Phew! We finally made it through 2020. Looking towards a new tomorrow and a happy new year is something most of us are doing, but none so much as this week’s Portrait, Rocco DeFinis. A singer, actor, songwriter and dancer from Lansdale, DeFinis has credits acting Off Broadway in “My Big Gay Italian Wedding,” and in past years was crowned Mr. Gay Congeniality Philadelphia, and Mr. Gay Philadelphia Runner. DeFinis is starting off the new year with a bang, releasing a new single next week and hoping to teach us some life lessons and remind us what’s really important.
Tell me about 2020. It was trying for most people, but I understand it was especially rough on you.
Yeah, it was definitely a hard year for everyone but for me it was compounded with the loss of my mother. She was diagnosed with lung cancer, so that’s how the year 2020 started for us. Then after Covid shut everything down in March, she quietly passed away on her 64th birthday. Prior to her passing, I moved in with her and my stepfather to aid in helping her. Taking her to chemo and radiation treatments, and helping out at home. So yeah, the year was one of mourning and loss and processing trauma. One upside was that because of Covid I was laid off, so it actually gave me more time to process the loss and to be with family. I also am a caretaker for my sister who has Down’s Syndrome. She lives with my stepfather and me. So there’s been a lot of duality for sure.
How did you cope?
I wrote a lot of songs. I transformed a lot of the pain I was feeling into music. At that time I was writing about 5 songs a week. It’s dwindled down since then but that’s how I got through it.
What was the job you lost as a result of the pandemic?
I was doing restaurant management and was excited about a new job I was starting. I’d spent the time to seek out something I really wanted, negotiated a good salary with benefits, and then boom, Covid hit and I got laid off. I was like, “Really?” but of course, the restaurant industry was hit hard.
Bummer. How many are there in your family?
I’m one of 5 kids, I’m the 2nd youngest. My sister Nicki is the oldest, she has Down’s and she’s the sunshine that lights the family. She gives me energy every day to just exist and be happy. We are so blessed to have her in our lives. Then there’s my brother Robert. He has a bachelor’s in business and he was a police officer and a teacher and a coach and has written a few children’s books during the pandemic. One of them is for kids about washing your hands properly. My sister Sheena is a mom who works full time as a manager at Wawa and is an inspiration. She’s had to work through the pandemic, even through the loss of our mother. It’s like, wow, you’re a powerhouse. Women are so amazing. My youngest sister Jackie works in fashion and she models. I’m so proud of her. Last year we did a photoshoot together. Everyone is local and we’re pretty close.
How do you pronounce your last name?
It’s Dee-fin-iss, rhymes with hiss. I’m an Italian, Irish, German mix, but I think we originally migrated from France and it was probably “la fin” or “the end”
What was little Rocco like?
He was actually little Nicky. Rocco is really my middle name. I’d say my younger self is what I strive to attain as an adult. As kids, we’re very free until we learn that it doesn’t sit well with others. I was a gymnast, I was a dancer, I was a singer. I presented very feminine, like a little Shirley Temple Doll, and never thought anything of it. An early memory is going to Disney World and performing for everyone when we were in long lines. Doing cartwheels and somersaults and people thought I was part of the staff. But that freedom eventually came with backlash because I was not conforming to the standard of what a boy should be. I loved wearing dresses and my mother and grandmother’s high heels until that freedom was suppressed to become more palatable for society, but every day now I try to tap into that young Nicholas and ask myself if I’m being authentic, if I’m being my true self.
Do you remember the first time you were shamed or felt shamed because of being effeminate?
Yes! I definitely, um, [tears up], wow, I wasn’t expecting that to get to me.
Take your time, I’ve been told I have that effect. My friend Noel suggests a lot of my interviews and he always tells people, she’s probably going to make you cry, so be ready!
Whew, okay, so yes, there are instances that come to mind. I’m from Lansdale and on the weekends everyone would go roller skating at Inline309; it’s what we did. I remember getting teased, harshly, for wearing my tight, short gymnastic pants and my friends acting like I’d brought it on myself by choosing to wear them instead of blaming the people doing the teasing. I remember being slapped on the bus a few times and coming home with a handprint on my face and my mother angrily calling the school and everyone she could think of to say, “Don’t you touch my son!” In high school, I was called gay a lot, even though I wasn’t ready or able to accept that. But I was the only male, and the only white person to join the African American Awareness Club and the only one to join the Step Team. And despite the bullying, I ran for class president and won, I was in the homecoming court, and was the president of the Italian club. I used the negativity to push me to achieve goals. It’s funny, we think that stuff is in the past, but on one of my social media platforms I just had someone post something homophobic about me. It hurts to know that stuff still exists.
Something that makes you proud?
Right after high school, one of the biggest things I did was to audition at the historic Apollo Theater in NY. I got far enough to actually perform on stage in front of the audience. At the time I was going through some transitions. I identify as a Christian among other things, but I was doing some searching and was really into gospel music (I still am). So I did an interpretive dance to Mary Mary’s “Shackles: Praise You.” At the time I had long, curly Jesus-like hair and it went over really well.
