I do go for strong ‘n silent mature types. A guy with a bit of a swagger who is strong but attentive with a quiet confidence is hot. But I can also be a pushover for a tousle haired goofy t-shirt and jean kinda sport who has a quick smile and a playful energy about him. I am embracing my “Daddy” role more these days, and young Cuties who like playing “Boy” are catching my eye more and more. Yes, I have a high sex drive. It’s still there after all these years. But a cute butt or a big basket needs to be balanced out by a genuine connection and an ability to show affection warmly and genuinely. All the guys I am attracted to tend to be on the “earthy” side. Is intelligence important? It’s the most important thing of all! I like a good conversation as much as a good roll in the hay. Consideration and communication are very important too. Since I have been a social worker as well as an actor a good portion of my life, I don’t want to play caretaker to a drug addict or an alcoholic. After working with them, I don’t have any desire to live with any of them. So, I guess I like brawny, geeky, intelligent guys with a quiet side who have a high sex drive to match their brains. Is he out there? Well, if he is, I hope that I do not have to resort to taking part in one of those bad-as-Hell reality shows to find him.
JR: (Laughs) Yeah, I hope not also! Lastly, what would be the most surprising thing that people don’t know about Joe Mannetti?
JM: I guess that as public as I am, I also go through lengthy periods of needing to be alone. As outgoing as I can be, I can also be very moody and quiet at times. I go through periods where I withdraw from everything – people, places, communication. It’s hard to pull myself out of those moods sometimes. I suppose that it’s nature’s way of balancing things out – and making sure that I stay away long enough so that people won’t tire of me. I guess that is my biggest fear. There’s this old song called “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?” It’s a feeling that I carry with me almost constantly. I am always afraid that people are sick of me while I am craving their attention at the same time. Silly, huh? Most people also assume that I am just a “Bear Pin-Up” who is best used as part of the scenery in bit parts and cameos. I actually studied acting very seriously in New York at H.B. Studios and in Los Angeles. The only way to prove that I can do more than walk on shirtless is to give me a chance in a real role that requires more than making me a brief Bear ornament. Most people don’t realize that I studied and pursue acting. I suppose that’s my fault as much as anyone’s out there. My “image” is seen as mostly a joke. We’ll see if that changes.
JR: Thanks for talking to me, Joe! See you at the next big thing!
JM: If it’s big, I guarantee that you’ll see me there. That’s a promise!
You can say “Hi!” to Joe Mannetti, read his writings, and see where he’ll be appearing on his Facebook page: