Last summer, Justin Russo spent time on Fire Island, and this spring he’s spending time on “Fire Island,” the new Logo series set on Long Island’s famed weekend destination, which premieres Thursday with back-to-back episodes from 8 to 10 p.m. One of six gay young professionals looking for romance while sharing a house in Fire Island Pines, he’s something of the show’s Italian den mother — and the only housemate native to these shores.
Born in Smithtown, the 30-year-old Russo grew up in Kings Park and, from age 16, St. James in what he calls a “very close, very Italian, the most supportive family,” including his only sibling, a sister. At Kings Park High School, from where he graduated in 2004, he “usually played a lead role in every school play,” he says, “and I was kind of an overachiever, very active in school life.” Nonetheless, “I actually did not come out [as gay] until I was 22 because I felt socially stifled on Long Island. Maybe things have changed, but I felt it was a little more conservative then, and I wasn’t comfortable with being open.”
Fortunately his family had no issue with his sexuality. “Family is family, and that’s what they told me,” he says.
During the casting process for the show, “We met with Justin immediately and fell in love,” says executive producer Albert Bianchini, 44, who has family in Farmingdale. “Of all the people on the show, I related to him in a big way as [a fellow] Italian from Long Island.” He proudly watched, he says, as Russo “lost weight, got himself in shape, confronted his body issues and saw what it means to be a gay man living on Fire Island in the summer.”
“I’m very good at being social and very open and out there,” Russo says, “but I think I struggle, as many people do, with growing and becoming who they are, and it’s an ongoing process. And the show is another step in that direction to being the full me.”
His previous steps included earning a bachelors’s degree in fine arts from New York University. After graduating in 2008, he worked on a New York City Department of Housing project in which he helped urban youths paint a jazz-themed mural in Queens, and he also was among the artists chosen to do program-book art for Billy Joel’s Shea Stadium closing concert. He worked as an assistant at Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki studio, and went on to become a part-time gallery associate at Vivian Horan Fine Art on the Upper East Side.
He also bartended at the now-closed XES Lounge in Chelsea, where he befriended the drag queen Peppermint, who appears this season on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” “She has some of my paintings,” he says. “I did a whole series on drag queens.”
For the past four years, he has worked at “an art advisory firm, but it’s part of my contract that I’m not allowed to say who I work for.” They at least didn’t mind his roughly two-month reality-show gig, he says, since “Fire Island” shot on the weekends on Long Island and on weeknights after hours in New York.
And regardless of how well “Fire Island” does with viewers, being on it has helped him immensely, Russo says: “My biggest take-away from being on the show is finding comfort and acceptance with who I am.”