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Joosten ’05 Presents ‘The Gay Icon’s Guide to Life’

The cover of The Gay Icon's Guide to Life

After writing nine children’s books, Michael Joosten ’05 has something for the grown-ups. He said he feels the vocabulary, phrasing and style of his new book, The Gay Icon’s Guide to Life, is the closest thing to his own voice that he’s had published.

Joosten talked to Emerson Today about going from writing a board book for toddlers and teethers to penning a book featuring advice from Madonna, Elton John, Ariana Grande, and more.

An illustration of Elizabeth Taylor with a quote about being hungover
Illustration by Peter Emmerich

What is The Gay Icon’s Guide to Life?

Joosten: The Gay Icon’s Guide to Life is a collection of quotes from gay icons along with a pithy preamble as to how you can apply their advice to your life. Each of the icons also has a full-page illustration of themselves.

Why did you write The Gay Icon’s Guide to Life

Joosten: Having been an editor at Random House, I was always very cognizant of successful books in the marketplace that were inspirational/wisdom-based quote collections. The books that have a quote for each day of the year, books with quotes from history’s greatest minds. The list goes on and on. But I wondered why there weren’t more Queer-themed ones. Especially ones that were filtered through a humorous lens.

Michael Joosten
Michael Joosten ’05

What makes someone a gay icon?

Joosten: I think the magic mix is someone who has trailblazed, been unapologetic about who they are, and whose body of work connects with Queer audiences. They, themselves, don’t have to be Queer, though.

Who were your first gay icons?

Joosten: Without a doubt, it was Madonna. Although, I didn’t know she was a gay icon at the time because I was so young. In first grade, I took the “Like a Prayer” cassette (which had just come out – pun intended) and a little tape recorder into class and played “Cherish” for show-and-tell. I remember expecting everyone to have the same joyous reaction that I did when I first heard it. So, when nobody reacted to it at all, I vividly remember not being embarrassed about it, stopping the tape mid-song, and thinking to myself, “They just don’t get it. What is wrong with this class? Well, they certainly don’t get to hear the rest of it.”

Who are your favorite gay icons nowadays?

Joosten: I think the ones who have the most potential from the music world are Megan Thee Stallion, Chappell Roan, Kim Petras, and Jake Wesley Rogers. From the acting world there’s Paul Mescal, Jonathan Bailey, and Keke Palmer.

Illustration of George Takei
Illustration by Peter Emmerich

More than 70 icons are featured in the book? How did you assemble quotes? Did you interview them all??

Joosten: I wish I could have interviewed them all. Some would have required a Ouija board, though. I came up with an initial list of the obvious choices: Madonna, Judy, Liza, Cher, Tina, Elton, Beyonce. Then I expanded it to include icons who people may not think of right off the bat (Margaret Cho, Sylvester, George Takei, Angela Bassett, Cate Blanchett, Leslie Jordan, Amanda Lepore). From there I researched quotes they had given in interviews. Once I picked the quote, I’d write a humorous (I hope) preamble to it and then grouped them all into themes, which is how the book is sectioned. In the end, the book spanned nearly 150 years of Gay Icons.

Tell us about Peter Emmerich’s illustrations for the book.

Joosten: Peter is wildly talented. He was the only choice in my mind for the project. He loves honoring true celebrity through his work. The way he utilizes color and his ability to render dynamic movement in his pieces is unmatched. I don’t know what I would have done had he said no to this. I’ve known him for six years, and I will never stop fangirling about his work.

Illustration of Leslie Jordan
Illustration by Peter Emmerich

You’re also the author of children’s books My Two Moms and Me and Pride 1 2 3. How did your writing process for The Gay Icon’s Guide to Life compare to writing the children’s books?

Of the nine books I’ve had published, this is the first one that is not a children’s book. With board book and picture books, you have to always remember that you are writing for the youngest of readers. Your word choices, length of the text, and themes have parameters. With The Gay Icons Guide to Life, I didn’t have to think in that way. The vocabulary, the phrasing, the style. It’s the closest thing to my own voice that I’ve ever written.

How did your Emerson experience prepare you for your career?

Joosten: I, 100 percent, would not have had the editorial and writing career I do without Emerson. I was a Musical Theatre major! My senior year I saw that there was a course called Writing Children’s Literature, and since I’d always loved picture books, I decided to take it to fill my last course slot. It was, literally, one of those sliding doors moments where the course of my life was completely altered.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself, your writing, Emerson, etc?

Joosten: I have two more books that will be published in 2025. All I’m allowed to say at the moment is that one will be from Random House and the other from Simon & Schuster. 

Emerson, quite literally, changed the course of my life in such a wonderfully surprising way. With its broad offering of course subjects, I was able to explore something – outside of my major – that I never thought was possible for me. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Illustration of Billy Porter
Illustration by Peter Emmerich
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