This article was first published in Attitude issue 296, June 2018.
Where Troye Sivan’s critically lauded debut album Blue Neighbourhood embraced the mixed emotions of queer teen life, his follow-up is ready to peel back the innocent veneer of his angelic image. “It’s both light and sexy,” the South African-born singer says of the new music.
The first singles, My My My! and The Good Side are flip sides of the same coin in terms of where the album is placed. The video for My My My! — set in a vast, empty warehouse — has Troye revelling in the kind of sexual confidence that a young gay man’s early twenties brings when freed from the confusing state of coming out.
Meanwhile, The Good Side plays to his vulnerability with a direct retelling of a break-up. Then there’s Bloom, which sits between these two extremes, lyrically delivering all the homoerotic undertones of bottoming for the first time, without explicitly giving us the details.
"I’ve been saving this for you/Promise me you’ll hold my hand if I get scared now/Might tell you to take a second baby, slow it down/You should know I bloom, I bloom just for you", he sings.
Troye, 22, is unabashedly embracing his sexuality, albeit through a more poetic lens. Whether you’re a chaste Catholic priest or a proud burlesque performer, sex is a defining factor in all our lives, something that Troye believes is especially true for gay men.
What distinguishes us from wider society is our affection — and sexual desire — for other men. It’s what makes us different, and we can’t escape that fact.
“If anybody ever tries to say that I’m shoving anything in anyone’s face, I’m just doing the same thing that all of the straight pop stars are doing,” he says, his voice soft, yet carrying all the confidence you’d expect from somebody who has spent the past eight years sharing his views with more than six million subscribers via his YouTube channel and impressive social media fanbase.
“It just maybe feels a bit more confrontational to you because I’m gay,” he adds, acknowledging how being gay will always be the counterpoint to normal in society, how regardless of social change, we’re always going to be othered as a minority. “I had so many ideas and felt I’d grown so much and figured myself — and my music — out so much more, but I was still like: ‘I’m not sure how this is going to go’.”
As confident as Troye is about pushing his sexuality to the forefront of his music, he’s aware it’s still a commercial risk. For every proud step we take towards social progress, repressive forces seem to be more eager than ever to push us two steps back. Among all this noise, Troye represents a new dimension of pop star who won’t be silenced.
While it’s difficult to imagine his music reaching such a broad audience a decade ago, as streaming dictates the stars of today’s pop landscape, more and more LGBT+ artists such as Troye are defiantly remaking the world in their musical image, and finding an audience hungry for their stories.
Just five years ago, there was no Sam Smith, Olly Alexander, Tove Lo or St. Vincent. Queer pop stars once came out in sensational front-page tabloid news after years of being closeted. Today — like Troye — they’re taking charge of their story, telling the world that they’re gay and undeniably proud, via YouTube.
When Troye arrives on set he’s gentle, softly spoken and casual in his demeanour. He glides in without fuss, followed by Jacob Bixenman, his beautiful boyfriend model. They’ve been together for two years after meeting at a fashion show. During our shoot, Troye goes from full-on Al Pacino Cruising leather ensemble to a soft, lace shirt evoking the legendary Prince. From fierce to fey, masculine to boyish, I’ve rarely seen anybody captured so effortlessly and enigmatically on camera. He’s a man comfortable in his identity — and that’s a wonderful thing to see.
What attracted you to Jacob? Other than his looks, obviously.
[Laughs]. I don’t know, I mean, I think he’s got like a kind of energy about him, a magnetic sort of energy. I think people can’t help but love him. He’s just got one of those personalities that draws people in.
Did you start dating him quite soon after meeting?
It was gradual, but, just as far as labels go, it’s pretty much since the day that I met him. We have seen each other almost every day, unless I’ve been travelling or something.
Do you live together?
We do now, yeah.
What’s the best thing about the relationship?
It’s kind of like having your best friend around all the time, which is really nice. I think LA can get lonely and you sort of have to build a life for yourself. Do you guys ever argue? Not really. It’s pretty chill.
