When Taylor Swift shared a 13-second preview of her hotly anticipated “Look What You Made Me Do” music video last week, it should have been a celebratory moment for her good friend, the hugely successful YouTube/RuPaul’s Drag Race/MTV/American Idol/Kinky Boots star and recording artist Todrick Hall, who’d had to keep his dancing cameo top secret since the clip was filmed back in May. But instead, Hall was trolled online by haters, who called him everything from “sellout” to even a racial epithet, and accused the openly gay performer of betraying both the black and LGBTQ communities just for associating with Swift. The “Beygency” went especially hard on Hall (despite the fact that he had previously appeared in two Beyoncé videos), deducing from a quick glimpse of his “Look What You Made Me Do” scene that Swift’s video was a rip-off of Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
Unfortunately, Hall tells Yahoo that this backlash is nothing new for him; long before he became a member of Swift’s “squad” (after she praised his work and befriended him on Twitter), he caught this sort of flak online. In an exclusive chat with Yahoo, Hall speaks candidly about racism, his relationships with Swift and Beyoncé, dealing with haters, and moving forward.
Yahoo Music: So when some people saw you dancing in “Look What You Made Me Do,” they were not pleased, to put it mildly. What exactly happened?
Todrick Hall: They saw a clip, just a few seconds, that featured Taylor Swift standing in a line of dancers, and they started forming all types of conclusions. I was just very confused by that, because I knew that there was nothing “Formation”-esque or Lemonade-esque about the video. Artistically, I didn’t feel that was the case. I’m a humongous Beyoncé fan. I’ve worked with Beyoncé. I’ve choreographed for Beyoncé. And I would never intentionally be a part of art that I felt was ripping off my favorite artist of all time. But I felt like these were two completely different lanes.
“Sellout” was one of the common names you were called.
Yes, one of the main things that people said was, “He wanted to make his money. Well, good for him, he got paid. And I guess payment is enough for you to sell out your family, your people, your community.” But this had nothing to do with money. I didn’t do this Taylor Swift video for money. I did it because she’s my friend, and she was very excited about it. And she wanted people to be there who she could trust, because it was a very big undertaking. I was proud to be there, but money was not a factor for me. I don’t do things for money.
But there are people online who have a problem with the fact in general that you and Taylor are friends?
Yes, I have gotten comments from people who are upset and have literally said the fact that I am friends with a white person is a problem, because white people don’t possess the ability to love or ever truly care about black people. And I find that very disheartening. I’ve grown up in a neighborhood where I went to church with and lived with and went to school with beautiful black people; when I look at them, I see myself. But then I was also in a peculiar situation, because I danced in a dance group where I was the only black person in the dance studio. In some cases, I was the only black cheerleader in my school. I did theater where I was the only black person, the “token black person.” And working at Disney, oftentimes I was the only black person in the show at Disney World or Disneyland on any given day. And I also did tours where I was the only black singer; I did a cruise ship where I was the only black person in the cast. So I’ve been used to being in situations where I’ve had to find friendships and find love and find similarities. My whole brand, everything that I stand for and everything I’ve always stood for, is equality and love. So it’s just really difficult for me to understand why it is an issue for people, a legitimate issue, that I have white friends, and that Taylor Swift happens to be one of my many white friends.
Apparently there’s a thing called the “cookout,” which is like your invitation to be a part of the black community. Some people have, like, deemed themselves the Woke Police, and they decide to strip you online of your invitation to attend the “cookout.” It boggles my mind that people are deciding whether or not I’m down enough, black enough, or woke enough to be “invited.” If I have to hate people and judge people based on their race, sexual orientation, or religion, then sorry, but I’d rather order pizza.
What is Taylor really like? Describe your bond.
What people are mostly forgetting is that Taylor Swift really is my friend. Sometimes because she is a celebrity of such a huge status, inarguably one of the biggest stars of our generation, people forget that there is a human side to her, that she has real friends that she calls and talks to about her real problems. And I call her, and I have cried on her shoulder about my own relationship issues and family issues and career issues. We are friends, and so when she asked me to do this video, I said absolutely. It wasn’t a question for me. I trust her, and I had no problem doing the video. And I just think that it’s really sad and shocking that me doing four eight-counts of choreography is enough to make people feel the need to question my “blackness” or “wokeness.”
Taylor came to see me in Kinky Boots and she stayed after the show for two hours and met every single person in that cast — took pictures, signed stuff, met every usher, every custodian, every orchestra member, every producer and their kids. And then she went outside and met fans outside the theater afterwards, stayed there for over two and a half hours after the show and wouldn’t leave until every single person had been met. There are just very few celebrities in the world who would do something like that. She didn’t have to do that. She could’ve come to the show, said hi to me, and left. That’s just what type of person she is, and what type of person she’s always been. Her parents raised her so well, and when you’re in the room with them, you can feel that energy.
