“More than once every single day, I look around and think how crazy and insane it is that I grew up in this small town in Texas where I had never flown on a plane, and never thought I’d get to go to Disney World,” says Todrick Hall. “I thought someone was making it in the world if they had a CD burner and a trampoline.”
That was before the Arlington, Texas native vaulted to fame on season nine of American Idol. Hall charmed Idol audiences, if not always judge Simon Cowell, and, although eliminated in that season’s semi-finals, the industrious performer kept the train rolling, soon releasing his first studio album, Somebody’s Christmas, and establishing his brand on Youtube via his elaborately costumed and choreographed music videos.
He hasn’t slowed down since, hitting the boards on Broadway for starring roles in Chicago and Kinky Boots, touring internationally in support of his visual albums Straight Outta Oz and Forbidden, and joining Rupaul’s Drag Race for the past three seasons as a guest judge and choreographer.
“Now I live in a world where it’s not uncommon to have Taylor Swift call my phone, or to go backstage at a Beyoncé concert, or that I’d be hanging out at a party at Ariana Grande’s house, like that would be a normal day,” he says. “Sometimes I look up and it’s insane to me, but it’s also like a true testament that if you work really hard, and if you’re persistent, and if you devote your life to doing something, that it’s possible, because by every other standard…it should’ve been, in theory, impossible for this to happen for me.”
Beyond merely acknowledging career blessings like choreographing for Beyoncé or selling out the London Palladium with his Forbidden tour, Hall reveals he’s also learning to appreciate the lessons that come from sometimes stumbling. The realities of show business are that an artist can play to 2,500 screaming fans at the Palladium one night, and on another night face a completely different reception.
“I did a show in Berlin this year, and I was like this was the most unsuccessful show I’ve done — there was only 250 people there,” says Hall. “And I was really disappointed and it was difficult for me. I was having to pep-talk myself to get myself to go onstage and not cut numbers, and not be embarrassed of the fact that the show wasn’t sold out. And my friend had to come slap some sense into me and be like, ‘Bitch I couldn’t sell 250 tickets in L.A., where I’m from, where I was raised. You have to get up there and perform that show like it’s Madison Square Garden.'”
Hall, who shares many aspects of his personal and professional journey with fans on social media, admits that the Berlin show was “something I never thought I would tell anybody, I would never have posted the pictures. To me it seemed like a failure. And now I’m so proud…. The fact that I sold 250 tickets there should not be something that I look at as not an accomplishment. And so I’ve just started to look at life through a completely different lens and just be so grateful, and thankful, and flattered that I am able to work with these people, [like] Ariana, who I just love and think of as such a champion for the LGBTQ community.”
Hall is himself a vocal champion for the LGBTQ community, and he’ll raise his voice in D.C. on Monday, Oct. 8, headlining the Capital Pride Alliance’s Broadway musical revue, “Music in the Night,” Hall plans “a more chill, private, intimate type of performance” for the event, which will be emceed by Helen Hayes-winner Frank Britton and also boast performances by Joanna Chilcoat-Fellows, Steven Cuts, Larry Grey, Christopher David Harris, Danielle Harrow, Cory Hibbetts, Hien Li, Tiffany Lyn, Don Michael Mendoza, JJ Vera, Rick Westerkamp, and Charlie Wright. “I think I’m going to sing some original songs and some of my favorite songs,” says Hall, hinting that he might include his new single, the confessional “Warning.”
Says the youthful veteran of stage, studio, and screen, “I actually am mortified to sing in front of people without dancers and without a character and stuff — it’s a huge fear of mine. But…I am choosing to face that fear.” No doubt he’ll embrace it as he has every other opportunity along his extraordinary journey.
Todrick Hall — Photo: Jon Sams
METRO WEEKLY:You posted a video on YouTube while on your way to the premiere of A Star is Born. What did you think of the movie?
TODRICK HALL: I loved it! I mean, the title couldn’t be more fitting — A Star is Born. As if Lady Gaga weren’t already such a star, she blossoms into a full-blown star during this movie — the acting was so real, so raw, so authentic. And it’s really difficult for somebody who’s a star at that level for you to not think about who they are and who you know them to be the entire movie. And I completely forgot she was Lady Gaga multiple times during the movie, so I was really proud of her.
MW:That’s some endorsement. Had you seen any of the prior versions of A Star is Born?
HALL: I had not seen them, and I was really excited about the potential of Beyoncé doing it because I know that she, at one point, agreed to do it, apparently from what I read, and then was not able to. But, even being a huge Beyoncé fan, I wasn’t upset watching Lady Gaga do it. I was really excited about it and they would have definitely had to go in a different direction had Beyoncé done the role.
MW:I take it you love movie musicals?
HALL: Love them.
MW:Do you have a favorite?
HALL: This is not an answer that you’re probably going to think is legit, but the first musical that I ever watched was Disney’s Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Brandy in it. That doesn’t really count, but that’s my answer.
MW:That counts. You write and direct your own visual albums, and choreograph, act, sing, and dance in the videos. It’s very much in the mold of Gene Kelly, who directed, choreographed, acted, sang and danced in a lot of his films. Do you think you’ll ever create a full-on musical?
HALL: That’s definitely at the top of my bucket list of things to do, so unless God has other plans for me — by other plans, I mean if I am living and breathing for long enough to make it happen — I would love for it to happen, not just once but multiple times.
MW:Let’s talk Drag Race for a moment. You’re going to be at Rupaul’s DragCon NYC this weekend, which seems like ground zero for how much Drag Race has grown in recent years. From your point of view, how much has the show changed?
HALL: Well, the crazy thing is I was a huge fan of the show first, it was my favorite show. I always tell people, in my completely unbiased opinion, that it’s the best reality competition show on television. The fact that these queens have to be able to be comedians, have to be able to do improv, have to be able to sing and dance and do their own make-up, their own hair, their own wig, and also be so open and vulnerable about things that have happened to them in their personal lives, and share their sexuality, their HIV status, and the things that they share with people like the deepest, darkest secrets of their life. It just, to me, is the epitome of what a reality show competition could be. [Even] the fact that there are so many taglines. It’s responsible for so many things in pop culture right now.
But to say how much the show has changed, it’s really crazy because I don’t feel like the show has changed. It’s a very similar format every single year, it’s the same crew of people. I always say that you can tell how great someone is by the people that they surround themselves with and how long they stay around them. And RuPaul’s had the same people, and the same team for the most part, around him for the past 30 years. And so the show hasn’t really changed that much. I think the world is just finally catching up, and I’m just really proud of the world for changing, more than I’m proud of the show for changing.
Todrick Hall — Photo: Jon Sams
MW:You’ve been on the other side, being judged on a show like this. How does that affect your approach to judging?
HALL: Well, I’m really hard on the queens when I’m teaching them the choreography and I know that sometimes people think that the approach that I take is a little bit too harsh. But I grew up in a theater community and in a ballet school that was just like a no B.S. policy. And I know that if I was in the competition I would want someone to be hard on me. I make them rehearse full out with their lyrics, with their costumes, with the shoes that they’re going to be in because I’m always having these terrible flashback nightmares of Simon Cowell in a white t-shirt that was too small for him, looking and telling me I needed to go home. And I just don’t want that to happen for anybody. Luckily for the past few seasons that I’ve been on the show, they haven’t eliminated anybody on the last episode. They’ve been letting four people into the finale, which I’m really proud of, and I like to feel like I am playing even the smallest of parts in that decision-making process, because the girls have been so great that it’s been really difficult to even with a fine-tooth comb find a reason to send someone home.
But when I’m judging them, I always try to tell them things that are not only going to help them the competition, because at the end of the day, while it is a cool thing to have the crown and the title, it’s not really the people who win who necessarily win — and that’s not just RuPaul’s Drag Race specific, it’s on any of these shows. It’s how well you brand yourself, how well you put your work out, how polished it is, how you treat other people. Those are the things that I think are really important and that I try to teach them and the advice I try to give them when I’m working with them and when I’m behind a judging panel.
MW:Which of the queens that you’ve worked with particularly stood out?
HALL: The people that, to me, are the most professional are Trinity Taylor, Trixie Mattel, Shangela, Monet X Change, Bob the Drag Queen — they’re all such a pleasure to work with, always. They come in and they’re just so focused. Sasha Velour. I’m trying to think of all the people. Peppermint was great to work with. I mean there’s so many of them that come in and they’re very focused, and oftentimes I do two episodes per season and in the middle of the season I work with certain people and you can always tell who’s going to make it to the end by how focused they are when they’re rehearsing, and you can tell who has been through it and done those things before. But there are certain people that I just absolutely love to work with because they’re just dreams. Eureka is also one of those people. She was great to work with. She never sat down, she never stopped rehearsing, and that was really refreshing and I really appreciated her for that. Aquaria was really nice to work with as well, so was Asia, the top four of last season were actually all really great. Kameron Michaels had some of the most difficult choreography and he worked, and worked, and worked on it really, really hard.
MW:Speaking of working with people who work really, really hard, we need to discuss choreographing for Beyoncé.
HALL: It was the “Blow” video, and I got a call from [Beyoncé’s production company] Parkwood Entertainment saying that Beyoncé would love for me to choreograph one of her new songs. I signed a massive stack of NDAs, and then they sent the song. It was really awesome to get to work for her. There’s a famous saying that I’m going to butcher that says, don’t meet your idols because they will disappoint you. But I feel more in love with her. And she was very hands on about how the makeup needed to look, and what the lighting needed to look like, and what the hair looks like. We shot just one scene for like 12 hours. And it was great and it was a completely great setup, she looked awesome in it. The outfit was great. The choreography was awesome.
