Queen frontman Freddie Mercury is arguably one of the deities of rock music most ingrained into our cultural consciousness. His booming, multi-octave voice, his stature and his theatrical, larger-than-life presence are all instantly recognizable.
And now that the Queen and Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is putting up near-record highs at the box office — earning $50 million in North America — there’s a renewed interest in learning more about the rock legend. Since Bohemian Rhapsody has been skewered by some critics for playing hard and fast with the truth, it feels especially necessary to get as accurate a portrait of Mercury as possible.
It is hard to fault the movie entirely for its inaccuracies, though. The Queen frontman liked a bit of mystery to his pop stardom; even other members of Queen weren’t aware of his sexuality and his HIV diagnosis until much later in Mercury’s life. As the mythos of Mercury slowly becomes untangled through investigations into his life posthumously, there’s a more complicated image of him that emerges beyond the smoke and mirrors. Here’s five facts that you should know about Freddie Mercury.
He had a disco phase
Even as disco was on its last legs, Freddie Mercury let his disco flag fly as he ventured off into a solo career. One of his first singles, “Love Kills,” was a four-to-the-floor romp produced by disco icon Giorgio Moroder for the 1984 restoration of the 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis. Even though it landed in the top 10 of the UK Singles Chart upon its debut, it was critically panned: It earned Mercury and Moroder a Golden Raspberry Award, or Razzie, nomination for worst original song.
He was a shy person in his day-to-day life
Contrary to his bombastic stage presence, Mercury came off as quite the introvert for much of his career in the public eye. Bohemian Rhapsody leading man Rami Malek consumed hours and hours of audio and video footage of the Queen frontman and came away with an unexpected discovery. “I would listen to him in radio interviews and he was such a… I would never use the word meek, but demure, present and thoughtful human being,” Malek told The Irish Times last month. “I saw a very shy and, at times, lonely human being, and he admits that quite often.”
He was bisexual
Rumors about Freddie Mercury’s sexuality hounded him for much of his career. He was purposefully cryptic about it, even to his fellow Queen bandmates. He had male and female partners throughout his life. Even as his relationships fizzled out, two partners remained by his side until he died in 1991. Mary Austin, his onetime fiancée, stuck with him as his longtime confidant even after they separated. After his death, she received his home in London, as well as future recording royalties. He was also romantically involved with Jim Hutton, his hairdresser, from 1985 until his death.
He was self-conscious about his piano skills
Though Queen’s most beloved staples — think “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “Somebody to Love,” among many others — featured Mercury on the piano, he didn’t love tinkling the keys, nor did he think that he was good at it, especially in live settings. The band would often recruit outsiders to take on keyboard duties on tour; Mercury was afraid of messing up his own intricate piano compositions, especially on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
He died of AIDS, but hid his diagnosis until he died
Mercury died from AIDS-related complications with bronchial pneumonia in Nov. 24, 1991 — only a day after issuing a public statement that he was HIV-positive, a diagnosis he had known about since 1987. He was largely private with his diagnosis until the day before his death, a decision that was met with scrutiny from some activists. But tabloids and news outlets persisted with the rumors, publishing rare photos of him in public settings to comment on his increasingly gaunt frame.