It just is shocking to me that people will see an image of her and hear stories online about her, or arguments with other celebrities who she did not ask to be involved with, who recorded her against her will without her knowing and then decided to release six-second clips of a conversation that happened to paint her to be this evil person that I don’t believe that she is. Come on, we’ve watched millions of episodes of Law & Order or seen Judge Judy a million times; how are they not able to conclude that there is something missing from this? If you feel the need to record someone on video with people there, the intentions may not have been the most pure.
Some of the criticism Taylor has received recently has to do with the fact that she has not been politically outspoken in the past year, like her peers Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.
Yeah, many people have been tweeting me, “She supports Trump! She probably voted for Trump!” They’re making this huge assumption, when Taylor has never to my knowledge come out and said anything about her being pro-Trump. But people would still rather believe that she is the one who is pushing Trump’s agenda. That was one of the major things that was tweeted at me, and I’m like, “So you are mad that you think she might support Donald Trump? But you’re not mad that Kanye has been very openly pro-Trump?” I don’t understand that.
Look, I’m not Taylor Swift, so I can’t speak for her and why she does or does not choose to speak or not speak about any specific subject matter. All I know is that she has been nothing but a great person to me. Her family has welcomed me into their home and treated me like I was a member of the family. They’ve welcomed every single person I’ve ever brought around them. I’ve never felt like there was ever a moment that I couldn’t be myself, and talk about the fact that I’m gay or whatever. At Thanksgiving, we all sat around and talked about it, and there was another one of her friends there who was African-American, and we all sat down and talked about racism and watched 13th on Netflix and talked about how important it was. It was one of the most beautiful conversations I’ve ever had, because sometimes as an African-American person I feel like I can’t voice my opinion about how difficult it is to be not just an African-American person in the entertainment industry, but how scary it is to be black in America, in even 2017.
When it comes to Taylor, all I know is that she has been a sweet, amazing human being to me. When she calls me, it’s hardly ever to talk about her accomplishments or things that she’s going through. She calls me and says, “How’s your heart? Are you OK?” I’ve been around her an awful lot, and if it were some type of crazy, fake façade, I think I would have figured it out by now. I feel like it’s a genuine part of who she is, and she’s a human being. Has she made mistakes? Yes. Will she make mistakes again? Yes. But let the person in America who has not made mistakes raise their hand.
I think that I’m on my own journey; every artist is on their own journey. Maybe one day, Taylor will start being super-political, and using her voice to do the things that people think that she should be doing. But even then, she will probably be ridiculed for not being vocal enough, or not being on the right side. I don’t think that there is a way to win in this industry, so every person has to take their own journey at their own pace, at their own time, and do what they feel like is right. All I know is that Taylor has been nothing but sweet to me since day one, and if she asks me to do a video, I’m absolutely going be there.
I’m not apologizing for being a part of the video and doing four eight-counts of choreography in it. I thought it was a great piece of art. I thought it was awesome. It’s broken so many records and I’m proud to be a part of it. I don’t think I’ve sold out my race or my community — the gay community, the black community. I think that I was just in a piece of art that my friend made. I’m not issuing a statement to people about it to explain myself, because there’s nothing to explain. I’m not sorry that I did it, and I don’t think that it was a mistake. If I had a do-over, I would absolutely be there for another eight hours, in heels, dancing with her.
Is Taylor aware of the heat you’ve gotten for being in her video?
I have talked to her about it, and she has been very uplifting and given me a lot of information about how when you’re doing big things, there will always be people who have something to say about it. But I think that Beyoncé gave me the best advice when I met her. She said, “Don’t scroll down. Don’t go down and look at comments, and when you do something as an artist, make a decision and stick to it. You don’t need to apologize for things that you’ve done.” I use that all the time.
You have gotten this sort of criticism before.
Yeah. In the beginning, it was because I did videos based on stereotypes of a particular group that put people in a negative light. And so I took those notes, because I consider myself to be a humble person, and I tried to apply them, and tried to do less work on my YouTube channel that stereotyped people, less work that stereotyped my race as being “ghetto” or “ratchet,” because I did understand the argument. I think it’s a really difficult thing when you toe the line with comedy, because there are certain things that some people are going to think is funny, but then some people are always going to be offended. The political climate has changed so much over the past months since Donald Trump became president, and it has just been a very scary place to create content online. So I tried to do whatever I can to create content that everyone can love and that is inclusive of everybody.
It’s just something that I deal with every day. I wrote an album about my life [Straight Outta Oz], about how I fell in love at 19 years old with a boy who was British and who just happened to be white. I wrote a song called “Color,” and in the song I say the line, “You’re my favorite hue.” What I meant by that when I wrote the song was it’s supposed to be a direct relation to the 1939 Wizard of Oz film, and then everything turns to color when Dorothy gets to Oz. I felt like my whole world was black and white before I met this person. But people took that as that white was my favorite color, and that was what I preferred. People have assumed that I am the type of person that refuses to date people of my own race or associate with people of my own race. Which, I don’t feel the need to prove to them that I have in fact dated multiple black men and Puerto Rican, Latino men. I’m an equal opportunist when it comes to love. I think everyone is beautiful. You fall in love with a person, not the outer layer of skin.
