Metro Weekly

Todrick Hall on Straight Outta Oz, living openly, and being a role model on YouTube

After Todrick Hall was voted off American Idol, he found a better path to his own personal Oz. He found YouTube.

Todrick Hall - Photo: Shawn Adeli

Todrick Hall – Photo: Shawn Adeli

Not very long ago, Todrick Hall was taking a stroll in L.A., decked out in booty shorts and UGG boots encrusted with Swarovski crystals (“Don’t ask why I was wearing that outfit,” he laughs), talking on the phone to his mother. Somehow, police officers viewed him as a potential suspect. “I was just walking down the street,” Hall says. “The cop car came fully onto the sidewalk. They threw me down and tried to arrest me, because I supposedly, quote-unquote, matched the description of somebody.

“They pulled a gun out on me,” he continues, “because my mom was on the phone and I had headphones in and she was screaming. I was trying to turn my phone off, and they thought I was reaching in my pocket to get a gun — though there was no way possible I could have fit a gun in those little Daisy Dukes.”

Hall was released and shrugged off the encounter as “just a crazy experience.” But, as the world has become all-too aware, it’s an experience with which African-American men are horrifyingly familiar. It’s also one of countless experiences that have helped shape the life of this young, gay man on his journey from Plainville, Texas, to Hollywood.

Hall documents that journey in a new visual album, Straight Outta Oz, a bold, captivating hour-long set featuring 17 songs and videos in which Hall sings and raps about his life, alongside many of the celebrity friends he’s made along the way, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Wayne Brady, Nicole Scherzinger, Pentatonix, Perez Hilton, Jordin Sparks, and Glee‘s Amber Riley. Hall himself came to fame as a Top 13 finalist on Idol in season nine, though in recent years he’s become better known for his YouTube work. He’s produced popular visual mashups of songs by Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, and his Target-choreographed flash mob to Beyonce’s “End of Time” prompted Queen Bey to hire Hall as a choreographer on her roller-disco video, “Blow.” Hall has garnered further attention for his gay spoofs of everything from Cinderella (CinderFella) to Pitch Perfect (Bitch Perfect).

Yet all of Hall’s previous work, including stints on Broadway in the ensembles of The Color Purple and Memphis The Musical, only hint at the 31-year-old’s talent and ambition, fully manifested in Oz — both the recorded album as well as a North American tour featuring nearly 20 performers reenacting his musical tale with him. “I can’t wait for people to see it,” he says. “I’ve never been this proud of anything that I’ve done.” The album debuted in the Top Ten on the iTunes Pop Album Chart after its release in late June.

“I would have never, ever in a million years imagined that my little album, that was self-produced as a gay man, would be up surpassing Adele and Rihanna and Taylor Swift, Ariana, Justin Bieber,” Hall says. “I’m just some little dude from Texas. I’ve been working really hard to make this stuff happen, and it just gives me promise and hope for the future.”

Hall is especially looking forward to his return to D.C. at the Howard Theatre on August 1. “D.C. is without doubt one of my favorite cities to perform in,” he says. “I know the audiences there are going to be amazing. I’m very, very, very excited about it.”

Todrick Hall & Doritos - Photo courtesy of United Talent Agency

Todrick Hall – Photo courtesy of United Talent Agency

METRO WEEKLY: How did you come up with the concept for Straight Outta Oz?

TODRICK HALL: I’m a huge Disney fan, but when I saw Zootopia, it changed my life. I loved that it had so many amazing social messages in it. And then I saw Hamilton. I loved that Lin-Manuel Miranda took a classic story and told it in such a hip-hop and cool way. After Beyonce released Lemonade, that was the thing that made me go, “I want to do a visual album, but I want it to have political messages in it like Zootopia, and I want to take one of the most classic American stories and tell it through the eyes of a young, gay, black man.”

I’ve gotten 315 million views on YouTube and I have over 2.2 million subscribers now, but people really know me from playing characters on YouTube. They don’t really know the real me. As I’m getting older, I really want people to understand where I’ve come from, and tell them things about me that would humanize me and make them understand and perhaps identify with me.

The Wizard of Oz has always held such a special place in my heart. It’s my favorite story, since I was six years old — I can quote every single line. I have a whole sleeve tattoo of The Wizard of Oz, and I even have a tattoo on the back of my neck that’s a patch that says “Made in Oz.” So I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I wanted to tell the story in a new and innovative way. There’s The Wizard of Oz, there’s The Wiz, there’s Wicked, there’s Return to Oz, there’s Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful — there have been so many versions of this, and I didn’t want to do it if it wasn’t something new or something interesting I could do with the story.