Wow, and Apollo audiences are notoriously brutal. They have The Sandman and more recently, The Executioner, who will usher you off the stage with a broom or hook if the audience doesn’t like you.
Yes, fortunately it was well received. I brought my whole family and the host kept joking about having the mafia in the front row! We kind of stuck out! I’m not a trained dancer, so to be accepted there was a profound moment in my life. It was an honor and a privilege to be on that stage.
So do you consider yourself more of a dancer or a singer?
[Laughing] I say I’m a Jack of all trades, master of none. I consider myself an actor, a dancer, a singer and an activist, but recently, I’ve been concentrating on my music. Finding a way to express what’s in this crazy head of mine.
What was your first big song about?
“Give ‘em what they want” was a very “Vogue” inspired track. It was about being in my 20’s and going out, drinking and having fun, being fierce and unapologetic about my identity as a queer man. I loved to go to the clubs and start a dance battle, I had so much respect for the people who originated Voguing in the ballroom scene. “Give ‘em what they want” was about showing the world your authentic self.
Yes, we shot the video at Tattooed Moms, and it features Peppermint, who later went on to “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” She was so generous, she used to invite me to perform at events she was hosting in NY, and she came to Philly just to help me with the video. We’ve done a lot of things together since.
And now you have a new single about to drop next week. Tell me a little about it?
It’s called “Escrow” and it’s a little darker and more sultry than what I usually do. Half of it was written 12 years ago after I parted ways with someone who was tormented in many ways. They had achieved financial success but spiritually and emotionally they were lost, and were having a hard time finding happiness. It was a lesson that you could have all of the superficial things in life and still be unfulfilled. After losing my mother and a few friends who died of overdoses, I decided to revisit the song and finish it with some of the things going on today. It touches on addiction, and materialism, mental health and those things I’ve seen people struggling with throughout the pandemic. I hope that the song gets people thinking and finding a way out. I’m big on recognizing and appreciating all the good things we have in our lives. Being aware of the air in our lungs and our heartbeat and showing gratitude for things we take for granted, like family and friends. It was also a way for me to release the darkness of 2020 and get ready to shine in 2021. As we move into the year, look for some brighter, upbeat music as we go along.
I read that you shot it at the Paradise in Asbury Park. That must have been fun.
Yes, I used to live in that area, prior to moving home to help with my mom, so it was nice going back. My videographer Carlo Anthony was the one who helped my vision come to life. The song deals with a lot of tough issues, so I wanted to be in a space that would feel familiar to people. It’s a cavernous building so we were able to utilize the space to show different aspects of the song, the good and the bad, just like many of our experiences in those spaces. For me it was fun because it allowed me to do a lot of outfit changes! I was reveling in the fantasy. I think it’s going to be a piece of art once it’s edited. And as an out gay artist, I also think it’s important to honor our spaces. The Paradise is iconic and now more than ever, we need our spaces to survive.
Was it difficult coming out?
I was blessed with a mother who always knew and was just relieved when I finally came out to her. My siblings and extended family were great too. I was nervous about telling my very Italian father. We came from a very conservative religious background, and I wasn’t sure how it would go. [Laughing] So I waited until he went to my Aunt Marguerite’s house because she was so supportive. I thought it would be a safe space! But when I told him, after asking a few times if I was sure, he just said, “It’s okay, you’re my son and I love you.” One of the reasons I was so nervous was that a year prior, at Thanksgiving, I was doing a vegan fast and he noticed I wasn’t eating much of the food. When I explained why, he responded, “That’s disgusting! Those people are the worst!” So after that I wasn’t sure how it was going to go but it turns about my Italian father was more upset about me not eating meat or cheese than he was about me being gay!
That’s great! Okay, switching gears, what’s the first thing you see when you wake up?
I have a picture of Jesus and some childhood photos on my wall.
I feel fiercest when…
When the music’s blasting and I’m dancing. That’s my superpower, I feel like I could take on the Hulk when I’m in that zone.
My mother was a big dog lover. She suffered from anxiety and taking care of them kept her grounded. At one point we had 13 dogs! Her excuse was that she was going to breed them and we’d make some money, but that never happened, she just loved having them around!
What was the first LGBT movie you saw?
Um, “Latter Days?” That really resonated because of the religious aspect. I came out at 21, and at 22 I was selected to be an Equality Rider, so we traveled around and advocated for gay rights at several Christian Universities. It was monumental for me, coming out and then learning the bible to refute homophobia in the South. Trying to convince people that gay folks weren’t demons.
I’ll have to introduce you to Crystal Cheatham who has a newsletter and app, Our Bible App. It’s pretty cool, even as an atheist, I find a lot of good reads.
I would love that. I’m very fluid with my religion now. I believe in Liberation theology but I also do Buddhist chants, some witchcraft, some manifestation stuff, I’m open to a lot now.
A song — that you didn’t write — that feels like you?
I can think of two, Sia’s “Chandelier,” it describes my 20’s perfectly and Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” which Sia also wrote. They’re songs that inspire and resonate with me.
And speaking of songs that resonate, when and where can people find your new song, “Escrow?”It’s going to drop January 15th on all music platforms. People can go to my website, www.roccodefinis.com/, for more information.