The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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American Idol's big gay closet

American Idol's big gay closet

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.

Tags: Voices, Voices

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