These days being gay and a pop star isn’t just accepted, it’s pretty much encouraged. Everywhere you look there’s a gay or fluid pop hunk or sexy sasspot snogging their way around the world, and nobody, refreshingly, bats an eyelash!
Yes, long gone are the days when a chart-topping songster had to hide the fact he liked snogging fellas – and hoorah for that!
But once upon a time, some popstars – especially those in boybands – were actively encouraged to keep schtum about their sexuality. Crazy, eh?
Meet the gorgeous Aaron Paul. Back in the 90s, he was one fifth of Simon Cowell’s answer to Take That. He and his hunky bandmates enjoyed a handful of hits including Everlasting Love, Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel and Beggin’To Be Written before he quit the band to seek a solo career!
In this fascinating and honest interview, Aaron opens up about what it was like having to keep quiet about being gay for the sake of his career, reveals the highs and lows of being a popstar and recalls how after his fame had faded, he was surprised when two Spice Girls fangirled all over him
Aaron before we talk about your time in Worlds Apart, lets talk about when you first realised you were gay?
I guess I’d known forever. I always gravitated to the girls as a kid. Not that makes you gay. But all the signs were there. I remember playing in the Wendy house at nursery-school land dressing up in all the different clothes. I had my favourite green dress and wouldn’t take it off. I think that was also the start of my performing skills. Dressing up as different characters and playing with make up. I felt a little different than the other boys who played football. I was much more interested in dressing the girls’ dolls and putting on little productions. The boys hated me because I had all the best- looking girls around me. I was the man, lol!
You sound like it was pretty obvious – how long did you keep it to yourself?
I kept it to myself through my teen years. When I look back, I guess it really wasn’t a secret. I was just too afraid to say it out load. I have to admit I did go through a period of not wanting to be gay. Who doesn’t? I was always afraid of being outed or ridiculed, even though I got anyway that from boys because I just didn’t do the things they were interested in. I thought being gay was something I could bury and it would go away. I put all that energy into my music and performing. Boy, was I wrong. It just resurfaced stronger.
Who was the first person you told?
My closest first cousin. She is like a sister to me. I tell her everything. I was about 16 when I told her and she was absolutely fine! I have been very lucky. I was not the first in my family and DEF not the last. At the end of the day, they love me for all that I am. I am very blessed.
Were there any gay guys you looked up to at the time?
There was nobody gay immediately around me. My family accepted everyone, so it was not a big deal. Only the people I saw on TV. I was a fan of Boy George, Freddie Mercury, Village People. At a young age, I didn’t even realise their gayness. I just accepted them all for their great music. I remember seeing very flamboyant characters on TV, like Danny La Rue, John Inman from Are You Being Served’, Gordon Kaye from Allo Allo. I just remember them being funny and colorful. My mum worked in the ballet world, so one of her closet associates was the legendary Rudolf Nureyev who was a beautiful person and accepted for the wonderful person he was. Looking back now, there were lots of gay people around me – both out and closeted.
Who was the person you were most worried to tell?
My Dad. He was a very macho and dominant dude and he is Jamaican. That’s a big NO NO in his culture. But he was fine.
How did you actually tell your parents?
I told my mother when she moved to the USA. I remember the first night she arrived I told her just before we went to bed. She just rolled over and said “Goodnight”. I was devastated. I expected this big discussion and never got it. The next night, she was dancing in the gay club with me…..YAY.
What was school like – were the boys a bunch of assholes?
Kids will always treat other kids badly for being different if you don’t fit in with the group. Boys were very jealous of me because I had all the girls around me and I could sing and dance better than they could. I remember my mum being called in by a teacher.She said, “I am worried that your son might be gay”. My mother replied, “Yes, so what?” YES. My mother stopped her right in her tracks. The teacher was gobsmacked and that shut her up. To quote my Mum: “Dreadful woman.”
When you were old enough, did you throw yourself into the scene?
I did for a quick minute. I started to make friends who took me to parties and clubs. We had a ball. And exposed me to a whole new world I never knew existed. And I found others just like me.
I enjoyed the lifestyle but I didn’t want to get all too caught up in. I could see how people could get carried away in it. I was also way too focused on my music career and didn’t think it would be good for my career. I was very happy when I was in Worlds Apart and we would perform at all the big gay clubs: G.A.Y, Heaven and The Fridge. Those were the best shows and audiences.
So you joined the 90s boyband Worlds Apart – how did you land the job?
I was performing and in and around London in the clubs, community festivals and Butlins. Arista Records and Simon Cowell approached me after auditioning 10, 000 singers. Apparently, they did not have a lead singer. They asked me if I was interested. I said, “Of course.” I’d be a fool not too.
What was Simon Cowell like?
Simon Cowell is the best teacher I’ve ever had. Seriously, everything that I practice and use today in my career I’ve learned from him. When I was in the band, I would just sit, watch and learn how he did business and how he made hit records. He is one of the best in the game and knows how to make a record and artist work. He is genius. I have never felt the wrath of Simon aimed at me personally, but I have seen him make grown men cry. He is exactly how you see him TV and just a bit amped up. But I believe that he respected me and my talent. I have only respect for him and all that he did and taught me.
