‘I was extinguished by men in suits’: Darren Hayes on surviving homophobia – and finding happiness | Australian music
On the cover of his new album, Darren Hayes sits proudly behind hot pink neon letters that spell out “Homosexual”. It’s a word that used to scare him, one that was hurled at him as an insult and, now, the title of his first record in 10 years.
“I get that it’s not the most original idea in the world to reclaim a pejorative,” he tells Guardian Australia. “But it’s so important to me because I was so ashamed of that.”
Today, it might not come as a shock to hear that Hayes – who has been married to a man for the past 17 years, and headlined this year’s Sydney Mardi Gras – is gay. But if you remember him from the 90s, when Hayes was the frontman of Savage Garden, you wouldn’t have known about his sexuality. He spent the most successful years of his life in the closet, quietly processing and then guarding the truth of who he was as he toured the world, sold 23m albums and collected 14 Aria awards. Hayes eventually came out, but feels being an openly gay man at the turn of the century thwarted the solo career he embarked on after the breakup of Savage Garden – which is why he has chosen to recline behind that blazing neon epithet.
“I did not want to be gay. I just didn’t,” he says of those late 90s days. “So [I thought] I’m going to take this word, and I’m going to turn it into the best compliment ever.”
We are seated in a Sydney hotel room in the middle of a confessional 70-minute conversation that will bring the former frontman to tears more than once. At multiple points his publicist will try to wrap things up before being shooed away by her determined client. The story of how he came to make Homosexual is emotional, but it is one that Hayes wants to tell.
It took a long time for Hayes, now 50, to be able to embrace his sexuality. He grew up in the rigidly conservative Queensland of the 1970s, where his father called him the F word, he says, and kids at school bullied him for being gay before he knew what that meant. In retrospect, he believes his sexuality was obvious to almost everyone but him.
But Hayes only began to confront his attraction to men in his mid-20s, when he was married to and deeply in love with a woman he had met at university, Colby Taylor. He and then-bandmate Daniel Jones had been sent to Sydney to work on the first Savage Garden album when, one day, he walked into a gay porn cinema “in a trance”. His first reaction was shock. Next came arousal, followed immediately by overwhelming guilt. He ran out, found a public phone box and called Lifeline.
“I was crying,” Hayes remembers. “I had the most amazing person on the other end of the line, and they said, ‘Listen, it’s fine, you’re probably gay. I think what you should do is go home and talk to your wife.’ And it was horrific. It was the most horrible news to me. Because I just thought, I don’t want this. I love my wife. She was my best friend in the whole world.”
Hayes took that advice, and Taylor was “so amazing” in her response – but she didn’t immediately accept what it meant for their relationship. They swept his confession under the rug and kept going.
Then Savage Garden blew up. The duo’s self-titled debut was an instantaneous and international success, an overnight catapult to fame Hayes found overwhelming. He remembers “crying a lot” and being subject to an extraordinary tour schedule that would take him to as many as three different European countries per day. Hayes was anxious about the world finding out the radioactive secret of his sexuality when he and Taylor eventually began marriage counselling. In those sessions, a faith-based practitioner told Hayes he would “just have to deal with [his sexuality]”.
“That was when I first became suicidal,” he says, wiping away tears. Managing his mental health had always been difficult for Hayes, but that experience made it an acute battle. “I remember just thinking, well, I’ve had [the marriage counsellor] say to me you’re a terrible person. And this is what you have to be forever.”
He and Taylor eventually split. While that separation was an immense loss, Hayes says “she was an incredibly beautiful person about it all”. He turned his heartbreak into songs such as I Don’t Know You Anymore on Savage Garden’s second album, 1999’s Affirmation. That LP was another monumental success, but he and Daniel Jones parted ways soon after its release – a split much less amicable than his divorce – spelling an end to the band.
Over the next couple of years Hayes began to come out to his label and those around him, before embarking on a solo career that began with the 2002 album Spin. Hayes feels that new chapter was never given the chance to succeed, describing his experiences of homophobia in the industry at that time.
“I remember being in meetings where they were openly mocking Ricky Martin,” Hayes recalls, his posture stiffening. “I did my first video for [lead single] Insatiable … I had blonde hair, I was dancing [in it] and the head of the record company told everyone that I looked ‘too gay’. They cancelled all of the promotion in the US for that album.” After that, Hayes says, “My career in Australia and in the US pretty much just stopped.”
Guardian Australia contacted Columbia Records – Hayes’s label at the time – for comment, but they declined.
The video for Insatiable was eventually reshot with a female love interest. It was a “horrible time”, Hayes says.
He relocated to the UK – where Insatiable had hit No 2 on the charts – on the advice of his friend Kylie Minogue, who told him to “go where the light is”. But Hayes remained suicidal for many years until meeting his now-husband, Richard Cullen, and never fully relinquished the pain he carried over what happened to his career after coming out. He felt desexualised and condescended to by an industry that was happy to have him be a talking head but had no intention of taking his music seriously.
“I never expected my solo career to be as big as Savage Garden. I knew the lightning in the bottle aspect of what had happened to us,” he says. “But it became increasingly difficult to battle this feeling of being marginalised and that this is what happens when you do come out.”
Hayes released three more solo albums then took 10 years off from music. At home in Los Angeles, he busied himself with everything but writing songs: he studied improv, wrote a play, started a podcast and made friends who had no idea about his past life as a pop star. But he also began to witness the cultural shifts around the acceptance of homosexuality and the new wave of openly gay pop artists who were climbing the charts. His reaction was one of grief for the youth he never got to have.
“I realised that the entire time that I was famous, all this energy and all this love was being received by an avatar. It wasn’t being received by me,” Hayes says. “And I looked at Troye Sivan, I looked at Brendan Maclean, who’s a local Sydney gay artist that I love, I looked at Lil Nas X, and I saw this new generation who just arrive as their authentic selves. And I was so angry that I had been extinguished. I’d been extinguished by men in suits.”
It was a powerful personal reckoning, heightened by watching the #MeToo movement sweep the entertainment industry. (“[I] stand in a tiny shadow of that same misogyny because there is a similar misogyny that happens to gay men,” he says. “We experience a similar tone of that dismissal from straight white men.”) But that grief and anger is also what brought him back to music.
“I just thought it would be such a shame, now that I’m so comfortable in my skin, to not write about my full, vibrant, high-definition, 3D presence,” he says.
Hayes eventually began work on a new type of album: one that he produced, arranged, composed and performed entirely on his own. He studied music production and engineering and dived headfirst into researching the history of disco and house, fusing elements of those genres into tracks like the shimmering, six-and-a-half-minute lead single Let’s Try Being in Love. Then, for the music video, he cast a male love interest – a small but powerful victory for Hayes.
“I was constantly put in music videos where I was in a romantic situation with a woman or I was muted,’’ he says of his early career. “And for me, it was like, ‘No, I’m going to show you, I’m going to cast a man that I think is really fucking sexy.’”
Much of the record is devoted to celebrating his eros and sexuality. But Hayes also used his songwriting to interrogate the stuff that has been “under the surface [my] whole life”, delving into his family history of suicide on the track Poison Blood and his own mental health struggles on Hey Matt. Managing his mental health is an ongoing struggle for Hayes (“I take a cocktail of medication, and I go to therapy every week in order for me to stay here every day,” he says) and he had to think long and hard about whether to return to an industry that can be brutal. But Hayes is releasing the album on his own label, a move that freed him to make music completely on his own terms, without the input of those men in suits. That felt like catharsis.
“I was like, fuck it, I don’t care if this doesn’t sound like the most hip record in the world,” Hayes says unblinkingly. “I don’t care if radio isn’t going to play me. I’m going to release a seven-minute single, I don’t give a shit.”
And he knew he had to call the album Homosexual.
“I understand that that term is associated with so many horrors, and so much judgment, but I’m gonna fucking take that name back for myself,” Hayes says.
“You know what, yeah. I’m a fucking homosexual. And I love it.”
Darren Hayes’ new album Homosexual will be released on 7 October. He will be touring Australia in January and February 2023.