Kellan King: Hello everybody, I’m Kellan King, I’m here with Tommy. Tommy, do you want to introduce yourself?
Tommy Smythe: Hello everyone, I am Tommy Smythe, I am an interior designer and also a lifestyle media host and guest expert on shows like the Marilyn Denis Show. I’ve also done television work on HGTV in the US and Canada, and I have an international interior design practice called TOM Interior Design where with my two partners, Kate Stuart and Lindsay Mens, hopefully, if we’re doing our job right, we create beautiful homes for people all over North America and abroad.
Kellan: And so Tommy and I this morning are going to be having a conversation about mental health and a little bit about Tommy’s own experiences with mental health and other struggles, and so Tommy lets just start off by talking a little bit about what your childhood in Toronto was like?
Tommy: You know, my childhood in Toronto is one you could, you know you couldn’t talk about it without talking about privilege. I had an upper middle class upbringing, in a very predominantly white world in wealthy neighborhoods, and you know much of that was siloed in that it wasn’t incredibly culturally diverse, but it was also safe, and most of the time I felt safe and loved, which was an early childhood, a very idyllic childhood, and as you get older many aspects of that idyllic early childhood development changed or shifted in ways that came a little different for me growing up.
Kellan: During your teenage years, how were you perceived, like what image were you trying to project to everybody else?
Tommy: In my teens, you know for a queer kid who is trying to go through thr struggles of not only who you are internally but also identifying and observing who you would be if those internalities were made outward rather then inward, and so at the time when I was in my teens it was the 1980s. Measuring my life path is really easy because I was born in 1970, and so from 1-10 was the 1970s and from 10-20 was the 80s, and 20-30 was the 90s, and so from decade to decade as I went from childhood to teens and then early adulthood, its interesting that its measured in almost perfect decades. To be a teenager in the 80s, in particular to be a queer teenager was incredibly complex emotionally, and politically, and medically even. I had gone through leaving Upper Canada College, which was a predominantly white, educationally environment, there was one black student in our school. Lets be honest, I got kicked out for some pretty bad behavior, and I went to a public school in the inner city. Now that was a spectacularly life altering shift for me, because the world that I experienced at that school was so different than where I had been, in all the unwelcoming and very welcoming ways. My friend group became more diverse, and the life experiences of people around me changed. I was able to see a side of life that hadn’t really been shown to me before that. That was a huge blossoming for me as a human being, and simultaneous to me that opening up of the world which was really a great thing for me there was also the looming cloud of AIDS. Just at the time that I was trying to negotiate to myself how authentic can I be in the world, the world changed on gay culture in an incredibly negative way. Beatings of gay people were on the rise, fear and loathing of gay culture became a huge conversation, disease made being gay and queer incredibly dangerous at the time, remember this was before innovative drugs were around, so getting AIDS was a death sentence. I’ve often said its very important to talk about the context of being queer in the context of sex, because sexuality isn’t sex. But for some people, its hard for people because they think you’re talking about sex, but its about mental health and identity, about what you are deep inside. So, you know, to people exploring, sometimes its easy, when you’re trying to explore identity within yourself, and you add a tumultuous political and cultural climate, it was tough. I would say for me it was probably the toughest decade for me mental health wise. I think the 80s was probably the toughest for me, that it coincided with my teenage years when it coincided with me coming to terms with my identity, it was pretty tough.
Kellan: You talked a little about that climate that made it hard to be queer and be yourself, were there any other struggles or insecurities that you didn’t really want anybody else to know about?
Tommy: Yeah, of course. Hiding your true, authentic self in order to blend in so the focus wouldn’t be on you because all the focus on queer people at the time was negative, it was only within the queer community that there was help available, and I wasn’t in that community at the time. Pretending to be somebody different was an interesting exploration in survival, the difficult navigating of bad habits. You learn to lie a lot, and you get really good at lying, and the lies become so complex in order to hide your true identity that you spend so much time managing your lies that a lot of other things you should be enjoying are kind of pushed aside. So with hindsight and not a small amount of professional therapy, which I think everybody should explore when they need it, I realized that I had to unlearn a lot of those bad behaviors when I was able to become a public version of my true self, to my friends and family, and then publicly as a public figure, and you know it was all worth doing, it was all worth living. Those struggles were important in my development, they made me a much more empathetic person. When I see someone struggling, I don’t rush them, I know that everybody deals with them in their own time, because that was my experience, and addresses and asks for help when they’re ready, and that’s something I learned.
Kellan: And if you’re comfortable, are there any stories of times when you struggled with mental health or self esteem as a teenager?