World’s Apart was pitched as Simon’s answer to Take That – did you ever think it was going to work?
Yes, of course. You have to believe that to make it work, lol. I’ve learned a lot being in this business and a lot of it is smoke and mirrors. What most people don’t know is that Worlds Apart and Take That were label brothers. Both groups recorded under the same BMG umbrella. So the more money that Take That made for BMG, the more money was put into Worlds Apart. #truefact
Were you open about being gay from the start?
No, not at all. I was very private about my personal life and still am really. Remember we were marketed to young teen girls in the early 90s. The last thing the record company wanted was a gay boy-band member. And, actually, I was fine with that because I was Aaron Paul as an artist first. My sexuality does not define all of me. There is so much more to me than just being gay.
Were you advised to keep it quiet?
It was never brought up because I was very private about what I did anyway at that time. I’m sure I would have been advised to keep it quiet publicly because of the amount of money the record label was investing into the project. But it was also very common with other boy bands at that time who were open about who they were. I chose to stay quiet.
The band was popular with teen mags, did you get to enjoy life on the road?
Yes, it was amazing. I read a lot of the magazines myself prior to being in the group. So you can imagine the thrill of being a poster boy and adored by girls all over the country. The best part was being on the road and seeing all the fans. We would perform in two or three clubs a night up and down the UK and they would drive along with us. I got to know many of them very well and still stay in close contact to this day.
Did you enjoy any relationships with other gay popstars?
I don’t kiss and tell.
Oh go, we won’t tell.
Another one to wait for in my autobiography.
Was it a pressure to keep your female fans from knowing the truth?
At that time I was just happy to be doing what I loved and had trained for. I didn’t really know 100 percent who I was at that time anyway. Now I DON’T CARE. But I am still very private about what I do. I am kinda too shy. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Mark Feehily said he got depressed because he had to stifle his true feelings – did you experience that?
Well, I had to fully embrace who I was before I could make it public. At that time I was very young and still learning what I liked and didn’t like. At this time in my life, I don’t care. And the climate we now live in makes things a lot easier. Everyone has their own unique experience. And I encourage everyone to do and be what works best for them.
You sang a lot of the vocals – were there ever any inevitable tensions in the band.
OH YES! Tears, tantrums and tiaras, lol. As within any group. But amongst the band members’ mothers too. Seriously, it wasn’t pretty! But it happens in every group. Each member has an opinion, ego and wants to be the star. But in order to be the star, you have to be able to sustain and deliver 100 percent. I was happy I was the lead singer so naturally the focus would be on me, especially in the music videos and TV performances. I would remember hearing some of the mothers saying the camera was not focusing on their sons as much. Some members were a pain in the ass more than others. But this business is a lot to absorb for anyone. Fame, money, fans and ego. I was just happy to sing and live my dream.
Apparently you had a very bad time at with a producer at the Hit Factory. What happened?
Simon Cowell had a song from PWL (The Hit Factory), the legendary producers behind Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and Sinitta. He sent me in to record with one of them. I was so excited and honoured. So I arrived at the session bright eyed and bushy tailed. I didn’t get quite the welcome I had expected. Instead, I was thrown into the recording booth and told to sing the song I had never heard or had a chance to rehearse prior. So I started to sing along to the music and act like a professional to show that I could do it. Every time I sang a word, he shouted at me. It got to the point when he was just totally rude and obnoxious. And I felt so belittled and not wanting to sing it anymore. He then said that he had worked with every star on the planet and how dare I call myself a singer. That made me feel like a failure. I walked out of the session and told him he stuff the song up his …you know what. Lol.
What happened next?
Simon called and begged me to return to the studio. I said no. A few days later, Simon convinced me to go back and record it. I walked in and the producer was nice as pie. The producer said that no one had ever had the guts to stand up to him before and he liked that. He apologised and we ended up recording the song in an hour. Experienced is actually one of my favorites on that album. Life is funny.
What were your most exciting moments being in the band?
Performing at Wembley Arena was a biggy. I had been to so many concerts there to see my favorite artists. And now here I was finally performing on its legendary stage. Another one was performing on Top Of the Tops. This show was a British institution and everything I had ever dreamed of. I once told my mum, when I was about two-years-old, that I would be on that show one day. Dreams do come true! You never lose the thrill of hearing your voice and song being played on the radio. It’s magical.
There are highs and lows in this business. I remember one of our songs did not do well as expected. We walked into the record company and nobody looked us in the eye. A few staff executives were fired. That’s when I realised that this business is cut throat. You’re hot and then you’re not. I have a song I wrote on my current album Electric Erotic called ‘Number One. And its lyric says just that… “You’re hot and then you’re not’.
Your album didn’t do as well as expected – is that when you thought it was over?
Nope. I knew I had another path as a solo artist. And really that was always my intention. I was in the group as a stepping stone to get noticed. I learned so much and was doing things that people can only dream about. Nobody wants to fail, especially when you have put in a lot of work.
