like a flame

The unforgettable legacy of Gene Anthony Ray

First impressions are everything in show business, and Gene Anthony Ray knew how to make an unforgettable one. In his introductory scene as Leroy Johnson, a street-smart, rebellious dance prodigy in Fame, Alan Parker’s gritty Oscar-winning 1980 musical about students at a performing arts school, Ray effortlessly stole the focus from a female friend he was helping audition. Clad in barely-there satin shorts and a sleeveless shirt pulled behind his head to accentuate his flawless torso, Ray electrified audiences with his sultry dancing.

“What do you call that?” a teacher asks the instructor, played by Debbie Allen, as they take in Leroy’s suggestive moves. Allen, no slouch on the dance floor herself, instinctively replied, “Wicked!”

Viewers couldn’t help but agree.

The time was right for Gene Anthony Ray to take the spotlight

It was the spring of 1980 when Fame was released to movie theaters. Disco was dead. MTV was yet to be born. Off The Wall, Michael Jackson’s smash R&B album still ruled the music charts. A series of films, such as Saturday Night FeverGrease, and All That Jazz, which showcased dazzling dance numbers, had been surprise hits at the box office. Audiences were now ready for something to fuse the edgier and slick elements.

They wanted someone with some mean street strut in his step. Seventeen-year-old Ray filled the bill with ease.

Although Ray would often maintain that he wasn’t a real-life Leroy, both used their incredible charisma and raw talent and innate dancing ability to escape from a troubled family life in Harlem. Ray honed his fancy footwork at neighborhood block parties. He claimed to win every contest he entered as a kid and every competition he could find — even winning the award as the best male disco dancer at New York’s famed Roseland Ballroom.

As a young teen, Ray had even attended the real-life performing arts school depicted in the film, although he was expelled during his first year. In a 2003 cast reunion interview, he confessed he was kicked out due to his mouth and bad attitude toward authority figures.

In the same interview, Allen, who’d developed an almost familial relationship with Ray while making the movie, described him as “an amazing ball of energy and fire who was sweet and sour at the same time.” She also claimed Ray had slapped one of his teachers at the school. Still, rebelliousness often translates well to the screen. Ray’s made him a relatable character to legions of impressionable young people. 

Dancing his way through Fame and sexuality

Gene Anthony Ray: August 05, 2021, detail of the 33 rpm vinyl record The Kids from Fame, American television series by Christopher Gore, taken from the film directed by Alan Parker in the 80s.

Along with Allen and two other actors from the film, Ray was asked to reprise his character in the television series in 1982. Although it struggled for ratings in the U.S., the small-screen version of Fame became a bona-fide phenomenon in Europe. It was produced for six seasons, and the cast performed in concerts to adoring, screaming crowds.

Ray not only emerged as the sex symbol of Fame, but his face became synonymous with the series. His appeal was so strong that he was forced to hire two secretaries to handle the voluminous fan mail he received — reportedly 17,000 letters each day at one point. With his sad eyes, photogenic features, and chiseled, Adonis-like physique, Ray was naturally a popular subject in fan magazines read predominantly by females. Still, he always deflected questions about his sexual orientation. 

The 1980s, when the AIDS pandemic was written about in terms befitting a horror movie, was a more challenging time to be out to the general public, of course. It was a veritable career suicide. Among friends, though, Ray was completely open about his sexuality.

During interviews conducted at this time, Ray seemed guarded about some aspects of his private life and often butched it up in front of the camera. Later, his flair for camp became more apparent, his gestures became more flamboyant, and he rolled his eyes more frequently. He seemed to always be looking for a quick joke to deflate tension.

During the height of his career, when questioned about his love life, Ray always maintained that due to his exhausting work schedule, he only had time for one woman — his mom, Jean.

Gene Anthony Ray’s leading ladies

His mother would indeed play a significant role in both his personal life and career. In 1983, a house he bought for his family in a mostly Caucasian neighborhood in New York was subjected to four separate arson attacks, believed to be racially motivated. Thankfully, no one was harmed during these fires.

In that same tumultuous year, Jean, along with her mother, found themselves entangled in a major drug sting operation, facing charges related to the sale of cocaine and heroin. Despite the public humiliation and personal turmoil, Ray displayed unwavering loyalty by attending Jean’s court hearings, standing by her side through the legal proceedings, even as she received a 15-year prison sentence.

Another female he became close to was Marguerite Derricks, a beguiling, energetic blonde who joined Fame as a dance student during its second season. She and Ray were fast friends, and, as she recalls, he immediately defended her against petty jealousy when she was first cast in the series. 

“The dancers were rather bitchy when I first joined because it was very much like a real high school and I was the new kid,” Derricks, now an award-winning choreographer for films such as Showgirls and the 2009 remake of Fame, told Queerty.

“They were whispering behind my back, ‘We don’t need her.’ Gene Anthony walked in the room and immediately saw what was going on and put his arm around me. He said, ‘Y’all are just some tired bitches!’ We became really great friends. I later became friends with all the dancers, but he was always my protector. He was louder than anyone could be, but he had the biggest heart in the world. He was really wonderful.”

Marguerite Derricks on Gene Anthony Ray helping her during her first season of Fame

Derricks also admired the close relationship Ray had established with Debbie Allen.

“He and Debbie would get on the dance floor and it was magical,” she shares. “Their relationship was magical. They loved each other very much. She took care of him like a big sister and loved him and protected him. He really looked up to her.”

