TV’s Most Popular Reality Show’s Gay Connection
In the early 2000s television changed with an explosion of reality TV. American audiences soon developed a love-hate relationship with this semi-new brand of unscripted programming, which exploited the human experience in some of the most grotesque but fascinating ways. Despite the warning of media intelligentsia that reality TV would be the downfall of America, it continues to thrive - particularly with singing competitions like "The Voice" and "X Factor." But the one show that spawned these quasi copycats remains the gold standard of performance-based reality TV: "American Idol."
While shows like "Survivor" and "Big Brother" took any old average Joe and plopped him on a deserted island or in a big empty house, "Idol" was one of the firsts that started with a cast and rewarded talent. And Americans took notice: From 2003 to 2011 the singing competition was the most viewed show in the entire country; through eight straight years, millions of Americans tuned in to watch Simon Cowell and the other judges spit harsh comments at contestants looking to be the next Beyoncé.
The Trendsetting Miss Kelly Clarkson
Of course, not all the singers on "American Idol" were train wrecks (though those auditions were always my favorite part of the show). The reality show’s first winner, Kelly Clarkson, is one of the most successful "Idol" contestants in its 12-season run. Clarkson proves that the show is able to actually find talent that otherwise may have been ignored, giving anyone with a voice the literal stage to showcase his or her singing prowess to the entire world.
After winning, her single "A Moment Like This" blasted off and reached Billboard’s coveted No. 1 position for two weeks. But the single also broke records, beating out the Beatles ("Buy") for the biggest leap ever to No. 1 in Billboard’s history. The three-time Grammy Award-winner’s "Since U Been Gone" and "Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)" have become hugely popular gay dance floor anthems, and have earned her a place in the pantheon of gay icons.
Single for the majority of her public life, gay rumors circled around the first "Idol" winner Clarkson for years, something she openly acknowledged and never seemed to mind. "People think, ’Oh, she’s been single for too long,’ " Clarkson said in a 2013 interview with Cosmopolitan. "That’s kind of an insult to the gay community. Being single doesn’t mean you’re gay. But I’m never insulted by it, obviously. I mean, I get hit on by the hottest girls ever. Oh, my god, if I were a lesbian, I would be so in luck. But it’s just not my thing."
In August 2013, Clarkson (who made her mark primarily in pop) took her message of equality to traditionally conservative country music fans. The video for her top-20 Billboard country charts single, "Tie It Up," features the former "Miss Independent" as a wedding singer cut into footage of actual weddings, gay and straight.
Early on in the show’s run, Clarkson proved that "Idol" isn’t your run-of-the-mill reality show and that the winners, along with other contestants, can actually find success and fame in the real music industry. And though Clarkson is the original "Idol" winner, there’s no arguing that country sweetheart Carrie Underwood is the show’s top-selling contestant.
A Country Sweetheart’s Support for Marriage Equality
Carrie Underwood was crowned the winner of Season 4 of "American Idol" in 2005. Since then, she’s won six Grammy Awards and is a multi-platinum-selling artist. After winning "Idol," her debut album, "Some Hearts," stepped out of the boundaries of country music and found success in mainstream music. The album, which topped Billboard, came with singles "Jesus, Take the Wheel," "Before He Cheats" and "Don’t Forget to Remember Me."
Underwood’s success is unparalleled compared with the other "Idol" heavy-hitters. Parade magazine ranked the top-10 "Idol" winners, placing Underwood as No. 1 and pointing out that "according to Nielsen SoundScan, she’s the fourth best-selling recording artist of the last ten years, behind Taylor Swift, 50 Cent, and Michael Buble." She’s also sold the most albums out of any contestant on the reality show ... ever.
Like her predecessor Kelly Clarkson, Underwood has also been vocal in her support of LGBT marriage rights, often to the dismay of many of her country music fans, most of whom identify as conservative Christians. In a 2012 interview with a British newspaper, Underwood said, "I definitely think we should all have the right to love, and love publicly, the people that we want to love." Although the remark drew sharp criticism from some fans who tweeted that she had "ties with the devil," her continued support of marriage rights does appear to have hurt her popularity.
A few months after putting out her massively successful 2012 LP, "Blown Away," NBC officials announced that Underwood would star as Maria von Trapp in the network’s live broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "The Sound of Music." The show received incredible ratings, becoming one of NBC’s most watched programs of all time. The soundtrack reached No. 17 on Billboard, and though Underwood’s acting didn’t go over so well with critics, the overwhelmingly positive effect her star power had on the success of a risky venture cannot be contested.
From Screen to Stage
Underwood’s decision to take on an American classic musical was hardly a first for an "American Idol" alumna. Season 3’s finalist Jennifer Hudson took home Oscar gold for her portrayal of Effie White in the film adaptation of the Motown-inspired musical "Dreamgirls.
In 2007 Season 2 champion Fantasia Barrino received love letters from New York critics for her portrayal of Celie in "The Color Purple." Two years later, Season 4 contestant Constantine Maroulis received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for his role in "Rock of Ages." And while many Broadway industry insiders cry "stunt casting" when an "Idol" alum lands a plum stage role over more seasoned stage actors, there is no denying that more often than not, "Idol" star power equals box-office gold.
