Where did this Steven Cojocaru come from and what does he want with us?

One thing has dawned clear for him: "I know exactly what I am to the 'Today' show -- I'm the monkey," he says, meaning J. Fred Muggs, the chimpanzee who appeared on "Today" with original host Dave Garroway. "It's 50 years later and I am the new monkey. That is not a great discovery. It's obvious." (More charitably, he has also called himself "the Cousin It of America's favorite TV family.")

Cojocaru's hyperactive, dishy, every-Thursday appearances on "Today" are ostensibly constructed around a light and snarky chat about style and movie stars and handbags and shoes and scents and necklaces and models and, as often as not, Jennifer Lopez's southern hemisphere.

Along with his unpredictable antics and florid designer wardrobe, Cojocaru (co-jo-CARE-oo) also appears to transmit, in the most unintentional and subtle of ways, a more modern message of post-homosexuality to "Today's" 6 million or so viewers. He is somehow stepping over the barbed wire that tripped up most of television's ancestral effetes, from Liberace to center-square Paul Lynde to diet guru Richard Simmons.

And the message is this: You're gay? Big duh. Now tell us what Reese Witherspoon puts in her hair.

Or the message is this: If anyone out there still has a problem with gay, they are unhip beyond repair. (Plus they're not very nice. See: Scalia, Antonin . . . )

"The world has become Mayberry to me," Cojocaru says. "I didn't know how people would accept me, or even if. To have been so ostracized, to have been called 'freak show,' and 'alien' and 'weirdo,' and 'what-are-you?,' to go through all that. I took comfort in being a freak show. I was nervous about ["Today"], more comfortable in my own little corner being the Marilyn Manson of fashion. And now it's like, not only am I accepted, for the first time in my life, I'm being embraced."

Late on a Friday morning, a freshly powdered and cheerful Cojocaru glides Gucci-booted into the empty lobby bar of the Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue, and he's the will-o'-the-wisp as interpreted in Bowie-esque glam-rock fashion terms:

He's wearing a brand-new buttery suede Roberto Cavalli jacket over a spangly-bangly $200 T-shirt by the same designer, and his flared vintage jeans -- vise tight through the hips -- have been mended near the crotch with a small square that reads "Kiss My Patch."

Off camera, he is but half a chimp and more a man -- a five o'clock shadow has a way of Flintstoning beneath his foundation makeup. He is speaking in a calm, beautifully low voice, businesslike and less jangled-seeming than his TV persona. He has about 85 front teeth. (He's a confessed whitening-strip addict.) He simply will not admit to being 40, but he is, after a spat with gossip columnists last month who nailed it down. He has warm, brown eyes; his long, blond-hued bangs (expensive okra hair conditioner!) twitch with each gently affected blink of his eyelashes.

It was "Today" host Matt Lauer who first referred to Cojocaru as "Cojo," and perhaps this was a straight man's harmless defense mechanism. It was as if pinstriped, guy's-guy Matt had reasoned that, if he could just nickname this alien visitor from Planet Nelly (Cojawhojew? Kajagoogoo?), it would be more palatable for the viewers, who are accustomed to a more regulating breakfast bran.

The first time Cojocaru appeared on "Today," in 2000, they had asked him to pinch-hit, live, from a Paris runway show. Almost as soon as he was on the air, Cojo wisecracked that he and supermodel Naomi Campbell had shared a hairdresser that morning, and Naomi was judged to be far less maintenance. (Cojocaru had his hair blown out flat and straight at a beauty salon on the morning of his bar mitzvah in the mid-1970s, and he has never looked back. Hair prep, a lifelong obsessive-compulsion, takes him an hour or two each day.)

Lauer tried to keep things focused on matters couture: "Did you see anything feminine?" he asked.

"Only the men backstage," Cojocaru deadpanned.

Katie Couric, rolling with the oddballitude of this new correspondent, remarked that Cojocaru looked like Prince, the rock star. Cojo swooned. He and Katie were instant gal pals.

