Ask anyone what Will Young’s story is and they’ll probably tell you he’s a singer who won Pop Idol in 2002, went on to release a string of multi-platinum albums, win two Brit awards and had countless other successes. They are unlikely to say that his story has been one of gay shame that has blighted his life. And yet, says the 42-year-old musician, whose new book To Be a Gay Man, has just come out in paperback, “gay shame was a part of my life from the age of six. It has clung on to me and literally stopped me truly flying in life”.
Today, he’s speaking on Zoom from his south London home — in a vest and what he calls his “1940s bloomer boxer shorts” as he’s just come off his exercise bike. “I always wanted to write a book on anxiety. But then when I did the Homo Sapiens LGBT podcast, a lot of people were talking about the topic of gay shame.” There are remarkably few books about it, which is odd, he says, considering how common it still is. “If I hadn’t worked through it myself, it would have been impossible to write about, but actually it was amazing. I decided the best way would be to forensically track my life and see how, why, and where it came from.”
As Young chronicles, he felt “confused” from an early age. At eight, he realised he fancied Bobby Ewing in the US TV soap series Dallas rather than Bobby’s wife, Pam. He had a lazy eye and a lisp; he was uncoordinated, quiet and extremely sensitive. “One of my huge fears was to do with my love of singing. I was constantly worried because I had a high voice.” As a child, he read a lot, hated sport but loved fashion and art. He was prone to crying, only to be accused of being ‘a girl’. “And my God that was hurtful”, he says.
Born into a middle-class family in Wokingham, Berkshire, Young was the older of twin boys. Rupert, younger by 10 minutes, died by suicide in August 2020, a subject still so painful that we have agreed not to talk about it, although Young does believe that his anxiety stems in part from being put in separate incubators at birth.
The boys were sent to Wellington College, where, at 16 Young told someone he was gay for the first time. Although the friend responded sympathetically, “I remember crying a lot, and getting super-hot and sweaty”. He describes creating an “untouchable” character to camouflage his sexuality, one who was so good at sports that he was made captain of the school basketball and athletic teams. “Because the heteronormative thinking at the time was how on earth could someone who plays sports so well be gay? He couldn’t!”
It’s difficult not to be moved by the intensely self-deprecating tone running through the part of his story that precedes his eventual self-acceptance. “The very essence of who I am has been defined as evil, disgusting and wrong,” he writes at one point. Was that a hard sentence to write? “Those are hugely powerful words to think about oneself, saying I shouldn’t even exist, but it was completely normalised for me.” He describes his amazement at seeing a Gay Pride parade and longing to join in, but his sense of self-hatred prevented him.
After Pop Idol, Young, then only 22, publicly “came out” — an expression he uses but hates — to pre-empt a newspaper threatening to do the job for him. It’s hard today to comprehend how distressing that must have been, but admitting in those days to being a gay pop star was asking to be abused; even his publicists urged caution. “I wanted to be true to myself, yet I also wanted to have a long and successful career,” he says. Other parts of the book reveal his addictions — to shopping, alcohol and cigarettes and to buying houses, cars and clothes. “I still have the rush of shopping inside me, and it flares up on occasion.”
Stable relationships proved difficult because of his anxiety and hyper vigilance. In 2012 he had a breakdown. He started going to 12 step meetings and several residential treatments including a love addiction course in Arizona, where he ate dinner every night at a McDonald’s drive-thru, and pretended to staff he was a British royal. He has a refreshingly subversive and humorous side that comes out both in the book and in person. “I quite like being subversive — I think I get that from my dad — and saying things that famous people don’t normally say,” he laughs. “Since it came out, friends and acquaintances keep saying, ‘it’s really helped them. I do think the best teachers are often the ones who have been through stuff, so now I mentor young people. Being famous and open about my vulnerabilities seems to help others to be more open about theirs.”
He will be discussing the book in more detail with Rob Rinder during the Stories Festival in September, and is also judging the young adult category of the What’s Your Story? competition. “I wanted that category because it’s such an interesting period in a young person’s life. They just come up with amazing, pure ideas and learn so quickly”.
Does he have any advice for aspiring writers? “If you’re feeling really unconfident, try writing as someone else; give yourself a different name and see how that feels. It’s not about ignoring who you are, it’s about finding a voice. And that will be a valid part of you.”
Young is currently writing a “funny and tragic” novel, and his new album Crying on the Bathroom Floor — a celebration of modern female pop singers who inspire him, from Bat for Lashes, Muna and Claire Maguire to Everything But The Girl — comes out in August. “It’s so much easier and more accepted today to occupy other genders and explore ideas than it used to be” he explains. And he’s doing a five-day tour in September. “Some little acoustic ones with some of the band and to see some audiences.”
Lockdown has been reasonably kind to Young, who splits his time between London, Hungerford and a family home in Cornwall. His companions have been his four dogs. “Although I still find relationships hard due to past traumas, I’m at peace with my sexuality,” he says. “Actually, I’m very happily single and don’t want to be in a relationship. I used to feel quite ashamed about that but I don’t now, in my forties — it’s been liberating.”
His only regret is that because of lockdown, the book, which offers a lot of advice as well as anecdotes, didn’t come out sooner. It will be 20 years next year since Young won Pop Idol, “so that should be a big year”, he says but more importantly: “Now I just think about how great it is that I’m in a place I never thought I would get to.”
To Be a Gay Man is out now in paperback (Virgin Books, £9.99)
Crying on the Bathroom Floor will be released on August 6
Now, tell us your story
We’re looking for the brightest and boldest writers to enter our new competition, What’s Your Story? Here’s how to do it
We are seeking a new generation of unpublished writers to enter our writing competition, What’s Your Story?, part of our Stories Festival, in association with Netflix. Celebrating a diverse range of talent through an exciting programme of talks and workshops, it takes place in central London in September.
Who can enter
Any unpublished writer can enter. There are two categories: young adults (11-17) and adults (18 and over). There will be one winner and two runners-up per category. Entries should be up to 1,000 words or, if submitted as a spoken entry on video, no more than two minutes long.
What we’re looking for
We are seeking strong voices and a powerful and original story. You can tell your story through dialogue, lyrics, poetry or prose — so long as you’re telling it in your words, we’d love to hear it.
The winners will receive mentoring from Netflix and Penguin and their work will be published at standard.co.uk and performed at the Stories Festival launch party. Other prizes include two all-access passes to the Stories Festival and gifts from Penguin and Netflix.
The adult category wll be judged by Katie Law, books editor, Evening Standard, alongside Anne Mensah, VP for Original Series Netflix; Sam Parker, editor-in-chief Penguin.co.uk; Bea Carvalho, head fiction buyer, Waterstones.
The young adult category will be judged by Phoebe Luckhurst, Evening Standard features editor and author of debut novel The Lock In, alongside Will Young, singer, songwriter, activist and author and Alexi Wheeler of Netflix.
Entries are open for submission from today.
The deadline for submissions is 11.59am on June 30. We can’t wait to receive your entries.
For more information including terms and conditions please visit stories.standard.co.uk/competition