Troye posed as a Showman and did an interview for The Guardian. Photos from the photoshoot have been added to the gallery. Click “Continue Reading” to read the interview.
Troye Sivan: ‘I have to get comfortable with being effeminate’
The former YouTuber turned musician and actor talks about sudden stardom, queer pride and life as a showman
Troye Sivan is posing in full view of the street, delighting the small groups of teenagers who stop outside the photo studio to gawp. Some of them know who he is. The rest can tell he must be Someone. The South African-born Australian, 23, is as luminous as a cherub and has no qualms about giving it his best Rodin: foot perched on a starry plinth, trousers gaping around his slim frame.
Sivan has been preparing to be looked at since before puberty. As of last year, he is a pop star – not quite a household name, but big enough to command an invitation from Taylor Swift to duet on her recent US tour, and a guest spot from old friend Ariana Grande on his 2018 album Bloom. Critics compared Bloom’s euphoric synth-pop to cult Swedish pop star Robyn (the ecstatic “My My My!”) and 4AD goths This Mortal Coil (“The Good Side”, a spectral break-up ballad). He’s also an actor, recently lauded for his supporting role in the gay conversion therapy drama Boy Erased, with Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges.
But in 2002, Sivan was a seven-year-old boy living in Perth, western Australia, obsessed with his parents’ tapes of classic concerts. He would watch videos of Madonna and Michael Jackson, in awe at the way they moved and commanded a crowd. “I used to get nervous for them,” Sivan says, wiping off his face paint after the photoshoot. “Oh God, what if they mess up? What if they forget a lyric? I would imagine what it would be like.”
He asked for singing lessons, but was taught choral music, which bored him. “I wanted to sing Hero by Enrique Iglesias – but I didn’t have the guts to ask if I could learn a pop song. So I saw it as practicing to get better.” He was rehearsing for the moment when he could become a pop star himself.
It sounds like an improbable level of focus for a child, but it seems to have paid off. On stage, Sivan is capable of suggestiveness and rapture that make you want to run on to the dance floor. But in person he exudes eerie calm, well versed in his own story and clear about the way he wants to tell it.
Sivan’s family had no music industry connections. “I used to Google ‘how to be a singer’,” he says, rolling his eyes at his naivety. He was an early adopter of social networking. When, aged 13, he uploaded a video of himself singing fellow teen Declan Galbraith’s “Tell Me Why” (“do the dolphins cry?”) to YouTube, it got 1,000 views – an audience far bigger than he’d sung to as a young chorister touring synagogues. Here was his in.
He started selling CDs of his angelic covers through a DIY website (the Dare To Dream EP, he recounts, cringing at the memory), sending his supportive but baffled mother, Laurelle, to the post office laden with packages. He accrued enough followers to attract an agent, who got him small roles in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and a South African film franchise with John Cleese. Enough, too, for creepy blokes to pose as managers and attempt to solicit him for sex. (He told his parents immediately.)
Then his voice broke. “I was really, really self-conscious because I’d built so much of my sense of self on my singing,” Sivan says. “I would open my mouth and have no idea what was going to come out. It was terrifying and broke my confidence a bit.”
Sivan describes himself as a lonely kid: not a fan of school, sport or hanging out with other boys; trying to make sense of his crush on Zac Efron and prone to losing himself in creative projects. As he took a break from singing, vlogging was emerging as a more direct way of communicating with fans. He started uploading riffs on familiar YouTuber formats – FUNNY HALLOWEEN COSTUME IDEAS, etc – and grew troyesivan18 into one of Australia’s biggest YouTube accounts.
He was invited to conventions around the world, where he met other teenage YouTubers who had been catapulted to sudden fame. In 2014, Sivan uploaded a video of the British star Zoella waxing his legs in a hotel bathroom. For anyone not versed in YouTuber culture, it’s bizarre to see a girl from Brighton depilating an Australian boy for no apparent reason; yet this is par for the course in a medium based on wholesome goofiness.
Sivan’s parents let him quit school and take a distance learning programme designed for kids living in the outback, so he could travel. “Those few years were so much fun” he says. “It almost felt like high school, meeting all these people and then going to parties where there would be free alcohol.” In your mid-teens? “Well, no, they wouldn’t serve us” he says. “Like any high schooler, you’d just have to find some way to get it.”
The relationship with Zoella was “completely organic”, he says. “We became genuine friends. So then you make a video together and it ends up just getting bigger and bigger.” Too big: after a few years, Sivan soured on the culture’s easy rewards, perturbed by fans who just wanted to goggle at him in the flesh. “I started to feel like I was churning out rubbish a little bit,” he admits. “As I was edging on 18, it wasn’t as fun any more.”
By now, his music tastes had evolved beyond Enrique Iglesias. He wrote his first original song, “The Fault In Our Stars”, a sentimental ballad named after John Green’s novel for young adults, recorded a pretty on-the-nose video in a children’s cancer ward and uploaded it to YouTube. EMI Australia got in touch.
Its offer represented a way out of YouTuber culture, though Sivan was wary that the company might just want to capitalize on his following. “I had what felt like – to be completely transparent – this easy fame and it wasn’t what was important to me,” he says. “Immediately, I thought, I have to really do the groundwork to make people take me seriously. I didn’t want anyone, myself included, to think any of this was just handed to me because I had an online audience.” Sivan still loves YouTube, and watches cooking and makeup tutorials when he’s tired. “It was just that I had other aspirations.”
