A Middle Eastern gay guy with half-Muslim and half-Jewish roots – that’s Reza Farahan in Shahs of Sunset. This reality series by producer Ryan Seacrest looks like his next big cash cow after Keeping up with the Kardashians. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with Farahan to find out more about the camera zooming in on him and his well-heeled Persian friends in their Los Angeles playground.
COLOURFUL characters, tons of soap opera-esque drama and shocking twists – these are some of the building blocks of a great reality series. And sometimes the trashier the show or the more famous the characters à la Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Jersey Shore, The Only Way is Essex, The Valleys and Made in Chelsea, the higher the ratings.
And you just know a series has the right entertainment quotient when Ryan Seacrest attaches his name to it.
Reza Farahan, one of the six principal characters in Lifetime’s Shahs of Sunset, explains the germination of this show.
“There was a friend of mine who was dating a guy who had never been around any Persians before, and he started hanging around my circle of friends. He worked for Ryan Seacrest Productions and thought it would be a great idea to feature a group of Persians on television because they’d never been featured before. They asked me if I would participate in the programme. It wasn’t something I was seeking (out).”
Farahan is cast alongside Golnesa “GG” Gharachedaghi, an unemployed entrepreneur (at the start of the show) who is a bit on the wild side with her eight tattoos, fiery personality and nightly parties; Soltan Rahmati, who is a self-proclaimed Persian pop priestess and entrepreneur renowned in Venetian artistic circles; Mike Shohed, a commercial real estate agent; and, curvaceous Mercedes “MJ” Javid, also a real estate agent. She has a very fractured relationship with her mother.
Now Farahan’s background certainly piques curiosity. Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1973, he was raised in Beverly Hills. And by 21, he had embraced his homosexuality.
He recalls: “When we first got to America, we were fleeing Iran because of the Islamic revolution. We got here and… I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Argo with Ben Affleck? The movie was basically our lives and what we were escaping. Imagine, we’re leaving Iran to come to America while crazy fundamentalists are storming the US embassy in Iran.
“It was not easy living here during that time. We were just starting to get over the hostage crisis and then 9/11 happened. It’s like, ‘Good God. Can’t we get a break? Can the Middle Easterners calm down and let the good ones enjoy living in America for a little while?’”
That’s the thing about this affluent estate agent – he isn’t afraid to speak his mind or defy cultural norms.
He shares: “Honestly, my mom and immediate family, they weren’t thrilled (about me doing this series) because in our culture we are definitely very private. They weren’t thrilled that I was going to be bringing a microscope into our family, talking about our ‘dirty laundry’ and other issues – and all the wonderful things as well. I said to my mom: ‘I am so blessed. You guys love me, my friends love me. I’m really successful and I want to show other gay youths that are Middle Eastern that, you know what, suicide isn’t your option. You can grow up and live an amazing life. Once I made that argument, it was really hard for them to say ‘no’. Everyone at that point got on board.”
Expanding on his personal journey of coming out of the closet, he says: “Chemically, astrologically, emotionally – however my makeup was put together – it was something I knew I wasn’t able to keep in, regardless of how much I wanted to stay in the closet. I knew that I couldn’t lead a double life – it was not an option.
“As difficult as it was to come out – and it was very difficult – I did so when I was 18 or 19 years old. I came out in stages: first to friends, then people whom I went to school with. And then I started coming out to the family. By 21, I was completely out of the closet.”
How is he enjoying his TV stardom? “I am loving every minute of it. There are a lot of young gay men and women, Middle Easterners specifically, who have reached out to me as a result of the show. They told me what inspiration, strength and wisdom I have given them. That is something I will cherish my entire life,” he admits.
The one thing he was adamant about is the authenticity of his depiction in the series.
He notes: “I wish I could tell you that the majority of it was scripted because I’m not always able to control my emotions, whether it’s doing the ugly cry or speaking my mind. There are a lot of things I have done on the programme that are very difficult to do in a public forum.
“It’s not easy to talk to your father about the deepest pain in your heart, but I did it on the show. And I don’t have any regrets.
“For me, none of it was scripted or staged. I couldn’t live with myself being on the show and pushing an agenda like homophobia and reading from a script.
“For me, it was imperative that from the beginning I lived my life on camera as I do off camera – sharing the real Reza.”
On the issues he faced, torn between two faiths, he offers: “I am probably in almost every minority group. I’m half Muslim. I’m half Jewish. I’m gay. I’m Middle Eastern. So, yes, it causes a lot of problems in my life, whether it’s regarding religion or anything else. I think that thick skin I have developed is as a result of these factors.”
As for who brings most of the drama, Farahan laughs: “The funny thing is, if you ask any of the other cast members, they might say I’m the drama queen. But I have to say my girls GG and MJ do tend to have a nice bag full of drama with them wherever they go.”
Although the series is in its fourth run in the US, South Africa is only being introduced to it now.
“Season one was so amazing,” he points out. “It is really a snapshot of our lives at that time. For me, season one tackled one of my biggest, deepest, darkest pains. I don’t want to give anything away, but it was such a powerful journey for me.
“Also, we party, laugh, cry and act crazy. It was probably one of the funniest summer holidays of my life.”
Just to whet appetites, the next episode features a peeved off Farahan, who confronts GG about her behaviour at his birthday weekend in Sin City.
Shahs of Sunset airs on Lifetime (DStv Channel 131) on Monday at 8.45pm.