Troye Sivan’s Coming of Age
On August 7, 2013, the Australian vlogger Troye Sivan fixed his bright-blue eyes on his camera and pressed Record. Sivan, a goofy, self-confident eighteen-year-old, had amassed nearly half a million YouTube subscribers in six years, with videos such as “Funny Halloween Costume Ideas” (in which he put on an orange wig, held up a bagel, and declared, “I’m the Ginger Bread Man!”) and “Life’s Unanswerable Questions” (in which he wondered, “If there was an earthquake on Mars, would it be called a Mars-quake?”). His new video, filmed in his family’s home, in Perth, was more confessional. “This is probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life,” he said. Three years earlier, he explained, he had told his family that he was gay. “It feels kind of weird to have to announce it like this on the Internet,” he continued. “But I feel like a lot of you guys are, like, real, genuine friends of mine.”
Sivan spoke for eight minutes, striking a tone that was part sleepover, part press conference. One night when he was fifteen, he said, he was talking about religion with his father, who raised him and his three siblings as Orthodox Jews: “I said to him, ‘If there was anything about religion you could change, what would you change?’ And he said, ‘To me, the whole gay thing, it really doesn’t make sense why a religion would kind of be against it or whatever.’ ” Grabbing his larynx and pretending to zip his lips, Sivan mimed the “physical locking of my throat” that he had experienced before blurting out to his father that he was gay. His family was “a hundred per cent fine,” he went on, recalling that after his mother told each of his siblings they had come into his room, one by one, to hug him. “I know that this could kind of change everything for me,” he said. “But it shouldn’t have to, and that’s why I’m making this video.” He signed off with his signature wink.
Within a week, the video, titled “Coming Out,” had been covered by Business Insider and the Huffington Post and had been viewed nearly eight hundred thousand times (the number now exceeds eight million), drawing comments such as “i love you troye omg” and “Troye you adorable muffin.” But the video failed to mention an important detail: Sivan was in negotiations with the music label EMI Australia, and he had not discussed his sexuality with the company’s executives. “I wanted it to be out so that they couldn’t tell me to stay in the closet,” he told me recently. The morning after Sivan posted the video, he woke up to a congratulatory e-mail from EMI, and the label finalized the deal.
By degrees, Sivan began to shed his plucky YouTube persona and to adopt the ultra-styled glamour of a pop star. He appeared in a moody music video in which he wore a gelled pompadour and stared meaningfully at the ocean. He modelled for Yves Saint Laurent at Paris Fashion Week. Time named him one of the most influential teens of 2014, alongside Malala Yousafzai. In August of that year, Sivan released an EP with the unpronounceable title “TRXYE,” which débuted at No. 5 on the U.S. Billboard charts. The next year, he put out his first studio album, “Blue Neighbourhood,” containing the platinum-selling single “Youth,” the lyrics of which—“My youth, my youth is yours”—sound like a watch cry for a generation of oversharers. Ann Powers, a music critic for NPR, wrote that the album “finds depth and coherence in dreamy, soulful pop that breathes desire.”
“There’s a kind of elegance and melancholy that he cultivated from the beginning,” Powers told me. “It signals back to George Michael singing ‘Careless Whisper,’ but also to classic novels of gay liberation, like ‘Dancer from the Dance’ or E. M. Forster’s ‘Maurice.’ ” One song on “Blue Neighbourhood,” “Heaven,” describes a closeted teen-age boy’s anxieties about how his family and his religious community will react to his sexuality: “Without losing a piece of me, / how do I get to heaven?” The accompanying music video, which came out the day before Donald Trump’s Inauguration, spliced images of Sivan resting his head on the bare chest of his boyfriend, the model Jacob Bixenman, with archival footage of gay-liberation marches and ACT UP protests.
Gay music stars—and coded gay lyrics—are nothing new. As Powers pointed out, Little Richard’s original chorus for “Tutti Frutti,” in 1955, was “tutti frutti, good booty,” which a producer had him replace with the words “aw rootie.” Elton John has been donning feather boas and bedazzled sunglasses since the seventies. George Michael and Freddie Mercury were androgynous peacocks who projected transgressive allure, their queerness a wide-open secret. Then, there’s the class of rock gods—Jagger, Bowie, Prince—whose omnisexuality seemed unbound by earthly constraints. In recent decades, openly L.G.B.T. stars have emerged, among them lesbian folk-rock singers (k. d. lang, Melissa Etheridge), neo-glam rockers (Adam Lambert, Jake Shears), art-pop balladeers (Rufus Wainwright, Sam Smith), and the R. & B. star Frank Ocean.
