This past weekend, BBC’s new hit Saturday night show Let It Shine welcomed Curtis T Johns into our living rooms. He stormed into the next round — impressing judges Gary Barlow, Dannii Minogue, Martin Kemp and Amber Riley.
Before the Leeds-based songwriter performed the Corinne Bailey Rae classic Put Your Records On that took him through to the next round, his friends and family spoke of his performing experience and love for the industry. Those that spoke also included his husband, Carl.
Sitting down exclusively with GT following his brilliant (and successful) Saturday night audition, Curtis reveals why a Take That inspired musical appealed to him, his hope to support others struggling with their sexuality, and why he chose to remain open about his sexuality on the BBC show.
Curtis, welcome. How’re you feeling now Saturday’s show is behind you?
All my friends and family have seen it, and mainly it’s relief. I don’t have to hold the secret anymore. [Laughs]
When the idea of appearing on Let It Shine came about, what made you want to audition?
Mainly the premise. There’s lots of talent shows and the integrity of the people involved with it. You’ve got Amber, Dannii, Martin and Gary. All four judges have real industry experience and have taken long journey’s through the industry. They’ve done varied things and that’s real career talk. It’s not TV personalities, it’s real people who have real credibility and experience within the industry. That’s the magnet that drew me in.
Are you a Take That fan?
Very much so! I love Gary Barlow, for obvious reasons as he’s a strong writer, but I’m actually a complete Mark Owen fan. I loved his solo stuff, and Carnival is one of my favourite lyrical songs of all time. [Laughs]
— Curtis T Johns (@CurtisTJohns) January 15, 2017
Auditions are usually between two or three people in a quiet room. You had the added factor of a live audience. How was that?
It’s a big pressure as you don’t want to do anything wrong, but I suppose it fuels you as you have an adrenaline rush and keeps you on point. It ups your game and you focus as you’ve got so many people watching you. Like, you don’t want to make a mistake!
Talk to us about your relationship with music. Where did music sit in your life?
I’ve always been involved in songwriting from a young age. I always wanted to be a songwriter as I love music on that level. I love melodies and the arrangement of music. Throughout my life, I’ve worked hard to get myself involved in as many projects as possible – I’ve also done some performing. I did Leeds Pride and used to be a wedding singer when I was younger.
How was that?
[Laughs] I got experience from that as you’re dealing with angry bride’s or angry husband’s who want something to be perfect. That pressure helps you refine any kind of musical ability.
Will you appearance on this type of show surprise the fans you’ve already gained?
I kept it a secret from most of them, so a lot were viewing and wouldn’t have known. I think it would surprise them because of the direction. I’ve spent a long, long time in the background working and working in the studio, but not in a public front. This is kind of me stepping out into that place. It’s unexplored territory for me, and I like that.
With the added theatre aspect of the show, have you always been or even are you a fan of live theatre?
This particular musical is a great blend because it’s designed for the theatre, but designed for masses to enjoy. I do appreciate and respect theatre, but I’m a massive lover of traditional musicals. This musical is a hybrid of all the best bits and that would attract anyone who loves music.
Did you have a particular judge on the panel you wanted to impress?
Of course, Gary Barlow, for many different reasons. I’ve been trying hard to make it as a credible songwriter, so that was a pressure in front of him with the knowledge he has. It’s almost like an extra layer of judgement. I was also thinking about my performance, so there was a lot to think about at the time. I was thinking about what Gary was going to think.
Why did you choose to perform Put Your Records on by Corinne Bailey Rae?
A long time ago, I loved Corrine and spent three years trying to get in contact with one of the guys who wrote that song. I could never get through, but one day he rang me and asked what I wanted. I went to meet him and I sang for him live. He gave me some good criticism and feedback, and then started doing gigs and performing.
Many years later, he and a few other writers offered me a publishing deal. When I was going in for the show, the stars aligning and I wanted to go with something that demonstrated my integrity. Put Your Records On isn’t just a song but a written song that was unique for its time — by a Leeds lass. It kind of represents me in every form that I’d want to be known as. Someone as a credible songwriter and artist. I also just love the song! [Laughs]
In terms of the feedback you got, we imagine you were pretty pleased…
Yeah, it was pretty surreal to watch back on TV. When I was watching it at home, the only thing I was looking at was the judges and their reactions. You don’t think about that at the time as you’re so busy with your performance. Amber was lovely, and it’s so great to have someone who is a soulful singer respect what you do.
From watching it on replay, Martin looks like he really enjoyed it which is magical to watch. Then add in what Gary said on Twitter afterwards, that was just mental. That blew things out of the water because I don’t think that’s happened so far on the show. It’s a big deal!
Great talent so far ! Curtis, I got that one wrong ????????????????????from my sofa #letitshine
— Gary Barlow (@GaryBarlow) January 14, 2017
From your score and stars received, did you have an amount you think you’d get?
When I was in the moment, I was happy with 15 as that was all I needed to get through. If you do look at it statistically with what the judges can offer you, it’s very easy not to get 15 stars. When you start doing the maths, it only takes one judge not to like you and it’s difficult to get the 15 you need.
