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.
And is that in contrast to earlier on in your career?
Well, I mean, we were trying to focus on the music, but there were so many other things being thrown at me and it was so fast. You don’t have time to think. We put the last album together in a month and a half—while I was on a nationwide tour with American Idol. I didn’t have time to think, to sleep. I was just doing what I could. And that’s hard when you don’t have perspective. Things get lost and you kind of forget the basics a little bit. And during this writing process for the past six or seven months, I’ve been living in a house in Los Angeles, I’m in a great relationship, I have some time to spend with my friends, I’ve had what has been the closest to a normal life since the whole American Idol thing. It felt really good.
The next album is that dreaded sophomore album, dreaded for a lot of people because an artist typically puts so much into their first album because it's been percolating in their head for years and the second, they’re under pressure to produce quickly.
I feel like it’s almost the opposite in my case. The process of making the first album was so fast. This is definitely the album that I want to make. I’m getting time with it, I’m able to say, ‘I want to re-record that vocal,’ or ‘Lets bring this song to another producer or a different beat put on it’. So I’m getting to immerse myself in the process. I feel like I’m getting to take the necessary time.
For you, when you’re writing a song, does it come from personal experience?
Well, the majority of the music on this second album I have written. There are a couple songs written by other writers, but for me to sing a song that I didn’t write, it has to be something that I can relate to personally, 100%. So when I get in the booth and I sing it, it’s coming from the most real place possible. It’s funny, when I started the writing process I felt totally exhausted. It’s like a decompression that happens after you’re on the road for so long. Real life feels so foreign and bizarre, and I was actually a little bit depressed when I first came back because I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt a little bit lonely and I was trying to get back into my friendships, but it felt like I had been gone for so long, it was strange. And I was trying to get over a couple of failed dating situations that didn’t go so well.
So my writing, in the beginning, gravitated towards something darker and moodier and angstier. And slowly over the course of this writing process, my relationship solidified, this was someone that I had met while I was on tour who had come to visit a couple of times at the beginning of this process and is now here permanently. I just got really, really happy and satisfied with life. I wanted my music to reflect where I’m at, and I can tell you that one of the first people I worked with on the album that was a physical turning point was Pharrell Williams.
In what way?
We had a really long conversation and it was interesting to get his perspective on where I was as a person and as an artist, because he’s someone that doesn’t know me—our lifestyles are very different—but he’s an incredible artist and a very intelligent guy and deep and spiritual as well. So we talked about life and everything that goes with it—about being an artist, about being a person overcoming adversity. And we wrote a song together that I think people are going to be really impressed by. After my session with Pharrell, I started working with some other writers and going in that direction. Going along with the trend of dance music was something I really wanted to go with on the album. I love my fans, and I want to give my fans the songs that they really eat up, but I also want to expand my audience if I can. And I want to make some music for my gay brothers and sisters. You know what I mean? I want to make the kind of music I would listen to if I were out in a club.
Which is what kind of music?
Dance music! My challenge was, how do I make dance music authentic to what I’m capable of vocally and what I do. That’s when I started getting into the funk arena. I mean, it’s still electronic, but it’s funky and it has a swing, and I was listening to a lot of Michael Jackson and Prince and we just started going in that direction.
What music inspired you as a kid?
My two biggies were Madonna and Michael Jackson. They were king and queen. And they both wore just as much makeup and were fabulous in their outfits and had music videos that were theatrical and cinematic, and that’s kind of the type of artist I see myself as—one that wants to create from the ground up, not only an amazing song, but on with a beat and a story and a look and a theme. I’m really hoping this album allows me those opportunities and that I can take my audience on that kind of a journey.
To read the original interview with Adam Lambert from 2009, click here.