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Pop star Olly Alexander was told coming out would hurt his career. He didn't listen

Some pop stars keep their sexuality out of their art. Alexander centers it. In celebration of LGBTQ pride, the Years & Years frontman sat down with TODAY to look back on his career.
Olly Alexander of Years & years
Olly Alexander photographed by Tyler Essary for TODAY.Tyler Essary / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Even though I’ve been a Years & Years fan since their debut album “Communion” came out in 2015, I’d never seen frontman Olly Alexander perform live until last month.

When I walked into the Avant Gardner Great Hall at the Brooklyn Mirage for the band’s first New York show since the beginning of the pandemic, the energy of the crowd was electrifying. 

Held in the middle of Pride Month, the concert seemed more like a spiritual seance of queer expression than a typical music performance. A vast swath of the LGBTQ community and beyond was packed in the warehouse industrial space, from teenagers to those in their 50s.

Alexander — with his eyebrows bleached blond and his hair buzzed with lines in it — was belting his hits in front of a massive screen projecting visuals depicting a raucous night out at the club. Since his dancers had to stay behind in the United Kingdom, this montage was an opportunity to include their artistry while also telling the type of queer story Alexander wants to portray with his work.

Many of his own pop icons were referenced in the footage, including Madonna, Prince and the film “Showgirls.” In one scene, Alexander is seen cruising in a public bathroom. In another, paying homage to Madonna's "Justify My Love" video, he’s running down a hotel hall looking back like he just did something mischievous.

“The visual is quite dark, twisted and cinematic,” Alexander told TODAY. “Just to sort of show a different side to me and the music, to then tie it together with the theme of a wild night out.”

Olly Alexander of Years & Years performing May 26, 2022 in London, England.
Olly Alexander of Years & Years performing May 26, 2022 in London, England. Jim Dyson / Getty Images

“I got my entire life,” Alexander said of that Brooklyn show. “New York definitely always has a real energy to it, especially Brooklyn. But yeah, it surpassed my expectations. I’m just so grateful to be performing again and to be able to take the show to an audience in America. I wanted everyone to have the best night.”

The now 31-year-old has been in the spotlight since 2015, when “Communion” became a massive hit for his band. The song debuted at number one in the United Kingdom, selling over one million copies worldwide, becoming the fastest-selling debut of that year from a UK-signed band.

Since then, two more albums have been released — ”Palo Santo” in 2018 and “Night Call” in 2022 — with the latter serving as Alexander’s first project of his solo endeavor after former bandmates, Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen, left Years & Years.

Years & Years' sound has evolved. The one constant, undeniable through-line in Alexander's music and artistry is that he’s queer. In his lyrics, Alexander uses pronouns that align with his sexuality — so he's singing love songs to "him."

Some pop stars — burgeoning or established — keep their sexuality out of their art. Alexander centers it. This has become his mission, one that he explores with work on the screen and stage.

“I’d always been writing songs and expressing myself in that way, but it became just like the most important thing to me,” he said. “I got so much satisfaction and liberation out of doing that. In the very beginning, I never felt like I was gonna set out on this explicitly gay journey. But that’s what I’ve been on.”

But in the beginning, Alexander struggled with coming out, and said he was even was pressured by industry execs to stay closeted.

"I felt really uncomfortable with anybody thinking I was gay ... because I thought it would close doors for me.”

Olly Alexander

“At 16, I still didn’t have any idea what my sexuality was,” he said. ”I knew I wasn’t straight, but I was definitely not ready to accept that I was gay yet. That would take a few more years. I felt really uncomfortable with anybody thinking I was gay, in terms of people in the industry, because I thought it would close doors for me.”

He added, “When I got signed in 2014, I got advice from a media trainer who said to me it might actually be better for me to not come out."

Alexander didn’t quite listen. Instead, he used the ambiguity of his music and the lyrics to tell his story without ever explicitly having to come out. When so many others refused to infuse their queerness with their art, this was a simple yet radical approach for an up-and-coming pop star to take.