It’s really frustrating because I don’t think that people realize that when I got to L.A., I lived in not a great neighborhood. A policeman drove up onto a sidewalk, got out of the car, pushed my face on the ground, put my hands on my back, pulled a gun out on me. I have never felt so scared in my entire life. I have witnessed so many things like that. It’s very difficult for me to go and spend time in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood without the cops being called on me, because people don’t know why I’m there and they think I look suspicious. I have had a lot of issues and dealt with racism in the same capacity as a lot of other people. I have written so many songs, even on Straight Outta Oz, about the Black Lives Matter movement, because it’s something that I’m very passionate about. It’s something that I definitely use my voice and my platform to speak out against. So it’s frustrating that people who have never met me in person like to make huge, incorrect assumptions about me and go and scream them and yell them from the rooftops online.
I just strongly feel that if we can’t get along within our own race, and have to point fingers and yell at people who we think don’t have our back when we don’t know anything about them — we haven’t listened to the facts, we haven’t seen the footage, there are no receipts to show that this person is not a proud African-American person who isn’t down to fight for equality for everyone’s sake — if we fight with each other so much that we’re tearing down our own race and our own community, how does that make us any better than the people in Charlottesville, carrying the tiki torches? How are we any better than those people, and how are we ever going to meet in the middle and finally be able to say, “Let’s be one unified group of people”? I just don’t understand how it’s possible, and that what makes me so upset.
Online outrage is at an all-time high right now, for sure. Everyone is on edge.
I think that we’ve got to figure out a way within our own community to stop tearing people down and stop making assumptions and looking for reasons to be mad. I don’t know what is happening in the world right now, but now is a scary time. People are looking for someone to blame and someone to point fingers at. I don’t think that Taylor Swift is the problem with America right now. People can try to make that be the issue, but there is a much bigger issue here in our country that we need to look at and recognize, and figure out what we can do to be a part of making the world a better place, to be nice and sweet and kind to each other, and to realize that racism is a huge horrible thing that has kept a lot of people down.
But I think it’s going to take every race, every minority, every gay person, every trans person, every straight person, waking up and realizing that we can’t do this alone. We can’t divide into our own little sections and decide that we’re going to secretly hate each other and be mad if one person goes over and shakes the hand of somebody on the other team. We all need to be one team. We all have to go out and extend an olive branch to each other and try to help each other out and try to build one another up. That’s the only way that we can be successful. That’s the only way that we can make this world the beautiful place that God created it to be. Spread love, and love each other. That’s what I try to do.
Did you engage with any of your online critics about this video?
I gave no negative tweets, didn’t argue with people on social media, had nothing to say to them. But I even went so far as to give somebody my phone number online so they could call me and said, “If you feel I’ve done something that’s offended you, or if you could shed some light on as to how me being involved with this video or being friends with Taylor Swift — other than the fact that she is white and you feel that she is the epitome of white privilege, the poster child for white privilege … If there’s anything you can do to shed some light to me as to how I can be a better example for young African-American kids growing up, then I would love to talk to you on the phone.” And I meant it. And I talked to them, and I felt like we came to a good place. I’m a humble person; I’m not opposed to taking constructive criticism.
There was a time two years ago where I would’ve damn near gotten carpal tunnel because I would’ve stayed up all night trying to argue back and forth [on Twitter], thinking, “What would Regina George do?” Now I’m adopting the policy, “What would Beyoncé do?” So I’m going to kill all these people with kindness. I’m going to be nice to them, and I’m just going to prove to them, one by one when they meet me, what type of person I am. Support my friends, be nice to people, and do what I have to do to be a good human being and play my part in society and in this crazy political climate.
Obviously I’m not diminishing the horrible things that have happened to get us to this point, but at this point we have a choice to either band together and fight and talk about the real issues and the real problems, and Taylor Swift is not the problem. If we can all accept the fact that there is a bigger problem and start having dialogue and talking to each other — not just with the people that it’s comfortable for us to talk to, our own people and people who look like us, but to people who might not understand where we’re coming from or what we’ve been through — then we might get closer to making this world a unified place, the way that Michael Jackson sang about in his songs and in his music. While I know that is not the theme of “Look What You Made Me Do,” I do believe that is the theme of Taylor Swift’s heart and the person that she truly is on a personal level.
This Sunday, Todrick Hall headlines Atlanta’s Black Pride promoting the Positively Fearless, a campaign that educates LGBTQ black people about HIV.
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.