For Jesse Metcalfe, sex symbol stardom was a cage

The ultimate mid-00s heartthrob and ‘Desperate Housewives’ star reflects on that torrid era of gossip and pressure, and how he bounced back.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
20 December 2021, 8:15am

He was weed-whacking long before his introduction as Desperate Housewives’ irresistible gardener. Born in Carmel Valley, California, Jesse Metcalfe spent his final years of high school prophetically pruning for his stepfather’s landscaping business, eager to escape into the nearby world of Hollywood. His real flirtation with fame would begin in the late 90s, when he dropped out of his NYU acting degree to spend five subsequent years on the screens of daytime TV watchers in NBC soap opera, Passions. But in 2004, a dark dramedy would clear 26-year-old Jesse a new path.

Securing a recurring role as John Rowland, the gardener who wooed the women of Wisteria Lane on Desperate Housewives, Jesse would paper bedroom walls around the worldFor the remainder of the population who hadn’t already clocked his looks and talent quickly caught up when the teen cult classic John Tucker Must Die hit cinemas with Jesse in the titular role.

A rise of “meteoric” proportions occurred almost immediately, but alongside it came intense media scrutiny, and preconceived ideas as to what he, a conventionally attractive actor who’d booked roles based on his beauty, was truly capable of. Each shirtless scene catalysed a new round of probing from journalists and fixated bloggers, and so in the end he leaned into it, fervently embracing his role as the hot new Hollywood himbo with frenzied partying. But when the time came to walk away from mid-00s Jesse, it caused him severe whiplash. 

Today he’s regained some footing. A staple in TV movies and rising producer, he’s finding his place in Hollywood again. For i-D, Jesse recalls life in Los Angeles’ fastest lane, how gossip blogs changed celebrity, and what it meant to personify ‘sex’ to so many. 

Walk me through the initial response to Desperate Housewives. Was it an immediate hit or more of a slow burn?
I definitely wasn’t ready for so much exposure so quickly. I was 26, and I think [my] meteoric rise coalesced with the rise of the internet. It was like a tidal wave. Everything was getting thrown at me, and I was enjoying myself, but it was never something I had control over or made conscious decisions about. It was more that it was happening to me. 

What was that wave like to surf?
I was getting all these opportunities: spreads in GQ and Vanity Fair, photoshoots, interviews, a lot of free things. There were certainly a lot of perks, but it was bigger than me and all-consuming and I was swept up in it. But then it all comes crashing down in the quiet moments, when you’re home alone. I was trying to stay focused on my career but there were a lot of distractions, especially LA nightlife. I was out four or five nights a week. That’s what you did in the early 2000s

I imagine a visibility complex comes into play — needing to see and be seen, constantly. 
I believe we were more in the moment back then. Now, personas are a lot more contrived. When my career took off, which paralleled internet media culture, we didn’t want to be shot by the paparazzi. We were always trying to get away. Then a lot of people realised, myself included, you can’t beat the paparazzi. How we interact with them has changed with social media though, for sure.

“I wouldn’t go back and change anything.”

Did you feel media shifting at the time, from tabloid coverage to blogs?
I definitely felt it. There was a lot of media scrutiny and it caused me a great deal of anxiety and pressure. 

How did you cope?
A lot of drugs and alcohol. There’s a lot of alcoholism in my family and that’s the route I chose, unfortunately. It was pretty grotesque.

When did you feel like it crossed a line?
All the stuff with Perez Hilton. He was cruel to a lot of people. It might have come from his own demons or insecurities but I don’t think that excuses it. [At the time,] the internet was so new and so it all constituted freedom of speech. There was nothing you could do to combat it legally. There was nearly a decade when that was really tough.

It’s interesting because you were positioned as this perfect ideation of masculinity. How did that affect your body image, or sense of self as a whole? 
Being a sex symbol is very much about the roles that you play and my roles put me up on a pedestal. But my appearance was also criticised and picked apart by a lot of people in the media. Having your shirt off in every episode of Housewives brought a lot of pressure. You have to stay in the best shape you can and then between projects, everyone expects you to stay in that shape 24/7, 365. That’s not realistic. That’s why paparazzi catch actors between projects looking ‘out of shape’ -- they’re taking time off and that includes the gym. You can run your body into the ground working out, not to mention the other things male actors do to stay fit. 

Were you pigeonholed by that casting?
I was definitely caged by it. The industry tends to think if you look a certain way that’s all you have to offer. The best thing I could’ve done at that time was be patient, which I was not. I did a string of indie films that didn’t work and should’ve kept my nose clean, so to speak. Between jobs I just didn’t know what to do with myself.

Well, transitioning from consistent work to looking for work is massive. 
Also, and this may be glorifying my own generation, but it did feel like the industry was tougher back then. They weren't ready to hand things out to you. You had to earn them. It seems like a lot of actors now get sent right to the top — one television show can lead to a hundred-million dollar movie. I wish there had been Twitter and Instagram when I was coming up. 

In hindsight, how did that grind and era shape you as a person?
It definitely built character. I had to really look within and figure out who I really was because that’s the foundation. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and a lot of therapy. I’ve come out stronger and better having been through what I’ve been through in my career. I wouldn’t go back and change anything. The pain you experience is nine times out of 10 a lesson you need to learn. That pain doesn’t go away until you’ve learnt it. 

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