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Losing his job for being gay might be one of the best things that’s ever happened to Colby Melvin.

You probably recognize Colby’s impish smile from his artsy-sexy underwear photos, his booty shaking (he’s more of a go-go frolicker than mere dancer), his calendar, his apparel, his activism, his acting, his very public relationship — and eventual breakup. The list goes on.

But there’s also a Colby Melvin you probably don’t know: the straight young oil worker in Mobile, Alabama, once desperate to figure out how to be manly.

“I struggled a lot,” he told Queerty’s Matt Baume. “Especially when I came out, with masculinity and being butch and what it meant to be a man.”

He tried all the stuff that a young male Alabaman was supposed to like: hunting, fishing, sports. “For so long, I had it in my head that I’m the straight guy,” he said. He didn’t even think of himself as closeted — he wasn’t hiding in the closet, he was simply straight, at least as far as he let himself imagine. The man that’s famous today for being a humpy gay underwear model once presented as a heterosexual middle-manager.

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By day, Colby was working for a company participating in the cleanup of the BP oil spill disaster. Like a lot of gay men, he threw himself into his work, committing to 7-day, 120-hour work weeks. His entire life revolved around his job, but something felt off. His aggressively heterosexual coworkers would hold corporate functions in straight strip clubs, and throw around the word “fag” as an insult. Privately, he started to wonder if he might be gay.

He was stuck in a small southern town, but on social media he could see gay men living openly and honestly in big cities. Between the oil-industry strip clubs and the uninhibited big-city gays, he knew which one called to him more.

“I’ve never been as nervous as I was the first time,” he said. He had an first anxious date, and then the very next day he came out to his best friend. Then a few more friends. Then his mom (after prepping himself with a bottle of wine). He was lucky and got plenty of support. For many of his friends, it was like nothing had changed; and as he cautiously came out to family, they gradually came to accept the news.

His dad and grandfather struggled a bit at first. They both worked in the oil industry too, and were deeply entrenched in a culture that only recognized one way to be masculine. “It wasn’t easy at first,” Colby said. “It’s not something I can really blame them for. Where I grew up, gays had a stigma. It’s a cultural thing. It’s the way they grew up. The only thing that I can do is prove to them that those ideas are not true, and be a good person.”

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But then word got out at work, an suddenly everyone stopped talking to him. “Things got weird,” he said, “and the day came when I was told by my boss that was I was doing was not acceptable. He had illegally gotten my text records and decided to fire me. He blamed it on another reason, which we both knew was bullshit. But if I didn’t go quietly, they were going to send this stuff to my family and expose me.”

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That was the end of his career in the oil industry. “It all got pulled out from under me,” he said. “I felt very alone. … I lost everything I once thought defined me. What do you do when you lose everything else and all you have is your name?”

It felt like he had nothing left — but gradually, he realized, that wasn’t the case. Ever since he’d started coming out, he had his integrity, and his honesty, and his commitment to being a good person.

By a stroke of luck, he was spotted at a pool party by reps for a Texas underwear company called Bayou Beau. “I had no dreams of being a model,” he said. “I’m 5-foot-7, so it wasn’t on my radar.” But one shoot led to another, and he decided “You know what? I want to do it. I want to make it.”

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Two weeks later, he bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. He stepped off the plane with one suitcase, no place to live, and only a few dollars in cash. For the next six months, he worked nonstop, taking any job he could get, from dancing to modeling to promotion. He slept on couches until he found a cheap place, graduating to four white walls and an air mattress.

“It tested how much I really wanted this,” he said. “What had happened in Alabama was such a fire and driving force in me, I was like, ‘No, I am not going to let all of that win. I am going to succeed no matter what.’ And luckily it was just the motivation I needed to keep going.”

He’s graduated from couches and bare walls. The photos accompanying this interview series were taken in his West Hollywood apartment, but he’s also just found a studio in San Diego where he’s going to be spending most of his time, living and working. San Diego’s also where his boyfriend lives.

Colby’s going to need that extra workspace because he’s moving from modeling and dancing to more behind-the-scenes work as a fashion designer. Remember, he never planned to be a model — instead, he became a star simply by accident. And while it’s fun to be recognized at every party he attends, he has bigger dreams than simply being famous for being pretty.

His vision: creating clothes that make you feel bold, confident, and manly, like a badass.

In other words — all of the things he wanted to be back in Mobile, Alabama.

In Part 2 of our interview: Colby goes from go-go dancer to one-man sweatshop, creating his own sexy outfits to show off his body in the ways he always wanted to.

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