The first single, My My My! is quite sexually charged. There are a lot of homoerotic elements to it. Is that indicative of the rest of the album?
The album is definitely intimate. I thought: “I have to be honest about what’s going on in my life.” I wanted it to feel grimy and sexy.
It feels like it’s a coming of age, that the music is growing with you.
Yeah. I think the first album was a much younger album. It was like coming out, leaving home, first relationship and first break-up, all of that stuff was in there. And this time round, I just feel a little bit more grown up and as if I’m having a lot more fun. I feel really happy and that, I think, is coming through.
What’s the most personal song on the new album?
The most specific is probably The Good Side because I’ve never before had a song that I felt told an entire story from beginning to end, but with that one it was like, “This is what happened, then this happened, then this happened.” And so that one just felt different to release because it was so black and white.
What was that specific situation?
It was actually about the break-up before my current relationship.
Did you get any pushback from the label when you wanted to go in a direction more linked to your sexuality?
Not really, no. It felt really natural. I mean this wasn’t me thinking to myself, “Oh, it’s time to grow up and have my ‘sexy phase’, or whatever. I just sort of started to become more comfortable with sharing. For me, the goal of the whole project is to be the representation for somebody else that I don’t feel I’ve necessarily had always. I would think that you would play these songs to any 22-year-old gay guy and they would be like, “Yeah, I get that, that’s where I’m at.” So, I just wanted to be honest and real, and if honest and real right now happens to be sexy warehouse party, then that’s where it is.
When did you start to realise you that had feelings for other men?
It was really early on. When I was about five, I remember feeling like I was scared because I knew something was different about me. I always felt that I kind of knew. My parents were always really open-minded, I didn’t grow up in a homophobic household at all, but even so, somehow I knew that it was not the norm and I thought that it was not OK. Even at a really young age, I don’t know where that influence came from but it was there.
When was your first crush?
I was 14. That was when I first was like: “OK, I think I have a crush on that boy,” you know? I’d had those feelings before but never recognised them. But then also, when I was way younger there was that really cute boy on the TV show, Degrassi, with brown hair, and I remember being really interested in him. I didn’t know what it was about him, but I remember thinking, “Wow!”
Who was the first person you came out to?
My best friend Kayla. I was 15. The thing was I didn’t know that I was going to come out, I wasn’t expecting it at all. I hadn’t really let myself think about it. I knew it, but it was something that was so in the deepest part of my brain. And then we were chatting one day, and we started talking about secrets, and I was like, “Well, I’ve got a secret.” I don’t know why I said it. Immediately afterwards I thought: “Why did I just say that? Am I really about to do this?” Then, sometime later, with her being like: “what is it?” and me being like: “I don’t want to tell you,” she asked: “Is it a disease?” And I said, “Uh, some people think so,” and all this stuff. It was crazy. And then after an hour or whatever, I said: “I think I might be bisexual,” and immediately felt as if I was going to vomit. She cried and I cried and she started hugging me and then I said: “Can we please not talk about this. I don’t want to talk about it.” So we pretended nothing had happened for about six months. I felt sick on my way home. But it was the catalyst for my sort of self-discovery, because I thought: “OK, now that I’ve told someone this, I should find out what’s going on and what the deal is.” So, I started doing all my research online and watching coming out videos and that was when I started coming out to myself a little bit.
Sometimes you’ve got something in your head and you can’t figure it out, but the minute you say it and externalise it, it starts to make sense…
Yeah, it put me on a fast track to coming out. It really did, because had I just kept it to myself, I could have kept it a secret for quite a lot longer.
When did you suddenly realise that you don’t just fancy people, that there’s a sexual side to you?
Aged 13 or something like that. I remember I cried when Irealised that I thought Zac Efron was really hot. I cried. And felt really sick. And that was that same thing, it wasn’t: “This is just a little crush on a boy or something like that: I’m not just interested in this boy — I think that he’s hot.” And that was weird for me.
When did you become comfortable with that?
Probably right after I told my best friend. When I went away and started doing my research, that was when I started to become a lot more comfortable. I watched coming out videos on YouTube and heard people speaking about their experiences and realised that I wasn’t a freak.
