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Max Parker: ‘People come out in different stages… I feel comfortable now knowing that I am gay’

Exclusive: After tabloid stories forced him to come out to his grandparents before he was ready, Emmerdale star Max Parker is ready to start writing a new chapter – and this time, it’ll be in his own words.

By Will Stroude

Words: Will Stroude

“Certain things have come out in the press and that’s their side of my story, but I’ve never got to tell it from my side”, reflects Max Parker as he kicks back on a sofa at Attitude’s studio after a shoot that represents both an end and a new beginning for the 28-year-old Emmerdale star.

“I think now, with the way life’s going and the way the world is now, it’s just a really good, happy thing to just be yourself. And I think that’s why now’s a good time.”

For Max, known to millions as Emmerdale’s brooding Luke Posner, today’s interview marks the final piece in a personal jigsaw puzzle that’s been 28 years in the making. While for many of us, 2020 has been a year marked by stasis, for Max – who just a few short days after our conversation is set to move in with his partner, former Emmerdale co-star Kris Mochrie – the last 12 months have been ones marked by great leaps forward into the unknown – even if, sadly, it sometimes felt like some of those leaps followed a shove.

“I think a lot of people come out in different stages”, continues Max, who in real life is a more cheekily exuberant presence than his soap alter-ego. “They’ll come out to their friends, their parents, family. What I’ve found hardest is probably coming out to yourself.

“I guess that’s why I’m here, it’s like the final stage of my – not accepting [myself], because I’m really happy with who I am – it’s more being comfortable to talk about it.

“I feel comfortable now knowing that I am gay.”

For people who aren’t LGBTQ, it can be difficult to understand the mental and emotional knots we often tie ourselves up in during our youth once the daunting realisation that we may be one of *those* people begins to sink in. Often, supportive friends and family simply aren’t enough to begin to unravel the complex, insular web of baggage we’ve already woven by the time we reach adolescence, or even later.

For Max, pinpointing that first pang of shame remains easy.

Max wears knitwear by Reiss (Photography by Markus Bidaux; styling by Sacha Dance; grooming by Rom Sartipi using Babyliss Pro and Murad skincare)

“At one point my parents sent me to dance school because my sisters were doing it and I didn’t really have anything else to do,” he recalls. “I remember once we ended up being cheerleaders for a local rugby team – this was when I was really young, like eight – and we had to walk around the side in our kit and get the crowd going.

“I remember seeing like, four boys from my school and just being terrified. I think that was the start of [it].”

In the town Max grew up in outside Manchester in the ‘90s, where “the cool thing to do [was] to have girlfriends and play football”, being a boy who was attracted to boys was to navigate your inner-most desires and thoughts alone.

“I remember my dad – he’s an IT technician – every so often he’d sit me down and [say] ‘There’s some things on the computer’,” chuckles Max, shooting a theatrical wince. “I was so embarrassed. I remember I searched online how to delete all of the [computer] history so no one could find it, and I deleted like, the main drive and broke the computer.”

Max describes his early teen years as something akin to a double life – juggling the ‘girls and football’ expectations of his straight friends during the week at school and, on the weekends, the more liberated, artistic environment of his theatre training. Though not out to the young gay actors he found there, and not yet experimenting sexually, he “found solace” in a tribe of people who better understood his creative temperament and urge to explore life beyond his hometown.

By 16 however, the gulf between these two worlds was becoming an unbridgeable chasm and Max “sort of ran away from home” to central Manchester, about 45 minutes away from where he’d grown up.

“I just wanted to go out and have fun and meet people who I hadn’t really been in touch with before”, he says. “So me and my parents had a bit of a – I think they thought I ran away because I was gay, and I didn’t want them to think that, even though maybe it was – so it was this sort of battle with myself [about] what was going on.”

He adds: “One of the main reasons why it took me quite a while to come out is because my parents are so accepting and they’ve always said to me ‘You know, if you’re gay you can tell us’, and I’m really stubborn and I don’t want to be proven ‘wrong’, so I was trying to prove to myself ‘No no, they’re wrong, I’m not gay’.”

