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Still boldly going…

For years, Star Trek actor George Takei had to hide his true self, but now he’s a leading light in gay activism and the winner of our Icon Award


George wears blazer, by Corneliani at Harvey Nichols, trousers, by Marks & Spencer, shirt, by Ted Baker, bow tie, by River Island, trainers, George’s own
Photography Leigh Keily Styling Joseph Kocharian

To say that George Takei has lived an extraordinary life is to do him an injustice.

His story begins with one of the most distressing experiences any young person should have to go through when, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, George and his family were sent to an internment camp along with other US citizens of Japanese ancestry. He was only five years old and would spend the best part of the next four years living in the enclosed community, which he regards more like a prison.

Those early experiences in the camp were the inspiration behind the Broadway musical Allegiance, which opened in September 2012 and starred George. But his most famous role came almost 50 years earlier, in 1966, when he was cast as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV series, created by Gene Roddenberry.

Now 81, George recalls the major events of the Sixties — a decade that transformed America: the Vietnam War and the assassinations of President John Kennedy, his brother and presidential candidate Bobby, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “Gene gathered us together and explained the idea of the series,” George says about his first day on set of the classic sci-fishow. “He told us: ‘This is the future. We live in turbulent times’. “Gene wanted to make a statement about our times, but you couldn’t make it directly otherwise you wouldn’t be on the air. So he came up with this idea of a science-fiction show and to use sci-fimetaphorically to make that commentary. The Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth, and the ship’s strength lay in its diversity, coming together and working in concert; that’s why he cast the way he did. “Each character was to represent a part of Starship Earth — I was to represent Asia while Nichelle Nichols [playing communications officer Uhura] was to represent Africa.” Although the show struggled to hit particularly high ratings in its first run, it earned itself cult status with the cast returning in 1979 for a hit movie, which spawned five sequels. However, all the while during his time playing Sulu, George lived a secret gay life, visiting bars and staying silent about his sexuality for fear of jeopardising his career. It was a starkly different time to today’s open attitudes. It wasn’t until October 2005, inspired by the political activism of the fight for marriage equality when then California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed same-sex marriage, that George came out publicly, revealing that he had been in a relationship with Brad Altman since 1989. Since then, George has been a vocal champion for LGBT+ equality, and has seen his popularity continue to rise — not just as an activist but also as one of social media’s wittiest commentators. As we meet George for his Awards shoot and interview in a South LA studio location that is worthy of a scene in Trek, his warmth radiates from the moment he arrives. He’s joyful and engaging, and everything we imagined our Icon Award winner to be.

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