The New Dreamgirl: Alex Newell

8.14.2013

By Shana Naomi Krochmal

On playing Glee’s transgender teen powerhouse.

Photography by Christopher Dibble

"I was kind of the Jennifer Hudson of The Glee Project,” says Alex Newell. Glee’s spin-off reality casting competition promises its winners their own storylines on the hit FOX show, and while Newell easily had the best voice of the dozen hopefuls of his season, at one point he only saved himself by donning a dress and a wig to belt out “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” — just as Hudson (booted early from American Idol) does in Dreamgirls.

“I don’t know why I didn’t win!” he says with an easy shrug. “But I must have done something right.” He scored a two-episode consolation prize on Glee’s third season as Wade “Unique” Adams, a rival school’s controversial, gender-bending star. That became three episodes. When school started up again last season, Unique was a recurring character, the standout among a new class of kids brought on as original cast members like Chris Colfer and Lea Michele started to age out.

Unique is the first transgender teen character on American television, and Newell has deftly carried her through head-to-head battles with her peers and parents (loving but concerned, they don’t want her to wear girls’ clothes to school — or play Rizzo in Grease), and the predictable real-world right-wing backlash (Bill O’Reilly ranted about Newell’s storyline on The O’Reilly Factor, claiming it was essentially promoting gender confusion).

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