But Sivan represents something novel: a gay pop idol in the mold of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, forged on social media and marketed to a mass audience primed by Lady Gaga’s anthem of acceptance, “Born This Way.” To young listeners versed in the language of sexual and gender diversity, being gay is a mark of authenticity. Even straight celebrities dabble in gay innuendo; James Franco declared himself “gay in my art and straight in my life,” and Nick Jonas displayed his chest at a gay bar while promoting a new single. Sivan, who is also an actor, co-starred last year in Joel Edgerton’s conversion-therapy drama, “Boy Erased.” “Troye is the next generation,” Edgerton told me. “He created himself with the tools at his fingertips, and he’s not made by a music studio.”
Most pop songs can be boiled down to a handful of sentiments—“I want you,” “I love you,” “I lost you,” “Let’s dance!”—but Sivan’s sexuality has opened up a new expanse of material. Just as Swift’s songs have charted the milestones of young womanhood—a first date (“Fifteen”), crushing on a best friend (“You Belong with Me”)—Sivan’s translate the gay coming of age into recognizable rites of passage. His 2015 song “Bite” evokes a first trip to a sketchy gay dive bar: “Don’t you want to see a man up close, / a phoenix in the fire?” His second album, “Bloom,” came out last summer and has racked up more than 1.2 billion streams, with songs hitting No. 1 on iTunes in at least forty countries. One of its tracks, “Seventeen,” is based on an experience common to young gay men but rarely talked about. When Sivan first joined the hookup app Grindr, he had an encounter with a man who was in his thirties. Years later, Sivan was scrolling through old text messages and found a selfie he had sent the guy, in which Sivan thought he looked shockingly young. Had he been taken advantage of, or was this a natural progression for a curious gay teen? The gay pop artist Leland, who co-wrote “Seventeen,” told me that the lyrics had taken six months to refine. He and Sivan had written a chorus that, he said, “almost glorified the situation,” featuring the line “Here he comes, like he just walked out of a dream.” They tried an angrier version—“Doesn’t care you’re seventeen / And maybe he forgot what that means”—but that didn’t feel right, either. Finally, during a songwriting session in Malibu, they captured the ambivalent tone they wanted: “I went out looking for love when I was seventeen / Maybe a little too young, but it was real to me.”
The lyrics of “Bloom” ’s title song are both allusive (“Take a trip into my garden, / I’ve got so much to show ya”) and intimate (“Might tell you to / Take a second, baby, slow it down”). Sivan has sometimes told interviewers that the song is “about flowers.” When I met Sivan in Los Angeles this winter, he recalled picking the word “bloom” out of a book that he had happened upon in a recording studio. Later, he and Leland conceived the song in a studio session in Stockholm, just after a turning point in Sivan’s relationship with Bixenman. “Then I was, like, Oh, this is that song,” Sivan said, and found himself writing a dance number about anal sex. When Sivan first played “Bloom” for label executives, he said, he introduced it with a tongue-in-cheek “birds and the bees” speech: “When two gay men love each other very much . . .” Listening to the song, some of the executives would nod along blankly, but, Sivan said, “immediately, the gays in the room would lock eyes with me, and I would know that they knew.” In the “Bloom” music video, he appeared with bleached hair, wearing lipstick and a blue feathered headdress. The draggy look was new for him, and he recalled feeling a shudder of internalized homophobia in the makeup chair. “I thought, Am I really going to do this?” he told me. “It’s tough. There’s still so much femme-shaming in the gay community.”