He cites a Yiddish word, davka, as the thing that fuels his drive. “It means you do something to do something” he says – to act with purpose. “It’s always been super important to me to at least come across as humble. But on the inside I was like, ‘I. Want. To. Do. This. As. My. Job” Sivan says, clapping between each word for emphasis.
Sivan came out to his family when he was 15, and to his YouTube fans three years later. By then he’d watched enough coming-out videos himself to know how helpful they could be. Plus, now he was signed, he needed to live without fear of being outed. “I wanted to be able to go to a gay club and not be worried that someone’s going to take a photo,” he says. “I wanted to tweet about boys.” On 7 August 2013, he told his (then) one million subscribers, with preternatural calm: “This could kind of change everything for me, but it shouldn’t have to.” He hadn’t warned his label; they emailed congratulations.
He launched his debut album with a series of interwoven videos in which two male lovers confront homophobic parents, repression and suicide – an unusually uncompromising approach to the pop mainstream. “This is something we simply aren’t seeing from other gay pop stars,” wrote the US culture publication Fuse.
But Sivan said later that he had felt unable to fully express his sexuality. It wasn’t because of a directive from his label: “Any sort of censorship came from me not knowing what I wanted to do” he says. “I have to get comfortable with the fact that I am kind of effeminate sometimes – or really effeminate sometimes” he says. “That I want to paint my nails. Overcoming all those stupid rules that society embeds in you as a kid about gender and sexuality is a conscious task.”
Much of his most recent album documents Sivan’s relationship with American model Jacob Bixenman, his boyfriend of three years. For the past 18 months they have lived together in Los Angeles with their dog, Nash, amid a community that Sivan says has helped him grow into his queer identity. “Sometimes I really forget that there are straight people in LA,” he says. “I have almost exclusively LGBT people around me. That instilled a sense of confidence in me – that I have every reason to be proud of who I am.”
In January 2018, Sivan swaggered on to the set of NBC’s television show Saturday Night Live; he was suggestively sweaty, with wet-look peroxide hair in his eyes, and sang the lyrics, “Spark up, buzz cut, I’ve got my tongue between your teeth.” His new single, “My My My!”, oscillated between intimacy and euphoria, emotions amplified by a wind machine that blew his shirt aside to reveal a ribbed vest and a coquettish bare shoulder. Here he was, revelling in a prime-time TV pop coronation.
Sivan had been trying to book the influential late-night US show since his debut. When they said yes, he didn’t have a finished album or a promotional plan, but it’s not the kind of offer you turn down. The label made him do the rounds of local radio to try to get “My My My!” in rotation. Artists pay in sweat in the US, glad-handing regional programmers with no guarantee that their efforts will pay off. For Sivan, they didn’t: playlisters proved resistant to the single, which peaked at number 80. “I got really down and really kind of lost,” he says. “I was proud of it and so it was disappointing.” American pop radio is known for being conservative, but Sivan resists the suggestion that the lack of interest was homophobic. On a recent episode of singer Will Young’s podcast, Sivan wondered whether he would be more successful if he weren’t gay. “People were not happy about that,” he says with a grim laugh. “One hundred per cent, the music could just not be good enough.”
He decided to return to LA. “I realised what was important to me and decided to stick with that, rather than trying to play the game.” He set about cultivating the album’s vibrantly queer aesthetic. First there was a video for My My My!, Sivan dancing alone in a warehouse, its corners filled with smouldering, topless men. In another, for Bloom, he was a pouting Pierrot languishing amid floral displays, singing about losing his virginity. Some heralded him as a central figure in a year dubbed “20-gayteen”, in which young, out musicians (such as Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko and King Princess) dominated pop discourse, if not the charts. But other fans were annoyed when he deleted a tweet about the song with the hashtag “#BopsBoutBottoming”, seemingly chickening out of revealing the song’s specific sexual subject. He got further criticism after saying in an interview that he hadn’t wanted the male performers in the My My My! video to touch, in case it deterred potential viewers. “I wanted to take away the opportunity for anyone to censor it,” Sivan says now. “I wanted to be as gay as possible while not allowing anyone to be like, ‘That’s too gay.’ The weird thing is that I [originally] wanted it to be explicit. But I also wanted it to reach as many people as possible.”
Is mainstream acceptance the endgame for LGBTQ pop, or should queerness challenge the status quo? “I’m actually a little bit scared to have the conversation,” Sivan says. “Because I feel there’s some underlying homophobia in the general public, and within our own community.” There are two dominant stereotypes, he adds: gay men can be feminine, or “the hunky hot, masculine gay guy. As soon as you enter this grey area – and this is not just for gay men, but for all queer people – that’s where people are having a harder time understanding.”
Recently, Sivan’s peers have been debating the backlash that followed the announcement that Ariana Grande, a straight artist, would headline Manchester Pride this August. Olly Alexander of Years & Years endorsed Grande’s love for the LGBTQ community, and the city. “But – can’t stress this enough – if more people listened to and supported LGBT+ artists, they’d get more slots,” he tweeted. Sivan demurs on whether the issue lies with a homophobic industry, or with fans who simply aren’t stumping up. “We don’t have a queer Ariana, you know? If we did, I’m sure that person would be headlining. Until that day, I think we should expect that straight people are going to headline these things.”
As things are, Sivan says, he might not be in the music industry for ever. “I have a plan in my head that I’m going to grow up and have kids and a pretty normal adulthood,” he says, getting up to leave for Shabbat dinner with his mother and his boyfriend, who are on tour with him. “I want to do the school run.” He might act more, or go back to school to study graphic design. The worst thing, he says, would be to become predictable. “I am constantly trying to keep myself on my toes – and everyone else, too.”