Out performer on why ‘iconic’ is overused, being understood and Paula Abdul calling him ‘strange’
In his 2018 debut music video “Girly,” singer-songwriter and director John Duff is seen imitating some of music’s biggest pop icons, replicating the shot-by-shot choreography of Madonna’s “Hung Up” video and Mariah Carey’s gesticulations and eyelash-batting in “Heartbreaker.” It was impressive, like Duff had been practicing his whole life. And, well, basically he had been. In the case of Britney Spears’ “Stronger,” he’d been mirroring Spears’ choreography since grade-school summer camp.
For the hip-pop mid-tempo “Rich,” his follow-up to “Girly” released in September, the 30-year-old performer created a satirical and celebratory commentary on pop culture’s love-hate obsession with the rich and famous, in part by impersonating Kim Kardashian’s internet-breaking, butt-exposed cover shoot. Duff, who graduated with a B.F.A. in musical theater from Syracuse University, also currently stars in Cubby, his film debut that its director, Michael Blane, describes as a story about “three different generations of men looking for acceptance and love.”
When I connected with Duff recently, he had just gotten acrylic nails and was feeling “very Marilyn Monroe-Mariah Carey, like helpless, like I can’t pick things up with this hand.” He clanked his nails on a table for me to hear over the phone while we talked about making a place for himself in the music industry after believing there wasn’t one for him, experiencing homophobia from Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul on The X Factor, and being understood.
How did you end up here? Is this what little John Duff envisioned for himself?
I started as a talent show kid because there aren’t really outlets for an artist when you’re in third grade, but I think my idea was to always be a performer. Growing up in a suburb of Baltimore, there weren’t many opportunities to really be on a stage, so I did get into public speaking, I did get into musical theater, and those became my main outlets.
Then, of course, I went to college for musical theater, graduated, did shows in New York for years and then found my way to Los Angeles to write music. The rest just made sense to me. I like the big imagery of the old days, and people who really were doing something, not just … well, I don’t know what the other people are doing, honestly. (Laughs)
Who are the other people?
(Laughs) Just, you know, all the other artists that I’ve kind of been a little bewildered by. For the generation that uses the word “iconic” more than anything, I think we have some of the least iconic imagery that’s existed in pop music in the last couple of years.
Growing up, you were a Janet, Madonna and Mariah fan, and so you do seem to have an appreciation for an era when real artistry flourished.
Well, it’s not just real artistry, it’s also budget that they put into everything. My sisters are 43 and 45, so I had them in high school driving me around when I was in first grade, second grade. And my sister had (Mariah Carey’s) “Fantasy” CD single and I stole it from her.
Did you start imitating Mariah and other pop icons in your youth?
Yeah. I spent most of my time in my basement, and I had Janet Jackson’s video collections and Michael Jackson’s HIStory video collection, and I had Mariah’s live Thanksgiving special and I was an American Idol kid, so I had all these things on tape and I would just watch and watch and imitate.
When it came to start performing in talent shows, I think I wanted to do Britney Spears just because I could really dance then, but my parents were very insistent that I stick to the classics, so I did Elvis and Frank Sinatra. Michael Jackson was the first time I was allowed to bend a little. I mean, I didn’t have friends until junior year of high school – that was the first time I had any semblance of a social life – so it was just me, by myself. So I know the words to every song. I’m like a savant.
In 2018, you posted a video of you singing a song you wrote called “Thoughts and Prayers” to YouTube, and I think I was surprised to find out that you can actually sing, only because I don’t expect much from gay Instagram.
Oh yeah. I kind of had fun with that when “Girly” was just coming out by letting people think I was going to do something stupid and then once it came out I think a lot of people wrote it off as a fluke, which is like, go off. You can totally do that. Because I know what I am.
With “Rich,” we’d done the video a while back and the song is like – god, my manager’s gonna kill me for saying all of this, but it was never my favorite song, but the imagery made such sense to me. So it was sort of supposed to follow up “Girly” right away, but we were having some issues with the original producers of the song because not everyone in Hollywood is nice, I don’t know if you knew that.
So I’ve heard.
(Laughs) They’re not all in it for the art of it, that’s for damn sure. And so we had a lot of issues, and it took some time, but I ended up getting to work with Alex Delicata, who’s a great producer and has created songs that are some of my favorite songs, and he really turned that one around. So in terms of production, I love it. Very happy. But I’m really happy for everything that’s to come.
What’s to come? Is there a full album on the way?
At this point I would say that I can genuinely look at my playlist of songs that I’ve created and we have about 30 that I think are good enough to stand in their respective realm. We’re trying to hone in on what exactly the introductory sound is, and “Girly” and “Rich” have kind of set that up. But I think the next moves get a little more specific in terms of who I am and what my inspirations are and what I want to be.
Are you still figuring that out? And as a pop artist, is authenticity important to you?
