As a Contestant on “Survivor” during that wildly popular show’s 23rd season, Mark Anthony “Papa Bear” Caruso sent many a Bear lover’s carnal desires into high gear. With an audience averaging well over 10 million watching “Survivor: South Pacific” every week, Caruso was clearly one of the most visible out ’n’ proud Bears in the media at the time. Up close and personal, the 49-year old reality TV star, who describes himself as “very Italian”, has killer turquoise eyes and a smile that’s playful and inviting (…but with a little bit of mischief thrown in!). Before entering the pop culture radar screen in 2011, Caruso worked as an NYPD detective and later as an RN. He knew he was gay from the very beginning, and remembers how his first entry into the police department was a challenge. Mark recalls how back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, it was a male-dominated field and a homophobic environment. Today, he adds, “It’s more accepted.” Caruso was always a huge “Survivor” fan. At one point in his career, he was living in barracks-type quarters with other cops, in front of a morgue (!) The Spartan surroundings made him ponder, “Hmmm… If I can do this, I can be in the jungle!” His co-workers knew that 8PM on Thursday was always Mark’s “Survivor” night. For a prank, his peers once locked him out of the barracks, frat boy-style, to keep him from seeing his favorite show. They didn’t stop him, though: Mark wound up sneaking in through a window. That was the true story that the silver-haired star-to-be used for his “Survivor” audition…
Our “Papa Bear” wants to continue life in showbiz, but for the moment he is more committed to working out, enjoying life, and having fun. He tells me, “I’m never serious! People THINK I’m serious… because I am older, and I‘m looked on as a father figure. I always take that role, and I’m fine with it. ‘Papa Bear’ was born on ‘Survivor‘, and that is awesome in how that developed.”
Happily partnered (Sorry, guys!), the Bear icon and I met at a diner in Forest Hills, Queens, to talk about “Survivor“, life as a new Bear role model, and what he personally finds sexy in a guy. At one point in our discussion, Caruso tells me that he stays youthful by clean living: no smoking, no drinking, no drugs. Notice that he left out the best vice of all… (Now I‘M smiling mischievously!)
JR:Hi, Mark… or, shall I just call you “Papa Bear” right away?
PB:(Laughs) What do you think?
Well then: Let’s start with “Survivor”. Some self-proclaimed TV critics have opined that Papa Bear was destined to be quickly voted off from the start. They say it was because you were more mature than most of the “kids” who you were on the show with, and you didn’t fit in right away. Is that true?
If you watch the show that I was on, versus the series that was before us: In the series before us, it was split into age groups. I was looked at to be in THAT episode, but I got beat by a few guys who they took instead… and then I got my thrown into MY show, where there were so many young people. I was like, “Oh God! Why couldn’t I be on the show BEFORE or AFTER the one I was on?!” I felt like I was on the Island of Misfit Toys and that Santa Claus was gonna go by.
JR:Mmmm… Santa Claus! Another one of my favorite Bears!
PB:(Laughs) I was like, “What the hell happened?” But you know, you gotta make the best of it. You can’t sit there and cry. You gotta move, and you gotta start manipulating people immediately. It didn’t go my way because they were so young and it was only me and one other older person (Dawn Meehan). She took on a mother role really fast, and I took on the father role really fast… and remember, you’re never gonna vote your mother out! You’ll vote out your dad, but not your mom! It’s wrong on so many levels. But you know what? I also learned a lot about life from being on that show. Obviously I wanted to win. But you learn that everything can be taken from you. “Survivor” is real. They don’t mess around. They want a true winner to be won. You ARE starving. You ARE hot in the daytime to the point that you’re sweating. In the nighttime, you’re freezing. Your clothes are filthy, YOU’RE filthy, and everyone starts to smell. You get to the point that you don’t smell each other because you stink so bad. But it’s so much fun, believe it or not. You’re taken to a point where you don’t have computers, or phones, or people to communicate with who aren’t trying to stab you in the back! At one point, if you’re with friends where you can bounce a question off, and you don’t really trust that person, who are you really telling this stuff to? And then you become something almost animalistic. I changed as a person there. My whole life changed on that island. It was awesome. Only like 400 of us were ever allowed to be on that show, out of the millions that tried. I am lucky enough to be the one out of 25,000 men-- to be one out of nine in the whole United States. Even that is amazing: to be chosen to be on that show, and to try to make it. And, I made good friends. People who I would never believe that I’d be friends with, I‘m close friends with. The fans look at these people as “stars”… and I’ve been with them! It’s fun, because I was bonded with these people.
Also, to vote people off, and to know that you’re taking their dreams away: It’s powerful. And then, they do it to ME. I told them, “Don’t vote me off. Vote the other guy off (John Cochran)! He’s gonna come back and haunt you; He‘s gonna destroy you guys”. I said it in Tribal Council, and sure enough, he turned on every single one of them and he destroyed that whole tribe. It was good for him, because he played the game. I told him when I saw him, “Good job!” because, he did what he was supposed to do. He didn’t win, because in turn they destroyed HIM. It’s a wicked game!