Taking to "the boards" has become commonplace for "Idol" veterans, so much so that Broadway is considered a dumping ground for when the record contracts don’t pan out as planned. Many former contestants - like Season 1’s runner-up Justin Guarini, Season 2’s runner-up Diana Degarmo, Season 6’s champion Jordin Sparks, Season 6’s mistake Taylor Hicks and disqualified Season 2 contestant and out lesbian Frenchie Davis - have enjoyed post-"Idol" careers on the Great White Way with widely varying degrees of critical success.
An anomaly to this trend is Season 2’s Clay Aiken, one of the most successful males to come from "Idol," selling nearly 5 million albums. Aiken, who came out five years after "Idol" in People magazine, has had five albums hit the top 10 on Billboard. The pop singer’s debut, "Measure of a Man," became the highest-selling debut solo since 1993, beating out Snoop Dogg’s "Doggystyle."
Like other "Idol" contestants, Aiken has dabbled in acting, most recently appearing on "The Office" and Donald Trump’s "Celebrity Apprentice 5." On that reality show, Aiken again fell short of winning, placing second behind talk show host Arsenio Hall. The singer has also been on Broadway - in 2009 when he joined the cast of the Tony Award-winning hit Monty Python’s "Spamalot" for a four-month run, during which he tirelessly raised money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, mostly through donations made by his middle-aged female fan base known as the "Claymates."
Adam Lambert: From "American Idol" to LGBT Hero
Clay Aiken isn’t the only openly gay "Idol" contestant to make the big time, however. It seems like it was just last season when Adam Lambert was belting it out on "Idol," but the spiky-haired, guyliner-wearing pop-rock singer placed second on the show’s eighth season back in 2009. Unapologetically gay yet never acknowledging it openly on camera, Lambert was consistently lauded by judges Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, Kara DioGuardi and Randy Jackson. Viewers would end up voting for the more mainstream (and straight) Kris Allen as the season’s winner. Post-"Idol," both men have released two albums, and though Allen has the title as an "Idol" winner, Lambert has sold more than 600,000 albums than has Allen.
Lambert’s biggest hit came in late 2009 with "Whataya Want From Me," peaking at No. 10 on Billboard. One of his most interesting recent efforts, however, is on Swedish EDM musician Avicii’s debut True.
Lambert isn’t merely focused on belting out powerful notes like Freddie Mercury - he’s also been a strong advocate for the LGBT community. He’s said in interviews that because he is a visible celebrity, he feels like he should bring to light the injustices faced by LGBT people.
The singer released a remix of his song "Aftermath" to Billboard and donated portions of the proceeds to the Trevor Project, which aims to end bullying and suicide among LGBT youth. Lambert has raised more than $43,000 for the organization and on a separate occasion raised funds for a number of LGBT groups like GLSEN, It Gets Better Project, GLAAD, the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Human Rights Campaign. The singer has also worked with the It Gets Better Project and has narrated a PSA about bullying.
For his efforts, Lambert received a GLAAD Media Award nomination in 2010 for Outstanding Music Artist. He’s won several awards for being an advocate, like the Equality Idol Award from the Equality California Los Angeles Equality Awards in 2011, and he was honored the same year at a PFLAG National Los Angeles ceremony.
Lambert’s LGBT activism continues still: this summer he headlined the Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade and Festival, and in May he won the GLAAD Davidson/Valentini Award for his significant contributions to promoting LGBT rights. He’s received other honors and awards throughout the year, and his pronounced support for the community has paid off: June 15 was declared "Adam Lambert Day" in Pittsburgh after he headlined the city’s "Pride in the Street" concert.
Opening the "Idol" Closet
Despite Lambert’s post-"Idol" activism, the popular reality show remains a closet for most of its contestants. Finalists Jim Verraros and RJ Helton from Season 1, Frenchie Davis from Season 2, David Hernandez and Danny Noriega from Season 7 and Crystal Bowersox from Season 9 were either in the closet or encouraged by Fox to scrub all lesbian gay or bisexual references from their online personae. One of the most notable post-"Idol" outings happened in 2013, when Season 8 contestant Nathaniel Marshall was spotted in gay porn under the name Jadyn Daniels.
Season 12 saw not one, but two firsts: top 40 contestant Papa Peachez, who was openly gay on camera, and Josh "DA" Davila, who partially identified as transgender, performing in skirts, makeup and heels.
"American Idol" isn’t the only singing competition program to see its contestants go on to bigger and greater things. Many may be surprised to learn that the "Call Me Maybe" hitmaker Carley Rae Jepsen came in third on Canadian "Idol"’s Season 5. The "X Factor" (both the U.S. and U.K. versions), created by judge Simon Cowell, has given us One Direction, Emblem3, Leona Lewis, Little Mix, Olly Murs, Cher Lloyd, Union J, Diana Vickers and plenty more.
Season 13 of "American Idol" - also known as "American Idol XIII" - is slated to premiere Jan. 15 on Fox.