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She’s known for seeing good in others. Why did she fear the worst in coming out to fans?

Creator of WBTV’s “The Good News” struggled to tell audiences that she’s gay

Social media star Kristen Hampton, opened up about how she purposefully hid the fact that she was gay from her audience for years.
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Social media star Kristen Hampton, opened up about how she purposefully hid the fact that she was gay from her audience for years.

The moment Kristen Hampton received the invitation to serve as emcee at the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund’s annual fund-raising luncheon two years ago, her knee-jerk inclination was to politely decline.

Not because she was afraid of public speaking or because she thought she’d make a poor host, but because she’s gay.

Being gay is something Hampton — then best-known by Charlotteans for her work as a down-to-earth, Southern-fried WBTV News personality — didn’t like sharing with the whole world. In fact, it’s not just something that she simply hadn’t yet shared with the thousands who watched her “Good News” segments and followed her on Facebook; it’s something she was actively hiding from them.

And her fear was that it would get out that she emceed an event with the word gay in it; that her viewers would find out she was gay; that they’d inundate her with horrible, hateful messages; and that, ultimately, so many of her fans would turn on her that this sanctuary she’d spent eight years building for people seeking stories drenched in positivity would crumble.

It was ironic: Hampton was always looking for the best in people, but deep down, she feared the worst in them. It was also hypocritical: She prided herself in being authentic with her audience, but felt strongly against coming out to it.

Yet after talking with some trusted advisers, she set aside her fears. There’s no logical reason that I shouldn’t do it, she told herself.

On May 24, 2017, in a rousing speech at the Westin hotel in uptown Charlotte, Hampton recalls that she “felt the fire” as she acknowledged those fears and encouraged attendees to support others wrestling to come out.

“I struggled with (whether to do) this yesterday,” she said in her closing remarks. “But it’s time to stop living a half-life, and realize that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Generations that came before us, and came out before us, and struggled before us. ... We need more giants.”

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“That acceptance — I just don’t know that I’ve felt that from large groups of people before,” Kristen Hampton says of her speech at the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund’s “The Happening” luncheon in 2017. “I mean, all my friends and people that I’m associated with, they know, and my family and everything. Of course I have their acceptance. But I guess not a lot of stranger acceptance in that way, and that was a really, really cool thing.” This Thursday, by the way, Hampton will return to speak at the 2019 edition of “The Happening” at the Westin hotel in Charlotte. Todd Murphy

Everyone leapt from their chairs as she finished, and the applause was thunderous. Afterward, a long line of people waited for a chance to personally thank her for her wisdom, her courage, her realness. Those closest to her sensed she might seize on this — that the acceptance she felt at the luncheon might give her the strength that she needed to stop hiding in plain sight.

But once that fire Hampton felt at the podium had cleared out of her system, she climbed down off the shoulders of those giants, walked over to the closet, and stuck one foot back inside.

It would be just shy of two more years before Hampton (who has since become a Facebook Live star thanks to a goofy weekly video series in which she tests gimmicky products) finally decided that her 800,000-plus followers were ready for the truth.

Or, more specifically, that she was ready for the truth.

“I get a lot of messages and comments asking me about my husband,” she posted on her page at close to midnight on a recent Monday, right before her 39th birthday.

“I don’t have a husband. I have a wife.”

‘Hi’ (blushing smiley face)

Hampton and Terra Thomsen originally met in 2008, when they were locked into serious long-term relationships with other women.

But Thomsen had always privately found Hampton hilarious and cute, and Hampton had always quietly thought Thomsen was so sweet and kind and cute, and six years later — after Facebook had become more of a thing, and after both had become single again — Hampton made her electronic move.

At first, she was coy about her flirting, just going through and clicking “Like” on scores of Thomsen’s photos. Then, motivated by a mutual friend who told her that Thomsen was “a hot ticket” and could get snapped up by someone else at any moment, Hampton took a more direct approach.

She typed a single word and a single emoji into a private message to Thomsen: “Hi,” accompanied by a blushing smiley face.

