Walt Whitman, among the best-known queer Americans, famously wrote these lines in his poem, “Song of Myself, 51”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
There is something of another queer American in these lines. His name is Ari Shapiro. Certainly you’ve heard his velvety voice across your National Public Radio airwaves as he hosts All Things Considered, or perhaps during one of his prior radio posts as NPR’s London correspondent, or covering the White House. There’s plenty from which to choose.
Then again, maybe his journalism career is alien to you, but his Pink Martini accompaniments are in steady rotation on your playlists.
Shapiro himself lays out the contradiction in his new memoir, The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening, on page 46. (Because, of course, he’s also a New York Times bestselling author.)
“I can see now that I contain both of these archetypes, wrestling like fraternal twins in utero,” he writes, contrasting the “golden boy” with the queer anti-institutionalist. “Sometimes I’m a secret agent faggot behind enemy lines; other times I just want to impress your parents.”
Whatever it is Shapiro happens to be doing, whichever identity he is expressing, he does it so earnestly and honestly that it nearly presents as artifice. Scratch the surface, however, and it’s still Ari Shapiro, it seems. The deeper you go, the more endearing he becomes. A little taste of cattiness further into Best Strangers — “She was younger than he was, blond, and didn’t stop talking the entire train ride…. But they broke up a few weeks later, and I was quietly relieved.” — is downright refreshing, though it’s essentially the full extent of counterbalance you’ll get to Shapiro’s winning charm.
Most of his endearing qualities seemingly come with little, if any, counterbalance.
Kat Lonsdorf, an All Things Considered producer, obviously familiar with the cliché of hardened, cynical journalists, gladly testifies to Shapiro taking a different tack in his work.
“Usually, we’re sent somewhere a disaster is happening, or that’s just had a crisis, or where people are dealing with heavy emotions and situations,” she says. The proof is in the cover photo of Shapiro for Best Strangers. Lonsdorf took it as they surveyed California wildfire damage, collecting the stories of folks whose lives were upended at best, destroyed at worst. It was a simple shot with her iPhone. Shapiro looks effortlessly determined and chiseled in the back of a dirty pickup truck, because of course he does.
“You’re also trying to find the wonder and joy in a place,” she continues. “Ari is really good at finding that and embracing that. That’s what makes some of the best journalists, is not to be hardened, to not lose that sense of wonder and curiosity. You’re confronted with really horrible things and people dealing with really heavy emotions all the time. Just realizing that the world still has that joy and wonder, and that people are also experiencing happiness and love and all of these things in terrible circumstances, being able to see that, too, is really important. And Ari is obviously very good at that.”
It’s not as though Shapiro is simply gliding effortlessly through existence, however he may look in that pickup truck. Or onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with Pink Martini. Or at a Fire Island underwear party with Alan Cumming.
“He’s also just a really hard worker,” Lonsdorf attests. “He reads books so fast. I feel like he just places his hand on a book and absorbs all the knowledge. I’ll come back with, ‘I read the first 30 pages. It’s pretty good.’ And he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I finished it.’ He’ll have detailed notes on it. It’s impossible to keep up with Ari. The number one rule is you can’t compare yourself to Ari.”
C’mon, Kat. There must be some tiny Hyde to this stellar Jekyll.
“I don’t think there are any bodies in the basement,” she insists. “And I’ve been in his basement!”
The talent, the drive, the looks…. It’s a triple threat that could easily fuel a detractor’s drive down Snark Street.
“He’s ugly, stupid, and mean. He has a face for radio!”
Julian Fleisher, a New York-based cabaret crooner, among many other artistic talents, is getting the snark out of his system. He readily admits, however, that it’s an honest reaction to the Shapiro package.
“Those of us in the world of downtown performance and the alt-cabaret scene, and jazz and so forth, we guard our territory a little bit jealously when someone appears like they might be a dilettante,” says Fleisher, notably a mainstay of the New York theater Joe’s Pub, which Shapiro has dubbed a “hallowed space.”