Romantic liaisons with both guys and girls were now becoming a regular part of Max’s life, and by 18 he felt confident enough to share with a select few close friends that he was bisexual. But when just a couple of short years later he found himself in a serious relationship with a woman – one that would last for the next seven years and even see them buying a house together – his feelings for men once again became something he instinctively downplayed, both to himself and those around him.

“My ex-girlfriend knew before I was with her about my sexuality, and then as time went on I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to make her feel like people would ask questions,” Max explains.

“We still talk and [are] close and we really like each other, but I felt one of the main reasons why we did split in the end was because I knew that she’s a beautiful girl and she could basically be with anyone she wants, and I was stopping her from [doing] that.

“When you get to a certain age and people say, ‘You’ve been together for this long, are you going to propose, have kids?’ all those kinds of questions. It makes you think ‘Am I doing the right thing by not pursuing this thing that I’ve had in the back of my mind?’”

With time called on the pair’s relationship, Max finally began to restart the sexual exploration he’d put on hold at the beginning of his twenties. “There did come a point maybe about a year later where I thought ‘From now on I don’t think I can imagine myself being with a woman’”, Max says. “Something in my mind just changed.”

He adds: “In society, everyone’s like ‘don’t label yourself’ but there’s some comfort in [thinking] ‘What am I? Oh, I’m gay’.”

Max wears leather jacket by Tiger of Sweden, knitwear by Reiss, jeans by Mother, boots by Dr Martens (Photography by Markus Bidaux; styling by Sacha Dance; grooming by Rom Sartipi using Babyliss Pro and Murad skincare)

Demolishing the awkward wall of silence that had been erected between himself and his parents came soon thereafter.

“They were like ‘Are you dating anyone else?’ and I was like ‘Yeah I’m dating somebody’, and I kept referring to them as ‘they’,” Max smirks. “My dad was just like ‘Oh, is that because it’s a guy?’ and I said ‘Yeah’, and I just remember he put down his wine and gave me a hug. And then my mum was like ‘Show us him, then!’

“It was really nice, and we’re much closer now for it.”

Amid this period of greater personal growth and understanding, Max’s acting career was starting to take off with TV roles in the likes of Casualty and the BBC’s World On Fire – but a rising public profile only added another complication to his already tumultuous journey. Not yet out to all of his family and only just ready to navigate the world on his own terms, the idea of immediately letting the rest of that world in remained too great an unknown. Max’s first serious relationship with a man became an instant pressure-cooker when he asked that no trace of it be made public on social media – “which was unfair on him, really”, admits Max.

Then came the year – and the man, who changed everything.

“He was filming his last day on set and he was actually really late because of traffic, so they brought me in early and when I was getting on the bus to go back to the village he ran past me and was like ‘Hi I’m Kris, nice to meet you, I play your brother’,” Max recalls of meeting his partner Kris for the first time on the set of Emmerdale. “That was the first time we met.”

Max had landed his breakout TV role playing Kris’s onscreen brother Luke Posner just as Kris’s own storyline as Lee Posner was coming to an end. Though they shared no screen time together, their brief encounter backstage left a lasting impression.

“I didn’t know he was gay but I remember thinking he’s very handsome”, Max continues. “It was later I thought ‘I’ve never done Tinder so I’ll have a go’, so I went on Tinder and I saw him pop up, and I was like ‘OK this is a sign’ – so I made the first move by sending a message on Instagram.”

Max wears knitwear by Reiss (Photography by Markus Bidaux; styling by Sacha Dance; grooming by Rom Sartipi using Babyliss Pro and Murad skincare)

Max, whose demeanour has been pensive and reflective while discussing the details of their journey to self-acceptance, bursts into life with a kind of bashful buoyancy whenever the subject of his now live-in boyfriend comes up over the course of our chat.

“It’s good when it’s a surprise”, he grins. “I didn’t know he was gay and I didn’t know that he would fancy me, but then he did…

“We’re quite similar – obviously we played brothers in the show so we’re similar like that, but we’re quite similar in our stories as well. It’s really nice, all of his family are really close so he’s quite similar to me in that he’s had support from all of them.”

While still firmly in the early days of dating, Max and Kris were forced to deal with the media trappings that come as two dashing young actors on one of British TV’s most-watched soaps – and former onscreen siblings at that.

While the pair had appeared in the odd picture together on Instagram, there was little to outwardly suggest that the pair’s relationship was romantic – not least because Max had never publicly discussed his sexuality or personal life.

