Michael Schwengel has played many roles in his life - professional model [NY, Miami, LA], actor, entrepreneur, programmer, designer, and now blogger/vlogger with his new website platform, OneMichael.
Whew, that was a mouthful.
This Wisconsin native, now living in Minneapolis, has had a circuitous yet always successful career. Alongside his partner, Artem, he founded a web-based software development firm, BestHive, which in three years, had two offices in Minneapolis and Pakistan and over 25 employees. Now he's pursuing his creative interests with his career in acting/voice acting and his new OneMichael platform.
So how exactly does a young man born and raised in the Upper Midwest learn to harness all these facets, these different personas, within himself? How did he grow into this man, with this life, with this dream?
I knew his story had to be more than just a prolific CV...
I wanted to learn what that story was.
Q: What has you most excited in your life right now?
The possibilities around the OneMichael channel that I’m working on right now, both the website and blog. It represents a very raw creative energy for me. It reminds me of how I felt as a kid, when I was eight years old and was in this really free place of expression. I was constantly playing with new ideas and… I wasn’t necessarily trying to create with the intention of making a statement or proving anything.
It was just this very raw expression of myself.
That feels similar to the foundation for the OneMichael site. It’s really strange because it’s so ambiguous right now. People ask what it is and I try to explain it... All I can say that I’ve talked to actors and directors, and talked about vulnerability and authenticity around those people. And that’s great! But to me there’s an energy behind it all that’s a bit more broad and which can go a bit deeper. I'm exploring that.
Q: What are you struggling with the most right now?
I’m struggling with letting go of how I think people perceive me. And letting go of a paradigm of values that I built within my own mind. I know that if I look out at the world and think there are restrictions on me, it’s all my own doing.
It’s a bit daunting sometimes to take full responsibility for that.
I’m in the middle of it. Especially around my physical appearance. I’m starting to get older, and I’m really...
I know, I know! It can sound trite, but it feels very present for me right now. I look at myself in the mirror and I think I’m going to lose opportunities professionally, especially in acting, because of the way that I’m aging. It’s that piece of exposing all of the little nooks and crannies within myself that I try and hide from the world...
...and if I bring those to the surface, in true vulnerability and authenticity, what’s that going to look like?
Q: What would you say to a young man or woman who wanted to be you one day?
Feeling inspired by your work rather than obligated or externally motivated by something that’s not you.
For instance, I worked as a COO for awhile. At some point, the inspiration ceased, and it felt almost like a role I was playing. It didn't feel like me. It was just a role that I was playing... and I was successful at it for awhile. But I didn’t resonate with it, so I had to move onto something else. So someone could look at me professionally and see me as:
a complete failure
a complete success
...depending on what their value system is.
A lot of my life philosophy is based on the idea that I can’t ever really know who I am intellectually...
...that the process of life is the stripping away of belief. I see life as a continual shedding of layers and skin.
And it’s a nonstop process.
At every time and moment in a person’s life there’s an intellectual concept of who I am. And at every moment that’s getting erased and stripped away and becoming less and less and less and less. To me that process feels successful because I feel happier and more free and more joyful as that process continues.
But a lot of times it means letting go of identities and ideas and beliefs that no longer serve me which other people think are valuable.
Q: What is the part of your routine that's most contributed to your success?
The most important routine that I have is meditation. Honestly. I’m able to make more clear decisions and act from a place that’s not just reacting emotionally, from a place of groundedness or centeredness.
I meditate whenever I have a sensation that I’m operating from a place that that doesn’t feel right to me. Or when I’m having a physical sensation that just feels off.
I meditate every morning for 20-30 minutes. And any time during the day if something’s happening where I need to get to my center again. Because if I don’t, I know I’m not in a place that’s helpful for me or anyone around me.
Q: Could you tell me about coming out as a gay man?
Michael: I first came out when I was 20 years old. I took a trip down to Mexico with a good friend of mine. I was 'straight' back then. While I was there, I met this guy in the bathroom at a nightclub who was bisexual... I guess I was away from home and I wasn’t living in that world... There was more 'free space.'
With this guy, I felt something I had never really felt before.
Long story short, he ended up moving from Mexico to Chicago. I ended up going down to Chicago every so often to be with him. He was my first gay relationship.
Around then, I came out to my family as bisexual. I guess I was still trying to figure everything out. They were fairly... ok with it? My dad was fairly ok? My dad is pretty religious. But he was ok. My mom was not really great about it.
