Arkansas Online

Renaissance man Shelton talks with us


“The pain was so bad the other day I was crying … That’s just honest, that’s just being authentic.”

Around an hour before daybreak on Dec. 18, Michael Dean Shelton is walking along the north bank of the Arkansas River Trail, talking into his iPhone and recording himself, documenting — maybe performing — his life for followers on social media.

He’s walking as he does most mornings; in an hour or so he’ll catch a flight to Miami where he says he is supposed to do more resting than working. But he’ll have his camera with him, so he probably won’t be able to resist taking photos and posting them.

“I love my city, I love my Little Rock, I love my river,” he says, as he focuses his iPhone on the Little Rock skyline. He doesn’t like the color of the lights on the state Capitol; he liked them before then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson changed them.

“They were blue, they looked a little naughty,” he says. “That’s probably why I liked them.”

Most times Shelton presents as an effervescent figure, one of those energetic souls who gets up early and accomplishes more before noon than some of us do all week. He is a familiar, cheerful figure near my home; I ran into him several times before we actually introduced ourselves. I assumed he was someone I had met years ago whose name I couldn’t recall at the moment. He has that effect on people; meeting him always seems like reconnecting with an old friend.

He is an actor, humanitarian, fundraiser, activist and photographer. Maybe a bit of self-promoter, though that might fall under the job description of several of the hats he wears. I have been impressed with his photography, which he posts on Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly known as Twitter) and elsewhere. He has a genuine eye.

He has lived mainly in Arkansas since 2012, though he seems to travel almost constantly. He’s currently working on his first photography book, photographing the nation’s homeless and working on travel

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He can be found at

Q. The first question I want to ask is how is your health? I understand that you’ve got some serious challenges and I’m hoping you can take us through what you’re facing. You’re always such an upbeat and dynamic presence that I find it hard to imagine that you are actually struggling with anything. Do these challenges focus your work in any particular way?

A. My health isn’t the greatest, honestly. Both physically and mentally.

Let’s start with mental health. In 2012 I lost my mama and the person I loved with all my soul within six weeks of each other. With it not only came complex grief but PTSD depression, grief and anxiety. To be fair, some of that existed previously; prior to my adoption, my biological mother and her husband abused me physically and emotionally. Back then therapy wasn’t normal; the line of treatment was to pray and believe that God would somehow cure you.

After suffering the loss of two people I loved, the house of cards came tumbling down. Gratefully I found in 2013 a great therapist in Little Rock who helped me begin the road to healing and learning how to move forward. It’s not a linear process, and when my daddy passed in 2018 I digressed, for a lack of a better word, and with that came shame and frustration. I turned to methods I thought I never would, including suicidal attempts and selfharm.

I chose to enter a private treatment facility, and in 2021 I became a patient of Dr. Jane Kang … who is working with my therapist and myself to create a path forward which includes medication, a holistic approach such as yoga, checkins, and in-person sessions.

Yet as I was beginning to heal, to create healthier, life-affirming relationships, and to love myself, to realize it wasn’t my fault, I was diagnosed with … a vascular brain tumor that, at the last MRI done by CARTI, was just over one centimeter.

That complicated my mental health treatment in a variety of ways. The anxiety became worse. And the stigma that I’m being treated for mental illness has compromised the majority of my doctors view of my symptoms and my treatment. In the spirit of honesty, the shame is great that I couldn’t handle my parents’ and [my partner] Curtis’ deaths or that I was a failure for not being able to handle the abuse as a child which has complicated my path toward getting [the tumor] treated.

During the last two years I have had numerous transient ischemic attacks, been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease [an auto-immune disease that affects the thyroid], long covid after being infected three times, and pneumonia. The pain is at the worst it’s been, and I have begun to have tremors.

I want to be clear, though. None of this deserves pity. Everything in life is a gift. To experience life has a price, and that price includes heartache, sadness, pain and medical issues. Approaching it through those lenses helps shape everything I do as a means to creating a far better world than when I first entered it. Admittedly at times it’s not easy to fight a war waging from two fronts and I have my moments, but I’m open about it. By doing so, hopefully it will end the stigma around mental illness, encouraging others that our lives don’t need to stop as we heal. We can create memories and lift up ourselves and others by choosing to lean into the path less chosen into today’s society.

Q. You mentioned that you now only use your iPhone camera to shoot, but — based on the quality of your work — I assume you’re a trained photographer and that your credits go back to a time when you were using conventional camera equipment. What about your education and influences? And what do you see as the driving motivation behind your art?

A. This often shocks people: Yes, I use an iPhone to shoot, but I only started five years ago though I dabbled some prior.

