Adam Lambert: Wild Idol

The psychedelic transformation and sexual liberation of the 'American Idol' singer

By
Contestant, Adam Lambert, American Idol
Contestant Adam Lambert performs live on American Idol in Los Angeles, California on March 17th, 2009. M Becker/American Idol 2009/Getty

Sometimes in the desert, you can figure things out. That's what Adam Lambert discovered a couple of years ago at Burning Man, the annual Uto­pian festival in Nevada. At the time, he had been hanging out in the night­club scene in Los Angeles, at Hyde and other celebrity hot spots – "It was negative, and really dark, all about cocaine and synthetic-ego bullshit," he says – and he felt a little bit lost, not sure of what he wanted to do with his life. "I was getting bitter," he says. "I was looking for something, and I wasn't sure what it was." At Burning Man, he drove around in a bus with a flamethrower welded on top, per­formed in an impromptu musical revue called the "Big Black Man Show" and experimented with "cer­tain funguses." Then it happened: "I had a psyche­delic experience where I looked up at the clouds and went, 'Oh!'" he says. "I realized that we all have our own power, and that whatever I wanted to do, I had to make happen.'" And what he wanted to do was to try out for American Idol.

These are not the kind of stories that one expects to hear from the average American Idol contestant. And there are many other aspects to Lambert that peo­ple don't know, even after 30 million view­ers spent four months thinking they were getting close to him. For example, he's Jewish, though he was never bar mitzvahed and hated Hebrew school, mostly be­cause he got a bloody nose in front of class the first day. His parents split up when he was 19, while he was in Europe perform­ing in a cheesy six-person musical revue on a cruise ship. He admits to having spent a lot of his life partying, obsessively chasing love, though at his core he is the hardest thing to come by in pop culture: a genu­inely free-spirited, easygoing flower child who prizes love over money, peace over power. And there's one more thing, some­thing you probably knew already, but he hasn't been explicit about until now: "I don't think it should be a surprise for any­one to hear that I'm gay," he says.

This information – again, not a surprise – is passed along at 11 p.m. two nights after the Idol finale, when Lambert bounds into the waiting area of 19 Entertainment's chic offices on Sunset Boulevard, wit h a view of the Los Angeles lights sparkling in the dis­tance ("Is it smog that makes everything look that way?" Lambert muses, gazing into the distance. "Or is it glitter?"). In two weeks, he'll begin rehearsing for the Idol national tour, which starts July 5th, but tonight he met with Simon Fuller, the cre­ator of the Idol franchise, about his new recording contract. "He's so confident and self-assured," says Fuller. "He's like Marc Bolan meets Bowie, with a touch of Fred­die Mercury and the sexiness of Prince." This may all be the case, but right now Lambert is running on fumes: After the finale, he celebrated the show's wrap until 3 a.m., then woke up for a batch of Fox-af­filiate TV interviews an hour later. "The first thing I did in the morning was crack a Red Bull," he says, laughing. "For a lit­tle while, I felt I was at a rave. Then I went from 'Oh, my God, who has glow sticks?' to 'Stick a pacifier in me, I'm done.'" Nev­ertheless, he pops open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, a present from Fuller, pouring glasses for his new retinue: a publicist, a day-to-day manager and a bodyguard. "Ain't going to say no to booze," he says. "You've got me in rare form: no filter."

It certainly seems that way during our late-night dinner next door at the Sunset Marquis hotel, where – in the face of a gro­tesque media circus with such paragons of virtue as Bill O'Reilly and Perez Hilton trying to beat his homosexuality into pub­lic consciousness on a daily basis – Lambert eagerly shares details about his pri­vate life and his rationale for having kept many of them to himself. "Right after the finale, I almost started talking about it to the reporters, but 1 thought, 'I'm going to wait for Rolling Stone, that will be cool­er,'" he says. "I didn't want the Clay Aiken thing and the celebrity-magazine bullshit. I need to be able to explain myself in con­text." Later, he adds, "I find it very important to be in control of this situation. I feel like everyone has an opinion of me, and I want a chance to say, 'Well, do you want to hear how I really feel about all this?'"