Really, the timing of it was horrible. My sister had just gotten in an accident and I had been kind of distant from my family for awhile. I felt like I needed to be really honest about who I was and what I was going through. It may have been selfish to tell them then, but I told them at that time.
After that, I started coming out and getting more involved in the gay community. I began working at a gay bar in St. Paul called Camp Bar - and suddenly, I was getting all of this attention!!! I felt really good about myself! Really great!
For years I had been suffering from really severe anxiety. Really bad. I was medicated and having panic attacks and agoraphobia and wasn’t coming out of the house and wasn’t going to classes... but now, I finally felt accepted and valued.
I kind of got addicted to that feeling.
I started doing modeling. I worked in New York and Miami and... We can go back to this later. But I had experiences with different photographers and people in the industry that were all a little bit too friendly with me and at the time... I didn’t really have a sense of… I had really low self esteem and I didn’t have really good boundaries set up at all, so I let people do things to me that I wouldn’t now.
***a brief silence***
I had several experiences with photographers that they got a little bit handsy and I let them because...
I just wanted people to like me. I know that’s a bad thing to do.
So nine years ago, I was 21. My manager moved me to LA, to stay with a gay porn producer he knew by the name of ***. And while there, I was trying to figure out this whole film thing I was supposed to work on. No, not a gay porn film.
While I was out there, I was lost and wanted so bad to just be something... to make something of myself... I just wanted so badly to be valued. At this time, I cut off a lot of ties with friends back in Minneapolis and with my parents. I wasn’t really in contact with anyone.
The film thing I was working on out there ended up falling through. But I ended up staying in LA anyway. It was then that I started helping *** arrange male escorts. I helped line up escorts for these guys, for *** and some of these big players in the fashion industry. I mean, these young men would go to LA to be gay porn stars, but between working on jobs, they would fly out to these different locations and be weekend boyfriends for fashion heads and... There’s kind of this gay mafia thing that *** was very much involved in. I would send photos to these guys. *** was this huge, overweight man who basically lived on his couch. This was in Studio City, or North Hollywood, like *** Boulevard... And he was constantly coming up with ideas and schemes that he wanted to work on. A very interesting character I'll just say that.
Anyway, I became kind of fascinated with him, because he seemed to be all-powerful and connected to everyone. He was this grand wizard sort of character. He somehow got me to assist him for free. I mean, he started hooking me up with these all-powerful men for… well, to just go to dinner or whatever, but before I knew it I was kind of getting involved and escorting a little bit. I only did it a few times.
It was a really weird experience because I felt so powerful when I was doing it.
I felt like I had the world in my hands and I finally had control over something.
But afterward, I felt really disgusting and as if I had really sold myself out. It was a very strange kind of contrast that I was faced with at that time.
So finally, I was like: I’m going to get away from all this, I’m going to get away from ***, I’m going to get away from all these people.
So I posted an ad on Craigslist. I didn’t tell anyone my story. I just said I’m looking for a place to live.
I found a place in Marina del Rey. The guy there who rented it ended up being a talent manager - he was like, 'Have you ever thought about being an actor? What do you say?' So I ended up in a really strange situation with him for several months, where I was renting this place, but kind of working as his assistant, while he was trying to like groom me as one of his actors. It was really kind of fucked up. And it was the final straw of that whole thing.
I just saw gay men as being completely manipulative and self-absorbed and narcissistic and superficial. That’s all I saw, that’s all I knew.
You know, I’d gone from the gay bars to the modeling thing to acting and gay porn... That’s all I knew that being gay was, and I was like:
this is not me.
I can’t be this. So I hit rock bottom. I really felt like I had gone after everything I had been searching for - this fame, success thing - in LA, and I faced the flipside of that coin, which is this deep, deep unworthiness, you know? And so I was just sitting with that, and I felt so empty.
That's when I started just getting back into spirituality. That's the way I was processing things at the time - that all of this was a result of me following this gay identity which was false. I started reading all of these gay conversion books and these gay reparative therapy books and started talking to the authors of those books and getting involved in all these same-sex attraction online forums... and before I knew it, I had created this whole mission for how I was going convert myself to being straight.
So I left Los Angeles after the whole thing and moved back to Minneapolis with the plan to go back to school to finish my degree as a straight man.
***we both laugh***
Yeah... Holy shit. It was so fucked up.
