Joel Kim Booster tricked you

In April, Joel Kim Booster was photographed arguing with a heckler who interrupted his comedy set at the Kennedy Center. Or it seemed that way, at least.

“The fact that I have to deal with this s—, at the Kennedy Center of all places,” Booster said in a repost of the photo on X (where his handle mimics his skeptics: @ihatejoelkim). Commenters decried the heckler, with one fan using “#StopAsianHate” and another saying “the DC gays are not sending our best.”

Then, days later, Booster shared a fan’s clip from his performance. The comedian had set up the whole thing using a volunteer from the audience. Fans’ concern turned to praise. They called the act “genius” and “so camp.”

A few weeks later, Booster sits in a small conference room at the Ali Forney Center in Midtown Manhattan, on a day filled with anxious energy. He’s fresh from “The View” and apologizes for the morning-TV formality of his baby-blue suit. While talking to the staff of the nonprofit that works with homeless LGBTQ+ youths, he apologizes several times for being unable to attend their gala in early May. Visiting the center was his way of making up for declining the invitation and learning how he could best help the group. The sensitive, risk-averse version of Booster at the Ali Forney Center is very different from the brash and confident persona he brings to the stage.

That persona proved a bigger point with his gag at the Kennedy Center: how art — and people — can be misconstrued when chopped into still photos and sound bites. Booster has experienced his fair share of being misunderstood, in the nearly eight years since his big break.

“It’s frustrating to have a million strangers just constructing different ideas and different pictures of you based off of very limited information,” he says. But “I was hoisted by my own petard, because I was the one who made my entire persona onstage.”

For a while, Booster’s brand was oversharing. “If I was feeling something,” he says, “everyone online would know about it.” This vulnerability and transparency used to be empowering. “Now,” he says, “it’s just like, if I’m feeling bad, I don’t want any of these f—ing lunatics to know about it, because they’ll just go for the kill.” Reading the vitriol online gets to him, to the point that even his boyfriend can tell when he’s scrolling through comments.

“I’m just worried all the time,” says Booster, 36. He’s also busy all the time. In between stand-up sets across the country, he’s in search of a director for “Again Again Again,” his sophomore screenplay after his 2022 Hulu hit, “Fire Island,” which was nominated for two Emmys. The second season of the comedy series “Loot,” in which he stars as a snappy assistant, finished airing on Apple TV Plus last week.

Growing up in Plainfield, Ill., outside of Chicago, Booster left home for good at 17, after his evangelical parents read his journal and found out he was gay. Even after graduating from theater school, he never envisioned himself as a comedian. But as he grew frustrated by the limited roles he could audition for as an Asian actor, stand-up became his creative outlet. His first stand-up set — as part of a variety show fundraiser for the theater company he was a part of — was a total hit, he says.

“Had I not done well that night, I don’t know what my life would look like now,” he says. “To this day, I am chasing that feeling.”

Booster worked for start-ups such as Groupon to survive as a 20-something actor and writer in Chicago. About two years after his Chicago stand-up debut, he decided to take the plunge and move to New York with $2,700 to his name.

His first break came in 2016, when he performed a nearly five-minute set on “Conan.” Booster has an unusual name, he told the audience, because he was adopted as a baby from South Korea by a White, Midwestern couple.

“I literally knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian,” he said, and the crowd roared with laughter.

The same year as his “Conan” debut, Booster started working for “Billy on the Street” stunt comedian Billy Eichner and was able to finally quit working odd jobs at tech start-ups. In 2019, Booster moved to Los Angeles and, after being cast as Jun Ho in the sitcom “Sunnyside,” used his first two paychecks to finish his student loan payments, which used to cost him more than rent.

And as his stand-up progressed, he also started to joke about how hot he is. He didn’t quite believe it at first — and he believes his audiences didn’t, either — but over time, he “reverse-engineered” his self-confidence.