This is a question easier posed than answered, because Lambert has a lot of thoughts on his newfound role as Amer­ica's new gay runner-up Idol, and many of them are somewhat contradictory. But there's one point on which he is complete­ly sure: "I'm proud of my sexuality," he says. "I embrace it. It's just another part of me."

Let's return, for a moment, to the other parts of Lambert, the 27-year-old from San Diego who captured many hearts in this season of American Idol for reasons that have little to do with his sexual preference and everything to do with his show-pony voice, silky presence and explosive performances. After all, this is the guy who upstaged Kiss on the finale. "I was so excited," he says of t he segment. "I was like, 'I'm going to glue rhinestones on my eyelids, bitch! That's right, American Idol in platform boots. You ain't voting anymore.'" The same electricity that he projected onstage is abundantly available in person, coupled with this triple-snap sense of humor, relentlessly sunny dispo­sition and a knack for quickly assessing the best way to work everybody he comes across. Lambert is handsome – six feet one and 185 pounds, with patrician features and sky-blue eyes – and he's unrepentant about flirting with both sexes. Even when you know that he's gay, it's hard not to find him physically attractive. And that's the way he likes it. "I loved it this season when girls went crazy for me," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, it's all hot. Just because I'm not sticking it in there doesn't mean that I don't find it beautiful."

These are the kind of lines that Lam­bert loves to throw off, a glint in his eye as he savors the shock value. Some of it is gra­tuitous, meant to provoke; most of it seems genuine, stemming from a sense of confi­dence that comes from having staked his claim in Hollywood for almost a decade. Before the show, Lambert was a working singer, making $1,800 a week as an Actors' Equity chorus member in the Los Angeles production of the musical Wicked. But he wasn't happy. "I'd finally gotten a part in a Broadway show, and suddenly it wasn't what I wanted," he says. "Musical theater was too static, in a way, and too thank­less. I was so over being a chorus boy." Backstage, in Wicked's dressing room, the guys liked to chatter about American Idol. "Everyone had an opinion, like, 'Oh, Jason Castro is so cute, but can he really sing?' or 'Carry Smithson, she's so fierce,"' he says. When he shared his Burning Man epiphany with them, they cheered him on: "They were like, 'You have to go, bitch!' I knew that it was my only shot to be taken seriously in the recording industry, be­cause it's fast and broad."

So, in July, he drove up to the Idol au­ditions in San Francisco – and soon cata­pulted into the Top 36, whereupon he got his first tattoo, of the Eye of Horus, an Egyptian god, to keep him safe. He tried to keep calm, dug into his own pocket for stage costumes and agonized over every song choice. "I saw what David Cook did last year, and it was cool," he says. "He thought, 'I have to sing something every­body knows, but I'm going to make it work for me, and I'm not going to give a fuck about what the theme is that week – and, most of all, I'm going to just ignore the pageantry of the whole thing." He snorts a little. "It is so pageant," he says. "That's why it's hard for people like Allison [Iraheta], who won't stand there and smile, say what they want her to say. I was on my best behavior, but it wasn't fake: That re­ally was my best self."

When Lambert hit the Top 13, he sublet his studio apartment in a 1920s Hollywood building and moved into the show's Bel-Air mansion with a new roommate: eventual winner Kris Allen. "I was like, 'Oh, shit, they put me with the cute guy,'" he says. "Dis­tracting! He's the one guy that I found attractive in the whole group on the show: nice, non­chalant, pretty and to­tally my type – except that he has a wife. I mean, he's open-mind­ed and liberal, but he's definitely 100 percent straight." Danny Gokey, a worship direc­tor from Milwaukee, was not quite as pro­gressive as Allen, and Lambert says they discussed religion a few times. "Danny is by the book, and the book is the Word," he says diplomatically. "And I respect that. Just don't try to push it on me, and we're cool."

