Troye Sivan

How Troye Sivan Found Stardom Without Catering to Straight Fans

We’ve only just met, and Troye Sivan is already taking off his pants. Down to black boxer briefs and a white T-shirt, and leaning against his marble kitchen counter, the Australian 23-year-old looks like a ’90s Calvin Klein model -- waifish, with bleached hair, striking blue eyes and Saoirse Ronan’s bone structure. I ask if his hair is white. “You tell me,” he says in his cheery accent, instinctively reaching up to touch it. “I go a little whiter when I first dye it. It fades yellow.”

After catching up on old episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race all morning -- he’ll be a guest judge on the next season -- he’s still sleepy. He bought this place, a four-bedroom contemporary set deep inside a canyon in the Hollywood Hills, just six months ago, but it already feels lived in: a young artist’s lair with a poured-concrete fireplace, neat piles of art books and sliding glass doors that lead out to a small, kidney-shaped pool. The upright piano in the corner came from Craigslist. A framed charcoal drawing rescued from a flea market hangs above an arrangement of red roses -- a gift from Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli, who dressed Sivan for the Met Gala in May. (Sivan is also the face of Maison Valentino’s spring 2018 collection.) “Dear Troye,” the card reads, “Thank you for being part of my world!”

Troye Sivan Discusses His Coming Out Experience, Shares Advice for Young LGBTQ People | Billboard

But you were wondering why he’s not wearing pants. Sivan’s in the midst of a fitting, trying on outfits his stylist sent over for a series of upcoming appearances, including what will be a surprise duet with Taylor Swift at the Rose Bowl stop on her Reputation Tour. He’s clearly comfortable in his own skin, even -- or maybe especially -- as his fame mounts and the Aug. 31 release of his second album, Bloom, approaches.

Ramona Rosales
Sivan wears a Topman shirt available at Nordstrom.

A one-time YouTube star who came out in a 2013 vlog post, Sivan’s biggest single to date, “Youth,” hit No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2016. Wild -- the EP that preceded his 2015 debut, Blue Neighbourhood, a Billboard 200 top 10 -- elicited the following tweet from Swift: “WILD IS STUNNING AND AWESOME. (YES CAPS LOCK IS NECESSARY HERE.)” While he has never had a radio hit, he has built a major profile without tailoring his identity to a straight audience.

His latest singles are unapologetically sexual. Sivan cast gay porn actor Brody Blomqvist in the music video for “My My My!,” a bop about the thrill of new love that The Guardian described as “horny and hedonistic.” The lyrics to the next single, “Bloom” -- “Take a trip into my garden ... Might tell you to/Take a second, baby, slow it down” -- had Adam Lambert and others hailing it as the first pop anthem to celebrate bottoming.

Working for the first time with writers and producers like Max Martin’s Wolf Cousins group and Ariel Rechtshaid (Solange, HAIM), as well as previous collaborators like Leland, Sivan has placed himself in a taboo-busting tradition of pop singers like David Bowie, Prince and George Michael. But unlike those artists, he’s not toying with the time’s prevailing attitudes -- he’s the embodiment of an emerging mainstream culture.

Still, it’s not an easy position to be in. “I do feel a little bit like a guinea pig sometimes,” he admits. “That the world or the press or whatever is sort of using me and a bunch of other young people right now as education points, [like] we’re teaching the world about all of these different things.”

Joel Edgerton, the Australian actor-director who cast Sivan in a supporting role in Boy Erased, his upcoming film about a young man sent to a gay-conversion facility, was captivated by Sivan’s audition tape. “There’s something about Troye that inherently is very beguiling, very mysterious and inviting,” he says. “You want to know more about him at first glance.

“Whether he likes it or not,” adds Edgerton, “he has become this spokesperson for a young generation.”

Tonight, Sivan is scheduled to play a short, private set in Malibu, Calif., for a Swiss watch brand before boarding a red-eye to New York to film the video for “Bloom.” He’ll fly back to Los Angeles 36 hours later to perform at the Rose Bowl before flying back to New York to appear on Today. As his parents, themselves recovering from a 14-hour flight from Melbourne, Australia, sleep in the next room and his boyfriend, model Jacob Bixenman, lazes around somewhere upstairs, Sivan settles into a deep leather chair. Clear-eyed and polite -- shy at times, even -- he’s free of the manic energy one tends to associate with an eager-to-please young star.