Show, Don't Tell More of pop America also seems ready and willing to gal-pal, in a sense, with Cojo: In addition to his weekly People magazine column (he's the West Coast style editor), ABC hired him to do live commentary from the red carpet at the Academy Awards last month, before the Iraq war curtailed the pre-show. Cojo decided to save his venom for another, less somber year; after all, he apprenticed in evil dis-craft at E!, under the tutelage of Joan Rivers.

He has also written a new ultra-light autobio, "Red Carpet Diaries: Confessions of a Glamour Boy," about his journey from ostracized suburban kid to . . . well, to what heights exactly remains to be seen.

What is seen in the Cojocaru ascension, by discerning viewers, is that Matt Lauer now has no problem holding a handbag and making jokes at the expense of his own sense of macho, something it's hard to imagine happening 10 or more years ago. (Cojo and Bryant Gumbel? Tom Brokaw? It's difficult to envision.)

Lauer and "Today's" gastrically bypassed weatherman Al Roker are now conversant in Donatella Versace and Jimmy Choo, and the world is a little bit gayer. When Cojo visits, jokes fly about almost anything, including Lauer's chest hair. When Roker and Lauer dressed themselves in near-drag as tiger trainers Siegfried and Roy last Halloween, Cojocaru came on dressed in anti-drag, as Matt Lauer.

"Oh, look," he said, pointing to Roker's get-up. "It's Marilyn McCoo."

In the post-gay worldview, these unscripted moments can resonate better than anything cooked up by advocacy groups or the fictional, token-gay realms of "Will & Grace" or "Six Feet Under." In a clownish way, Cojocaru is a revolutionary, making good on the circa-1988 gay pride chant of queer, here, and used to it.

Smart, covert gay banter is taking over, without crossed signals or viewer protest. Cojocaru, who says there is no boyfriend or partner in his life, pretends -- on air and perhaps a smidgen for real -- to have a crush on Lauer (who is happily married). Lauer appears comfortable with this, under a safe sheen of mock hetero horror. Couric and news anchor Ann Curry turn into a giggly Betty and Veronica during all this.

"He's bold and fearless and that's what I love about him," Curry says, one recent morning after a "Today" taping, before she shipped out to the war. "The hair, the tight jeans, the flippancy. He's doing all these things you think would never happen on TV, and yet people in middle America feel very comfortable with him. He brings a terrific sense of humor to what he does -- this constant, self-effacing point of view, and you can't help but be charmed by it." (Lauer wasn't available for comment on the Cojocaru phenomenon.)

Ann Lewis, a producer at E! who first discovered Cojocaru when she co-created and produced "Access Hollywood," said she was always hard up for a fashion writer who could "really pop, really come across" on TV.

"Steven is exciting and so quick on his feet it makes your head spin," Lewis says. "Our show was on at 7:30 at night, when people are stirring their pasta, having dinner. He just has this way of being outrageous, but also okay. He doesn't have an agenda, but holy cow, he loves what he does.

"And, by the way, he's pretty dead-on about what he says when it comes to what the stars are wearing."

Cojocaru has never said anything publicly about being gay. "Isn't it obvious what I am?" he says, batting aside all theories about anything but fashion. "Would I even have to say it?" He stays away from gay politics. In "Red Carpet Diaries" he doesn't mention his sexuality or love life at all, describing himself (repeatedly) as freak, weirdo, alien, different.

Scott Seomin, the Hollywood spokesman/watchdog for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, gives Cojocaru a big thumbs-up for "having coffee and cereal with millions and millions of people who clearly find him nonthreatening and likable," however:

"Would I have liked Steven to at least mention in his book that he's gay [or] tell that part of his life story? Absolutely. It an important part," Seomin says. "Of course people figure it out as they're drawn to watching him. But that doesn't mean they should stay ignorant about it."

Curry recalls a recent morning when Queen Latifah was a "Today" guest, "and Matt was saying, 'The Queen is here,' and then he added, 'No, not that queen,' meaning Steven. What I think is amazing is how [Cojocaru] transcends being gay. He's just there, and some people in the gay community think he's too out there.

"There's just no choice but to love him," she says. "He was picked on as a kid and made fun of and yet he emerges as this sweet guy. It sends a message out there: If you can accept Steven Cojocaru, you can accept anybody."

