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).
"Playing Unique hasn't changed how I feel about myself," says the 21-year-old actor, who identifies as male. "But it has changed how I hold myself. Unique is so confident that I found myself [saying], 'You need to be the role model that your character intends you to be.' " While prepping for this year's SAG Awards, his stylist balked at the idea that Newell would -- as usual -- wear high heels on the red carpet. "I was like, 'It will go with my outfit.' No matter what I wear, I'm still being true to myself."
Newell has been upgraded to a season regular starting this fall, but Unique's future hinges -- like that of all the Glee characters -- on the whims of creator Ryan Murphy. Newell is pulling for more screen time and at least one power ballad in the show's fifth season. "I really want Unique to have this emotional moment with a song to express herself," he says. One of his suggestions for showstoppers: "I just saw Kinky Boots, and Lola [played by Billy Porter] sings 'Hold Me in Your Heart.' I think that has a really great message."
In the meantime, Newell has spent his summer trying to catch up on some much-needed rest -- "I go to sleep at 10 o'clock," he says -- and singing Beyonce's "Listen," from Dreamgirls, among other tunes, at pride events from San Francisco to Louisville, Ky.
"You don't really think Salt Lake City and think of a big pride celebration," he says. "I was really shocked by that one." In addition, his big-screen debut, Geography Club, the long-awaited adaptation of one of the first gay young-adult novels, is currently playing at film festivals, with a release date set for later this year. Not bad for a fourth runner-up. "It shows that you don't always have to win to get the spotlight," Newell says. "It's all about how hard you work and how hard you want it. I wanted it so bad."
The fifth season of Glee premieres September 26 at 9 p.m. EST.