“Ari has a way of wiping away any of those feelings,” Fleisher continues. “There’s something so genuine about him, so charming, and so inviting that someone like me who is prone to jealousy and prone to envy — prone to a lot of feelings I’m not proud of — I’m rendered completely helpless. He’s utterly disarming.”
From growing up in Beaverton, Ore., a suburb of Portland, where Shapiro blossomed into a queer teen club kid with good grades, then on to Yale, and then a crossroads of pursuing a performance career at Julliard or journalism in D.C., Shapiro is currently writing yet another chapter, metaphorically. Continuing with Pink Martini and his husband and NPR, he has joined with aforementioned stage and screen (and underwear party) star Alan Cumming for their signature cabaret show, Och & Oy. Some lucky D.C. locals got a taste in 2019 at JR.’s Bar during Monday show tunes. Cumming and Shapiro happened to be in the crowd, sharing drinks and concocting their cabaret.
“When they played ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,'” Shapiro writes, “we stood on the indoor balcony and Alan extended his arms in the iconic gesture that Patti LuPone made famous. He took fistfuls of paper napkins and flung them fluttering down onto the crowd below, perhaps the only Scottish man ever to play Evita.”
They won’t likely get an Evita encore, but audiences will absolutely get an evening of Shapiro and Cumming on Sunday, June 25 at Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis, Md., as the venue presents Alan Cumming & Ari Shapiro Och & Oy: A Considered Cabaret. Despite taking on even more, Shapiro nevertheless carved out some time for Metro Weekly, again illustrating the multitudes, not so much the contradictions.
METRO WEEKLY: I don’t want this to sound derogatory, but you’re kind of a “golden boy.” You’re very accomplished. You’ve done so much, you have all the accolades, your résumé is amazing. Did you do anything bad as a kid? Did you ever get in trouble?
ARI SHAPIRO: I wasn’t a troublemaker. I didn’t violate rules, except for the rule that says, ‘Teenage boys are not supposed to kiss other boys.’ And that was a pretty big one!
When I was 16, I came out in Portland, Oregon. In 1995, there just weren’t a lot of out gay teens. In my high school, there weren’t any. And so it felt like a rebellious thing to do, although I wasn’t doing it out of a sense of rebellion. I was doing it out of a desire to get the coming-out process behind me and not to have to live a double life.
I’m certainly aware of the perception that I have succeeded in everything that I’ve done, and I am absolutely grateful for the privileges that I have. But because of that perception, it was important to me that in the book I include details about my failures. I think it’s important for people to know that NPR’s Ari Shapiro was rejected for an NPR internship.
I think we need to talk more about failure, because otherwise, people will get the mistaken idea that failure is the opposite of success, when, in fact, failure is a step on the path to success.
There’s a whole chapter in the book about my tendency to sweat profusely at the most embarrassing times, which Alan Cumming knows well. I put that chapter in because I understand the perception that things come easily to me and that I always succeed at them. I thought it was important to talk about the moments that I have belly-flopped, that I have failed, that I have embarrassed myself. Because we all have those moments. And to imagine that somebody is exempt from them is to get a distorted picture of reality.
MW: Focusing on the show coming up in Annapolis, Och & Oy, this isn’t so much a tour, but more like a series of one-offs.
SHAPIRO: Well, Alan and I each have other projects. I’m the host of All Things Considered. I sing with a band called Pink Martini. I just finished a book tour. Meanwhile, Alan is constantly making movies and documentaries, and hosting a reality TV show called The Traitors, and starring in Schmigadoon!
So, in between all of those things, we squeeze in dates here and there when we are able to. I think the longest run we’ve ever done was two weeks at the Café Carlyle in New York, which was a blast.
Part of the fun of doing a show here and there is that we get to check back in with each other and keep it fresh. The show is not tightly scripted. Even though we hit the same beats every night, the dialogue changes from one night to the next. By going our separate ways and meeting up again in a number of weeks or months, we get to have that moment of freshness and newness, and let the audience in on our experience of catching up with each other.
