Viral YouTube star Todrick Hall came to Austin, Texas this weekend to attend the premiere of Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall, a documentary showing at the SXSW Conference and Festivals.
Here’s a trailer for it below:
The YouTuber from Oz
A few minutes into our interview, Hall removes his multicolored hoodie, rolls up his shirt cuff and shows me the intricate sleeve of Wizard of Oz tattoos etched in black ink. Pointing to the comic-book characters on his muscular right arm, he says, “This is the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion and the ruby slippers are here, but they’re not ruby because the color situation was a little sketchy.”
He points out a hot air balloon resembling a lightbulb (they represent the scarecrow’s thoughts, he explains). Then he flashed his bicep where his favorite line from the 1939 movie appear. It reads, “What makes a king out of a slave?”
“The answer is courage,” Hall says, “and I love that and I live by life by those rules.” On his upper back, where his neck meets his spine, is a square tattoo made that looks like a fabric label. It says, “Made in Oz.”
Hall’s meteoric success certainly seems otherworldly. He first came to prominence in 2009 by rising to the Season 9 semi-finals of American Idol. Having butched himself up somewhat to appeal to the show’s middle American viewers, he decided never again to hide his homosexuality. He went on to shoot a viral flash mob video in a Target to Beyonce’s “End of Time” that got him recognition from the pop diva herself. From there, he gained even more of a YouTube following with spoof videos for beloved musicals including Beauty and the Beat, Twerking in the Rain, All that Azz, and The Wizard of Ahhhs with the a capella group Pentatonix.
His fame for his stylish classic and Disney musical spoofs helped get Virgin Airlines to commission him for a rap music video for their pre-flight passenger instructions. That same year, 2013, he released a Christmas album entitled Dear Santa and premiered in Todrick, an MTV reality docu-series entitled that showed Hall and his creative crew undertaking a new musical video project from start to finish.
The MTV show was short-lived however, and around its cancellation, Hall also failed to snag a role in a revival of the The Wiz, the black-led 1974 musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz.
Moving from pop to politics
It was 2015, and something had changed in Hall. He felt compelled to jump from bubble gum pop and musical spoofs to more autobiographical, hard-hitting personal pieces that tackled his upbringing in his homophobic Texas hometown as well as his feelings on contemporary issues like Black Lives Matter and manipulation he faced as a black gay man working in the entertainment industry.
“With any artist or any human being, you grow” Hall says. “I was like, ‘These are issues. These are problems that I have. And I don’t know how to express this because I’m angry and frustrated.’ Then I started thinking if I’m angry and frustrated, some other people probably are as well.”
He wanted an artistic way to tell explore these issues without offending people or accusing anyone of being racist, homophobic or sexist. He also wanted to write music that felt vulnerable yet different from anything he’d written before. If he could meet that challenge, he says, he could create a powerful story with the potential for widespread appeal.
He ended up writing and shooting 16 videos in about two weeks for a 57-minute autobiographical opus called Straight Outta Oz based loosely on The Wizard of Oz. The project starred Drag Race veterans like Kim Chi, Bob the Drag Queen, Alaska, Laganja Estranga and Willam Belli and celebs like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Amber Riley, Wayne Brady and reformed gay blogger Perez Hilton.
The casting couch
Among the songs was one called “Papi” about a talent agent who offers Hall success in exchange for sex. The video doesn’t reveal whether Hall accepted the offer or not, so we asked him.
“I wrote the song because it is a very real part of Hollywood,” Hall says. “Sometimes people think that it’s just a cinematic obstacle that people put into movies, but it really is a real thing and it’s really difficult.”
“It was somebody who was a very influential person in the entertainment industry who had the power to give people jobs or not give people jobs and they were very aggressive with me. I was torn because I know people who are my friends who have done those things and who are very successful. I don’t consider them to be weak, I consider them to be victims.”
When you’re a young aspiring star, he adds, a job can make the difference between being able to eat, pay your bills, form a decent resume or join an actors union. And the coercion happens between men and women, queer and straight alike.
“Luckily,” he adds, “I did not do anything that I was not proud of. With the morals that my mom instilled in me, I just didn’t think that it was a road that I should go down and not something that I should do.”
Papi and the 15-other songs from Straight Outta Oz resonated with fans. The visual album currently has nearly 3 million YouTube views and a million listens on Spotify.
“We need to tell the stories that we want to hear”
In an age when mainstream gay media gets criticized for staying predominantly white and Disney gets panned for taking so long to incorporate LGBTQ characters, Hall sees his and other queer media creators as a solution to the long-running problem of representation and visibility.
“I like to be a face for the African-American gay community because I think that we’re under-represented,” Hall says. “When we are represented, we often have a very stereotypical air around the way that we speak and the characters we play; I’ve also been guilty of re-creating those things in my own videos.”
“I think that people should come out and create content that tells the stories that they want to hear,” he continues. “When I was growing up I got told a lot of stories about who gay people are and what they did and what type of diseases they have and what they do to young boys.”
Listing other influential openly gay YouTubers, Hall says, “Now kids can hear whatever they want from their grandparents or their friends or their own parents and then they can go online and say, ‘Well, Joey Graceffa’s not what they’re telling me, well Tyler Oakley’s not that person, Connor Franta’s not that, Austin and Aaron Rhodes are not that, Todrick is not that, Kingsley is not that,’ and make their own assessments and their own opinions based on their own experiences. And I love that.”
The new documentary, Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall resembles his MTV docu-series; it shows the chaos swirling around Hall and his creative team as they scramble to write and record 16 videos for Straight Outta Oz in just two weeks. The first half documents his rise to fame and the myriad creative challenges facing his team as they prepare for the album release and tour. The second half focuses on the tour itself and the personal stories behind many of the songs.
As such, the doc straddles the line between documentary and commercial, initially welcoming newcomers with its creative whirlwind of Project Runway/Drag Race-style flair and then offering a slower deep-dive for diehard fans curious about Hall’s life and tour.
After Straight Outta Oz’s release in 2016, Hall landed the lead role of Lola the drag queen in the hit Broadway musical Kinky Boots — a character whose parental rejection mirrored that his own experience with his basketball coaching stepfather. Hall has since continued touring with Straight Outta Oz performances throughout the U.S. before heading to Europe and Australia.