David Custer, now an Emmy-winning out news anchor in Michigan, is confident in who he is today, but it wasn’t always that way.
Custer, who covers Flint, Saginaw and Bay City on WNEM during the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. news, stayed in the closet until his sophomore year at the University of Michigan-Flint when the double life he was leading caught up to him. He had a boyfriend at this point. In the car with his mother on the way to a birthday dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant, she suddenly asked about the necklace he was wearing. It had a rainbow flag on it.
“I started crying and she started crying,” he recalled. “I asked her not to say anything when we got to dinner. So it was my dad and two brothers, and it was the most awkward dinner ever. We were both trying not to break down again.”
Custer grew up in Goodrich, Mich., about 10 miles outside Flint. As a kid, he said he had posters of Whitney Houston all over his room. He knew he was different, which made living in a small town difficult to navigate. And being closeted until college made it even worse.
“I had a hard time in high school,” he said. “That was 20 years ago, and there weren’t a lot of people to turn to or people I could identify with.”
Out and on the air
By the time Custer earned his bachelor’s degree in communications in 2001, he was more confident in himself.
“My first job in Alpena, I think I maybe downplayed who I was,” he explained. “But when I came to the Fox affiliate in Flint, I worked with a great group of people, and I just decided when I walked through the door, having known these people for a week, that I was going to be my authentic self.”
Custer did well at WNEM. He won seven Michigan Emmys for his reporting work. And in 2016, Custer was promoted to anchor. Now, he has won his first Michigan Emmy in that category.
Being on the job — and on the air — has not always been easy, however. Custer said he’s received cruel calls and hate mail over the years.
“We had a woman call the newsroom,” Custer remembered. “My coworker [longtime WNEM anchor Sam Merrill] had just passed away from a heart attack. And this older woman called and was insisting that I must have sneezed on him and given him AIDS and that was the true reason he died.”
Some of the hate that came Custer’s way was downright comical.
“I had a gentleman telling me I should stop shopping for ties at the ‘gay store,’” he said. “And it became a running joke that we all wished we knew where this ‘gay store’ was because it sounded amazing.”
As he approaches his 20th year as a broadcaster, Custer said through it all, the good has outweighed the bad. Still, as social media has evolved over the past several years, he said it’s been easier for strangers to access his personal life.
“I’ve noticed that most of the criticism I receive online or in online forums is about me being gay,” he reflected. “It’s not criticizing my work. It’s just about me being gay. But on the flip side, I’ve had moms reaching out to me asking what they should do because they believe their son might be gay. I carry a letter with me from a man who said I saved his life. I cling to those things, and I don’t read the comments anymore.”
Meeting his icons
The first time Custer spoke with Cher was when she donated 100,000 bottles of water to Flint. When she came to Flint on Halloween in 2016, while also campaigning for Hillary Clinton, Custer got to conduct a one-on-one interview with her. He must have left an impression because a year later he was invited to go backstage at a concert in Washington, D.C. and chat with the legend again. This time without a camera crew.
“They allowed me to take my good friend and my husband [salon owner Dan Buccilli] backstage,” he recalled. “She again brought up Flint and how much she liked our mayor. She asked us how things were going with the water crisis. So that was an experience that was just unbelievable and incredible for someone that I had idolized my whole gay life.”
Then there was the time in 2012 that Custer got to go on national television and appear on “The Wendy Williams Show” to share Twinkie recipes.
“That was when she was talking about saving the Twinkie,” he said. “So because I had done a Twinkie recipe she had me come on her show and share what I had come up with. That was an incredible experience. She was fantastic.”
Custer’s appearance on “Wendy Williams” was a hit. “The segments ended up being funny,” said Custer. “We were talking about how my grandmother used to make chicken with Doritos and fry it. Wendy sidetracked because then she wanted to talk about my grandmother’s chicken.”
Other memorable experiences on the job range from skydiving to interviewing then Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris. “My job has just allowed me to do so many different things I don’t think I would have done in any other industry,” he said. When not working, Custer said he is happy to spend time at home with his husband. “He’s incredible, and he has to put up with my crazy career and being in the spotlight. He’s been the shoulder for many of my tears for the criticism. But he always gives the best advice and makes me feel better.”