Heather West of Hell’s Kitchen, the first lesbian to win a reality show, talks to SheWired.com about being on reality television, losing the first woman she ever fell in love with at first sight, and what she thinks about L.A. lesbians now that she’s been living in the City of Angels for a while.
SC: So how did you discover your passion for cooking?
HW: I always cooked. My mom, my grandmother were big bakers. Always. Our cooking was very traditional American. None of it was bad, but it was real down-home cooking. My family is from the south, Tennessee and Atlanta, so my grandmother can bake pies and fry chicken like it’s nobody’s business.
SC: Did you know when you were growing up that you wanted to turn this family pastime into a career?
HW: No, definitely not.
SC: And they never made a job out of it either, right?
HW: Yeah, never. It’s just southern hospitality. I never thought of it as work.
SC: Where did you grow up?
HW: Near Port Jefferson, Long Island. And it was touristy, so it was very easy to get a restaurant job. So, starting when I was thirteen or fourteen, I worked at a little ice cream place at the beach. My dad helped get me in and then I worked there a couple of summers. Then I was a waitress, I worked a salad station…I had a lot of restaurant jobs.
SC: And were you thinking during this that you’d maybe like to be behind the counter?
HW: No, I really wasn’t. And at the time, chef jobs weren’t cool. Now they are a big deal. But 10-15 years ago, chefs were considered dirtbags. There were a lot of negative stereotypes about chefs. So, when I was working at restaurants as a teenager, it never occurred to me that I wanted to cook as a job. I graduated high school in ’99 and even then, these reality shows weren’t around, the Food Network wasn’t popular, none of this was part of pop culture.
SC: Where did you go after you graduated high school?
HW: I went to community college and got my fine arts degree because I wanted to be an artist. And then, during a time when I was really thinking about what I wanted to be doing next, I heard a friend of my sister’s talking about a chef at Planet Hollywood that she knew in the city. My parents had said that they wanted me to stay home for 2 years, but that after community college I could go anywhere. So, when my sister’s friend mentioned this chef she knew, I don’t know why but it was just like this light went off in my mind and suddenly I thought I might want to do this. And my mom had gotten cancer recently and in order to help make her feel better I would play “McGyver.”
SC: And what does that mean?
HW: Well, my mom tends to shop in bulk, so our cabinets were packed with stuff that you wouldn’t ordinarily make a meal out of. Like, she’d go to the store and get 15 bottles of Thousand Island dressing. So, with all of these random ingredients lying around, I decided to experiment with my cooking. I would go on epicurious.com. And then I realized that I was kind of good at it. And then I decided to tell my parents that I wanted to go to culinary school. And at first my mom said, “What do you want to do that for?!” Like I said before, being a chef was not cool at the time. And they asked all of the typical parent questions about how I would make enough money, etc. You know, they’re parents. My mom was worried about it, but I went for it anyway.
SC: So did you end up going to culinary school in New York?
HW: I looked up a bunch and found one and decided that’s where I wanted to go. The Culinary Institute of America. It’s the #1 culinary school in the U.S. And it’s in upstate New York. A lot of reality chefs have actually come from C.I.A. Marcel from Top Chef, Christina from the 4th season of Hell’s Kitchen, Harold who was the Top Chef season 1 winner…a lot of people.
SC: Did you know a lot of those chefs while you were there?
HW: I knew Marcel. I was a bartender at the culinary school.
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SC: So how did that all lead into doing Hell’s Kitchen?
HW: Well, when I got out of school I ended up living in a few different places. I went to Seattle and lived there for a little while and then I moved to the Hamptons. I got this job at these two restaurants called Almond and Almondito. One was traditional French and the other was traditional Mexican. One was in Bridghampton and the other was in East Hampton. And I was the executive sous chef. And I went back and forth between the two. To this day, that was my favorite job. I was making hardly any money and I was working 70-80 hours a week at least. But, I loved it. I knew I was needed, I knew what I was doing, and I knew no one could touch me. I knew my shit and I loved it. And to this day I really miss that job.
SC: How long did you stay there?
HW: I was there for about a year…I got into Hell’s Kitchen and that’s when I left.
SC: What was the casting process like?
HW: There were seven interviews over two months before I was accepted to be on the show. They asked me at one point during a screening interview why I wanted to do this. I said I wanted to do it so my family could see me working. I think because I’ve always been really open and kind of a free spirit, they had no idea how serious and disciplined I can be when I’m in the kitchen. And I wanted them to see that. They knew I worked hard, but they had never really seen me that way before. And I was at my parents’ house the day I got the phone call. I remember I was doing laundry and I answered the call, they offered me the show and right away my mom was in the background yelling to my dad, “Jack! She got it!”
SC: So that meant leaving Almond/Almondito in the Hamptons.
HW: Yeah, I had to fly out to LA because that’s where Hell’s Kitchen is filmed. And when I left New York, I couldn’t tell anyone where I was going or when I’d be back. And I was gone for 28 days, so just about a month. And whether you were the first or the last person knocked off the show, you had to stay the whole time.
SC: But you were not the first person knocked off…
HW: (laughing) No, I was not the first person off. And it was weird because when we first got there, they put us all on a bus and the minute I stepped on I sized everyone up. And you think you can tell just by looking at the group who will make it, you try to judge a book by its cover, but you can’t. The girl I ended up later being in the finals with was the one I had pegged to be the first knocked off. With one look at her, I decided that because she was wearing a dress and heels that she wouldn’t hack it. But, as time went on, I realized it’s reality TV and they cast characters and not everyone is what they seem.
SC: Were you ‘out’ during the casting process?
HW: Yeah, they asked whether I date men or women and then when I told them that I date women, they asked if I wanted to make that a big thing on the show. And I really didn’t because it’s not who I am, it just happens to be what I am. There’s a lot more to me than just being a lesbian. Plus, it’s a cooking show, it’s not a dating show – so I didn’t want it to be focused on more than necessary.
SC: Right. Do you think they wanted you to make it a focus?
HW: Well, they got their story there.
SC: And what was that?
HW: Well, right before the final stages of casting, they fly you out to LA to see if you can handle the situation. And you go through a set of interviews and they bring it down to about 50 people. You only see the other people for a second and you’re not really allowed to talk to each other, for example, you can’t exchange names or any personal information at all. But as soon as I walked in, I saw this girl and she was my very first love at first sight experience. She was sitting there at the table and I just knew right away.
SC: And then you both made it onto the show?
HW: Yeah, she made it on. I didn’t know until I arrived for the first day and got on that bus, but when I got on, she was there. So at that point I introduced myself and she told me her name was Rachel.
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SC: How many contestants start off on the show?
HW: There were twelve at the time, now there are sixteen. And our season was men vs. women and everyone knew that there was something between Rachel and I.
SC: Were you and she together while filming the show?
HW: Oh no, no not at all. There is actually a “no fraternization” clause in the contract – not that you even would or could or would have the time if you wanted to. They literally have you for 20 hours day.
SC: So you weren’t actually together, but everyone knew that you were flirting and into each other?
HW: Oh yeah. In fact, one girl threw us under the bus and it made it on air. She said at one point while being filmed, “Heather’s making eyes at Rachel, Rachel’s making eyes at Heather…” And I knew that would make it on, and it did.
SC: But were you out to everyone by the time you filmed Hell’s Kitchen? Family? Friends?
HW: Well, actually two days before I left, I made sure everyone knew.
SC: Were there a lot of people at that point who didn’t know?
HW: Well, everyone in the Hamptons knew, but a lot of people I grew up with or knew when I was a kid, even some of my closest friends, I hadn’t told directly. They all knew of course because they just knew, but I had to officially come out to them before I went on the show.
SC: Wow. So there was a big separation between the people you had encountered as an adult and the people who had known you your whole life.
HW: Yeah, and I remember talking to my best friend Jamie and just going, “Jamie, I’ve got something to tell you…” And right away she said, “Hmm, you like girls.” A statement, not a question. And I was like, “Yeah…how did you know?” And she told me I’d always been a little “dykish.” And I thought that was awesome.
SC: So was that how it went with most people? Do you feel like everyone for the most part already knew?
HW: Yeah, and I knew that with Rachel being there, I wanted to go for it and I just needed them all to know before they saw it for themselves.
SC: How long did Rachel make it on the show?
HW: She was the fourth or fifth off.
SC: Were you disappointed?
HW: Oh yeah, I cried. At that point there were still a couple of weeks left. I was definitely upset. And of course they captured all of that on camera. And that just made me more determined to do well. I wanted to make her proud.
SC: What happened a few weeks later when it was all over? Did anything happen with her after the show?
HW: We were in touch. I didn’t know it during the show, but while we were filming, she was already with someone. We talked after the show wrapped. We talked about spending our lives together and things like that. But, some things got in the way and we just ended up being friends. And then she actually passed away on May 9, 2007. The finale aired on August 14, 2006 and she passed away less than a year later. I didn’t vocalize what I should have, I didn’t fight for her like I should have, so I have tons of regret. Tons. After she passed, I had her name tattooed on my ribs. She was my life. I loved her more than anything.
