In early October, Out sat down with Adam Lambert for an hour-long talk about his upcoming album, life inside the American Idol machine, and how carving out a career in the music industry is still easier for him than being in love. (Lambert and then-boyfriend Drake LaBry broke up following that interview, after Out went to press.)
In the first half of our extended interview transcript (read part two here), Lambert gives us a play-by-play from the center of Fox's PR storm, talks about his taste in men (hint: 'pretty' is pretty important), and gets graphic about just how far curiosity can carry you.
Out: Let's start off by talking about Lady Gaga.
Adam Lambert: I saw those pictures in Out, the Halloween pictures. They were incredible! I'm so refreshed by her. I think she's finally taking risks. Like where are those people? You know what I mean? I'm inspired by it. I'm like, 'Yeah, fuck yeah. Let's take risks.'
We all wanted those rumors that you would take Kanye's place on that tour to be true.
[Laughs.] Not true. It would be really fun.
Would it be the gayest tour ever?
It would probably be. The audience would be amazing, probably, at that tour. It's really funny to me because a lot of my core fans -- people that went to the Idol concerts, and I glance at the messages boards once in a while -- there is a surprising amount of them that don't like her.
And I'm like, but -- her way of approaching music is not that far off from what I'm trying to do. She's doing what the club kids are doing and making it like, Top 40.
What has that inspired you to do?
Definitely just to take risks. Sonically, the actual style of her music is, like, club music. It's not necessarily as avant garde as she's presenting visually, but that's what makes it so genius. It's a song that everybody loves and she's getting to play dress up and doing whatever the hell she wants. Which, I think, is what it should be. It's how you interpret it.
Is what you learned on Idol applicable to the real world of the music industry?
I think so, yeah.
Do you feel like you're having a different level of conversation with music execs?
When I stop and realize who it is that I'm talking to and what they've done, I'm like, holy shit. These people are powerful and they have a resume like'whew. I try to not to think about it. It's the same way I dealt with the show. Just don't think about the fact that there are 30 million people watching right now, just do your thing. Just stand on stage, sing for the people in the television audience, and don't think about the cameras.
How did you manage that?
I think that what I did on Idol was me thinking to myself, OK, I want to stay on the show as long as possible, so what do I have to do to keep people interested? For me, that was kind of going into slightly chameleon-like situations where this week, I'm going to do more like this, and sound like this. I was always me, but now I'm going to go here, now I'm going to go there. Because we had different themes, and that's what you kind of have to do. Trying to give it a through-line with me at the center of it, but playing different types of music. This week I'm not going to have any rocker style. I'm going to do Motown. I'm not going to wear any makeup, and I'm going to do my cleaned-up classic retro look. And people were like, 'Wow!' And I'm like, 'To me it's not really that different. I'm just wearing a suit, I just brushed my hair.'
Watching your performance on Idol, it was almost like you were using an old-fashioned code to say, 'We're all in on this.' Tell me which parts of that were deliberate.
There was never any deliberate, like, 'I'm going to hint now'' because I was never in the closet. The funny thing about dealing with all that was' [Long pause.] When those pictures came out online, I got freaked out. I was like, 'Great, that's gonna fuck things up.' 'Cause I just figured, you know, this is a national television program and people are conservative in our country, aside from L.A. and New York and a couple of other places.
I think for a lot of people, no matter how out you've been, you have these moments where you're like, 'How are people going to react?'
To be honest with you, it was a really weird moment, because I've been living in L.A. for eight years like, yeah, I'm gay. I go out to gay clubs and bars and I go out to straight clubs and bars too. I don't think twice about it. And it was the first time since I'd come out of the closet at 18 that I had to think about it.
During the audition process, it didn't come up? Like, 'Okay, I'm going to maybe pull this back a little''
I was just going to make it a non-issue, because to me, it really isn't about that. It's about the entertainment factor. And I don't understand why it has to be about my sexuality. I'm just not going to talk about it one way or another. It doesn't matter. And then when those pictures came out, I was like, you know what? I thought maybe I'll just own it and say, 'Yeah, I'm gay.' But I didn't want to label myself. What I did was, I said, 'I'm not ashamed of the pictures.' I didn't do the thing that some people do and say, 'I made mistakes in the past.' I didn't want to acknowledge it as a mistake or something I was ashamed of, because I'm not.
It wasn't like it was some hardcore sex tape that anyone, gay or straight, would've been kicked off of Idol for.
I was making out with my ex-boyfriend.
But that fear, that there's a queer double standard -- it's not always wrong.
It's a hard thing that everybody's gonna have their opinion about. You know? Some people in the gay community might look at it like, 'You really should've owned that. You didn't hide it, but you didn't admit it and that's weak.' My whole point is, I'm not trying to lead the fucking way for the civil rights movement that we're in right now. I just happen to be a gay man -- and I'm not ashamed of that at all. Regardless of how I handled it, it became a huge issue. And I knew it would. So I figured, you know what, I'm just not going to label myself, I'm going to own the pictures, I'm going to get past it and just keep being myself on the show. And then I waited until after because I was finally given the opportunity. I mean, on the show, we're not really [allowed to talk to press].
You've said it was your choice how to handle that. Even the most savvy gay people I know are dubious about you having that much control. How did it happen? Did you get called into a meeting?
Literally, the minute the pictures came out, the publicist for the show called me up and was like, 'So? Did you hear about these pictures?' And I was like, 'Yeah.' And she goes, 'What do you want to do about it?' She was really cool.
This is the publicist from Fox?
The publicist from Fox, [Jill Hudson]. She was like, 'You know, stuff like this has happened before, and this is usually what happens'' And I was like, 'Jill, I don't want to deny it, and I'm not ashamed of it. And I don't want to seem like I'm ashamed of it. Because that's not me. That's just not how I am. But, at the same time I really want this opportunity and I want to stay on the show as long as possible. So, I kinda have to come up with a compromise.' And she was like, 'Well, is it a big deal to you?' And I'm like, 'No.' And she's like, 'Well, then let's not make a big deal out of it.' And that's what we did. She was like, 'You know, own it. Tell them who you are, and just move forward.' And that's what we did. And I'm glad that I handled it that way, because I think that had I immediately said the words and labeled myself -- you know, said 'I am gay' -- I think that it would've been more about that, initially, than anything else. And the fact that we didn't come out and make a big announcement or anything like that -- that doesn't make any sense to me anyway. It's not an announcement. It's just, it's part of who I am. But because our nation is the way it is, it's an announcement. And also, there are very few gay celebrities. [Long pause.] It's really cool, now, looking back, because I think that without saying it, and making that part of my identity, I think I allowed viewers to be more open to me. I think, had I put it out there that I was gay right off the bat, I think that people would've closed their minds right away.
But wouldn't you say that it was a minority of people who were actually surprised that you were gay?
Yeah, I would hope. If somehow this can open people's minds or whatever, then great. I'm not sitting here thinking about ways to open people's minds. That's the thing people have to understand.
Don't you want to open people's minds with your art? You've struck me as being an artist who has a point of view.
I do have a point of view. I may have something to say now and again. I just want people to enjoy the song and have a good time. That's what music is about for me. It's not so political for me. I may be the subject of something that's so political, being that we're in a weird time right now. And if I can indirectly open people's minds up and get them to kind of change their views a little bit, then I'm really thrilled with that. But that's not my mission. That's not why I'm doing this.
You've talked about Idol as less of a competition and more of a platform. I've always seen Idol as a machine, like a political machine that can make or break --
Watching you was exciting because it felt like you were beating them at their own game.
We were all on the same page. I could feel early on that they were all on my side. They weren't against me. They never said, 'Tone it down.' They knew it was good for ratings, they knew people were into it. They encouraged it. I was like, 'This is great! This could not have gone better.' They were totally supportive of what I wanted to do. They didn't ask questions. They were like, 'What are you singing? Is it well known? Are people gonna like it? Well, cool! Then go for it, man! You're wearing what? All right!' They didn't care.
It's about money at the end of the day, right?
It's about making a good TV show.
Could expectations for your album be any bigger?
I know. It's a lot of pressure right now, and it's gotten to me a couple times. But, I think that what you were saying -- about the show being a platform and being a machine and all that -- I think what happens is, I'm one of the lucky people that have been in the industry a little bit. I haven't necessarily been in the recording industry. Over the past couple of years I started working on some demos and things like that and wanting to get into it. But I've been in the theater industry for a long time. And I've lived in L.A. for eight years. And when you're in the city of entertainment, and you open your eyes and you meet people and you hear stories and you have friends that have been through this and that, going onto a show like Idol, you get it, going into it. I think what happens is that a lot of people that they get are from a small town in the Midwest, or they were a student and now they just kind of sing on the side. The whole amateur aspect of the show is really interesting, because it creates accessible personalities for the audience to attach themselves to. That's why it looks like a machine. Because the machine has to lead them around, these amateurs that don't know what else to do. And I think that there are some people that come onto the show that are savvy, and they get how to play the show. And I guess that was me.
Have you gotten any really good pieces of savvy business advice?
