The editor-in-chief of The Advocate has recast the gay magazine as a clarion call to activism. Richard Rouilard is proud, outrageous and . . . : In Your Face

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Rouilard sticks his fingers in his mouth and gives a piercing blast.

' 'Attenzione!"

Hopping onto a stool in the cocktail lounge of Trump's, the editor-in-chief of The Advocate, the nation's largest gay and lesbian publication, addresses the crowd: "As a flaming homo, I'm delighted to be here!"

He is greeted by hoots and claps.

Representing some of the country's leading gay and lesbian organizations, the audience has gathered to see Army veteran Dusty Pruitt and Russian gay activist Roman Kalinin honored as The Advocate's woman and man of the year.

The occasion is serious, but not too serious. After all, Rouilard--party creature and former society editor--is an L.A. host par excellence.

Lifting the pant legs of his formal navy Versace suit, he shows off a pair of black motorcycle boots and giggles, "These are the real part." He raves delightedly about how everybody from the David Hockney affair in the main dining room is emptying into his cozier, kinkier gathering, having discovered that Madonna wasn't showing up for the artist's soiree after all.

"All the closet press is here," Rouilard says impishly.

Since he took the reins of The Advocate in June, 1990, Rouilard has been promoting the biweekly with the sort of celebrity panache few journalists can muster. At 24, the country's oldest homosexual publication of note was badly in need of pep pills. A sluggish pulp-paper magazine, it featured such lifestyle articles as how to tell your parents you've been diagnosed HIV-positive and a salacious array of pretty boys advertising their anatomical wares.

"Middle-aged leather daddies with handlebar mustaches," one young new reader cattily says of the magazine's former fans.

Rouilard, never shy, says he has changed all that "vastly." His mission has been to make The Advocate credible to a broad spectrum of the gay community, while appealing to the new activists. To this end, he has given the magazine a news orientation, attracted younger readers as well as gay women and minorities and run spicy personality interviews that have garnered kudos from mainstream journalists.

Bounding around his West Hollywood office one morning, he is indeed the picture of a dynamic, driven editor--but with a difference.

The room, done in slick, executive granite grays, is appointed with dainty tasseled chandeliers that dangle from an old track lighting system. ("So unflattering," Rouilard sniffs.) Sitting atop a cabinet, a trio of busts of the classical "Apollo Belvedere," representing male beauty, sport garish punk-green and red hair. And slipped beneath the glass top of the room's conference table is a snapshot of the magazine's editorial staff posing in drag at the office Halloween party.

At a time when more gays and lesbians are making their sexual orientations known, the 40-year-old editor-in-chief is promoting his own as a cause celebre .

"I'm not just a homosexual, I'm a publici-sexual," he declares.

Niles Merton, The Advocate's publisher, who hired him, affirms, "How much more out of the closet can you be than Richard?"

Friends describe Rouilard as flamboyant, funny, inveterately au courant and "a schmoozer extraordinaire." An interior-decorating maven--"Richard lives to design," says Jerry Lazar, the West Coast bureau chief of US magazine--he is a fashion addict whose wardrobe ranges from Gap T-shirts to Hermes ties and Italian suits. But more than anything, friends agree, he loves to be outrageous.

"Richard has a charming, manic, larger-than-life temperament," says Kit Rachlis, editor of L.A. Weekly. It is this combination of personality and journalistic savvy, observers say, that is putting The Advocate on the map.

They note that Rouilard has made the magazine a lightning rod for tough, controversial issues, like outing and the banning of homosexuals from military service, bringing these topics to the attention of the mainstream press.

In the gay community, most leaders welcome the changes with enthusiasm, finding them long overdue, although some militants believe the focus is still not radical enough.

Mainstream editors and journalists have praised Rouilard's results. If The Advocate is not yet among the nation's big slick magazines (it is scheduled to go to glossy paper next fall), it is at least edging into the picture.

On this morning, Rouilard is exultant over his latest journalistic coup.

"Look at this response," he exclaims, waving at a clutch of newspaper clips on the table. The Washington Post, USA Today and Associated Press, among others, are following up on The Advocate's interview with the incoming president of the National Organization for Women, Patricia Ireland.

In a lengthy article, Ireland told The Advocate that for four years she has had a woman lover. Rouilard is delighted with Ireland's message, he says, congratulating her for saying, "This doesn't matter, this is not really who I am. Let's get on to the next thing."

This is the kind of new gay dignity he wants The Advocate to foster.

Where indignities against gays exist, he has taken them on in major articles, dealing with police brutality, the high rate of teen-age homosexual suicide and what he terms "homophobia" in Hollywood. He has editorially tweaked the nose of Earvin (Magic) Johnson for speaking for heterosexuals who are HIV-positive and not giving attention to the gay community, and he jokingly threatens to declare Gov. Pete Wilson "an honorary homosexual" for galvanizing the state's gay and lesbian community with his veto of legislation that would have banned discrimination against homosexuals.

His principal goal for the magazine is to establish role models for homosexuals and especially for young people. In five years, he says, "we'll be producing much healthier gay and lesbian children."