Before long though, quotes and tip-offs from industry ‘sources’ aware the pair were dating gave the tabloids the green light they needed, and initial trickles of speculative online pieces quickly became a tidal wave of newspaper inches about Emmerdale’s ‘Brothers to lovers’.

For Max, who was still not out to his grandparents, it was a difficult time.

“There was literally a page of Kylie Minogue, Kim Kardashian and me and Kris on the same page,” he recollects. “I don’t know what newspaper it was, but I knew my grandparents read it, so I was like ‘I’m gonna to have to tell them’.”

Max wears shirt by Rag & Bone, trousers by Reiss, trainers by Adidas (Photography by Markus Bidaux; styling by Sacha Dance; grooming by Rom Sartipi using Babyliss Pro and Murad skincare)

The ITV star goes on: “I never didn’t want people to know I was gay, I just didn’t want it to be an awkward situation, mainly because my grandparents didn’t know and I didn’t want it to come out and for them to find out [that way].”

“Which is why I’m quite upset in the way it came out – because it wasn’t my narrative, it wasn’t me saying ‘by the way guys, I am dating this person’.”

He adds: “Attitude magazine – which is one of the reasons why I’m here today – is one of the only magazines that sort of asked me, you know, ‘Is this OK?’”

The speed and scale of the media buzz that emerged around Max and Kris over the summer also put “pressure” on the pair’s still-nascent relationship.

“It was just quite sudden – especially in lockdown, things are quite intense anyway”, Max explains. “The public made it official before we had, really, because we were still only dating before these [articles] came out, we hadn’t really made it official.”

Thankfully for Max and his grandparents, the story had a happy ending.

“My grandma sent me a really nice message afterwards being like ‘We’re absolutely fine with it, glad you’re happy’,” Max sighs.

Max wears knitwear by Reiss (Photography by Markus Bidaux; styling by Sacha Dance; grooming by Rom Sartipi using Babyliss Pro and Murad skincare)

“I’m hoping I told them first. But I haven’t seen them in person since, so that’s the next step. I don’t know how that’ll be, you never know, [but] I think they’ll be fine.”

Despite the shock to the system of having his sexuality effectively revealed to the world before he was quite ready, Max maintains a remarkably level-headed attitude towards the events of the summer.

“When you go back to basics, it shouldn’t really matter: I’m with someone and I’m really excited, and I’m looking forward to what it’s going to be like – and if people want to know, that’s absolutely fine,” he confesses.

Indeed, Max’s future looks bright when it comes to his personal life, but with conversations about gay actors and casting decisions constantly a hot topic in TV and film land, I ask whether professional concerns about being out ever played on his mind.

“I’m quite lucky in my career that it’s really accepted by people in the [acting] community”, Max replies seriously. “I think a lot of people were scared that it wasn’t accepted from higher up. I had people who were scared that a leading man’s not going to be gay – but that’s changed now, I think.”

He goes on: “Russell Tovey has been a big inspiration for me; seeing a gay man do so well and being so versatile in [his] characters.

Max wears leather jacket by Tiger of Sweden, knitwear by Reiss, jeans by Mother, boots by Dr Martens (Photography by Markus Bidaux; styling by Sacha Dance; grooming by Rom Sartipi using Babyliss Pro and Murad skincare)

“I think certain people are like ‘I don’t want to be pigeon-holed doing gay things’, but I’d love to do that. I’d also like to carry on playing all different types of characters – try everything once!”

In the short-term at least, Max’s focus is on settling into a new home and – as for all of us – saying goodbye to a strange, unsettled year. I ask Max how Kris feels knowing he’s doing this interview.

“He feels good about it,” Max says. “He’s really supportive, because I was more the one that was always like ‘be careful what you post, keep your private life private’.

“I don’t know if he’s – he’s never said it – but I don’t know if he’s felt like he can’t do certain things because he doesn’t want to upset me. I think he’s quite excited to be more relaxed now – and hopefully I will be too.”

With the final, very public piece of that lifelong jigsaw puzzle now in place, does Max Parker have any worries about what’s next?

“Now? No,” he replies, a nervous grin inching its way across his face. “I’m quite excited…”