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American Idol's big gay closet

American Idol's big gay closet


With its sappy songs, flamboyant contestants, and metrosexual host, American Idol is the campiest thing on TV. But could an openly gay singer win?

Divas like Fantasia, Kimberley Locke, and Jennifer Hudson attract legions of gay fans. Judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest seem to be flirting as they delight in challenging each other's heterosexuality. And each season at least a few finalists--most notably Clay Aiken--seem to set off everybody's gaydar. American Idol is not only the most popular show on network television--averaging over 33 million viewers per episode--it is also clearly one of the gayest. But there seems to be some kind of unwritten rule that contestants should not be out while competing for the title. Season 1 contestant R.J. Helton, who finished fifth, came out publicly last October but struggled with being in the closet while he was on the show.

"I did tell some of the assistant producers because I felt like it was eating me alive," Helton says. "But I was advised to just keep it to myself. The reason they gave me was that it wouldn't be a good idea for my career. I wasn't prepared to be out then anyway--I wasn't comfortable with myself at that point."

Fox spokesman Joe Earley says he was not aware of Helton confiding in anyone on the show about his sexuality, and if someone did indeed encourage Helton to remain closeted, that person was speaking on their own behalf and not for the show. "Since season 1, when it became clear that people's personal lives were going to become public, the gay contestants have usually declared early in the [background check] process how comfortable they were with their own sexuality," says Earley, who is out.

"I've been intimate in this process," adds Earley, "and there is no fear coming from producers or the network about a contestant's sexuality as it relates to being gay."

Helton's fellow season 1 finalist Jim Verraros got a lot of attention for coming out shortly after competing on the show (he finished ninth) and appearing on the American Idols Live concert tour. "I was more concerned about how America would perceive me than the producers were," Verraros admits. "Even on tour I definitely toned it down, making sure my voice dropped an octave. Now I don't give a fuck. But at the time I thought, You have to appeal to everybody and be as mainstream as possible." While Verraros, now 24, says he never heard a word from the producers or staff about how to handle his sexuality, he did find out after his run ended that The Advocate had contacted the network for an interview while he was still competing. At the time, he says, "I never heard about it."

Earley disputes this and insists that Verraros was made aware of the interview request. Verraros has had some success as an out gay singer and actor (Eating Out) and says he hears from "a lot of the contestants from past seasons who are gay who have e-mailed me." He was also the first fellow contestant Helton felt he could confide in.

"I didn't tell any of the contestants, although I'm sure a few knew just by living with me," Helton says. "Jim was the first person that I talked to about it all with. We came back for the finale show and were about to go on tour. We were in the front lobby of the hotel, and I said, 'We have to talk.' "

By the time Helton, now 25, did an interview on Sirius OutQ Radio last October in support of American Idol Rewind, a syndicated rerun of the show's first season, he was far more comfortable with himself and decided to come out publicly.

Some believe the show tries to project an image of wholesomeness in order to preserve its monster ratings and appeal to virtually every demographic and region in the country. Many wonder if preservation of that image was the reason behind the mysterious departure of season 4 finalist Mario Vazquez, who had set off some viewers' gaydar during his journey to the top 12. Vazquez was not voted off the show but made the unprecedented decision to quit after making the finals, citing "family reasons."

Vazquez has never discussed his sexuality but is now at the center of one of the bigger scandals in the show's history. Magdaleno Olmos, a former assistant production accountant for Fremantle Media, which produces the show, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the show in Los Angeles superior court in March accusing Vazquez of sexually harassing him.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Greg Hernandez