For me, there is no training, nor do I necessarily want any. My degrees are in political science and history. … I did fundraising both politically and for nonprofits before stepping into the public eye as an actor while doing humanitarian work focused on LGBTQ equality, poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity. I was good at it — I was honored by Congress, the state of California, the city of West Hollywood and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, to name a few.

Plus I was a natural for reality TV and theater work — I am a goofball by nature. But photography saved my life — so much of what I battle is poured into each image, and I am still able to do social justice work. During covid I sold masks with images of Arkansas that went directly to the Arkansas Hunger Alliance (which, by the way, garnered me Arkansan of the Day by Channel 11).

I have spent the last year and half photographing and getting to know those living on the streets of Little Rock and those facing food insecurity as a means to bring awareness to an issue we as a nation refuse to address. And I do it whenever I travel. I believe that as humans we have a moral obligation to use our voices for the voiceless and, in a world where words don’t matter as much as an image with a short caption, I am up to that challenge. For me, photography not only helps create beauty in a divided world; it also brings light to places where we fail as a society.

One thing I find fascinating is that I get a lot of emails and letters thinking my images aren’t real, and I have struggled to figure out why. I believe the reason is that many of us just want the perfect selfie and ignore our surroundings. I recently took a 35-year-old to see a sunset and to watch her experience was mind-blowing, powerful, and awe-inspiring.

I start my days with sunrises and end them with sunsets, and in between capturing moments we often miss or that we have deemed flawed when I see them as beautiful. I shoot from the heart, and everything I am battling mentally and physically shapes each image, shapes my moral compass, all with hoping to create a far better world than when I first entered it.

Q. Why do you seem so drawn to Little Rock and North Little Rock? What is your relationship with this city and state? What draws you so frequently to the river and the marina?

A. My grandparents lived in Rogers, which started me on a deep love affair with the state of Arkansas. Later on in life, I did work with then-President Clinton. After Curtis died, I needed to be in a place where I could heal, where values were still deeply ingrained in society, in which our neighbors still mattered. It was also close enough where I could go visit my daddy who was battling cancer and Alzheimer’s. Little Rock to me symbolized all of what I was looking for.

My friends were concerned that after Los Angeles, the move to Little Rock would be disastrous, and I would eventually move back. It’s been 10 years going on 11, and I have no intention of leaving. The world may be changing, in my eyes for worse, not better, but here in Arkansas we still largely hold on to a value-based approach to how we live of which I am grateful for.

Plus it sits along the Arkansas River, which has my heart and soul. The water is where I meet God. It’s where I find peace in the chaos. It helps me heal. The river sits just a few feet away from Rockwater Village where I live. In fact, as I work on these questions, I can pause and look up from my desk to see it. And it’s more than just the river or marina — the village has wildlife and a deep sense of community.

You will often find me out chasing the storms or along the river with my camera, barefoot in shorts, occasionally singing praises to God. All just a few miles from the city that too has captured my heart. I will never regret being here. We have our challenges in both the city and state — rising food insecurity, homelessness and inequality. But if you care as much as I do for where you live, you don’t walk away. You roll up your sleeves and work on helping to create a far better Little Rock and Arkansas than when you first emerged in it.

Q. I notice your Wikipedia page describes you as among, other things “a socialite.” This makes me smile. What exactly is meant by this, and are you comfortable with the label?

A. I believe the label socialite has been applied to me based on my humanitarian work. It’s a term that’s a throwback to another time where individuals in society used their resources such as wealth, power, etc. to create change in the world. Sadly that term has become warped in the era of the Kardashians and Paris Hilton, where fame is far more important.

It’s not a term I like to be associated with, but sadly it’s a bell that can’t be unrung. I hope individuals will look past that label when examining my legacy and recognize that during my journey I did my best to make people laugh, to challenge them to lift others up who need a voice. It occasionally does make me smile. You take the good with the bad when you live in the public eye. And as mentioned above and below: Everything in life is a gift.

Q. What is the question you wish that I’d asked and how would you answer it?

A. How can those reading this feature change the world?

Live authentically. Be bold. Be courageous. Break the barrier in which we photoshop every aspect of our lives on social media. Share your battles. Throw out the labels that we use to determine the value/ worth of humans. Recognize that we are not meant to be homogeneous within our tribe. That our strength of humanity comes from the rich diversity of those with different faiths, different political ideologies, different races etc.

Furthermore, regardless of our finances or how society may place us, we have the opportunity to create good. Smile at the homeless person, make a plate of food for your neighbor at dinner, give up your seat on the bus to someone else, volunteer at a local soup kitchen. The possibilities are endless.

Be part of the solution, not part of the problems that divide us. Leave behind a legacy that inspires future generations.