Saturday, November 5, 2011

'Criminal Minds' Out Star Kirsten Vangsness Goes Noir

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Shemar Moore isn't the kind of guy you'd expect to turn a girl gay.

In fact, the former fashion model, who spent much of the 90s on the steamy daytime drama The Young and the Restless is considered one of the sexiest men in Hollywood. He's more likely to be joked about as someone who could make men gay.

Yet in 2005, Moore unwittingly helped his Criminal Minds costar Kirsten Vangsness figure out that she is, as she says, “super queer.” Over brunch at her favorite café in the Larchmont Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, Vangsness laughs as she tells the story.

“Season 1 was right when I was coming out,” remembers the 39-year-old actress, who stars as Penelope Garcia on the hit CBS drama opposite Moore (as flirty coworker Derek Morgan). “It was like one of the coolest things to sit there with Shemar. I was just a guest star at first. I had two lines, and they kept making my part a little bigger. We got along famously and he was flirting with me and I remember thinking, I must be queer. I should be reacting differently to what he's doing."

Now in its seventh season, Criminal Minds was the 10th-highest-rated show on TV this spring, and at one point it'd drawn 26 million viewers. It stars an ensemble that Vangsness says is like one big family, including Moore, Paget Brewster, A.J. Cook, Thomas Gibson, Matthew Gray Gubler, and Joe Mantegna. It's been such a hit that CBS did a short-lived spin off last year, Suspect Behavior. Vangsness was the only original Criminal Minds cast member to star in both shows, though she was one of many who worried that even with a stellar cast (Suspect Behavior co-starred Forest Whitaker and Janeane Garofalo) the magic of Criminal Minds couldn't be duplicated.

“That chemistry does not come every day,” says Vangsness. We genuinely get along. On other sets they say ‘Cut’ and everybody goes to their trailers. Here everybody stays. We're all joking around and talking.” The relationships extend off the set as well. “Shemar goes to every single play I've ever done ever since I've met him,” she says. “All of them do, actually."

The daughter of elementary school teachers (dad was band director and an opera singer, as well), Vangsness grew up in Southern California's theater community but didn't quite fit in. “From the time I was about 7 until I was about 13 or 14, I looked like I was Pat from Saturday Night Live,” she laughs. “I'm not exaggerating, remotely."

A target of bullies, Vangsness wants to do an It Gets Better video to remind kids that being different is okay — and so is letting your “freak flag fly.” Vangsness says she developed her own unique sense of style: “I dress like a 7-year-old space pilot. I have clothes that I still wear regularly from high school. My mom would give us $20 and she would send us to the thrift store, and I would [buy] a faux fur coat with a pimp-daddy collar and some sort of nature scene polyester dress."

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