“Be who you are, be special, and know your truth.”
Alex Newell was already living by what he calls the Glee motto years before he became a cast member on the hit Fox TV show.
While in high school in Massachusetts, Newell landed a guest appearance on the show after coming in second on its feeder reality series The Glee Project. Proving to be a natural as well as a fan favorite, the flamboyant, slightly androgynous Newell was promoted to the main cast during Glee‘s penultimate season. He starred as Wade “Unique” Adams, a transgender teen once described as “the lovechild of Kurt and Mercedes,” characters played by Chris Colfer and Amber Riley.
The 22-year-old was accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music a few years ago, but opted instead to pursue his California dreams with Glee. Now that the show has ended, he’s pursuing other stage and screen projects, as well as a music career through a contract with Atlantic Records, capitalizing on the fame and fans he gained on Glee.
But Newell isn’t only using his rising star to better himself. He’s also committed to helping other LGBT youth and regularly performs at benefit concerts both in D.C. and in his home base of L.A., most notably for the Trevor Project.
METRO WEEKLY: What does the Trevor Project mean to you?
ALEX NEWELL: It’s an astounding organization helping those in need — one of the best things that anyone can do. It’s just sitting down and talking to someone, and letting them know they’re not alone, and that it’s going to get better, and that it’s okay. They’re literally saving lives in that sense.
MW: Did you struggle with your sexuality growing up?
NEWELL: I wouldn’t say that I struggled to an extent of wanting to take my own life, but I did struggle in middle school, where you don’t really know what’s going on. Things were showing more than what they used to in elementary school, and so I would get flack for that from older kids and some of the kids in my class.
I had to grow up fast — I lost my father to cancer when I was six, and my mother worked night shifts, so I was basically ironing her clothes, ironing my clothes, cooking my meals, cooking her meals. So I knew who I was and I was comfortable with who I was by the time I got to high school. I got flack and I struggled with people who couldn’t see past it in a sense — I went to a Catholic high school, so obviously there were issues. But I never struggled personally with it.
MW: It sounds like you were secure enough in your own identity, your own skin, which ultimately makes it harder to be picked on.
NEWELL: There are so few things a person can say to take you down if you already know who you are. Yes, I’m black. Wow, shocker. Yes, I’m gay. Another shocker. Yes, I’m a little chunky. Shocker. There are so many things, if you know who you are, when someone says it, they’re literally just stating the obvious.
MW: Has your mother always been supportive of you? How did you come out?
NEWELL: Absolutely. One night I said “I’m gay,” and she was just, “Uh-huh, okay, go to bed.” And that was it. And then when I woke up the next morning, she said, “I’m going to love you regardless. You’re my only child, and whatever life decisions you make, no matter who you are, I can’t change that. I still love you.”
MW: Does that make you feel more of a responsibility to do things like supporting the Trevor Project and other organizations that are helping people that don’t have it as easy?
NEWELL: Yeah, absolutely. Because I know people who didn’t have it as well. I know people whose parents still don’t accept them, and I know people who were kicked out because of who they are. And it’s one of those things: How could you turn away from a life that you created? How could you turn away on the person that you loved up until this moment? I don’t understand that.
MW: Usually it’s because of religion, or at least people’s perception of what their religion tells them about homosexuality.
NEWELL: It’s crazy. I grew up going to church every Sunday. Maybe three or four days out of the week as well. My mother’s in the choir, my father was a deacon, my grandmother sang in the choir back in Alabama. My aunts are the music directors back at my grandmother’s church in Alabama. My other aunt is the director of the church that I currently still go to in Massachusetts. I was in the youth choir, the adult choir. I was enthralled in the church. People pick and choose the things that they want to accept, that are written into the Bible. Most people say it’s interpretation. No, it’s literally what you want to hear. Because I’m pretty sure the Bible says that you’re not supposed to eat shellfish, yet there are a whole bunch of people having a fish fry and eating all the shellfish they can eat. And they say, “God doesn’t love you,” or “Jesus doesn’t love you because you’re sinning” — everyone in this world is born with original sin. Thus, only he who is without sin casts the first stone. I could talk about this all day. The Bible also says “Love they neighbor as thyself.” So why are you just disregarding that commandment? You’re going to hate me because of the way that I was born, the way that God created me in his image?
I even got flack when I was on The Glee Project and I wore a big old sandwich board on national television that said “Gay.” And when I came back to church, the old pastor of the church that I still go to had a problem with me. This was a man who would literally wear me down singing Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. I remember I got up there and had to sing with laryngitis. But after The Glee Project, he had a problem with me being gay. He had a conversation with my mother. I don’t know what that conversation was because she won’t tell me. I was like, “What in me changed that you had to stop seeing me as a person with a talent and a gift?” It’s just so funny how one little minute detail in someone’s life, one minute detail that doesn’t define this person or who they are at all, can change people’s aspect of how they look at you.
MW: It sounds as though your family stayed resolute in supporting you.
NEWELL: Yeah, absolutely. They’re my backbone. They will keep me grounded with all that they do.
MW: Did you grow up Catholic?
