For Johnny Skandros, it really got better. After spending his preteen Summerlin years being relentlessly bullied, he befriended some popular girls at Palo Verde High School and found the confidence to come out.
He graduated from USC and moved to New York City, where he decided to create a social app for guys like him—and to make a difference within the gay community. So he briefly moved back in with his mom and started Scruff, a popular gay dating app favored by, well, scruffier men and their admirers. The 3-year-old bootstrapped venture, which Skandros (who goes by the name Johnny Scruff online) started with business partner Eric Silverberg, uses GPS technology to enable men to find other men nearby—or on the other side of the globe.
Skandros is now back in Hell’s Kitchen, but he hasn’t forgotten his Vegas roots, which he shared in a recent chat.
You grew up in Vegas. What was your family like? I was born and raised in Las Vegas in a single-mom household. My mom is an elementary school teacher. Prior to that she was a violinist for Wayne Newton, and my dad was his drummer. That's how they met. Unfortunately, they separated when I was young, and my mother raised me. My mom and her mother (my grandmother) still live in Vegas. I have an amazing supportive family who I love very much.
You had a tough time in junior high with bullying. Do you associate that experience with the environment in Las Vegas? I think back in the early ’90s, when I was in elementary and junior high and high school, times were different. There wasn’t a lot of gay visibility back then. Homophobia was more prevalent. Las Vegas was especially tough because it was a very religious community, which I don’t think a lot of people realize. I just had a difficult time, especially in junior high, and the beginning parts of high school. People were not accepting. I was severely, severely bullied—junior high was the most difficult time of my life, in terms of bullying. Unfortunately, Vegas did not have a very driving gay scene, like LA and New York City.
Were you bullied less and accepted more after you came out at 15? Yes. Around 10th grade, I met a girl from New York City, Misha, who was pretty popular … and because she was popular, that helped other people, in a sense, like me. And shortly after, a group of girls from New York City moved here, and this one girl, Vanessa, she became friends with Misha and me right away. Shortly thereafter, being able to think about my identity and my sexuality and having someone like Misha and Vanessa there, who loved me—my first really good friends—I was able to come out.
This also came with the emergence of America Online, especially the [Las Vegas] M4M chat rooms. I would go on there and talk to gay men. It was my first outlet to meet gay men. [I was] able to self-identify as gay at an early age. I found the old gay coffee shop [Mariposa] in Vegas … and then Gipsy [nightclub]. I probably shouldn’t say that I was going [to Gipsy] at an early age [with the help of] good ol’ lick and stick [handstamp transfer]! But I would just go and dance.
Did you date guys before you left for college? I was focused on getting into college. I guess for me, the gay world was new, it was just about meeting people and gay men for friends. There were a couple hookups, of course, but I never had a serious relationship in high school. I did work my summers at Luxor as a lifeguard, and that was interesting. The first time I saw gay men was at the Atlantis party at the pool. That was my first circuit [party] experience, where there were tons of gay men in one area. It was overwhelming, but it was cool. That was an eye-opener for me.
Was the decision to start Scruff in 2010 based in any way on the sort of guy you were looking for, or the sort of guy you felt you represented? It was a little bit of both. When I first came out, there was a part of the gay community that was very coiffed and tan, and when I came out, that was in. But when I went to college and especially when I moved to New York City, [scruffier, more masculine guys were] what I was attracted to, and what I was becoming. When Scruff came out, I didn't realize how trendy or large it would become, especially on a global scale, but I saw a need for it, and the rest of the history.
I think when you go on Scruff, you see a different kind of guy than on the other [gay social] apps. They are a bit more masculine, and that can mean a bunch of different things. I know drag queens who are masculine. You see more of the guy next door. The Scruff team gets messages from people constantly about how friendly Scruff is compared to other apps. That’s saying something. We don't tolerate harassment or bullying; we take that very seriously. We want to be welcoming for everyone. We’re the first app with a transgender community. But with that said, you do notice a different kind of guy on Scruff, physically.
You must get a lot of attention. Is it all that it’s cracked up to be? I get it all from the community, and I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful they’re so opinionated. It’s helped me learn more about myself and the business. I knew I’d be putting myself forward, going out, doing Scruff events and being accessible to the community. I’m going to get haters and criticism. Over the years, since I was a kid being bullied, I have grown some pretty thick skin. The people I meet generally are very nice, have really positive things to say about Scruff. There will always be criticism, and that's fine with me. I welcome it. I can’t say it doesn’t hurt sometimes; they say things that aren’t true. But that’s the nature of the beast. I signed up for that. I’d much rather put myself out there with the community, with the gays, with the people who have made me successful, bartender-ing for them … than hiding behind a computer all day.
Has the newfound attention or just using the app translated to any dates or romance? There’s a preconceived notion with being a public figure … sometimes that’s scary to people. But I’ve met people who aren’t scared. I’ve dated several people … but I’m not set on meeting a partner now. I’m enjoying what’s going on with Scruff, traveling, and I’m waiting for that special spark.
Do you answer every “woof” someone sends you on Scruff? I try. I really do try. And if someone sends me a nice message, I try to respond. But I get a lot of messages I don’t have an assistant to respond. I do run a company and a lot of my time is running my company … It’s very humbling to go on Scruff and be known and thanked and be woofed at a hundred of times a day. It means people like me and I’ve done a good thing.
Does Pride—going on this week in Las Vegas—mean anything specific or special to you? My first large [Pride] experience was when I was in college, and that was an amazing thing to see … a celebration of life right out there in the open, in public. And after learning about the history of Pride and moving to New York City where the Stonewall riot happened, learning about that as a gay man, it’s significant and gives you a whole new perspective.
For me, Pride is about celebrating our past, present and future as a community. I’m really proud to see how much gay culture has grown in Las Vegas over the past 15 years and am proud to call it my hometown. The experiences I had as a young gay teenager helped shape me into the man I am today—from making life-changing friends in high school who accepted me for who I was and helped me “come out,” to frequenting my first gay establishments, such as [former coffeehouses] Mariposa and Mermaid Cafe.
What are your favorite hangs when you’re in town visiting family? I love the Garage, I go there every time I come home. Share is fun for dancing, and Piranha. Every time I've gone out, I've been treated very well with the managers, that's always great.
You told someone recently that you’d like to make the world a better place for LGBTQ people. Do you believe you’re doing that with Scruff? At the end of the day, Scruff is about connecting guys to one another and connecting the global gay community, and we’re doing that. Where someone can “woof” at a guy across the country, that guy feels he can’t come out while in college—they’re not in a large city; they’re in more of a remote area; they don’t fit in; they may be more heavy-set or rugged—and they see and talk to these guys on Scruff and they’re able to come out. I get those messages all the time, and that is very fulfilling. A close friend is transgender and his first friends are from Scruff. [When I was a] kid on AOL, the first gay people I ever met in my life were in those [Vegas M4M] chat rooms. That is one of the reason why technology has been significant for me. [When I was a] kid on AOL, the first gay people I ever met in my life were in those [Vegas M4M] chat rooms. The same thing is happening with Scruff. I hear these stories every day. I definitely feel I’m making a difference with Scruff.