“And she freakin’ read it two minutes later,” Hampton recalls, “then didn’t respond for two hours. I’m like, ‘Oh my God! What have I done?’ And all I said was, ‘Hi.’ ... I was like, ‘She hates me. She hates me.’”

“I was in a movie — and it was not two hours,” Thomsen offers, as the pair laughs at the memory while sitting in the dining area of the home they share in Huntersville. “It was like 37 minutes.”

“OK. It felt like two hours,” Hampton says.

Less than two years later, on Sept. 3, 2016, Hampton and Thomsen climbed into dresses for the first time in years (and, they say, for perhaps the last time in their lives), tying the knot before about 80 guests as the sun dipped low in the western sky over Historic Rural Hill farm.

Kristen Hampton and Terra Thomsen on their wedding day: Sept. 3, 2016, at Historic Rural Hill in Huntersville.
Adam Brophy

But even though Thomsen was now, officially, the biggest and most important part of Hampton’s life — and even though Hampton was out to her friends, family and coworkers — they routinely had to put on a charade.

Thomsen says they were careful about public displays of affection as simple as holding hands, and Hampton says around strangers she’d almost always introduce Thomsen simply as “Terra,” being careful not to use the word wife.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Does it bother you?’” Thomsen says. “I think it bothered her more than it did me. ... I knew that it (her coming out to her fans) would happen, but it had to be in her way, and in her time.”

‘It’s like a refuge’

Hampton’s rationale for remaining in the closet publicly is complicated. But it’s best to start with a brief history lesson.

A native of Augusta, Ga., Hampton fell in love with television years before she fell in love with Thomsen, landing a job as a studio camera operator at her hometown’s NBC affiliate (the now-defunct WAGT) before moving to the other side of the lens as a reporter.

In 2003, she got hired by WBTV in Charlotte and returned to operating the camera, then three years later again was tapped to cover the news. Most of it was bad — murders, automobile accidents, fires, disasters, the economic downturn — and in 2009, she successfully pitched a clever bit of counter-programming: a daily segment called “The Good News,” which would highlight a single feature story every day aimed at brightening viewers’ days.

Her first story used hidden cameras to show how average citizens rushed to help Hampton every time she “accidentally” dropped a handful of change on a busy city sidewalk. The segment went on to become a staple of the 5:30 p.m. newscast.

In 2012, she added a “Good News” Facebook page as an extension of the brand, and immediately went to work cultivating online what she calls “this perfect empire of human beings.” Hampton was quick to ban trolls from the page, or anyone who brought an unhealthy amount of negativity to it.

“It’s a place,” she explains, “that a person can go to, to laugh, and to find positivity. It’s like a refuge.”

As it turns out, her focus on the good in people and the dismissal of the bad was a major factor in her decision not to ever refer on social media to the fact that she was gay, or had a girlfriend, or — after Sept. 3, 2016 — had a wife.

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It wasn’t shame or embarrassment, she says. It was a fear of her and Thomsen being bombarded by hateful messages, to some extent. But mostly it was this:

“I had created this amazing, wonderful, happy, zero-controversy place,” Hampton says. “If you want to argue about politics, there are 9 million other pages. If you want to argue about religion, there are 9 million other places. But this is a place that you can go, and you can feel better, and you can have your hope in humanity or faith in humanity restored. You are not bringing controversy to this page, ever.

“Well, what’s more controversial (in the South) than this?”

Liam Johns and husband Duane Danielson challenge one of society’s most ingrained assumptions — that only women give birth. The Charlotte Observer followed the year-long journey of Liam’s pregnancy to fatherhood.

In other words, she genuinely feared it could destroy what she’d built. She worried about losing half her audience. She worried about losing her job. She said it plainly, in her speech at the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund luncheon in 2017:

“A job in television means if people don’t like you, you don’t get to have a job in television anymore. So, to pretty much all those people that watch my stories, I’m in the closet.” But she also said: “It’s an irrational fear, and it’s disgusting.”

