Ramin Karimloo knows the audience he attracts.
The actor, best known for his star-making roles in The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, has long been Broadway’s resident beefcake, with all the baggage that comes with the title. When Karimloo began gaining muscle mass in preparation for his run as Jean Valjean, he documented his progress on social media, quickly gaining a cult following of fellow fitness fans and those that enjoy the aesthetic results. It didn’t take long for things to take a turn toward toxicity.
“I have a thick skin, but when I used to look at the comments–” Karimloo shakes his head, clearly at a loss. “I was bodybuilding for Valjean; I gained 20 pounds for that role, because of something I read in the novel. I shared it on social media. And yeah, on some level I was chasing the likes. In a roundabout way, it was marketing,” he shrugs, his head dipping slightly as he confesses, “and ego, let’s not deny it. Then one day, I woke up and saw what was happening.”
In recent years, the industry has begun to dismantle the legacy of body shaming and objectification that has been heaped upon female-presenting bodies. But Karimloo had inadvertently found himself on the male-presenting side of that spectrum, with lewd comments heaped upon him from every direction. When Les Misérables opened, a shirt ripping sequence that had started as a dramaturgically resonant character choice (“he couldn’t wear the brand of that number  for another moment”) became social media kindling, with many naming his interpretation “the hot Valjean.”
Things came into focus for Karimloo during an interview, when the term “Broadway Body” was thrown at him. The force of its impact was stunning.
“I couldn’t speak,” he recalls. “I mean, the idea of a ‘Broadway Body’... You just need a body! Humanity comes in all shapes and sizes, and so do the stories we should be telling. When I realized that what I was doing for the show was being seen that way, it was an eye opener for me and how I was posting.”
Still, the damage was done. Audiences immediately gravitated toward their new theatre crush, and he was forced to grapple with media requests that focused more on his body than his talent. Now, nearly a decade after Les Misérables, the association remains. While Karimloo’s characters are fully clothed far more often than not these days (Anastasia had him in a thick woolen trench coat, a stiff military uniform, and a loose-fitting suit), public perception still paints Karimloo as something of a male pinup. Despite his personal hesitancy, he’s had to make peace with this part of his professional life. In his current role as Nick Arnstein in Funny Girl (now set to close September 3), the opening of Act II finds Karimloo shirtless underneath a dressing gown, which he admits was a bit of fan service. When the role is played by any of his covers, they have a tank top on for the scene.
As Karimloo explains it: “It’s a fleeting bit of fun, you know? He hears noise, he quickly throws on a robe. Of course, in reality, he’d be wearing one of those old-school tank tops to sleep. But we had a discussion, and I don’t wear one.” Karimloo ducks his head, looking the picture of a bashful schoolboy. He explains that the topic had come up in the rehearsal room: “There was a discussion. So long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story, I’m trying to get comfortable with what people want from me.”
Karimloo no longer runs his own social media, and he has deleted or made private most of his photo and video content from before 2020. Still, he acknowledges that he must feed the beast on some level for his career. It’s a tough balance to strike. “Look, I know what my lane is, and what people want from me, but I have to be careful. I like creating stuff, but pumping your ego like that...” He rolls his shoulders forward, leaning in as if trying to take up less space. “I don’t think that’s healthy in the long run. You lose touch with reality.”
In recent years, Karimloo has been doing everything in his power to reconnect with the real world. While work often takes him overseas, his family is based in England. The pandemic was the first time in years he was able to spend an extended amount of time with his wife and children, and he learned to luxuriate in the small things, like the pleasure of his bare feet in freshly mown grass, or planting a garden to watch life grow.
“I don't know anything about gardening!” Karimloo lights up at the memory, “but I was out in the garden eight hours a day. I'd be out digging up plants, no idea what I was doing, but I would go out there to dig and enjoy the sun with my family and my dog.” At the mention of his family, he sits back, more visibly relaxed. “I don't know, I feel like I'm going through a massive transition in my life now. It’s hard to balance career ambition, especially when so much is over here, or towards the Far East and Japan. Digging in the earth helped me put down roots.”
Now that he’s back in New York, he wears a talisman to remind him to stay grounded. It's a small silver bolt on a metal chain, Karimloo spotted it in Japan, one of his primary performance locations (his Japanese fans adore Phantom, he says). Although the piece can appear quite masculine to the casual eye, there is a femininity to the design and its delicately carved floral motif. When he brought the tiny etched piece to the counter, he was greeted by two passionate-yet-respectful fans, who gave it to him as a gift of their esteem. Whenever this interview gets tough, he fiddles with it, the sensation of the chain pulling against his neck clearly centering him.
"Going to the gym is as much for mental health as it is physical for me these days,” Karimloo sighs, his features softening as he fingers the silver bolt. “It calms me down. What’s important is my happiness, and trust me, abs aren’t going to give me that.”
Now, Karimloo is gearing up to return to the role of The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, this time for the premiere Italian production. As a part of his agreement, Karimloo had to tease the return on social media, which immediately riled up the fanbase that had been clamoring for him to return to the role once more.
While most of Karimloo’s fans are as loving and supportive as the Japanese silversmiths, there is a particularly dedicated faction that engages in a far more possessive form of appreciation. Karimloo has to be careful whenever he acknowledges several of his friendships in public, due to different groups of fans spinning decades-long conspiracy theories about secret relationships and torrid love affairs. To them, he represents a very specific type of masculinity, where power imbalances and posturing outweigh kindness and compassion. While some of the characters he plays veer into that toxic territory, Karimloo hopes that fans know that when it comes to his life offstage, there is no room for such behavior.
“When I hear the term toxic masculinity, what I really hear is toxic insecurity,” Karimloo opines. “I do my best to be a strong, honorable man, but things get toxic when you take it too far. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it before, maybe in the way I acted or how I overcompensated on Instagram, but you can’t claim to be an ‘alpha male’ when you’re just being a dick.”
Karimloo laughs—a bright, unguarded burst of sound. “A lot of issues come from not being able to accept your vulnerabilities or insecurities or flaws, and especially mistakes. It hurts your humanity. That’s why I deleted so much of my stuff. Who was it helping? I know it was hurting. At 44, I feel I’m more of a work in progress than I was at 24.”
See behind the scenes of Ramin Karimloo's Playbill photoshoot.