Ten years ago, a couple weeks ahead of the American Idol Season 8 finale, Entertainment Weekly put Adam Lambert on its cover and predicted that he might be the first gay singer to win the show. That didn’t happen, although Lambert did quite all right for himself — releasing three top 10 solo albums, scoring a Grammy nomination, and, of course, becoming the new frontman for Queen. As Lambert returns to the show this Sunday to mentor Season 17’s top eight contestants on Queen Night, the landscape has changed a great deal, and now Idol may very well soon crown its first LGBTQ winner: Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, a spectacular vocalist whom judge Lionel Richie once recently said could hit “notes that Freddie Mercury can’t do.”
“The climate has changed. This is 2019,” longtime American Idol executive producer Megan Michaels Wolflick tells Yahoo Entertainment when asked about Harmon’s chances. “Back when Adam was on the show, he wasn’t as open or as free; now it’s not even a question. People just come in, it’s part of their life, part of their story. I think Adam at the time probably would have been open to it. [Editor’s note: Lambert first publicly, and very frankly, addressed his sexuality after his Idol season ended, via a cover-story interview for Rolling Stone.] We didn’t censor it, it was just the climate [compared to] where we are now.”
Harmon’s story is very different from Lambert’s, and not because his sexuality has been such a prominent part of his edit on the show. While Lambert grew up in liberal Southern California and had been out to his friends and extremely accepting relatives since he was a teenager, Harmon grew up as a pastor’s son in the small Maryland town of Catonsville, and he only came out to his religious, conservative family three years ago, at age 23. “The consensus seemed to be that this is not a path that I should follow,” Harmon told the show’s producers of his family’s displeased reaction at the time. He later revealed that he had left home and quit his janitorial job at his father’s church, leading viewers to believe he and his family were now sadly estranged.
“I think ‘estranged’ would be the wrong term,” Harmon clarifies to Yahoo Entertainment. “I think one thing that I’ve learned in the process of owning my own story, and taking my personal power, is how to draw appropriate boundaries in my life. And part of that resulted in me quitting the job at my dad’s church and deciding to move out of my parents’ house, because of differences that we had. Even through that, I’ve always been in touch with them, and I’ve made it a point to keep the conversation going. I’ve never been estranged from my parents. There is intentional distance, but I think that distance has been healthy for us.
“I think everybody is going to see how that’s shaped and strengthened our relationship next week,” he adds, revealing that his parents will be in the audience when he performs on this Sunday’s Queen Night.
Harmon admits that it’s been a struggle for both him and his family as he’s told his coming-out story almost in real time this season. “I think everybody was a little jolted by how transparent I was being. I even surprised myself in some ways,” he says. “It’s kind of been an all-at-once experience. None of us, me or my family, have ever been in the public eye like this before. So I think everyone is just processing it in their own way, and at their own pace. There have definitely been some challenges as a result of that, but I think we’ve done a great job of just keeping in touch and overcoming those together. … We sort have been forced into discussions that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have happened the way that they did, so I think it’ll be up to us to decide if this is something that will build us up or scare us off, if that makes sense.”
Harmon also acknowledges that with his coming-out story and family background being such a dominant part of his Idol narrative, some detractors might accuse him of “playing the gay card.” Additionally, there the concern of “Who do I have to represent now that I’m on a show? What kind of platform do I want to have?” But he explains, “I’ve just tried to focus on what my own personal experience has been. I think we’re in a really interesting time in American culture. In certain places in the country it’s not really an issue what your orientation is, and you don’t really have to talk about it, and you don’t have to have this big, monumental coming-out experience. But for the world that I come from, there are so many people still struggling with their sexuality that come from conservative Christian environments. That’s been my personal experience. We’re not there yet. So, I think it’s still an important thing to talk about. I’ve just tried to focus on walking through my journey as authentically as I can, trusting that it’s good for me and it’s good for whoever else can connect to it.”
Many Idol viewers have certainly connected to Harmon’s story — and to his deeply personal and heartfelt performances, whether it’s his original audition song “Almost Heaven,” which existentially questions whether there will be a place in heaven for someone like him; his heartbreaking rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” inspired by his changing relationship with his family; or his cover of Elton John’s “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” which earned raves from Sir Elton himself. So far, Harmon has been voted through to the top 10 and now the top eight, which is an indication that the public is rallying behind him. But the personal messages from fans are in some ways even more important than votes. “I think for me as an artist, I feel a certain level of responsibly to be transparent about what I’m going through, no matter what it is,” says Harmon. “And for me, it was kind of good timing. This was fresh on my experience, and to have this kind of opportunity, not only to play my music on this platform, but to share myself with the world in this way, I saw as really meaningful. And I know that I’m not the only one. It’s been really rewarding, because I find the more that I open up to people, they open up back. I’ve had people share their stories with me and affirm the truth that none of us are alone. I think we feel less alone when we see each other going out there and being vulnerable and sharing our stories with the world.”
Harmon says the public response has been “overwhelming,” so much so that he still hasn’t been able to make it all the way through the messages he’s received. “One really beautiful moment for me was there is this group called the Mama Bears, this organization of moms who support, affirm, and celebrate LBGTQ kids. This is kind of a new world for me; I had this whole network of support that I didn’t know about. And they ended up knitting this homemade blanket for me and sent over 1,600 signatures, and I actually just got a big suitcase of cards from the Mama Bears yesterday. So many notes of encouragement. Overall it has just been: ‘Keep going. We believe in you. You’re not the only one.’ And that’s what it’s all about. Music is a vehicle to connect with people, so I’m really grateful.”
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I got this hand made blanket in the mail today with a letter from @serendipitydodahformoms with over 1,600 signatures of “mama bears” stating how much they believe in, affirm and celebrate their LGBTQ kids. SO sweet!!! And oh yeah… I MADE IT THROUGH HOLLYWOOD WEEK! Catch me next Sunday AND Monday (3/31-4/1) in Hawaii applying massive amounts of SPF and singing some of my favorite tunes. #grateful #teamjer #hawaii #thenextidol
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As for any advice that Harmon would give struggling LGBTQ kids watching Idol at home, he says, “You’re not alone. There’s a whole world of support out there for you, and family is not just your blood relatives. I’ve met family along this journey that I wouldn’t expected to have met. Just don’t be afraid to venture into the unknown and to tell your story, because it matters, and you matter. Believe in yourself, because you’re stronger than you think you are.”
“With Jeremiah’s story, the fascinating part about it is it’s evolving as the show goes on, literally,” Wolflick says. “His sister got married two weeks ago, she’s on her honeymoon, and she came to Disney Night. His parents are going to come [to the show] next week. So, the story is evolving and it’s amazing, and I think he honestly has kind of come to a peace that maybe he didn’t have when he first came to our show.”
American Idol Season 17’s Queen Night, featuring performances by Harmon and the rest of the top eight, duets between the contestants, and mentoring from Lambert, airs Sunday at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET on ABC.
This article originally ran on Yahoo Entertainment.