Born and raised in New Jersey, Tony Ardolino has been named Mr. Gay World USA and is in the running to be named the international Mr. Gay World. I caught up with Tony Cannoli (as he is known on social media) to find out what this pageant is all about, and what other acting, writing, and philanthropic projects this beauty “queen” has already accomplished and is currently working on.
What is Mr. Gay World USA all about?
Tony Ardolino: If anything happens to Anderson Cooper, I take over. Just kidding! It’s a male beauty pageant, the USA segment of a globally recognized Mr. Gay World international organization. It’s a pageant that celebrates men across all cultures and identifies delegates to represent their state. What drew me to this was it wasn’t cookie cutter. There were different races, body types, ages, and I wanted to be part of it because I’m brand new to the world of pageants. Very exciting just to be a part of it.
First, tell us about your New Jersey connections.
TA: I’m a Jersey boy, born and raised in New Jersey, Rockaway Township, originally from Jefferson. If you went to a theater in Northern New Jersey, you probably saw me as a kid. Right after high school, I moved to Los Angeles. I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I did a lot of commercials, with David Hasselhoff, with Elvira. Then I worked at Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knotts Berry Farms. Then I moved to Singapore with Universal. I was in Singapore for two years. Then I came back and booked a national tour for Paw Patrol Live. Then I toured with the musicals Grease and Happy Days. I was Chachi, of course.
Exciting, so much going on! Back to the pageant. How’d you get involved, and how’d you end up winning your very first pageant?
TA: I was dating a guy who told me, “I’m Mr. Gay Boston,” and I’m like, “Yeah, sure buddy. So am I.” He told me it was a beauty pageant. I’m such a big fan of Drop Dead Gorgeous and Miss Congeniality. I’m an entertainer, so I wanted to test it out, but he said, “I don’t know, Tony. I don’t know if you’re ready.”
My grandma passed away recently. She was from Maine, and I went there every summer. So, while I was in Maine, I saw the opportunity for Mr. Gay Maine, which I was very blessed to win. Then I zoomed on over to Mr. Gay USA, representing Maine. It was literally a beauty pageant with different rounds, talent, swimsuit, formal, interview. At the time, that guy and I broke up, so instead of dwelling on that, I used all my energy to create something special. I made all my costumes myself. My talent, I wrote myself.
I’m a 5’7” Italian Jersey boy, different from these 6’ model types, but I kept on telling myself, “Just be you. Just have fun.” For swimsuit, I dressed up as a little baseball player with a bedazzled bat. I swung it around in my star-spangled Speedo. For talent, I did a male version of “[Part of] Your World” from The Little Mermaid, dressed up as a male Ariel, and I changed all the words to embody gay culture.
Now, back to your Jersey roots. What was it like growing up gay in New Jersey?
TA: I felt like Beauty and the Beast, like Belle walking through the village. I was so different. I felt like the kids were singing, “Look there he goes, that guy is gay, no question.” I didn’t have a lot of friends. I got bullied relentlessly. There were Facebook pages about how I was gay and useless, horrible things. I didn’t have school to back me up, just my parents. My parents are my go to. I just kept on saying, “This will push me to be the best I can be.”
I didn’t view it as a weakness. I viewed it as something that would make me stronger. I wanted to show the world what I could do. I had so many goals, dreams to fulfill, and I didn’t want anything to get in the way. I didn’t come out until I was 24. I was trying to have an acting career. I was nervous that if I came out that it would put up a wall for some parts. Even when I lived in West Hollywood, I didn’t come out. I came out in Singapore where it is illegal to be gay.
Did it affect your career when you finally came out?
TA: If anything, it helped. Now, I’m making a whole career out of being gay. I wish I could have told myself earlier, “Just be yourself because that’s the greatest role you’ll ever play.”
You’ve accomplished a lot! You did an LGBTQ short film called Far, Far Away. You wrote a children’s book called Gill, the Merboy. You also started the My Gay Big Brother project. What can you tell us about all this?
TA: Growing up, there was no representation for LGBTQ people. You could either be RuPaul’s Drag Race or you could be Brokeback Mountain, but being gay is much more. So, I wanted to create my project, “Far, Far Away,” the retelling of the famous fairy tales, Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, with an LGBTQ spin. It’s a gay Snow White. It’s a lesbian Rapunzel whose mother is making her grow out our hair so she could be more feminine. It’s a trans Cinderella who just wants to be their authentic self. These three characters go on a journey into the forbidden forest to get their wish. It won so many awards. From that, we also made a more comedic version of it as well, a web series that takes place in West Hollywood.
I just published my book, Gill, The Merboy. I always wanted to write an LGBTQ themed book that was for everyone. Whether you’re in the community or not, I wanted to entertain people but still have that character young queer kids can like. I got the idea when I was on Paw Patrol. After every show I would do a meet and greet. I would ask the kids about their favorite pup, their favorite color, and what they want to be when they grow up? One little boy said, “a mermaid.” His father got really masculine and said, “You don’t want to be a mermaid. Only girls can be mermaids.” I looked at the kid and said, “You can be whatever you want to be.” There’s a story there that boys can be mermaids, so I wrote this book called Gill The Merboy about a little merboy who’s gets picked on because mermaids are supposed to be girls. He goes on this adventure to prove his worth to the ocean, and on this grand adventure, he learns that the greatest treasure of all is just being yourself.
Excellent. We’ll have to check it out. Back to the beauty pageant. Since you are Mr. Gay World USA, you’re in the running for Mr. Gay World. Tell us about that.
TA: It’s in the beginning of October in South Africa. I’ve never been to South Africa before. I’m just trying to be myself again. No matter where I am, no matter who I’m talking to, I just want to show support, I just want to show love. You can be your authentic self and wear a crown. You don’t have to be this cookie cutter image. You don’t have to be Ken. I look more like Super Mario than I look like Ken. I’m a goof. I’m fun. I just want to support people because growing up I didn’t have that. I didn’t have someone to look up to. I was the oldest of four boys, so my brothers came to me all the time for advice. But as a closeted gay teen I had no one to go to. I had no one to talk to about my crushes and things I was feeling.
So that’s why I started my organization called “My Gay Big Brother.” It helps mentor young individuals and give advice to queer kids because they need that. They need to have somebody to talk to. They need a big brother. And that’s the best thing I got from Mr. Gay USA is to put myself on this platform to create something that I wish was there when I was a kid.
Thank you, Tony Ardolino, Mr. Gay World USA, perhaps soon to be Mr. Gay World.
TA: Who knows, may the odds ever be in my favor! If you want to find me on social media, I’m Tony.Cannoli on Instagram and YouTube.
Okay. Tony Cannoli, nice talking to you.