Multi-talented superstar Todrick Hall speaks exclusively to The Sentinel about the Australian leg of his world tour, having Madonna-like control over his career, working with Beyoncé, the “difficult, dark moment” he thinks about daily – and how he’s come back from attempts to cancel him. By Gary Nunn.
Ahead of the twice-postponed Australian leg of his world tour, Todrick Hall is feeling amorous.
“I’m currently single again,” he says, after splitting from his boyfriend, model David Borum, earlier this year.
He’s excited about returning to Australia; previous tours sold out the Enmore Theatre in Newtown.
But there’s a cheekier reason for his excitement about returning here.
“I have to be honest. I love Australia but the selfish reason for my return is: I’ve fallen in love with two Australians, so the idea of finding my future husband there is definitely a driving force for me!” he tells The Sentinel from LA.
The multi-threat performer
It’s impossible to sum up Todrick Hall concisely. The American performer is a singer, songwriter, choreographer, dancer, Broadway star, pop star, YouTuber with 3.62 million subscribers, sometime drag queen, talent show contestant turned judge and LGBTQ+ icon. All by the age of 36.
And to say the man is prolific is a grand understatement. Since 2018 alone, he has released seven albums and EPs: Forbidden, Haus Party Pt. 1, 2 and 3, Haus Party Live in Atlanta, Quarantine Queen and Femuline.
His albums break the mould in terms of sheer graft, ambition and creative output. The deluxe version of his 2017 conceptual album Straight Outta Oz, for example, contains 22 songs.
Other albums like Quarantine Queen – which has five fun songs – are lighter but equally playful and creative in terms of theming.
He knows how to rapidly capitalise on his own popularity; after the surprise success of his song ‘Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels’, he has recorded five new versions, all with completely fresh lyrics to the same tune: ‘Masks, Gloves, Soap, Scrubs’ for the Quarantine Queen album, ‘Bells, Bows, Gifts, Trees’ for Christmas 2020, ‘Click, Fold, Snap, Clack’ for a Samsung mobile phone campaign, a duet version with Ciara for Haus Party Pt. 2 and a new dance-themed version to coincide with his recently announced ambassadorship for video game, Just Dance.
His closely attuned ear echoes the patois of black, queer and youth vernaculars, always tuned into the zeitgeist with his own mischievous spin; in ‘Masks, Gloves, Soap, Scrubs’ on Quarantine Queen he sings: “Kitty cat cat tell me Carole Baskin / Where is the husband? Everyone’s askin’.”
Similarly, he’ll sing about TikTok, sliding into DMs, his “limpy wristys” and “Not to be braggy / But yeah I’m living in that mansion with the rainbow flaggy … Now I’m making millions and I’m doing it in draggy.”
He duets on his most recent album, Femuline, with Chaka Khan, Brandy, Tyra Banks and Nicole Scherzinger. He has collaborated with RuPaul, flash-mobbed Ariana Grande and choreographed for his idol, Beyoncé.
And that’s just his music career. He has starred in six major Broadway shows, including Chicago, Hairspray, Kinky Boots and Waitress.
It’s a far cry from his days as an American Idol semi-finalist when, in 2010, judge Simon Cowell told Hall he “wouldn’t amount to anything beyond a Broadway actor”.
The Haus Party Tour becomes The Femuline World Tour
When Sydneysiders purchased tickets to see Hall live, it was for the Haus Party World Tour, which toured overseas but was cut short by Covid before reaching Australia.
The show has been rescheduled twice – and so much time has elapsed, the Haus Party Tour has now become The Femuline World Tour.
“This’ll be an even stronger tour than Haus Party,” Hall says. “There’ll have been five pieces of work since those tickets went on sale: Haus Party Pt. 3, Quarantine Queen, two versions of Femuline and my new album.”
Hall speaks to The Sentinel just after recording new material for his upcoming album, Algorithm.
“I’ll probably cry on stage,” he says. “I’m that excited to finally get up there.”