Rouilard is "a visionary," says Doug Sadownick, who covers gay issues for the L.A. Weekly. "He's being fearless in reflecting radical, in-your-face sensibilities."

At the same time, the Weekly's Rachlis notes, Rouilard is dissipating what many journalists see as a longstanding skepticism by heterosexual reporters toward the gay and lesbian press.

"Richard has overcome that skepticism by greatly improving the reporting and insisting that what they're writing about is of importance to everyone," Rachlis says.

Featured as a trendsetter in Time magazine's special November issue on California, Rouilard courts national notice. He has mailed advance copies of The Advocate to journalists across the country and hired a New York public relations representative.

The results are a jump in circulation from around 60,000 when he arrived to a high of 150,000; Advertising in the magazine, whose newsstand price is up from $2.95 to $3.50 this year, has vaulted as much as 28% in the last year despite the dismal economy.

Such interest, says Rouilard, comes from the new openness within the gay and lesbian community.

"It's a seminal moment in our history," he says, comparing the gay and lesbian civil rights movement to black activism of the 1960s. "It's more militant, more angry. I see people on the streets I never expected to see--stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors in three-piece suits. I see gay Republicans demonstrating--yelling, screaming at the governor."

It is a far cry from the way Rouilard remembers his own childhood as "little Dicky Salz," a painful subject that renders him suddenly reticent.

According to court records, he says, his mother was a French flight attendant who abandoned him as an infant, leaving him to be raised by an adoptive family in the small industrial town of Linden, N.J.

The family viewed his latent homosexuality with hostility, and at 13 and again at 14, he attempted suicide, downing a mixture of pills from the bathroom medicine cabinet.

He was an effeminate child, he says, quipping, "I thought the way Joan Crawford walked was the way all men walked." More seriously, he adds, "I didn't know what was going on. I knew I was this horrible thing."

After one visit to a psychiatrist and a trip with his father to a baseball game, his homosexuality was not further discussed. Years later, when he confronted his parents with his sexual orientation while a student at New Jersey's Upsala College, they spurned him, he says.

He took back his birth mother's last name, although he's never attempted to find her, and graduated from law school at South Texas College. With money he inherited after his father's death, he founded the legal defense organization National Gay Rights Advocates, running it for three years in San Francisco and keeping a hand in it through the '80s. The group folded a year ago.

He also began six years of psychotherapy to learn to accept his homosexuality.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1981, he started a career in journalism, writing a society column for a Broadway department store "advertorial" under the pseudonym Bunny Mars and working as an editor at L.A. Style. Later, he was society and Style section editor for 3 1/2 years at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

"I never thought I'd feel this way about myself or about the gay community," he says of his activism and his job. Still, in his own eyes, Rouilard is a "queer wanna-be." "I'm too old to be a real queer," he says of the new aggressive consciousness.

It is this audience, those moving toward militancy, that he wants to address in The Advocate. In magazine interviews, including a major piece on Madonna, the focus is unswervingly on the subject's sexual orientation ("a measure of their credibility").

"We go out for them intentionally," Rouilard declares.

The Advocate's "outing" last August of a high-ranking Pentagon official has stirred controversy even within the homosexual community. Richard Jennings, a friend of the man and co-head of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a media-watch organization, attacks The Advocate for exposing a government official "whose private life was not something open to the public."

At the militant end of the spectrum, Drew Beaver, an activist in the direct-action group Queer Nation, accuses the magazine of middle-of-the road ambivalence.

"They put their finger to the wind," says Beaver. "They gauge the community. They don't lead it."

"Outing is a very nasty business," Rouilard allows. "But homophobic homosexuals are a nastier business. I don't think homosexuality is a privacy issue."

In his own private life, Rouilard has lived for 16 years with Robert Cohen, 39, a senior attorney for Paramount Pictures, and wears a gold wedding band.

Their West Hollywood apartment--once home to Carole Lombard and William Powell, Rouilard quickly informs a visitor--is the fifth the pair has owned, with Rouilard redecorating each one.

"He resells them only after Architectural Digest has done a spread on them," jokes US' Lazar.

The place is a swirl of silk damask and crystal chandeliers, mixed with framed dime-store handkerchiefs and wallpaper hand-painted with skulls and crossbones ("decorating in the age of AIDS").

A pair of bulldogs, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, are beginning to root around the designer-label Christmas packages, and Rouilard and Cohen are preparing to go to a premiere at the Directors Guild. Normally they spend weekends at their home in Idyllwild and make monthly trips to their apartment in New York--both "decorator-perfect," notes Rouilard.

Still, "little Dicky Salz" is present in Rouilard's life. At the office, the Apollo busts--takeoffs on a statue that once sat on his family's mantel--remind him of "the horrible things they did to me," he says. "You can change your name and become someone else, but I never forget that I'm just little Dicky, flaming at last."

Then Rouilard gives a whoop of gay pride: "Maybe I can't beat you up--because I can't beat up the 10 people who are coming at me--but I can criticize your shoes."

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