Although they didn’t win a season, a dozen of LGBT people discovered a new way of winning…by using the reality TV/talent show as a springboard to further their careers
The FOX hit television show will take one last bow this week when it rolls off the air for the last time. But before America moves on to the next big thing, it’s important to stress that ever since the show aired, even with the slightly-curious metrosexual-vibing Ryan Seacrest (“Seacrest, out,” he replied at the closing of most episodes) and his Wham!-looking season one cohort Brian Dunkleman or even the whimsical and overly-sarcastic Brit judge Simon Cowell, there’s always been something iffy in the air about how gay-centric things were. Sure, gay icons like Elton John, disco giants and the wonderful world of Disney have all been honored, and Adam Lambert (who was the runner-up in season eight) almost won the title, but the reality TV show — a juggernaut in the rating for its first decade — always seemed to reel us into its magic, whether as viewers or as vying contestants.
Throughout its fifteen season run, a number of LGBT people have made their way up the Idol ladder. It hasn’t been many, due to the fact that in previous seasons the producers have made certain contestants sign a gag order regarding their sexuality. Flavorwire recently wrote that “it’s more probable that the quickly ending game show would just rather stick to what was ‘safe’ for their audiences.” Many of the gay finalists came out after their reign on the show and have done a decent job to make a living in the world of music. Others have used Idol as a launch pad into other artistic endeavors and industries.
We’ve uncovered several contestants in the AI lexicon who identify as LGBT.
Ready. Set. Go.
Adam Lambert was the one to beat in the show’s eighth season. He was the most consistent and refrained from being in the bottom week after week. But the Cali-raised eccentric heartthrob met his match when the squeaky-clean Kris Allen, a young, handsome singer-songwriter who also used his minister of music experience in church to woo the southern vote, won the title. Lambert released his debut album For Your Entertainment in late 2009 and immediately shot to fame. He covered the front of Rolling Stone magazine, after breaking his coming-out story to the press and on a 20/20 special. The album received critical acclaim, even dubbed the “most poised debut from any ‘Idol’ to date” by the Detroit News. The song “Whataya Want from Me” even soldiered a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Lambert’s follow-up studio album Trespassing sold over 77,000 copies in its first week, breaking a record for being the first openly gay artist to move that many units, but the reviews on the album were mostly scathing. He regained his composure by signing with Warner Bros. and dropping The Original High, an album that sold 42,000 copies on its first week and winning critical acclaim with most critics. “Overall, the album — his finest to date — is a very good look for the American Idol alum, which is saying a lot these days,” HiFi wrote in 2015.
In 2015, Forbes magazine named Lambert the top-earning Idol contestant, pulling in $10 million mostly from his arena shows fronting the band Queen. “Adam used the launching pad of American Idol very well to have a successful recording career,” his manager told Forbes. “I think the main part of his career still lies ahead of him.”
2. Clay Aiken
The runner-up in the second season of Idol, Clay Aiken — blessed with a soulful tenor and geeky looks — lost to Birmingham favorite Ruben Studdard, but that didn’t stop him from reaching the top. He went on to record a number of best-selling records. After signing with RCA, “This Is the Night” with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” shot to number one pop immediately after losing the show. Aiken managed to pull off yet another Top 5 hit with “The Way” and a cover of Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire” (its B-side) the following year. Measure of a Man, his debut album, went double platinum in the US. His follow-up album, Merry Christmas With Love, and the next one (A Thousand Different Ways) went platinum and gold consecutively.
Aiken came out as a gay man in 2008 to People magazine, only a month after the birth of his surrogate son, Parker. As album sales steadily dropped for his fourth and fifth album titles, Aiken focused his attention on other ways to boost his resume. He appeared as a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2012, losing only to Arsenio Hall.
Since then, Aiken has shifted his attention towards politics and activism. He was appointed by George W. Bush to serve on the Presidential Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities and went on to raise monies for the Broadway Cares charity. In 2014, he ran as a Democrat for the Second congressional district in his home state of North Carolina but lost to the incumbent Republican Renee Ellmers.
3. Frenchie Davis
On season two, Frenchie Davis rose up the ranks in the competition but was quickly disqualified over bubbling controversy regarding a number of topless photos that were taken of her in her earlier career. Because Idol was being billed as a family show, the producers felt it was best for her to bow out. After Idol, Davis found success as a Broadway singer, performing in Rent, Dreamgirls and in a road tour of Ain’t Misbehavin’. Davis returned to reality TV when she competed on the first season of The Voice. There she advanced to the show’s next round and landed on Christina Aguilera’s team. She also beat former reality TV singer Tarralyn Ramsey in the show’s next round, but was eliminated afterwards. Since then, Davis has made a few dents on the Billboard Dance/Electronic Singles chart with songs like “You Are” (number 5) and “Love’s Got a Hold on Me” (number 12).
Davis came out as a bisexual in 2012 after admitting to her relationship with a woman she had been dating. “I wasn’t out before the relationship, but I wasn’t in,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I dated men and women, though lesbians weren’t feeling the bisexual thing.” In the same article, Davis happily expressed her love for gay men. “I love the gay boys. They have that awesome, masculine energy, but there’s also something else going on as well.”
4. Rayvon Owen
Finishing fourth in season fourteen, the Richmond, Virginia native with contemporary R&B leanings left the show and dropped his first post-Idol single, “Can’t Fight It.” In the music video, Owen decided to construct the storyline about his sexuality. He comes out as gay, kissing LGBT activist Shane Bitney Crone, an actor who starred in the 2013 film Bridegroom.
“First I had to become comfortable with myself and who I as a person,” Owen told Billboard.com. “As I was growing as an artist, I realized I was missing out on so much of my artistry by not connecting the two.
On why he didn’t come out during the show, Owen said that he was afraid. “Here’s a show that reaches so many people, including a lot of small town, conservative people, who grew up in the same environment I grew up in. I was afraid that if I shared this part of my life, would people vote for me? It’s sad that I had to think that.”
Owen’s song “Can’t Fight It” was released on February 14 (Valentine’s Day) this year.
5. M.K. Nobilette
Finishing tenth place in season thirteen, Michaela Nobilette of San Francisco became the first finalist in American Idol history to come out as openly gay. She had been praised by the judges for having a soulful rasp and a “likable demeanor.” Nobilette was adopted and raised by two lesbian parents, a part of her bio that was aired during her initial audition. “I’m very obviously gay, and there are always going to be people in America and everywhere else who are definitely going to hate me,” she told the judges. “But I think in the last two years there have been a lot of things that have really changed that, and have made it a positive thing.” Nobilette has since signed a record deal with Velvet Rhythm Entertainment, a San Francisco indie label. Her debut single, “Make Believe,” was released in May 2015.
6. Jim Verraros
Easily remembered as Idol’s very first gay finalist, Jim Verraros appeared on the first season of American Idol and ended up making it into the top ten. The Crystal Lake, Illinois native, born to two deaf parents, came out as gay to his fellow contestants while on the American Idol tour but feared of coming out to the public. Producers of the show were warned of an online journal of Verraros that opened up about his sexuality and urged that it be removed if he was to continue with the show. He opened up about his sexuality with The Advocate in January 2003. Since Idol, he has become a regular in indie gay cinema like Eating Out, Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild and Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds. He’s also jumped into recording music, dropping his mainstream debut LP Rollercoaster in 2005 and a few other titles. That album managed to pull off a number 21 dance hit with “You Turn It On.”
7. David Hernandez
Crooning with sultry R&B qualities and citing Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder as major musical influences, David Hernandez rose to the top in the seventh season of American Idol and swooned his way into the hearts of many Americans. Billed by some as the one to beat earlier in the season, the Phoenix, AZ heartthrob slowly saw himself in the bottom as rumors of his past life as a nude stripper in a gay strip club hit the tabloids. He made it to the Top 12 but was cut abruptly in the next round. After Idol, Hernandez continued to tour and made recordings as an independent artist (I Am Who I Am, This Christmas), but avoided any questions from the media regarding his sexuality.
In 2008, he joined a cast of Idol finalists on a 20-city Idol Holiday Tour and went on to become a popular act at gay prides and Human Rights Campaign events across the US. “I do a lot of different festivals. I do Pride and anything my booking agent gets me,” Hernandez told GetOut magazine. “Anything that comes my way that allows me to showcase my original music and covers and singing stuff like that. As long as it has energy and vibe.”
“WTF,” a new single produced by the Black Eyed Peas’ Printz Board, is now available on Soundcloud and iTunes.
8. Danny Noriega/ Adore Delano
As a contestant on the seventh season of American Idol, Danny Noriega landed in the Top 16 singing Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” The buck stopped when Noriega made a sassy snap at Simon Cowell, which went viral. The handwriting was on the wall, but that didn’t stop Noriega from shooting to the top.
As a drag queen, Noriega revealed Adore Delano to the masses as a YouTube personality and later on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where he made it to the finals and lost to Courtney Act and the unstoppable Bianca Del Rio. Immediately after Drag Race, Delano released new music with “DTF.” A full album was dropped in June 2014 and made its way to number three on dance’s album charts. It also soared to number 55 on the Billboard 200, becoming the highest charting for any RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant. After Party, Delano’s second album, dropped in March 2016, where it shot to number one on the dance/electronic album chart.
9. Nathaniel Marshall
On season eight of American Idol, Nathaniel Marshall rose to the top 36, but was booted from the show before the last rounds. He managed to make it to The Gay Real World, a spin-off of the hit MTV reality TV show. On there, he opened up about his decision to leave music completely. “I tried my hardest to get into the industry,” he said during an audition tape. “But it’s so hard. With all the people that download music illegally and everything like that people aren’t giving out record contracts anymore. So I just took a break from it, went to college, got a degree. Now I just wanna figure out what’s next.” What happened next was a bold transition into gay porn. He made his porn debut as Jadyn Daniels in Men Caught on Video 2 and went on to cut scenes with ExtraBigDicks.com and Men’s DrillMyHole.com. “If you remember him from the show, you won’t recognize him here,” wrote Josh Middleton of Philadelphia magazine. “He’s shaved those spiky tips, beefed up a bit and dropped his drawers to reveal…well, let’s just say the gift of song isn’t his only God-given talent.”
On his move to porn, Daniels told The Sword: “I have always been a very sexual human being. It wasn’t until after the Idol experience that I really grew into the person I am today. I was only nineteen and fresh out of high school on Idol, and from a small town. Since the show, I’ve moved around a lot and have had a lot of social growth. So. I did porn because I’ve always wanted to, and why not?”
10. Keith London
On season 13 of American Idol, Keith London surprised the judges and the audience with a performance of Beyoncé ’s “If I Were a Boy” in the early rounds. He also opted on not changing the song’s pronouns. The judges immediately questioned his song choice. “It’s a weird choice. Okay, we get it. You’re trying to be cute,” Harry Connick, Jr. whispered to Jennifer Lopez. Actually London was inspired to sing it after watching an episode of Fox’s Glee when Alex Newell, playing a trans student being bullied by classmates, sung the same song. “It was just moving,” London told BuzzFeed. “So I thought, Why not? I’ll give it a shot.” He also revealed that for “legal” reasons he was permitted from changing the lyrics of the song.
As a second song choice, London choose Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love,” a powerful LGBT anthem, and sung a bit of the chorus. He was eliminated in that round. It became one of the first times in American Idol history when a contestant opened up about their homosexuality while on the show.
“I wanted to sing something that I had some power behind, and it was different. I knew no other guy would be doing it, so I wanted to be different,” he told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.
After his stint on Idol, London went into overtime to build up his popularity on social media and focused on developing his stage presence. “I really am just the boy next door,” he told Guy magazine. “My gayness is a secondary thing. I’m me. There is nothing really different when it comes to that.”
11. Josh “JDA” Da Vila/Jaidah Christina Davila
On season twelve on American Idol, Josh “JDA” Davila emerged as one of the most flamboyant and colorful contestants to grace the stage, even making it to the semi-finals. Since the show, Davila has come out as transgender and has become Jaidah Christina Davila.
“I don’t even recognize the person that I used to be on Idol,” Davila told TheTVPage.com in 2015. “I am not just cross dressing anymore. I am not this gay, feminine boy. I am actually now on hormone replacement therapy. I have been for a year and a half.” A career in music never really flourished for the trans singer. “I wish I had this amazing story that a record label picked me up and [put out] album, [but] it just didn’t happen for me,” Davila told the Windy City Times.
Today, Davila performs regularly at the La Cueva, a trans-friendly nightclub in Chicago’s Little Village.
12. Zachary Travis/Kirk Cummings
Zachary Travis will probably go into the annals of American Idol history for having one of the worst auditions ever. Singing Whitney Houston’s “Queen of the Night” on season five as a cross-dresser. Talk about a coming out story. It’s up there with the legend of William Hung. But who would have expected Travis to get the last laugh.
The Colorado boy who at the time identified as a transgender male went on to show off his flexible power-bottom skills as a gay porn star. Billed as Kirk Cummings, he has gone on to act for a variety of top-notch porn studios like Falcon, Men, Hot House, Studio 2000 and Channel 1. “We think Zachary/Kirk has made a brilliant-career move,” Queerty wrote. “Porn is a recession-proof industry and instead of dropping loads of saccharine overproduced pop-drivel onto the world, Zachary is doing what all entertainers want to do: Make people happy and get laid a lot.”
Today Cummings is a glowing sexy stud sporting a little more muscle mass, eliminating some of the boy-next-door twink qualities of his earlier days. He continues to shoot porn and work on the side as a DJ.
J. Matthew Cobb is a Birmingham, Alabama based music journalist and managing editor of HiFi Magazine. He recently launched “Southern Telltales,” a peek inside his experience as an openly gay black man living in a progressive southern city for Equinox Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @jmatthewcobb