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We kiki with Jake Shears about Cabaret, Tammy Faye, Elton, and more

We kiki with Jake Shears about Cabaret, Tammy Faye, Elton, and more

<p>We kiki with Jake Shears about <em>Cabaret</em>, Tammy Faye, Elton, and more</p>
Damon Baker

The queer cultural icon and former Scissor Sisters front man is now taking over Broadway and beyond.

Jason Sellards was born in Arizona in October of 1978, then relocated to the Seattle area while still a youngster. These days, you’re more likely to know this person as Jake Shears, former lead singer of the award-winning pop band Scissor Sisters who has parlayed his bevy of skills, charm, and talent into a thriving solo career as a recording artist and musical theater darling.

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Shears says his love of performance came early in life and he naturally gravitated toward all things queer and fabulous — like David Bowie in Labyrinth, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. From Seattle, Shears ventured to New York City, where he studied fiction writing and made ends meet by working as a gay club go-go dancer, music writer at Paper magazine, and shining star of the city’s artsy party scene.

Jake ShearsDamon Baker

In the early 2000s, alongside Scissor Sisters co-vocalist Ana Matronic and bandmates Babydaddy, Del Marquis, and Paddy Boom, Shears and the eclectic pop group quickly skyrocketed to fame. Their 2004 self-titled debut album — peppered with 1970s-style glitter rock and electroclash sounds — topped the charts and earned a Grammy nomination for their wildly reimagined disco cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” For the next several years, the band continued to thrive, tour, and make both queer and mainstream hits like “Take Your Mama” and “Let’s Have a Kiki.” However, Shears previously confessed that the latter track may have contributed to the group’s dissolution.

While he dismissed rumors that a falling out between he and Matronic was to blame, Shears said in a 2019 Billboard interview that after “Kiki” become such a huge international hit, it simply felt like the right moment to move on.

“I thought, we’ve been recording and touring for 10 years, and I felt like it was time,” he said. “This wasn’t what anybody in the band had planned to do. So I thought it would be fun to end on a high note.” Still, Shears did hint at a possible future reunion, noting, “That’s not to say we’re never going to do anything again…. The Scissor Sisters will be back.”

Jake ShearsDamon Baker

Since then, Shears went on to create magical collaborations with artists like Cher, Kylie Minogue, Queens of the Stone Age, Calvin Harris, guitarist Nile Rodgers, and Erasure’s Andy Bell. In 2010, he first dipped his toe into more theatrical waters when he wrote music for a stage adaption of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. He later made his Broadway debut onstage in Kinky Boots in 2017. In 2018, he authored a memoir, Boys Keep Swinging, as well as released his self-titled debut solo album, which reached number 20 on the U.K. Albums chart.

And now, just off the heels of promoting and touring for his second critically acclaimed solo album, Last Man Dancing, released in 2023, Shears is working on a musical with personal hero and longtime friend Elton John while also starring on London’s West End in a modern revival of Cabaret. And, if that weren’t enough, he just started his own podcast — which even this overachiever admits may have been taking on a bit too much.

“I put an album out last year. I’ve been working on [the stage adaptation of] Tammy Faye. I’ve been doing Cabaret,” Shears says of the difficult timing of starting his podcast, Queer the Music. “It was one of those things that almost broke my back. I was like, I don’t know if there’s anything more humanly possible that I can do.”

Jake ShearsDamon Baker

When we chatted with Shears recently from his London home, he was enjoying a brief bit of afternoon downtime before performing that night in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club. In this dazzling production of the classic queer-themed musical, Shears portrays the fabulously juicy part of the Emcee, a role made famous by Tony-winner Joel Grey in the 1972 film.

“I’m a massive Cabaret fan, and I love musicals, I love theater,” Shears says with refreshingly genuine joy and enthusiasm. “I’d say since about 2010, when I did the Tales of the City musical, just overall, half of my life is now in the theater, whether it’s writing musicals or being in them.”

While he says playing the Emcee was “always a dream of mine,” and to fans it feels like a part he was born to play, Shears admits he was initially nervous to take it on. But eventually he found a creative freedom in the role. “The amazing thing about it is…it’s a blank canvas. There’s really no rules for how you go about doing it.”

He’s also relishing in the element of sexy danger the dark, flamboyant character brings out of him.

“It’s really fun to be allowed to bring out a part of myself that has always really been there — that’s very demented, that’s very warm and friendly, and that’s also really scary,” says Shears, whose boyish good looks, dancer’s body, and flair for fashion have helped cement him as a queer sex symbol in his own right. “The scary side of me really comes out in a way that just keeps getting deeper and deeper, and it’s thrilling to me. It’s one of the absolute joys of my life to get to do it.”

Jake ShearsDamon Baker

And then there’s Elton and Tammy Faye.

“We met 20 years ago,” Shears says of John, his longtime friend, mentor, and musical collaborator. “We wrote a bunch of Scissor Sisters stuff together, and he’s always just been a dear friend. And we’ve been working on [the Tammy Faye musical] for 12 years.”

During COVID, Shears relocated to London — periodically staying at John’s gorgeous Holland Park home — and continued working on several projects, including finally bringing Tammy Faye to the stage. Shears wrote the lyrics and John the music for the biographical musical about LGBTQ+ ally and TV evangelist Tammy Faye Messner.
The show, based on the book by playwright James Graham, premiered in October 2022 and ended up taking home two Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of a Tony) in 2023.

“It’s one of those things where I still have to kind of pinch myself, even though [John is] one of my best friends,” says Shears. “To get to be by him at the piano and get to experience the process of making a body of work with him has been truly thrilling.”

“There’s just no better high than to make music that you love, and when you do it with a friend,” he adds, recalling a particular tense moment when he was worried about upsetting the icon during pre-production for Tammy Faye. “I was an hour late getting there. You don’t ever want to be an hour late to meet up with Elton…. I showed up, and he looked at me. And he just didn’t care. He said, ‘You’re going to be really happy when you hear this [playback].’ And we were just so thrilled with the whole show. We’re very proud of it.”

As for his Queer the Music podcast, Shears decided to forge ahead despite his insane schedule because it truly is a passion project for him. He says getting to talk about the things he loves with fellow LGBTQ+ icons and artists, and share tidbits of queer history and its musical culture with others, is truly a delight.

“I’m very excited now about where to take this show, and the possibilities with it I think are really endless,” he says. “I did an episode on Sylvester, which I loved doing. I talked to Self Esteem. There’s an episode with Peaches. There’s episodes with King Princess, Andy Bell, Olly [Alexander] from Years & Years, and there’s an episode with Rufus Wainwright that I just love so much. There’s something about it that’s really, really special. And I think it’s just kind of the tip of the iceberg.”

Photography by Damon Baker

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