Billboard artist, gender bender Ricky rebel speaks on LGBT representation in the music industry
Reporting by Sam Goodman
How did you first discover your love for music?
“I remember being a kid and being obsessed with musical movies like Annie and Greece. I knew every part by heart. Music was a way to remove myself from some dark moments in my life. It was a safe haven. A place to lose myself.”
When did you first begin to understand your queer identity?
“Honestly, I don’t consider myself to be queer. I am an artist. I use makeup and fashion to express my creativity. I was a late-bloomer gay. I had sexual relationships only with women until I was 20.”
When entering the industry, were you afraid of having to hide your identity?
“Absolutely. I had many managers and agents tell me to keep the ‘gay thing’ under wraps or else I would never make it in the industry. The pop group I was in that was signed to Madonna’s label told us not to dance too flamboyantly on stage. We were schooled on how to appear more straight in interviews. We called it ‘straight camp’.”
“I had many managers and agents tell me to keep the ‘gay thing’ under wraps or else I would never make it in the industry...We were schooled on how to appear more straight in interviews. We called it ‘straight camp’.”
What was your initial reaction and response when the industry told you to hide your bisexuality?
“I do what I always do when people try to back me in a corner, I rebel. I began to dance more sexually and wear more flamboyant styles. If someone tells me not to do something that I feel inclined to do, I usually end up doing it more, only augmented. My producer at the time wanted to change ‘the gay thing’, so he locked me in a sound booth and had his religious friend come over and read Bible verses to me saying that I was going to hell for being gay and that I should turn away from my ‘life of sin.’ After I fired him, I turned a negative into a positive by penning and producing my first Billboard Top 40 smash called “Boys & Sometimes Girls” which spoke candidly about my sexuality. Later, I performed the track at the Cannes Film Festival in France. Success is the sweetest revenge.”
Can you share your thoughts on gender and sexuality and how you have seen the world change from when you were first discovering your identity?
“Biologically speaking, in my mind, there are only three options when you are born - male, female, or intersex. Gender options include being a man, woman, or something in between. Conservatives think that there are only two genders and liberals think that there are 60+ genders. I think conservatives are correct in the sense that there are only two sexes and liberals are right to say that gender is on a spectrum. However, I do not believe in any gender that does not consist of being a man, woman, or something in between. “Swamp gender” (an actual gender according to the list) does not fly with me. There was a time when this conversation was not even a topic of discussion. For thousands of years, sex and gender were synonymous. I am glad that we are talking about it. It’s fascinating.”
Along the same lines, can you discuss the idea of embracing both the feminine and masculine and the idea toxic masculinity?
“I wrote “The New Alpha” LP because I wanted to promote balance between masculinity and femininity and help us break away from the labels that people try to impose on us. I feel like the term “toxic masculinity” scares people from embracing their masculine side. We need both masculinity and femininity in balanced measure to be healthy human beings and that is why I do not like the term “toxic masculinity.” Masculinity is not the problem, toxic people in general are problematic.”
“[When the industry told me to hide my bisexuality], I did what I always do when people try to back me in a corner, I rebelled.”
Can you provide a brief timeline of your career from when you first began professionally performing until now?
“I booked my first commercial when I was 11 years old. It was a Mervyn’s commercial. From there I booked movie soundtracks like “Apollo 13” and “Anastasia.” I was also featured in the movie “Austin Powers” and the TV shows “Boston Public” and “American Dreams.” I auditioned to be in a pop group called “No Authority.” We were discovered by Michael Jackson then later signed to Madonna’s label Maverick Records. We eventually opened for Britney Spears. After the boy-band boom ended, I started a rock band called “Harlow” and eventually started releasing my own solo work as Ricky Rebel. I was cast in two My Chemical Romance music videos as the character “Showpony” and was featured on MTV. I have released three albums now as Ricky Rebel and I have Billboard Top 40 hits under my belt.”
How has your style (both as a musician and a visual artist) changed over time?
“I used to teeter between an ultra-wild persona and a more family-friendly one. I have a wild streak in my nature. When I first started as a solo artist, I used to wear provocative clothes, whips, chains, women’s under and outer wear, etc. I do the same thing now, but my style is much more refined. I have learned to balance my provocative side with my conservative side.”
How do you see society changing and what advice can you give to young queer people struggling to find their identity?
“Society has become a lot more open to the LGBT community, but we still have things to fight for. For instance, in about 70 countries, gay people can still be imprisoned, tortured, or killed just for being gay or being in a same-sex relationship. My advice is to be true to yourself. It takes time to know who you are. Don’t rush into conclusions too quickly. Explore and find out for yourself who you are and keep an open mind. Have patience with people who fear you and try to make you feel less than. They are hurting inside and that is why they try to hurt you.
Recently, how has performing in drag, or rather embracing your feminine side, changed you as an artist?
I recommend for everyone to dress as the opposite sex at least once in their lives. You learn a lot about yourself by dressing in drag. You learn about what your own definition of what the opposite sex represents. For me, when I dressed as Marilyn Rebel in my music video “The New Alpha,” I felt more licensed to be bossy. I guess in my mind, women are sexier when they are bossier and strong.”