It’s not every day you come across a big-cat-owning, gun-loving, polyamorous gay man who rocks a mullet, horseshoe mustache and shiny, two-toned leopard-print dress shirts. But Joe Exotic is not your average anything.
Exotic stars in Netflix’s new docu-series Tiger King, chronicling the eccentric manager at Oklahoma’s Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park who claimed to be the most prolific breeder of tigers in the United States.
Exotic is a renaissance man on a QuikTrip budget. He’s an unexpectedly talented country singer, the star of a self-produced reality show on YouTube and a 2018 gubernatorial candidate in Oklahoma (he lost in the state’s libertarian party primaries). He’s another gay doing the most.
Of course, Exotic’s entrepreneurial prowess doesn’t justify his crimes. Spoiler alert: He’s serving 22 years in federal prison on 17 charges of animal abuse and two counts of a murder-for-hire plot against his big cat archrival (and flower crown aficionado) Carole Baskin — who some believe may have fed her late, missing husband to her tigers.
And, thanks to Netflix, Exotic is now a meme. He’s a gay man obsessed with big pussy who self-produced a diss track about his rival and even cast a lookalike of her in the music video. Only a gay man could be that petty.
Does the chaotic Joe Exotic — who recently wrote President Donald Trump to ask for a presidential pardon — give Oklahoma gays a bad name?
“He gives Oklahomans a bad reputation before I’d say he gives Oklahoma gays a bad reputation,” says former Oklahoma gay and current Vogue entertainment associate Keaton Bell.
Exotic conforms to no one but himself. Not even the law. “There’s so much to unpack with him and his persona, appearance, criminal exploits, etc., that nobody’s leaving Tiger King thinking he’s representative of Oklahoma gays,” Bell says.
Tiger King uses Exotic to ramp up stereotypical gay cliches to their most outlandish. “I’m broke as shit. I’m not changing the way I dress. I refuse to wear a suit. I’ve had some kinky sex. I have tried drugs,” Exotic says on the show. (Well, damn, that’s me during Pride Month.)
Some gay men in polyamorous relationships are frustrated with the sensationalizing of Exotic’s non-monogamy. Tiger King includes a side plot on Exotic’s polyamorous relationship with his former husbands, John Finlay and Travis Maldonado. Their relationship ended after Finlay got a fellow worker pregnant and Maldonado killed himself in a freak accident.
“Their relationship is presented as a tragic joke. It’s another detail used to shock the viewer and other the characters,” says Cameron Huppertz, a San Francisco-based social media manager. Huppertz has been with his two boyfriends for almost seven years. “Most folks in poly relationships are a lot more boring than anyone on Tiger King.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Exotic enthralls us all. He’s a caricature of a real person. Exotic is a real-life, gay Joe Dirt — the lower-class David Spade character who valued persistence, autonomy and pleasure. “It seems completely possible to imagine a world where Joe Dirt developed into a gay poly tiger collector who eventually goes to prison for attempting to have someone murdered,” says Magdalene Taylor, MEL’s resident Joe Dirt expert.
Bell, who lived in Oklahoma until age 22, sees a unique queerness in Exotic’s old Southerner fashion. At first glance, Exotic looks like a dollar-store Diplo in his beige cowboy hats with flashy button-ups and gaudy jewelry.
“His style is a very specific look I always saw a lot of older men in Oklahoma wearing in certain parts of the state or at a Fourth of July parade,” Bell says. “I’ll give Joe credit for at least having consistently chaotic style.”