Steven Slater, JetBlue Flight Attendant Turned Folk Hero, Reflects On Fame, Slams Airline One Year Later
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On August 9, 2010, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater was involved in an altercation with a passenger as their plane arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Though the exact details of the incident remain disputed, whatever took place in those moments just after touching down in New York led the 20-year aviation industry veteran to deliver a kiss-off to the passengers (and, for all intents and purposes, his career in the skies) over the PA system and leave the plane via the emergency-exit chute, thereby sliding his way into the hearts of millions of Americans who, like him, felt overworked and underappreciated.
In the days that followed, Slater was labeled an American folk hero and the media, frustrated with his silence, went to great lengths to turn up whatever dirt they could in order to learn what might have triggered his meltdown. As a result, intimate details of his personal life -- including his positive HIV status -- were revealed and Slater soon discovered the darker side of fame.
In October 2010, Slater plead guilty to two counts of attempted criminal mischief, was forced to enter into counseling and substance abuse treatment, and was required to pay Jet Blue $10,000 in restitution.
Nearly a year later, the former flight attendant's media presence has all but vanished as he has spent the last nine months working on a memoir and getting his life back in order. The Huffington Post caught up with Slater -- who was in the midst of dealing with damage done to his Rockaways, NY, home during Hurricane Irene -- to chat about becoming one of America's first gay folk heroes, his new role working as an advocate for flight attendants' rights, and how he feels about JetBlue today.
After the incident on August 9, you were heralded as a "working class hero" and everyone from Time magazine to the New York Times featured you in their end of the year top 10 newsmaker lists. Why do you think your story resonated so deeply with people?
I think that at that particular moment in time, most everyone could relate to where I was emotionally at the time. Most everyone could relate to doing more with less, being outsourced, being downsized, taking care of aging parents, trying to take care of their children -- it was a familiar place that people could find resonance with. And I think a lot of people found a bit of themselves within me.
View Our Slideshow Of 10 Other Crazy Air Travel Incidents (interview continues below):
What did you hear most often when people approached you on the street?
People expressed to me that they did indeed relate. They still do. I still receive a lot of mail and I still have a lot of one-on-one conversations. None of this was ever planned out or plotted but people did get that vicarious thrill for a moment. I have to be careful how I say this because I have all these ongoing legal situations and I have to walk a certain line of contrition -- and I do. I've accepted accountability and I've accepted "you play, you pay" and so on and so forth. But I like the fact that it gave people a chance to take a deep breath, to exhale, to laugh a little bit and to kind of find some joy in that situation that we sometimes find ourselves in. I kind of did something that a lot of people would like to do -- though I hadn't set out to do it -- in hindsight it was moment that we all took some relish in. I like that I was able to provide that for people -- inadvertently -- but nonetheless, I did.
What was it like suddenly having your personal life held up to the relentless scrutiny of the media?
Exceptionally painful. Exceptionally traumatic. I learned an awful lot about lack of privacy and I learned about the dark side of the information age. I said nothing for a very long time and because of my silence the media had to find fodder where they could. They did go to a lot of negative dark places. To this day I am still healing from some of the more difficult things that were published. There's still fallout from a lot of that. It's still not uncommon for me to meet people and have them know things about me -- like my HIV status -- before I have an opportunity to pre-disclose that. There have been many, many awkward moments in the last year because of things that the media has done. My mother was dying of cancer and my son was a senior in high school. More importantly -- I can handle myself. I'm a big boy. I can deal with that. But it created tremendous pain for my loved ones and that's what I find unforgivable.
I thought it was interesting how the story got queered by the introduction of the narrative about the police finding you in bed having sex with your partner when they came to arrest you hours after the incident. How did you feel about that and did you suddenly feel the pressure of representing the LGBT community?
It was very interesting because not only did I become a folk hero, but I became one of America's first gay folk heroes. To my experience, it was more of an afterthought. Yes, [the media] did create the whole "he was pulled out of bed with his lover" angle, which was not true, by the way. However, they also made me pretty bad ass! [Laughs] And when I look back at this stuff, and on the anniversary I did sit down with all of my newspaper clippings and all of my magazines, and I thought This guy is kind of a stud! [Laughs] And it was really kind of cool.
