LGBTQ+ “American Idol” alums speak out about mistreatment in the show’s early years

American Idol judges Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan were blown away by contestant Jorgie
American Idol judges Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan were blown away by contestant Jorgie Photo: Screenshot

LGBTQ+ American Idol alums are speaking out about the way they were treated by the reality TV singing competition and its fans from the show’s early 2000s heyday.

In a recent Rolling Stone article based on interviews with 18 former contestants who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, several suggested that the show set them up for ridicule because of their perceived sexual identity and gender expression. Some even cited instances of what they felt was veiled anti-LGBTQ+ bullying.

Zachary Travis, who was 16 when he auditioned for Idol in 2005, explained that judge Simon Cowell’s sneering reaction to his androgynous appearance, the show’s use of music from The Crying Game over his exit when the episode aired in 2006, and the reaction from the show’s fans to his audition all contributed to his decision not to pursue transitioning.

“I thought, ‘Wow, if this is how my life’s going to be, then I don’t want any part of it,’” he told Rolling Stone. “My experience is not the normal experience of a trans person, but because I had chosen to be on a television show, I saw the worst of it.”

Travis, who went on to appear in gay adult films as Kirk Cummings, said that GLAAD even reached out to him offering to take action against the show on his behalf. The LGBTQ+ advocacy organization reached out to Idol’s producers over Cowell and fellow judge Randy Jackson’s comments to both Travis and another contestant, Charles Berry. Jackson asked Travis, “Are you a girl?” while Cowell told Berry, who has since come out as gay, to “shave off your beard and wear a dress” because he would make a “great female impersonator.”

“The real offense here was in the producer’s decision to add insult to injury by turning a contestant’s gender expression into the butt of a joke,” GLAAD entertainment media director Damon Romine said at the time.

Keith Beukelaer, who also came out as gay after auditioning for Idol’s second season and has since “come to understand himself as having Asperger’s Syndrome,” suggested that the show’s producers chose to air his audition at least in part to provoke a specific reaction from its largely conservative audience.

“They knew I was different,” he said. “Everybody seemed to know that I was gay. I mean, I was a guy singing Madonna. It was the song choice. It was the dancing. It was my sexuality. It was the fact that I’m on the spectrum.”

Former Idol co-host Brian Dunkleman claimed to have overheard Cowell and Jackson planning to essentially bully another gay contestant, Jim Verraros, in order to provoke a strong reaction.

“Is it conscious targeting or is it subconscious? That kind of undertone, maybe they weren’t even aware of it,” Dunkleman said of the judges’ singling out of queer contestants.

Others, like R.J. Helton and Atlas Marshall, said they were tacitly encouraged to remain closeted while appearing on the show. Helton, who uses they/them pronouns, recalled executive producer Nigel Lythgoe telling them, “We think you’re great, but let’s continue on the sweet side, with the Christian boy thing” after seeing them kiss a male crew member on the cheek, and said a team of producers followed them around to make sure they didn’t “break character.”

After appearing in Idol’s eighth season, Marshall, who had since begun transitioning, said she filmed an audition and on-camera interviews for ABC’s reboot of the show in 2017. She said producers forced her to dress “as a boy” and called her a drag queen in the interview segments, which never aired.

Lythgoe, who was sued for sexual assault by former Idol judge Paula Abdul late last year, denied preventing contestants from coming out.

“I did work with a number of individuals who, sadly, were struggling with issues around coming out, and I provided feedback that was very common at the time: that they should let their talent do the talking and not allow others to denigrate them based on their personal lives,” he told Rolling Stone. “If anyone was hurt by my advice on those issues, I can only apologize, but I only ever wanted to help and support the wonderful young people who competed on the first seasons of Idol, several of whom, tragically, were torn between a desire to live their truth openly and a great fear about how they would be treated on returning home by their families, by their communities, and even by God.”

“No one ever prevented anyone from [coming out],” a source close to the Fox production said, “but there was often a sense — right or wrong — that it would be better if the American public’s vote was based more on their judgment about the performers’ talent rather than their sexual orientations.”

Neither Cowell, Jackson, host Ryan Seacrest, nor series creator Simon Fuller commented for the Rolling Stone story. One of the show’s best-known gay alums, Adam Lambert, also declined to comment.

But another did.

“If I had not done Idol, I don’t even want to claim that I would not have come out,” said Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken. “I hope to God that I would have, but I certainly would not have found that on my own for many, many more years.”

Meanwhile, Abdul said that she was “truly heartbroken that contestants felt an inability to be their fully authentic selves during a time meant for them to shine.”

“Sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion — none of that should matter when it comes to sheer talent,” she told Rolling Stone. “I will always remember the amazing contestants that it was a privilege to meet and mentor throughout my time with the show and am saddened that some left the show feeling that they had not been fully seen. My wish is that they all now are living in their truths and continue sharing their incredible gifts with the world.” 

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