A Rocker In A Hard Place

Must a gay musician choose babes and bucks over dudes and dignity?

After all, plenty of successful male musical artists are now out—Elton John, George Michael, Boy George, Pete Townsend, and Andy Bell spring to mind.

“Yeah, but notice something odd?” Lewis recently asked me. “That’s the UK, a totally different market. They’ve always been more accepting.”

He has a point. Even Will Young, the first “Pop Idol”—the British version of “American Idol”—came out, and he’s a huge star, at least over there. On the other hand Clay Aiken, the popular pixie-faced, “American Idol” runner-up long rumored to be gay, refuses to fess up.

“Clay Aiken? Please. He’s campier than a row of tents,” joked Lewis. “There’s a huge corporate machine behind him. People’s jobs depend on him. If suddenly he came out, I’d like to think it wouldn’t matter, but [his managers] think it would. He’s not so successful now, anyway.”

In recent weeks, Michael Musto’s column in The Village Voice has had a field day leaking alleged spywitness accounts of Aiken having unprotected sex with Internet hookups. Not exactly a career booster. Perhaps if he were out all along, he wouldn’t be such a target.

Hard pressed to name a male musician in America who’s out, I suggested the dissonant crooner, Rufus Wainwright. “He has a great live following but doesn’t sell records,” Lewis said. After a pause, he admitted, “He’s not exactly struggling. I wouldn’t mind his career.” He’s Canadian, anyway.

Once Ricky Martin’s name came up, I knew my argument was sunk. He’s originally from Puerto Rico but calls New York—the tony Time Warner Center, actually—his home.

“I’ve met him, and he seems gayer than gay, surrounded by an entourage of queens,” Lewis said. “He’s really nice, but [lowers his voice in mock conspirational whisper] he’s got really bad skin!”

So why won’t the bon-bon shaker, who evades the question in interviews, come out? “His handlers need to sell his product to teenage girls and are afraid,” Lewis explained. Ricky’s fans didn’t seem to mind those sizzling photos of him on St. Barts, frolicking in Speedos with his “personal trainer,” that are now circulating on the Web.

“Being urged to stay in the closet is still very common for musicians,” Lewis said. “Things have improved in the last couple of years, but it’s still there. It’s so silly, who cares? It’s the talent that matters, not what a person does behind closed doors. That’s what my book is about.”

Lewis estimates that about half of “Rockstarlet,” which chronicles the loves and letdowns of pretty boy singing sensation Jackson Poole, is drawn from personal experience. This sweetly disarming satire is a deliriously satisfying read, and it’s impossible not to feel for—or fall for—the intrepid rocker.

“I’ve never been a full-blown rock star like Jackson, but I’ve had my moments, playing for 10,000 people in a stadium,” Lewis said. “I’ve never had paparazzi stalk me or anything. I embellished that to make it fun.”

A few years back, the singer-songwriter opened for the likes of Sheryl Crow and Ani DiFranco. His tunes, a catchy mix of pop and acoustic with a dash of soul, have been heard on television shows such as “Dawson’s Creek,” “Party of Five,” and more recently on MTV’s “Laguna Beach.” He’s independently released four CDs, with an EP on the way.

Like Jackson Poole, Lewis’ real-life managers did indeed demand that he deny his gay truth, at least in public. And believe it or not, Lewis’ managers were gay. Jackson is ordered to appear in staged photos with faux girlfriends and to refrain from wearing “faggy” clothes. Not such a stretch from reality.

When asked if he might piss off a few people who might recognize bits of themselves in his novel, Lewis admits he’s concerned.

“That’s a huge issue. Those managers were my biggest fans. They went out on a limb, investing loads of money and time. And here I am writing this story! But I redeem them in some way.”

Because it is a work of fiction, complete with one of those disclaimers that any resemblance to real individuals living or dead is strictly coincidental, Lewis is free to let his imagination run wild.

“As I embellished my character, I embellished their characters. If they were a little bit annoying, I blew it up so they were really annoying. I appreciate what they did for me. Hopefully they understand it’s a work of fiction inspired by reality.”

In “Rockstarlet” Jackson’s pretend-girlfriend—who happens to be a lesbian—echoes the author’s frustration with the entertainment biz. “Everyone in this town is so busy trying to be what they think will sell that nobody knows what’s real anymore.”

“That does sum it all up,” Lewis says with a sigh. “You lose the true meaning of life—it all gets distorted. It’s sad, in a way.”

Lewis continued, “They tried to push me as a straight artist, and that didn’t work. So I figured I’d just be myself. It’s not like I walk out on stage with a pink triangle on my forehead, or jump around in drag. My show is very masculine, actually. If someone asks me [if I’m gay] I’m not gonna lie. It’s sort of like how Ellen handles things these days.”

Lewis dropped the straight-dude act a couple of years ago, when his term ended with his uptight management company. He shopped his stuff around to the big labels and they genuinely got what he was about. But he wasn’t signed on the spot.

According to Lewis, with the mergers and competition from online sourcing, the big labels don’t have the money they once had to put behind new artists.

“Nowadays, they only sign acts that already have huge fan bases,” he explained. “The work is already done, so they can just put their stamp on it. They don’t want to take the risk. The timing wasn’t right for me.”

For now, Lewis is writing books and songs with equal fervor. He’s already written another novel, and has a memoir planned. It’s still too early to tell if coming out has affected his music career.

But there’s hope. As the industry continues to evolve, record companies are finally getting wise to the money that can be made with openly gay recording artists. Earlier this year, Sony/BMG announced a new gay label, called “Music With a Twist,” in partnership with MTV’s Logo channel. Lewis thinks he’d be a perfect fit for them—a chance to be a rock star after all.

“I’d like to be recognized for my music and my writing,” he said. “The fact that I’m gay is incidental. But if I can use it to my advantage, and sign with the Sony label, I’ll walk out there with a pink triangle on my forehead.”

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