Talk about being multifaceted.
Openly gay and HIV-positive Chicago native Carlton Wilborn has danced with Madonna (on tours and in the movie Truth or Dare), acted with Richard Gere (in the movie The Hoax) and written books (including the autobiography Front & Center: How I Learned to Live There, which, among other things, details his dealing with being sexually abused as a child).
In a recent expansive interview, Wilbornwho is also a life coachcandidly talked about his life as well as a new movie he's in called The Boarder.
Windy City Times: So you're from Chicago.
Carlton Wilborn: Yes, I am. I'm from the South Side, 80th and Crandonjust south of Jeffery.
WCT: And you started at Hubbard Street Dance. Were you always interested in dance?
Carlton Wilborn: You know what? That's a great question. I'm a Black boy so we danced around the house but as for dancing [professionally], that happened through a divine alignment that God put together.
I was going to high school in Florida; my freshman year did not go well. Halfway through the school year, they pulled me out. My mom had kept in touch with my eighth-grade teachera woman named Carolyn Curryand she got in touch with someone at a magnet school. Cut to a woman named Diane Brooks, who I always say was my first angel and who ran a dance department. Diane said, "I'll work with him during the summer. He'll come and audition in the fall, and I'll pretend like I've never met him." It worked. So that's how I literally how I started dancing.
Cut to me watching CBS News, and there was an expose on this amazing Hubbard Street dancer named Shauna Goddard. The school's dance department had a field trip a couple months laterto Hubbard Street, but it didn't register with me that we were going there. The first person who stepped out on stage was Shauna! I said, "That's that girl!" I'm watching her do her thing, and it was at that moment that I decided that I wanted to dance as a career. Six months later I got an apprenticeship at Hubbard, and a year later I was partnered with that girl.
WCT: Why did you leave Chicago?
Carlton Wilborn: Because I was hungry for more. I was always the kind of dancer who knew I was bigger than my body. I was always interested in acting. I perceived that my dance world in Chicago would be too small for all I wanted to do.
I made my way to Hollywood; that was in 1989. I took a train from Chicago to L.A., with $500 in my pocket.
WCT: And what was your game plan?
Carlton Wilborn: [Laughs] You're like, "And what..." Let's backtrack: I took a trip to L.A. with a girlfriend of mine.
I was in Hubbard for five years. I then went to Australia for nine months, and I worked with the Sydney Dance Company; Lou Conti, who headed Hubbard, said, "Anytime you want to come back..." But I also guested in Columbus, Ohio, with BalletMet; I was there for nine months, and met a woman there who was headed to L.A. I went back to Hubbard and stayed for one more season, and left [for L.A.]. Diann let me stay in her studio apartment there.
WCT: So how did you achieve success? There are people who lose their way once they get there.
Carlton Wilborn: You know, Andrew, I come from a stock with blue-collar energy. I have a fighter's way about me. That thing that God gave me helped me. Also, I knew to trust my abilities, and I knew how to speak to people in the hierarchy. Aside from that, there was a lot of gracethere were a lot of people just as talented as me that didn't get the breaks I got. I think God just had a plan for me.
WCT: With Madonna's toursespecially the first onedid you simply answer a casting call?
Carlton Wilborn: Absolutely. It was in the newspaper back then. The Blond Ambition tour, which was in 1990 [and the subject of the movie Truth or Dare], was a straight-up cattle call. I think around 500 dancers showed up for thatall guys. What was to my benefit was that I had already auditioned for Whitney Houston's tour, and I was accepted. Whitney had paused the travel date, and it was stalling; two weeks later, she still hadn't decided. So I decided to try out for Madonna's tourand it was OK if I didn't get it because I had Whitney's tour; my confidence was ramped! [Snaps fingers] I just went to play.
Three years later, the Girlie Show tour happenedand it was just a phone call. I got a call from Madonna. She initially said, "I'm in New York, and I'm about to go back on the road. I can't find any in L.A." That was literally the premiseshe needed to find dancers in L.A.
I got the info from her, and hung up. Ten minutes later, she called back: "I'm so sorry; I didn't even think to ask you. Are you interested in going back out?" I said yes. For that tour, I actually choreographed and ran the auditions.
A good buddy of mine, Christopher Childers, and I had done a lot of shows together, and I convinced him to audition. He got it, and one of the numbers we did on the Girlie Show tour was a number called "The Beast Within" that was designed for us. It was really homoerotic.
WCT: I remember that showand [Dancing with the Stars judge] Carrie Ann Inaba being a backup dancer. Then there was that sequence for the song "Why's It So Hard?"
Carlton Wilborn: Oh, yeah! [Sings the song]
WCT: As you said, you're an actor as well. What was your first film?
Carlton Wilborn: My first film was called Dance. A friend of mine, Charlene Campbell, was choreographing it and her husband, Robin Murray, directed it. I've been so graced in my life. I have been spoiled in a lot of way. Whenever I decide to step into a new realm, God places me at an eight on a scale of one to 10. [Snaps fingers]
WCT: You were also in The Hoax, with Richard Gere.
