Gogo bear, model and podcaster Hunter Harden opens up about his struggles with anxiety and depression and how his career has helped him cope with it. He also shares gorgeous photography with us spanning his entire career.
If you’re a regular at bear runs or bear club nights, chances are you have seen Hunter Harden tearing it up on the box. With his muscular, furry body and bejeweled bear head, it’s impossible to miss him! And you wouldn’t want to! Sexy and friendly, this gogo bear is there to get the party started and wants nothing more than to put you at ease and help set the vibe for you at the club.
When he’s not dancing, Hunter can be seen in a variety of modeling campaigns, most recently for Bearly Covered Clothing. He is also the cohost of The Real Housebears Podcast where he along with his husband Cory, better known as Papa the Bear, recap the entire Real Housewives franchise.
What many people don’t know about Hunter, however, is that he struggles with anxiety, depression and agoraphobia. He sat down with me to have a very open and frank discussion about his journey with mental health, how it indirectly led him into his career path and his relationship with the bear community. Check out our conversation below.
John: Hi Hunter! Thanks for joining me and for your willingness to share your journey. Let’s start at the beginning. What was your entry point into the bear community?
Hunter Harden: Growing up, I was always attracted to older, bigger, and harrier guys; dad-like kinds of people. I didn’t really know there was a bear community until I came out and started getting onto Bea 411 and Musclebear.com. It was through those kinds of websites that I met my first boyfriend who I was with for eight years. He was twice my age, and he is my best friend still to this day. We talk all the time.
John: And he was there when mental illness first surfaced in your life, right? Tell us about that.
Hunter Harden: It was around 2009 when the market started crashing, I was doing construction at the time, and I lost my job. I was home for about a year and a half straight. During that time, I started becoming agoraphobic. That’s where you’re afraid to leave the house or go outside. The longer I stayed home and didn’t leave the house, the worse it got. I couldn’t take a car to go down the street to Walmart, because what if I got in a car accident? What if somebody hit me? What if I hit a pedestrian and I had to go to jail for the rest of my life? Those things would start spiraling in my head, and it gave me terrible panic attacks. I was that way for a couple years.
John: That sounds awful. And this was happening the entire time you were out of work?
Hunter Harden: Yes, it lasted about a year or two. When the economy picked up I started working again and because of that I was able to start going outside the house again. However, it wasn’t long before I lost that job due to cluster migraines. I have really bad cluster migraines which at the time caused me to call out a lot from work. I was at a point in my life where I barely left the house and didn’t have any gay friends. Plus, I’d been in a relationship where we didn’t do anything but stay home. My ex was also sober, so I respected that, and I was sober as well. But something had to change.
Eventually around my mid 20s I got another job where I was able to take off as much time from work as I needed for my migraines without getting fired. And that helped me out a lot.
During that time, I also got to a point where I was driving again, but I couldn’t drive more than an hour by myself, otherwise it would give me horrible anxiety attacks. San Francisco was about a four-hour drive from Reno, where I was living at the time, and I started taking the MegaBus there on the weekends. I met some friends there that I would stay with. It started helping me to get out of the house and deal with my social anxiety in that way.
I still had really bad anxiety though, don’t get me wrong. I was having a lot of issues with my ex, with work, and with my migraines. My agoraphobia was still not really going away either and I was having a lot of issues with it and I still was having issues driving.
John: What ultimately brought you out of that headspace?
Hunter Harden: Modelling, believe it or not. One of my friends asked me to go to her house to do a photo shoot for her college class and it scared the hell out of me to be in front of a camera, to have somebody focused completely on me. I was really, really anxiety ridden. It was the exact opposite of what I needed or what I wanted in my life. I just wanted to hide. I wanted to be at home. I didn’t want to leave the house.
But, after I did this photo shoot, I felt really good about it afterwards and the photos turned out great. I had no idea I would be a good model. I kind of went with that and I started using modeling as a form of therapy for myself. If you’re afraid to go out of the house, afraid to be seen, afraid to do stuff, put yourself in in the complete opposite position. Like if you’re afraid of snakes, go buy a snake and handle it. I started modeling to help myself get out of my anxiety ridden brain and I was actually doing something that I was good at for the first time in my life. With my cluster migraines, I never had anything that was mine, any kind of career or anything like that, so modeling really, really helped me.
John: Wow! And look what it led to. What happened after that?
Hunter Harden: I started going to San Francisco and I started modeling for Mister S Leather, my first big gig. I met some bear friends in Sacramento that were into kink. We used to do spanking demos at the Bolt in San Francisco. That was also really thrilling for me, to just have everybody focused on me and watching, that helped me too. Performing and being in front of the lights is what was really helping me get out of my social anxiety.
John: That still had to be somewhat nerve-wracking, being in front of the camera..
Hunter Harden: Oh yeah! If you look over any of my pictures, I have a glistening look to my skin, but it’s just sheer sweat because I had so much anxiety at all of those photo shoots. It’s gotten a lot better now, but I was a dripping mess in the beginning.
John: Well, you still looked amazing and it’s led to a great career in modeling! What was the progression after Mister S?
