CONRAD GATES MAY JUST BE THE MOST PREDATORY, UNDISCRIMINATING POLYSEXUAL FOOTBALL PLAYER EVER. TOO BAD HE'S FICTIONAL. LUCKY FOR US, BEN PRICE-WHO PLAYS HIM-IS NOT.
You could never accuse Footballers Wive$-neither the high-camp, deliciously soapy, utterly ludicrous show nor the venal, vengeful, manipulative, and mercenary soccer spouses it features-of shying away from controversy. Already, the players' lounge and changing rooms at Earls Park Football Club have played host to a topless model, a necrophile nurse, a hermaphrodite baby, and bed-hopping of a truly Olympic standard. There's been sex on a pool table, on a private jet, in a swimming pool, even in the occasional bed. There's been death by eating disorder, murder by champagne bottle, and-naturally-assassination by copious, Viagra-aided copulation. This is not, you will agree, the sort of thing you see on Lost. Or even Prison Break, more's the pity.
Having run for five seasons in the United Kingdom and now captivating audiences on BBC America (if you count slack-jawed and thrilled disbelief as captivation), Footballers Wive$ is shameless and sensational, unafraid of exploding taboos and challenging mores. It also pushes the conventions of the soap genre to such a degree-even in its most decadent days, Dynasty never got this deranged-it's tricky deciding whether it's a giddy celebration or a scathing critique.
Earls Park's hottest commodity is Conrad Gates, who-in addition to bedding Tanya Turner, a harpy in Versace, and his own wife, Hollywood star Amber-turns his attentions to a fellow player, the closeted Noah Alexander. As their relationship develops, albeit covertly, Conrad coaxes Noah out of the closet and becomes a mouthpiece for the antihomophobia sentiments of Footballers Wive$' head writers and producers (none of whom, you may not be surprised to learn, are straight).
Ben Price, who plays Conrad and whose first appearance on the show had him walking naked across a Thai hotel lobby, says he was determined that Conrad be proud of who he is. "I didn't want him to be apologetic, closeted, or ashamed of who he was," Price says. "Conrad is very confident about himself and his sexuality. He fancies men, he fancies women: I don't think he sees himself as gay or bisexual. He's just sexual, like a lot of people are."
Indeed, when he's not romping with Tanya or Noah, Conrad is with wife Amber, and they clearly enjoy reversing the traditional heterosexual roles in the bedroom-with the aid of an eye-wateringly substantial strap-on, which Amber brandishes for future use on her husband. Price says Conrad "doesn't have boundaries or embarrassments. He just loves being who he is. There's an exuberance and joy about him, and that's what I loved playing."
Of course, as well as providing the audience with some dildo-related humor-the likes of which there simply isn't enough on network television these days-discussion of Conrad's polysexual nature also has a more serious side.
Real-life football (soccer) in the United Kingdom is still blighted by homophobia, so Footballers Wive$' daring should not be underestimated. On the stands and in the locker room, bigotry is rife, and there's a near-institutional denial that gay football players exist at all. Although seemingly contradictory, given the displays of affection and communal bathing intrinsic to the game, the rampant homophobia underlines the determination of fans and players not to have their behavior mistaken as gay. Still, that hasn't stopped some commentators [see "Sporno," page 44] from ascribing footballers' penchant for raping or "roasting" young women in hotel rooms along with their teammates to repressed homosexual desire.
The first, last, and only openly gay soccer player in Britain was Justin Fashanu. …