Prior to making his “big reveal” in a debut TV performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Tuesday (April 7), the artist best known as Who Is Fancy was a mystery hiding in plain sight.
Since January, Fancy, his management team at Scooter Braun’s SB Projects and labels Big Machine and Republic have been building a viral campaign around the singer and his debut single “Goodbye,” encouraging fans to create their own theories on who it could be. The campaign was an early success: a series of pseudo-music videos and a lyric-only clip have been viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube, and early radio support from stations like New York’s Z100 helped the song reach a No. 29 peak on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart.
But the real Fancy has always been a well-known local presence in Nashville, his adopted hometown after growing up in Arkansas — not to mention Los Angeles, where he’s been writing songs for his upcoming debut album with a team overseen by none other than pop heavyweights Max Martin and Dr. Luke. And speaking to Billboard on the phone from an L.A.-area mall last week, where he was picking out the best outfit and makeup for his Tonight Show debut, he can’t wait to share his story with the rest of the world.
“This whole veil of mystery has always been very ironic — I’d like to tell every single person in this mall right now who I am and what I do, and that’s been not an option for the past few months,” Fancy told Billboard several days prior to his Tonight performance. “I’m bursting at the seams ready to go. It feels like I’ve been away for a minute, but now’s the time.”
Fancy declines to reveal his real name (“everyone calls me Fancy!”), but several internet sleuths have confirmed it’s Jake Hagood, based on “Goodbye”’s songwriting credit to a “Fancy Hagood.” And after a bit of prodding on his age (“I’m timeless!”), Fancy will cop to turning 24 on March 29.
But otherwise, Fancy says he’s been an open book ever since he came out to friends and family at the age of 20. It was shortly after he took a job at a Nashville Forever 21 store where, he says, “I could talk openly about being gay and no one freaked out about judging me or having a moment. It was the first place I felt comfortable expressing myself — I started painting my nails, doing my makeup. I dyed my hair platinum blond, which was extremely outrageous, and I would go to work and one of the ladies would start referring to me as Fancy because of that Drake song. ‘Oh you fancy, huh? Nails done, hair done, everything did.’ It made me feel strong, it made me feel beautiful. It made me feel like I could be whoever I wanted to be.”
After signing his first publishing deal with a small Nashville boutique, Fancy honed his chops playing showcases at Nashville clubs like The Rutledge, The High Watt and 12th & Porter. That led to another, bigger publishing deal with Big Machine in 2013 that produced notable songs for other artists, including a 2014 all-star anthem for Outnumber Hunger. Big Machine soon had him shuttling to L.A. to become one of the first acts signed to its joint venture with Prescription Songs, which meant he’d have to write his way into approval in rooms with Dr. Luke and his top writer-producers like Cirkut and J Kash — including a memorable session in Santa Barbara with Luke and his mentor Max Martin.
“I knew I had to bring my A game,” Fancy recalls of writing with Luke and Martin. “I’d act like it was jut a normal day, then I would go to back to the hotel and just ugly cry until it was time to go back. I was such a nervous wreck all week — I couldn’t keep it together.”
Though he’d identified country-pop as his sweet spot in writing for other people, “I really wasn’t writing for myself as an artist at that point. I definitely had the artist ambition, but there wasn’t any paperwork happening. I was just coming out here, trying to impress Luke and make that deal happen, so I was just writing for anyone and everyone.”
It wasn’t until a January 2014 showcase at Hollywood’s Hotel Café that Fancy’s artist ambitions would fully take flight. His performance caught the eye of Olivia Zaro, a manager at SB Projects, who quickly got him on her boss’ radar.
“Olivia walks into my office and exclaims, ‘I’m obsessed!’” Braun recalls. “I heard ‘Goodbye’ and I was like, ‘Who is this? We gotta sign this guy right now.’ I had no idea that [Big Machine founder Scott] Borchetta was involved as a publisher, so I met the guy, we had a conversation and he told me he didn’t have an artist deal because, ‘I don’t fit the mold of what an artist should be.’ So I said, ‘Let’s use that.’”
Braun began strategizing a mystery-identity campaign for Fancy with “Goodbye” as its anchor, a tactic that’s paid off in different approaches for acts like The Weeknd, Zhu and even Sia. Big Machine’s Borchetta jumped at the chance to market Fancy in a breakthrough way, and was so confident in “Goodbye” that the label interrupted its own presentation at iHeartMedia’s January radio-label summit.
“We stopped our video reel and said, ‘Let’s play something we think is gonna be the next best thing,” says David Nathan, senior VP-artist development at Big Machine Label Group. “We explained that the idea of this and the campaign was much more than a song, or an artist. This is about the artist development, the voice, the message that’s being sent. And when we played it for everybody in the room, it was like, ‘Holy shit, this is great. And this is something that could make a big difference.’”
Braun and Big Machine initially wanted to tease out the mystery campaign a little longer, until it was a bona fide hit at radio and a top seller on iTunes. But influential radio programmers and personalities like Z100’s Elvis Duran began pushing back, complaining they couldn’t get behind the song much longer without having a tactile identity. Listeners were confused, too, speculating that Who Is Fancy could be anyone from Lady Gaga to Justin Bieber to Zayn Malik.
“It got to a point where, the landscape’s too crowded — there are too many great new artists with great new songs now,” allows Braun. “And they’re all out there on the promo circuit working their ass off, shaking hands. Although we feel we have a long way to go with the public and continuing to build his awareness, I had Elvis calling me getting pissed. So I said to Fancy and my team, ‘What do you guys think?’ I went over and I saw him perform and said, ‘You know, he’s come so far in rehearsals that now’s the time to have the Today show and Jimmy Fallon step up and say, ‘We want to reveal this. Let’s go national.’”
Though the Tonight Show performance played with the concept that Fancy could be anyone, enlisting more than a half-dozen men and women to lip-sync his vocals, Fancy made quite the late-night debut. Spinning around to reveal himself on the second verse, he proudly rocked sparkly eye shadow, pink lip gloss and bright-white nails, with a red and black floral-print blazer. Fancy won instant applause from the crowd from the moment he faced them, cheekily winking at the camera on the line “She’ll never love you like I do” and capping it all off with a diva flourish by blowing a handful of glitter at the crowd. He gained a new fan in Jimmy Fallon, too. “That’s the way to do it!” Fallon exclaimed after the performance, patting Fancy on the back. “Such a cool thing!”
Now that the secret’s out, there’s still plenty of work to be done: more writing and recording with producers and songwriters in L.A., Nashville and London; carving out plans for a solo tour (“I don’t necessarily see him opening for a lot of people — he’s gotta go out there and win people over,” Braun says) and making friends at all the radio stations, who could help make “Goodbye” the first bona fide pop hit by an openly gay male pop singer since Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” dominated the airwaves last summer.
“I’m so ready to go, I felt like a racing horse at the gate for the past three months. I’m just really excited to do what I have to do,” Fancy says, before adding with a laugh, “I never thought I’d be coming out again. But I guess this is what I’m doing. It’s just part of the journey.”