Image Credit: Howard BragmanOn Monday, country star Chely Wright (“Single White Female”) revealed on People.com that she’s gay. As she explains in her new autobiography, Like Me, she’s known about her sexuality for a long time, but she guarded the secret so intensely it brought her to the brink of suicide after a breakdown in 2005. Now, with her memoir and a new album, Lifted Off the Ground, on shelves, she’s talking for the first time about what she calls her “truth.”
EW.com sat down with Wright three weeks ago to discuss her decision to come out, and how this revelation will affect her future as a tremendous supporter and regular entertainer of the U.S. military — as well as her future in country music. “I want my country fans to stay with me,” Wright says. “I’m not giving the finger to country fans. By all measure, they already like me. They voted me ‘most philanthropic,’ ‘country star with the biggest heart,’ People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful, Kansan of the Year. I’m still all those things. I just happen to be a lesbian. And I have been the whole time. I wasn’t confused. I’ve been gay the whole time.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: [we are engaged in some pre-interview chit-chat about live performance and big arena spectacle.] On the flip side, I went to go see Patty Griffin a couple nights ago, and…
CHELY WRIGHT: The Patty? Living with Ghosts changed my life, changed how I write songs. It perhaps saved my life. My guitar, my bike, and Patty Griffin. There’s a song I didn’t record for this record called “Love for Patty Griffin.” It’s one of the ones I played when I went to [Lifted producer] Rodney [Crowell]’s house with my broken guitar and my broken self and said, “I think I’m dying,” and played him the songs that came to be Lifted Off the Ground.
How did she save your life?
Because she knew me in her songs. “Sweet Lorraine,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Nobody’s Crying,” “Mary.” I was reaching for God at this time in my life, and when I heard “Mary” and the Living With Ghosts album, I felt like God was whispering in my ear.
She’s been duetting with a lot of male country stars lately. Could she survive a career in mainstream country?
No. I think she’s so good she just doesn’t have to tolerate what the rest of us have to tolerate. Like getting your ass grabbed by a radio guy. Why would Patty Griffin ever walk into a room of drunk radio guys and get her ass grabbed? It’s a really broken template, because the labels are imploding. I’m not happy about it. I don’t look at that and go, ha ha ha. It’s heartbreaking to watch the labels close, because all my pals, they’re out of jobs. But you can’t do it the way we’ve been doing it.
I think it’s interesting you’re still saying “we” when you refer to the country music industry.
I still consider myself a part of it. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the successes of it. And I still very much consider myself a part of the Nashville community. I don’t feel like an outsider yet.
Yet? Is that what you’re predicting?
Rodney said it best. Someone was talking to him about what it’s going to be like for me and they said, “They won’t publicly hate her. They will freeze her out.” I wrote about it in my book. It’s the secret haters who do the most harm, historically. And that’s the thing with the internet. Somebody wrote a really nasty Twitter about me lately. And I thought, you know what? I can’t wait until I’m in charge of that rumor, that whisper. I’m proud of who I am. I’m not necessarily proud of being gay. I’m proud that I’m about to live my life honestly. I won’t be a whisper. I’m too proud of who I am. I’ve been too good a steward of my life. Why should I allow someone else to write a nasty Twitter about me? At least in high school you knew who the bully was. You knew who was kicking your ass. I wrote about that in my book, that I looked online at something nasty written about me, and I vomited. It made me sick. Not what I read, but that I couldn’t defend myself. That I couldn’t say, “Yes I’m gay, but I’m not a f—ing whore. It doesn’t make me promiscuous or deviant! I had a partner! We had a home! We had a garden! We had dogs and fish!” And it made me so angry that I was not in charge of my story. That’s the most compelling reason why I decided not to just do a video blog and say, “Hey! Ta-daaa! [sing-song] I am a gaaaaaay!” I wanted to tell my story.
If you hadn’t decided to be true with people about who you are, could you have put out another album?
Would it have been any good?
It would have been this album. It wouldn’t have had “Like Me” on it. I know what it looks like from the outside. It appears that I decided to come out and wrote an album about being gay, right?
It does seem very personal.
I had my breakdown on the last day of 2005. And I swear to God, these songs were pouring out of me. And annoying the s— out of me. To answer your question, I think — some country stations are playing my single now. I think my record will get dropped.
Not played anymore. The stations who are playing it. We’re not really working it to country radio.
Well, it doesn’t sound very country.
It’s not, right?
It fits very firmly in folk or triple-A land. Were you scared to go back to Nashville and present as America’s First Openly Gay Country Star?
It’s like an ABC show.
Yes. A reality show. America’s Next Top Openly Gay Country Star.