Well, I've been told by a handful of the producers to just be true to yourself. Just make sure that you feel like you're at the center of this, artistically. That's what I'm trying to do. And it's being facilitated really elegantly. It's a weird misconception with the show, that it's a machine and they puppet people around. I think some people kind of end up getting puppeted because they don't really know how to drive.
I meant more like, they get to test you and see if you can rise to the occasion. As opposed to how you came in and were like, 'This is what we're going to do. Work around me.'
Yeah, they love that, though. It's less work for them. I think they get excited when they see someone with drive and ideas and confidence. They love that. That's the thing about the show that people don't get. They're not threatened by that. That's what they would love. They would love to get as many people like that on the show as possible. It would make for a good show.
It'll be interesting to see this year's show.
I hope they take some more risks. They really should.
So how are you doing with the expectation factor?
I'm just trying not to think about it. It's like, 'Just make your album, just make your music.'
When's the last time you had a full day off?
Yesterday. Hung out with my boyfriend. Went to the beach. Just relaxed.
Let's talk about boys.
Tell me more about your boyfriend.
You know, I try not to talk about him too much to the press because it's like, trying to keep something kind of private. It's surprisingly -- well, I guess its not that surprising, but it's very difficult to maintain a relationship amidst all this.
And it's all relatively new.
It's a lot to ask of someone, to be able to be OK [with it].
Has he been OK?
Were there guys hitting on you on tour?
No. The majority of fans that I came into contact with were women. A lot of women.
But you have plenty of gay fans.
I've met like, three. That's the thing that's so funny to me -- I don't have a good idea of who's into me, because the only people I've seen are like, women.
Maybe the gay men would never have gone to an Idol concert.
That's true, it may be the Idol thing. I didn't think about that. You're probably right about that.
I was surprised how affirming it felt to see you perform in a big arena, with 20,000 people screaming for you.
That's the thing too, is that in an indirect way, acceptance is being promoted right now. That's really, really powerful, and that's a hard thing to have happen. Especially for a male in the music industry, quite frankly. It's tough.
There's a way in which both you and Neil Patrick Harris are being talked about as exceptions to the rule, to the idea that there could never be an out, gay leading man or male musical star. You both seem very confident and comfortable with who you are. But that's not always true of your handlers. We've gotten plenty of push back from your management -- and many other people's -- who say, 'Well, let's not be too gay''
Well, you know, I think that there's something to that, though. I think the whole magic of this moment is that I'm not alienating anybody. I'm not trying to anyway. I want as many people to feel like they can like the music. I don't want to edit myself to the point where I feel like I don't have integrity. But at the same time, I feel like I don't want to alienate people, so it's really hard. It's almost like being a political figure. It's like a balancing act. I feel really good about how open I've been, 'cause I really don't feel like I've hidden anything. It's like the picking and choosing. When is it appropriate and when is it not? One of the things that I don't like about the gay community is that people define themselves by their sexuality -- and that's bullshit. It shouldn't be about that. It should be that it just so happens that you're this or that, and that's your sexuality. It doesn't mean that that should dictate what your social group is or where you go out or who you talk to or what your interests are. That's bullshit. That's outdated.
It's very narrow.
The segregation [from straight people] that exists in the gay community is outdated. At a time, it was necessary because we weren't accepted. And now that acceptance is moving way forward, over the past 10 years. I think that we need to move forward too, and I think we need to kind of like, stop being so segregated and just be.
How do you describe your sexuality?
I think one of the things about the gay community that's really interesting is that while people own their homosexuality, there is a strange aversion to letting the masculine and the feminine exist within you in a balanced way. And for me, personally, I feel I have a very strong masculine side, and I also have a very strong feminine side. And a lot of people are scared to live in that gray area. There's boys out in Boystown that are either really fem or really butch. It's at the extremes. I love when I meet people that are just kind of comfortable being both. And they don't have to identify being really butch or really fem. Why? Why would you have to?
And also, if you're one of these, then you must be attracted to the other. Are you attracted to guys like you?
I don't even know anymore. I think when I was younger, I could box in what my sexuality was about, what's my type and all that. But as I've gotten older, and just learned more about myself and the world, it's not really about type anymore. I mean, if someone's hot, they're hot. If someone's interesting, they're interesting. If you have an energy and a chemistry with someone, then you have chemistry. Done. You can't really define that or explain it. It just is. You just meet people and you click, or you don't. You know? [Pauses.] Although -- I like pretty boys.
[Laughs.] What kind of pretty?
Pretty. Pretty is pretty. And I'm generally drawn to [guys who are] younger than me. Generally'but there are exceptions.