Cojocaru believes he's still learning to accept himself. "All of this happened so organically," he says. "Matt and Katie just suffer the fool. They get it. . . . I think to walk around and talk about gay-gay-gay would just . . . trivialize what I am. Better to just be it and not talk about it."

An Epiphany

His parents, Amelia and Benjamin Cojocaru, emigrated from communist Romania to Israel, then to the outskirts of Montreal, where Steven describes himself as a lonely kid, who spent the bulk of his teen years in his bedroom poring over celebrity and fashion magazines.

"People meet my parents and say, 'No. No. This could not have come from these two sweet, normal people,' " Cojocaru says. "On one level, my parents are horrified by all of this. They are products of communism, the bleakest system of censorship you can imagine, where you lock the doors, you never talk to the neighbors, you never say anything. And here they have this son who is a loose cannon.

"But on another level, they are Jewish parents, so there's a pride you can't even put words to, a coming-out-of-your-skin pride. Now they have this pseudo celebrity back home. They are milking it like there's no tomorrow. My mother doesn't have to wait at the salon for a pedicure. She is Madonna when she walks in there. My parents have become the Ben and J. Lo of the Cavendish Mall."

Cojocaru has an older sister, Anisa ("the Jewish Heather Locklear," he calls her, in highest homage), who did not share his childhood passion for clothes and Hollywood.

But his mother did: An accomplished seamstress for hire, Amelia Cojocaru would mend the Chanel separates and Halston gowns of the suburban upper crust, and regale her 5-year-old son with stories of Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie O. She also kept trashy novels under her bed -- "Sidney Sheldon, 'The Happy Hooker' by Xaviera Hollander," he says. "You know, the classics."

Mother and son would comb through discount dress racks at the mall together when Cojocaru was a teenager. Mick Jagger was his childhood hero -- "The only person I wanted to be like when I was in high school," he says. "Unfortunately, Mick Jagger didn't happen to attend my high school."

The kids laughed at him and called him names on the day he showed up wearing wide-legged "elephant" pants in fifth grade. (Three years later, he says, everyone wore them.) It seems only one set of people hung out with Steven Cojocaru: popular girls, the adolescent equivalent of movie stars or Katie Couric. He advised the girls on everything, especially fashion.

He worked three jobs through his time at Dawson College and Concordia University in Montreal, and wrote fashion blurbs for small, local papers. He and a friend talked their way into press credentials to the Grammy Awards in 1987; they drove down to Los Angeles intending to stay a few days. Cojo watched the rock stars -- dressed badly, dressed wildly, dressed expensively -- and knew he wasn't going back to Canada. At a backstage news conference, Barbra Streisand looked out into the flashes, pointed at him, and took his question ("Is it true that you're thinking about recording 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'?") and he considers this moment divine.

He wasn't listening to her answer, but here is what he heard: " 'Move to L.A., bubbeleh.' "

He did, passing through a series of shabby apartments. Among many dreary jobs, he was hired to forge the autographed photos of "Night Court" sitcom actor Richard Moll. He read the actor's fan mail and pretended it was all for him.

Role Models

While Cojocaru stylizes the American Mayberry, the post-gay landscape is far from figured out.

The politicized left is adrift and stalled on the biggies (gay and lesbian marriage, adoption, military, Boy Scouts, etc.), while gay neocons keep insisting the civil rights movement is cooked and ready to serve.

Every few months there's another academic conference on subjects like "gay shame" and "gay identity." Social linguists right now are obsessed with the genetic and/or cultural origins of "gay accent" (or "GA"), the noticeable lilt in many gay men's voices that can be detected across languages, ethnicities and continents.

Reality television and news programs have been a boon to GA research, because television's nonfictional gay men are detectably gay, whether the man is out or not. The television homosexual is most often the style adviser and fixer, eager to revise his surroundings or to gossip. Cable has unleashed a troop of gay-seeming men who make over hair, redecorate rooms and monitor red-carpet arrivals. They talk about themselves a lot, except they never talk about being gay.