What made you quit?
I had had enough. Our success in the UK was declining fast. But Germany was loving us. The tensions in the group were high. Because of all the member changes. I just could not bear to be confined in a tour bus with them anymore. I had my heart and eyes set for America. I spent a lot of my free time in NYC and loved it. I wanted to live in the USA permanently. So I had to go.
What did you think you could do?
I thought I would have this big career right off the back of leaving Worlds Apart. I was so wrong. I actually went back to living a very ordinary life in NYC. Thank God I was not in the UK. That would have made it harder. I always been a very determined person and I would not stop until I proved I could make it as a solo artist. I’ve had to start from scratch again. But with hard work, self-belief and a little help along the way, well, here I am taking to you.
What did you do next?
I worked behind-the-scenes in the entertainment industry. And wore many hats. I even had a talent model-management agency. But looking back, it all helped me prepare for who I am now, personally, and as an artist.
Times got tough in the USA… what was life like?
Nothing is ever a walk in the park. But I thank God I lived in the USA where nobody knew me. It’s been a long journey, full of ups and downs, but I don’t regret anything. I still have so much more to do.
Did you have to scrimp and save?
Of course. The music business has changed so much since my Worlds Apart days. Gone are the days when labels showered you with cash and gave you everything. You know you have to do it all yourself.
Did you think the future was bleak?
There was actually a number of years. I gave up music entirely. I was not connected to it like I had before. Nothing inspired me and I was burnt out from the industry. But that soon changed when I reinvented myself and became true to myself.
Did anyone help you?
Yes many helped me. People who believe I could be relevant in this business. I could not be here today talking with you without the help and support of many. And I think these people see how hard I work and my tenaciousness. I won’t stop until I am entirely satisfied with all that I want to do in my music and career.
After I moved to NYC, I was working at Soho House. They had just opened the NYC club. And I got the job through a friend who was a member of the club in the UK, but I did not tell them about my past being in Worlds Apart. I had to wear the uniform, so I blended in very well. I didn’t want anyone to know. A lot of major celebs came in and out of Soho House and many of them were Brits. I was assigned to looking after many of them, one of them being Victoria Beckham. For a whole week I was looking after her. She kept telling me that I looked familiar but she couldn’t quite place me from where. I kept my mouth shut, but it was driving her crazy. I told her eventually and she said that I was her favourite in the group. That same week Geri Halliwell was also at Soho house. We were in the same elevator and I was trying to once again to be unseen. But she took one look at me and started screaming “OMG Aaron from Worlds Apart”. The manager of Soho House was also in the elevator. I was busted. After that they promoted me and treated me like a pop star. I think they were happy to have a pop star on staff.
How did you turn things around?
By being truthful to myself. And stepping out of the box and my comfort zone. When I decided to go back into this business, I wanted to dominate the gay music scene and dance music. And that’s what I did while, at the same time, make it mainstream enough that it spill over. I had to stand out in a crowd and find a way to make me exciting and relevant in today’s music climate. I refuse to be boring and I live by that rule. When you listen to my first solo album, “Raw”, that album was a major stepping stone. That’s when I changed my direction and image. I tackled a lot of controversial issues and pushed a few buttons. But I felt artistically liberated and become the artist I always wanted to be. My song “I Don’t Care!” exploded from that album and really blew the door wide open, especially in the USA.
Did you have to hit rock bottom before finding your way?
Yes I had to take steps backward. But I had to go there to make way for what’s happening now. And that makes it all more rewarding. I’ve worked my butt off for every single fan I have now. The funny thing is I had so many doors slammed in my face when I left the group. I was even told by a few that I would never have a solo career. But my past has shaped me for my present. And I needed to go through all that to be able to cope and deliver who I am now. I not afraid and I am even more determined than ever before. I am happy that people are now finally getting me. I am lucky to have this Phase Two of my career. Many others don’t get this.
Has it been hard trying to achieve success?
The music business is a very hard and fickle business. You’re always having to prove yourself to stay relevant. You’re only as big as your next record. And the business has changed so much especially since the new day of social media. It’s more about branding yourself and how many followers you have. Gone is the day where substance was key. I try to make a balance of the two. I never would have imagined the impact I have made. I see when I am written about that I’m sometimes referred to as a great artist, role model and even ground breaking. But I’m still only scratching the surface as an artist. I still see myself as a young kid from Battersea, South London with big dreams.
Are you happy with your music now?
Very happy. What you see and hear is 100 percent Aaron Paul. I’m not afraid to step out of the box and speak my mind through my music. I refuse to be boring. I want to bring some excitement back into this business and on the stage. I remember a time where artists were epic. They had immense talent and were showmen in all genres. I wanna make it fun again.
Is it harder to find success these days?
Yes because you have to do it all yourself. Very few labels are signing new artists and developing them. You basically need a finished and polished brand to be picked up by a label that will spend money marketing you to a wide audience. Commercial radio play is unheard of, so you have to spread yourself as wide as you can and build your fan base along the way.