So at this point, I’m back in Minneapolis, and disconnected from all the gay men I had ever know. I completely cut ties with all of them. I’m back in Minneapolis and have my apartment and... I was with this whole new graduation year and nobody knew me.
So I’m this 'straight guy' all of a sudden and I made all of these new friends who didn’t know that I used to be gay.. I actually created a whole new persona. I don’t even know how the fuck I did it. It was crazy.
But I lived out of this persona, and I started dating girls and I was super homophobic and believed all these people were doing the wrong thing... and I really, really, really knew what was right and what was wrong. And I became really miserable and really, really depressed underneath the surface of all of that. I started getting really sick. My allergies were really horrible and I just physically was not in a good place.
So at that time, I started seeing someone, because I was having all these physical problems – allergies and what not. And as we started doing work together, some of the first things that came up were all my shame issues around my sexuality, the stuff I obviously had repressed, all this judgment from the religious system I was living under...
And those started getting stripped away. My whole ideas about sexuality and gender - all of that just became really neutral. I was just like – oh, if I’m in a relationship with a girl or a guy it doesn’t matter.
...and I ended up meeting Artem, my current partner. And when I did, it was like: oh, he's a guy and it doesn’t really make a difference, because I love him a lot...
Coming out was easier the second time, because I was so comfortable with myself. At that time, my relationships outside of myself - my parents and friends - were all very supportive. They were like - oh you’re happy, we’re happy sort of thing.
So that’s the end of that story.
Q: What is the single greatest thing people can do to improve their lives?
Michael: To be conscious of the voices which are running you. I did an exercise with a teacher in Los Angeles where she had me break down my consciousness into different characters. And with that, I was able to see that my whole consciousness was being run by this counsel of voices.
Before that I had just thought: they’re my thoughts, they’re my thoughts, they’re my thoughts. And instead, I was able to break them down into – this is my grandma, this is my mom, this is the gay community, this is Hollywood… I basically did a stream of consciousness for a whole week and then started splitting up my internal conversations by these characters.
The outcome of that was to see how much of what I think is my own mind is really just a reflection of other people's thoughts and societal programming.
Once I was able to break the psychic connections with those entities and didn't have to take responsibility for those mental processes, I was able to find some freedom. That was probably one of the most freeing experiences that I’ve had, maybe in my lifetime… to really go through that and break that down.
It really just opened up so much space.
I can’t believe how much of my life had been spent just running based on other people’s programming. I mean: it’s crazy!
It’s crazy we all come to earth with such individual, pure souls with so much to express and we get so caught up in all of this fucking shit.
Like it’s insane how much of our lives is just perpetuated by this unconscious reactiveness - it’s insane! It’s completely fucking crazy that so many of us are not actually living at all. We’re just reacting and responding based on what we think people want from us. And a lot of times, those people don’t even exist - they’re just thoughts running around in our heads. Goddamn.
Ultimately, when we look within our own minds and say:
the world is this,
the world is that,
...those are our own thoughts. And when you can really acknowledge that... when you can take responsibility for the idea that you’ve created the world in your own mind and are responding to it... it gives you the freedom to start really questioning and challenging those beliefs and letting go of them so that you can start living - like really living.
It’s a constant process. That’s why I journal a lot. Because if I’m sitting around festering with things, I can sit down and write down the thoughts and see where they are coming from. That way I’m able to get some clarity with it.
Most of the time, that energy just wants to be expressed. So many of our addictions and compulsive behavior is just us trying trying our best not to encounter these ideas that seem so fearful. But they're like... they’re just a bunch of little scared babies that just want to be held, and listened to, and once you do that, that tension kind of drops away.
***we both laugh***
Q: What was the moment in your life when you felt the most alive?
My partner and I were in Israel recently, in the periphery of two terrorist attacks. Once while in Jerusalem, when we walked by the Jaffa Gate. Five minutes after we walked past the gate, there was this shooting that happened there. Some terrorists ran into the crowd with knives and started stabbing people and were on the loose.
The second one occurred the next weekend when we were in Tel Aviv. While we were walking to the movie theatre, a shooter shot up a restaurant and killed seven people. And this was in daylight - people just eating out on the street.
Going through that experience... it brings up a decision: am I going to become completely paranoid - where I see death as imminent and constantly try to find ways to prevent myself from dying?
Or do I drop into a total acceptance of the possibility that every moment could be the last? Accepting that death could happen at any moment.
And that was so visceral, so real... it wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. It was really, really feeling that at any moment, a bomb could go off or a shooting could happen, and I could be killed.
