Did American Idol try to jump on the transgender bandwagon? That’s what 21-year-old musician Ryan Cassata — a transgender singer, songwriter and activist — claims happened when he was contacted by a casting director after initially being rejected by the show.
Cassata tells Billboard that in October of last year, he was invited to audition by producers the night before the San Francisco tryouts. The Bay Shore, N.Y., native isn’t sure how the show found out about him but guesses that producers saw his YouTube channel, which currently has more than 23,000 subscribers.
“I never reached out to them,” he said. “Never in my life would I have been like, ‘I’m going to try out for American Idol.'”
The show never said a word about the singer being transgender, and the singer decided to give it a shot. “They allowed me to skip the first three stages of auditions,” he said.
Alas, it was not to be. Cassata was cut (he said he was told he wasn’t “contemporary enough”), and that was the end of his Idol journey — or so he thought.
Cassata says he got a call from the show this spring asking him to audition again. This was around the same time Olympian Bruce Jenner was reintroduced to the word as Caitlyn Jenner with high-profile interviews, a Vanity Fair cover and a new reality series on E! Cassata says he outright refused the offer.
“I was contacted again in June after Caitlyn Jenner was in the media, and the first thing they said to me is, ‘We want a transgender person on this show,’” he said. “They don’t want a singer and transgender; they want someone that’s transgender and a singer, and that’s not the right reason to go on the show. So now I’m ‘contemporary enough’ because being trans is such a hot-button issue in the media right now.”
He says he argued for a full nine minutes on the phone, resisting the offer. “They were begging me to go on the show,” he said. “I am making a record right now — the only good thing that would come from American Idol is I would be able to make a record, and I am already making a record. I have a name in the indie music world. I have toured nationally. I don’t really need American Idol.”
In a YouTube video and an impassioned note posted to his Facebook page last week, Cassata derided the show for exploitation:
When contacted by Billboard about Cassata’s claims, American Idol sent this statement: “American Idol searches far and wide to ensure that talent in any part of the country has a chance to audition. There are various ways for individuals to audition including our open calls, posting their auditions online, our east and west coast bus tours, through partner apps, etc.
“Our audition team has often reached out to former participants to audition again,” the statement continued. “Many find that their voice improves over a year and they have greater success in their second or third attempt. American Idol is about finding great talent and the show welcomes diversity in its participants. We will look into the veracity of the statements in Ryan Cassata’s open letter.”
Before American Idol came calling, Cassata says he was part of the “first wave” of educational and positive representation of non-binary identities in the public eye, having appeared on Larry King Live and The Tyra Banks Show. “I think every television show is trying to get a trans person on their show [now]; it’s trendy,” he said. “I have been out for a long time now and I was out when there was no positive representation at all in the media. I was one of the first waves that [helped hosts get] the terminology correct on television, and now it’s blowing up really quickly and the media does not know how to deal with it at all.”
He added that he doesn’t think the media is handling the subject correctly. “It’s a lot of exploitation, and most of the representation in the media right now is very binary and they are just showing gender as male and female and stereotypical feminine and very stereotypical masculine,” he said. “They are not showing anyone in between, and there are so many people that are in between, and I am afraid that all of those people are left out and feel alone.”
When asked if rejecting the show is a missed opportunity to showcase his talent and represent other aspects of the transgender community on a larger platform, Cassata stuck to his guns. “I think American Idol controls their contestants,” he said. “I don’t think I would have the freedom to express myself exactly the way I want to on their show.”
Cassata said he has other ways to express himself now. He is currently in New York recording an album with Barb Morrison, who has worked with Blondie and Rufus Wainwright. He said he has already put out nine albums, including the recently released Soul Sounds. Samplings from the record can be heard on his website.
“I got into music when I was 6,” he said. “I always knew it was a passion for me.”
Cassata came out as transgender shortly after, and ever since the age of 13, he has been an outspoken activist on transgender issues. “I gave a keynote speech at a Long Island conference when I was 13 years old and began making motivational speeches when I was 13,” said Cassata, who added that he travels all over the country speaking and playing music at colleges and “sharing my story in the hope that other youth won’t feel so alone.”
In the meantime, Cassata said he has been making strides on his own by being featured in the documentary Songs for Alexis and in the film Beemus, directed by Lauren Wolkstein. He also performed at dates on the Vans Warped Tour in 2013 and this summer after winning the tour’s Battle of the Bands contest both years. “I think I am the first openly transgender person to play the Vans Warped Tour,” he said.
Cassata said his album is coming along nicely and has all kinds of flavors on it, including folk, hip-hop, punk and even his American Idol audition song: Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” “It’s funny that I am doing it now,” he said, “And it sounds good, so I guess when they hear it, they will be like, ‘Oh no!’”
Watch Cassata perform at the 2015 Warped Tour: