Will Young Is Ready to Take On the Bigots
"I know the smell of bigotry, and I won't have it. I always say, 'Come and fucking take me on, leave younger LGBTQ+ kids alone.'"
Photo: Alexander McLuckie
Sitting in the corner of a quiet east London gay pub, Will Young makes for quite the unassuming figure. He's alone at the table (my fault, I'm late), chatting away on the phone. It's honestly fine, he reassures me with a smile as I put our pints on the table. With a book in the works, his new album mixed that day and the third season of his podcast in the process of dropping, Young tells me he was quite pleased, actually, to just have a moment. "I have to make sure I don't run away with everything and move into that frantic must-reply-to-every-email-immediately space," he says, forever softly-spoken. "I have to find time to deliberately keep myself calm."
Having spent the past few days immersed in all things Will Young, I've learned a lot about the man sitting opposite me. Take, for instance, his music. Most of us will recognise a handful of his singles, but did you know Young has released six studio albums? Four of those reached number one in the British charts, and I can't count on my ten fingers the number of times he's gone platinum.
What struck me most, however, is how important Young has been for a generation of young gay men – me included. In March of 2002, weeks after winning ITV's singing contest Pop Idol, Young confirmed to the British press that yes, he was gay – in what was at the time labelled "pop's worst-kept secret". But unlike the few other young pop stars of the time grossly forced out of the closet by the press, Young seemed content – pleased, even – to have his sexuality out in the open.
The early-2000s was a very different time for LGBTQ+ people. "Only time will tell if Young's shock announcement in a Sunday tabloid newspaper that he is gay will affect his popularity with the chart-buying public," reads one story, still on the BBC news website. "Pop Idol Will Young has come out. How will his announcement affect his brilliant new career?" asked the Guardian.
I ask Young if he realised the significance of what he was doing back then. "No, in all honesty," he says. "I was just fucked if I was going to pretend to be someone else. I decided I wouldn't have a music career if that was to be an issue – I didn't think about the consequences or the impact. The thought of living a life in hiding to sing pop songs wasn't worth it."
In fact, says Young, he had to tell people working on the show a number of times that he wasn't going to lie if someone asked about his sexuality. "They said it would be better if I just didn't answer the question, or I lie and say no," he recalls, "but I didn't fucking come out once and go through that shit to then have to sit and deny it." A journalist had come close to asking him in the final week of the show, but "they kind of bundled her out of the press conference before she asked, or maybe she bottled it". In the end, Young came out to the press a few weeks after the end of the competition. He planned on doing it on his own terms in a broadsheet interview, but then the Mail on Sunday - "what a surprise" – was going to run the story, so he went to the News of the World instead.
"It's totally no big deal, just part of who I am," he told the paper. "For me, it's normal and nothing to be ashamed about. I'm gay and I'm comfortable with that. I really don't know what the fuss is about."
Seventeen years on, Young – who's just turned 40 – continues to speak about being gay and all that comes with it. Just days before we meet, he calls out the Top Gear team for their blatant homophobia, and often uses his platform to speak about issues such as LGBTQ+ mental health and bullying in schools.
It's this drive, he tells me, that led him and friend Chris Sweeney to start recording their podcast Homo Sapiens, which they describe as BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour, but for an LGBTQ+ audience. The first two seasons, recorded in the UK, saw the pair speak to the likes of Peter Tatchell and Mykki Blanco, and discuss topics like LGBTQ+ sex work and chemsex. For season three they headed stateside, interviewing Sam Smith, Troye Sivan and The Trevor Project, among a host of others.
"As a gay man, I feel a real connection to a community anywhere I go and meet someone else who is LGBTQ+," says Young. "You can offer up that little part of you and create a space to talk – and that's what we're trying to do with the podcast. There's something wonderful about being gay."