MW: How long was it in gestation?

HALL: Very quick. There are 17 songs on the album, but over 20 in the live show. It took me about five or six weeks to write all the songs, and then we filmed the videos in two weeks. It was the least amount of sleep I’ve ever gotten. I was sleeping two to three hours a night, but I really wanted it to get out before the tour.

MW: When did you first see The Wizard of Oz?

HALL: I must have been five or six years old. And I thought it was the story of Cinderella. So for months and months I would ask my mom every Saturday morning to go rent Cinderella, but the one with the witch in it. And my mom would rent Cinderella. I was beginning to think I was never going to be able to find this movie ever again, and then I saw it. We ended up buying it — it was the 50th Anniversary case. I still have it. It’s decaying because it’s so old and so poorly taken care of. But I watched that movie so much that we ended up buying another version of The Wizard of Oz and a machine that was just to rewind the tape so that I didn’t have to wait. I was so impatient to start it over again from the beginning. That’s how obsessed I was with watching it.

MW: Did you identify with Dorothy?

HALL: I identified with Dorothy because I grew up in a farming community called Plainview, Texas, in the panhandle of the state. I always wanted to get out and go do something bigger and greater and grander than what I was doing in Texas. I just could never figure out a way to get out. Finally, we moved to Dallas, which was a huge step for us.

MW: When did you realize being an entertainer was something you wanted to do?

HALL: I realized it very young. My teacher introduced me to theater. She had a husband who hated musicals. They had season passes, and so she would start taking me to see musicals with her — The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, all the classics. I would teach myself how to do all the dances and sing all the songs in my garage. Every day I would come home — I wouldn’t do my homework because I would want to go and just perform all these numbers, but for no audience. And there was no community theater there that I could get involved in. It was just me and my imagination, and I would fine-tune my craft as much as I could without having anybody guiding me. I taught myself how to sing — I never took voice lessons. I taught myself how to dance. And then finally, this woman who owned a dance studio called Tip Tap Toes — which is just the cutest name of any dance studio in the world — taught me how to dance. The rest is history.

I never stopped dancing. From the moment I was eight years old, I was in The Nutcracker every single year, and then I got a job at Six Flags when I turned 16, and I learned how to perform and I started singing more. I sang at church my whole life growing up, but once I started working at Six Flags, I was combining the singing and the dancing together. And then I did a couple of national tours, and then I went to Broadway, and after that I decided I wanted to try mainstream, so I went and auditioned for American Idol.

MW: You have a brother, but you spent most of your childhood as an only child. Did that influence you at all?

HALL: I was halfway through high school by the time I got a brother. So yes, basically I was an only child. I think it made me creative, but it also made my people skills not as great as they could have been. I was very shy growing up, and I was just obviously struggling with my sexuality and where I came from. There were 12 nephews and grandsons, so I was raised with 12 boys, and they were always doing things, and I always felt uncomfortable trying to be like them. I always knew that something was different about me, I just didn’t know what.

MW: When did you figure out what it was?

HALL: In high school. There was a boy named Josh, and he was a cheerleader. I remember being obsessed with him the second I saw him. I was attracted to him as a human being, but mostly I was attracted to the fact that he was so charismatic and so confident and really talented as a cheerleader. He was really good at what he did. He just had such a cool swag about him and stuff, and I knew at that point that I was attracted to men. I had maybe thought about it before, but he was the thing that made me one hundred percent sure: “Oh yeah, I’m for sure gay.”

MW: Did you become friends with him or anything more?

HALL: Yeah, we dated for a while. We’re really good friends still. He was a cool guy, but he wasn’t ready to be a boyfriend. I was ready to get married when I was sixteen. I was so into him. He was my first real kiss. I had kissed a couple other people before that just for funsies, but he was the first guy I really made out with and had any experiences with.

Todrick Hall - Photo courtesy of United Talent Agency

Todrick Hall – Photo courtesy of United Talent Agency

MW: When did you come out?

HALL: I came out at around fifteen. Very shortly after I met him, I decided I wanted to be in a relationship with him. And at that time, my mom and I were best friends. So I thought, “Oh, my mom’s going to love it.” I thought my mom would be a little bit shocked, but I didn’t know that she was going to react the way that she did. That was when our relationship took a turn for the worse.