Gokey wasn't in Lambert's clique on the show, which was made up primarily of Allen and 17-year-old Iraheta – "Two bros and a sis!" says Iraheta, giggling. They en­couraged Iraheta to pick up a guitar, ex­press herself. "One of the vocal coaches once said to me, 'Stop giving everybody such good advice. No one else is doing it for them,'" says Lambert. "But it was good karma, you know?" Allen didn't need any of his help, and Lambert isn't upset about losing the competition to him: "I wasn't after the title," he says. "I was after stay­ing on the platform as long as I could, and I did that." Allen has been unceasingly gracious about grabbing the crown. "Adam was consistent through the competition, and I was really shocked to win," he says.

Backstage at Idol, Lambert was out to everybody, but Amer­ica wasn't completely clued in. Then, one day in March, pictures of him dressed in drag and tonguing his ex-boyfriend hit the Internet. It was his fault: Before Idol, he took down his MySpace and Facebook pages but forgot to remove photos from his profile on Tribe.net, a social-networking community of Burning Man attendees. "I thought, 'Fuck, I'm screwed, possibly,'" he says. "Going into Idol, I assumed, 'OK, people are going to talk.' I mean, I've been living in Los An­geles for eight years as a gay man, I've been at clubs drunk making out with somebody in the corner. But photographic evidence?" He shakes his head ruefully. "Didn't count on that. Wasn't ready for that." He was particularly nervous about the drag pho­tos, worried that people might think it was his true nature. "I've only dressed in drag three or four times – and of course I took pictures, because I looked amazing – but I don't tuck and wear breasts, that's not me," he says. "Sucking my boy's face? Yes, that I will own."

The decision then was to keep the mat­ter quiet – a choice made for him in part because Top 13 contestants are usually banned from speaking to the media until they are voted off the show. "The head of Idol public relations asked me what I wanted to do about it," says Lambert. "They were completely supportive of any decision I made." He thought about com­ing out in the press, but he didn't want audiences to focus on the issue. "I was worried that [coming out] would be so sensationalized that it would overshadow what I was there to do, which was sing," he says. "I'm an entertainer, and who I am and what I do in my personal life is a sep­arate thing. It shouldn't matter." He sighs. "Except it does." He shakes his head. "It's really confusing."

Way back, before he went on Idol, and definitely before the revelation at Burning Man, Lambert wasn't sure that he liked being different. When he was little, he enjoyed spending afternoons in a cape, singing or lip-syncing songs in front of the mirror: "The box with the Hal­loween costumes stayed out all year," says his mom, Leila, who worked as a children's dental hygienist. "He was so precocious and thirsty for everything." His parents, a liberal couple who met at the University of Vermont in the late Seventies, didn't mind that he didn't like sports; instead, they joined a children's theater group to cultivate Adam's talent. His dad, Eber, who worked as a DJ in college and followed the Grateful Dead throughout the Eighties, let Adam mess around with his record col­lection. "I'm not a huge Dead fan, though I love the community and art around them," says Adam. Instead, he gravitated to Dia­mond Dogs, Jesus Christ Superstar and theatrical rock like Queen (although it was widely reported that Lambert might tour with the band, it seems that this is no longer in the cards). "Once, someone gave Adam a two-CD set of Seventies disco, the era that I hate the most, and I came home to him playing 'Brick House' at full volume," says his father. "I was like, 'Man, it's so depressing that I have to live through this music twice.'"