Is that a Bravo thing?
But if you wanted to, you could have made the biggest mainstream country album ever, and then made this announcement.
I’ll get accused of this being a publicity-driven thing. And I can’t stop people from throwing that dagger my way. And quite frankly I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to defend myself against that. All I can say is, This is so much more truthful creatively than anything I’ve ever done. I couldn’t imagine saying, “What can I do for attention? I’ll come out, and then I’ll make a real country record for country radio!” I wouldn’t even begin to imagine how to do that. I couldn’t have made a different record right now. I’m not saying that won’t be my next record. I don’t have it in me right now. Anything else would be a lie. Not big into lying right now.
I’m curious what your definition of spirituality is these days.
I don’t have a religious inclination. I can’t even identify myself necessarily as Christian. When I’m in Kuwait City and I hear the chants in the morning, I feel something. Anyone who gets on their knees and looks up, that moves me. And quite frankly I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t get on their knees and look up. I don’t have a problem with that. I like the Golden Rule.
When you pray to a higher power, is it something specific? Is it the universe?
It’s a holy power. It’s not a tree. It’s God. And because it was welded into my mind, God is a dude in a robe with a beard. I always felt like God was my best friend and the keeper of my secrets.
I’m just surprised that having experienced such closed-mindedness about sexuality, you haven’t turned your back on religion.
Yeah. I love my heart in that way. It may be why I still call the Nashville community “we.” I don’t feel put out until you put me out. There doesn’t have to be reciprocity in hate. I don’t have to show up to every argument I’m invited to.
All right. You mentioned Kuwait City. How often are you going to the Middle East these days?
I went last year. I have been a lot, not just to the Middle East. I started going to see the troops in the mid-’90s. My last trip I did a video blog and I watched it last month and it about ripped my heart out. I think it might have been my last time to come visit the troops. Because once I come out, I doubt I’ll be invited back. I doubt I’ll be welcome. I doubt anyone will take out a press release and say, “This Gay is not welcome anymore,” but I doubt I’ll be invited back.
As we’re on the precipice of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell maybe being repealed, are you going to hop into that fight?
Oh, I can, and I will, and I can’t wait. I can’t wait to be invited to. I feel certain I will be invited to.
You have to be a poster child in some ways.
And I knew that, coming out this way. My reason for coming out, as I wrote in the book, is I’m doing it for me. But if I aid someone or comfort someone or help facilitate understanding for someone in the process, that’s a great byproduct of what I’m doing. A gal told me today she knows of a 15-year-old kid whose mom is shipping him off to be reformed because he’s gay. It’s horrible. And I have to step forward and say publicly, I’m gay. I’m not a freakshow. I’m a good, responsible person. Just because your child is gay doesn’t mean they’re destined for a screwed-up life.
So this Don’t Ask Don’t Tell thing…
I’m so angry about it. I’m so angry with George Bush and Dick Cheney, and if President Obama doesn’t do something — I know he’s trying and it takes time, I know he can’t flip a switch — but if he doesn’t get this done quickly, I’ll be angry with him. I know the military. I know it became in fashion to go perform for the troops after September 11th, but I did it before. I’ve been playing in military hospitals since I was a kid. I know these people. I know what they’re about. They’re about valor, integrity, teamwork, honor. We have instructed them to lie, to say they are something they are not, which is the antithesis of what the military is supposed to be. I’m so angry about it.
Your brother is still an enlisted Marine. What’s his role going to be in all this?
Interesting. My brother. [long pause] I don’t know.
Let’s talk about the two celebrities that make cameos in your book. First is Brad Paisley, with whom you carried on a romantic relationship, even though you already knew you were gay. Does he know this book is coming out?
He does not know. I haven’t talked to him.
If you had to predict his reaction, what would it be?
Brad is a really good person. I feel like Brad respects me. I don’t know if he ever hated me at some point. If he did, I wouldn’t blame him. Although I imagine his Christian beliefs would lead him to condemn my homosexuality, he might fall into the “love the sinner, hate the sin” category. He’s wickedly smart, which is one of the reasons why I made the decision to spend time with him. I loved Brad. I never had the capacity to fall in love with him, but I figured if I’m gonna live a less than satisfied life, this is the guy I could live my life with. If I’m gonna be with a boy, this is the boy. He’s funny as crap, he’s talented. He’s a good person. He is as fair as he knows to be. And I respect his beliefs. He walks his walk. And he’s not a hypocrite. If his religious beliefs tell him to condemn my homosexuality, I can’t let that rent a room in my head.
Did you think about giving him a heads up on this?