SC: Wow, I’m so sorry.
HW: There’s still not a day that goes by that I don’t pray or talk to her.
SC: What kind of an impact did that experience have on your life?
HW: Well, after that happened, I made a promise to myself, and to her, that I would never let someone get away again. I never want to let a day go by where I don’t tell people I love how I feel, or I don’t go after the person I want to be with.
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SC: What would you say you were known for on the show? Your “relationship” with Rachel?
HW: Well, probably. But I was also known as the “golden child.”
SC: The “golden child?”
HW: Yeah, Rachel came up with it. They called me that because I was just really eager, and also really competitive. I was a hustler – in the good sense of the word. I was literally running all the time so I could do everything they asked of me. I was running through tasks and jobs faster than everyone else.
SC: So what was it like when you got down to the finals?
HW: Well it came down to me and Virginia. And I felt like this girl just had nine lives. She had been up for elimination seven times and had never been eliminated. She had a certain charm about her and she knew her stuff, but when it came to the line, it was difficult. And I knew at that point that there was no way I was going to get that far and let her take it away from me. There was no way. So, I busted my ass. And it ended up working out.
SC: Well, considering that you won, I’d say so.
HW: Yeah, and after the show I went to Las Vegas. They threw me in there for a one-year contract. It was great, but a lot of the time you end up kind of feeling like Mickey Mouse. You just stand there and wave and meet hundreds of thousands of people. It was the first reality show where after it wrapped, people could actually go and see the winner. Which was fun, but scary at the same time. And then I moved to Seattle for six months and then North Carolina to spend some time with my sister. And it was while I was there that I got a phone call about a job in LA. I can’t actually talk about details of it right now, but I’ve been out here in LA for that job since December.
SC: A secret project?
HW: Well, yeah, I taped a show. We finished taping and it’s going to be airing soon and then everyone will know what it is.
SC: How do you feel about LA now that you’ve been here for a little while?
HW: If things pan out, I think I’ll stay.
SC: And recently you participated in a lesbian fundraiser here called “Single de Mayo” where you were auctioned off for charity. How was that experience?
HW: It was pretty fun. I went for $400, so that’s not too bad.
SC: How involved have you been with charity work and fundraisers since the show?
HW: I do it a ton. I have my own non-profit named after Rachel. It’s called the Brown Foundation. I’ve also been involved in the Special Olympics since I was a kid, and Girl Scouts of America.
SC: Do you find that the lesbian community is particularly receptive to you since you’re an out, recognizable reality star?
HW: Yeah, I think so. I was the first lesbian to win a reality show. And more so recently I’ve been doing gay and lesbian media in particular. I was recently on the cover of Q Vegas magazine. So, along with that I have been doing a lot of lesbian events and stuff too.
SC: Are you currently single?
HW: Yes, I am single. And it’s awesome, thanks for bringing it up (laughing).
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SC: (laughing) Yeah, I get it, it’s easy to become a pro at being single.
HW: Exactly. But come on, we’re both cute girls, so what is going on? And I just feel like I keep meeting girls who are out of their freaking minds. Especially in LA. Oh my god. I have met some winners here, let me tell you. They’re all actresses too.
SC: Well, it’s a rare breed out here.
HW: I know! They are pretty self-centered and they don’t want to get tied down because they always think there’s someone better coming around next.
SC: If you ask a girl out, do you cook for her?
HW: Oh yeah, love it.
SC: So that’s your move?
HW: (laughing) No! It’s not that it’s my move…
SC: But you’re good at it, so you may as well use it.
HW: Exactly. I like to be a charmer. When I really like a girl, I treat her really well.
SC: In recent news, major media outlets have been reporting that Gordon Ramsay, the host of Hell's Kitchen, called an Australian newswoman a "lesbian pig." Having worked with him, did you ever get the impression that he was homophobic?
HW: "He did not call her a lesbian. He did call her a pig, and later apologized to her. He has never had a problem with it. In fact, all three sous chefs on the show have been lesbians and he has many other lesbians working for him. He's always been cool with it."
SC: If he didn't call her a lesbian, why did it come out in the news that way?
HW: It's just like any rumor that gets started. It's 'the game of telephone.' And however it happened and whether someone twisted it and it got out that way, I can tell you that he never treated me any differently or had any problem with me being a lesbian.