There’s just something about the show with Alan that is very unusual, which is, these two people from different backgrounds, who have a great rapport, who are combining the kind of thoughtful conversation you might expect from a good day on NPR, with a kind of entertaining body of song-and-dance numbers that you might expect on a good day from an Alan Cumming show. When you put those things together, I think there’s a kind of synthesis and magic that we find absolutely delightful. And for the couple of years that we’ve been doing this now, audiences seem to find it pretty delightful as well. There aren’t many shows like it in the world that I’ve ever seen. It’s really fun to be a part of it.
MW: Do you want to evolve it in some way? Do you think like, “Oh, I should learn some kind of tap dance, or….”
SHAPIRO: I’m pretty happy with this show the way it is. There’s not a lot that I’m looking to build on. The structure of the show very loosely is things that Alan and I have in common. Over the time we’ve been doing it, there have been new things added to the list. The most recent one is we’re both New York Times bestselling authors. So that’s been fun to say.
MW: As it’s cabaret, you’ve got to have this rapport with the audience, a different experience each performance. Is it taxing? Invigorating?
SHAPIRO: Oh, it’s totally invigorating. I can’t speak for Alan, but I believe that both of us get a lot of pleasure and thrill from seeing what happens night after night. Which jokes land, which jokes don’t, which jokes we discover in the moment that we had never told before and think, “Oh, we should do that again tomorrow.”
MW: Do you see Alan as a kind of mentor? Collaborator? Big brother? The devil on your shoulder?
SHAPIRO: All of the above. He is an older brother, mentor, friend who I can turn to for advice, and also look to as an example of how to live well.
Alan has more fun than anyone I’ve ever met. He also has a more intense work ethic than anyone I’ve ever met. And his ability to keep both of those things foregrounded in his life is something that I aspire to. I’ve learned so much from Alan. One of the things I’ve learned from him is the importance of continuing to challenge yourself and stretch, even — and especially — when you’re comfortable.
I think about how, at the age of 57, Alan created an original solo dance piece based on the life of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Alan is not a dancer and he’d never done a dance piece before. He could easily have fallen back on things that he knows he does well, that he knows will make money, that he knows he will get acclaim for. Instead, he took months out of his very busy schedule to do something that was difficult and challenging and new.
When I saw the performance it was the final show in New York at the Joyce Theater. He had a matinee earlier in the day, and at the end of that matinee, he broke a toe. He still went on with the evening performance. And did it with a broken toe.
That insistence that Alan has on doing the things that are difficult and taking the risk and potentially failing, but potentially growing, and potentially discovering new things, is something that I try to apply to my life every day.
MW: On your checklist of “Things that Ari Shapiro Would Still Like To Accomplish,” what stands out? You’ve done so much. You’ve been in a war zone. You’ve been in cabaret. What is left for you?
SHAPIRO: Well, the most recent one was writing a book. I found writing a book really scary. People had asked for years whether I would ever do it, and I always told them no. Finally, I decided that maybe the fact that I was so reticent to do it was a good reason to give it a try.
In the months before the book came out, I would find one small detail to fixate on. Which, I realized, was my effort to take all of the big amorphous, scary things about writing a book that I could not wrap my arms around, and instead focus on whether I had used the word “homonormative” correctly. [Laughs.] Because that was something that I could fixate on.
MW: How is the book doing?
SHAPIRO: It’s been such a satisfying experience. One of the things that I was afraid of was the permanence of a book. All Things Considered is a volume business, where we put out two hours a day. If any given story or any given program is better or worse than average, the next day it doesn’t matter, because we have a blank slate. I was always afraid of the permanence of a book.
What I realize now is that because the book is so full of stories of people who have shaped my life and have a huge impact on me, in a way, the permanence of the book is a beautiful, valuable thing. Now these people whose stories have shaped me can go on to touch the lives of others.