That total acceptance brought me into such a deep place of peace.
It brought me into such present awareness, that I was just so grateful for everything.
Like the texture of the tea kettle and the taste of the tea on my tongue... everything was so rich and so alive.
That reminded me what life is really about: being in that place of total defenselessness, where you recognize who you are can never really die, and where you can completely let go of importance of the body and all that stuff and just... be there, and just witness everything. I felt so alive. I carry that experience as a reminder to me, that that’s what’s real.
That’s more real than anything else.
Q: What would you say to someone who felt alone?
Michael: I would say go into that feeling. When you feel that feeling...
...you’re kind of on the brink of your own genius.
And I would say definitely move into it. It’s like your kind of small self or your inner child, rearing it’s head. Before you move into a new fuller expression of who you are and looking at the world. So when I have that feeling, I just sit with it, and feel the emptiness that comes from it.
Because when you sink through that, then… you know, loneliness is a feeling that so many of us are trying to constantly run from. Cause it feels uncomfortable to sit with yourself and to feel that low level of anxiety that all of us are trying to run from.
So just move through that and look at it as a gift rather than something that needs to be fixed. If you’re trying to solve loneliness by bringing someone else into the equation, you're not really solving it. You’re just temporarily putting a band-aid over it by thinking that you need somebody else to fill that void. When you move through that feeling of loneliness you move into a fuller expression of yourself. It allows you to connect with people on a more intimate level.
Once you do that, then the loneliness goes away... not because you’re trying to fix it, but because you’re learning a new way of relating to people.
Q: What's the darkest point in your life and how did you get through it?
Michael: I allow myself to experience darkness when it comes up. I don’t run from it. It happens every few months, probably.
From maybe a doctor’s perspective, they might think I’m bipolar or something. Because sometimes I allow life’s force to come through me and I take the ride. Fully.
To me, it’s hard to look back on my life and say this was the darkest point. Because when darkness comes up, it's always the darkest point in life. You know? Like when it happened the first time, that was the darkest point, and when it happened the second time, that was the darkest point, and the third time. It’s always the darkest. Because it’s always taking your current state of consciousness and contrasting your consciousness with emptiness and that’s what feels so dark about it.
Darkness to me is basically taking your whole construct of who you think you are and having something come up that questions that.
Like for example, my face is starting to sag, I think I’m getting a double chin, it starts to…
It’s fine, you can laugh! It’s funny, but it’s also serious. There are certain constructs which I’ve built in my life where I think my value to the world is based on my personal appearance. And now these ideas that I was perfect are getting stripped away. And then you're forced to ask:
Well if I’m not that thing that I thought I was, then what am I?
Now you’re facing all of those unconscious, uncomfortable emotions that lie just below the surface of your distraction device, of labeling yourself as x, y, z. Confronting that contrast can be a really dark place.
It's an experience of your true self presenting itself, but it takes the courage to move through it, I guess.
You’re dying to this part of yourself that you thought you were. And it can be very much a grieving process to let that go. That’s totally what it is. You grieve for yourself the same way you would for another person... After all, they’re both self-concepts.
Q: If you died today, would you have any regrets?
Michael: I don’t think so. I don’t really think that way. I always believe that I’m responding in each moment to the best of my ability given my current state of consciousness at the time.
I could say, yeah, I wish I wouldn’t have done this or I wish I wouldn’t done that… But at the same time I wouldn’t be who I am now without those things. To say I would have done it differently...
...it doesn’t feel truthful really.
Like in a weird way, I always feel like life is unfolding exactly as it's supposed to and I’m always responding the best I can. Otherwise, I would have responded differently! You know?!
***we both laugh***
To negate - to deny - reality as it’s appearing doesn’t seem to serve a purpose.
That’s the funny thing about the depression and the darkness and stuff… When you come out on the other side, the things that then happen in your life are things you could have never imagined, that never would have fit in that old paradigm of living. So I go back to thinking of when I was younger - all those visions of what I thought would make me happy in the future...
None of those things happened, but so many better things happened.
At the end of the day, life is not a linear thing. It’s like when you're in the car: do you want to be in drive or do you want to be in reverse? That’s the same decision you have to make in life.
It’s a conscious decision you make right now, in this moment:
do you want to be happy or not?
* interview condensed/edited for clarity and names of well-known public figures were redacted for anonymity
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Internal medicine resident at NYU in New York City with an interest in heme / oncology (cancer care).