My mom was not happy with my decision. She went on an emotional rollercoaster about it. She was sad at first, and then she was like, “Well, I wanna protect him,” so she didn’t want me to talk to anyone who was a man. It was a really, really, really rough time for me. I ended up running away from home basically to go pursue performing and to get out of my mom’s house. She took a very, very long time. It’s been over 10 years and we’re just now getting to the point where we can talk realistically about who I’m dating and whatever. We would talk before, but it would be in code and she could never actually say the words. Now, we can talk about my boyfriend Jesse, and she asks how he’s doing every time I’m on the phone with her. And she always leaves voicemails for him — she calls him when she can’t get in touch with me, which I never thought was going to happen.

Culturally, in the African-American community, being gay is so socially not accepted. It was very hard for my mom to face the family and let them know. And now I think everybody’s kind of okay with it, and they support me.

MW: You also seem to have a strong family-like network of fellow performers in L.A.

HALL: Yeah, I do. I have a lot of close friends that are in the business that are just good people. They’re super-supportive and have great personalities, and I love getting to work with them.

MW: They include Lance Bass, who was your Prince Charming in CinderFella.

HALL: Yeah, Lance has become a really good friend. I never thought we would get to the point where we’d just be texting here and there about random things, but we talk all the time on the phone. He’s such a great guy, so sweet. And the relationship that he and his husband have is beautiful. I love it.

MW: He recently made headlines for suggesting that being openly gay has held him back in his career.

HALL: Being gay sometimes can hold you back, and that’s really why I’m so grateful for YouTube, because it’s allowed me to do exactly what I want to do. How often do you see gay men being cast as straight men on television? Not as often as they’re being cast as gay men. It’s very difficult for people to separate your personal life from a character that you’re playing on television. Neil Patrick Harris played a straight man in a movie that I watched recently, and I was so happy that they made that bold choice because he did such a great job, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be considered for those roles, but oftentimes people pigeonhole you. I think that I would be great at playing a sidekick at a barber shop, but I also think that I can play many other types of characters. I could play a straight man.

That’s why I love Broadway so much. Broadway takes a lot of liberties and they don’t care. If you have the talent, they put you in the role. I think that’s how it should be. I don’t doubt that being gay has hurt Lance’s career, but I think that the world is quickly changing in a direction where maybe people who are coming up in the industry, now and over the next few years, are not going to have to experience the stereotyping that some other people have had to deal with.

MW: The idea that you could make a career through YouTube, when did that occur to you?

HALL: After I got eliminated from American Idol. I did a McDonald’s tribute, it was me singing at a McDonald’s drive-thru. It was my first viral video, and once people saw that, they were stopping me on the street saying, “Hey, are you the McDonald’s guy?” And I started thinking to myself, “This is so odd that I just got kicked off of the number one television show, that has 30 million-plus viewers every single week, and people are recognizing me for my McDonald’s video. Maybe American Idol and television can’t dictate my future. Maybe Simon Cowell’s opinion is not the only opinion that matters. It took me a long time — I’m still trying to figure it out now. Sometimes I put out videos and I’m like, “I have no idea why I put that out.” I look back at it and I’m like, “That wasn’t even funny.” But I think everybody has those experiences, where you look back at things you did or said or liked during high school, and you realize, that wasn’t that great. YouTube is almost like a yearbook to be able to look back at the things that I’ve done and experienced.

I’m not one of those people that hates the fact that I was on Idol or tries to tell people not to talk about it. I’m so grateful for that experience. Had it not been for that, I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to make future videos. I wouldn’t have tried so hard to get my name back out there. Yet YouTube is the one thing that has opened the most doors for me.
MW: A lot of your work is personal, but it’s also relatable and affirming of the gay experience. That seems particularly important to you.

HALL: It is. Growing up, none of us had really great role models — gays that were on television all the time. Especially a gay African-American role model that I could look up to and say, “Oh, cool, I really wanna be that guy.” And it doesn’t really happen very much on television now. RuPaul and Jussie Smollett are the only people I can think of off the top of my head who are on television representing gay African-American men. Now, with YouTube, I’m able to talk to people living in some small town down in the South or in the Bible Belt — they can go onto YouTube and watch and be entertained the same way I was watching That’s So Raven every day, because Raven-Symone was just my idol growing up. To have somebody who they can look up to as a role model and say, “I could be that guy one day” — even if it’s not on the most commercial platform, it’s still such an amazing tool that I have. I wear that responsibility as a badge of honor. I’m so happy that I can be a voice for some of these kids.