Your husband Carl spoke on your VT before. Were you conscious of being open about your sexuality on the show?
Yes, I was conscious about how I’d be received or perceived by the public because it was a big decision. I have the opinion that somewhere out there, there’s a young gay or lesbian kid who is entitled to have that normality on TV now. We’ve got to that age where being LGBT+ should be normalised, and why shouldn’t it be on the BBC?
As a youngster, I would’ve loved to have seen, on TV and talent shows in general, being LGBT+ as being normalised, rather than it being a story in the papers a few months after. That motivates me to remain open about my sexuality; the normalisation for younger viewers.
Was there ever a thought or time when you considered keeping it quiet?
I did think about that to begin with. It’s quite a common thing for LGBT+ artists or performers to work out what they’re going to do. But, what I explained was the rationale that let’s just go with what I am.
And the best you is being 100% yourself, no?
Do you almost understand why some people aren’t totally open about their sexuality on a platform like this?
It’s each to their own in that respect. I mean, I’ve been through my own trials and tribulations in accepting who I am, there’s still a stigma about being an LGBT+ artist. It has limitations, but I think we’re seeing more and more exceptions as time progresses. It’s a shame that there aren’t more openly gay presenters and sports stars especially. It would help tear down these stigmas and stereotypes that still exist in some places.
I settle with the belief that I think normalisation will come in time. As long as those in the public eye and in positions of social stature continue to push the boat on this — like Keegan Hirst, Gareth Thomas, Nigel Owens to name a few. I’m incredibly proud that these boys have put their integrity and reputations on the line.
Do you think being openly LGBT+ could work against you when it comes to a public vote on Let It Shine?
Interesting question. I often fear that, within this initial stage of building my career, that maybe not as many people would get behind me — pardon the pun. The great thing about this show is that potentially the end goal is to become a band and in a group of five, of course there’s room for an LGBT+ member. There’s something powerful in that you’re not just relying on yourself, but there’s five people who can attract five different audience bases. In this show and this circumstance, I don’t think it would go against me being openly LGBT+.
Your husband Carl was also watching and cheering you on. Has he explained the feeling of watching your partner put himself out there on such a public platform?
He was nervous. I think it was almost more anxious as he knew what was about to happen. He also knows my true thoughts and regards to the show, to Gary, to songwriting and that overall dream of where I want to be. He’s had to listen to me go on about that for the last seven or eight years, so for him, it’s everything in that moment.
What did he say to you after?
He was very proud. He’s a rugby coach and his philosophy on everything is to go out and deliver your best, making sure you don’t come away feeling anything hasn’t been left. He was happy because I walked away feeling like I couldn’t have done any better.
Do you believe there’s a fair representation of LGBT+ artists on TV? Are we in a good place?
It’s way better than it was ten years ago, but in general will take more time. It’s a generational thing, in my opinion; it will all click into place. We’re getting there, so for anyone my age or younger, it’s not even an issue. Especially in this country, I’m not sure about America right now, but the normalisation of LGBT+ people is becoming stronger. I was sat watching Class last night, a new BBC adult drama, and it randomly had two gay guys going off at it and that wouldn’t have happened 10 years before at 8/9pm.
With that in mind, how do you prevent yourself from being labelled ‘the gay singer’ on a show like this?
I think those two things should be separated. Yes I’m a singer, and yes I’m gay, but I’m also a Doctor Who nerd, a fitness freak, I work hard at the gym, own a rugby club and I like the colour orange. No one goes around saying you’re labelled a ‘Doctor Who-loving gym freak, who likes orange and is a gay singer’. We only pick up on the labels that currently have stigma and those stigmas are like trends. They change and continue to change.
I have a responsibility to the audience to make sure I show many facets to myself. With social media, that should be easier than ever. People can go to my Twitter or Instagram and learn about me and what else I do. In the UK especially, I hope being gay becomes a less-definitive label. My generation should feel no pressure to define themselves as something, and those definitions keep us primitive. To me, it’s super, super simple: as soon as we define people as something, we separate ourselves, and that’s what creates the doorway for prejudice and discrimination.
At the end of your episode, we saw Harry flash his abs. You’re no stranger to the gym, would you consider doing that?
[Laughs] I’m working hard on my body at the moment, and if I got offered some kind of role like Equus that Daniel Radcliffe did, it’s in the role. But, I wouldn’t use it unnecessarily. I want people to like me for what I do and that would be slightly out of character. I’m a light-hearted person, but also a normal person who wakes up topless, and when I take a selfie I am indeed topless. That’s life now, the social norms have changed. [Laughs]
You can’t join a Take That inspired musical and be body conscious? They loved the skimpy outfits…
Exactly! You’ve got to be open to that. [Laughs]
And finally, have you dared to dream about how far you might get with Let It Shine?
Any of us would love to go far, but it comes down to the public and what they want. If I ever get the opportunity to be in a band, maybe we will click or maybe we won’t. There’s so many dynamics to this show in regards to it being a band, I think that will have its part to play in if you make it to the end.