With his iconic role as Damien in Mean Girls, his groundbreaking work as Eddie Bear on HBO’s Looking, and his viral Shit Italian Moms Say videos, everyone knows (and loves) Daniel Franzese.
However, what you may not know about the affable performer, model, and activist is that he’s deeply devoted to his faith. In their new podcast, Yass, Jesus!, Franzese and his co-host Azariah Southworth are on a mission to create a safe space for people to examine Christianity through a queer, sex-positive lens. Alongside celebrity guests and spiritual leaders, the irreverently reverent duo serve up a charismatic blend of comedy and genuine theological exploration that’s as refreshing as it is hilarious.
During our conversation, Franzese spoke with candor and passion about his spiritual journey, his experience in conversion therapy, body image, and what Lindsay Lohan taught him about being a supermodel.
Yas, Jesus! is an exploration of Christianity through a queer lens. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey through Christianity and what brought you to create the podcast?
Of course! I grew up in a Christian household – My parents converted from Catholicism to Born Again Christianity right before I was born, so that was a big deal in my Italian family culturally. They just felt something different, and they named me Daniel because Daniel means “God is my judge.” So ever since I was a kid I was told, “God is your only judge and no one can judge me no matter what.” I don’t even have a middle name – I think the middle finger is my middle name. [Laughs] So I’ve always grown up close to God and knowing no one else can judge me.
What was it like confronting your sexuality in the church when you were young?
During adolescence it was a huge struggle for me. I live my life as an extreme optimist. I’m always a glass-half full person. I’m a problem solver, but this is something I couldn’t solve for myself. I tried to be analytical about it as much as I could, and it led me to coming up with this plan that I would get Viagra somehow and then still be able to straight.
But the plan was foiled when I confessed what I was going through to my grandmother and she got my pastor involved. I ended up going into conversion therapy.
What was your experience in conversion therapy?
I had James Dean-level angst. I was borderline suicidal. What do I do in that situation? Because my urge to be gay was as strong as my urge to love Christ. It was like two magnets repelling. I actually put myself into conversion therapy. I had to struggle there. My conversion therapy was much more psychological. My co-host Azariah’s conversion therapy was much more physical – they were trying to exorcise him after church for hours in his teen years. It’s like…how do we stop this?
That journey held me back for a really long time, and kind of dictated a lot of the wrong paths I went on in my life. I realized within conversion therapy that God was going to love me no matter what. And that’s when I started on my journey of day one – that I probably would have started at 12 years old, but I started at 21 – figuring out what sexuality was. Everything from what I was masturbating to, to who I had crushes on. I was finally being honest about myself.
How did you decide to share your religious experience with the world?
I got to a place of total comfort and total authenticity. At that point, I was like, “I promise you God, that at some point I will share this message with other people going through this.” Because no one shared this with me.
Then PULSE happened, the shooting in Orlando, and I grew up in Florida, so it felt so personal to me. I looked online to find a prayer for LGBTQ people, and I couldn’t find one. And I thought, for all these people who are against us, who’s praying for us? That’s when I decided I wanted to do Yass, Jesus! but I didn’t know how or what it was going to be.
Then a couple years later I met Azariah. We became really close, we’re like best friends. He and I would just smoke weed and talk about God, and I said, “Man, we should record this. This should be something.” So I called Audity, and we pitched it. They loved the idea so we ran with it!
I love Yass, Jesus! because it’s hilarious, but also incredibly sincere and thoughtful. I think it strikes a really nice balance between comedy and theology.
Thank you! I was always craving a church where people can just be real. Be like, “I suck dick and I love the Lord.” What’s the big friggin’ deal? I don’t want to be something Monday through Saturday and then put on a suit and pretend I’m something different on Sunday. I want to face God as I am. God already knows my sins and I really believe Jesus would be at the front of the Pride parade holding the flag! Instead we’re met with the Westboro Baptist Church, and I think it really sends the wrong message to young people.
The podcast covers a lot of personal stories, but you also give a lot of fascinating information about the bible and Christianity. Did you do a lot of research before starting the project?
We didn’t start recording until January, but we had a deal to do the podcast since the summer. So all Fall and Winter I was studying again. I haven’t picked up a bible in years. As close as I’ve been to God, I’ll straight up admit I never picked up a bible. But as I started to discover some of these things, I couldn’t believe there were queer stories in the bible! That David and Jonathan was this gay story. That Naomi and Ruth is a great example for lesbians – it’s an awesome place for two women who are in love to look to.
We can argue as scholars or students or laymen reading that those aren’t queer stories, but there’s a queer lens to them, a queer perspective that isn’t being shared. I think that’s a disservice to the bible and I think someone’s gotta say it. I think queer people are left out of the conversion. There’s so much to learn in the bible, and so many people weaponize it against queer people without even reading it. I’ve learned so much since November just opening the bible and reading it myself. If you’re gonna published anything I say about Christ, tell queer people to read 1 Samuel. Just read it with a gay lens. The story of David and Jonathan is so gay! It makes Call Me By Your Name look like Mickey Mouse!
In the same way you’re showing this otherside to Christianity, I also feel like your work highlights a side of Italian American masculinity we don’t get to see often in the media.
I don’t carry the same toxic masculinity, and that’s purposeful. I have to say, first of all, thank you for picking that up. Because it’s truly who I am. Once I decided to live a fully authentic life, I realized all the things I regret came as a byproduct of sociality pressure. Even parts of being an Italian man. When I first started dating I would play it up, like put my New York accent on thicker. Just doing stuff I thought guys would find hotter. But by the fourth date you gotta drop that and be yourself. I felt this pressure to be something I wasn’t.
My life’s work is to hopefully reach people that see themselves in me somehow because it doesn’t exist out there. All Italians aren’t in mafia families. There’s other sides to our community that I don’t think are shown enough. Why not celebrate it? Turn it into a song.
Speaking of celebrating yourself, you’re currently signed to Bridge Models and you just launched an awesome campaign with 69us. Was being a model something you always wanted to do?
It really came from the tenth anniversary of Mean Girls. I had like six months to plan for the anniversary because I knew everyone was going to run “where are they know” articles, and I wanted them to see me as I am now. So I did a bunch of shoots and then I booked Looking and I started doing all these shoots and editorials.
I was also really inspired by Lindsay Lohan. People can say whatever they want about that girl, they can’t take away her talent. She’s a fucking unbelievable model. To watch her, every flash try a new pose, not being afraid to take risks. Watching what it takes to get a great editorial – then I was in! I had one night at the Beverly Hills Hotel do this shoot and I was in. I’m not gonna let my size stop me. Why? There’s big clothes, I’ll model those.
Okay, so I’m done talking to you, I want to talk to your mom.
Uh oh! I’m ready.
Your “Shit Italian Moms Say” videos have been shared thousands of times. I’m also Italian and I’m missing my own Italian mom while in quarantine. What advice would your mom give me to get through the rest of the lockdown?
[Italian Mom]: This is what I need from you, Topher. First of all, don’t leave the house without something to clean your hands. These people are disgraziata! Secondly, if you live in New York especially, no street clothes on the bed! Don’t sit on your bed with jeans, don’t put sneakers on there. Everyone’s gotta be showered and naked before they get into the bed.
Should people be hooking up during Covid?
[Italian Mom]: I don’t like that ya doing that. But if you meet a guy, it’s Mask4Mask. And I’m not talking masc or femme. I mean both of you wears masks. Period.