Well, that’s the thing: I’m a very, very layered human being like everybody else. I guess I am actually a very deep-feeling and -thinking person, so that’s kind of a hard thing to cover off the bat. I think I’m being very authentic to my ideas, my wit and parts of myself in terms of the next couple of things we’re putting out, and there is sincerity there. But it’ll be a minute before I get to really give you some of the depth of my humanity.
Well, it took seven years before we got Mariah’s Butterfly album, where she went her deepest musically.
Sure, yeah, and we know that some of Mariah’s really great, serious, deep works were written long before they came out or had been in the works for years, and so I’ve got three songs on here that I’m like, “Oh my god, these are game-changers.” They’re so important, but they’re not for right now. It doesn’t make sense to lead with them.
And my parents really don’t understand that because they heard all of my music and they’re like, “What about this one?” There’s this ballad that they just – it’s about death and I’m like, “How the hell am I gonna put out a song about death after ‘Girly’ and ‘Rich’?” It’s just not gonna happen.
What does your mom and dad think about the video for “Rich”?
My dad told me this: “We like the video.” They prefer “Girly,” though. “Rich” is melodically cocky and hip-hop-y and their generation just doesn’t understand that at all. Like, swag doesn’t process for them and that’s fine.
You’ve expressed some frustration with the industry. Is it hard to convince these industry heads which songs you think should be out at this current moment in time?
Absolutely. I say it all the time and we know this is common talk around town: Nobody knows what is going to work now. Ten years ago? Sure, they knew. Twenty years ago? They definitely knew. But no one could’ve ever predicted (Lil Nas X’s) “Old Town Road” would’ve been the biggest hit of all time. So there’s a lot of people whose literal job it is to try to predict what’s gonna happen.
Does being an out gay artist add to the challenge?
It’s really weird. It’s weird because we just all get compared to each other. We’re looking to get on the same public interviews and the same whatever, and that’s probably how you end up getting compared is the same people are promoting you. So being an out gay artist, I don’t personally think it helps or hurts me. I don’t know about everybody else. And I don’t even know what I mean by that (laughs). I can only speak for myself, I guess, is what I mean.
Have you ever experienced any kind of homophobia in the industry?
Absolutely. Look, in 2011, I was on The X Factor, Simon Cowell’s show. And of course this was not aired on television, but within three seconds of being on stage he asked if I would’ve preferred to have been born into a female’s body. This was 2011, so there was no representation. I think Sam Smith had just come out with a single, and I don’t think he was gay. It was super hard for me to go on a show that’s run by the same people who are selling those records and have no comment on my talent whatsoever. Paula Abdul called me “strange.” What was strange about me? That I was gay.
Did you challenge her on that?
No, I didn’t because I had just graduated from musical-theater school, so the whole training is, “OK, thank you,” “OK, thank you.” Looking back, I would’ve been like, “You know what, Paula, this is a singing competition. Why don’t you come up here and we can sing ‘Straight Up’ and we can see who’s better, me or you? Because you calling me strange is a high compliment, because if I’m strange to your whack-ass… .” I mean, the strange thing is that she sang flat on her records. (Laughs)
Being a Paula fan, this seems like something that must’ve been difficult for you to hear.
Especially standing on stage in front of an audience of 4,000 with your family watching. Everything about it was mortifying.
I’ve read that you were told that you would fare better in this industry if you played up your masculinity. At what point did that happen?
We shot this music video that’s about to come out, and I’m not playing a girl in it but I’m very androgynously behaved. I don’t know, it’s just the mannerisms I wanna give. It’s a little diva energy. And we went back and added another scene to play up masculine whatever because I think the song is the most mainstream I’ve done, but is it just so we can make it easier for other people to digest? Sure. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, you’re handsome so you should be doing it this way.” I’ve been told by other people, “I see you being like a Sam Smith,” and it’s funny because they bring up a gay person. Well, Sam Smith is already doing Sam Smith.
There are also a lot of people who say I shouldn’t be playing up my gayness in my videos. I view it like drag, sort of. It’s just who I am when I’m performing. Not that there’s not elements of it in my life. Like, I’m standing next to a giant Mariah Carey portrait in my living room; I’m not pretending that I’m a jock when I’m off the field. I’m the one walking around with acrylics. Had ’em for two weeks. So all the other girls using their press-ons can have fun, but, you know, I’m committing to this.
Also, we can’t be more complex that just one thing now?
What it is, and I’ve talked to my therapist about this: There’s this desperation currently to find identity within separation rather than within what makes us similar. People are desperately clinging to anything that keeps them misunderstood, and for me, I would be happy to be understood. I’m happy for people to see me and say, “Yes, I relate to that.” For me, it’s been the most rewarding part of being who I am. And some days I wanna put on a pink shirt. That I wanna do the Mariah Carey “Heartbreaker” video doesn’t mean anything more than I wanna do the Mariah Carey “Heartbreaker” video.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.