And it’s been so satisfying to get messages from strangers on social media. I know I’m not supposed to read my reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, but as far as I can tell, every author knows they’re not supposed to and does it anyway. When I look at some of those reviews and see the way that these stories that have moved me are now touching other people, I think about the ripples that a book can have, that this book may have, and the thing that was most scary about this, its permanence, becomes the thing that I now find really valuable about it.
I think there’s a larger lesson there, which goes back to what I was saying about doing things that scare you, and risking failure, and stretching yourself, because that’s where the opportunity for growth lies.
MW: Considering the way you’ve described the reception of your book, how it’s made you feel, do you think about a legacy? Do you think about how you will be remembered?
SHAPIRO: No, I don’t. I often quote the playwright and performer, Taylor Mac, who was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for a 24-hour show that Taylor created called A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. When I asked Taylor what he learns by telling the story of this country, from slavery to the Trail of Tears to Japanese internment camps, and on and on and on, what perspective that provides, Taylor said, “When you tell these stories you see that these things go in cycles. I don’t know why, but they do. But you also find the stories of people who are trying to make life better for those around them. All any of us can hope to do is be one of those people in whatever time and whatever place we find ourselves.”
So I don’t think about my legacy so much as I think about trying to be one of those people.
MW: It seems you’re doing that. Conversely, how do you find downtime?
SHAPIRO: I have a garden. Just this morning I harvested a bunch of beets and carrots and broccoli. I run and do yoga. I have two dogs, so I walk the dogs. I love to cook. I have a husband. I play the piano. Not having children allows a lot of time in a schedule that would otherwise be devoted to raising kids.
MW: Do you think about having kids?
SHAPIRO: I don’t. Of course, I think living in this culture, everyone is forced to constantly think about having kids. Every time I think about it, I think, “I like my decision to not have kids.”
MW: Is there anything more a guilty pleasure? Not gardening or yoga or running? Maybe bourbon or ice cream?
SHAPIRO: I enjoy bourbon, I enjoy ice cream. But I don’t feel guilty about them. I can’t keep chips and salsa in the house. They’ll disappear in a moment. I have more of a salty tooth than a sweet tooth. I will eat the gnarliest french fries if they are cold and taste like styrofoam, and they’re basically like salty little worms. If they’re french fries, I will eat them.
MW: When you were in high school, Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini’s frontman, was already sort of coming out. He was a child prodigy. Did you know about him when you were in high school and coming out yourself?
SHAPIRO: Pink Martini started when I was in high school. They were the favorite local band in Portland that everybody in Portland knew, but nobody outside of Portland knew.
I would go see Pink Martini anywhere they were performing, from the year-end party at Reed College, to the employee holiday celebration for Ron Paul Bakery, to the club called La Luna, to the restaurant Berbati’s Pan, where they would regularly perform. I was a groupie. And then their first album came out when I was in college, and so I got that on CD. I would play it for everybody I knew in college. Then I became friends with them over time, and now I’ve been singing with them for about 13 years.
MW: Here in Pride season, June 2023, there’s a lot of reason to feel cynical, especially when you look at the way trans kids are being treated as political pawns. There is conflict that is really deep, it’s not superficial. People are having to move out of states because they have trans kids, or they are trans themselves. How do you keep an optimism about interhuman relationships in that environment?
SHAPIRO: I have two answers, and one is more generally about optimism, and one is more specifically about LGBTQ rights at this moment.
In a way, the book is an answer to a question that friends have often asked me over the years, which is, how do I stay optimistic in the face of everything bad that happens in the world, particularly as a journalist who covers those things. I talk to people often on the worst day of their lives, whether it is a natural disaster, or a mass shooting, or a war. As I tell those stories, I find the people who are persevering despite tremendous adversity, despite having very little power and privilege. The book is full of those people’s stories.
There’s somebody in coastal Turkey who owns a small cafe who is sharing wifi and power strips with Syrian refugees who are passing through the neighborhood, because, he says, “If I put myself in their shoes, I think of what I would need.” And this is a man without a lot of influence, who is using his small platform to do something good for those who are in need.
Or I think of a Zimbabwean woman I met in Harare who returned as an activist from New York, where she had been effectively in exile during the [President Robert] Mugabe years. She came back and she was beautifying the city, planting flowers, using money that she had crowdsourced.
The book is full of those examples. If these people refuse to give into pessimism, if these people insist on doing what they can to make the world better, what right do I have, with all of my power and privilege, to surrender to despair? What an insult it would be to their efforts, to their life, if I were to throw up my hands and say, “It’s all going to hell, so why bother?” In some ways, the entire book is an answer to the “How do you stay optimistic?” question.
Then specifically to the point of the LGBTQ experience right now, I think something that is perhaps not unique, but unusual in the experience of queer people compared to other marginalized groups, is that we are not raised by people who are from that marginalized group. Which is to say most Jews are raised by Jews; most Black people are raised by Black people.
Most queer people are raised by straight people.
As a result of that, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to learn from the generations that came before us, which in this moment is particularly unfortunate, because the generations that came before us dealt with what we are living through and worse. There are people alive today who were out before Stonewall. Many people alive today saw their loved ones die in the middle of the AIDS crisis. There are queer people all around us who have valuable experience that can help us understand how to deal with the moment we’re in, and if there’s any advice that I have for LGBTQ people in this moment, it’s seek out folks from older generations whose experience is relevant to what we’re seeing right now.
MW: Do you have any particular way that you mark Pride month?
SHAPIRO: I do the same things everybody else does, with maybe a couple more public-speaking engagements thrown in. My parents always march with PFLAG. My mother has a rainbow-striped apron, and she always sends me a photo of her and my dad marching, her wearing the rainbow-striped apron, in Portland.
MW: That’s really sweet. What does your June look like? Do you get a vacation? There was a mention of you doing… I don’t know where I read the line, “When he’s on vacation, he sings with Pink Martini.”
SHAPIRO: What does my June look like? I’m doing a family vacation on the Oregon Coast with my folks. I am doing a couple Och & Oy shows. I am hosting All Things Considered a whole bunch.
I do take real “vacation” vacations, but for me performing with Pink Martini is so much fun. Obviously there is an element of stress to it. You can’t just relax and unwind. You have to be on. But I love the members of the band so much.
We get to perform in these extraordinary places, and I always try to have what I think of as 15-minute vacations, which are in between soundcheck and the performance. You’ve got a little window of time. I do some small thing in that window of time, and it feels like bonus points. There’s something about going on vacation in New York, where it’s like there are these museum exhibits I have to see, there are these Broadway shows that everybody says are wonderful, there are all these friends who I have to catch up with.
When I’m on tour with Pink Martini, and I parachute into fill-in-the-blank city, I don’t feel like I have that to-do list. The only thing that I’m there to do is the concert. Anything else that I might squeeze in is extra credit. It’s bonus points. If I take a walk along the river or I pop into a museum or I have a fabulous meal, that feels like extra credit. I try to do that whenever I’m on tour with a couple members of the band. I’ve said, it feels like being on The Amazing Race, except nobody gets sent home.
I really love Provincetown, and I try to get there every summer. All respect and love to my friends in Boston, the only reason I would ever live in Boston is because it’s a 90-minute ferry straight from downtown to the most beautiful place in the world at the tip of Cape Cod.
Rams Head Presents Alan Cumming & Ari Shapiro Och & Oy: A Considered Cabaret, on Sunday, June 25, 7:30 p.m., at Maryland Hall, 801 Chase St., Annapolis, Md. For more information, call 410 268 4545 or visit www.ramsheadonstage.com.
The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening (HarperOne) is available in bookstores and on online book retailers, including www.amazon.com.
Follow Ari Shapiro on Instagram at @arishapiro.
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