I didn’t even realize that’s what I was doing, I was just being myself, but when you hear the messages from these young kids saying, “I was afraid to wear these types of outfits to school, but because you wear big bracelets, I went to school and did this, and now I’m so much more confident, and now I wanna do this, and I wanna be a fashion designer, because now people are looking at me and they realize that I have a cool sense of fashion.” And I think my outfits are hideous half the time. I look at things that I wear from one week to the next and I’m like, “I cannot believe that no one told me not to wear that.” But if it’s helping people to be able to be more comfortable in their own skin and do things that make them feel great and give them confidence, I think that’s the reason why we’re supposed to be artists — why God gave us special gifts. And sometimes we forget that. We get so self-absorbed, and it becomes such a “me, me, me”-type situation.

I can make videos all day, but if no one’s watching or sharing them them, what’s the point of making them? Now I make things and I’m trying to move into a place, without getting preachy, where I entertain people, but also change their lives in some way. There are so many people putting out work that doesn’t change people’s lives that I don’t think there’s really that much room for more of that. I’ve done things for fun, but now, in this chapter of my life, I want to do things that open people’s eyes and make them look at something that they thought was a box and now they can see that it is a circle.

Todrick Hall - Photo courtesy of United Talent Agency

Todrick Hall – Photo courtesy of United Talent Agency

MW: Earlier, you mentioned acting. Is that something you want to do more of?

HALL: I would absolutely love to do that. I was a dancer first — I was training to be a dancer, and I felt like I accomplished that. At 20 years old, I was on Broadway and that was an awesome accomplishment, but people didn’t think that I could sing. And so I went on American Idol. Even though I did not win the show, I still made it to the Top 13. And so that was, to me, that’s what I went there to do – just to prove to people that I was more than just a dancer. And now I want to prove to people that I can act, and I want to prove that to myself, because it’s not just about proving it to other people.

I know that I have an ability to act, but I don’t trust myself and I don’t walk into a room uninhibited. I go in with all of my insecurities — and you can’t act, you can’t sing, you can’t dance if you have all these insecurities attached to your body. You have to learn how to shut those things off. I’m probably the most insecure person in America. I think that I have a lot of talent, I think that I’m good at a lot of things, but I don’t think I’m great at anything. So it’s really weird to see how other people perceive you to be, because I don’t perceive myself to be this phenomenal person. And so I’m working on myself every single day to try to be better, and to listen to my voice and say, “You know what, Todrick? You sounded good today.” Or to do a video, “Wow, you did a really good job at doing that.” I’m just a human being with insecurities like every single other person, and I’m trying to deal with those. I used to be like, “I’m not going to tell people that I’m gay. I’m going to be an artist that lives in the closet so that I can be successful because I don’t want it to affect my career.” And now I’m just like, “Fuck that whole thing.” It is not worth it. Life is too short. And I think that everyone should wake up and do whatever it is that makes them happy, and performing makes me so happy.

I just feel like the most blessed human being, and I’m grateful to be where I am. I used to be super-jealous of people who were more successful than I am, and now I’m just so grateful to have anybody that will buy a ticket. I will gladly do a show or concert for 10 people if that’s all the tickets I sell.

MW: Given she’s a big inspiration for you, I have to ask: Do you think Beyonce struggles with insecurity the way you do?

HALL: Yeah, I think that’s part of what Lemonade is about. There’s a part where she’s saying, “If that’s what you really want, I will wear her skin on my skin.” I think those are things that Beyonce actually felt. And that’s the thing people forget when they go write things online. They forget that you have internet access. There’s an app called Mentions that people who are public figures have, and you can see anytime someone writes your name. They don’t have to add you in it. And sometimes I read the most cruel things. If these people knew that I actually could see this, they probably wouldn’t write it, but they’re writing it because they’re like, “There’s no way in the world he’s ever going to see this.” I do see it.

When Orlando happened, I was devastated. For two days, I was supposed to be working on my musical and I could hardly crawl out of bed. I was just so hurt by it. I was scared. Oftentimes there’s so much self-hate in our community. People say, “Well, I don’t like these type of gays,” or “I don’t like lesbians,” or “He’s too much.” As a gay, African-American man, most of the hate that I get comes from the African-American community and from gay people. I just think that’s so sad.