When did you decide, then, that that was the road you wanted to go down with your own YouTube videos?
It was such an accident. I was sick at home from school and really bored. I put out a video and ended up getting a lot of comments from all over the world. I realised that I had a thousand views and I was like, “Well, I’ve never sung for a thousand people in real life so this is better than real life, this is the way to do it.”
You mentioned researching what “being gay” was. What interests you most about the queer community?
I’m really interested in the erasure of queer history. There’s such a limited amount of resources on it. It’s so interesting to me that queer people have always existed. I would love to know what it was like to have been queer a hundred years ago, 200 years ago, 300, as well realising how fast we are progressing, where we are today. I just felt the need to try to understand that more. I watched that movie How to Survive a Plague. Those guys were putting their lives on the line because they had no other choice. It was a life-or-death issue and no one was listening to them. And they were doing that so that I can exist today. I’m in debt to them. I think we all are, and I want to pay my respects. It’s just a shame that queer people have been undocumented for so long.
When you were younger and coming out, did you encounter any homophobia or bullying?
Boys would come up to a circle of people and say hello to everyone except for me, stuff like that. And I think in an interesting way it kept me really humble because I started working on music, acting and YouTube, when I was really, really young. And I think that was all part-and-parcel of being gay, being creative and being gay. It was all the stuff that just made me feel different. It wasn’t like some cool thing that I was doing music or even movies or YouTube or whatever. That never really scored me cool points, so I think it kept me humble.
Did you find it easy to go out on to the gay scene or meet other gay people? What were your first steps into gay culture?
Gayhood? [Laughs]. Gayhood, yeah. So, first I was active online. I would go on forums for gay teens and stuff, and I just remember thinking I had no idea where I could meet other underage gay people. There’s actually a song about it on the album called Seventeen, and it was this weird time when I wasn’t 18 so I couldn’t go out, and about being Seventeen and craving... All my friends were hooking-up with random people at parties, and I just felt so left behind because I didn’t know gay people, I didn’t know where to meet gay people. I didn’t really want to venture out by myself and so I just did stuff that a 17-year-old boy shouldn’t really have to do. I managed to get a fake ID and then I got Grindr on my phone and started to try to meet people who were like me, but you sort of are forced a little bit into these hyper-sexualised environments, and even though that’s awesome when you’re 17…
They’re the easiest ones to get into trouble in…
I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t regret anything at all. In the song 17, I wanted to capture looking back on those memories with a sort of fondness because I grew up so much during that time, but at the same time it’s an observational song.
What was going through your head? Were you excited, scared?
Probably a little. My heart must have been going a million miles an hour. I don’t remember specifically but, because I was always so small, I was so scared to meet up with people because I was like, “I’m going to get killed, I’m going to get murdered by someone.” And so I only ever met like two guys off there and it was very PG: we went on a date or whatever.
How old were they?
Older than me!
That’s another situation, isn’t it?
That’s the thing, you know, in the song, originally the chorus of the song was: Here he comes/like he just walked out of a dream/doesn’t care that you’re 17. And I was like “uh, it sounds a little bit predatory,” and maybe it was a little bit. That’s what I mean, it’s like I’m not looking back on those experiences in a negative light or a positive light…
Because you’re not quite a victim, because you’re putting yourself in those situations, but at the same time the question is whether it’s appropriate…
Right, and when I see photos of myself, from when I was that age, and I think of the guys that I was meeting up with and talking to, I think: “Wow, I looked really, really young.”
And how does it make you feel now when you think about that?
Kind of a little bit creeped-out, but at the same time I really don’t have any regrets.
Were there any negative experiences, not just on Grindr, when you were discovering your sexuality? Were there any moments when you were scared of the situations you put yourself in?
Maybe I wasn’t ever truly scared just really uncomfortable. Never “scared.” We ended up writing a song that kind of sums up that experience really well.