You told Rolling Stone that you had a crush on Kris Allen, and everyone went crazy about it.
Believe me, right after I said it, I was like' It turned into this thing, and I was like, "Oh God, I shouldn't said that and now it's blown way out of proportion."
Are you usually attracted to straight boys?
Kris seems like a real straight guy.
He is a real straight guy. He's very straight. He's just'cute.
He's pretty. He's a pretty boy. You know? And he's nice. He's a really nice guy. One of the things that I think is so refreshing and cool about him is that he's from Arkansas -- and this is me being small-minded -- I just kinda figured that the acceptance of people like me in Arkansas is probably a lot lower than here. And he's very open-minded to people's lifestyles and he doesn't judge. He's a good guy.
To have someone who is very religious and who feels like that --
That's the funny thing, is that he's not very religious, I don't know where he got that label. Danny [Gokey] is very religious.
Did they put all the boys on the same bus?
Uh-huh. Eleven of us.
Let's talk about Michael Sarver, who seemed at first to be a religious guy who wasn't very comfortable with you being gay. But when the tour encountered 'God Hates Fags' protesters, he was all over Twitter condemning them and defending you.
He's got a really good heart, that guy. He does. And I think that he represents a large portion of our country, good people who are just scared of what they don't know. We didn't even have that many conversations about it directly, but it's just another example of acceptance. We just got along with each other. He just wants everybody to like him, and he wants to like everybody. It's very simple, what his needs are. And I have very similar needs. We cut up all the time, backstage and on the bus. We get along great. I think what he realized was that it doesn't fucking matter. And he got past that.
Was Danny very religious in a way that made you uncomfortable?
No, never uncomfortable. Danny's a little bit more fundamental in his views than I think Michael is. And I don't think his views are going to change. But it didn't get in the way. We had a number of conversations on religion and morality. And it wasn't for either one of us to try to convince the other, it was just to kind of learn. He was very cool with that, just having a conversation. We had some really deep conversations about God.
What did you learn?
I just got a better sense of what a very strong, traditional Christian outlook is. I don't really have a lot of friends that are that way, so it was educational for me to learn about what that is and what the beliefs are behind it. I was raised Jewish, first of all, and I'm not even that religious. I would consider myself spiritual, kind of leaning towards more New Age ideas. I'm not like, fully hippie -- but those kind of belief systems make the most sense to me.
Have you already gotten your scandalous past out of the way?
I do feel like a lot of its behind me, and that feels good.
So you're not waiting for another shoe to drop'
What's funny is that in the '70s a lot of the glam artists -- like Bowie, T. Rex, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, KISS -- they were gender bending with their image, but most of them were pretty hetero. Even though they looked really flamboyant. Bowie was the one guy that kind of made you wonder. But he was straight, right?
Yeah, I guess.
Yeah, I know, I didn't like that either. But that's the '80s for you. At the heart of it, the question was, 'Are they gay?' And I think it would be kind of fun to toy with the imagery of, 'Is he gay?' but the other way around.
Are you toying with perception when you talk about how you could be bi-curious? Or are you generally attracted to women?
I will make out with a girl at a bar. I mean, after a couple of drinks.
[Laughing] That doesn't make you any less gay. Get three mai tais in a gay boy and he'll make out with a girl. Sex is something different.
That's why I say I'm curious. There are gay guys that gag and go 'eww' at the thought of having sex with a girl. I'm curious about it, because I've never done it.
Have you ever had any sex with a girl?
You went down on her?
Was it gross, or it was just not what you wanted?
It was a little gross because I don't think she was as clean as she could've been. It wasn't the act of it that really turned me off. I don't really remember. I was 18 and I was drunk. Or maybe I was 17... The point of the matter is that I would not rule it out. The idea is intriguing.
And it's threatening.
Well, it's threatening personally because you start identifying as a certain thing for so long, the idea of kind of going outside of that is scary because you're like, 'But that's who I am!' Being curious and embracing that curiosity is all a part of what I'm about. You don't have to be any one thing. You can kinda just be. Just live your life -- and play.
If you were going to pick one thing to be remembered for, so far, what would it be?
That I can sing my face off. I mean, that's what I do. All this other stuff is part of a personality, persona thing surrounding that. I hope that people are like, 'Oh, I like his voice. I like his music.'
To read the second half of our extended interview transcript, head here.
To read Editor in Chief Aaron Hicklin's open letter to Adam Lambert, head here.
For more details on what happened when journalist Shana Naomi Krochmal met with Lambert and his team, and in part inspired Hicklin's letter, head here.
To see the Out 100 portfolio, head here.