Joe McElderry: Britain’s Reluctant Gay Pop Role Model
Torsten Højer

As 19-year-old British singer Joe McElderry releases his debut album in the UK, Torsten Højer highlights the new wave of out pop stars revolutionizing perspectives of ‘gay’ in England’s bully-ridden playgrounds.

In the noughties the UK had Will Young, the winner of the first-ever Pop Idol contest (the music show format that launched around the world as the ‘Idol’ franchise and became American Idol in the U.S.). He was a sweet—if slightly awkward—upper-middle class boy from a nice wholesome family who possessed a swoon-worthy high-pitched voice and an undeniably asexual appearance.

But he wasn’t devoid of sexuality. No. He was gay.

Hold the front page!

Whispers of Young’s same-sex desires accelerated during the weeks of live performances and public voting, but no one important seemed brave enough to say it out loud—or at least in print. And it wasn’t until he’d won the show in February 2002 that he realized the cameras would now be following his manufactured celebrity and he’d better come clean.

But—yawn!—that’s just what he did. He came out as a clean-living, well-rounded kinda guy who loves his mum, enjoys the finer things in life and happens to like other guys.

"It's totally no big deal, just part of who I am,” he told a presumably bored-out-of-his-brains journalist during his coming-out confession. "For me it's normal and nothing to be ashamed about. I'm gay and I'm comfortable with that. I really don't know what the fuss is about.

"I'm sure this will not come as a surprise to many people, although I've always been discreet and I'm not a campaigner when it comes to my sexuality."

Discreet, eh? So no dirty backrooms in backstreet clubs? No public toilet sex scandal? No revelations of eight-times-a-night sessions while high on poppers from a hook-up in his dark past?

Nada. Not a thing. You may know that the British tabloid press is notorious as one of the most aggressive in the world when it comes to uncovering scandals. But dig deep they did, and they came out with clean fingernails.

Almost ten years on and the British public are being faced with a similar scenario. Joe McElderry, a normal lad from South Shields, a northern English town not far from the city of Newcastle and the winner of the 2009 Simon Cowell singing charade The X Factor, has recently come out.

“I’m really happy, I now know who I am,” said the smiley singer. “I’ve had time to think about things [since winning The X Factor]. I wasn’t attracted to anyone anyway, male or female. It never really entered my head I was gay. But I just know. It’s how I feel.”

McElderry, complete with teen hormones a-racing, insisted he had never really thought about sex or sexuality, yet had always proclaimed to be straight. Except for the time he kissed another boy, however, which he admitted during his coming-out interview but passed it off as experimentation. It wasn’t until someone hacked into his Twitter account to out him that he suddenly discovered he liked men.

“I’m single, I’ve not had a relationship with a boy. The Twitter thing actually helped because I realized I wasn’t that bothered, and the penny dropped,” he offered.

Can you smell the bullshit? After all, the Cowell publicity machine is a powerful one, and not one the tabloids intend messing with—what would fill their pages if they were cut off from Cowell?

So we’ve now got two sickly sweet and whiter-than-white homosexual winners of hugely popular TV singing contests. Despite our salacious appetite for scandal, they’re both innocently adorable.

Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Well, yes. But the reality is that Britain needs Will Young and Joe McElderry. Pop Idol and The X Factor facilitated prime-time viewing of these two gay men to shedloads of British teens; moreover, those same youngsters voted in their millions for them. Okay, so they didn’t officially know they were gay at the time of voting, but those very same voters continued to buy their music after they came out.

Could we ask for better role models for young gay men?

Before them, one generation above produced the two Georges: George Michael (who, incidentally, McElderry performed on stage with in the finale of The X Factor) and Boy George. The former is now more known for his attempted sucking off of undercover policemen in public toilets and crashing cars at regular intervals after smoking too much weed than his music. Accordingly, he’s just been released from a London jail after serving four weeks of an eight-week sentence for driving under the influence. The latter is a laughing stock as the man who ties up Norwegian rent boys and calls the police to his apartments so they can catch him in possession of cocaine.

Interesting? Yes. Role models? No.

Playground bullies no longer have the anti-gay ammunition fueled by the dirty dalliances of stars such as George Michael and Boy George. Well, not as much, anyway. The new wave of young gay celebrities are making the majority take another look at what it is to be a young gay male. McElderry and Young may be bland, but they’re providing kids with a new perspective on ‘gay.'

And despite their reluctance at becoming role models (both singers have expressed concern at the responsibility of being put on a pedestal) their successes are already being rated.

"Gay singer Will Young has been voted the best role model for young gay, lesbian and bisexual people in an online poll," reported back in August. "The poll, conducted by gay rights charity Stonewall, asked 1,003 of its supporters to vote on a selection of gay British music personalities. Young came first with 58 percent of the vote, while Alison Goldfrapp came second. Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke was third, followed by Joe McElderry, who recently came out. Stonewall’s chief executive Ben Summerskill said, “Young people involved with Stonewall tell us that role models help them overcome the homophobic bullying that’s rife in Britain’s schools.

“Pop culture is hugely influential to young people, so it’s encouraging to see more openly lesbian, gay and bisexual British pop stars.

“Joe McElderry is already recognised as a role model so the scene is now set for him to become every bit as popular with young gay people as Will Young.”’

So, hats off to Young and McElderry. If positive images of happy, down-to-earth and ‘normal’ young men is what’s needed to give teenage boys confidence in their sexuality—and stop killing themselves—then so be it.

Joe McElderry’s debut album Wide Awake is out now. Visit

For more on Will Young, visit

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