Oct 28, 2019

Ronan Park and Jack Vidgen: The Travails of Gay Pop Stars

(Jack Vidgen)

Quite by accident, through a comment from a performance arts colleague of mine, I stumbled across the recent bios of two boy teen singing sensations, both of whom made a big splash worldwide 8 years ago. The first, Jack Vidgen, won Australia's Got Talent Contest in 2011 at the age of 14, primarily for his powerful renditions of Whitney Huston and Adele songs. As one of the judges said to him, "|You've got a black woman inside of you." Jack was a cherubic blond teen at the time, a bit shy and self-effacing, but with a vocal instrument of unparalleled power, maturity and intensity. His audition for the show, singing Whitney Huston's I Have Nothing, reached over 9 million views on YouTube and earned for him considerable international interest from music industry execs. He was touted as the "next Justin Bieber", not in terms of his voice - which is far more powerful than Bieber's, but in terms of his potential earning power $$$.

Ronan Park
The second boy, a year younger, was Ronan Park, a smaller and even more cherubic 'choir boy', also equipped with a vocal instrument of extraordinary operatic depth and power. Ronan was even more of a shock than Jack Vidgen, because of his diminutive size. Where did all that gorgeous sound come from? Ronan was the runner-up in Britain's Got Talent contest that year, but in practical terms (record contracts, media attention) he was really the show's de facto  winner. He also was touted as "the next Justin Bieber" teen sensation. Except that ...there was just something too obviously gay about him, whereas Jack gave off no such clues in voice and mannerisms.

Both boys were touted as 'the next Justin Bieber' teen sensation from different parts of the world and on different continents and there were numerous articles in the media comparing them. And then...within a few years of their respective 'wins', after albums and touring, both boys at the age of 16 disappeared from the limelight, gave up singing publicly and retired back into school boy normalcy, or so it seemed. And all that momentum built up by their wins and media attention - fizzled out.

And then, after a five year hiatus, both boys this year - quite independently of one another - made their comebacks. As of this writing, both young men, Jack Vidgen 22 and Ronan Parke 21, are struggling to make an impact, but they have nothing close to the following they had eight years ago. Yet both young men seem much stronger and more self-assured than their younger selves, and both have extraordinary voices and talent. They also have a special story to tell.

What happened?

Being gay is what happened.

Once in the limelight, both young boys were subjected to massive on-line bullying about their sexuality, Ronan Park especially. Both boys were scrutinized minutely, every gesture, every word, every action and subjected to viscous homophobic attacks. Both received death threats on social media and even sadder, both boys were subjected to intense pressure from their record company execs to 'mute' their sexuality or risk of sacrificing their careers. And both boys attempted to comply, with the result that they felt they were disconnecting from their authentic selves. As a result both boys felt a need to pull back, simply out of self preservation.

I'm not going to go into detail in this short blog post, because it's better to let the boys, now young men,  speak for themselves. Of course, they attribute their withdrawal from public life to numerous reasons and influences, but as you listen to them, it becomes clear that being gay and the hatred that brought them on social media together with the pressure put upon them to hide their sexuality were the dominant factors that led to their withdrawal. Sad, terribly sad, on one level. On another level, however, both young men came to realize that these negative experiences were meant to be a learning experience for them, and as well known public figures they had a responsibility to witness to their experiences and speak out.

But it is at this point that their stories diverge somewhat. Ronan Park, in a wonderful article in the gay magazine Attitude, is quoted as saying:
Ronan claims he attempted to come out to his parents when he was 8 years old, but they told him, "Yea, yea, we know. You're gay." And went back to watching the tv. In other words, no big deal and he lived his childhood in that climate of acceptance and normalcy. As a result, he was genuinely shocked by the hateful comments he received on social media about his appearance, mannerisms, gestures, voice because his parents had done such a good job shielding him from this kind of hatred. It came as something new for him, but it also led him to take a pause in his music career and 'leave the stage'for five years. He is now all the better for it. Mature, poised, self-assured and confident, with a story to tell and a message to convey.

Jack Vidgen was in another place psychologically when he got hit with the homophobic hate unleashed on him through social media. As he explains, he was going through puberty at the time and very confused about his sexuality. What did being gay really mean? The hatred had an impact. At the age of 16, he went into a tail spin, left family, friends and Australia behind and went to live in Hollywood, California for a year on his own, attempting to launch his career in the US. He has spared us the details of that year, except to say that he was 'exposed' to certain influences and experiences that no 16 year old should have to face. One shudders to think what these experiences might have been for this blond cherubic teen - in Hollywood of all places! After a year, he just wanted to return home and be with his mom again. So he returned to 'schoolboy' normalcy for 5 years.

Of the two young men, Jack appears to have been the most wounded by the experience of homophobic hate , but he also comes across as a strong, reflective, self-aware young man who has found the means to heal himself. He is mature beyond his years.

Here is his YouTube interview in which he discusses the bullying he received and the effect it had on him personally and on his career.

Ronan, on the other hand, with that very special upbringing by tolerant parents, seems rock solid in his identity as a gay man and gay artist. There was no journey of discovery for him as a gay boy, he always knew.

Here is his YouTube video describing cyber bullying:

Prior to writing up this post, I did a google search of both of them together. While there are numerous articles comparing them in 2011, there is nothing out there I could find that compares their respective experiences of being bullied for their sexuality and the impact this had upon them and their careers. No one seems to have made the connection. But the parallels and timing are uncanny. Both boys 'win'  their respective contests in 2011, both are touted as the next teen singing sensation, both find themselves bullied on social media and pressured because of their sexuality, both - at the same time - withdraw from singing publicly, both spend five years in seclusion, and both decide -in the same year - to return to public life as pop singers. Its almost as if they planned it together, but there is no evidence that they even know one another personally.

There's a lot more to say about these two openly gay pop stars, who have now become ambassadors to gay young teens, but I leave it to the interested reader to follow up. Ronan has numerous YouTube videos where you can hear his extraordinary voice in its mature form,

Here is Ronan singing "Never Enough" from The Greatest Showman. A sensational cover. As of this writing, Ronan is appearing all over the UK, but usually to small audiences. With a voice that would leave most pop stars in the dust, he is struggling to find an audience.

And here is Jack Vidgen's audition this year for Australia's The Voice. He chose to enter this contest as his way of returning to the stage. Yes, his appearance has changed dramatically, but I'm not going to comment on that here.

Amazing parallels and coincidences, almost as if these two extraordinary gay pop sensations were being led by the same compassionate, all-wise, all-loving Star. Blessings on them both.