Rugby World Cup winner Ben Cohen showed the world how straight men could be great allies. He joins Oliver Hall over Zoom to talk about stripping off for the cover of a gay magazine, connecting with rainbow communities, and making his acting debut in Patterns.
From his family home in England, Ben Cohen beams onto my laptop screen and immediately gets me to say hello to his kids so he can assure them that Daddy is doing an interview and needs to be left in peace.
The British Rugby World Cup Champion last came to New Zealand in 2003 – beating the All Blacks on their home turf. Four years later, he would pull out of the World Cup contention so he could be home for the birth of his child, a decision that led him to a surprising connection with the rainbow community.
“Mutual friends put me in touch with a guy who had set up a fan page on Facebook in honour of myself,” Ben tells YOUR ex.
“He told me it had 37,000 fans, and he wanted to give me the page, but there was one thing I needed to know: all of the followers were men. I said, ‘Okay’, not catching on. ‘Because you’re a gay icon!’ he explained.”
That revelation ended up being an important moment in Ben’s career.
“I started to embrace the community that was following me and listening to their stories,” he tells us.
In 2000, Ben’s father, who owned a nightclub, was badly beaten when he tried to stop a group of patrons from attacking a staff member on the premises. He would later die from his injuries.
Ben says he connected the hurt that he and his family felt from his father’s murder with the stories of homophobia and bullying that his fans shared with him.
“When you suffer at the hands of others, these things have huge ripple effects. It’s not just that individual that’s impacted. My dad’s murder devastated our family. My mum tried to commit suicide twice. Rugby ended up being my saviour, and I thought, as an ally, I could relate to the pain and suffering the community was going through.”
Ben took his role as an ally seriously and knew his position as a world champion athlete gave him a platform where he could make an impact. So in 2009, for the cover of the UK’s biggest gay magazine, Attitude, Ben stripped down to his underwear and was photographed showering.
“Well, I was in bloody good shape back then!” he laughs when I question the inspiration behind the shoot. “Ultimately, it was to get attention and say, ‘Look, I can be on the cover of a gay magazine. Most of my friends are gay, but that doesn’t mean I’m gay.’”
Ben tells us he didn’t have any fear of a backlash or a negative effect on his career or potential sponsorship deals.
“No! I was trying to help people. I completely understand the question, though, especially in those times when gays in sport remained in the closet, not living their whole life, and not being true to themselves. I felt my role was to break down that stereotype and start a conversation that was really important. It was about asking, ‘What is the legacy I’m leaving?’ I wanted to increase understanding and drive cultural change. Whether sportsmen and women like it or not, people look up to them. We have to do the right thing…. It was about challenging those boundaries and saying, ‘I’m comfortable with my sexuality. So why would you have an issue?’” he says.
In 2011, Ben stepped away from professional rugby (“my body was bloody knackered”), and having ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ his allyship and made many friends through it, he turned his attention to forming the anti-homophobia and bullying organisation, The Ben Cohen Standup Foundation – the world’s first foundation dedicated to raising awareness of the long-term, damaging effects of bullying. It raises funds and has distributed them via grants to over 100 charities.
Meanwhile, Ben has remained a household name in the UK thanks to numerous TV gigs, including Dancing with the Stars-equivalent, Strictly Come Dancing (which led Ben and his dance partner to later have a child together).
Now Ben is diversifying his talents once more, making his acting debut in Patterns, a new British LGBTQ+ series reminiscent of Russell T Davis’ Banana. In mini-narratives, Patterns explores themes pertinent to its LGBTQ+ characters, from family dynamics, coming out, dating, and therapy to surviving an existential crisis.
The series is directed by his friend Rex Glensy, and Ben tells us, “It was a project we both have a massive amount of pride and passion for. He asked if I would do it, and I said, ‘Absolutely. I’ll try, but I don’t know if I’ll be a good actor!’”
Ben debuts those acting skills in the series’ second episode, which follows teenager Liam (played by Rufus Gleave), whose bedroom lined with rugby player posters isn’t only due to his love of the sport.
“He’s got pictures of me up on the wall and sees me as a role model, and I turn up as a fragment of his imagination, and we start going through that process of him facing his fears and understanding himself,” Ben explains, adding with a laugh, “I’m playing myself, so if I get this one wrong, I’m fucked really.”
In Patterns’ press release, Ben is quoted as saying his first day on set was even more nerve-wracking than playing for England the first time.
“I’m great at ad-libbing. I can talk for hours about stuff. But give me a script where I’ve got to remember the emotion, movement, my words, and where to look!” he laughs, shaking his head.
But now that he has cut his acting teeth, does Ben see a future in Hollywood, perhaps starring in Taika Waititi’s next Thor movie?
“Oh no, I turned down Superman because I really wanted Bond,” he laughs sarcastically before giving his final, humble, honest answer. “It’s gonna be one and done,” he says, flashing his big, bright smile. Sadly, I realise it’s not for me. The kids want Daddy back and have reemerged to get his attention. I guess I’ll just have to watch Patterns to get my next Big Ben fix.
Patterns is streaming now on Dekkoo.