"I'm really of two minds about what's going on here," says Robert Verdi, the co-host of the Discovery Channel's "Surprise by Design" and himself an out man and fashion cognoscente. Verdi, with his shaved head and East Village sensibility, sports a far simpler screen persona than Cojocaru. (Verdi's GA is mid- to high-range; therefore, Cojo is off the charts.)

"Where are gay men on national television with opinions on politics, war, family, or anything besides the length of a skirt or the height of a heel or the color of a wall?" Verdi wonders. "If people in Peoria think this is the only contribution or way that gay men lead their lives, as self-deprecating fashion lovers, then it's unfair to the larger community."

Verdi, while admiring of Cojocaru's success and noting that "he's really a nice person," can't help but wonder if he, Cojocaru and others aren't perpetuating a stereotype. "I think we're at some early stage, like with any marginalized group or minority on TV," he says. "Example -- without 'Good Times,' there could never have been an Oprah Winfrey."

Says GLAAD's Seomin: "It's important that we have [gay] fictional characters, like what Eric McCormack" -- a married, straight actor -- "does on 'Will & Grace,' but it's just as important to have Steven Cojocaru, a real person, who is really comfortable about what he is. . . . Just let him be. There are lots of little boys out there who are being called sissies. It's good for them to see a sissy who can be buddies with Matt Lauer and become famous and get paid very well."

The Gang's All Here Though he might be the gayest human being on network TV, letting Cojocaru be Cojocaru seems perhaps a far better pleasure than conscripting him into being a role model. Cojo is the sissy triumphant, the monkey an audience can't help but wave to from the plate-glass window on Rockefeller Plaza. He lives in an oddly layered, flirty, fabulous world -- a place populated by red-carpet "demon" celebrities and fashion industry high priestesses who occasionally spit back at him. He treats them with the kindest fangs in return, but fangs nonetheless.

He is finished with the interview now, no more able to explain his success or mission, and choosing instead to just strut through this life. He is due that afternoon at Barneys for more book promotion. He says he really needs a vacation, one of those remote beaches he used to read about in celeb magazines. He wants to go with his tiny dog (Stinky B. Cojocaru), but, glamorously, he hasn't got the time.

We're left with taped "Today" show segments, like the one from the morning before:

Steven Cojocaru: Here's the surprise. [The bakery] made what I've wanted my entire life, a Matt Lauer pop tart, a Matt Lauer cookie.

Al Roker: That's right.

Matt Lauer: Oh boy, just give me that.

Roker: And they've got Steven Cojocaru sticky buns.

Lauer: Keep your hands off my cookies, that's all I can tell you.

Roker: Okay, this next thing is just ridiculous, this shampoo thing.

Ann Curry: What is it?

Cojocaru: Okay, again on the Oscar bandwagon, Charles Worthington, the London hairdresser, has come up with couture shampoo, the world's most expensive shampoo.

Roker: How much?

Cojocaru: Are you ready? . . . Fifteen hundred dollars. . . . It's made out of champagne chardonnay grapes and rare, rare truffles from . . . Jerusalem or something like that. It is limited edition, it's $150 and all the Best Actress nominees and VIPs get it.

Lauer: You just said $150.

Cojocaru: Excuse me. . . . One thousand five hundred. You make me nervous, sitting --

Lauer: Sorry.

Cojocaru: -- so close.

Lauer: I'm trying to smell it. . . .

Curry: Speaking of expensive items . . . this is a Fendi bag, and this is a hot new look. Why?

Cojocaru: This is a limited-edition Fendi bag. It's made by artisans in Florence. . . . Talk about wretched excess and over the top -- it is $11,000.

Curry: You're kidding, you're kidding!

Roker: I'm o-Fendied by that.

"The world has become Mayberry to me," says Cojocaru. "I didn't know how people would accept me.""I think to walk around and talk about gay-gay-gay would just . . . trivialize what I am," says Steven Cojocaru, whose "Today" show appearances have given him a national platform and now an autobiography, below left.Living in a flirty, fabulous world: Cojocaru at an Emanuel Ungaro anniversary party in December.