Thomsen cheered as loudly as anyone when Hampton finished, and says she thought at the time that her wife might finally be ready to make some sort of declaration on Facebook. But she didn’t.

And the next month, when a reporter from the Observer proposed writing a story building on some of the messages Hampton conveyed in her speech, she declined in no uncertain terms.

A (viral-video) star is born

“I just —” she starts, then stops to collect her thoughts.

“I didn’t want there to be a whole article that says ‘Kristen Hampton’s gay.’ ... Your brain works through all the awful things that are gonna happen. People are gonna say horrible things about you, people are gonna say horrible things about your wife. People aren’t gonna listen to your stories anymore. They’re not gonna hear positivity, because all they’re gonna hear is ‘Gay Kristen.’

“I didn’t want to be ‘The Lesbo.’ I didn’t want to be ‘Lesbian Good News reporter Kristen Hampton.’ I just wanted to be Kristen Hampton. I mean, I wanted to be able to talk about my wife, but ...”

It wasn’t in her way, or in her time.

Meanwhile, she was on the verge of another career breakthrough: Just weeks later, in June 2017, Hampton took her first stab at hosting a Facebook Live video. In it, she documented — with tongue firmly planted in cheek — a product test of a $15 “eyebrow stamp.”

She did another later that month, but then waited 10 months to try again.

This time? “Product testing the Facial Slimmer Exercise Mouthpiece (which is basically a giant clown mouth),” she wrote as the summary for her video. Her offbeat tutorial hit the internet squarely in the funny bone, and within a week, the segment had generated nearly 20 million views.

“Product Test Tuesday” was born. So was a viral-video star.

(One year ago, Hampton says she had 60,000-70,000 followers on Facebook. As of this week, she has 808,400 and change.)

With an exponentially larger audience to manage, she suddenly put even more pressure on herself to avoid controversy. And over the course of the next year, during which time she didn’t miss a single “PTT,” Hampton took great pains not to mention to the masses that she had a wife, and not to include Thomsen’s face or name in her work.

At most, Hampton periodically made vague references to a “we” — as she did late last summer: “We’re on a two week Utah extravaganza!” she posted in September, leaving fans in the dark about who she was traveling with as she product-tested the LifeStraw personal water filter and a bottle of dry shampoo.

(For her part, Thomsen says it didn’t hurt her feelings, but adds that “we were having so much fun and there are so many things that we could have shared together (on Facebook).”)

Then this past winter, Gray Television acquired Raycom Media — and along with it WBTV. Wanting Hampton to focus more on creating social media and digital content under the broader umbrella of Gray, she stopped doing “The Good News” for the Charlotte CBS affiliate around the time the deal was finalized.

As her internet fame grew, she got invited multiple times to do product-testing on the syndicated talk show “Pickler & Ben,” co-hosted by country singer/Albemarle native Kellie Pickler and Ben Aaron.

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Kristen Hampton, with freshly stamped eyebrows, on the set of “Pickler & Ben” in March. George Burns Jr.

Thomsen tagged along when Hampton traveled to Nashville for her most recent appearance, on March 28, she was introduced as her wife and they all spent a bunch of time sharing laughs backstage. But before going live on Facebook, Hampton privately pulled the hosts aside and asked them not to mention her wife.

“It didn’t specifically hurt my feelings,” Thomsen says. “I just felt bad that that even had to be said. And I guess I was a little bit surprised that that was one of the first things that Kristen told them.”

A change was coming, though.

‘Why are you stalling on this?’

In a lot of ways, it was just another Monday night spent hanging out in Hampton’s garage.

The door was rolled up, and Hampton and her best friend Shealee Cousino were sitting on chairs drinking in the cool spring air and a couple of cold beers. Thomsen, an independent insurance adjuster, was out of town for work.

The “Pickler & Ben” thing came up. Hampton recounted that Pickler in particular had pried at her for an explanation as to why she wasn’t out publicly, and Cousino sided with Pickler.