Because you weren’t necessarily forming relationships with the people you met, these were short-lived experiences. What was it like growing up in Perth (after leaving South Africa) and then moving to Los Angeles?
Interestingly enough, I’ve actually been in relationships for the majority of the time since I’ve been away from Perth. I think I’m monogamous by nature and I really enjoy that.
What do you like about it?
My parents have been married for 27 years, or something like that, and are more happily married than ever, and so that’s kind of my reference point. It and just feels right to me. Maybe I can be a jealous person and, I don’t know, it just feels what’s right for me.
Is it difficult to have a relationship when you’re in the pubic eye? Does that ever get claustrophobic for you?
Not really, because I’m still figuring it out. To be honest, this is probably the most I’ve spoken about it. And I think the thing that’s comforting to me, I think I’m a very private person actually. I share a lot, but the stuff that I share is always at my discretion. If all of this music stuff and social media and everything was to stop working for me, let’s say, I take comfort in the fact that I have my family, I have my friends and I have my relationship. So I keep those things separate — I don’t think we’ll ever be that couple who Instagram-story each other’s every move and have little personal jokes and stuff like that. People know that we’re together, people know that we’ve been together for “X” amount of time, but they don’t know anything about the ins-and-outs of our relationship: how we talk, how we communicate, and I take comfort in that. I don’t think I would ever want to share that.
You don’t want to be like Kim Kardashian and Instagram everything?
No, I’m fine with people knowing that, you know, we’re on and that. I think maybe because we started dating really privately, super-privately, it was not part of our relationship. Our relationship is between us. And so, yeah, I keep that private, same thing as my family — why would I post videos and photos of my everyday life with my family? That’s for us. So, everything that matters to me in my life sort of exists outside of all of that and that’s why I feel level-headed with all of it, because I feel safe with it now. I feel I have the things that are important to me regardless of social media and all the sharing.
How do you split “famous Troye” and “home Troye”?
It sort of happens naturally in a way. I don’t think I could be doing what I’m doing without faking it a little bit; you’ve got to. I don’t think I could have done Saturday Night Live without faking it just a bit because I, as a person, would have been absolutely petrified. You kind of stand on the stage, put your shoulders back, put your head up and think, “All right, I’m just going to go for it and see what happens.” You end up finding out a lot about yourself, like: “Oh God, I didn’t really know I had it in me.”
Do you ever get scared or anxious in a situation like that?
I get very nervous, and so I think , you know, me kind of becoming this — or at least seeming like this — ultraconfident version of myself is a good way of coping.
The photoshoot today, for instance, is a good example of what we just talked about now — it’s dress-up, isn’t it?
You put on an outfit and you become another person, but it also comes from inside you, doesn’t it? I would recommend this to everyone: try a day where you dress in that thing that you think you probably can’t pull off. And just go out and about and live your day like that, and you might surprise yourself and think: “I felt cool in that today.” Ease it on to yourself and before you know it you’re going to be a much more confident person. I think that process was sort of forced on me a little bit by my job — I had to start dressing better and being able to perform for lots of peopleand talk to lots of different people. It’s been such a fulfilling journey for me that I’d recommend it to everyone. Push yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone.
Do you feel there’s much pressure on you to be a role model for a lot of younger LGBT+ people?
I don’t actually want to be a voice for everyone. And I don’t think it would be the right thing for me to assume that role, to be the voice of young LGBT+ people all over the world. I think that the issue is that we’ve got such a lack of representation: I am a middle-class, educated, white gay man, who became a successful music artist whose dreams have come true, who had the easiest coming out ever. I represent such a slim group of people — and I do represent those people, I take that on with pride — but I can’t be the voice of, you know, a trans woman of colour, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to try to speak out for anyone like that. So, I’m very flattered when people say that I’m a role model or whatever, but all I can do is to try to live my life authentically and openly. I think that that’s really helpful for people, and then, yeah, I’ll shine a light on others who maybe need it more than I do.
Bloom is out now. Selected back issues of Attitude are available to download here.
Words: Cliff Joannou; Photography: Damon Baker; Styling: Joseph Kocharian