There's no denying that Young has lived much of his life in privilege. His early years sound nothing short of idyllic, spent in rural Berkshire exploring the outdoors, climbing hay bails, cycling to the local market town and soundtracking it all with his mother's music collection: Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Sade, Prince and Lenny Kravitz. However, that's not to say he hasn't experienced his share of mental health problems and trauma – something he's spoken about openly – the origins of which stretch back to his childhood. At the age of seven he was sent to a boarding school, a place he describes now as "horrific" and "hideous".
"It was just very abusive," says Young, talking me through a series of archaic and unpleasant sounding rules and regulations. "The teachers were abusive physically; there was sexual abuse going on as well." He's quick to add that he never experienced physical sexual abuse himself, although he knows of other pupils who were victims. "I still remember the headmaster walking through when we were having baths and looking at our dicks," he tells me, "looking at us while we were in the shower. You know when you're being watched. That falls under the definition."
The boys weren't allowed to listen to music; all their Walkmans were locked in a shed. "I smuggled a Walkman in and would go off and listen to my music in the woods as an escape," he says. "I remember seeing Robert Smith from The Cure and I said to him, 'Thank you, you helped me get through prep school.'"
Arriving at Wellington College – another boarding school – aged 13 felt like being rescued. "You could be called by your first name; you could wear normal clothes in the evenings; you could eat sweets," he says, grinning. But here, he had to face another type of demon, this one hiding in the closet. "I remember very clearly sitting in my old Mini in Kensington at 17 or 18," he says. "I knew there was a gay night at The Fridge on a Friday night, and I was sitting in my car and my hands just wouldn't work. I wanted desperately in my mind to turn around and have my first gay clubbing experience, but my body was frozen. I broke down. I cried. It was dreadful."
This shame – this internalised homophobia that so many young gay men find themselves dealing with – also stopping him from singing. "I had something in my head that tied [together] having a high voice, being able to sing and being gay," he says, bursting out laughing. "I thought people would just know I was gay if I sang."
At university, Young finally felt able to come to out his friends – and, before long, was singing on national television. Being gay, middle class and, in his words, an "uncool politics student", applying to Pop Idol was the only way he could see himself landing a record deal. Which, of course, he did.
Young reckons he handled fame pretty well, "aside from the year I thought I was Madonna". But being publicly out and proud in the early-2000s presented him with a new set of problems. First, there was the abuse: someone graffitied "fag" onto his house in Cornwall; on his first tour, he noticed that someone had scrawled "PUFTER" on the wall of the lift he used to ascend to the stage. "And people threatened to stab me," he says. "It was really full on. People would yell abuse from cars as I walked down the street regularly."
"What also made it difficult was I was still being told by the press people that, when anyone asked about me being gay, I should move on very quickly from it," Young continues. "I should never say anything sexual. I found myself sort of desexualised. It took until I was 30 for me to feel attractive in myself; when it came to sex, I was a very slow starter."
Young has no doubt that all of this contributed to his eventual breakdown, in 2012. "My [fifth] album had just reached number one, I'd just moved into this gorgeous new house round the corner – I think an Arctic Monkey lives in it now – and there I was, miserable." If none of that could make him happy, he asked himself, what would? "So," he says, laughing, "I set about having a breakdown, basically."
Over six years on, Young says he's "made it through", more comfortable now with who he is than ever. That, he says, is why he wants to keep making his podcast – a sense of responsibility towards younger LGBTQ+ people. "I think it's just a part of getting older," he says. "I sorted my shit out, and frankly it was about time I became less self-centred and cared about other people."
"I just think I'm fucked if anyone's going to fuck up the next generation of LGBTQ+ kids as well," he goes on. "My self-esteem is focused, and that's quite immovable. I know when someone’s been wronged, because it has happened to me. I know the smell of bigotry, which causes shame to creep in, and I won't have it. I always say come and fucking take me on, leave younger LGBTQ+ kids alone, I can take it." His sincerity is honestly warming. It is, says Young, as he heads out for a cigarette, what he wants to keep on doing for the rest of his life. "Oh, and I'd also quite like to take up knitting."
Season three of Will Young and Chris Sweeney’s Homo Sapiens podcast is out now.