“Why are you stalling on this so much?” Cousino recalls asking.

Hampton repeated her fears — of not wanting people to say bad things about her or about Thomsen, of losing followers, of watching all of the good she’d cultivated turn sour.

“So what?” Cousino replied. “Who cares? If you can’t be who you are and be yourself to people who say and comment about how much they care about you, and how funny you are, and how much you bring a smile to their face ... then what’s the point of all of this?”

And then: “You also have to give people more credit.”

That pushed the exact right button. It just made too much sense: Hampton had spent most of her career trying to get people to see the best in humanity, and here was her best friend preaching that to her.

She sent Cousino inside. She called Thomsen and told her she was doing it. (Thomsen says she always knew that when Hampton finally was ready, it’d be when she wasn’t around: “There was just so much emotion with her and I making that decision. She needed to be in a less-emotional space.”)

She tapped out a draft on her iPhone. She texted Cousino to say she could come back out. Cousino read it over and made a couple of suggestions: Don’t use the word “sorry” or “unfortunately,” and mention Thomsen by name instead of just referring to “my wife.”

At 11:41 p.m. on Monday, April 29, Hampton sent this out to her hundreds of thousands of followers, along with her most treasured photo from their wedding day:

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“Everybody in the (comments on the) post is like, ‘Why are you guys laughing so hard?’” Kristen Hampton says. “And I was like, ‘Because we’re both in a dress.’ And not just a dress, but this really fancy dress. We’re just giggling and ... it just says everything about us. It conveys so much.” Facebook.com

“I get a lot of messages and comments asking me about my husband. I share most every honest aspect of my life here. There’s no reason you shouldn’t know, I don’t have a husband. I have a wife. And she is the most incredible human. And she’s half of who I am. Terra fetches things for me when I panic during PTT. She texts me a fix when I’m screwing things up. She makes my brain be peaceful. So if you’ve enjoyed my tomfoolery and shenanigans here, in part, you have her to thank. She’s my flashlight.”

The last line is from an analogy she’s said once came to her in a “half-dream” — “The person holding it has the light, and the person without it is in the dark.”

After she hit publish, she put her phone down, stepped away from it, and held her breath.

Something totally unexpected

Cousino blurted, “I’m gonna be the first one to comment!”

But in the handful of seconds that it took her to get on Facebook with her phone, there were already several comments and dozens of likes on the post.

Within a few minutes, she’d also lost hundreds of followers, Hampton says. By midnight, hundreds more had stopped following the page.

Cousino told Hampton not to worry, but Hampton wasn’t the least bit worried anymore. She was elated. “Do you realize what’s happening here?” she said to her best friend. “They’re just leaving. They’re not saying anything. They’re just leaving.”

No hateful comments. No ugliness. Sure, amid the scores of supportive messages were scattered comments from people who don’t believe in same-sex marriage, but even many of those said something to the effect of “But ... I still love you, I still love what you do, and I’m happy that you have found somebody to love.”

Says Hampton now, a few weeks and a net gain of about 30,000 followers later: “This will be one of those moments in my life — and hopefully I’ll continuously have these, until I die — where you’ve revealed things about yourself and you learn things about yourself and you shed falsehoods and preconceived notions and just negativity. And make yourself a better person.

“I think this did that for me. Because I do preach — and I believe — that people are far better than the first eight minutes that we see in a newscast. But sometimes in a circumstance like this, I have to be kind of hit over the head with it.”

That night, Hampton and Cousino stayed up for several more hours poring over the hundreds then thousands of comments adorned with hearts of nearly every color, and excitedly making calls to or receiving calls from Thomsen every five minutes, and generally celebrating just how wrong Hampton had been about people.

Thirteen hours later, she fired up Facebook Live to do her “Product Testing Tuesday” segment. The product she chose was Preparation H, which her producer claimed might reduce the puffiness around her eyes — from all the happy tears she’d been crying.

The bad news is it didn’t work.

The good news? For the first time in her career, she could really, truly, fully be herself.

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.

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