Carlton Wilborn: Yes. I was in Puerto Rico. Actress Roselyn Sanchez was a friend of mineshe was my love interest in a show called Fame L.A. She always talked about his film, Yellow, that she wanted to do. She contacted me and said she wanted me to choreograph it for her, and I said yes so I ended up in Puerto Rico. That job was about to finish, and a casting director got wind of The Hoax being filmed there. There was a role for a hotel manager, and I got it after a reading.
WCT: You just screened a movie in Chicago called The Boarder. It's about an 11-year-old boy who has reactive attachment disorder, correct?
Carlton Wilborn: Yes; reactive attachment disorder, or RAD, is a mental condition that has impacted a high percentage of the foster-child community. Children who have had extreme trauma within the first 36 months of their lives end up with trigger vendetta psychology; they take it out on the other mother figures in their livesand it doesn't matter who [triggered it]. It's scary because it can become homicidal for a lot of them.
It's a special project for me. At the end of the day, there's a takeaway for the audience so that anyone who's dealing with this has a bit more guidance.
WCT: This movie will be released nationally?
Carlton Wilborn: Oh, yeah. The executive producer, Jane Ryan, has a really creative path with it right now, building the movie's fan base. There was a screening in Atlanta, one in Knoxville, Tenn., and Delaware is in the works. The screening [in Chicago] went really well.
WCT: It has to be cool to know you're helping people.
Carlton Wilborn: Yeah, absolutely. The fact is that I got it clear, I believe in 2004, that my brand is about empowering people. My autobiography is laced with self-development components. Last year I released my second book, I Am Empowered, which has a life-coach curriculum.
So when I read the script and got the offer to do The Boarder, I thought, "This is so perfect because it fits with what my brand is. It comes from the modality of artistic something." At the end of the day, it's raising consciousness, so it's great.
WCT: To me, the phrase "life coach" can be really nebulous. What do you focus on besides raising consciousness?
Carlton Wilborn: My main work, as a coach, is as a strategist for your journey. Outside of that, it's about transformation. I am not a motivational speaker, nor an inspirational one, although there's motivation and inspiration inside what I do. It is about getting your life to be different for a lasting amount of time. Gratitude, authenticity, integrity, faith, patiencethings like that are the principles inside the coaching, and I use those to hopefully transform somebody. It's not going to help if I inspire you on Tuesday, and you feel motivated to do some activities from that and then Monday you're back to the same person again.
WCT: Sounds like church. [Laughs]
Carlton Wilborn: [Smiles] Well... I do know what you're saying. It's interesting that you bring that up because I had to make that distinction for myself. At first, I thought I'd be a minister and stand at a podium and be a chocolate Anthony Robbins. But something about that wasn't right for me. I realized God made me to have a [different] dynamic.
WCT: Let's talk about the abuse. How did you get past it?
Carlton Wilborn: That's a good question. I think the most honest answer is that I'm still in the process. The catalyst for me to start healing is in my first book; the narrative tells how I chose to face the perpetrator. It happened from 8 to 13 in Floridathat was one of the reasons my freshman year in high school didn't work out; I never told my parents that.
Cut to 2006. I started writing the book in 2001, and I thought I was finished. I planned to see my dad in Augusta, Ga. While I visited, [the perpetrator's] name kept coming up. He's a professional guy in the community, and my dad kept talking about him while my skin was crawling.
The courage came on and, sitting in the parking lot of Blockbuster Video, I told my dad. And, you know, he definitely had a reaction I needed, although it was more extreme than I thought it would be. I was just glad I got it off my chest.
Then I realized I needed to face [the perpetrator]. I was dating a woman at the time, and I told her what this was about. Getting all that off my chest and confronting was the first onion peel for my healing.
So to answer your question, I can say the bigger part is that I'm on the other side of it. But there are some momentswhat I'm attracted to and why I'm attracted to itcame on the heels of what I did with this person and the manipulation, secrecy. You get groomed into being a liar. You get groomed into believing you should not speak the truth about that. I still battle with thatbeing authentically free.
I was also diagnosed with HIV in 1985, and there's a chapter in my book about that. But to answer your question, the trauma from the abuse [led] to me being one of those people who didn't know how to own myself. I'm freer than I've ever been, but I'm still a work in progress.
Connecting the work I do as a life coach with the physical abuse I experienced as a child, I had to get to a placeand God shifted me to a placeof forgiveness. When I confronted the perpetrator, I suggested us all holding hands. If I didn't allow even the possibility of forgiveness, I'm keeping an elephant in the room and an obstacle on my own potential.
A girlfriend of mine uses a phrase that relates to forgiveness: "Do you want to be right or do you want to be better?" That's really powerful. The facts can say this or that, but if you're still red-hot from that topic... That's where that forgiveness has to come in.
WCT: I wanted to wrap this up by getting your opinion about something. [Wilborn says, "Uh, oh" and starts singing "Express Yourself."] What's your opinion of closeted actors?
Carlton Wilborn: Hmmm. Nobody should tell someone else what [that person's] journey should be. Whether we're talking about "closet," "addict" or "victim," it's that person's right to decide when they're strong enough to make known what is part of their experience. I don't think it's right to step into someone else's private life. I do wish there were more people in the industry who were freer; there is progress there, though.
For more on Carlton, see CarltonWilborn.com .