New York, NY – There is nothing more valuable to the health of an eight-year-old TV series than a surprise, and for American Idol, it rarely happens. But once in a very long while, someone arrives who doesn’t just dominate American Idol, but challenges and even changes it. And that has happened with the current season’s contestant Adam Lambert. With his mop of glam-rock cobalt-blue-on-dyed-black hair, his hearing, his sneering, and his unambiguously ambiguous sexuality, Adam would have probably been brushed off early on. And there was also a time, more recently, when Adam would have made it to Hollywood but been dismissed as “too Broadway” or “too musical theater.”
Then in walked this 27-year-old from San Diego, a chameleon of a singer who was unashamedly everything that the Fox reality show thought America didn’t want. And he flattened the competition. He has been able to morph from a quasi-punk whom the judges accused of being “like something out of Rocky Horror” to a Rat Pack sharpie to a grown-up crooner. Other contestants who have tried this on Idol routinely get accused of lacking identity.
There’s always been a fracture between how you succeed on Idol and how you succeed beyond Idol once you enter a world in which being the cookie-cutter product of a network series is a liability. But Adam has taken a battering ram to that aesthetic. And he’s doing so while playing out the big issue – the gay question – with a complicated mixture of caution and shrewdness. Though Adam is widely assumed to be gay, the most he would say to EW about the public scrutiny is “I know who I am. I’m an honest guy, and I’m just going to keep singing.”
Now the question is whether an openly gay contestant can win American Idol? The question is being considered everywhere from fan blogs to The New York Times – but we’re still one openly gay contestant short of a test case. Adam’s sexuality offers a fascinating challenge to the show’s status quo. Is Idol ready for a gay winner? Possibly. After all, its British forebear Pop Idol crowned a contestant, Will Young, who came out shortly after he won. And Idol itself came close when Clay Aiken, then closeted but somebody who even house plants surmised was gay, finished second. But is Idol ready for this gay(ish) winner? Perhaps not. Clay, after all, never sang “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” while wearing skintight pants and green glitter guyliner.
Unlike his counterparts, who commodify their lives on their sleeves, Adam isn’t talking about it. Maybe it’s still too costly to say who you are. It’s certainly costly not to. Does he feel he can’t? Does the show feel he shouldn’t? Is his choice personal or strategic? Will it pay off? And does any of this represent progress? (Cover story, Page 24)