Tommy: Yeah, for sure. I think lots of the same things that young adults experience, I didn’t like my body, I didn’t like the way that I looked, critical in terms of how I looked and sounded. I spent an enormous amount of time on how I presented outwardly, I always had to have cool clothes, and a great haircut, and really great sunglasses, all the stupid stuff that when you’re going through a period where you’re trying to balance things you don’t like about yourself with things that you can control, fashion and clothing and style became a really important thing for me, they were almost self medicating for things inside I didn’t like about myself. Later in life, those things became, because I honed my knowledge of those things, they became the foundation for what has been a fruitful and joyful career, because it all started with that focus on how can I make myself beautiful with my garb and clothing that no one would notice that I’m a gay kid, its almost like a sort of drag. That armor became incredibly important to me, that fashion armor. I feel like I can say now that I was a pretty cool kid when I was in my teens, I had really cool clothes. I mixed vintage stuff with new stuff, I was into emerging designers, I read all the magazines, GQ, Vogue, Esquire, all the mens and womens ones. Hopefully though the dancing dog and pony show on the outside, no one would see what was going on inside.
Kellan: If you could tell teenage Tommy Smythe one thing or a couple pieces of advice, what would you tell him?
Tommy: I would tell myself not to worry as much as I did then. I think Dan Savage and Terry Miller did this thing called the It Gets Better campaign. There was an uptick in queer teen suicides, and it became this national conversation. Terry and Dan went to succesful queer people, and not just in conventional ways. They went to people who had written great plays, and people who were successful in business, people who were successful. They asked them to create content that would illustrate that it gets better, that life gets better, that the things that feel insurmountable, like there’s no time, that there is time. And that later in life, things do get better because you find a community, a vocation, a great love, or all of those things come together, and all those things you think you can’t deal with as a teenager, you can deal. As a teenager, I was very desperately worried about would I ever have a “normal” life, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that a normal life wasn’t even close to what I wanted, I wanted a totally extraordinary life. But when you feel weird, here I was this queer kid and I thought that all I needed was to find a wife, have some kids, have a dog, that was never in the cards for me, but the wild things you tell yourself when you’re alone, are bizarre. I can’t imagine having that life, I know plenty of people who have that life and are very happy, but that was never gonna be my path.
Kellan: You’ve touched on this a little, but how did you get through your struggles, like what were the outlets or people or communities you turned to?
Tommy: I had a group of friends that was really diverse, from all kinds of socioeconomic, cultural, racial backgrounds, and finding those people and those stories and those communities, I think that I identified for the first time in my life, the thing that I learned was that everybody struggles internally, no matter who you are or where you come from, and certainly if you have privilege, then you may have a slightly easier time of things, but that doesn’t mean that internally you aren’t struggling. I think finding commonality between all these diverse people that I found throughout my life was the thing that stitched it all together for me. The thing that I hope I tried to incorporate to make myself a better communicator, because when you work in media, I’ve worked in all different kinds of media all across the world, communication is the meaning of life. The ability to communicate with other humans beings on a level that is common and isn’t me trying to say I’m better than you, finding equality was the secret to the joy that I derive from what I do.
Kellan: What advice would you have for young people who may be having the same struggles you had as a teen?
Tommy: I think the best advice is to really feel all of the things that you feel, but never let them control your rational self. I think where a lot of people lose their way is in diving into deep feelings about something that is negative. Its very hard when you go too deep down that road to get back from it. Being able to feel all the emotions is super important, you can’t suppress them, you have to find outlets for those emotions, but allowing them to get far into the drama zone, where you’re thinking about harming other people, not just in big dramatic ways but in little ways, the way you communicate with people and receive other peoples comments. You have to find a balance, and as soon as you become unbalanced you need to ask for help. Its so hard for some people, we’re taught to be independent and self sufficient, especially in North American culture, the focus on individuality, and community is getting lost. Finding community saved my life, it started with my friend group and then grew into the queer community, that I found in my late teens and early 20s, who literally saved my life. I found support, and commonality, and equality, which we all crave in our hearts, but can be very difficult to access. The big thing is to try to overcome your circumstances to find that community, because we all need help, there’s nobody who doesn’t need help.
Kellan: That’s all the questions I have Tommy, is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
Tommy: I don’t think so, except I’d really like to say to you Kellan that this is an awesome project, I think that having these conversations with people, not only could it help other people but it could help the people you’re talking to. It was really interesting for me reflecting when I got the questions you sent me a couple days ago, and to access that person that I was in those teenage years, so I wanted to thank you for that, I think its a really worthwhile pursuit.
Kellan: Yeah and thank you so much for having this conversation this morning and opening up, it could really help a lot of people. Thank you so much