Anyway, when this whole thing happened, it warmed my heart. I was so sad, but then I was so happy for our community, that we banded together and that everyone was standing up for this and doing what they could to contribute, giving their last dime to help the victims. This is what our community should be all the time. This is what the world should be all the time. And we shouldn’t be waiting for a horrific tragedy to happen to do those types of things, we should all be doing it every day. We know that, but it sometimes takes something to wake us up and remind us that life is fragile and all these little, minuscule, unimportant things that we spend so much time worrying about, we shouldn’t be because tomorrow we might not be here. We might not be here five minutes from now, you know? All I see is love spewing from Facebook when I get on there, and I just hope that it stays that way for a while and that this is a reality check to everyone that we have come so far, but we have so much further to go.

MW: The broader culture is becoming more accepting, as well as more aware of the dangers of internalized homophobia and anti-LGBT discrimination in the wake of Orlando.

HALL: As scary as it is to be in our country right now, the fact that it’s becoming more and more accepting makes me happy. My mom comes to the show and is always crying. She says, “You don’t understand. When I grew up, I couldn’t go to school with white people, but to see all of these people of all of these different ethnicities paying good money to come and watch my child perform is the most beautiful thing ever.” She gets so choked up about it every time because she just cannot believe it. And I can’t believe it either. I’m so moved that people spend their hard-earned money to bring their kids to come see a show and these white families, Asian families, Hispanic families, Indian families — the fact that I’m a gay black man is not even an issue. They get dressed and they come to the show. It’s not even something that they think about. People don’t care about it. My mom has to remind me that the world hasn’t always been like this. I’m so proud of the children, because I feel like there’s promise to our future. These kids are going to grow up and be like, “Being gay? Why are we discussing this? It’s not an issue at all.” I think that’s awesome.

MW: Being out and being public is important to making progress, particularly with LGBT issues. Do you have any thoughts about how we make progress on race and prejudice?

HALL: We have to prove to people that they’re wrong. We shouldn’t have to, but I think everyone just has to do what they can to be a good person every day. I don’t think that anyone should be judging and stereotyping an entire race based on a few encounters that they might have had with somebody that fits into that category. But I think we’re moving in the right direction, and I think honestly the media has a lot to do with that, just making things a little bit more even. Having shows where there’s not just a black friend as a sidekick, but there’s a black lead character and they have white friends as a sidekick, or there’s an Indian lead character and they have a black friend that’s a sidekick. That needs to happen more often so that it becomes ingrained.

We take in so much information every day, and whether you want to be or not, you’re affected by the things that you see on the cover of magazines, on television every day, in the media, on billboards, whatever. It affects you. You see the quintessential image of what a beautiful man is your whole life — if that’s a beautiful white man with blue eyes and dark features, then that’s what you’re going to believe is the definition of beauty. And I think that the media needs to help change that, because beauty comes in so many different colors. This goes into a different topic, but I don’t think when people say, “I’m not interested in black guys” or “I’m not interested in Asian,” or “I would never date an Indian person” — I don’t think that that is something that is just a preference. I think it’s something that is swayed by media and what we have been taught in our lives.

The way we choose clothing lines and choose what kind of cars we’re going to drive is affected by what we see, so I don’t think that who we’re sexually attracted to is any different. I would like to see that change. There are so many people who are unhappy in relationships because they’re so busy chasing after their unrealistic ideal type of guy. Maybe that’s not who you were meant to be with. Maybe the person who’s going to treat you right, who’s going to make you happy, is a short Asian man, but he’s the person that you were meant to be with. We have to be willing to be more open to looking at beauty in different ways, because I think we’d be surprised at what we would find.

I know a lot of people in our country are really scared, but I still have hope. I’m not afraid. Some of my friends are scared to go on tour now because of all these things — I’m not afraid at all. I’m excited to go and meet my fans. I’m never going to be afraid to meet people because of an incident that happened with someone. We’re in a scary time, but I think that everyone can play their part in making this world a better place — as cheesy as that sounds.

I’ve been saying that for years, and then I put up videos about twerking in the rain, which is fun, but that’s not helping the world in any way. So now, I feel like I’m opening people’s eyes and having them see something in a different light without being preachy. That’s what I want to use my platform for right now. I feel like I’m finally doing my part.

Todrick Hall appears Monday, Aug. 1, at 7:30 p.m., at the Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $45, or $100 for a VIP Meet & Greet. Call 202-588-5595 or visit thehowardtheatre.com.

Straight Outta Oz is available on iTunes and YouTube or via todrickhall.com.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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