The next day she decided that she didn’t like it, and I was like, “I don’t know if this is the greatest decision that you ever made. Beyoncé, you might want to rethink this.” But she had a really clear vision of what she wanted and why what we had done was not right. And there are a lot of people who say they don’t like something, but it takes a specific type of artist to be able to put their eye on exactly what it is they didn’t like and also give a very strong suggestion of how to fix it. And so she gave the suggestions and it was like an undeniable thing once we reshot those scenes that it was totally worth it, and that her vision was not properly executed on the first day. And I think a lot of artists after spending that much time would be like we’ve already spent so much time and money. But she is such a perfectionist and she has a really clear vision of what her brand is, and what she’s trying to bring to life.
It was awesome to work with her, and it was really, really crazy to teach the dancers. I taught all the dancers the choreography and then they said, “Now Beyoncé will come in and she’s going to learn it separately.” And in my mind I’m thinking, “Okay, these are professional dancers that work, and audition, and take class, and train all the time. And this is Beyoncé and she’s doing a double shift as a mom right now.” She was in between takes making sure she was giving Blue Ivy all her attention, which I thought was also equally as inspirational and also with her mom, and Solange was there, and Jay-Z was there being the sweetest person in the world. When I brought Beyoncé out to teach her the choreography, she had such smart questions, she said, “What leg is my weight on, which way is my head during this point? What angle do you want my head at?” She had such specific questions and she learned the dance in a third of the amount of time it took for me to teach the others because she was that focused. It was really cool to just get to watch her do that and watch how hard she was working, and how quickly she learned it, that was really surprising to me. I had no idea she was such a good dancer. If she ever decided to just backup dance for someone and you didn’t know who she was, she could literally walk into an audition and just book dancing gigs, which is very gaggy to me. So it made me become even more of a fan of her.
MW:Regarding your own visual albums, Straight Outta Oz and Forbidden, the concepts are so big. Where do you start in putting it all together?
HALL: It just depends. I’m motivated by so many different things. When I started with Straight Outta Oz, I wrote one song that was supposed to be a trailer to promote my upcoming tour. And because I loved that song so much, I started toying with the idea of writing other songs that could tell the story of The Wizard of Oz, but also tell people a little bit about my life. I think that sometimes an insecurity of mine is I hide behind characters and things on YouTube, as opposed to giving people a real inside look into my life. And so for me, my safety net in the way I felt like I could easily show people something about my life was to cover it underneath the whimsical world of The Wizard of Oz, which is my favorite story since I was a child. And once I started doing it, I just kept being motivated to write more music in that realm.
With Forbidden, I was just so frustrated at things that were happening politically. And sometimes as a person who is African-American and openly gay but who has a lot of friends who are straight or who are not a minority, it becomes a difficult topic of conversation when I want to talk about serious issues and things that I face on a daily basis that, because of the privilege they’ve been allotted in their life, they don’t really understand where I’m coming from.
I felt like I had two options. I could sit around and continue harping on things that they wouldn’t really be able to understand. They might be able to appease me, but then they go back to their normal lives and it doesn’t really necessarily affect them. Or, I could try to flip the script and tell a story in a way that they might actually look at it differently — even for a moment, because all it takes is a few moments for someone to second-guess something, or to question something, or to really fully understand the privilege that they have, and then it makes them want to take a stand, or make a change, or play some small part in helping people who don’t realize that they’re privileged.
A lot of people think that the discrimination stuff is something that’s over, and it’s a throwback Thursday, and it’s not something that people are constantly living with and having to deal with. It’s nice to be able to create art that is explaining to people what other people are going through and for them to actually accept it, digest it, and receive it.
Todrick Hall — Photo: Jon Sams
MW:And how do you translate that audio-visual experience into your live show?
HALL: It’s an easy transition for me because when I’m writing the songs I’m already imagining what we’re going to be wearing for the videos, what the set’s going to look like, what the lighting is going to look like, and then how it will be translated onto the stage and what pieces of that I will dance in. In the case of Forbidden specifically, I was planning the tour and the album at the same time. In a much similar fashion as what we did with Straight Outta Oz. There’s a whole documentary on Netflix that follows that whole thing and it gives a really accurate depiction of what we go through, as a self-made YouTuber trying to create this brand in a show and also put it on tour.
MW:Which is more grueling, touring your own show or playing on Broadway eight times a week, especially if you’re doing it in high heels?
HALL: Doing my own show is a lot more difficult. When I’m doing Kinky Boots, or Chicago, or Memphis, or The Color Purple, I’m just an employee. I don’t have any other responsibilities. I get to have my whole day and I show up to work and do a job and when it’s done I leave. And being a producer, and the choreographer, and the director of your own show, and starring in it, and also being everyone’s boss, and their friend, and paying all of your employees — it’s just such a stressful thing that starts from the moment you crack your eyes open every morning. Being on Broadway, while some people are like, “That is the hardest work I’ve ever done,” when I want a vacation from my crazy life I go do a Broadway show and it’s such a completely pleasant experience. It’s definitely difficult and really, really hard, but it doesn’t have the same mental exhaustion that comes with running an entire company, and having so many employees, and writing your own music, and doing an entire show that only relies on you. That’s a lot of pressure.
MW:Is your new single “Warning” inspired by any specific person or relationship?
HALL: Yes, it is.
MW:Did the person heed the warning?
HALL: Well, I like the idea that warning seems like an aggressive word and it seems like something that you should be nervous about, but in the song I’m actually saying, “I’m warning you that if you fuck around and let me really love you or let me really trust you that it’s going to be the best love that you’ve ever had in your entire life.” So it’s actually a very sweet warning. I lived a very normal life until I was about 24, 25. I had always grown up in a town where we didn’t lock our doors. We would let people borrow anything. I would give someone my credit card number. I was a very trusting person and because my life started to change — people would always say that people change with fame, and I don’t think that’s necessarily untrue. But the crazy part is the way that people treat you is a lot different. It’s just the whole world is so infatuated with this idea of fame that really is not all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s a scary thing.
Especially when you are trying to find love. I am on Tinder and I’ve been on Tinder for a long time, long before I started being on television or anything. And I used to get a decent amount of swipes, I’ve always been at some level of cuteness, so good. But now, I get so many right swipes and matches and I don’t think that’s because I am now any better or worse looking than I was before, I think that it’s because people are swiping on me for different reasons. And so it just makes me very cautious, and very nervous, and I have these walls built up and so that song was basically to say not just to this person specifically, but to anybody who was ever interested in dating me, or dating someone like me. I just think you have to really be able to trust someone.
I feel like up until this year I was always looking for somebody to date that would be somebody I would imagine being naked with me, or us being in a picture together, or somebody that I would be like if I went to buildaboy.com. I would build a person to be this aesthetic on the outside and cosmetically appealing by America’s standards. But now I’ve realized that what I really want is somebody who is my best friend and somebody that I can watch Disney movies with, somebody that I can go to Disneyland with. Somebody who I can make Rice Krispie Treats with and cookies in the middle of the night, or eat raw cookie dough with in the morning. Somebody who I can go and tell my deepest, darkest secrets to and know without a shadow of a doubt that it will never be leaked or told under any circumstance. That’s the type of person I want to find. And if we end up falling in love on top of that, then that to me is like the perfect idea of a boyfriend/husband. I hope that whoever I end up falling in love with feels as strongly about truth, and honesty, and loyalty as I do, and that’s why I wrote that song.
MW:Since you’ll be in D.C. to headline Capital Pride’s “Music in the Night,” commemorating National Coming Out Day, do you have any words of advice for anyone who might be wrestling with the idea of coming out as LGBTQ?
HALL: I would say that fear is such a powerful thing. It’s so powerful that it can make you live your life as someone else in order to fit in. And if you have to change who you are, or not be truthful with who you are, or hide who you are from people who have told you that they love you, and fear that they might not actually love you after you tell this information, then those people never really loved you to begin with. And it’s better for you to get them out of your life now and go on the journey to find the people who really truly do love you, even if it’s half the amount of people, even if it’s a quarter of the amount of people. It would be better to have three people who really love you and are your real friends than 30 people who are disguised as friends who don’t really care about you, and that’s a really hard lesson for people to learn. So I would encourage anybody to just literally jump head-deep into the water, tell the people that you love. Don’t apologize for it, don’t say you’re sorry because there’s nothing to be sorry about, that’s who you are, it’s who you choose to love.
And the people who leave, mourn them, be sad about it, because it builds character and it also will teach you how to move forward and how to be your own friend and be okay with being alone, because that’s a beautiful thing as well. And for you to come out, and be brave, and say what it is that you’re truly feeling is only going to help other people who are in the same situation as you.
In my experience, almost 100 percent of the time people are so much happier the moment they say those words. It’s just a few words that you have to say, and once you say them your whole life opens up. And it’s like you’ve just walked into Narnia, or Oz, or Wonderland, and your whole life begins at that moment.
Music in the Night is Monday, Oct. 8, at The Hamilton Live, 600 14th St. NW. Doors at 6:30, show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $19.75 to $39.75. Call 202-787-1000, or visit capitalpride.org.
André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.
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