After more than a decade away from the music scene, Darren Hayes made a triumphant return this year with the release of the epic Let’s Try Being In Love.
The former Savage Garden singer racked up a string of hits in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of the Australian two-piece, and went on to release four solo albums, all of which charted within the top 40 in the UK and helped the singer retain a loyal fanbase.
Then, after his most recent tour in 2012, he took a step back from the spotlight, admitting on reflection that he thought his days of making music were over.
“For my generation [of gay men], when I was growing up, we didn’t have an Olly Alexander,” he recalls. “We didn’t have a Lil Nas X, we didn’t have these incredible performers who emerge fully formed, and are rightfully proud of who they are.”
Instead, he says, he was conditioned “from a very young age to feel that who I innately was was something to be repulsed by”.
Darren continues: “There are certain things that young queer people do in order to distract from the thing that we think is so unloveable about ourselves. And I did it to the most extreme version possible, I became a fucking popstar. And I did a really good job of it!
“But all that attention and all that love and everything that came my way, it never truly sunk in to me, and so there was still this massive hole, really. Because all I was trying to do was feel loved. And I walked away from the business, which I was in from the age of 24 to 40, because all that success, all that money, all that attention, it didn’t fix that problem.”
Darren says he felt a lot of sadness during the early years of his career due to how he felt he was treated while signed to a major label.
Although he wasn’t out publicly at the time, he admits he still felt he was “edited” and “punished for who I was”.
“There were moments when I was absolutely perceived to be too gay,” Darren says. “And there were consequences for that.
“Consequences that I didn’t realise at the time were happening, but decisions were made about me and the way that I was marketed, and the amount of preference and priority and funding that was allotted to me, just because I was refusing to…go backwards. And I was silenced, in a lot of ways, for that. And that made me deeply sad, you know?”
Perhaps surprisingly, it was seeing the film Call Me By Your Name which set about the change within Darren that led to his return to the pop world.
“I had an unnaturally sad reaction to the film,” the singer explains. “And that was the seed that started to grow for me, because I realised I was watching a story about a young person whose journey to being gay was not a sad tragic story, it was just beautiful.
“I never had a father who said, ‘who you are and what you’re experiencing is beautiful’. I never got to hold a boy’s hand in public, I never got to have that kiss on the dance floor. I never got to be really me and queer and truly joyful in my music in front of an audience.
“Yes, I came out. Yes, I got married. But it was all sort of very technical, and very soulless, and it was never embraced in my music. And I realised I wanted to go back and recreate a world, a sonic world, that sounded and looked like a life that I’d never had.
“I created a world for me that was almost an alternative timeline. And that’s why [I came back]. I just felt like it would be such a shame if I died tomorrow and no one ever saw this side of me.”
To celebrate Pride, we spoke to Darren about coming out as a public figure, why Madonna is still the ultimate queer icon and why he continues to be “amazed” by the next generation..
Who was the first queer person you can remember looking up to?
I can’t remember the person’s name but this is the truth. The first queer person I remember looking up to was someone that I didn’t know was gay, and it was a photographer on a photo-shoot for Rolling Stone Australia. And it was a moment that was so simultaneously sad and liberating for me, but it helped me.
This must have been in 1997, and back then I was married. And I had a very ignorant and limited view of what the spectrum of our community looks like, just because of [lack of] visibility, if you don’t see it, you can’t be it. Whatever.
So, the photographer was taking pictures of me, and I realised that there was – maybe it was one-sided – but there was a sexual chemistry. And I felt it, but I didn’t know he was gay. And I was really attracted to him and it felt torturous to me. I used to think the only men I was attracted to were straight men. And then, very casually, he mentioned that his boyfriend was stopping by. And it was so sad to me. Because I thought, “what? He’s gay?”. And it was like my perception in my mind and my world view just cracked open, and I thought, “if he’s gay, maybe I could be gay”.
Up until that point, my sexuality was so deeply hidden in shame from all of that conditioning when I was younger, having my pronouns corrected, being told, “boys can’t say that boys are cute” and feeling that shame, instantly feeling that shame. I have a new song that talks about how at school, there was a teacher who literally spanked me because I was playing with a girl’s hair. And she took me to her office, and she said to me, “you’re a little fairy, aren’t you, Darren Hayes?”. And I was probably eight years old. And I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was bad. And she said to me, “if I catch you playing with the girls, you’ll be in detention for the rest of the week”.
So, all of that conditioning and all of that shame, was just gone in an instant. And I did a bunch of shoots with that photogapher, and I remember being so inspired by him, because he represented a possible future for me. A freedom.
What was the first LGBTQ TV show or film that you remember resonating with you?
Honestly, the first film that really blew me away was called Eyes Wide Open. Before that, there were many subliminal moments in films from when I was a child – watching Dynasty, and there was a gay storyline – but they were all negative. They were all doom and gloom and gay people were the villains.
But in 2009, there was an Israeli film about two orthodox Jewish men who had this forbidden love affair, that was so beautiful. And it was probably the first time that I’d seen a relationship between two men that felt really authentic to me. And it still blows me away. Again, it’s mired in tragedy, which I don’t always love, but it’s about the struggle against their religious restrictions and their true love for each other, and their connection is so real and beautiful.