NEWELL: No, I just went to Catholic high school. It was the Zion Baptist Church. My church services are two to three hours long, so I would wish that I were Catholic — 45 minutes and done? Sounds like a blessing.
MW: How often do you get back to Boston?
NEWELL: Maybe four or five times out of the year. Major holidays, my mother’s birthday, Mother’s Day, things like that.
MW: I understand that a cousin encouraged you to audition for The Glee Project. Were you a fan of Glee before that?
NEWELL: My ex-boyfriend got me hooked onto Glee, and I was watching for two years and then they had the auditions, and my cousin was just like, “You need to audition for this show.” And I was like, “I don’t know. They already have Amber Riley on the show. She’s absolutely amazing.” I was just hesitant to do it.
MW: You thought they only had room for one African-American cast member?
NEWELL: Yeah, they had one African American. So I was just sitting there minding my business.
MW: How much did you identify with your character?
NEWELL: Down to wardrobe and stuff like that. I remember one of the writers walked up to me one day and asked, “So, are you liking the direction in Unique’s wardrobe?” And I said, “No, not really. I’m looking kind of mommy.” So they brought it back to a youthful sense, where it doesn’t look like I was just getting my mother’s clothes out of the closet. It would be different outfits — skinny jeans with a sickening heel, and a blouse and stuff like that where we created some kind of an androgynous look.
MW: I have to ask: Did you dress up in your mom’s clothes growing up?
NEWELL: Oh no, not at all. The most that I did was Hairspray, where I was Motormouth Maybelle, or Mary Sunshine in Chicago. And some other roles. Just on-stage things like that.
MW: So you don’t dress up in drag in your personal life?
NEWELL: You know, sometimes I’ll put on a cute little dress and go outside and live life, but it’s really just for the fun of it, and being different. But most days I will be in a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, with a nice little Cole Haan shoe. As a boy, all the time.
MW: Tell us about your forthcoming solo music.
NEWELL: I’m working on it right now. I was in the studio the day before yesterday singing a song, and we didn’t finish it because I was a little under the weather. I’m singing these amazing songs. I did a song with Clean Bandit, “Stronger,” where I literally get to scream to Jesus. I’m screaming up to the heavens, and apparently he’s listening. [Laughs.] It’s just such a good song, and the crowd loves it. I did Coachella with them, and the Fonda [in L.A.]. It’s just one of those amazing dance tracks that’s just so good. It popped up to No. 14 on the U.K. charts last week. I did another song with a group called Blonde in the U.K., “All Cried Out.” It’s a great summer song. I feel like all the songs that I sang with people this season have been really good summer songs. I did another song with the Knocks out of New York, “Collect My Love” — it’s Whitney Houston-inspired, with a Mariah Carey range, where I’m literally just taking all of my body and throwing it at everyone.
MW: Are you focusing on dance music?
NEWELL: Yeah, I love to make people feel good with my voice. I just want something that people can tap their foot to and feel something and want to dance. And not just my mother but my cousins and their children — every generation. I don’t want a song that’s appealing to just one crowd.
MW: Are you working on another show?
NEWELL: I really want to work on another show. I am bored out of my mind. Yes, singing is my number one passion. I love to sing. But sometimes I’m watching TV shows and it’s just like, “Oh my God, I want to do that so bad.”
I’m harassing my team, that’s what I’m going to say. I sent an email saying, “There is no reason that I should not be on NBC’s The Wiz. I’m black, the show’s black, I sing, they sing in the show. I dance, they dance. I’m funny when I act, the show can be funny at times.” There’s literally no reason why I shouldn’t be in either the NBC live stream, or the Broadway show that’s going to happen after it in 2016.
MW: I’ve also heard that, among other shows, you’re scheming to get on Empire.
NEWELL: Oh, of course. I’m a die-hard Empire fan. I’m like, “Hey guys, hey Lee Daniels, I’m right here. Just call me and I’ll literally just fly on out to Chicago, have myself a Cookie Lyon experience, and then I’m good. Sing myself a little ditty.” I was on Fox, the show is on Fox. I’m looking for reasons not to be on.
MW: How about a relationship?
NEWELL: I haven’t had time, but now that the show’s over, I’m an open book. I’m looking. “Here I am boys, here I am world. Here’s Alex.” It’s hard. One of my close friends said, “It’s going to be really hard for you to find someone who 1) lives up to your expectations, and 2) isn’t afraid of you. Because you are extremely successful in your 22 years of being on this earth.” I’m a lot to take, with a strong personality, and sometimes men are scared of success. It’s one of those things I have to come to terms with — people are going to be scared of me. I don’t want people to be scared of me or intimidated by me. I don’t mean for anyone to be that way.
Alex Newell performs Friday, May 1, at the “Sweet Sixteen” benefit for the Trevor Project presented by Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants at Hotel Palomar, 2121 P St. NW. Tickets are $100 including hosted bar and hors d’oeuvres starting at 7 p.m., or $175 for a hosted champagne bar with an additional intimate performance by Newell starting at 6 p.m. Visit trvr.org/dcambassadors.
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