Not since RuPaul stomped through the streets to the strains of Supermodel has an artist managed to capture the attention of so many different types audiences like Todrick Hall has. From hitting the Broadway stage to packaging a brilliant arrangement of music and videos with his latest release Forbidden, Hall is paving a path for tomorrow’s entertainment innovators. In our exclusive Todrick Hall interview, he caught up with Hornet to chat about the state of the LGBT community today, the sage advice that he received from RuPaul and morphing into Lola in Broadway’s Kinky Boots.
Forbidden is a genius piece of work, and the visual album accompanying it really enhances the entire experience. Is it difficult to take the music you create and merge it with a visual package?
You know, I just keep working really hard on it and surround myself with people who care about me and the team that we have put together. We have been working really hard and what we put together was really good.
The whole time I was concerned that it was not going to be cohesive, and I had so many different musical styles. I am so influenced by so many different things. I love country music, being from Texas; I am a Broadway kid, so I love musical theater; I grew up in church, so I gospel influences in my records. My favorite type of music definitely has to be pop and R&B music, though.
Making an album with all of those different styles and then to put them with even more styles of music, I was definitely nervous. But, I think because it all comes from my mind, it all comes together.
Specifically, the track Ordinary Day is a strong commentary on what is going on in our world today. Is it important to you to have your music comment on today’s world?
It is really funny that we had this conversation today. Recently, I uploaded a video where I was frustrated with feedback that I sometimes get from the LGBT community, specifically from people of color within the LGBT community.
I think that my frustration is not even that people have criticism, but people that know me know that I spend so much time being frustrated about things that are going on in the world in general. I think the way that I express it, it may come off like I am not cut from the same cloth or seen the same struggles that they have, especially to people who have not met me. But that’s not the case.
I have lost two friends to police brutality and I also have a friend that is an African-American police officer that was killed. I think the best way for me as an artist to show how I feel. I want to have a message that is somehow going to change the world even in the smallest of capacities and put it into my music. That’s what I have consistently tried to do.
You mention that specifically, you feel that people from the African-American community and the LGBT community still at times, discriminate against you. Is it frustrating that you are part of both communities, yet you still are discriminated against by communities you’re a part of?
It is very frustrating, if I am being honest. It’s frustrating because I do so much work, and am so proud to be both gay and black. I think we are an under-served market; there is not a lot of content being created for us.
For me, when Moonlight came out, I felt that I had to go see it. It’s one of the only times that story has been told in a major way. I just think we should support each other, no matter what. Right now, we don’t have a lot of people who are out there with big voices in the gay black community, compared to other communities.
The voices the community does have, you’re a big supporter of, correct?
Absolutely. I am so glad we have people like RuPaul, and Big Freedia and Laverne Cox. We have people on YouTube, like Kingsley, that are so important. We have a lot of people — but not enough for us to be fighting and trying to bring people in our own community down. I think anyone who is in the black or gay community who is a person of color is a win for our whole community.
I would like to see a world where we applaud that people are out there telling these stories. Young people of color who look up to us are able to go into their next chapter of life with confidence, because they have seen people who have come before them and been successful. They will see people who turned nos into yeses and opened doors that weren’t open to us.
RuPaul begat people like you and Big Freedia and the two of you will beget others. You always have such an air of positivity and during RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, you even created a video after the elimination of Thorgy Thor due to so much online bullying and hatred following the episode.
I think sometimes it is easier to watch someone on television; that screen almost separates people from reality. I came from a reality-competition background when I was on American Idol. I had conspiracy theories that people were out to get me; that’s why I wouldn’t participate in RuPaul’s Drag Race if I felt that there was some crazy, shady things happening behind the scenes.
I have seen someone not be someone’s ideal front-runner, and when they step up to the plate and do something great, the Drag Race producers are the most fair producers that I have ever worked with. They don’t make stories happen; they take whatever happens and roll with it. I think that is why the show has been so successful. It is obvious when you watch it that the producers are not setting anyone up to win; they make the garment or they don’t, they get the laughs or they don’t, they know the choreography or they don’t.
You appeared on RuPaul and Michelle Visage’s What’s the Tee podcast quite some time ago, and when they mentioned possibly working with you, you were visibly overwhelmed that they would even consider that. Fast forward to several seasons of sitting on the judges’ panel and working with the girls on choreography. You are truly a member of the World Of Wonder family. Does it ever become truly surreal that that you have actually become part of something that you so revered as a fan?
