Alex Newell is the gender nonconforming voice the world needs

Jimmy Fontaine

Alex Newell really is Madam That Bitch.

Since rising to fame on Glee as trailblazing trans character Unique Adams, the powerhouse vocalist has conquered Broadway, received a Grammy nomination and generated over 200 million streams for his infectious dance-pop anthems.

Earlier this year, the superstar returned to the small screen with another groundbreaking role on NBC’s new dramedy, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Alex plays Mo, a genderfluid DJ and building manager who serves as a confidant to the title character, who has the newfound superpower of hearing other people’s thoughts through song and dance.

The show has received praise, especially from the LGBTQ community, for providing audiences with an authentic queer character whose main story arc doesn’t revolve around their sexuality or gender identity.

“Sometimes, networks or shows just touch upon a subject for a minute and it’s never discussed again. Normally, these kind of characters are guest stars and aren’t welcome in the entire series,” Alex tells GAY TIMES over the phone.

“When the human race can get past gender and see the person for who they are, I think we advance in a way where we can derive a new respect for each other. I think that we’ll be so much better for it.”

We caught up with Alex over lockdown to discuss the fabulous new character, his widely-acclaimed stint as Asaka in the Broadway revival of Once on This Island and how Glee changed the landscape of television. And of course, we had to ask about Madam That Bitch. Will the Celebrity Drag Race winner shantay onto our screens again in the future?

Hi Alex! How is self-isolation treating you?
Hi Sam! Oh it’s fine… I’m walking down the street, getting coffee. It’s the one exercise I get! 

What do the streets of New York look like? Is it a post-apocalyptic wasteland?
I’m in a neighbourhood, so there’s a lot of people out, doing their airings, going to the grocery store and such. 

A lot face masks?
[Laughs] There’s a lot of face masks around! It’s very strange. 

How are you keeping motivated and inspired during lockdown? 
I mean, I’m inspired to just… rest. I never really get to do this! I don’t. I’m always working. I did a run of a Broadway show for a year and half and once that ended, I flew out to Chicago to film a TV show. I got back into New York and flew directly to LA to test for Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. From there on, I was filming Zoey in Canada. I then did a Pride tour, concert after concert, then stopped because of the epidemic. This is my time to sit down, rest and not fly around the world! As much as I joke about it, I’m a workaholic. I love to work, but I do need to sit down sometimes and appreciate what I’ve done. Also, to give my body some rest! As a singer and performer, people forget that we’re not robots. Just because we like to do something, doesn’t mean we like to do it all of the time! I’m inspired to take care of myself and practice what I preach, because I always tell students to rest and not burn yourself out. I always do the opposite! I’m inspired by self-discovery in quarantine, because I think a lot of us don’t know who we are. 

I’m trying to do the same. Congratulations on your Broadway stint – how did you find that experience?
It was full circle. I have been doing musical theatre my entire life and it was what I was known for doing. So having to come back in and break into theatre was to show that I’m not one of those TV stars that can’t do musical theatre. I started off doing this! It was a role that I always wanted to play and it was one of my dream roles, to be honest. To do that, and to do that for a year and a half of my life, was a full circle moment. It was what I had worked for.

Do you feel more comfortable on the stage?
I mean, yeah. At the end of the day, I will always be a singer first. I’ve been singing since I was two and I started theatre when I was 11. It does feel like home. Any place feels like home when I’m singing, dancing or acting, but Broadway is my first love. 

How did your Broadway experience help you grow as an artist?
I’m someone that likes learning about everything that I do. I don’t like to be ignorant to anything and the experiences that I have teach me about what I like, what I don’t like, what works, what doesn’t work and all facets and multiple avenues that I express my art in. I think my experience taught me how to be open and honest about a lot of things. And at the end of the day, I am truly an Asaka! I have never been anything else in that show; loud, boisterous, all of these things that everyone knows me for. What I’ve really taken away from the experience is what Mama Told Me is about, that motherhood comes in different shapes and forms. I was just so fascinated about that in my own journey of wanting kids, and understanding this other facet. It’s also learning how to create a Broadway show from the bare bones, even though the skeleton was there.

What are your plans for Broadway in the future?
No actor has anything planned – there are never any plans! I mean, we’re – for a lack of a better word, a word we don’t use anymore – gypsies. Work comes or it doesn’t come. Right now, we’ve never seen anything like this. It’s strange, nothing is promised to you. When I teach kids musical theatre, they ask questions about how to prepare for this and this and what tips I have for the future. I always have to say, ‘Your career is not promised to you. No one is sitting here handing you a career that you can take and go forth for everything. Tomorrow is not promised.’ So, there’s never a plan! The idea and the wish is to, yeah, come back to Broadway and do another show, but even with that, we’ll see where things lead. 

We have to talk about your new single, Mama Told Me. I absolutely love it. What’s the story behind it?
Thank you! Thank you so much. It is basically about my mom and what motherhood means, especially coming off of a Broadway run, playing the mother of the Earth and not knowing what it’s like to bring a child into the world, or nurture or have a child. I was always so fascinated by that one word. It also applies to house mothers in the LGBTQ community, how these mothers would take in these kids and give them homes. I was always fascinated by that. 