The appeal that I've had is very blue collar, very working class and I really appeal to a very wide audience. The sexuality was really secondary. That's the last thing that comes up when I meet and greet and these construction works and iron workers that come up to me on the street. And I do, even to this day, still have those one-on-one off-the-cuff conversations on the street. But my sexuality is totally irrelevant. It's so interesting to me because I carry the guilt and the shame and the feeling of being "less than" while growing up as a gay kid, so it's kind of interesting to be the object of hero worship. The juxtaposition of these big, strong men that I would always want to bow down to suddenly coming to me and looking at me as a hero? It's very strange [laughs].
And it seems like something that maybe couldn't have happened 20 years ago.
Right. I also thought that response of disgust that the general public had to the New York Daily News publishing my HIV status was very telling. That backfired very strongly on [the paper].
What was the most ridiculous offer you received as a result of the incident?
There was a lot of nightclub stuff and a lot of Las Vegas stuff and a lot of New Year's things. I had to be really careful. I couldn't do anything that involved alcohol. I was going through the court case, I was going through court-mandated substance treatment and anger management and so on and so forth, and I needed to maintain a very professional composure. For example, one was to slide into a New Year's party in a diaper as the New Year's baby and that wasn't really going to be something I was interested in doing.
Would you consider doing reality television?
I walked away from a number of discussions about reality television. It became very clear to me that reality television showcases the worst of human behavior. I had meetings with five different production companies and it was very obvious to me that they wanted to capitalize on that moment of angst. They wanted me to be that person going forward and that wasn't necessarily me on a day-to-day basis. So it just wasn't a match. The right project? A docudrama or something like that? Yes, maybe. Hosting? Presenting something? Sure, I'd be more than happy to do that. But I was just not impressed with who I was expected to be in order to make those projects come to fruition.
That's one of the things that has impressed me the most about you. It seems like you've had a lot of opportunities to cash in and, for the most part, you haven't.
By the grace of God this happened later in life. I'm 40 years old. I have a head on my shoulders. I've been in New York for 20 years. I can smell a rat. It was a very, very heady experience and there were a lot of offers and there were a lot of money opportunities swirling around but I wasn't born yesterday and I'm not a kid. But, by the grace of God, I have a roof over my head and food on my table. I can be a little bit more selective and for that I'm very, very grateful.
I read that you're working on a book.
It's coming along. I'm writing as fast as I can! [Laughs] A lot of the things I have to share are very timely and have to do with the case and I have to be very careful with what information I present and when because I'm still literally and figuratively at the mercy of the court. But it's also a memoir and I'm talking about 20 years of flying. I'm also talking about what is it like to be in the media spotlight and to go through that scrutiny and to wake up in the morning and read the things about one's self. It'll be out sooner rather than later but I couldn't tell you exactly when it'll be done.
Do you have any interest in being part of the aviation industry again?
I will never be employed by a commercial airline -- I can assure you that. However, I do get the opportunity to speak out quite frequently on MSNBC and CNN. I do a lot of work on behalf of flight attendant unions, I do speak out on the issues confronting flight attendants and workers in general, and it's interesting that one side effect that I'm very happy about is that I do have a voice now. I have an audience and I have a voice and they do listen to me. And fortunately, I didn't sell out, I didn't cash out and do sensationalist, idiotic things -- I went out there and made some semi-intelligent comments early on and some people did learn that I could actually say some things of value. And rather than going off half-cocked, I've tried to cultivate that and use that voice to my advantage and also to be of service to the industry and to the flight attendants who are still plugging away. It's all in hopes that other aviation professionals don't find themselves at the end of their rope in a situation like mine: making less in their 20th year than they did in their first or commuting from Los Angeles to New York for a job that paid $9,700 a year -- these are issues that I can speak to that they may not necessarily be able to. But I can on their behalf. I have the voice to do so. If I can be an advocate, I will be an advocate. I've embraced that role and I enjoy it.
I read that that Barry Manilow told you to stop reading your own press. Have you taken his advice?
That was the resounding piece of advice that I heard time and time again: Don't engage. Don't engage. Don't engage. I've done a pretty damn good job of that. I just bought a television two weeks ago. I haven't owned one since 9/11, which is kind of ironic considering I was on the damn thing for a week straight last summer. I still do these appearances and people have had to send me DVDs and I think that saved my sanity. It was after the Daily News piece with the HIV, and it was after Matt Lauer said to me, "Oh, so you're an alcoholic and HIV positive?" on live TV, that was when I really hit my low. That was the breaking point for me. It was then that I had to absolutely detach because the loneliest I've ever felt was trapped in this house with these lights all around me and cameras all around me and I was unable to see it because I didn't have a television. Once I decided that it was irrelevant and it didn't matter to the people who actually mattered to me, then I found that I was OK.