What’s a song you associate with your own coming out?
My wife Colby and I – I love her dearly to this day, and we’re still really good friends – were on tour together with Savage Garden. We were backstage, and this was about a year into me having come out to everyone in my life, having never kissed a boy or anything.
It was a really rocky road, because when I first came out it was like, “I think I’m gay”, and her response was incredible, she was like, “listen, I think everyone exists on a spectrum, and if you’re into dudes, that’s fine, don’t worry about it”. And I was like, “no I don’t think you really know what this means”.
Madonna’s Ray Of Light hadn’t actually come out yet, but we had an advanced copy. And we were listening to the album for the first time, and The Power Of Good-Bye came on and those lyrics started playing and by the time it hit the chorus – “there’s nothing left to lose, there’s no more heart to bruise, there’s no greater power than the power of goodbye” – we both had tears in her eyes, and she looked at me and said, “you have to go”, and I said, “I know”. It was very, very sad.
What was the most recent LGBTQ show or film that made an impact on you?
Call Me By Your Name had such a profound effect on me, it’s probably the reason that I’m back making music. I could cry thinking about the moment in the end credits when Timothée Chalamet is staring at the fire, and his heart is broken for the first time. And that scene where they say goodbye at the train station, it’s just so real.
It reminded me so much of the first time I really fell in love with a boy. And I remember being on a Savage Garden promo tour – this is so naff – and he gave me his shirt, and I kept it, and he wore CK One which is hilarious. I remember smelling his sweater and keeping it with me, and in Call Me By Your Name, there’s that blue denim shirt and I remember seeing that, and knowing what that meant.
Who is your ultimate queer icon?
It’s Madonna. “Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free, at night I lock the door where no one else can see”. I knew what that meant as a child. Now I know that she’s a girl from Michigan, who was taken by Christopher Flynn, her gay ballet instructor, to the big city and to the dance clubs.
I remember being 11 years of age and renting The Virgin Tour on cassette. This was a sign that I was gay – it was my turn to choose a video and I invited the other boys from school over and I was like, “we’re going to watch The Virgin Tour”, and I was doing all the choreography to Dress You Up.
Madonna’s connection to queer audiences is so authentic, and not patronising. And just, very early on, she was unwaveringly supportive of HIV research, and if you look back now at Truth Or Dare and how pioneering that was and her bravery back then… I love her.
I was so obsessed with everything that she did and to this day, she’s someone that I think of to get into character when I’m performing. I think, “How would Madonna do this?”.
Who is a queer person in the public eye right now that makes you excited about the future?
Meg Stalter. I’m obsessed with her, I don’t know how she identifies, it doesn’t matter, but she’s hilarious. The way she just loves her body and she’s so fucking sexy and beautiful. And her comedy thrills me.
To me, she’s just the future of what being queer is, which is that it’s a fucking superpower. If we were a phone, it’s this expensive add-on. You wish you had this. If it was a spa service, this is the VIP package, if you can afford it. And I love that about her.
Just to know that people like Meg Stalter and Olly Alexander exist… that excites me no end. And they’re getting employed and they’re working and they’re at the top of their field in what they do! I love that.
Why do you think Pride is still so important today?
It’s politics, baby. Listen, I live in a country right now where it’s full-on Handmaid’s Tale. We just lost the federal right to abortion, they’re coming for same-sex marriage rights. I owe everything I have to the political fucking activists who came before me, and our rights, I don’t take them for granted. They could be taken away for a second.
So, as much as I love a good party, and a very cliché cocktail… Pride is so fun and it’s so fun to celebrate how wonderful we are and visibility is so important. And it’s so important to show people that we aren’t ashamed, shame is so toxic, it’s so toxic, I would say that it is lethal. I’m living proof of that. Pride isn’t about a flag, it’s about making sure that a young person doesn’t fucking kill themselves, because they hate themselves so much. We just want these young people to live. OK? And part of that is showing them that it’s not only OK, it’s essential, that you’re in this world. It’s essential that you’re in this world and that you love yourself and realise how important you are.
But that aside, we’re really powerful when we’re together. And there are so many of us. And we really need to think and organise and use the power of our political voice and our votes, because there are ignorant people coming for us. Always.
I just think, anyone who isn’t a straight white male can identify with why there’s a need for Pride right now. Because Pride is about difference. And difference is excellence, and we need to preserve that.
What’s your message for the next generation of LGBTQ people?
I have nothing patronising to say! It’s yours! It’s yours. The blank slate gets handed onto you, and I’m excited to see what you do with it. And I’m looking forward to learning.
I just sit back and I’m amazed, really. Young people and young musicians continue to teach me about myself and help me evaluate some old stigmas and some old beliefs and misconceptions and just… cobwebs and unnecessary bulshit that I’ve been carrying around, that I look at young people, and they don’t even bother about. So my message is: pass on the good stuff to me, please.
Darren Hayes will be touring the UK in March and April 2023. For ticket information visit his official website.