Describing the difference between working on the first album and this one, he says, “Before, I had to write so much more just to find these moments where I felt like I got what I wanted. Whereas this time, everything fell into place a lot easier. I just had much more of a vision. I wanted it to be, like, a love letter.”

A love letter to what? I ask.

He pauses, apparently wondering how personal he should get. He has talked in the past about straining to keep his relationship with Bixenman private. Finally, he says, unhelpfully, “A love letter to a bunch of things.”

As he continues, it becomes clear that the album encompasses more than just his relationship -- it’s also about the truth of his everyday experience. “I’m lucky enough to exist in 2018 where I have a record label that’s like, ‘Write whatever you want to write.’ I don’t have to hide anything,” he says. “I’m honored to have this opportunity to write an album about my relationship, but in the process, be writing an album that I’m hoping is going to mean more, because I didn't have albums like that growing up. Just by the nature of who I am, the idea of writing openly and not watering stuff down for a straight audience ... If I’m being honest about my life then, you know, I am writing about nights like [ones in] ‘My My My!’ or ‘Bloom.’”

When I later ask Michelle Jubelirer, COO for Sivan’s American label, Capitol Music Group, for her interpretation of “Bloom,” she laughs. “I heard the song, and I knew exactly what it was about. Probably not everyone at the company knew on first blush or listen. But you know what? We signed him, we knew who he was. And it’s our responsibility to support who he is.” And encouragingly, Capitol wasn't the only label willing to take a risk on a boundary-pushing gay artist -- the bids to land Sivan, says Jubelirer, were “very competitive.”

Dua Lipa, who toured with Sivan in 2017, says his authenticity is part of what draws his audience in: “He’s such a smart wordsmith, but he’s very honest at the same time. That’s why people love his music. He says things that people want to say but can’t find the words to say them.”

Owen Kolasinski/BFA/REX/Shutterstock
Sivan (right) with boyfriend Bixenman in 2017.

Sivan will tour again this fall, at bigger venues and with bigger productions. He invited Kim Petras to support him, inadvertently stepping into a controversy over her working relationship with Dr. Luke, whom Petras, a trans woman, has defended despite Kesha’s accusations that he abused her. (Dr. Luke has denied the allegations.) In a lengthy statement that started, “Guys, I hear you,” Sivan explained that he hadn't been aware of her past comments, which “troubled” him, but nevertheless plans to keep supporting her and her music. He also committed to donating some of the tour’s proceeds to RAINN, the anti-sexual-violence nonprofit.

There may be more controversy brewing over a song on Bloom: “Seventeen” concerns an older man Sivan once met online. The resulting relationship was taboo, maybe even against the law. (Think Call Me by Your Name.) “I’ve rehearsed the backlash and the response a million times in my head,” says Sivan with emotion. “I’m worried because I don’t want to ever come across that I’m condoning that or anything like it. But I felt, greater than all of those worries, a responsibility to tell that true story -- of the curious gay kid who puts himself in some kind of shady situation to find a connection, like all of us crave.”

Sivan first came out at age 14 to a friend, after one of those classic, four-hour teen conversations about “deep, dark secrets.” “I had never said it to myself,” he remembers. “It was so pushed into the back of my head. We decided to never speak about it ever again. But what it did was open the floodgates in my own head. And I started going online and watching coming-out videos and videos from Pride parades.”

Sivan’s parents -- Jewish South Africans who moved to Perth, Australia, when he was 2 in order to avoid rising crime in Johannesburg -- sent him to a Modern Orthodox day school, and he often sang in synagogue. (Sivan, Troye’s middle name, is the Hebrew word for the third month of the Jewish year.) When he came out to them at 15, “They leapt immediately into, ‘Are you OK? How can we equip you to deal with this?’” He soon worked up the courage to say he wanted to attend his first Pride parade.

“They were like, ‘Oh, we’re 100 percent coming,’” recalls Sivan, smiling at the memory. “Even though it was mildly embarrassing -- I walked in the parade with my parents and my [two] brothers and my sister -- it was cool because I realized that they weren't just tolerant of their gay son, they were stoked and proud.” They still are -- it’s obvious in the way they dote on him and call his boyfriend, Jacob, by his Hebrew name, “Yakov.”

