When I first met my friend, actor and comedian Benito Skinner, he was already going by the moniker Benny Drama — as a college radio host. Skinner was the co-creator of BEAT$, a weekly radio show that half of Georgetown University would regularly tune into. You could always be sure to catch Skinner in the sound booth, spinning bootleg Lana Del Rey records and vintage Britney Spears for his adoring audience. But this space did more than prove that Skinner had superior taste in music: It provided a outlet for him to grow as an entertainer, and to begin to test out commentary that would one day make its way into his standup routine. Even before @Bennydrama7 was the Instagram artiste extraordinaire that he is today — with 206K followers and counting — Skinner was a star.
Despite his early collegiate success, Skinner tells Elite Daily that he never allowed his radio persona to reach its full potential, oftentimes toning down riskier material and outlandish impersonations, due to a deep-seated fear of being outed as gay. Little did he know that only a few years later, he would come to confront this very anxiety by using comedy as a means of coming out and exploring his sexual identity.
Skinner has been performing since he was a toddler, utterly unaware that his love of entertaining would one day become intertwined within the web of his sexuality. "Oh, as a kid I would put on full dance numbers for my family — I had an entire routine to 'Oops!... I Did It Again' before anyone called me a f*ggot or said it was 'so gay,'" Skinner tells me. As a child, he internalized the praise he received, and dreamed that he'd one day grow up to be a entertainer. But he soon came to the realization that not everybody would embrace his love of performing as supportively as his parents had.
Skinner grew up in Boise, Idaho — a city known for its conservative values — but was raised in progressive household that dismissed traditional gender roles. His parents encouraged him to play with Barbies, and he embraced the dolls entirely by giving each toy a storyline, and engaging in world-building. Skinner had heard this type of play be dismissed as girly by other children, leading him to reconcile the feminine aspect of his personhood at an early age. "I recognized that I was more feminine than my peers — and clearly, that was a bad thing," Skinner says. "That was my first inkling of a queer identity."
The first time Skinner heard the word "gay" was in the fourth grade, and it was directed at him. He was in recess, reenacting scenes from Disney Channel's Lizzy McGuire. A sixth grader approached him, and used the term as an insult. "I was terrified," Skinner recalls. "Really, really terrified." The episode was traumatizing, and he resolved to suppress his inner entertainer to avoid ever experiencing such profound and confusing public shame ever again. Skinner has recreated Lizzie McGuire as one of his most popular characters. "So much of my work is my reintroducing myself to things from my childhood that I didn’t feel I could outwardly appreciate or love," he explains.
Skinner is a sketch artist above all else, formulating characters and impressions and then fleshing them out to completion for his followers. One of his less endearing bits, however, may be Benny Brohana, a parody of toxic masculinity, and an ode to the culture that Skinner once hid behind.
As a high school student, Skinner began to embody an IRL Troy Bolton. "I couldn’t risk being in theater, because it would be so much more obvious that I was gay," Skinner says. "Football was a safe choice." He made the conscious decision to try out for the football team — a sport associated with machismo. He became his school's wide receiver, which the actor describes as a glory role. "I didn’t do that much work, but when I did, I got all the attention. So if I caught a pass, everyone would see and cheer. It gave me that same rush of performing live." But Skinner hated the culture that football perpetrated, and the violence and aggression that followed — he dreaded having to hit and tackle other players in practice. Instead of addressing his frustration then, Skinner has put all of his resolve in the character of Brohana.
"Benny Brohana is a very personal one for me," he tells Elite Daily. "It's someone who I hated in high school and I hated in college, and I hate now." As the writer who dictates Brohana's actions, Skinner is pointing a finger towards the hypocrisy and toxicity that comes with predisposed ideations of manliness. "In comedy, it’s powerful to take control of those characters and then just go off," he says.
Skinner went on to abandon sports in college, where he studied film and presumed the role of a Hollywood dreamboat in training — he has the devastatingly good looks of a Centineo-esque internet boyfriend. But the weight of repressing his sexual identity began to weigh on him. "My junior year of college, I started dealing with severe anxiety, and by senior year, I was having three fully draining panic attacks a week," Skinner says. "I went to the free school counselor and sat with her for an hour. At the end she was like, 'Well, when are you going to come out?' That was a huge wake-up call to the connection between my mental health and my life in the closet."