The cape, it turns out, remained a fix­ture at home through middle school, when he suddenly began to feel awkward around his classmates. "I started to realize I wasn't like every other boy, and I was just in my own head about it, tripping myself out," he says. PE classes stoked his anxiety: "I didn't want to be naked and vulnerable," he says. "I was so scared of my sexuality." He found solace onstage, double-booking himself as the lead actor in school plays and semiprofessional plays in San Diego, and inserting himself into a tight-knit circle of theater kids, many of whom were Mormons. "We were such goody-goodies," he says. "When I was young, I never got in trouble at all." His parents asked a gay friend whether they should talk to Adam about his sexu­ality, but he advised them to wait for their son to come to them with the news. When Adam was 13, Eber caught him looking at gay porn on the family computer. "I went to my ex-wife and said, 'It's official,'" he says. "She said, 'He's just curious.' I said, 'Let me tell you about heterosexual men and homo­sexual pornography – this isn't curiosity.'"

In high school, Lambert made out with a few girls, and even had oral sex with one during spring break, but for the most part, they were quick to realize that he wasn't on their team. "During plays, Adam would hang out in the girls' dressing room while we were changing, and every once in a while a mom would walk by and ask him, 'What are you doing in there?'" says Dan­ielle Stori, a singer-songwriter. "And we'd be like, 'C'mon, it's only Adam!'"

After high school, he enrolled in college in Orange County but dropped out after five weeks to star in a play in San Diego. One night, he accompanied his mother to a high school speech-and-debate evening of fictional monologues. "One kid did a dra­matic speech about his parents turning their back on him because he was gay, and the kid almost got killed because of it," says Lambert. "I could tell my mom was getting upset. On the way home, she asked, 'Do you have a girlfriend?' I said, 'No.' She said, 'Do you have a boyfriend?' I said, 'No.' She was like, 'Well, do you want one?' I said, 'Yes, that would be nice.'" He laughs. "Sudden­ly, it was like a wall dropped, and we start­ed gabbing like crazy." But he still had ma­turing to do. "I didn't feel comfortable in my skin, didn't feel sexy," he says.

After spending a year on the cruise ship, he moved to Hollywood, where he lost his virginity on his 21st birthday. "I was drunk, and it was awkward," he says. "I was like, 'Wow, that was bad.'" Intimidated by the notion of moving to New York to pursue a job on Broadway, he took roles in small productions in California, including a mu­sical version of Debbie Does Dallas in Lake Tahoe. "In high school, I got everything I wanted as far as performing was con­cerned, but in the real world, it was real­ly hard," he says.

When he couldn't pay the rent, his par­ents usually bailed him out, but some­times his cellphone would get cut off, and he wouldn't have money for gas. At 21, he was cast in a European tour of Hair for six months. In Germany, he started smoking pot and tried Ecstasy for the first time; he dyed his hair black and went to his first sex club. "I was always obsessed with the Sixties, and this experience was like living through it for me," he says. "I wanted so badly to be the hippie in the show."

That's the lifestyle he sought out upon his return to America, immersing himself in the West Coast neohippie underground around the Burning Man festival – a mix of psychedelics, astrology, left-leaning pol­itics, dub-step DJs and free expression (some might call it "oversharing"). An af­ter-hours musical revue based on the zo­diac? Sign him up. A Monday-night bacchanalia in grimy downtown L.A.? He's there. In this crowd, being different wasn't only OK – it was to be revered. "Having so much extra is a difficult journey," says one of his best friends, Scarlett (she goes by one name). "Sometimes if you're too fabulous, people react in a weird way, and I think that was part of Adam's path."

Friends like Allan Louis, an actor on the CW's Privileged, encouraged him to ex­pand as an artist, and he took up songwriting on GarageBand with Monte Pittman, a guitarist for Madonna and Prong, even fronting a metal band for Pittman briefly. He also fell in love for the first time, with another Burner. "I expanded a lot spiritu­ally with him," Lambert says. "We treated our relationship like a workshop, talking to each other about the ways we wanted to grow." ("I'm trying to get Zac Efron to come to Burning Man," he says later. "He says he really wants to go!")

Now he feels creatively awakened and personally fulfilled. "Everything that I al­ways thought was a fantasy is actually hap­pening, and it's a testament to imagination and doing whatever the fuck comes to my mind," he says. He even met his own idol, Madonna: Pittman invited Lambert over to her apartment after he gave her a gui­tar lesson. "She had her guard up a little at first, like anyone would in that situation, but after she realized I had good inten­tions she was so playful," gushes Lambert. "I told her that I loved her and was intimi­dated by her, and she was like, 'Oh, so love equals intimidation for you?'" Madon­na hadn't watched American Idol, but the two of them talked astrology, and they dis­cussed his moon sign, Aries. "She said, 'You don't like anyone telling you what to do, do you?'" he says. "It's so cool, because she gets it, you know?"

He smiles. "I'm finally checked in to my self-worth for the first time in my life, and the fact that it has coincided with Idol is so sweet," he says. "I mean, I still have mo­ments where I think, 'Oh, my skin is terri­ble, and I'm a little fat, I should really go to the gym more.' But for the most part, when I look in the mirror now, I finally see somebody who can do something cool." Then he laughs a little. "Don't they say that you dream more when there are things you aren't attaining, that you are repressing? Well, I haven't been having any dreams lately. Now I'm in a waking dream."

The day after the dinner at the Marquis, Lambert arrives at his hotel in Bev­erly Hills around 10:30 p.m. after a long photo shoot, taking a seat in the second-floor lounge. We talk about his likes and dislikes: On the side of likes, we have the Twilight book series, Bret Easton Ellis, Thievery Corpo­ration, Goldfrapp and President Obama. "I voted for the first time, for Obama," he says. "Traveling in Europe was so depress­ing when Bush was in office: People were always asking, 'Why'd you elect him?' And I guess I let it happen, in a way." The dis­likes list is topped by Nickelback, Creed, cameras ("Why can't you have the experi­ence without taking a picture of it?") and cocaine. "That drug is such a reflection of the lack of self-esteem and control people have over themselves and their lives," he says. "I'd much rather smoke a bowl, chill out and listen to music." We start talking about his fears, and the only one on this list is worry about his parents dying and, later, growing old alone himself. "I be­lieve that whatever happens after death is really great," he says. "I don't believe in hell: Maybe you're rewarded for being a good person, but I don't think you're punished."

This is the usual kicked-back attitude one expects from Lambert, but when the conversation turns to his newfound role as a gay icon, he begins to pick the polish off his nails, which is what he does when he feels anxious – it's clearly an argument he's spent a lot of time having with himself, in his own head. On one hand, he wants to support gay rights at a moment when same-sex marriage is in legal limbo in many states. He enjoyed performing Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" on the show for a reason: "This civil rights move­ment is near to my heart, and it felt really good to sing that," he says. "I'm not asking to get married in your church, but you don't have any right to tell me I can't do it."

Discrimination, though it's usually minor, is a fact of his life: Just the other day, an American Idol chauffeur told him that he had no problem with him, "'be­cause at least you're not girly.'" Lambert shudders. "Man, it's so ignorant," he says. "Why can't some men have strong feminine sides? Does that make them less of a man? I don't know why our society has such an emphasis on masculinity and femininity – it's really gross. I don't think you're truly sexy until you don't care about that."

On the other hand, Lambert doesn't want to be the poster child for gay rights. "I'm trying to be a singer, not a civil rights leader," he says. Also, he's uncomfortable with some of the ways that gay culture has evolved. "Middle America may think that what I am is gay, but here in Holly­wood, gay guys are all about trying to fit in – they're obsessed with looking and acting hetero," he says. "Clay Aiken's gay, and I'm gay, and we couldn't be more different. The only thing that's the same about everyone in the gay community is that we're gay. Do we have anything in common besides the fact that we like dick? Why can't we just talk about a human community?"

He's right: Identity politics suck, and his situation is tricky. Plus, if he didn't want to come out publicly, wouldn't that be his prerogative? "I think I reserve the right to talk about my own sexuality," he says. He's faced a firing squad of entertainment re­porters every day, desperate to know when he's going to answer the "question dan­gling over his head," as one of them put it. He shrugs. "I can either get irritated and let this drive me nuts, or laugh at it," he says, then smirks a little. "I kind of like things dangling over my head anyway." He leans in. "Lately, you know, there's part of me that's almost bi-curious the other way around. I've made out a few times with girls at nightclubs when I had way too many drinks. I don't know if it would ever happen, but I'm kind of interested. I don't think I would want to do it with a groupie, though." He cocks his head. "Then again, maybe I'd rather it was with a stranger than someone I knew."

After an hour of talking in the hotel lounge, Lambert's bodyguard appears to escort him to his hotel room so he can pack for his trip to New York tomorrow, for a new round of TV interviews. At 9 a.m. the next day, he jumps into the back seat of an SUV, Karl Lagerfeld shades clapped on tight, gabbing about the new condo that he wants to buy. "I want a crash room, or a kind of hookah den with pil­lows on the floor, a sound system and lots of color therapy, sensual purples and reds," he says, then fiddles with his BlackBerry. "My brother Neil called me last night so drunk, with his friends," he says, giggling. "He said, 'We think you should do an album of covers called Doin' Hella Dudes: You'll cover some badass dudes, but it'll be like you're doin' dudes, you know?'" He lets out a loud guffaw from deep in his belly. "Then he said, 'It's cool if you can't thank us now, but when the album comes out, give us credit, because we love you.'"

In New York, Lambert dines at five-star restaurants, gets into a fight with a cab driver and bawls through Hair on Broadway. He meets with Barry Weiss, the head of RCA, the company distributing his album with 19 Recordings – "He asked if I was a Jew, and I said I'd wear a yarmulke if he wanted, as long as it had rhinestones," he jokes. He's hopeful about his new album, which he classifies vaguely as pop-rock electro. "Everyone's so hung up on 'Are you pop?' or Are you rock?'" he says. "It's like, 'Um, does this song make you want to dance, or have sex, or remind you of something?' It's not that deep. Being a rock star is just playing. It's Halloween, make-believe." He laughs. "I can't believe I get to play dress-up for a living now!"

On the morning of his return to L.A., he decides to drive up the coast with a guy he's dating to a resort in Santa Barbara (the dude, whom Lambert met while passing out fliers at a club, is "Cajun, voodoo-down, dreamy," but he doesn't want to talk about him too much for fear of jinxing the rela­tionship). "I'm so excited to be almost on vacation," he says. "I ain't going to lie, I put Kahlua in my coffee this morning."

Before he leaves, he stops at a nail salon, where a dozen Korean attendants whip their heads around in unison at his ap­pearance. After selecting a gun-metal-black nail polish, he sinks into a massage chair, one attendant buffing his feet and another at his hands. He murmurs a little, then directs his attention to a flatscreen TV, set to a replay of the 2008 American Music Awards, with performances by the Pussycat Dolls ("my guilty pleasure"), the Jonas Brothers ("I like those laser lights more than them") and Justin Timberlake ("Yum").

Within minutes, a pair of bedraggled paparazzi appear at the salon's door, tot­ing cameras. A manager lowers a gauzy white curtain for privacy, but they linger on the sidewalk, rising on their toes to peer through windows.

"Should I flip them off?" asks Lambert, a smile playing on his lips. "Is that too racy?"

He goes back and forth on this decision -"Don't you think I want to make a storm?" he says. "Isn't it fun to be cheeky?" – before settling on showing off his pedicure for the cameras when the polish dries, but he gets impatient. He bounds out in bare feet, wiggling his foot like the hokey pokey, then slips into a waiting car.

It would've been fun to flip them off, though. "I would have done it with a big smile on my face, to show them I'm not ac­tually mad," he says. "I'm only playing." 

From The Archives Issue 133: April 26, 1973
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