Jake Zyrus Opens Up About Coming Out As Trans in the Spotlight & Inspiration Behind New Music: 'It's My Survival Song'

Jake Zyrus
Mark Ryan Alvarez

Jake Zyrus

Jake Zyrus is relieved to be talking about his music again.

After a brush with international fame as perhaps one the biggest global pop stars to emerge from the Philippines, the Filipino pop singer, formerly known as Charice, debuted his first English single since coming out as a trans man.

An anthemic ballad titled “Diamond,” it’s a modest, but confident, re-introduction to the man who was once championed by Oprah Winfrey a decade ago as “the most talented girl in the world.”

“Releasing Tagalog music in the Philippines is always hard for me because every time I release a song, the music is always secondary,” he admits in an interview to Billboard in a FaceTime interview from his home in Manila. He pauses for a moment. “What the press talks about is my sexuality, so it's kind of difficult here.”

Of the songs he’s released since unveiling Jake Zyrus to the public, “Diamond” might be his favorite. Written with the songwriter Trisha Denise in one of those studio sessions that doubled as a confessional, it felt like it had tapped into an authentic part of his identity, one that had been tucked away for so much of his life.

“I didn’t want it to be another inspirational song where we tell people it's going to be okay. I wanted a song telling the world that it's okay not to be okay,” he says, with a mixture of zeal and exhaustion in his voice. “I've seen a lot of pain. I’ve seen a lot of young people who [have taken] their lives for almost the same reason as why I tried to take my life away. I wanted this to be a survival song for everyone, because it's also my survival song.”

Zyrus first emerged in the American public consciousness as teen wunderkind Charice Pempengco. Esteemed by the likes of music industry royalty, most notably by way of legendary producer David Foster (Josh Groban, Whitney Houston), his career went meteoric in the late 2000s: an endless deluge of YouTube covers that drew in hundreds of thousands of adoring viewers, a tour through the talk show gauntlet in the Philippines and abroad, high-profile duets with Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli.

For a time, Zyrus stood on the cusp of pop stardom. Following his viral cover of “Note to God,” which debuted at No. 44 on the Hot 100 off the strength of a performance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, his stateside debut album Charice landed at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 the year after. Its lead single, the glossy, Auto-Tuned ballad “Pyramid,” peaked at No. 56 on the Hot 100.

His starpower crested during his recurring stint on Glee’s highly-rated second season as Sunshine Corazon, parlaying his daytime stardom into peak primetime with covers of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and Beyonce’s “Listen.”

Still, international recognition didn’t translate into contentment in Zyrus’ personal life. As the pieces of his musical career coalesced into something resembling fame, his life in the Philippines collapsed under tragedy and endless public scrutiny.

His estranged father, Ricky, was killed in a gruesome murder in late 2011. Infinity, his second international album, gestated in label purgatory and was only released in Japan, never to be released in the United States despite studio time with Bruno Mars and Nick Jonas.

But the most isolating time for Zyrus came soon after. Zyrus began to explore a masculine form of gender expression soon after the death of his father to much speculation within the Filipino media circuit about his sexuality. In 2013, he came out as lesbian on The Buzz, a Filipino talk show.

Zyrus explains that he came out as a lesbian first because trans identities in the Philippines are often misinterpreted as sexual identities. “There are only two things I hear in this country, either, you're a tomboy [a catch-all term for “lesbian” in Tagalog] or you're bakla [a catch-all term for “gay man” in Tagalog], and that's it,” he said. “If I came out [as a] tomboy, maybe they'd get all the things I do. But they didn’t.”

Tabloids latched onto family drama between him and his mother Raquel, which culminated in a yearlong period of estrangement between the two. He confided to Oprah in a 2014 TV special that his “soul was male.” The sit-down further sparked international media attention about his gender identity.

“I’ve gone through a lot of things with my family, with the fans who turned their backs on me, the media, the haters. Everybody,” he said.

Amid his personal chaos, he attempted suicide. “[Because of] that one reason — just because I wanted to be myself — [I] tried to take my life away three times,” he said.

Zyrus refuses to dwell on the low points. In 2017, he announced that he was a trans man on Instagram and Twitter, changing his social media handles to reflect his new stage name: Jake Zyrus. After the strife and the criticism he endured having to come out as a lesbian, he knew he’d survive whatever he’d face going forward.

“I wasn't scared at all. I knew that a lot of people would make fun of it, but I didn't care because in the back of my mind I was like, fuck it,” he says. “I'm so glad that [I experienced] all the struggles, the challenges, the pain that I felt. When I came out as a trans man, I was so proud. It was the opposite of everything that I felt before.”

He knows that the remnants of his past will continue to follow him. Commentators on YouTube have posted videos comparing his live performances of the same song pre- and post-transition. Critics have asked if he misses Charice, or worse, “killed” Charice by transitioning.

Besides, there’s so much of him that’s still the same.

Zyrus wants to be known as a balladeer again, singing the show-stopping devotionals by the likes of Josh Groban and Michael Bublé that brought him inches to fame a decade ago. On a tour through the U.K. this summer, Zyrus performed a cover of the swelling Greatest Showman number “Never Enough.” It certainly didn’t launch him to the same level of fame that his covers nearly a decade prior took him, but the power emanating from his voice remained intact.

Which brings us back to “Diamond.” “If there’s no pressure, there’ll be no diamond,” he croons on the track. Saddled with the years of trauma and self-examination that followed Jake’s rapid ascent, listening to it feels like witnessing a revelation take place in real time.

He cites Shawn Mendes as a major inspiration for the music he hopes to make going forward. It is immediately evident upon hearing the booming percussion and the warm guitar thrums on “Diamond,” which bears a striking resemblance to Mendes’ 2018 hit “In My Blood.” When I tell him that Mendes works closely with another trans songwriter, Teddy Geiger, he jokes, “You see, I look up to Shawn even more now.”

Zyrus knows his place in the industry, and he seems to be aware that he’ll have a tough time reaching the stratospheric heights that he did before transitioning. He knows that he’s alienated a lot of his fanbase as one of the few visible transgender men in the in the largely-Catholic, largely-parochial Philippines, though he’s gained a new following of fans he’s dubbed “Jakesters.”

But being visibly out has been more gratifying than any praise he’s received in his lifetime.

“It was exactly like winning an Oscar, it was exactly like winning a Grammy. Finally, I get to get out of the house, be myself. I don't care if people still call me by my old name, because I know who I am.”