We were speaking in the living room of his home, in the Hollywood Hills, an Art Deco-ish house that he shares with Bixenman. The couple met at a fashion show three years ago, after a flirtation on Instagram, where their combined 10.9 million followers can now watch them cuddling with their dog, a pit-bull mix named Nash, or getting dressed for award shows. Outside, a deck, featuring a small, kidney-shaped pool, was being refinished. A flame burned in a black marble fireplace, and Sivan, who is five feet nine and slender, with pale skin, a nose ring, and a quiff of curly bangs, was in all black, reclining on a couch, his feet on a coffee table next to a book of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. At twenty-four, he is growing into a certain kind of adulthood. After moving to L.A., in 2017, he leased his first car, a Tesla Model X. He had recently written his first check, to a gardener. And, last year, he and Bixenman (whom his parents jokingly call Yakov Bixenstein) hosted their first Passover Seder. The guests included Ariana Grande, the model and actress Hari Nef, who narrated the Passover story from memory, and the actor Lucas Hedges, with whom Sivan starred in “Boy Erased.”
In person, Sivan has the same guileless openness that he cultivated online. When I brought up the unprecedented nature of songs like “Bloom,” he downplayed his role as a pop pioneer. “I get really overwhelmed when I try to zoom out and get perspective on where I fit,” he said. “So my only response to that fear is to just ask myself, ‘Is this real? Is this genuine?’ And so, if that entails writing a love song or a sex song or a party song or a sad song, as long as it’s coming from a genuine place I try not to really question myself.” But it’s clear that Sivan’s popularity on YouTube gave him considerable leverage in his songwriting. “He had really built an engaged and reactive fan base, and clearly he knew who he spoke to and spoke for,” Michelle Jubelirer, the chief operating officer of Capitol Music Group, Sivan’s American label, said. “It would have been less than intelligent of us to mess that up.”
Justin Tranter, a pop songwriter with credits that include Selena Gomez’s “Good for You” and Janelle Monáe’s “Make Me Feel,” told me, “Times have changed because of people like Troye.” Ten years ago, Tranter was the “proudly femme” lead singer of the New York glam-rock band Semi Precious Weapons. “Label people would see our fan base in the big cities and be over the moon,” Tranter recalled. “Then they would sign us, and all of a sudden they would be, like, ‘Can you not dress like that anymore?’ ” Frustrated, Tranter disbanded the group in 2014 and pursued songwriting gigs. With social media and YouTube, Tranter said, “the way to finding content has been democratized. There are no longer gatekeepers saying, ‘Oh, I just don’t know if a kid in Iowa wants to hear a gay kid from Australia come out. Is that something that anyone would ever watch?’ ”
Unlike Justin Bieber’s fan base, the Beliebers, or Beyoncé’s Beyhive, Sivan’s fans don’t have a collective name, although “Troyeblemakers” was briefly tried out online. But they have a few hallmarks, including glittery eye makeup, nose rings, and a fluid approach to sexuality. In March, six hours before Sivan performed in Stockholm as part of the “Bloom” world tour, about a hundred kids—mostly girls, some boys—were camped on blankets outside the venue, a former circus arena across the street from the ABBA museum. “We live in Finland, so it was just one ship away,” a seventeen-year-old girl named Noah, who had come with two friends, said. A sixteen-year-old named Alisa, from Skåne, described herself as pansexual, which she defined as “you love a person regardless of their gender.” She had brought a rainbow flag, on which she had written “WELCOME BACK TO YOUR SOUL HOME”—a reference to the fact that Sivan had fantasized about moving to Scandinavia before he came out, because of the region’s progressiveness on gay rights. Fans signed their names: Tiina, Hedda, Martta, Iida, Majken.
Social media has put pop stars in constant contact with their audience, transforming them from untouchable idols into imaginary friends. Sivan’s female fans see him as a platonic crush object, or as an idealized gay bestie passing them notes in drama class. To a generation that is hyper-alert to issues of consent and to the dangers of “toxic masculinity,” Sivan is a safe yet still sexual alternative to the Bieberesque bad boy. (The “nice” heartthrob has long held a place in teen culture: David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman. In early episodes of “The Simpsons,” Lisa had a subscription to Non-Threatening Boys magazine.) “I’d say it feels like friendship,” Sivan told me, when I asked him about his female fans. “Maybe me coming out kind of removed that sexual thing that someone like Justin Bieber would get. None of the girls in the front row are trying to come home with me.”
