From British reality TV show to almost two decades’ worth of hit albums, movies and more, Will Young has a lot to be thankful for and proud of. After taking a break from the pop world, he’s back with a formidable new album, Lexicon, with plenty more projects (books, TV and podcasts) in the works.
For almost 20 years, Will Young has been a household name in the UK and well-known to gay audiences around the world.
In 2002 his emotive voice, handsome mug and defiant demeanour won him the British Pop Idol reality TV series, the forerunner of today’s X Factor and The Voice. At the time, the only charting gay artists were Elton John, Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Erasure’s Andy Bell. There was also George Michael, forcibly yanked out of the closet by an undercover cop in an Los Angeles toilet in 1998 – so there was a significant amount of public shaming still attached to coming out in the pop world at the time.
Will, who turned 40 in January this year, possess one of the loveliest male voices in the music business, is no wallflower and has never been afraid of being openly gay in the very straight music business. It’s an attitude that has shaped both his career and his life.
Thanks to the TV show and Simon Cowell, Will’s career got off to a blistering start when his debut album From Now On went to #1 in the UK in 2002. The follow-up, 2003’s Friday’s Child also reached #1 with help from the massive success of the single, Leave Right Now. Yet, even the success of that single was stymied by his record company’s homophobia. At the time, his label fretted that Will sounded “too gay” on the stirring ballad, a song about “losing the highs to spare the lows”. Although Leave Right Now reached #1 in the UK and was a big hit across Europe, his record company didn’t know how to “sell” an openly gay artist to other territories, in particular the US, and Will had no interested in hiding his sexuality to do so.
His success as an album artist has continued with Will becoming more experimental and heavily involved in the writing of his songs, while also diversifying his career into acting. He made his film debut in 2005’s Mrs Henderson Presents starring Oscar-winner Dame Judi Dench and directed by Stephen Frears, the man behind gay classics My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears. Will has also appeared in TV series Skins and Bedlam and TV movie Marple: The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. In theatre he received critical acclaim for his roles in Cabaret and the London production of Strictly Ballroom: The Musical (where he honed a near-perfect Australian accent).
Now, after two greatest hits compilations, Will has just released his seventh studio album, Lexicon a follow-up of sorts to his fifth album, 2011’s Echoes, which swerved into edgy electropop after 2015’s 85% Proof took him into darker and less chart-friendly terrain. Lexicon is still about his glorious voice and – hurrah! – he’s still explicitly singing from a gay perspective. It also reunites him with the talented writer behind Leave Right Now, Eg White who, in recent years, has written tunes for Sam Smith, Kylie Minogue and Dua Lipa amongst others.
The outstanding lead single, All The Songs evokes Robyn, Jess Glynne and the sadly gone hot-mess George Michael era. The video, shot by celeb photographer Rankin, finds Will not only taking on a series of different gay stereotypes but stripping down to reveal he might just have the most pert butt in pop. This is arguably one of the gayest and most proudly liberating music videos a mainstream pop star has ever made.
(Full disclosure: Will lives down the road from me in London. He often pops into the HIV/AIDS charity shop where I volunteer to hand over all manner of treasures for us to sell. I met him prior to his interview for DNA when he was kind enough to donate his beloved guitar to raise money. That’s the kind of great guy he is.)