I was about 18 when I finally told my parents and friends, “Yeah, I’m gay.” I grew up in a liberal family, and they kind of went, “Yeah, no shit.” So when I moved to Los Angeles at 19, 20, I was very much living my life as an out gay man. By the time I did American Idol, I had been very gay for years. I guess I didn’t realize I had to [publicly] label myself; I wasn’t a celebrity yet, so I wasn’t looking at myself from the outside. [Lambert didn’t declare his sexuality until after Idol.]
I didn’t get fully obsessed with Queen until I was in my early 20s, and Freddie was one of my heroes. Musically, I loved his attack: He was very aggressive and seemed in control of everything he was singing. Later, seeing some live performances [on video], it was also his stage presence, the way he was so over the top. I knew he meant to be campy and wild to entertain people. I identified with that in him very quickly.
At the time, it was sort of like, “Is he or isn’t he?” I’m sure that’s the best you could do, because things were so taboo back then. But I liked that he never really denied [being gay]. He wasn’t shy about his sexuality at all. It was just who he was.
I feel like I’ve been given this amazing opportunity to carry on a torch for a man who was ahead of his time. It’s something I can talk openly about, and I don’t know if he felt that way. Maybe he did, but I don’t think the world did. [Mercury had AIDS, which he acknowledged right before his death in 1991.] It’s interesting representing some of the ideas about what he was for today’s world.
When I came on the scene, it definitely felt like a bit of an uphill battle, with a lot more middle-aged straight dudes making a lot of [industry] decisions. That’s changing. Someone like Troye [Sivan] or Sam [Smith] or Olly [Alexander] from Years & Years or Hayley Kiyoko can say, “This is who I am,” which is what I’ve been trying to do, too. I always wonder if Freddie is looking down on us, excited that the times have changed. I hope I’m carrying on his legacy in a way that would make him proud and that he would get a kick out of. And I hope he’s envious of my footwear collection.
— As told to Joe Lynch