Robin Elizabeth Herr, "Gay US ambassador is a reality TV star in Denmark,"USA TODAY
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COPENHAGEN — American ambassadors abroad tend to be low-profile diplomats who host cocktail parties and try not to make waves in their host countries.
Rufus Gifford is an A-list celebrity — and even a reality TV star — in this nation of 5.7 million people. On the streets of the capital, the average person knows his name.
That's because the handsome Gifford, 42, has been a visible presence and an outspoken advocate for gay rights in a country that in 1989 became the first in the world to legalize same-sex unions, and it legalized same-sex marriage in 2012.
His celebrity status was cemented when he starred in his own hit reality show I am the Ambassador from America in 2014. In Season 2 last fall, everyone tuned in to watch Gifford marry his longtime partner, Stephen DeVincent.
Gifford’s life has been an inspiration for homosexual youth, said
Copenhagen Pridechair Lars Henriksen. “He has been very open and frank about his own personal story,” Henriksen said. “This has helped to highlight the importance of an LGBTQ-inclusive society.”
Others just like his down-to-earth nature. “Rufus is not afraid to come down from his high diplomatic throne to talk with normal beer-drinking, festival-going Danes," said Jacob Andersen, 36, a copy editor. "We love to hear how much he likes Denmark."
Gifford, who worked as a creative executive for a Hollywood film company, came here as ambassador in 2013 as a reward for serving as financial director for
President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
In an interview, Gifford cites his diplomatic achievements — improving already close U.S.-Danish ties — rather than his lifestyle as his main accomplishment. “I think it is our job to help create an element of trust not just with the government, but also with the population more broadly,” he said.
To promote U.S. values, Gifford has held a series of town hall meetings with students who are encouraged to ask any question, no matter how tough. He is active on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Before traveling, he polls for suggestions of places to visit. Once he surprised a group of students by attending a birthday barbecue they had invited him to join.
His time in a country like Denmark, where alternative lifestyles are embraced, marks a long journey from when he was a youth back home and had to keep secret about being gay.
Gifford grew up as the scion of a blue-blood New England banking family. His father, Charles, ran
Bank of Boston in the 1980s and was chairman of Bank of America. Gifford said he grew up terrified of admitting his sexuality in public. But his parents were accepting once they discovered his feelings, which occurred when his mother opened a journal of his.
“One of the biggest struggles you have as a young, gay person is figuring out how to be comfortable in your own skin,” he said. “I mean, you would lie in bed at night when you were 15, 16, 17 years old and just figure out if there was some way to escape your body.”
Gifford's TV show covered intimate details of his life and work. It filmed him joining Danish special forces for overnight exercises, visiting Greenland to investigate climate change and traveling home after 12 hours of work.
“To the Danish eye, he resembles a Hollywood film star,” said Erik Struve Hansen, executive producer of DR3, the public TV channel that carried the show. “He has a wide, white smile. He is always upbeat but can also be serious.”
Gifford said he worried that he might lose his job if the show tanked or proved controversial. “It was terrifying, but exciting,” he said.
Some critics say Gifford has taken public diplomacy a little too far. Danish lawmaker
Naser Khader of the Conservative Party complained that the country deserves a career diplomat, not a Hollywood star.
Still, I am the Ambassador from America became one of the most popular DR3 programs ever. Last October's spectacle of Copenhagen Mayor
Frank Jensen officiating the marriage of DeVincent and the ambassador in a gold-filigreed chamber in City Hall won Gifford the Danish equivalent of an Emmy for most compelling character.
Now, as his time in Denmark likely nears an end along with the
Obama administration, Gifford is pondering his next career move. He said he may run for political office or work as a business consultant.
“Ultimately," he said, "I have to know that what I am doing is making the world a better place.”