Remember when performers used to fret that coming out as openly gay might kill their careers?
Now onetime country star Chely Wright faces criticism from the opposite direction, revealing that she is a lesbian one day before her new album and memoir hit store shelves, kicking off a media blitz today of Lohan-ian proportions.
"Who the hell is Chely Wright?" asked several bloggers on Monday when news broke that the celebrity long-rumored to be coming out in People magazine this week was a country singer who hadn't released an album of new material in five years.
And along with the disappointment that it wasn't a bigger name (Oprah Winfrey, Queen Latifah and fellow country crooner Shelby Lynne all were speculated upon at one time), came the carping: She's only doing this for the publicity.
It's a natural suspicion, given how the worm has turned in showbiz. Once, coming out was a fitful process, surrounded by rumors and well-justified concern on how one's career might fare in the aftermath; these days, performers publicly announcing their homosexuality are handled carefully as some celebrities' weddings or birth announcements — with a finely-honed publicity rollout timed to coincide with maximum career opportunities.
In Wright's case, that meant releasing a new album Lifted Off the Ground and book Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer yesterday, one day after People.com broke her story to the world. Today, the 39-year-old will appear on NBC's Today show, Access Hollywood and CNN headline News' Joy Behar Show to further the buzz.
The gossip machine actually began churning last year, when publicist Howard Bragman — who helped Chastity Bono and actress Meredith Baxter make similar moves — first mentioned he was working with a famous musician coming out in 2010. As buzz built, gossip website Gawker called the anticipated revelation the "Cinco de Gayo."
Consider how far we've come. Back in the 1950s, flamboyant pianist Liberace sued publications for implying he was gay; The View co-host Barbara Walters recently indulged a curious mix of ego and concern by fretting that she helped stalled the career of singer Ricky Martin by pressing him on questions about his sexuality in 2000.
Now, in Wright's case, coming out looks like a career move.
Not to discount her struggles. The award-winning singer told Access Hollywood she contemplated suicide in 2006, after "living a lie" while keeping up a facade of heterosexuality, dating fellow country star Brad Paisley. "I hid everything for my music," Wright, who scored hits in the late '90s and early 2000s, told People magazine.
And depending on whether you consider K.D. Lang a country or a pop star when she came out in 1992, Wright is arguably the biggest performer from that world to come out in an industry not known for being gay friendly. Her biggest risk: that hard-core country fans will reject her over gay prejudice while more sympathetic folks might reject her for looking like an opportunist.
Whenever I see a performer come out, I'm reminded of an interview many years ago with out and proud singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, who noted some celebrities choose to reveal their sexual orientation (or not) for purely personal reasons the public may never know.
So I'm hoping this is mostly a victory lap for a performer who has hidden her true self for too long. Whatever happens, it surely beats the days when somebody could cap a star's career just by asking about it.