It never gets to a point where it’s normal. I’m always excited. It is very hard to find someone in this business who has had the same people for thirty-plus years. That speaks volumes to the kind of human being RuPaul is. There is never drama. I have never seen a single person on the set or behind the scenes that has a complaint about Ru. He is so sweet and so kind. Anytime any one of my friends is dancing with us and wants to meet him, he meets them, he signs books, he gives them all a chocolate bar and he takes pictures. He is just so cool; he has done videos for me twice.
I always tell people that the way I feel is how Brandy must have felt when she got the call that Whitney Houston wanted to work with her on Cinderella. I just feel so privileged to be standing next to a living legend. I was there when he got his star on Hollywood Boulevard and I was trying to fight back tears. A person of color who is a huge gay icon and the first drag queen to ever be awarded their own star, that meant more to me than almost any other star that was there.
It means that there is that chance that I may be able to get one of those now. My children and grandchildren, can grow up in a world where, if they’re not performers themselves, someone they love and respect could get one. It has opened up the world to so many different possibilities that were not possible before.
You are part of a show where a culture that was formerly in the shadows is now front and center.
I completely agree. I love being a part of the show because now, finally, people who have been behind the scenes are now being recognized. They should have been huge celebrities in their own right, but the world was not ready for it. These are the people who are partially responsible for a lot of divas’ careers. They had a huge influence on Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga and Diana Ross. These people helped those women be the fabulous beings that they are. Doing hair, makeup, showing them how to walk in heels and dress.
These people have used this culture so much to be able to build their brands, have funny sayings and create dance styles. Now shows like Drag Race are letting their voices be heard — and it’s not just gay culture, it’s pop culture. It’s not successful just because gay people are watching it, its successful because everyone is watching. I feel like I am a part of history whenever I am on. It’s not a job to me; its family.
What is one thing RuPaul has taught you about the business or life in general?
I learned that a lot of people who have been in the business as long as RuPaul think that they don’t need Twitter or YouTube. The fact that he is willing to be in a YouTube video with me speaks to how open-minded he is about the world and how quickly it’s changing. He will try everything once and I wish I was as fearless as he is; I pretend to be, but I’m not. I get scared to try anything that has vegetables in it, I’m like a five year old kid when it comes to stuff like that. (Laughs).
I think the biggest thing I have learned from him is that much like how we as humans get scarred in relationships, we’ll proceed into the next relationship with caution. That makes it difficult for the new person to get a chance, since you are bringing baggage form the past relationship into the new one.
RuPaul talked to me one day when my MTV show was going on. I was not happy with it, how it turned out or how I was being portrayed. In my mind, I was thinking that this could be my only shot. He turned to me at the judges table and said to me, “You gotta stop that — you have a gift. God has given you a gift. Not MTV, not this show, not Broadway, not a hater on the internet can take that away. All you can do is go to every single project you do and give 150% of everything you have, then leave it and hope it’s the thing that takes you to the next level. If it’s not, you still have your talent, your brain, your dancing ability, your voice and your gift. You have to take that gift with no walls built around it, no fear that it won’t work out, no hesitation, and apply it to every job you do.”
I go into every gig now guns a-blazing and ready to take on the world. There is not a time that I enter a set that I don’t think about that advice he gave me. I give 100% every day and I learned that from RuPaul.
You hit the Great White Way as Lola in Kinky Boots last year. What was that experience like?
That experience changed my life and was a complete dream come true. Broadway is my first love and I would absolutely do Broadway again. I would do Kinky Boots again if the timing was right. Daryl Roth is the producer of the show and she was a dream to work with. She was the closest producer that I worked with while I was in the show and she was an angel, it was like I was working for Julie Andrews or Angela Lansbury or something! (Laughs.)
It was so cool to be telling that story that feels like it was written just for me. It came out on my birthday. The show felt like so many experiences that I have had. Some nights, it would be difficult for me to get through the songs because I would be crying so much. It revisited a lot of scary, dark moments in my life that changed me as a human.