It was around this time that I first met Skinner. We were hired to work at an on campus bodega together, and I remember being utterly taken aback by his chiseled jawline, Supreme-everything outfits, and propensity for Lana Del Rey. To be quite frank, I had never met a supposedly-straight guy like him before, and I developed a small crush. But as we grew closer as friends, I could feel Skinner pulling away from me.
"The most draining aspect of remaining closeted in college was engaging in relationships with women," Skinner explains. "I never wanted to make anybody feel like they had been used down the line, so if a girl was getting to close to me or starting to have feelings, I would vanish like a ghost. That hurt me, because obviously I wanted to tell them something, but I hadn’t even been honest with myself yet." This resonated with me. I had never held Skinner's distant behavior against him. We remained friends until he graduated a year ahead of me.
"Yeah, I felt bad for not calling you to tell you that I was gay," Skinner says, recalling a dinner we shared shortly after coming out. I was surprised — I never thought he owed me that. "You worry about making it special for people, because you find that a lot of people make it about themselves," he explains.
Skinner began what he describes as his "coming out tour" (complete with merch and all, go figure) after college in 2017, by first coming out to the most important person he'd been hiding his true identity from for all those years: himself. "It’s such a process, but it’s a process with yourself first," he says. "That’s the most special moment: when you come out to yourself and you’re really happy about it. It just ignites something in you, where you just feel like this sense of pride."
When it came to telling everybody else, Skinner describes the rest of the experience (which he emphasizes he couldn't be more grateful for), as messy. "I didn’t know how to do it right," he explains. "I wanted to come out the cover of Paper magazine in a Petra Collins shoot. But it did not happen. Or you'll see in movies that it's one conversation, where you cry with your mom and then it’s over. I thought I could rip of the Band-Aid and it would be done; I’d immediately be dancing in the street with a parade behind me." But that wasn't the case. Skinner says he feels like he's still constantly coming out through his sketch videos every single day.
After coming to terms with his own sexuality, Skinner became eager to explore all of the creative ideas he had been suppressing since childhood: characters, costumes, the whole nine yards. Instagram became a place for him to play, and explore his most authentic self. "Before I came out, there were no wigs, no make up, and no real costumes," Skinner recounts. "I really didn’t want people to hear my voice, because I was scared of the internet saying I sounded so gay."
Today, Skinner brings life to a multitude of boundary-breaking characters, who all speak to different experiences and personalities that he's encountered throughout his life. Skinner knows his audience, and what's more, he understands millennials on both the level of caricature and authenticity. He brings a nuance to previously stereotypical roles. For example, Benita is a sexually liberated feminist from the deep south. Skinner claims she's his favorite character "by far."
"I think comedy has a beautiful way of grounding you, and giving you this confidence to look at the things you’ve done, and laugh at yourself," Skinner says, reflecting on his viral success. He plans to go on a national tour this coming spring, all the while continuing to feed videos to his fans. "There’s such a power in being able to do that — laughing at what you’ve been through. But I feel this self-inflicted duty to create a space where people feel like they can be both feminine and masculine, or however they identify. I want to show how fantastic it can be to be out. I’m proud of my sexuality!"
At 10.00 p.m. on a Thursday — way past my bedtime — I braved my way through the perilous crowds of Times Square, to a tucked away comedy club, Caroline's On Broadway. I sandwiched my body in between strangers in a sold-out auditorium. The two girls on either side of me were all decked out in newly-purchased merch and giggling to themselves with anticipation. The lights suddenly dimmed, and Skinner emerged in full drag.
He was dressed as a surrealist Britney Spears, quite literally descending from a giant falling styrofoam star, as "She's So Lucky" blared in the background. He strutted to the stage, stopping to sing directly to his gawking audience, as a slideshow of photos of his younger self as a high school football star light up the surrounding screens. It was performance art at it's finest, a sketch that I now realize Skinner has been practicing to near perfection since he was in preschool.
As the show reached its conclusion, the actor once again emerged in full drag, this time as Lana Del Rey (part of a recurring series Skinner calls "letting my guard down"). I suddenly recalled all of those bootlegged Lana Del Rey songs Skinner had played for me in college. But he had then swallowed back the lyrics that he now proudly belted aloud. My eyes began to brim with tears, but I didn't care. Benito Skinner was simultaneously putting on the show of a lifetime, and being true to his most authentic self.
For more stories like this one, visit Elite Daily's Coming Out page.