Sivan launched his YouTube career at 12 with videos that were sometimes silly, like his series Life’s Unanswerable Questions, though always sincere. But around age 18, secure in his identity, Sivan set the stage for his life to come with two videos: In May 2013, he posted an original song, inspired by the young adult best-seller The Fault in Our Stars, and in August, he came out to his followers. Both videos went viral. And then, so did he. Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential teens of 2014. He walked in Hedi Slimane’s fall 2015 Saint Laurent menswear show. By 2016, he had over 4 million YouTube subscribers and was reportedly making upwards of six figures in sponsorships. “At that point,” he says, “I was just along for the ride.”

Sivan’s eight-minute, 17-second coming-out video is a rare thing, equal parts star power and vulnerable humanity. He had promised himself he would come out before signing a record deal, knowing it was the only way he could write music that would be completely honest. When pressed, he now says he briefly wondered if it might have lost him some young, infatuated female fans, but he “had no other choice. It was a moment where I was like, ‘I have to put myself first.’"

Behind the Scenes at Troye Sivan's Cover Shoot | Billboard

Though he couldn't have imagined it as a kid in Perth seeking out episodes of Queer As Folk online, he’s suddenly living his teenage fantasy of adulthood, complete with Ariana Grande in his contacts and a model boyfriend with a pornstache. When Bixenman, also 23, wanders downstairs during Sivan’s fitting, the vibe is Ozzie and Harriet set in the Bravo Clubhouse. Sivan holds up a denim fringe look he’s considering for Swift’s show, but he can already tell Bixenman hates it.

“You’re not obsessed with it,” he says. His boyfriend shakes his head. (Bixenman prefers the Raf Simons cargo pants Sivan winds up wearing onstage with Swift.) Increasingly, domesticity is where Sivan seems to find his bliss. He has a song with Grande called “Dance to This,” but it’s not about life in the VIP section. It is, says Sivan, “about how, after a while, all of these parties and nights out kind of start to blur, and you get to the point where staying at home and making food and making out in the kitchen sounds like the ideal night.”

It’s now 3 p.m., and Sivan is due soon in Malibu to sound-check. We hop in his Tesla SUV, his parents climbing through the gullwing rear doors, and nose into rush-hour traffic. Conscientious as always, Sivan at one point glances in the rearview mirror and says, “Mum, I see you don’t have your seat belt on.” Bixenman had planned to join us, but he’s flying to Namibia later that night for a photo shoot -- “Some job with this fragrance company,” he says, shrugging -- and realized at the last minute that he had forgotten to pack. I take the opportunity to ask Sivan about his feelings on The Mustache. He laughs: “Um, hmm. It’s, like ... a choice that he has made. I tell him to shave it every few days. Then he grows it back, and I’m into it, then it gets to a point where it’s like, ‘OK, enough.’”

The party’s at an oceanfront home that was recently on the market for $24 million and where you can watch a school of dolphins breaking the waves from one of the balconies. When Sivan and his band take the stage, they open with a stripped-down version of “My My My!,” and the singer writhes with the same sensual lack of self-consciousness you can see in the song’s music video.

Earlier in the day, Sivan had told me about that shoot, saying, “I felt completely free making the video, completely liberated to lift this weight of just wanting to fit in and not wanting to move my body in a certain way. To completely lift it, not just come out of the closet.

“When I was younger, out in public, I never wanted to pop my hip and definitely made sure that my wrist was nice and firm,” he continues. “All these silly, prohibitive things. I always said that I couldn't dance, because the way that I wanted to dance didn't feel masculine enough.”

One magical thing about Troye Sivan? He can make a private party to promote an expensive line of watches feel poignant, simply by moving his body and expressing everything he couldn't quite own when he was a kid, even with a supportive family and burgeoning social media following. Of all the things there are left to accomplish in his young career, Sivan can say this: “In front of a big group of people, in front of cameras, to be in my body and be in that moment, I feel the way that I’ve always wanted to feel -- like a real pop star who is not holding anything back.”

This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.