To be in that show, that preaches love and acceptance during a time when Donald Trump became president was just, to me, the best time I could have been in that show. It was what I felt like what our country and New York City needed. I felt like it was putting a little bit of glitter and splash into people’s lives when everyone was in a really low place.
You have chosen many collaborators on your projects. From Tiffany Haddish, to a variety of Drag Race alumni, to Brandy — how do you pick who to collaborate with?
You know, if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. It happens totally organically. It comes the day before — or even the day of — and my team and I will scramble to get a studio prepared for someone to sing something. They do their makeup when we’re at the studio, then run to the studio to film them in two hours.
For example, RuPaul was only on set for one hour for the Dem Beats video. We are able to make sure that if someone says that they have time, I am really considerate of the amount of time someone says that they are able to donate to me. They are always there and down for the movement and the message, and what I am trying to do. They admire the fact that I am working so hard to make a name for myself that they volunteer their own time. These are all really busy people; so when they come to set, we have to be ready for them.
Your collaboration with Brandy and “Lullaby” is a lush and gorgeous track; what was it like working with someone you so revered?
I have always wanted to work with Brandy. Seeing her as the black Cinderella in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Whitney Houston was eye opening for me. I didn’t even know what Broadway was back then, growing up in a very small town with no internet. It’s what made me want to dance and sing and perform. I would pretend to be her; she was one of the main people I wanted to work with for so long.
When I heard her sing the first note of her song, I got chills and started to cry; it just seemed like a fairy tale come true. When you grow up in a town as small as I did, these people don’t even seem like real people. They will never know how they impacted your life. To meet and get to work with Brandy, she is an angel. It’s a dream come true; the amount of love that these people have for me is crazy. I actually wrote a song that my idol Brandy sang for me.
So many Drag Race fans saw you in Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do video! You work with large names on your own projects, but getting to work with a star like Taylor Swift is a monumental achievement. Is it fair to say that she is a mentor to you as well?
I would definitely say she is a mentor to me. She gives me great advice; many of the things I aspire to do, and currently am doing, are things she has done before. She has really been a great friend to me; it’s not even like working. When I worked with Beyoncé, she hired me to do choreography, and it was so amazing to watch her and see how quickly she picked up on it. To work with Taylor though, it felt like I was hanging at her house and people are having a chill girls’ night, which is what I am usually doing when I hang out with her.
She is to me one of the most genuine people. I wish everyone in the world could sit down with her for an hour because they would fall in love with her, if they haven’t already. Every time I am in the room with her, its hard to believe that someone can be this talented, successful and famous, and be so down to earth and so chill. She is such a great host every time I’m with her — asking my friends if they would like water or something. She gets these things herself, she does not have assistants do it.
The way she treats fans, and spends her time, it inspires me. If she can take the time to do this with her fans, I can do this with my fans. It has been really awesome to get to know her and have her be someone who can give me not just career advice, but relationship advice also.
Is she a fan of what you have created with Forbidden or of RuPaul’s Drag Race?
She posted about Forbidden and I could not believe it. She told me that she knew I worked hard on this, I was one of the most talented people she knew. For her to recognize that and really appreciate my songwriting abilities, it means so much coming from her. She writes some of the best music of our time.
We have not watched Drag Race together yet, although I keep telling her she has to watch it. I don’t know if she has even seen an episode of Drag Race yet. I told her that she is not allowed to watch an episode of Drag Race with anyone else though. (Laughs.) We are going on tour to some of the cities, and she is going to fall in love with the show.
Where do you want to be five years from now?
I want to be an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner at some point. I would love to be able to work with and continue to work with people who inspire me. I want to be happy; I am ready to be in a relationship, I am ready to settle down, get a home. I would love to do movies and theater, but I am really exited about the possibility of continuing to tell these LGBT stories in a very commercial way — to where they don’t feel like LGBT stories, but just stories with human beings and experiences that will touch everyone. I want to write books and create.
I am seeing that my talent is more coming up with the concept, writing it and bringing it to life, rather than someone who shows up to set and regurgitates lines written by someone else. I want to be a creator who is acting and performing in my own projects. I have a few things that I think really need to happen; things that are life goals for me, that I’d be the first person to ever do. Lots of bucket list things to attack one by one. Feature films, I would love to even do a Fox Broadway musical. I love how they are exposing the new generation to musical theatre and I want to be a part of it.