The moral is, You gotta listen to your Papa! So, what was it like being an “ordinary guy” and then going into the public eye for the first time?
It’s kind of weird, because I have done other things. I did extra work on TV and in movies, but with “Survivor”: to put yourself out there: on TV, just in your underwear…
JR:We can all be thankful for that!
(Laughs) One or two guys wrote to me and used to get hard from watching me on TV in my underwear! I laugh because I’m like, “Me? I don’t consider myself a sex symbol!” But I always say “Thank you!” anyway. Hey, if that’s what they like…! I consider myself to just be a regular guy on the street.JR:
While we’re on the subject: Do you get recognized on the street?
PB:I used to. It was big when the show was on, and now it’s fading a little, which is good. I’m really a private person. When someone asks me, “Papa Bear, can I have a picture with you?”, I always do it. Even If I’m in a ticked-off mood because of something in my own personal life, I always stop and go back into character. Who am I to take that from them? Sometimes I’m really busy, and I hear “Papa Bear, I love you!”… and then they throw kids or their dog at you asking for a picture. I always step into character, because it’s something that I loved that I did. I want people to be happy with that character and happy with the show. So, I take the pictures with them. I laugh, I autograph their stuff…
JR:Have you ever had any instances of, shall we say, stalkers… uh, I mean, “overzealous fans“?
PB:Not males. Bears are pretty cool. They’re like, “How ya doin’?” Now, the WOMEN… A lot of women will be like, “I know where he lives!” That was kind of creepy. The guys will just be like, “Come on over!“
(Laughs) So, as a bona fide Bear Icon, what makes a Bear a Bear? Is it really about how big you are, or how much body hair you have?
PB:You know what’s funny? I didn’t even consider myself a Bear all these years. Only recently, the last three or four years, did I consider myself a Bear. I was only in three relationships my whole adult life. I was always a Daddy figure. When I retired from the police department, I was able to let my facial hair grow. It was a new “coming out”. When you’re a policeman, everything has to be so stringent: You have to follow rules, you have to do what you have to do, you have to be a part of the group… I came out in the Police Department when it WASN’T cool! I was the first openly gay cop assigned to the Hate Crimes Unit. I got my detective shield there. From that point on, I said to myself that when I finally retired, I was gonna be who I wanted to be. The guys in the Bear community are open, loving, cool, fun… and I also learned not to be so uptight. My boyfriend is a Bear, and he taught me a lot about that. I like who I am now. I like being a Bear but I don’t consider myself “MR. BEAR”! There are thousands of good-looking, hunky guys out there. But I want to do something for the Bear community. I wanted to show on TV that we are just like everyone else: We’re loving and kind and everything. So, I shall become the “Ambassador for the Bears”! I’ll even get a hat… and a nice coat! (Laughs)
JR:You got my vote!
I got great responses on the show, even with Jeff Probst himself, the Host of “Survivor”. He gave me a nice good-bye card, and he wrote that I was a “man of good heart” or something like that. That’s not easy coming from Jeff Probst. He’s an awesome guy. He’s REAL! I had a Bear come up to me in a store once and he told me about how he and his boyfriend used to watch the show, and they told me I was awesome. My partner was laughing his ass off. He was like, “If he knew how REGULAR you really are…!”
Well, you are now a sex symbol, like it or not! So, while we’re on that subject, What do YOU personally find sexy in a guy?
A guy who can really make me laugh: who I can be happy with, and who I can trust. You don’t have to be an Adonis, because none of us are in this world. I like a guy who is a good-hearted man. I’m not into anyone who wants to hurt people or wants to gossip about people, or who are pretentious. I’m not into that. I guess that’s where the police department training, my family background, my own training growing up, and being a nurse came in. We all put our pants on one leg at a time. We’re all human. I think that September 11th also was a part of that: seeing those horrific events, and all of us working together, and knowing that life is so precious… But anyway: I like big muscular guys. I find them attractive! I want to be like them, and I am working out like a monster to be like that. For those guys who have perfect faces, God bless them. But I like a guy with a good heart who can make me laugh and make feel secure. Because, that’s the way I make other people feel. How was that? That’s a freaking Hallmark Card, isn’t it? (Laughs)Sounds Grrr-eat to me! Thanks, Papa Bear!
You can meet Papa Bear in person during Bear Week in Provincetown from July 7th-15th, and he’ll also be appearing in the much-anticipated fuzz flick “Bear City 2”. You can also connect with him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/MarkAnthonyCaruso. Expect to see a lot more of Papa Bear in the future. He tells me, “I put my mind to something, and I do it!“ We’ll be waiting!