Hunter Harden: From Mister S Max Sturgis picked me up, then Paul Freeman, then VENFIELD8 and a bunch of other really amazing photographers. And it just started spiraling from there. I just kept meeting new people and getting offered to do new photo shoots and meeting new photographers. I was doing really, really good and it was really, really helping me with my self-esteem. Along the way, I’ve just met a lot of really amazing, friendly people. A lot of bears which is why I do a lot of bear runs now.
John: Yes you do! And you gogo for a lot of them and at lots of bear club nights too. How did you get so popular on the gogo circuit?
Hunter Harden: Mainly through word of mouth, I’ve gotten a lot of gigs around the United States and Toronto and Mexico. Being able to dance at all these big bear events has been really, really awesome. But it has been a struggle too.
John: Tell us about that.
Hunter Harden: Back in probably 2015-2016, when I started gogoing, I was dancing at The Heretic in Atlanta. I was horrible at it. I just did a two-step. I was so nervous and sweating profusely. And I just did not have fun, and I think it showed.
After a couple of gogo gigs, I was at this one event, and I was dancing and I was trying this new move. I was kind of kicking my heels out and this group of guys sitting right in front of me was mocking how I was dancing, and it just sucked to watch this happen. They did it right in front of me, knowing that I would see it. So, I stopped gogoing for a year or two and I started back up in 2020, because I got asked by Daddy Next Door in Toronto to bring in the New Year with them. And I was like, great, let’s try this again. So, I started dancing again. What changed is that I stopped caring about what I looked like to everybody while dancing. I didn’t care about looking stupid on the dance floor and I just listened to the music, danced and had fun.
Queen Utica from RuPaul’s Drag Race was there, and she came up to me and she said, you’re not a gogo dancer, you’re a hype man. And I was like, OK, I like that. So now, I kind of consider myself more of a hype man than a gogo because I’m trying new looks without trying to be sexy. I go out there and have fun because if you show that you’re having fun, you’re getting the crowd hyped up, and that’s what you’re there for. You’re there to keep the party going. You’re there to have fun. You’re there to be eye candy as well.
John: And how has the reception been now from event attendees where you gogo?
Hunter: Harden It’s been such an eye-opening journey over the years, getting back into gogoing and having people that I used to be nervous to talk to come up to me and say that they were nervous to talk to me. That has been very surreal for me. It’s been very different from what I’m used to growing up. It’s been really nice, but there’s still a lot of toxic attitudes and toxic thinking in the Bear community. It’s mostly people being insecure and putting their insecurities out onto others instead of being like, you know what, maybe it’s me, maybe I need to go out there and try to talk to people more, or maybe I just need to keep working on my small talk with people, because it really is an artform. You’ve just gotta make yourself available.
John: Making small talk is one of the hardest things to do sometimes. But it’s good to hear that even a gorgeous muscle bear like you struggles with these things and your own self confidence. Most would assume that someone like yourself wouldn’t face those issues.
Hunter Harden: I feel the muscle bears get a kind of bad rep in the community. Granted some of them are very snobbish and stuck up, but a lot of them have a lot of the same nervous issues that everybody else has, so it makes it hard for them to communicate with other people as well. Whenever I meet new people, they’re always like, ‘oh wow, I can’t believe that you’re actually having a conversation with me, I mean most people that look like you don’t have a conversation with people like me,’ and it’s really upsetting to hear that stuff because I’m getting judged before people even meet me, just because I’m on Instagram and I’m a muscle bear. I look confident I guess, but I’m the complete opposite of it. I’m very shy. I have a lot of anxiety. I get anxious a lot and have self-esteem issues, but it’s something that I work on every day for myself with modeling and by going to all these different events and meeting all these new people.
John: Yep, it’s a daily practice overcoming those types of issues. Are there any other coping mechanisms that you found that worked for you?
Hunter Harden: Just keep on doing the same things that are helping you with your tics, with your anxiety. Find the things that make you feel safe, make you calm. Whether it’s watching a scene from a movie that you like, listening to a song that you care about, listening to a voicemail from a family member. That can really change the way your mind is thinking when going down the path of ‘what ifs?’ That’s my biggest thing: what if? What if this? What if that? I stop myself and try to put myself into a different mind space. I do that by taking myself out of the situation and then I’m able to be like, ‘OK, that’s irrational, I can do something different’.
In the end, I just realized that it was a conscious thing that I had to continuously work on for the rest of my life. And I can do that by getting myself out of the house. That’s what I do if I’m feeling agoraphobic. If being at home makes me feel too safe where I don’t want to leave, I need to get out of the house and do something on the weekend. I need to go meet up with some friends. Exposure therapy has worked best for me.
I’ve done talk therapy for my depression and anxiety in the past and I have definitely picked up tips and tricks, but agoraphobia is something I learned how to treat all by myself. Thank God for my friend Susan, who had me go model for her at her house, for her class, because I never would have known that I was good at it. And I never would have felt so free after I did it. I’ll always be grateful to her.
John: That’s wonderful. Thanks so much Hunter for sharing your story. Big hugs!
Catch Hunter Harden performing at World Bear Weekend September 21st – 24th !!