In an interview conducted after his death, Allen recalled Ray’s mischievous, sometimes temperamental nature when he grabbed her ass while she was singing. Allen scolded him, and Ray was so hurt that he destroyed a dressing room.

The cost of success was hard for Gene Anthony Ray to take

Ray could dance lighter than air. Fame choreographer Louis Falco compared Ray to a young Fred Astaire, and could kick higher than most female dancers. He could also out-party the rest of his cast members and friends.

Popularity comes at a cost, particularly when you’re young and making money beyond your wildest dreams. Although he appeared in all six seasons of Fame, Ray’s drinking and drug use escalated, and he was eventually suspended for a time after missing nearly 100 days of shooting.

Derricks makes it clear that Ray was 100 percent present and hard-working when he was on set.

“When he walked into a room not only would the light shine but the room would shake,” she recalls. “I’ve never met someone who was so charismatic. It was just natural. Everyone wanted to be around him. He was funnier than anybody. He’d make up raps sometimes to songs….He was a natural dancer. He was naturally great at everything. I trained really hard to do what I do. For Gene, he could just look at something and do it better than anybody else.”

Life after Fame

Following the cancellation of the series in 1987, Ray’s professional life became a long series of failed opportunities. An appearance in a Weather Girls music video led to little.

He landed a role in the highly-anticipated musical adaptation of Carrie in London. He received respectful reviews in the part played by John Travolta in the 1976 film.

Unfortunately, the show became infamous as one of theater’s most notorious short-lived flops. He even performed on cruise ships. Substantial employment proved elusive to Ray.

During this period, it becomes challenging to sort out the factual details of Ray’s life. He headlined a show at Glam Slam, a Los Angeles nightclub owned by Prince. He embarked on a European dance tour and unsuccessfully tried to launch a Fame-style dance company in Milan, Italy. His partying continued unabated, though, and he blew through his savings. There, he was arrested for stealing a bottle of wine from a supermarket to attack a couple of men harassing him, although the charges were dropped. He reportedly also slept on a park bench sometimes.

Friends who knew Ray when he lived in Los Angeles in the early ’90s but who asked to remain anonymous for this article shared wildly different opinions of him. One man who knew him from West Hollywood bars remembered he was friendly and always offered a smile but was rarely sober. Another man who knew Ray intimately noted that he would get arrogant when drunk or using drugs, and it was a primarily unpleasant time when the two men were acquainted. As Debbie Allen said, Ray was a mixture of sweet and sour at the same time.

The HIV diagnosis

Image source: OUTinPerth

In 1993, the British press ran a series of sensational newspaper headlines saying that Ray was dying of AIDS, even though he didn’t test positive for HIV until later. Ray said he was apprehensive about denying the stories out of respect for his suffering from HIV/AIDS. When he did test positive in 1996, Derricks was the first person Ray called.

“We were on the phone for hours, just crying,” she recalls. However, the next day, he rang her again to tell her the diagnosis was a mistake. Unsure of the exact reason, Derricks stops short of speculating that Ray didn’t want to become an emotional burden. 

“We had seen so many of our friends from that time die,” she adds. “It was a really, really difficult time. It felt like every other week we were going to the hospital to visit our friends.”

A camera crew from entertainment channel E! caught up with Ray in Italy in 2002 as he posted flyers for a male stripper review he was headlining under the stage name “Leroy Johnson.” It’s a very unsettling interview. He appeared gaunt, unfocused, and almost unrecognizable, claiming someone had just punched him in the face. 

In another on-camera interview conducted the following year, Ray looked healthier and more robust and noted the fickleness of fame. “Just as quick as you had it, it can go, and it’s much more harmful than never having had it before.”

Interviewed for supplemental materials for Fame’s DVD release in 2002, Ray acknowledged his influence on a generation of musical theater performers. “If your work, what you’ve done has inspired somebody to do well and do something positive in this crazy world today, it’s worth it,” he stated. “I’ll do it again.” 

Sadly, he’d be dead within a year at age 41.

Gene Anthony Ray’s friends remember the icon

Like many of Ray’s friends, Derricks was surprised when he died following what was reported as complications from a stroke. She reveals that Ray occasionally became quite ill, but he seemed to always recuperate. “He was in a hospice and was really, really sick and I went to visit him every day and then he was fine,” she remembers. “He always bounced back.”

Allen was also shocked at Ray’s young demise. She wiped away tears as she remembered a phone call from his mother, who’d been released from prison in 1999, telling her this was her last opportunity to speak to her friend, that he probably wouldn’t live through the night. She’d soon find herself rushing to New York to attend his funeral in November 2003.

Although Ray never found another project that showcased his talents the way Fame did, it’s easy to see his influence in series such as Glee and a generation of musical performers who followed him. To borrow a lyric from the movie’s Oscar-winning theme song, “As long as cinema endures, we’ll continue to remember his name.”

To learn more about Ray and Fame, go here.

Let Gene Anthony Ray blow your mind with his dancing below:

Subscribe to the Queerty newsletter and stay in step with the latest stories, celebrating the extraordinary journeys that continue to shape the world of entertainment and culture!

Don't forget to share:

Help make sure LGBTQ+ stories are being told...

We can't rely on mainstream media to tell our stories. That's why we don't lock Queerty articles behind a paywall. Will you support our mission with a contribution today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated