Todrick Hall’s career certainly hasn’t followed a traditional trajectory. After being voted off American Idol Season 9 on what is still widely regarded as one of that show’s most shocking and disastrous results nights ever, he quickly pivoted and became a self-styled YouTube star. Broadway stardom (in Kinky Boots, Chicago, and Waitress); his own MTV reality show; the groundbreaking visual album Straight Outta Oz; regular appearances as a mentor and judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race; the LGBTQ+ anthem “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels”; choreography work on everything from the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards to Virgin Airlines’ safety video; and an MTV Video Music Award-winning collaboration with his good friend Taylor Swift followed.
And now, all of this has led to Hall’s fourth studio album, Femuline, a gender-norms-defying concept record that demonstrates just how far he’s come since his bullied childhood in small-town Texas — and since his American Idol days, when he says “producers were not super-thrilled about me doing something that was going to make Middle American moms feel uncomfortable.”
Below, Hall speaks with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume about his evolution as a well-rounded entertainer in touch with both his masculine and feminine sides — and, though he’s made peace with his past both personally and professionally, why he thinks society still has a long way to go.
Yahoo Entertainment: First of all, I am so dismayed to hear about the recent burglary in your home. Are you OK?
Todrick Hall: I don’t know what defines “OK,” but I’m safe and my cats [newly adopted Sphynx kittens Regina and George] are safe, and this scenario could have been a lot worse. The [burglars] took a bunch of Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags and things like that, which makes me sad because I feel like it’s someone that I know very closely, from the watching the footage. It feels like someone who was able to get in and maneuver in my house in a very short amount of time in pitch darkness, so I don’t think it’s a stranger, which makes me nervous. But I’m happy that my cats are alive. … I never thought that I was going to become one of those crazy, crazy cat ladies! [laughs] But as soon as I found out that my home was broken into, my cats were the first thing I thought of, which lets you know that I love them so much.
I am glad that you, Regina, and George are safe! So, your new album is called Femuline. I love that term. Please tell me what it means to you and why you coined it.
I felt like it was the perfect name to really encompass what this album is and what it stands for. … I think as a gay person, sometimes you do all of this struggling to come out of the closet and feel comfortable in your own skin, and once you’re out, you realize that there are a whole bunch of other boxes that we as the gay community put ourselves in. And I think that for a long time, I struggled with dating people and letting them see my heels and my hair — my wigs — and stuff like that, because it’s kind of an unspoken thing… or maybe it is spoken in the gay community that most gay men want somebody who looks as “straight” as possible. A lot of people even find joy in trying to see if they can get a straight man drunk enough to, like, express his deepest, darkest desires with a man. You know, that’s never been my goal, but I always knew that there was a stigma [against feminine men] in the gay community. I felt it, and I experienced it. And so, I wanted to write something that was an anthem and almost like a hall pass or permission slip, for people to not feel like they’re less of a man — or less of whatever it is they want to be — because they’re doing the masculine and feminine sides. And I think not just gay men, but people who are pansexual or nonbinary have identified with this [album] in a way. Even Laverne Cox, who is an open transgender woman, was saying this on her Instagram the other day. And so, I think it’s just an empowering [term] that encompasses everything that I felt that Femuline should speak of… that I can do both.
Growing up in Plainview, Texas, did you catch a lot of flak for being “too feminine” or “not manly enough”?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Every day. And you don’t realize how much that weighs on you. I’m out, and my voice is all over the gay community and people would think I wouldn’t experience this now, but sometimes when I come into places like Hilton Head, S.C., or when I go back to Texas to visit my family, I stop and think about the outfits that I put in my suitcase and choose them very carefully. Because I don’t want to make myself uncomfortable. I don’t want to make anyone there feel uncomfortable. And I think it’s really sad that I feel the need to do that. But even as someone who’s been out since I was 15, I still feel that in a lot of ways — and I would consider myself to be pretty confident, so I can only imagine how other people deal with that every day. I definitely felt that way my entire life. … Sometimes I feel like, “Oh, the world’s evolved since then,” but then I realize there are so many people who are still living that situation and are in that place today.
Did you get bullied a lot as a kid?
I did, but I also I realized that you take the power away from someone teasing you when you just admit who you are. Like, people teased me a lot more before I came out and said I was openly gay. Once I did that, I was embracing it, so it took the fun out of it for them.
One fantastic F-U track off your last album, using a certain F-word [“F**”], was a sort of open letter to the bullies who, now that you’re successful and famous, are sliding into your DMs and acting like your best friends. What was the reaction back home to that song?
That song was written to be sort of like a bad-bitch anthem, but I also have seen so many people come full-circle, and I’m not one of those people that’s like, “Wow, look at me now!” Like, I’m so grateful that the people who used to tease me have now realized that that wasn’t the best choice. And one of those people, one of my No. 1 bullies in high school, now has a son who is part of the LGBTQ+ community and asked for tickets to see my show, and he couldn’t believe that his dad knew me. And [my former bully] cried when I saw him, because he realized that what he did to me is what his son is enduring every single day. And it was such a full-circle moment, and I was so grateful to be able to see him and to bury the hatchet. I didn’t realize I needed that closure. And to be able to give his son a huge hug and tell him everything was going to be OK, it just felt so incredible. That was one of my favorite moments with an old high school situation. It’s cool to be able to change the world, even some small ways, as an artist. That’s the reason why we all set out to do this.
Wow. That story just gave me chills. Do you feel you, as an artist, have helped bring about greater societal change?
I do feel like I’m part of the change. But it still makes me sad in 2021 that we don’t have a lot of gay people singing on the radio and singing about other men. Like, I want to get married [to my boyfriend] now, and I look for [possible wedding] songs — and every song is man singing to a woman, a woman singing to a man, and they’re saying the pronouns of the person that they’re singing to. And that makes me feel a little bit discouraged sometimes.
Well, you’ve been on a journey, as far as experimenting with gender expression and sexual expression, that has led to Femuline. I recall the turning point maybe being the video for “Dem Beats” with RuPaul in 2018, when you wore that unicorn headpiece and horse-hoof high heels. And then of course “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels” was a femme anthem and the soundtrack of Pride 2019. Where did this all start, though?
I think starting with “Beauty and the Beat,” there were moments when I put on a little lipstick and a lash and threw on a wig; it was not drag, really, but I started doing that. And then I started doing “Mickey Minaj,” combining the music of Nicki Minaj with Mickey Mouse and starting to flirt with the idea of doing things that were more in the drag area or androgynous. But I think that the thing that really planted the seed for me to be excited about doing Femuline was that I had a choice during “Nail, Hair, Hips, Heels.” I almost did it in drag with a ponytail, with all the boys around me, and then I almost did it without a wig, but with makeup on. And then at the last minute I was like, “I think I’m just not going to wear makeup. And I think I’m just not going to shave.” I didn’t have a super-big beard, but there was enough scruff there that before I would’ve shaved it, if I were going to do traditional drag. I just wanted to toe this line and be somewhere in the middle. People resonated with that so much, because it was kind of like, “I didn’t know how to take that in.” Your senses were like, triggered by it, because you were seeing people in heels doing movement that looked feminine but definitely giving off a masculine vibe in some cases. It was really, really, shocking to me how people perceived that, and that is what I think gave me the permission to be like, “Great, now that I’ve done that, I can do something else that goes even further down that lane!” I don’t know what the next step will be, to be completely honest. But I definitely feel comfortable embracing all facets of me, whether it be fully masculine or fully drag or somewhere in the middle. I am equally confident now to portray all three of those characters — when if you had done this interview two or three years ago, it would not have been the same answer.
Were you afraid of alienating any of your audience?
I honestly think my fans supporting me and rooting for me when I started doing things in drag, and them embracing the fact that I wanted to do other things, gave me a lot of confidence. Or when I go on tour and they say, “I’ve always wanted to wear heels and I never was brave enough to wear them, and watching you guys wear them is what made me feel confident enough to do that in my everyday life.” I never thought that I would be giving people that type of freedom or that type of inspiration… because yes, there’s moments when you think, “If I do this, will I lose my fans?” At a certain point in your career, that’s really important to you. But then you get to a place where you’re like, “If I lose my fans because I wore a pair of heels, and that they don’t think guys are ‘supposed’ to do that, then they weren’t real fans to begin with.” You get to a place where you don’t really care and you’re like, “Whoever sticks with me, sticks with me, and whoever doesn’t, doesn’t.” I finally got to that point. I don’t know if people are unfollowing me or how they’re feeling about it, but I feel really great about it.
A lot of people, even before YouTube, discovered you via American Idol, which is a rather conservative show. I recall the judges frequently criticizing you for being “too theatrical,” which really can be coded language for something else. Do you think your theatricality in that competition was a hindrance?
It was a hindrance — and maybe some people would say it still is. I think a lot of the most iconic people who have ever been in the industry are theatrical. I think Prince is theatrical. I think Michael Jackson is theatrical. I think Beyoncé and Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are theatrical. A lot of what these “rapstresses” are doing right now, from Cardi B to Megan Thee Stallion to Doja Cat to Nicki Minaj, are theatrical; Nicki Minaj played several different characters in her career when she would be rapping. And I don’t think that was a bad thing. I wish I would have had the courage to say that to Simon Cowell on American Idol. But I think then I wasn’t really ready to fully embrace the human that I am now. Had I done that, maybe I would’ve made it further, but I definitely felt the producers were not super-thrilled about me doing something that was going to make Middle American moms feel uncomfortable. But then I found YouTube, and now I can do those things on my YouTube channel and be praised for them. My goal is not to make people feel comfortable anymore.
Did any powers-that-be on Idol ever flat-out tell you to seem “less gay,” or anything like that?
They used the words “appeal to Middle America” over and over and over and over again. … And I don’t fault them for it, because I think they were, in their way, trying to help me. Like, I think there’s a lot of parents that say, “Don’t wear that to school, because people will make fun of you,” not realizing that it might hurt their child’s confidence instead of help them. But I think that it was a very, very wise lesson learned for me. I really, really wanted to make sure that if I ever got the opportunity to be onstage again [I would be myself next time]. Because when I left American Idol, I was devastated — not because I didn’t win, but because I got eliminated for being somebody that I wasn’t. When you leave that show, most of the time, that’s it; most people don’t have a resurgence after American Idol. When you leave that show, it means you almost have to fight harder. It took me a really, really long time to not have people say “American Idol’s Todrick Hall!” And it doesn’t bother me now at all, because I don’t believe in running away from your past. But I didn’t want people to only think of me as that, because I wasn’t proud of the work that I did on that show.
Because I knew I held back. I didn’t do any of the ideas that in my mind, in my living room, when I was practicing what I was going to do, when the confetti and the fireworks were going off. Like, I had this big plan to do Britney Spears’s “Circus” with all these people around me and stuff; that was my favorite song at that time, and I was like, “This is going to be epic! I’m going to wear this ringleader costume and be dancing! I want the lights to be flashing…” [laughs] I think I went in there with too much direction, like, “I’m going to redo every song!” I think if The X Factor had been a show at the time that I was competing, that would have been a show that I would have more excelled at. Dancing isn’t really like an element of being on American Idol; it’s kind of more just standing and singing, and maybe if you’re lucky you have a guitar and some fog on the ground. It was not my aesthetic! [laughs] But I’m glad I experienced it.
After Idol and at the start of your YouTube fame, you were managed by Scooter Braun, and that situation didn’t end well. You’ve since become good friends and collaborators with Taylor Swift — you co-produced her “You Need to Calm Down” video and won a VMA for it — and now Taylor has her own very public battles with Scooter. Have the two of you bonded over that shared experience, or did you ever give her any Scooter Braun advice?
There were definitely times where I spoke to her about my experiences, but I can’t speak for her. I just know that she is such a badass, and she just wants to stand up for things that she wouldn’t have stood up for before. I’m really, really happy that she is going out and taking matters into her own hands, because a lot of people would have just bowed out or not spoken up. It inspires me how much she is willing to stand up for herself, and the fact that she is not willing to let anybody — Scooter Braun or anyone else — control her destiny or make her feel like her voice is taken away. I think that’s the worst thing that could ever happen to an artist, to feel like they’ve been “Ursula’d,” as I call it. Like, you know, Ursula took Ariel’s voice away. I love that Taylor is doing what she needs to do to make sure that she gets her music out and that she owns it, and it’s done in a way that she feels comfortable.
You have some amazing guests on Femuline: Chaka Khan, Brandy, Nicole Scherzinger, Ts Madison. Any more possible collaborations with Taylor in the future?
Any time Taylor calls me and asks me to do something, I would be down, because I have the most fun on her sets. I’ve learned so much from her, not just from being on her sets, but from how she treats her crew and her people. It’s just incredible. So, I would love for that to happen. I don’t know when she’s going to be doing something new, because she’s recording like eight billion albums — she’s re-recording all of her [back catalog]. We talked over quarantine, and she was like, “It turns out I have a lot of songs!” [laughs] She’s loved being able to go into a studio and revisit these songs and fall back in love with them. … And, you know, I became a fan of Taylor when she started singing “Love Story,” but there were some albums that I wasn’t as familiar with. Now I’ve been able to go back and fall in love with her older music, and it’s just been incredible to watch. … And if she asks me to do anything, I’m going to always be there for her, because she’s just been an incredible human being and an incredible friend to me.
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The above interview has been edited for length and clarity is taken from Todrick Hall’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available via the SiriusXM app.