Welcome to the Jungle
A bohemian former model and current It Boy on the local gay-club circuit, Ben Fowler has spent half his life abroad and has a Euro suaveness that renders him a teensy bit out of his element in Denver. He's one of those creative types who bubble up in the cultural froth of pokey mid-sized towns as they approach official metropolitan status. And though he is known in the urban art squad for his dreadlocks, his refined speech and his lofty aspirations, it is through his program on a local cable-access channel that he has found a small but attentive audience.
After undergoing a name change, from Tiara Time to Jungle Red TV -- and always subtitled A Boy's Guide to Glamourology -- the free-form video-based program purposely flies beneath professional-grade standards of sound, lighting and technical cohesion, even by cable-access standards. Fowler's show, which airs at 11 p.m. Tuesdays on Channel 57, is like a reality-TV-type variety show produced by Gregg Araki or Andy Warhol. Its actual producer is no less colorful than either of those artists.
Born in Boulder and now 34 ("You know, in the gay world, that's like 78," he jokes), Fowler is black, openly weird and openly queer in an increasingly homogeneous same-sex scene. "[There's] a lot of age discrimination. Either you're too young or too old, or you're mature or immature for your age. That's one thing I don't like about the gay community. And it's one of the reasons I started the show."
Fowler started brainstorming his program after spotting an advertisement at the Denver Public Library in 1997. "I saw this placard for DCTV [Denver Community Television]. It said 'Be Your Own Video Producer' and 'Have Your Own TV Show.' It was free; it was volunteer. And I just said, 'Oh, I can do that.'"
DCTV -- divided between Channels 57 and 58 -- holds year-round classes on every aspect of video production. The free buffet-style access to equipment, cameras and airtime seemed like a perfect venue for Fowler, who had experience in staging and television production, as well as a flair for drama-queen-style spectacle. During his DCTV training, Fowler met Bob White, a retired lawyer who signed on as editor for Tiara Time, the loosey-goosey, still-baking concept Fowler hatched in the Community Television studios.
When the half-hour, multi-segment show debuted in the spring of 1997, it quickly became one of DCTV's most popular programs, either because of or in spite of its motto: A lo-fi on-screen graphic described it as "A show for Afro-Jewish-American-Gay-Socialists and their friends." Nielsen-like data isn't available for local access shows, but Fowler says that Tiara Time amassed an audience of curious gay men and women in Denver who learned about the show through word of mouth, as well as folks who stopped surfing when they discovered the strange program in progress. Compared with much of the homegrown material jamming the community airwaves during most hours -- from televised local government meetings to elaborate jazzercise productions -- Fowler's program made for femme-centric, often funny viewing. And while entertainment remains Fowler's primary goal for the show, he is also motivated by a desire to create alternatives to the standard, must-see mainstream TV.
"I was sick and tired of being sick and tired about the lack of gays in the media," Fowler says, "so I pulled up my sock straps and got on with it. The show reminds people that gays come in many colors, sizes, faiths and styles. Just like oranges are not the only fruit, Will & Grace is not the only TV show for the gay community."
During its five-year run, Tiara Time/Jungle Red TV has used heave-inducing camera angles, horrendous sound design and a skeletal lighting scheme to catalogue local gay culture. It plays like a blurry queer documentary without a planned ending. The show has captured drag queens (Christina Lee Austin, Chocolate Thunderpussy), gay bars (the Compound, Tracks 2000) and special events (Pridefest 2001, Coronation XXVIII) in the trap of its lens. Narrator Fowler even pops up on screen with Pippi Longstocking dreads and tipsy commentary, chasing local starlets into bathrooms for in-depth interviews or roaming the carpeted esplanade of an Opera Colorado celebration. Under his direction, straight narrative is almost nonexistent: Who needs a plot line when you can somberly walk an out-of-focus camera down South Broadway at night with the soundtrack for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (rights unsecured, most likely) filling the audio track?
It's all so damn...European, a result of Fowler's long history of traipsing around the continent across the water. As a kindergartner in Boulder who spoke German as his first language, Fowler began a love affair with all things French while his classmates were finger-painting purple elephants.
"I moved to Paris, France, in 1980," Fowler says. "I was a student there in a little high school and then the American College. Later I went to the Sorbonne, but I prefer to call that the Université de Paris, because calling it the Sorbonne is a bit too la-de-da. I studied French history and culture. My favorite period was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The hundred years in between 1750 and 1850 were a roller coaster of revolution and change, liberty and brotherhood -- everything that I admire."
Fowler's transcontinental resumé displays a refreshingly active stance on political and social issues. In France, he was a co-founder of Black Gay Nights, a cultural/entertainment homage to Josephine Baker and James Baldwin, two African-American artists who enjoyed the ex-patriot experience in Europe. Baldwin, author of Go Tell It on the Mountain and the gay-themed Giovanni's Room, resided in Paris until his death in 1987. As a member of Democrats Abroad, Fowler assisted travelers with absentee ballots and visas at overseas embassies while in school.
Fowler stayed in Paris after graduating and found work as a fashionista and model. "I don't make faces anymore," he says. "I modeled because I didn't have anything to say and the money was good. Now I have something to say."
After seven years in France, Fowler followed a former roommate and gallery owner, Theo DiRicco, to Germany, where he traded the academic pretty-boy life for a sleek new image as an art aficionado. Soon after, he fell into a relationship with the CEO of a casting company in Berlin. Jobs with Babelsberg Studios, the production house that brought Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang and Fassbinder to the world, followed. "I worked on a lot of productions at Babelsberg," Fowler says. "Film and television seem to take forever; every day, it was like 'Hurry up and wait!'"
While his Berlin life lacked the pizzazz of his Parisian careers, Fowler began to develop skills that would serve him on his return to the U.S. "I realized when I was there that I had a talent for writing and storytelling," he says. "I started writing little plays and getting a few produced."
He also got his foot in the door of a new musical revolution that is still in formation a decade later.
"Right when I got there, this thing called techno was blowing up all over," Fowler says. "I was there at the ground level, with all these new DJs and all these new sounds."
Diving into the then emerging techno scene in Berlin -- one of the first incubators of the industrial-disco genre -- Fowler accepted jobs as a paid club dancer, provided security for pop act Westbam and attended the first seven years of the Love Parade, still one of the world's biggest electronica fests.
But the glamour and elasticity of European culture began to wear thin during the course of Fowler's second decade overseas, and he started thinking about his homeland. "The Clintons were in power, and it seemed like things were improving over here," he says. "And from the outside looking in, Europe made me more American and more black."
In 1997, after seventeen years abroad, he decided to move back to the United States, settling in Denver, a city he had known as a child. He waited about two minutes to launch himself on an unsuspecting public with Tiara Time. Before long, the show began to win a small following of new fans who were drawn to Fowler's curious sensibility and aesthetic. With hundreds of episodes now behind him, Fowler is pretty sure he's stumbled on the key to generating a bit of underground fame.
"It's about getting a handheld camera, taking it to the streets, taking it to the sidewalks, taking it to the clubs," says Fowler. "What fascinates so many people is the glamour. It's not so much creativity as it is science, like cooking or math. Put in this ingredient, add these numbers, square it off and -- boom -- you've got glamour equals entertainment."