One of the boys who had camped out was Tyler McCrane, a twenty-year-old Floridian with bleached hair, who was wearing a lavender beret and overalls with a posy of plastic flowers stuffed into the pocket. “Tonight’s my nineteenth show,” he told me. He had dropped out of high school because of bullying, and had taken two weeks off from waiting tables in Orlando to follow the tour. He came out to himself, as he put it, on September 4, 2015, the day Sivan released the song “Fools.” “I just heard the song and it clicked,” he said. “I didn’t just come out of the closet—I jumped. Troye started painting his nails, so I started painting my nails and expressing myself in different ways.” McCrane was one of ninety-three fans who had paid extra to attend a “sound-check party” on the arena floor. As they rushed in, Sivan was waiting onstage, wearing a Patagonia sweater and jeans. One young woman said, apparently to herself, “I’m not going to fangirl—I’m a normal person.” Sivan sang a mellow dance number called “Cool,” then began taking questions.
“Why are you so beautiful?” a girl asked.
Sivan laughed, dodging the question. “I just woke up,” he said, explaining that he had fallen asleep on the tour bus.
Another fan asked, “You’re wearing Patagonia. I was wondering—are you promoting sustainable fashion?”
“This is my older brother’s—he left it on the bus,” Sivan said. “But I do love sustainable fashion. Yeah?”
“How’s Nash?” a girl asked.
“He’s really, really good. I’m so excited—I see him in three days.”
An eighteen-year-old boy who was visiting from the United Arab Emirates asked, “When are you coming to Dubai?”
Sivan said that he had been to Dubai seven or eight times but had never left the airport. He promised to venture out the next time. Sivan has yet to play in the Middle East; the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, which has a gay front man, has been banned in Jordan and Egypt, and some attendees at a 2017 concert in Cairo were arrested for “promoting sexual deviancy.” (In the U.A.E., homosexual acts are punishable by imprisonment or torture.) But Sivan’s “Bloom” tour has taken him to Brazil, where the new President, Jair Bolsonaro, has described himself as “homophobic and very proud of it,” and to China, where same-sex couples cannot marry or adopt—and where “Bloom” went platinum.
A few hours later, Sivan reëmerged into a spotlight wearing a slim-cut blazer. Singing “Bloom,” he strutted back and forth, encouraging the audience to sing along. He tried out some phrases in Swedish, which he had been learning on the language app Babbel. Thanks in part to ABBA, Sweden has been a nexus of pop songwriting for decades. Sivan has composed a number of tracks with MXM, the Swedish company founded by Max Martin, who is responsible for Britney Spears’s “. . . Baby One More Time,” the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” and Katy Perry’s gay-to-a-point “I Kissed a Girl.” “This language can only be used here and with songwriters in L.A.,” Sivan told the audience. “You know what I realized I don’t know how to say? I don’t know how to say ‘I love you.’ ” The crowd shouted back, “Jag älskar dig! ”
Near the control booth, a few knowing fans approached a middle-aged couple for photographs. They were Sivan’s parents, Shaun and Laurelle Mellet. (Sivan, a month on the Jewish calendar, is Troye’s middle name.) Shaun, who is burly, bald, and gregarious, is a serial entrepreneur who has worked in plumbing, battery sales, advertising, and real estate, and he used to drive an Uber in Melbourne, where the couple recently moved. Laurelle, a former model, was wearing octagonal glasses and a colorful shawl. “They’ve seen us on his Instagram,” she said, of her son’s admirers.
Shaun and Laurelle are both from Johannesburg, where Troye was born. They moved to Australia when he was two, because of rising crime in the city, they said. Laurelle had converted to Judaism when she married Shaun. They went to shul and observed Shabbat every Friday, and their four children attended Perth’s only Jewish school. “I met my first non-Jewish friend when I was probably seventeen,” Sivan told me.
Sivan began singing lessons at seven, studying recital music, but gravitated toward pop. In 2006, he was chosen to sing “Over the Rainbow” for a telethon, on Channel 7 Perth. At the dress rehearsal, Guy Sebastian, the winner of the first season of “Australian Idol,” heard Sivan’s boy soprano and invited him to sing a duet. They reprised the song at a shopping center a few days later. One of Sivan’s cousins in South Africa sent him a video of the performance that had been uploaded to YouTube, which was just a year old and was beginning to launch its own homegrown stars, including Bieber. Intrigued, a mop-topped Sivan posted his first video, in which he crooned Declan Galbraith’s “Tell Me Why.”