Olly Alexander of Years & years
"We don’t necessarily get that from our peers or from our intergenerational relationships. We have to really go and search for them but when we finally find them, they’re so nourishing."Tyler Essary / TODAY

"I just wanted it to be present in the music right away," he said. "So I referenced a boy on the first album. I was kind of inviting people to just assume that I was gay and then I wouldn’t have to come out."

Prior to Years & Years, Alexander was an actor, with appearances in movies like "Bright Star" and the teen drama "Skins." He said through his music and lyrics, he found more acceptance than he ever could in the acting world, where he felt obligated to present a certain way.

"That felt like a real relief, to sort of negotiate this really difficult area of casting directors thinking that I could play straight. I was happy to leave that acting world behind me," he said.

As his platform grows, Alexander has dedicated himself to learning about prominent people in LGBTQ community who came before him, like human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell or Lady Phyll, who founded UK Black Pride. Doing so has made him more connected to his community and to his own identity.

“In a way you make up for lost time because I spent a lot of time wishing I wasn’t gay and now, I cherish it so much,” he said. “The more I learn about gay history and other queer people, I just love it. I’m eating it all up. I have a place within this history and a lot of that is kind of obscure for us at first. We’re growing up. We don’t necessarily get that from our peers or from our intergenerational relationships. We have to really go and search for them but when we finally find them, they’re so nourishing."

"I spent a lot of time wishing I wasn’t gay and now, I cherish it so much."

Olly Alexander

Over the last few years, Alexander has collaborated with many of his own idols, including the Pet Shop Boys, Elton John and Kylie Minogue. He's also had the opportunity to work with respected peers like Galantis, Jess Glynne, and he even appeared on Lady Gaga’s 10th anniversary “Born This Way” EP where he performed his own electrifying spin on her hit “The Edge of Glory.”

He’s also returned to work as an actor this time, in a role that aligned with his identity. Alexander starred in “It’s a Sin,” an acclaimed 2021 BBC series that tells the story of gay men living in London amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

National Television Awards 2021 - London
Alexander after winning the new drama award for "It's A Sin" at the National Television Awards 2021.Ian West - PA Images / PA Images via Getty Images

"It totally changed my life," he said of the role. "Not only the experience of doing it but also having that opportunity to really engage with that period of history in the (United Kingdom). It helped me understand a lot about the culture I grew up in and how deeply homophobic it was as a result of the HIV and AIDS crisis. The stigma and the hysteria that was everywhere and just wasn’t talked about. So much of it has been brushed under the carpet and hidden away, that time in history obviously because it’s so painful still for many, many reasons.”

In addition to exploring LGBTQ history, Alexander also processed his own coming-of-age in an eye-opening 2017 documentary called “Growing up Gay." Filmed alongside his mother, the doc was an exploration of his own adolescence and the mental health struggles he experienced, including bulimia and self-harm.

"I wanted to look at whether or not mental health issues were more prevalent within the LGBTQ+ community," he said. "And while they are, I wanted to ask why that is. So I basically talked to a few different people about their experiences and about my own with my mom."

Olly Alexander of Years & years
"In the very beginning, I never felt like I was gonna set out on this explicitly gay journey, but that's what I feel I’ve been on."Tyler Essary / TODAY

As a queer radical, Alexander feels called to speak up on behalf of the entire community. For this year's Pride Month, Alexander wanted to advocate for another part of the LGBTQ community currently in the crosshairs of media attention and legislation in the U.S. and U.K.

"In the U.K., there's been a lot of anti-trans sentiment just really explode in the tabloids and in the media," he said. "It's been happening for a long time, but I think it's just reaching a point where it's really out of control. It's so harmful. No matter how we identify, I really feel like we just have to support and put everything behind trans people and advocate for them to be treated like human beings because it's really insane how people talk about trans people."

"It's just so directly linked to homophobia and racism," he added. "Transphobia is racism and homophobia's nasty sibling. It really affects us all, no matter what."