Hall loves coming to Australia and Sydney in particular; he’s impressed by our cultural and arts scene.
“Last time I came over, I saw Kinky Boots and Aladdin,” he says. “I played with kangaroos and koalas. Most of my jewellery I buy in Australia. I like to see what gay life is like and go to the pubs there, if I can.”
As well as Sydney, he’ll perform in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Wellington and Auckland.
Dance dance dance
Hall’s partnership with Just Dance ’22 continues a lifelong passion for dancing. His Target flashmob video gained Beyonce’s attention and scored him a role as choreographer role on the music video for her song, ‘Blow’.
“I was blown away when I got the call saying they’re putting an unsigned black LGBTQ+ artist on Just Dance along with Lady Gaga,” he says. “I said a resounding ‘yes’ straight away.” He’s a longstanding fan of the game and loves playing it with his friend, fellow YouTuber and Waitress co-star Colleen Ballinger, AKA Miranda Sings.
“Australia has one of the best dance communities in the world,” Hall says. “Their version of So You Think You Can Dance is world leading; so many Australian dancers have come over and made it big in the States.”
He says the Australian dance community has used his songs in recitals and live performances: “I feel so supported by the LGBTQ+ and dance communities in Australia and feeling the energy they bring fires me up,” he says. ”It’s the fuel I need at the end of the tour to go into the studio and start creating new work.”
“My work ethic comes from being a Broadway star”
As one of the most creative, prolific and hardworking people in the entertainment industry, many who know Hall’s work have one burning question: just how does he have the energy, time and drive to fit it all in?
The answer is twofold: he discovered what hard work looked like on Broadway, and has been able to enjoy the autonomy and freedom of being an unsigned artist.
Today, though, he’s allowing his vulnerable side to surface, a departure from the cocksure persona contained within the lyrics of recent song ‘Dick This Big’.
“I’m actually very insecure about my singing ability,” he says. “In the musical theatre world, especially, I felt I could never make those sounds musical theatre singers are famous for. But then I started thinking of the Eartha Kitts and Bernadette Peters of the world – they’re famous for their unique voices; those are the things that make them world-renowned.”
The work ethic is what he feels differentiates him: “If I’m not the best singer in the word, at least I’ll show up on time, stay late, work hard,” he says. “In Chicago, I was already off-book by the first rehearsal.”
He played male lead during a run which saw the show have its highest grossing week in its 21-year Broadway history.
“In Kinky Boots I already knew the choreography [by rehearsals],” he says.
In Hall’s opinion, Broadway actors are the hardest workers in show business. “You don’t get six shows on your resume without an incredible work ethic,” he says. “I’m really proud of that.”
He has applied that dogged work ethic to other areas of his career, including the upcoming world tour.
“My tour is rigorous, night after night … I sing for two hours straight without backup singers – the cast is reliant on me to bring that energy every night,” he says. “That’s why I’m on vocal rest each night.”
“I am an unsigned artist. I manage myself.”
Another reason Hall pumps out three albums for every one another artist might release is because he chooses when to release them. He has a Madonna-like control over his career and creative output.
Only very recently has this slightly changed – he has just signed with a small, non-traditional label called 45, but hasn’t yet released music under them.
There’s a specific reason he has resisted being signed, and why he manages himself.
“I don’t have to get sign-off on, ‘Is this album good for my brand or not?’ or release on certain days.” he says. Instead, he releases music when the creative urge takes him. Which is often.
“You need a certain amount of confidence to do that. I’ve made huge mistakes and also had big wins,” he says.
Just listening to his responsibilities is exhausting. He talks at quick fire pace.
“I manage myself. I choreograph most of my videos. I direct them, I produce them. I design a lot of our costumes, design the sets, write every single lyric and every song. I’m in the room when the producer produces it, I pick out fabrics for costumes, find Band-Aids in case someone is injured!” he says. “I’m the most hands-on artist I know.”
Why doesn’t he do some outsourcing? It comes down to trauma and the need to express himself authentically.
“I suffered a lot of trauma – I went to a major record label six years ago who said we’ll break you as a straight artist first, but you don’t have to say you’re straight,” he says. He declined.
“While that works for some people – Adam Lambert did American Idol before confirming he was gay and, initially, Sam Smith left it to the imagination – my own American Idol experience, where I tried to hide it, gave me a very clear idea of what I did and didn’t want to do,” he says.
“I came out as gay aged 15. After Idol I made a vow never to hide it again. I took meetings where people tried to convince me to consider not being so out and proud about who I want to be.”
He hasn’t spoken to major record labels or prospective managers since then.
“It just scares me,” he admits. “I’d want somebody to reach out to me and really want to represent me. You give your manager a lot of your money; I’d currently rather circle all that back into my career.”
Then there are his personality traits.
“I’m kind of a rebel. I don’t like someone telling me what to do, especially if that someone is not part of my community” he says. “I’m not willing to compromise my mental health for someone to make me more rich, more famous but less happy.”
When it comes to tapping into that defiance of conformity, one person above all others inspires him.
Beyoncé: “Anyone who says they keep cool in her presence is lying”
From his 15-million-times-viewed video of harmonising with himself to as many of her songs as possible in four minutes, to flash mobs inspired by her and writing in his own rap to ‘Grown Woman’, it’s clear one woman has had a huge impact on his career.
“Beyoncé is the person I idolise more than anyone else in the world,” he says. “She’s my favourite not just of our generation, but of all time. Not only is she beautiful and ridiculously talented, she’s also incredibly kind. She’s almost like the president or queen of the industry.”
As a black gay artist, he says she has helped him find his own voice.
“She had made me feel that someone black can do anything,” he says.
“And her love and support for the LGBTQ+ community came before a lot of the African American community were out supporting and using our community in their videos.”
He cites examples: on the The Tyra Banks Show performing ‘Single Ladies’ with two men behind her; performing ‘Freakum Dress’ with gay men.
“She’s a game changer,” he says. “I don’t think you can even experience Beyoncé if you haven’t seen her live – at least on video or DVD, but seeing her live in person makes you go from being a fan to a ‘Beyhive’ member.”
His Target store flash mob to her song ‘End of Time’ resulted in a thank you video from Beyoncé, then the aforementioned gig as a choreographer on her video, ‘Blow’.
It blew his mind.
“To be in a room with a living legend, somebody who in 1,000 years from now people will be remembering what she did … Any time I’m feeling down and thinking I’ll move to Texas, start a family and not be in this industry any more, I rewatch and I think how grateful I am.”
And working with her – could he remain professional?
“Every time she says my name, I just melt,” he confesses. “I think I’ll keep my cool; but anyone who says they’ll keep their cool in the presence of Beyoncé is lying.”
Another performer who inspires him is Lil Nas X. As a genre-defying black gay male artist succeeding in an industry that has long denied people like him the opportunity to be themselves, the comparison between the singers feels inevitable.
“What he’s doing is ground breaking … It forces people to question why they’re ok with a straight man doing certain things but not ok with LGBTQ+ artists doing same things,” Hall says.
Although he’s keen to point out their differences, too.
“I’m a singer, performer and all round entertainer; he’s a rapper. I’m a YouTuber without a major record label and I get millions of views on my own without publicity teams – so being compared to him is an honour.”
He adores seeing how well Lil Nas X is doing: “Lil Nas winning is a win for every member of the LGBTQ+ community – especially black members of that community.”
He’d love to duet with him, in addition to Cardi B, Mariah Carey and, of course, Beyoncé.
“That was a really, really difficult and dark moment for me … I think about it every day”
You don’t get this successful without ‘haterz’.
Hall, naturally, makes art about his: “My haterz busy,” he sings on ‘Fag’, an empowering anthem to the homophobes who doubted and belittled him.
But haters also came from inside his community. After the success of ‘Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels’ (47 million views and counting on YouTube alone), allegations emerged of Hall not paying collaborators; specifically, his dancers.
Some of this comes down to Hall managing himself and the Herculean task he has set himself by doing so.
When choreographer and dancer Thom White accused Hall of not paying him for his work, Hall tweeted: “I adore Thom, like LOVE him. This is surprising to me, he hasn’t been paid yet, he will be … not because he’s trying to ‘expose’ me but because he deserves it. I only got two texts, no calls, I was overseas opening my tour & that video has only been out for 2 weeks.”
Other complaints of non-payment of dancers were addressed head-on when Hall re-worked the song into a Christmas theme; at the end of ‘Bells, Bows, Gifts, Trees’ he says: “All dancers and crew were COVID-tested and paid to take part in this video.”
Is this a change of policy, I ask him?
The answer, he says, is “no”.
“I always pay dancers when I have the ability to pay them,” he maintains, adding that he has, in the past, asked dancers to volunteer their talents in videos.
Today, he’s happy to set the record straight.
“I’m glad you asked me about this because I don’t speak about it very often,” he says.
“I’ve been a dancer my entire life, I have the utmost respect for dancers. Anyone who claims they made it to the top without doing a free job here or there is being untruthful.”
Not knowing how big ‘Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels’ would become, Hall asked dancers if they’d appear for free.
“It’s always a case by case basis and I’ve always been up front about it.”
But he won’t rule out doing it again.
“I can’t say that between now [and] until my career is over I’m not going to ask people to come in and dance as a favour,” he says.
“I always treat them well: I’ll pay for the studio, costume them, pay for their food and Covid tests – but I don’t have millions of dollars from a label to fund that stuff.”
Some of the dancers in the video weren’t professionals and relished the opportunity to star in a music video as a passion project, he says.
“Some were doing it for fun or because they love dance. Others were trying to get into the industry.”
For that latter category, he positions it as a mini-internship of sorts.
“If you think there’s an artist that long-game wise you might want to work with, if you want to gain followers, get experience for your reel, break into the industry, meet other dancers, experience being on set for the first time to see if it’s for you, if you work as a dental assistant who danced in high school but you’re no longer pursuing that as a profession and want to take a couple of days off to experience that, then you should be able to do that,” he says.
“I’ve never apologised for not paying people for that video because I was very up front with them from the beginning. I didn’t make anyone do anything they didn’t wanna do – my conscience is clear.”
Many of the complaints came from one aggrieved dancer.
“I don’t have a magic power that can make 75 gay men not speak about their experience. But if one is upset and everyone else is fine with it, then you have to look at the situation for what it is and use your common sense,” he says.
The negative press on this issue still had a big impact on him personally.
“That was a really, really difficult and dark moment for me to go through, I think about it every day,” he says. “I couldn’t believe someone would go out of their way to paint me as a monster. It also cast every dancer who chose to do that video in a bad light; it made them sound like they were disrespecting themselves.”
I ask him how the difficult moment has helped him learn and grow.
“If I could be cancelled so quickly on something not based in reality, I realised I should buy myself a home this year – to put myself and not my career first,” he says. “I’d usually pour all my money back into my work.
“I realised a lot of people out there will believe something. You could work hard your entire life then one scandal and people could turn their backs on you,” he says. “Not true ride or die fans,” he adds.
Those ride or dies now number in the millions, and are located all over the world. It’s clear Simon Cowell couldn’t have been more mistaken. Underestimating this man is a fool’s game.
We finish on a more upbeat moment.
“I love my dancers, I love this industry. I have gotten over that moment,” he affirms.
The Femuline Tour by Todrick Hall tours Australia and New Zealand in September and October, including a show in Sydney at The Roundhouse, UNSW, Anzac Parade at 8pm Thursday, 6 October, 2022. For tickets and further information, visit www.itdevents.com/tours/todrick.
To find out more about Just Dance and watch Todrick Hall’s trailer, visit Just Dance.
This article was updated on 30 May, 2022.