By Aaron Hicklin
Two years ago, in the 2009 Out100, we anointed Adam Lambert “Breakout Star of the Year,” and shot him for the cover, alongside Dan Choi, Wanda Sykes, Cyndi Lauper, and Rob Marshall. In the accompanying editor’s letter I took the entertainment industry to task for the way they control and limit access to the gay press, using our experience with Adam’s publicist at the time as my example. In hindsight, I was mistaken to address the letter directly to Adam: Although the massive response from his loyal fan base started a valuable debate, my letter was received as a personal attack that muddied the message. Lambert rightly sought to defend himself, in part by demonstrating his independence at the American Music Awards, when he simulated oral sex and kissed one of his band members. A lot of time has passed, and we can look back on that firestorm with cooler heads—so cool, in fact, that we were able to chat together, something we should have done first time around. This year we are honoring Adam for the way in which he has held true to his identity as a gay man while managing a successful musical career, a balancing act that is no mean feat. As he told The Advocate recently, “No one teaches you how to be a gay celebrity.” In a very real way he is leading the way.
Adam Lambert: I heard your name and thought, Oh, here we go!
Aaron Hicklin: You know, I was putting this together, and I realized that it was two years since we put you on the cover of the 2009 Out100. It struck me as important that this time we actually speak to each other.
I agree. I have no hard feelings. That was then, and I’ve learned a lot.
I have too. And I learned a lot from the experience of using my editor letter [as a critique of the entertainment industry]—good and bad, frankly. For a start, I realized you have a gazillion passionate fans and every single one was determined to make sure I knew they existed [laughs].
Yes, they’re very verbal.
They certainly are, and some of them still communicate with me, and I’ve made an effort to respond to as many as I can.
It’s an interesting dynamic, because I think the thing that’s ironic about it is that the photo session for Details [in which Lambert posed, controversially, with a nude female model], the one that we were talking about, was kind of done to play out the fantasy of many of my female fans.
They have deep imaginations, and there’s a lot of fantasy fiction that’s written on the Internet. I try not to read it because it can be a little creepy, but I know it’s something they really get into. So, for me, it was like, OK, I’ve lived my entire life as a gay man; I’m very comfortable with that. And all of a sudden, I have the opportunity to do this photo shoot, to play the opposite stereotype of the straight, butch guy. I found it really interesting, creatively, and didn’t think for one minute that I was toning anything down or trying to change who I was, so much as playing into a fantasy that I knew was really, really present, having been on tour all summer, having women throw their bras at me, and all that crazy shit. I will say that, on the flip side, timing is everything. That’s one thing that I’ve learned a lot about this year. I was still introducing myself to the masses then and, to me, on my own personal journey, it seemed like an interesting thing to do.
Sometimes I’m not as objective as I could be, and I don’t look at things from the perspective of a first-time audience. That definitely was somewhat the case with the American Music Awards performance [when Adam simulated oral sex and kissed his keyboard player]. I didn’t quite put myself in the position of the viewer at home that had watched me on American Idol and, the next time they see me on TV, it’s that performance. The AMA thing was maybe a little too much, too soon, and the photo shoot for Details, although very beautiful, maybe it wasn’t the right timing.
But two years on, I’m curious about what you’ve learned about yourself in this process since you’ve, very transparently, gone from a contestant on a show whose success represented a radical breakthrough to becoming a superstar. It must have been pretty exhausting and demanding and emotionally draining in many ways.
Yeah, it was definitely a lot to take on. But whenever I would feel overwhelmed or stressed out, the thing that kept me balanced is that I really do appreciate the opportunity I have. If I was a little younger, I wouldn’t have dealt with it so well. I’m 29, and having been in the entertainment industry throughout my entire twenties in Los Angeles, I grew almost, like, a Teflon coating, rather than being a kid from Ohio just jumping into it.
So you were prepared to some extent?
No one can really prepare you fully. There were things I was very surprised by [laughs] and had to learn quickly, and had to learn the hard way.
And you probably weren’t prepared to have me pouncing on you…
No, but all’s fair in that game. I think it’s been character building, which is great, and it’s definitely put me where I’m at now. I think the hardest thing about being a gay celebrity is that we’re in the middle of a social rights movement and it’s a very hot topic, so we’re at a very pivotal time. Coming out was great, but there are certain issues that always surprise me and I think, Why is this an issue? I live and I’ve grown up in a space that is very accepting and open-minded; I surround myself socially with people that are artists and very bohemian and I forget sometimes that, OK, we’re dealing with mainstream culture now, which does not have the same mentality as I do. I think, too, that by nature I’m very contrary. If you tell me I can’t do something then I’m gonna push back harder and do it. I’m kind of rebellious, but I try to do it with a smile. I’m not a jerk about it.
Do you fear that there is a trade-off in success and sales when you’re as true to yourself as you have been?
There’s definitely a bit of a conflict. I think I spent a lot of energy trying to find my footing and expressing my sexuality one way or the other. And I think now that I have established who I am and I’ve gotten it out of my system, what’s really important—without denying or downplaying my pride as a gay man—is the music. Looking back, I think the other things trumped the music a little bit. With my new album, what’s exciting is that I’m definitely in the driver’s seat. I’m working with producers and my label directly. I’m not being puppeted around in any way, shape, or form. It’s about the music now.