What is your relationship like with your mother?
It’s always been me and her, my entire life. 

How did she react to the song?
She loves it! I haven’t seen her since we wrote it, I don’t think, since like Christmas. But she loves it, she says it’s one of my best songs just because it’s about her!

There are so many queer kids who aren’t fortunate enough to have such supportive parents – what advice would you give them?
Find someone that you trust that is kind of like your mother. It’s not the people that raise you, it’s the people that make you who you are, who sew you together throughout your life.

Mama Told Me is your second single of the year – do you have plans for an album or EP?
I think so! Right now, it’s about re-introducing and putting things out there. It’s been so long! I wanted to, not re-introduce, but I guess it is what it is, re-introduce myself to everyone again by putting out amazing music first, then coming out with a clear sound for a full-length. 

Boy, You Can Keep It is also one of my favourite anthems of 2020 – where did that stem from?
Thank you! I think it was from dating around so much, and being over the people that trying to impress me with all of these materialistic things about how they can provide for me, and all the trips they can take me on. I was always just like, I can take myself anywhere I want to go! I can provide for myself easily and buy what I want to buy. I don’t need you to buy things of that sort for me. How about we just talk about normal things? I remember the biggest reason that I broke up with someone was because all they could think about was their career. I didn’t have the time to just think about your career and how I can take you further, and vice versa. So, Boy, You Can Keep It came out of that in a way. 

It’s very relatable. Congratulations are also in order for your role on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist – for those who haven’t seen the show, how would you describe your character?
My character is the best friend that you never knew that you needed, but wanted. Mo is the confidant of Zoey, the lead character, who can hear people’s thoughts through song. Mo is that friend that tells Zoey the black and white truth about why this is happening, why she shouldn’t think this way or why this person is singing this song or feeling this way towards her. There’s fashion and hair, all of the good things a San Francisco diva would be!

Mo is genderfluid – how important is to see more representation like this on television, especially on a network as big as NBC?
For me, what’s important is the representation of it all. You never see anything like this, a positive version or theatre version of genderfluid, just a different expression. Sometimes, networks and shows just touch upon a subject for a minute and then we never hear anything else about it and it’s never discussed again. Normally, these kind of characters are guest stars and aren’t welcome in the entire series. I just wanted to make it as normal as it can, let’s not talk about it and just have it be what it is. We’re seeing this real life person exist, being normal and accepted by everyone. When the human race can get past gender and see the person for who they are, I think we advance in a way where we can derive a new respect for each other. I think that when people see something that’s different from them, they either like it or hate it. We need to get to a place of indifference, which is not like or hate but understanding that we’re all different and that we all have a walk of life. I think that we’ll be so much better for it. 

You identify as gender nonconforming, so did you have any input into how the character is portrayed? 
I have input over my hair, my makeup, what I do and don’t want to say. It’s nice to be trusted in a way to tell this story in such a manner.

What has the response been like from the gender nonconforming community?
I think everybody wants a Mo in their life now, and it speaks volumes to what the network was willing to put on their screens. It is that boost of confidence when people are open about how the character has inspired them, or how I’ve inspired them, to live their true lives or to accept someone that isn’t like them and to know that they’re normal. Or for a parent whose child is genderfluid or non-binary or trans or gay. 

It’s been eight years since you appeared on Glee – how do you think the landscape of TV has changed since?
I think a lot of people are more accepting of sexuality and gender and even musical theatre. Whether you’re tall, short, gay, straight, black or white, we all go through different facets of life; heartbreak, sadness, death, loss. I think Glee was really good at showing all of those things and doing them in a manner where you didn’t care what the person looked like or what the person dressed as or what their sexual orientation was or what their gender was. You felt for the person themselves. I think Glee introduced that into what television is now. We now have a Pose and all of these amazing television shows that keep up with the same themes of Glee but expand on them. Work still needs to be done. We’re still fighting racism in America and in the world in general, so the world quite literally always needs to be done. When work ends, what’s the point of living? We can’t live in a utopia. 

You slayed fans last week when you sashayed into the werkroom for Celebrity Drag Race – what made you want to participate?
Everyone has seen me in my day-to-day drag, but not the side of me that warrants why the drag has to be put on and being vulnerable.

What was it like, being paired with Drag Race legend Bob the Drag Queen?
It’s so funny that people don’t think we know each other, but we have known each other for years! We met right after he won, at DC Pride. Being paired with him was brilliant, just like having a kiki with a good Judy!

What did you learn about yourself through the whole process? 
That no matter how confident one is, there are still facets if your life that you aren’t comfortable with. 

What’s next for Madam That Bitch? Will we see her again? 
I think you will see a little more of Madam That Bitch in different aspects of life, especially with new music coming!

Watch Alex Newell’s stunning music video for Mama Told Me below.

Photography Jimmy Fontaine

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