For example, last I looked there were 185,000 fans on the Facebook fan page. I don't go to that page. I've been to that page maybe four times since the event. It's not run by me, I don't know who set it up, I don't know what the content is -- I just don't go there, for better or for worse. I can't engage in building myself up and I can't engage in tearing myself down. That is a two-dimensional media created caricature of me. I'm just me sitting here with my boyfriend having a cup of coffee while our house collapses around us [laughs].
I get the feeling your partner was less than thrilled with all the attention you were receiving. How is he doing now and how hard was that on your relationship?
It was very challenging and it still is. I think it was a blessing in the fact that it forced us to get thicker skin, it forced us to focus on our priorities and what really, really mattered and to really go for those goals. It was one of those make it or break it situations and fortunately, it brought us together. But I won't say it was without stress and it was certainly at a high cost. They invaded his privacy as much as they invaded mine and he's even more private than I am.
What are your feelings about JetBlue now?
Let's see -- after I make my $10,000 restitution to the company you should probably ask me that question again. I'm not a fan. I have seen a side of that company that is very disappointing. I'm very disillusioned. They have certainly not walked their talk and I have no problem pointing that out on the behalf of many of my friends who still struggle at that work place.
What are you specifically referencing?
There's tremendous, tremendous hypocrisy. They love to tell us how much better it is, how unique it is, how distinctive of a place it is, how caring a place it is. There are five "core values" that we are required to be able to ramble off, one of which is "caring" -- but I don't believe that a caring company would give you a hardship transfer to LAX to take care of a dying parent [Slater was and then rescind it upon your arrival forcing you to commute from Los Angeles to New York every trip. There's a lot. Their actions and their slogans don't always match up. I'm involved in a very long, protracted legal dispute with them so I probably shouldn't go much further, but it'd be very easy for me to go railing against the hypocrisy of that company and their management right now.
Are you still in contact with your coworkers?
Absolutely. I have a lifetime of dear friends from that career and they still come and go and I have friends that come to [my home on] the beach and friends that come to L.A. That's the beauty of it -- I have the treasure of many, many friends.
What is it like when you fly now?
Flying is fun. I enjoy it. The crew almost always recognizes me. We usually talk, share stories, I provide some encouragement. It's not the industry that it used to be. There's still a little quasi-celebrity thing going on. I usually don't end up in coach anymore which is kind of nice. It's one of the perks of being the "JetBlue Jumper" [laughs]. There are a lot of laughs and high fives and I usually end up having to tell the story at some point during the trip. It's like being with old friends -- once a flight attendant, always a flight attendant.
Do you have a full-time job right now?
I'm not working right now. After my mother passed away in January I inherited that house out West and we're renovating. I'm working on the book and it's nice to be able to concentrate on that. We got my son out of high school and he's in college right now. I'm just focusing on my own personal issues and taking care of myself right now. The thing about August 9th is that it was all about a lack of self-care -- not taking care of me -- and putting my needs on the back burner. It's nice to really be able to indulge in my life and my needs and the needs of my loved ones and taking care of the people I love first for a chance. For now -- the money is going to run out pretty quick [laughs].
Is there anything you regret?
I don't believe in the word regret. It's too strong of a word. It's my story. It's what happened. It's what makes me who I am. Will I learn from it? Might I do some things differently going forward? Perhaps. But I don't believe in trying to undo the past. I could care less about commercial opportunities, I could care less about fame, I could care less about cash and prizes, but it's made me a more authentic person. It gave me the chance for the first time in my life to say, "No." It gave me the chance to champion myself, to say enough is enough, to take care of myself, to take care of my loved ones, and those were the lessons that I needed to learn. And I have applied those moving forward and that's the kind of life that I'm living today as a result of that event.
What's the best thing that came out of this experience?
I learned very, very quickly the value of friends. I don't want to say that I ever took anyone for granted, but for the first time I saw the loyalty and the kindness and the companionship that I had in a circle of friends that until they were tested, I didn't really know. Oh my God, it was amazing how people rose and circled me and took care of me. And the community was wonderful. For all the ugliness that went on, there was ten times more kindness and love and support that was shown to me. I was very fortunate that way. I had so much love and support coming my way and I saw the value of that and I learned who those people were and they're still with me today.