“Fire Island,” a gay retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” that Booster wrote and starred in, was released on Hulu in June 2022, to critical acclaim. Eighteen days later, with the premiere of “Psychosexual,” Booster became the first gay American man with a Netflix comedy special.

“Fire Island” actor Torian Miller says the film showed how the queer experience is really a universal experience. “There’s romance, there’s heartbreak, there’s chosen family,” Miller says. “It is a romantic comedy first that happens to have an all-gay cast.”

Margaret Cho says she’s now being inspired by Booster, after he grew up being inspired by her work as a queer Asian American comedian. “It’s just so exciting to see comedians like Joel in this space,” Cho says. “We’re approaching that real feeling of diversity and people really taking diversity as a serious thing.”

Then came the premiere of “Loot,” in which Booster’s character is an extension of his stand-up persona.

Maya Rudolph, an executive producer and star in the show, says casting Booster in “Loot” was like “catching lightning in a bottle.”

“It’s always a fun game when he lets loose, because you don’t know what’s coming,” Rudolph says. “But I know it’s going to be so specific and hilarious. … He’s very, very bright, and it’s oozing out of him.

Hot? Sure. Idiot? Only for a joke.

Booster may have fabricated persecution at the Kennedy Center, but he also faces plenty of real adversaries, too.

Booster is unapologetically gay and Asian, but online trolls sometimes get in his head. They say he’s not fully embraced by either of the marginalized communities he’s a part of. They say he perpetuates harmful stereotypes in the LGBTQ+ community when he makes light of drugs, partying and sex.

Throughout “Psychosexual,” Booster periodically asks for feedback from Ben, a straight, White man in the audience who’s chosen to represent a demographic that Booster says makes up the bulk of his online trolls. As Booster interrogates Ben for laughs, he tells him, “I’m hoping you’re sensing that you cannot win here.”

His long-standing niche as the “hot idiot” has been a double-edged sword, he says. It built his confidence back when he didn’t find himself attractive, but he acknowledges how it could have contributed to someone else’s body insecurities.

In a 2021 episode of the “Off Menu” podcast, he mentioned that he sometimes drinks blended chicken breast to bulk up, sending his followers into a frenzy on social media. Even his “Loot” character shares the same practice: “I normally only really like chicken when it’s blended up into a protein smoothie,” Nicholas says in one episode.

But it has also invited false rumors that Booster has an eating disorder, which he has been quick to dismiss. A single joke doesn’t represent him, he says.

Regardless, he’s a worrier. He worries that he won’t be able to maintain the quality of his performances. He lives comfortably now, but he’s afraid his success could randomly plummet outside of his control. And he’s worried about what will happen if he becomes more famous, which will inevitably invite actual hecklers.

I’m very happy being a D-list gay celebrity,” Booster says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like if people — if straight people — knew who I was.”

So Booster has decided to let people just be wrong about him.

“I have a very strict do-not-engage policy,” he says. “I hardly ever respond to anyone’s tweets or comments publicly, or DMs for that matter.”

Instead, he’s finding joy in cooking. He’s also navigating his first adult romantic relationship, which has motivated him to prioritize his health over his work. Booster publicly shared that he has bipolar disorder in 2020, saying he’s “largely pretty happy” because of his support system.

“I got a lot of juice out of the turmoil that I would cause in my life when I was unmedicated, or not taking care of myself mentally,” he says. “I just can’t do that anymore.”

At the Ali Forney Center, Booster tours its colorful rooms, therapy offices and a kitchen stocked with Froot Loops. He asks its staff about donations, about replicating the center’s mission elsewhere in the country. What if teenage Joel had access to the support system here? He may have had less to worry about then, and maybe less to worry about today.

“The holistic approach is really important and powerful, and I think the results speak for themselves, too,” Booster says. “… It’s just so much more comprehensive than I assumed it would be.”

One could say the same about Joel Kim Booster.

Studio photos shot at Hype Studios Los Angeles. Styled by Ayumi Perry. Special thanks to Toma Kostygina and Sean Scheidt.

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