Dillon Passage and life after “The Tiger-King”

Dillon Passage on the beach
Dillon Passage on the beach. He was Joe Exotic’s fourth husband on "The Tiger King."

Did you survive watching The Tiger King?

If you survived a global pandemic then you probably survived watching The Tiger King. Haven’t seen it? Well, if someone shared every detail of the show, nothing would be spoiled. When things couldn’t get crazier, they would, and you’d whisper, “are you fucking kidding me?” And no one will walk away from watching the show without an opinion about Carole Baskin.

That said, amid criminal charges, lawsuits, and arson, there were very sweet moments in the show, Joe Exotic’s community Thanksgiving dinner being one of them. Toward the end of the series, something even sweeter comes along, Dillon Passage, Joe Exotic’s fourth husband.

While only appearing in the show for moments, you sense that Passage had a quiet way about him in the midst of chaos. It almost offered a sense of normalcy in watching the show. Even Joe seemed quieter in those few scenes. Could this have been because law enforcement intervention was on the horizon? Maybe. Could it have been a glimpse into the man behind the performer? Maybe. Anyway, we wanted to know more about Passage, committed to staying by Exotic’s side.

When asked, “who are you?” it surprised me to hear, “I don’t know, I’m a normal dude, I’m nothing. All of this kind of blew up.” Feeling empathy, it was evident that Passage didn’t ask for this sudden surge of fame. Disagreeing on his opinion of himself, we were determined to get to the heart of his heart. Passage obliged.

Sure, you’re a normal guy, but there’s something more about your spirit and character. What was growing up like?

Dillon Passage on beach
Dillon Passage is moving on

Dillon Passage: Kind of rough actually. I guess I’ll tell you my fucking life story and see what happens, alright? My family is from upstate New York, my siblings were born there. Dad joined the military. I grew up with a military background. When my dad left the military we moved to a town named Soleto. Super hick, super country. It was good, I had friends there. My parents split when I was eight and my dad moved to Austin. Later, my mom met my stepdad, who I call “dad.” He treated me like I was his own, having five kids himself. My biological father left us with absolutely nothing and we filed for bankruptcy. My stepdad bought us a house and took us under his wing, we were his, he didn’t treat us differently than his own kids. It was really good. Then, my father took my mom to court, she lost, and I had to live with him, the youngest of four.

I moved to Austin, and I came out in high school. He immediately sent me back to my mom. Living with him was horrible, they were very neglectful. They didn’t treat me like I was their kid. We like to describe my biological father as a father who, when you’re little, really likes you. When you get older, not so much. We describe it as having a puppy.

When I came out to my mom as gay I told her, “Hey, I’ve got to tell you something. No never mind, I’ll tell you in person.” She responded “Well, you’re gay, it’s about fucking time.” My stepdad told me he would love me no matter what, that I was still his son. He was the first person who accepted me for who I was. My friends were super accepting as well.

Did you go to college?

DP: I did cheer in college. I made really strong bonds but in senior year I got addicted to Xanax and flunked out. I moved home and lived with my sister but needed to go somewhere else. I didn’t want to be “that” uncle who was around them, you know, with that kind of mindset. I moved to Oklahoma to live with my best friend since fifth grade, who I call my cousin.

How did you and Joe meet?

DP: I got a message on Grindr from Joe Exotic, I had no idea who he was. All I saw was a picture of a dude with a giant tiger on top of him. He sent a long message of who he was and what he did. He invited me and my cousin to the restaurant he owned. At this point, I’m still addicted to Xanax. The first time I saw him I was like, “Holy shit, that mullet.” But there was a way he interacted with everyone at the bar, he was super friendly with the customers, he brought a really strong, good energy with him. That mainly attracted me to Joe.

We had a few drinks and he sang one of his songs to me. No one ever sang to me. Next thing I knew, we were at the zoo playing with newborn baby tigers. It was a strange experience, yet amazing at the same time.

It developed from there?

DP: Joe called the next day asking me to join him on this parade, which you saw as the first date on the show. He pulls up in a limo and a film crew and says, “Don’t mind them; they’re just filming something for me.” I was shy at first and didn’t want to be filmed.

I told Joe about my addiction, and he said, “Well, I’m not going to let you do that.” After the parade, we got dinner, went back to his house, and I never left. I was sick for two weeks, and no matter what I said or did he stuck by my side and told me he wasn’t going to let me go back to the place I was. Then he proposed. He said, “I know you may not be in love with me, but I love you and I need somebody who’s gonna stick by my side, you need somebody who’s going to keep you healthy, so will you marry me?” I was like, “You know what, yeah. Nobody else was there for me, keeping me away from the things I was doing, except for Joe.”

I was in a dark place, depressed, lonely, and without a purpose. Joe brought me out of my depression, made me feel loved, and I was so thankful for it. Being around baby tigers and keeping them alive gave me purpose.

You’re dealing with Joe’s sentence, and now quarantine. How do you stay centered?

Dillon Passage and Joe Exotic
Dillon Passage and Joe Exotic

DP: I have a strong support group. My friends and family met Joe, they really like him. What everybody sees in front of cameras is completely different behind the camera. He’s a sweet, down to earth, everyday kind of dude, very family oriented. He cares about his parents the most. I couldn’t imagine what he went through, having his whole life ripped away from him. It tore him to pieces. Once we left the zoo, he wasn’t the same anymore. He lost his animals, and he had to move away from his parents. It was super hard for him. But for me, I lay in my hammock and tan.

How are you feeling after the premier of The Tiger King? Thankfully it came out during quarantine.

DP: No one had a choice but to watch it! It’s been overwhelming. I went from living life with my dog to everyone being super invasive, wanting to know every aspect of my life. At some point, there needs to be a chill period for me, you know? I’m thankful to have a really good manager and team who keep me sane and keep everything organized for me. Jeff, my manager, has big things coming up after Coronavirus. I want to make a name for myself. I want to be “Dillon,” not just “Joe Exotic’s husband.”

“It was big for Joe to be able to talk about his past”

How are you pushing into plans for the future?

DP: I want to stay in the animal world, more education than owning, like Doc Antle. His relationship with his animals is more “coexistence.” He’s a good guy. Don’t get me wrong, I respect Joe and everything he’s done for the animal world but his relationships with the animals were more about the fame. Doc’s is more about education, letting people know what big cats are really like. He focuses on conservation. If I could get into something like that, then that’s something I’d do.

I’m sure you’re filled with gifts making you deserving of that.

DP: Well, thank you for actually treating me like a person. Other interviewers haven’t taken time to look into what I’ve already said or been asked, they’re focused on getting the same story for themselves, and it’s usually the wrong story.

Of course! What was it like watching footage of Joe before meeting you versus after meeting you?

DP: I knew that part of Joe because I would see him do tours, and he’d show me videos from when he was a magician or running for office. He was eccentric and opinionated and said whatever the hell he wanted. What I learned about most, after seeing everything, was about his and Carole’s feud. I never asked him questions about his business that didn’t pertain to me. These were things happening before I was involved in Joe’s life. He was never secretive about things, like past relationships. He said, “I’m going to lay it out for you. I was married to three guys, one shot himself in the head and died. Is that okay?”

I was like, “You know what, I’m okay with it and I’m not going to push you aside.” He’d apologize to me, once when he called me “Travis” and he was so upset. I was like, “Don’t be sad. You lost him just months ago. I can’t be mad.” He’d say Travis and I were a lot alike. Both stoners, ate the same snacks. Joe would bring him home Hot Cheetos and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. The first day he asked me what I wanted from the store, I said, “Hot Cheetos and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.”

It was weird. I could never be mad at him for comparing me to Travis. I wasn’t there to invade anybody’s space, step on any toes or replace Travis. It was big for Joe to be able to talk about his past and me be okay with it.

Dillon Passage and Joe Exotic
Dillon Passage and Joe Exotic

Tell me about love and loyalty, as you’ve said you will stay loyal to Joe.

DP: I wasn’t looking for anybody once Joe went away. I didn’t need to fill a void with him being gone. My focus was making it to the next day. I knew there was going to be backlash once he was arrested, because it was a big deal. But I’m going to be on Joe’s side, his support system while he’s in jail. If I didn’t it would show a lack of character, and that’s not who I am.

Did you catch the bonus episode?

DP: Yeah, it was absolute shit. Everyone in the follow up episode were auxiliary characters, the majority of them were not on Joe’s side to begin with. They had biased opinions. They asked me to be a part of it but I said no. I texted Rebecca Chaiklin “Are you a part of this?” and she was like, “No.” I thought that was messed up. She worked hard and spent a lot of time and effort, going through a lot of stress because Joe is not an easy person to handle, especially in a business perspective. I didn’t think it was fair for them [other characters] to be railroaded and have another production company ride the tailwind of their success. It ended up being a shit episode. It could have been done so much better. Yea, you have the Coronavirus, but it wasn’t done right.

Like the guy with the upside down AirPod?

DP: My God, I was like, “Are you serious?”

If there’s something you want people to understand about the documentary, what would it be?

DP: There was an agenda for the producers. Joe, Doc and Carole don’t want exotic animals to be held captive. They don’t want captivity, breeding, any of that. Producers had a goal. In Joe’s sense, they left out his sweet, sensitive sides, except for the Thanksgiving Dinner. They left out that every Christmas he’d give food to homeless people, clothes, boots, and blankets.

In Doc Antle’s case, they attacked him in a sense, made it seem like he was cold. I mean, let a man have as many girlfriends as he wants. They all know about it, it’s not like it was secret. Producers were not on the side of the main characters—Doc Antle’s, Joe’s or Carole’s. They took everybody’s negative aspects. I don’t know Carole, I can’t judge her character, but I know Doc, he does really great things. There was never animal abuse. If you’re going to be around dangerous animals, abusing them daily, do you really think they’ll let you walk out of a cage unharmed? Never.

Thanks to Dillon for sharing his story.