My publicist asked if I wanted him to be in touch with Brad, and my answer was yes. I wish that I could plug a USB port from my heart and my mind into Brad’s for a minute, and download what my truth is so he could understand it. Not just Brad. Everybody. Anyone who would like to poke holes in my truth, I would just like them to be able to understand what my life has been like. But Brad more than anybody. I would like him to understand that, if I could have fallen in love with a boy, it would have been him.
The flip side: John Rich, with whom you performed at Opryland when you were both Nashville newcomers, and who has made a number of controversial comments about homosexuality in the past. I feel like you don’t think he is going to have the same “hate the sin, love the sinner” perspective on this.
I think there was such a backlash when he kind of took a shot at gays a few years ago, and he did some backpedaling. I think he sees what it feels like to take on the gays, and he didn’t like it. And I think he may not want to take this on. So he may say, “Um, I love Chely. I can love the sinner, hate the sin.” He may say that. I don’t have to believe it.
What was he like back when you were in the show together at Opryland? What was he like as a normal person?
I never knew John to be a normal person.
What’s your reaction to people who have rumors going around about their sexuality in Nashville these days? Do you feel sorry for them? Do you think they should address it? Hope they can find their truth?
We all know who is speculated about. I also know there are probably people who are gay that we can’t even imagine. My heart bleeds for anybody who is hiding. And one of the things that keeps me up at night is how I answer the question you haven’t asked: Are there others?
Oh, I don’t care about that.
I got asked it today. It hangs out there. It’s obvious. You wouldn’t be worth your salt if you didn’t entertain the notion. What I don’t want to do — and I know you’re not asking me to, but I want to talk to you about this — is initiate founded or unfounded speculation on anybody. Because it’s career-ending. In three weeks’ time, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be ending my career in country music. There’s one thing about a country music career: When you have a hit record, you can pretty much enjoy that success for the rest of your life. You can make your living. You can put food in your belly for the rest of your life, because of the love that country music fans have for you. I’m offering that back to the country music fans with an honest heart, saying, “Here’s this back. If you want to give it back to me, I’ll gladly take it.” To have the question asked, “Are there others?” So scary to me.
It’s not like you have a gay clubhouse where you all hang out. Or do you?
There are gay communities in entertainment at large. And there are gay undergrounds in any kind of entertainment where a lot of people keep your secret. Your manager knows, your publicist knows, your friends know, your beard knows. Your band knows. They all keep your secret. I wasn’t just in the closet, Whitney. I was behind the sheetrock in the closet. Oh, and I am going back [to Nashville] June 8. We have our tenth annual Reading, Writing, & Rhythm benefit. That’s the charity I started. We put instruments and money in public schools. So I have a charity show a month after I come out. We’ll see if the other artists cancel.
I can’t imagine that they would. I really cannot.
We’ll see if people want their money back from the tickets. Do you know how much people hate gays?
I’m well aware, but… gosh, are we not living in a post-gay society now thanks to Adam Lambert?
You’re cute. That’s adorable.
But didn’t he hit a certain segment of the population with the gay stick? I like to think people are coming around to something here.
I hope they are. I just feel like, There won’t have to be a first again. I’ll be the first. And I feel like I’m uniquely positioned… somebody has to be the first that has had hit records. It can’t be, “Lyric Street Records signs gay artist!” It has to be someone who already, by every measure of the public, is liked. They’ve already endorsed me.
I just hope we’re at least past the point where people are going to cancel on you. I do think it’s unfortunate that you’re being asked to name names now.
Yeah. If there is a secret gay fraternity of country artists, and if they’re all having dinner parties, I wouldn’t have gone. I didn’t tell anybody. My mother doesn’t know that I’m gay.
When’s the last time you talked to her?
Not sure. Long enough that I can’t recall.
How many people have you told?
My best friend, on Valentine’s Day when I was in Nashville. That was really emotional and hard for me. My sister. My brother.
Has anyone’s reaction truly surprised you?
My dad. My dad’s reaction surprised me. I thought someone was about to tell him. And I felt that division. There’s a compartmentalization that goes on, and the older you get, the more separate you live your life. You don’t want to do it, but you do it to protect your secret. I found myself just not being comfortable when he would call. And thought, Why are we growing apart? I can’t do this! I can’t have my dad die of a heart attack and him not know who I am. So I told him. He was surprised. He said, “But what about the boys?” I said, “Dad, I tried.” He said, “What is that when you date girls and boys?” I said, “Bisexual. But dad, I’m not that. I’m SUPER gay.” I haven’t told my ex-partner yet. I’m single. I’ve never dated, you know.
Then this is the world’s most awkward personal ad. Congrats.
Match.com has nothing on me.
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