When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the music industry to a near halt this spring, Todrick Hall had some ideas about how he would spend his time social distancing. He was in the process of transforming his bedroom into a scene from The Wizard of Oz — a favorite movie he has paid tribute to in songs and videos — and hired an artist to paint a tornado on the ceiling. He planned to turn his bed into a replica of Dorothy’s house, complete with the ruby-slippered heels of the Wicked Witch of the East poking out. But in early June, as protests against police brutality and killings of unarmed black people erupted across the nation, Hall decided his energy would be better spent in the eye of the storm instead of in his own fantasy land.
He drove to downtown Los Angeles to take part in one of the many peaceful protests demanding justice for the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. When he got out of the car, the first thing he did was cry. “There were so many white people there with shirts that said, ‘Black lives matter,’ ” recalls Hall, still sounding astonished a few days later. “I expected there to be a ton of black people, but I was not expecting to feel so supported by so many people who live so many different lives and represented so many colors of the rainbow.”
Hall, who has built a multifaceted career as an actor, singer, choreographer and TV personality since his breakout run on American Idol in 2010, describes marching outside of city hall — a mask on his face, a simple “Black Lives Matter” sign in his hand — as a transformative moment. “I have traveled the world and done several Broadway shows and gotten hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, but I never felt more important in my life than I did sitting in that crowd where nobody knew who I was,” says Hall, 35. “I think a lot of people are looking with stars in their eyes like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this might be the moment when people will actually give me a chance at winning and surviving and being able to create a family and a legacy for myself.’ ”
Hall has thought a lot about that legacy he wants to build — and the obstacles he faces — not just lately, but throughout his career. As a black gay man in the entertainment industry, he is used to paving his own yellow brick road. During a FaceTime tour of his house in late May, he showed off the memorabilia that decorates his hallways: His schoolboy costume from his 2016 visual album, Straight Outta Oz; the thigh-high red boots from his starring role as Lola in Broadway’s Kinky Boots; the MTV Video Music Award he accepted in 2019 alongside good friend and collaborator Taylor Swift for her star-studded “You Need To Calm Down” music video. But despite all that — plus regular appearances on competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and an enviable contact list in his phone — Hall still feels like an outsider in the industry.
“People have put me up on a pedestal and think that I am signed to a label and that I have management. I am blown away by their ignorance of how the industry works,” says Hall, who is repped by Creative Artists Agency but has no music manager and releases music independently. “In the next breath, I am flattered that my team and I have been able to make people believe that we are on that same level.” It doesn’t feel like so long ago that he was staging unauthorized pop-up performances around town, trying to get a break: “No one was bothering me when I was singing at the drive-through at McDonald’s and when I was dancing at Target.”
Hall is an unconventional celebrity: He’s part old-school theater showman, part new-school internet personality, part drag queen, with a sound that draws equally from club-ready dance music and contemporary hip-hop. That makes him hard to categorize — even easy to dismiss — for those used to more traditional résumés and less openly ambitious performers. With songs like “Fag” and “I Like Boys,” he’s also pushing the boundaries of LGBTQ representation in a business that has historically been unwelcoming to queer people of color and bristled at out stars who came across as too showy or too sexual. “The thing that moves me the most about Todrick is that he represents the thing that my generation fought for, which is a black man who could be gay and out in the music industry,” says Hall’s friend Billy Porter, a Broadway veteran who has garnered recent attention for his role on FX’s Pose and his extravagant red-carpet looks. “They laughed my gay ass out of the business in the mid-’90s.”
That confidence is treasured by Swift, who has publicly credited Hall with inspiring her to be more vocal about her stance on LGBTQ equality. “From day one, Todrick has always been very honest with me about his life and his experiences as a gay man of color,” Swift tells Billboard over email. “He never holds back or smooths over conversations or topics. It’s always something I’ve been grateful for, that he never felt the need to edit who he is around me or be a different version of himself. I think that unapologetic sense of self is also what people connect to in his work. He’s just Todrick. He’s never EVER going to even attempt to be anyone else.”
Yet as Hall carves out his own unconventional path through the business, sorting out what’s systemic or coded bias and what’s just a bumpy road can be tricky. Earlier this year, he called out German beauty brand Douglas Cosmetics for seemingly copying his thunderous house anthem “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels” in an advertisement he called “shady”; in a statement, the company said “it was never our intention to upset him,” but the slight evoked the long history of corporations profiting off the creativity of queer and black entertainers, often without credit or compensation.
At other times, he has been more direct in highlighting perceived wrongdoing. In 2019, Hall defended Swift during her public battle with music manager Scooter Braun, whom Hall accused of being “evil” based on his time as one of Braun’s clients — only for one of Braun’s employees to say on social media that his company had dropped Hall and that Hall had allegedly ripped off his collaborators; the back-and-forth prompted others to share or resurface allegations of nonpayment and misconduct by Hall. All the while, he has received some of his harshest criticism from members of black and queer audiences, who think he represents those communities in stereotypical or unflattering ways.
Hall still has room to develop in the music industry: Though he has toured predominantly theaters and scored hits in the dance/electronic genre, his biggest splash on Billboard’s flagship charts was reaching No. 142 on the Billboard 200 with Straight Outta Oz. But as “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels” becomes his biggest viral hit to date — it has almost 30 million YouTube views, aided by his own timely remix, “Mask, Gloves, Soap, Scrubs” — Hall is figuring out how to grow his career in an industry with no shortage of voices telling him exactly how to be.
“When I did what everybody else told me I was supposed to do, when I did it the way the homophobes told me I was supposed to do it, when I tried to be masculine enough for the world to love me, I was broke, bankrupt and unemployed,” says Porter. “I’m not doing that anymore. We need to learn to love ourselves first so that we can teach the rest of the world how to treat us. That’s what I did. That’s what Todrick does.”
Before it seemed like Hall was everywhere, he felt like he belonged nowhere. He grew up in the relatively small city of Plainview, Texas, where he was often the only person of color in his dance classes or musical theater productions, and he struggled to find himself in pop culture during his formative years in the 1990s and early 2000s. “I didn’t grow up around a lot of black people other than my church and my family, and so the things that I saw that were representing my race on television, I would always be like, ‘I love this, but I don’t identify with this because that’s not me,’ ” says Hall. “I’m not Ne-Yo. I’m not Usher.”
He describes his 2007 stint in the original Broadway production of The Color Purple as a kind of a crash course in being black: “I’m sure I had been proud to be black before, but being in The Color Purple was the first time I remember being like, ‘I am so proud to be an African American performer because only African American performers could have told a story like this.’ ” Yet his relationship with black culture and other black creatives has occasionally been strained. Early on in his career, a black artistic director he was working with approached him and said, “ ‘The worst thing you could ever be in this world is a black gay man,’ ” recalls Hall — an unhelpful warning about the uphill battles he might face in entertainment. “He was projecting a lot of things from his own experience onto me, but words are so powerful. It made me question if I had made the right decision by coming out and being so open.”
In recent years, critics and fellow content creators also have accused Hall of “not being black enough,” alleging that his early YouTube videos featured negative caricatures of black people and suggesting that Hall prefers to surround himself with white celebrities, due to his close ties with stars like Swift. Multiple black YouTube personalities have publicly called Hall racial slurs and accused him of “tap dancing,” a reference that suggests he is putting on an act and toning down his blackness in order to appeal to white audiences.
“I feel like oftentimes if we don’t sound like what a black person ‘should’ sound like by other people’s standards, we do start to feel like we’re not black enough,” admits Hall. “I’m on a roller coaster where sometimes I try to overcompensate and prove my blackness, and then sometimes I’m like, ‘But I don’t feel supported by my black community, so I don’t need to try to sell to them.’ I’ll just sell to whoever wants to buy my music.”
It’s not necessarily the queer community that’s buying it. Though the “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels” video has the same cocktail of attitude, intense choreography and snappy catchphrases many pop divas are celebrated for, Hall’s peers have suggested that racism and internalized homophobia within the LGBTQ community still pose obstacles for artists like him trying to sell those same things back to them. Last year, during a panel at the Billboard-The Hollywood Reporter Pride Summit in West Hollywood, RuPaul’s Drag Race alum and musician Trixie Mattel said, “If a white blond woman was doing what Todrick Hall did, gays would fall the fuck out” — be really impressed — and Hall says he can’t disagree.
2019 was in many ways a banner year for Hall: He returned to Broadway to play the comic lead of Ogie in Waitress and appeared in Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down” video, a colorful call for LGBTQ equality that directed viewers to a petition urging the Senate to pass the Equality Act, an anti-discrimination bill. Yet Hall remembers the year as a difficult one personally, due to what he describes as a near-constant stream of vitriol and criticism from internet “trolls.”
Even though he co-executive-produced the “You Need To Calm Down” video, which included rounding up celebrity cameos from the likes of Laverne Cox and the cast of Queer Eye, there was no shortage of social media posts dismissing Hall for being “thirsty” for the A-list and allowing himself to be the “token gay black friend” for other celebrities. Those comments didn’t surprise him — “I feel like there’s a group of people who wake up every day, they yawn, and then they say, ‘What can I be upset about?’ ” — but the remarks bothered Hall for a number of reasons. He thinks more pop stars should take the kind of concrete steps that Swift has to spotlight and support members of the queer community. “We have taught them how to walk in heels, we have helped them with the slang they end up using in their songs, but when they go onstage, what do they do?” asks Hall. “The people who taught them how to do it and who can really kill it on a different level are in the wings watching them, giving them a towel to dry their face off when they get offstage. That, to me, is a travesty.”
Yet those comments also stung because, even when it seems like he’s winning on his own terms — when “You Need To Calm Down” won Best Video for Good at the 2019 VMAs, Swift handed the award to Hall and let him give the acceptance speech — he often feels like he’s still doing it wrong. “It’s really hard for me sometimes because I feel that the hate I receive on the internet comes mostly from people of color and people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community,” says Hall. “It’s almost like we like complaining about the fact that there isn’t enough representation, but then when the representation is there and it doesn’t come in the exact package or the exact size that we wished it had been in, we bash that as well.”
When Hall moved to L.A. in 2011, he made a vision board with everything he hoped to accomplish. He wanted to meet Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. He wanted to reach 1 million subscribers on YouTube. He wanted to find a manager like SB Projects founder Scooter Braun, who has made Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande household names. Hall got his wish: After his run on American Idol, he says Braun called him about taking him on as a client.
Hall says he was part of the SB Projects roster for the next six years, until they parted ways roughly three years ago. It did not end amicably: Last summer, Braun acquired Big Machine Label Group in a $300 million deal that gave him ownership of most of Swift’s master recordings. Swift wrote open letters in which she expressed her disapproval of the sale and claimed that Braun had belittled and bullied her throughout her career, which Braun disputed. Hall jumped to her defense and, in a tweet that SB Projects employees would immediately and vehemently refute, wrote that he had left the company “a long time ago” and believed Braun was “homophobic” and “an evil person [whose] only concern is his wealth.” (SB Projects did not respond to Billboard’s request for comment.)
Nearly a year later, Hall says he would characterize his experience with Braun differently. “I don’t think that Scooter is a horrible villain the way that it may have been painted in the past — the way I have helped paint it in the past,” he says. Hall explains that throughout his time at SB Projects he felt neglected by Braun and excluded from opportunities to connect with industry power players. He says he was asked to prove himself as a songwriter first, while other SB Projects artists, he claims, were put in sessions with hit writers and producers without similar trial periods.
“I kept being like, ‘Why do I have to do this when that person doesn’t? Why is my picture not up in the office? Why am I not on your Instagram? I have a lot of really cool things happening, and they’re not being promoted,’ ” recalls Hall. “I genuinely attempted several times to talk to him from a place of love, but with my wounds from being black and gay in America, and his ego, it was difficult to get through. So I resorted to having a few Regina George moments I’m not necessarily proud of.”
There are all kinds of reasons why artists might receive different attention at labels and management firms, and Hall’s career was not stagnant during this time: He starred in a 2015 MTV reality show, Todrick, which Braun executive-produced, and he appeared on the Billboard charts for the first time. But like many minorities in the industry, he wonders how much of his career has been shaped by unconscious bias, and he encourages all music executives to take critical looks at their practices. “If you represent a gay artist and don’t give them the same amount of attention and resources as you do your other non-gay artists,” says Hall, “you and your team should take a moment and consider the reasons why.”
Braun’s employees have a different story about why Hall is no longer their client. In response to Hall’s initial tweet about Braun, SB Projects partner Allison Kaye Scarinzi replied that his statement was “disgusting,” and said SB Projects had dropped Hall as a client; the two exchanged several more tweets about who owed money to whom — including one in which Scarinzi claimed Hall had not paid cast members from his video projects.
Scarinzi is not the only one to make such a claim. In interviews and on social media, a handful of former collaborators and crew members have accused Hall of not paying them for work on videos and shows as recently as last year. A 2018 lawsuit from a former tour manager also alleged nonpayment in addition to other claims, including sexual harassment and wrongful termination; the lawsuit was settled last year.
Hall did not comment directly on the suit to Billboard by deadline — earlier this year, he told Attitude magazine, “[My fans] know that I would never intentionally do … any of these things that are being said about me” — but he says that anyone who was not being paid was notified ahead of time about the lack of compensation. (“It was a free thing they were doing for an experience and for their résumé and connections.”) He does admit, however, to being reckless with finances at times. “When I first started, there were a lot of balls dropped — never intentionally — and I will totally put my hand up and say that there were people that it took me a while to pay,” says Hall, who adds that he has since hired a business-management team to make sure he “dotted every i and crossed every t.”
“I’m so proud of the fact that I made those mistakes because they’ve helped me grow, and they helped me realize how I have to operate in the future,” he says. “I’m not a child anymore, and people aren’t going to give me passes. People are looking at me on a certain level that I have to step up to, so I don’t allow those things to happen anymore.”
Like everyone else, Hall thought the rest of his 2020 was going to look a little differently. Before the pandemic forced Pride celebrations in the United States and abroad to cancel or postpone, Hall says he was booked for 16 pride festivals around the world — opportunities he cherishes, given how few LGBTQ artists get top billing at such events. “I realized that [the queer community] has been carefully groomed to like what we like, and people have shoved the type of artists that they want us to idolize down our throats for years and years,” he says. “That’s not to say that those artists are not worthy of being adored. But I hope that one day we have queer artists that reach that level so we don’t have to hire people to headline our Prides that don’t identify as part of the queer community.”
As Hall gets back to building his own Land of Oz, he’s thinking about how to get to that level. In addition to readying the third installment of his Haus Party EP series, he’s working on writing a book and a TV show. But that’s just the start of his to-do list. He wants to write his own Broadway show. He wants to have a queer love song on top 40 radio. Most of all, he wants to reach EGOT status. “EGOT-ing is my ultimate goal because it would be validation: I came from a small town in Texas and, with a lot of odds stacked against me, was able to accomplish so much,” he says. “But I will still feel that way as long as I am getting my work out there.”
He knows those goals might seem outlandish to a lot of people. But then he thinks about his 2011 vision board, the one with Scooter Braun on it, and remembers that almost everything else he hoped for came true, too. He did meet Mariah Carey. He did meet Beyoncé. (He has since gotten a “What Would Beyoncé Do?” tattoo on his wrist.) He did get 1 million YouTube subscribers. (Now he has 3.5 million.)
“A lot of the things that I wanted, I truly felt were impossible,” says Hall. “[Many talented people I know] don’t believe that they can do something because they’ve never seen anybody that looks like them do it before — when that’s the reason why they should be doing it.”
Pride 2020 isn’t canceled. Join Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter‘s Pride Summit & Pride Prom on Saturday (June 13) starting at 12:30 p.m. ET for performances, queer conversation, drag, artist cameos, glam sessions, DJs, dancing and more.