NBC’s The Voice has only aired two episodes, but already viewers have heard something that viewers have probably never heard on Fox’s American Idol: “I’m gay.”
The Voice featured two openly lesbian contestants during its premiere, then two openly gay men during its second episode. While there have been gay Idol contestants, most famously Adam Lambert and Clay Aiken, they’ve either publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation after their respective seasons concluded, or that aspect of their identity was ignored on the show itself. In fact, out of hundreds of contestants that have appeared on TV’s biggest series over 10 years, openly gay portrayals are either nonexistent (nobody contacted for this story could remember one), or at best, extremely rare, let alone in numbers like The Voice has depicted in its first two weeks.
This isn’t to suggest Idol and/or Fox is secretly enforcing a closeted agenda — producers hired the openly gay Ellen DeGeneres as a judge and Fox airs Glee, perhaps the most gay-friendly drama on broadcast. But watch The Voice pre-audition interviews, where contestants casually reference their sexual orientation and hug their partners after passing to the next round. It raises an interesting question: Why don’t we see this on Idol? And should we?
When crafting The Voice, executive producer Mark Burnett said the choice to present singers’ sexual orientation was discussed, and said he was surprised having openly gay singers wasn’t already familiar territory on Idol.
“It didn’t cross my mind to do anything but be authentic,” said Burnett, whose first season of CBS’ Survivor was not only groundbreaking reality TV, but also featured an openly gay contestant, Richard Hatch, who won the competition. “It’s fun television and this is a diverse population. You need to be reflective of the authenticity of the contestants. It wasn’t something we did, it just is what it is.”
So how come on The Voice contestants are coming out during the show, yet Idol contestants typically come out after? Idol certainly gives viewers the biographical background of its contestants — their hometowns, their childhoods, their dreams, their hardships, their families. How attractive singers are to the opposite sex is sometimes remarked upon. And since there have been many gay singers on the show, there’s clearly a choice being made at some point in the Idol process by somebody to not include that information.
“American Idol is about finding the next singing superstar,” said Fox in a statement to EW. “While sexual orientation is irrelevant to the competition, the decision to reveal sexual orientation has always been a choice made entirely by each individual contestant.”
It could simply be a difference of production style: That producers on Idol, as Fox’s statement suggests, don’t think sexual orientation is relevant to a singing competition and so they don’t really see a reason to go there with contestants (“I don’t care if a singer is gay!” is a reaction that plastered comment boards whenever Lambert’s sexuality was speculated on by the press during his season). Whereas producers on The Voice, as Burnett’s comment suggests, think such information is relevant because it’s part of showing a person “authentically.”
And there’s other possibilities too: Idol singers may feel discouraged from being candid about their lives due to the show’s format, since they depend on votes from viewers and could be concerned that being candid might hurt their chances of winning. (Lambert, who like several Idol contestants was widely presumed gay during the contest, said after he came out, “I wanted the focus to be on my ability as a singer and as an entertainer — not on my private life. So I chose to kind of ignore the issue until after the voting ended.”) Also, The Voice allows older singers to audition than those on Idol, which might boost the number of contestants who are comfortable being open about their sexual orientation on a TV reality show.
Ironically, after presenting four openly gay contestants across two episodes, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation denounced The Voice because coach Blake Shelton tweeted what some interpreted as a homophobic song lyric. (Shelton said it was a misunderstanding and apologized.) Asked about this matter, GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios told EW: “With more and more Americans embracing openly gay singers like Adam Lambert, Idol voters would clearly support a talented openly gay contestant if given the chance today. If American Idol expects to continue leading in the ratings, Idol producers should recognize that positive gay inclusion on television not only fosters acceptance but, as evidenced by the popularity of shows like The Voice and Glee, is a smart programming move.”
What do you think? Why is there a scarcity of openly gay singers on Idol? And should producers and contestants do anything differently then they are now?
Here’s a clip of Tyler Robinson, one of the openly gay The Voice contestants from last week: