Darren Hayes: suits you

The former frontman of Savage Garden, Darren Hayes says he is finally owning his homosexuality – and it’s emblazoned in neon pink

Hero image

Darren Hayes is pictured reclining imperiously on the cover of his first solo album in a decade next to its title, Homosexual, blazing out in neon pink letters. It’s a word that terrified him as a child before he even knew its meaning, was yelled at him as a playground taunt and was employed by record label staff to diminish him during his years fronting nineties pop duo Savage Garden. Now, aged 50 and married to his husband of 17 years, Richard Cullen, it’s a former slur he’s proudly reclaiming.

Homosexual is a disarmingly frank disco opus where shards of light from the mirror-ball are used to illuminate aspects of Hayes’ life that he once tried to conceal – from witnessing domestic violence as a child, the shame of burgeoning sexuality and his family’s struggles with mental illness to the joy of acceptance and love. Over retro-futurist electro flutters and 1980s beats, he taps into the historical resonance of the dance floor as a haven for queer people to transcend trauma.

Having retired in 2012, Hayes hadn’t intended to return to recording, but the visceral reaction he experienced watching the 2017 romantic drama Call Me By Your Name catalysed a comeback.

“This flood of grief hit me,” he remembers. “I’d watched this positive story of a young person who didn’t have the traumatic experience of being gay that I’d had.

“It was also a story about passion, and here I was, approaching my fifties, starting to feel invisible in a way women identity with but we don’t talk about as gay men. I needed this record almost like a defibrillator to restart my heart, so when someone says ‘Oh, you were really honest’, it’s because I didn’t have anywhere else for those feelings to go.”

Speaking over Zoom from a studio in LA, where he’s lived for nine years, Hayes is friendly, funny and still boyish, but with a bracing candour. But he wasn’t always so open. As a child, he learned to keep secrets. Born in a working-class family in Queensland, Australia, his father was a violent alcoholic.

“One of my earliest memories was that my physical safety was at risk,” he says. “From an early age, I learned to lie about what was going on at home.”

It’s where, he theorises, his early fascination with Star Wars came from. “It’s the Freudian obsession with redeeming my father and hoping he wasn’t Darth Vader. For a lot of my childhood, I was hoping that my father was going to be someone else, or had the capacity to become someone else, and it didn’t turn out that way.”

His dad was also the first, but by no means last, person to call him a “faggot”, and his initial experience of the word “homosexual” was shrouded in shame and religious judgement. His loving mother was a lapsed Catholic who had left the church after she was devastated that it refused to bury her mum because she had taken her own life (Hayes traces his family history of depression in the song Poison Blood). But despite her best efforts, Hayes still metabolised the sense of sin. His nascent sexuality also coincided with the Aids crisis of the 1980s.

“So my first emerging thoughts of liking boys was fear. It became another identity that I shelved to the back of my mind. I would pray to God: please don’t make me gay.”

But schoolmates and teachers could recognise he was before he even realised. Aged 10, the principal spanked him for being too effeminate.

“She said to me, ‘You’re a little fairy, aren’t you, Darren Hayes?’ And I didn’t understand what that meant, other than there was something repulsive about me that I had to hide.”

To stave off rejection, Hayes became an overachiever. As frontman of Savage Garden, the band he formed with Daniel Jones in 1993, he sold over 25 million records globally, recorded the inescapable ballads To the Moon and Back and Truly Madly Deeply and even duetted with Pavarotti. Riddled with self-hate, he devised an ironclad pop star persona.

The irony, he says, was that he was always truthful in his songs. Savage Garden’s second and final album, 1999’s Affirmation, was a record about his amicable split from his first marriage to childhood sweetheart Colby Taylor, who left him after they tried to work around his feelings of same-sex desire in counselling. Its self-titled lead single contained the lyric “I believe you can’t control or choose your sexuality”, delivered with a knowing wink during live performances.

In Savage Garden, Hayes says he experienced insidious homophobia in the form of “performance coaching”, designed to eliminate any trace of androgyny. After Savage Garden imploded – acrimoniously when Johns decided he wanted to leave – his label told him the video to his 2002 single Insatiable was “too gay”, and covertly reshot it to include a romantic subplot featuring a woman.

He confided in fellow Australian pop star Kylie Minogue. “She said: ‘Why don’t you just come out? I think you should just come out.’ She was progressive and cool.”

Why didn’t he?

“There was never a moment where I felt confident and ready for that People magazine moment where I announced: ‘I’m gay!’”

When he appeared on Channel 4’s teenage programme Popworld, hosted by comedian Simon Amstell, he was newly diagnosed with a major depressive disorder and developed suicidal thoughts.

“My manager would have to come into my bedroom to see if I was still alive,” he says candidly. Amstell, known for his caustic interviews, blindsided him. “The first question Simon asked me was: ‘You’re obviously gay. How come you never talk about it?’”

Hayes is an open book, but this chapter remains an unhealed wound.

“I was traumatised. I handled it by immediately launching at him verbally. ‘Do you want to know about my sex life? You want to know if I’m top or bottom? Do you want to fuck me?’”

Cameras stopped rolling.

“What they wanted was for me to squirm and to torture me, and I was dissociating. I was the three year old watching his mother be violated.”

The segment was edited. Hayes recommenced the chat on autopilot.

“There was nothing behind my eyes. I’ve never watched the interview since. I don’t think I can,” he says, hurt that his betrayal came from Amstell, another gay man. Afterwards, he returned to his car, curled up and cried “and had the beginning of what ended up being a breakdown”.

Six months later, Hayes found love in the form of screenwriter Cullen, coming out publicly in 2006 before marrying in a civil partnership. He recorded the blissed-up “honeymoon album” This Delicate Thing We Made, but once the loved-up endorphins wore off, and after releasing Secret Codes and Battleships in 2011, he realised he was burnt out.

“I hadn’t had a moment in my life to myself since I was 13, when I decided I would become a pop star,” he laughs dryly. “It’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz – my version of Oz was seeing Michael Jackson on his 1987 Bad tour and deciding I was going to do that.”

On his 40th birthday weekend in Paris, he decided to quit music. A former pre-school teacher, he was hit by the grief of not having children. He relocated to LA, studying sketch comedy at improv school the Groundlings (where Saturday Night Live’s Chloe Fineman was in his year), and co-wrote a musical about his childhood, which got him into a confessional mode that he further mined for Homosexual.

Watching Kate Bush’s 2014 Before the Dawn London residency further convinced him he could return to the music industry on his own terms.

Serendipitously, when a Groundlings classmate was offered work but also had a child on the way, Hayes found himself looking after his now god-daughter, Lila, for six years.

“Having the opportunity to model for a child maybe some of the things I wished my father had been able to do for me was a really healing experience.”

Homosexual is out now. Hayes tours the UK in March 2023

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Darren Hayes: suits you

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.