At the same time, he became an in-demand soloist at Australian synagogues. After a rabbi saw Sivan sing at his shul in Perth, he was invited to perform at Sydney’s Central Synagogue. “I loved the fact that I got to travel for the first time, and the shuls kept getting bigger,” he said. The rabbi network led to an invitation from Chabad of Encino, in California. His performance there, in which he sang Barbra Streisand’s version of “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) before a thousand people, was a fiasco. “My voice had started to break, so I wasn’t very confident in my singing,” Sivan recalled. “I forgot my lyrics, because I was overthinking, and from then onwards felt like I was going to faint.” He managed to make it through the song. “But it really bashed my confidence,” he said. “And at the time, I also have to say, I was over the shul circuit.”
Burned out at fourteen, he put music aside and concentrated on honing his offbeat YouTube persona. As Sivan’s audience grew, his parents and siblings created their own social-media identities, tagging one another across platforms and amassing followers. Tyde, Sivan’s younger brother, spun off a guest appearance on Sivan’s YouTube channel into his own, straighter version, posting videos such as “Why Girls Are Complicated.” Their sister, Sage, posted sunlit selfies under the handle sageybabey. (She now co-runs a startup that sells subscriptions for feminine-hygiene products.) In 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald called them “a photogenic von Trapp family for the Facebook age.” Their collective fame coincided with a dip in the family’s religious observance. “Pretty much after my bar mitzvah, that fell apart,” Sivan told me. He is now an atheist. Today, all six Mellets have at least ten thousand followers on Twitter and Instagram, and Tyde, who is nineteen, recently released his own R. & B. single, under the name Tyde Levi.
In 2008, a talent manager who had seen Sivan’s early videos online got him an audition for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” in which he was cast as a younger version of Hugh Jackman’s mutant character, with retractable claws. In 2010, at fifteen, he played the title role in “Spud,” a South African film about a boarding-school student, and, later, in two sequels. John Cleese, of Monty Python, played his English teacher. Sivan recalled, “We went out to dinners, and he would talk to me about his ex-wives and acting and life.” When I contacted Cleese recently, he was surprised to learn that Sivan was now a pop star. “I thought he was quite an extraordinarily good actor,” he recalled. “But of course he’s very small, physically, so I’m delighted that this career of his has taken off.”
In 2010, Sivan was cast in a touring Australian production of “Waiting for Godot” that starred Ian McKellen. At the time, Sivan was wrestling with his attraction to boys—his erotic fantasies about Zac Efron, he told me, left him in tears. On the evening of Sivan’s fifteenth birthday, McKellen gave him a bottle of champagne backstage. “I knew that he was openly gay, and I was right at that point where I was starting to feel all-consumed by this secret,” Sivan recalled. He tried to summon the courage to say something, but the moment came and went. Instead, he told his best friend, Kayla, and, a few months later, his father.
At the time of his coming-out video, Sivan was earning a sizable income from his channel’s ad revenue and was travelling internationally to YouTube conventions such as VidCon and Playlist Live, where he befriended the gay YouTube star Tyler Oakley. “I’d do a meet and greet, and there’d be, like, thousands of girls,” Sivan told me. “I thought, How are they going to react?” After posting the video, Sivan made a guest appearance on Oakley’s channel in which they showed off fake Hello Kitty tattoos and giggled at fan art. The next day, Sivan got a call from an adult he knew in show business, who cautioned him that he didn’t have to be “flamboyant and camp.” “Essentially, it was the ‘don’t shove it in people’s faces’ kind of conversation,” Sivan said. He told me that it was the only time someone in the industry had advised him to tone it down. In the ensuing months, his YouTube profits grew, thanks to partnerships with brands such as Coca-Cola and Durex. When “TRXYE” sold thirty thousand copies in the United States in a week, “my label just freaked out,” he said. “They had no idea of the power of that audience and the community that was online.”
A year later, when he released an EP titled “Wild,” Taylor Swift tweeted, “WILD IS STUNNING AND AWESOME (YES CAPSLOCK IS NECESSARY HERE).” “She was one of the first people I sent the ‘Bloom’ album to,” Sivan told me, and she responded with a “really thoughtful, long essay breaking down each song and what she thought about it.” Last year, Swift invited him onstage at her concert at the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, and they sang Sivan’s peppy dance single “My, My, My!” The song suited her, for good reason. Leland recalled that, when he and Sivan were writing it, “we openly said in the session, ‘When it comes to melody, what would Taylor Swift do?’ ”
Two days after the Stockholm concert, Sivan was riding through Oslo in his double-decker tour bus, inching through traffic. He sat in the lower level with his sister and Leland, his opening act, and rubbed his hands with scented oil. “I love eucalyptus,” he said. He is interested in launching a line of products “in the life-style space,” maybe candles or soaps. When “Blue Neighbourhood” came out, he sold candles on his Web site in various scents that corresponded to the moods of individual songs.
Laurelle and Shaun came down the stairs. It was Laurelle’s stepfather’s eighty-ninth birthday, so she phoned him in South Africa, and the family warbled “Happy Birthday to You.” A few minutes later, I coughed, and everyone on the bus turned and stared. “Are you sick?” Sivan said. He had already cancelled his Paris concert, because of a throat infection. His parents reached for a box of surgical masks and made everyone put one on. “That’s a house rule,” Shaun said, from behind his mask. “As soon as someone’s not feeling well on a bus, everybody masks up.”
The bus was barely moving through a tunnel, and Shaun and Laurelle went upstairs to rest. Sivan, anxious about getting to his sound check on time, scrolled through his phone. Then he looked up and asked me, through his mask, “Do you think it’s possible to separate the art from the artist?” He had been reading a tweet about Michael Jackson, and told me that the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which details horrific sexual-abuse allegations against Jackson, had left him thinking about how predators groom potential victims. “It made me realize that that definitely happened to me as a teen,” he said. When he was an adolescent new to YouTube, he explained, a man claiming to be an L.A.-based manager with big-name clients had contacted him. Over Skype, the man “did the whole shebang of making the family trust him,” Sivan recalled. “That was all I wanted at the time, a manager from America who had worked with all these people. And he completely used that and abused that.” After one of their Skype conversations “turned inappropriate,” Sivan backed off, he told me. On his first trip to California, six months later, he was alarmed to encounter the man—who greeted him with apparent surprise—at two different malls. Now he was concerned that the man was dropping Sivan’s name to impressionable youngsters. “I didn’t realize that’s how grooming worked,” he said. “I was completely unaware. My parents were completely unaware.” He went on, slipping seamlessly into role-model mode, “So, yeah, the more people can educate themselves on grooming in general, the better.”
Sivan returned to worrying that he was late. When we finally arrived at the concert hall, a crowd of fans swarmed him as he emerged from the bus. Tyler McCrane, ready for his twentieth show, wearing a green mesh bodysuit, had come with friends, including Kodie, an eighteen-year-old from Manchester, England, whom he had met online. “I have so many friends through Troye,” Kodie told me. “We grew up with him. My mum’s always, like, ‘When are you going to grow out of this?’ I’m, like, ‘It’s a life.’ ”
At nine o’clock that evening, the show began. I was standing amid a throng of Norwegian teen-agers, near a small wooden staircase placed in the middle of the audience. As the lights dimmed, I noticed some security guys clearing a path to my right. Sivan, looking as translucent as a glass figurine, was behind them, in a sharp white suit. He climbed up the steps, held a wireless microphone to his lips, and sang the opening verse of “Seventeen.” Pandemonium ensued.
Sivan snaked through the crowd and reappeared onstage. “Are you guys ready to get, like, sentimental for a second?” he asked. With a familiar, polished sincerity, he reminisced about his earliest realizations that he was gay: “It’s, like, Oh, shit, that’s my life now, forever. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. Am I going to still have a family? Am I going to find a hot husband? It all of a sudden opens up your mind to these infinite possibilities of what your life could be and who you could become, you know? And it’s scary at first. And then, on the other side of it, once you come to terms with all that, I, at least, had this moment where I was, like, Oh, my God, how fucking liberating is that?” Screams. Someone at the front was holding up a sign that said “WE DITCHED PROM 4 YOU,” so Sivan led the entire crowd in a slow dance. ♦