From ‘American Idol’ to Queen, Adam Lambert is going all the way

The Queen star, American Idol legend, and philanthropist speaks about slipping into the shoes of Freddie Mercury, the androgynous rock stars who inspired him from the start, and what success really means to him.

Adam Lambert isn’t like other musicians. That phrase gets thrown around a lot about artists, and most of the time is misused as a lazy intro to an article about an exciting talent. But the story of his rise from American Idol to global rock and pop sensation really does draw a line in the sand between him and the rest of the world. 

And not many other artists can say the same thing. Of course, there are a handful of lucky and / or talented people who score record deals, world tours, sold out stadiums and meteoric success following reality TV. But for most people, those few seconds of fame represent both the beginning and end of a short lived career that could have been as prosperous as the season’s winner. Not Adam Lambert, though.

The singer may have come second during his time on American Idol in 2009, but the next steps of his career were something that winners could only dream of. Joining global mega band Queen and slipping into the shoes of one of the greatest musical icons around, Freddie Mercury, Adam was quickly thrown in the role of global mega star, with fans all over the world awaiting eagerly to see how the newcomer would take centre stage and make it his own, all while paying homage to Mercury.     

As you can probably guess, Adam’s reception was extraordinary. Now, his work with the band has taken him all over the world, to arenas made up of thousands of Queen-hungry spectators — desperate to catch a glimpse of the band, alive once more. 

On the day of our call, Adam is sitting in the living room of his home, illuminated by a ring-light out of shot and, remarkably, pulling off electric yellow glasses that disguise his jetlag. His vibrant and immediately charming persona is matched by his enthusiasm to tell-all and be proud of what he has to say, and the creativity that turns the cogs behind his glasses is what fuels our discussion. 

Adam tells me about his time with Queen, of course, but the singer’s creative ambitions don’t stop there. He’s making forays back onto the screen in a new talent show, Starstruck, as well as spending the rare free time he has to pen a musical — a production that’s being kept well under wraps. Outside of music, his Feel Something Foundation is offering members of the LGBTQ+ community and its allies the support that they need, regardless of their age or background. 

All of these projects, flanked by Adam Lambert’s ambition and purpose, continue to paint the singer as a model figure on the world’s stage. 

We sat down with Adam to dig deep into his journey, and to discover not only where the artist wants to be, but where he’s no doubt heading… 

How did slipping into the shoes of Freddie Mercury help you understand yourself and the world of stardom better? 

Before joining the band, I had the whole TV thing with American Idol. Coming off from that, it was a big change in my lifestyle, it was a big shift. We [Queen + Adam Lambert] met on the finale of American Idol, but we really started working together two or three years after. It felt like a natural hype, and then a dip, but then I had to maintain it. One thing about being in the public eye is that you’ve stayed in the public eye. The thing that I’ve learnt is there are two different types of stardom: the people who are famous for being famous and the people who are famous because they can do something well. If I had my way, I’d like to believe that I’m somebody. If I’m known, it’s for something that I’m working hard at, and something that I’ve created, or something that I’ve performed. 

Who has inspired you from the very start of your career to right up to today? 

Obviously when I discovered Queen, seeing Freddie [Mercury]… There were a handful of rockstars that I remember discovering and it was from another time. I always think that the 70s produced these artists that were pushing boundaries; all the androgynous artists, the glam rock era, all the people that were over the top in their flamboyance and camp. I was just drawn to that… surprise, surprise. Like Freddie and Prince and [Mick] Jagger and [David] Bowie and Michael Jackson and Madonna in the 80s… Just people that were really theatrical in everything they were doing. I really struck a chord with them.

What can you say that you’ve learnt throughout the time being the lead singer in one of, if not the, biggest bands in the world? 

I have learnt a lot from Brian [May] and Roger [Taylor], almost indirectly. It’s not like they sit me down and go let us teach you something. It’s just like watching them, they just really care about what’s going on, they never seem like they’re going through the motions. There’s so much investment in it and reverence for the material. They never take for granted the people that are out there in the seats. Some people get lost in the sauce and start making it all about them, but the cool thing about Queen is that it’s all about the audience. There’s all this participation and sing-along and response. Being on stage with them, what keeps it really fun as well is that the audience is on fire. It’s a dream audience to perform for. 

How did you stay inspired and creative over the past couple of years?

I put an album out in March and like two weeks after that everything got cancelled. So that was sort of heartbreaking. I was disappointed. In the big picture, my concern was more for the wellbeing of people’s health around the world and obviously a pop album is much less important than people’s health. On a personal level, I was frustrated that it went in the shitter. You just can’t keep the momentum up during something like that. For the first month or so, I was definitely moody and needed time to mourn that project.

There were less distractions, so there was more time to focus on things, but there was also less inspiration coming my way because I wasn’t out and doing as much. Sometimes, I had to find the inspiration. Instead of it just being there, I had to seek it out. I was online looking at stuff; movies, listening to a lot of music, a lot of TV. If there were times when there wasn’t a lot of inspiration going on, I would definitely make a cocktail or five. Or smoked a thing or two. There’s definitely ways to help. Also, there were waves of it. I would find something inspiring for a week and ride that wave. And then like I was tapped out. And then it would come back around. 

Talk me through Starstruck… Why is now the right time for a show like this? Can you give any teasers of fun things that happen on the show?

People want to escape, they want to have fun. After the year we had, it’s been so intense, I mean it’s still going. I think people want to be able to turn on their TVs and have a good time and laugh and smile and feel good. The show is super positive. It’s not the kind of music reality show where people are taking it overly seriously. As a judge on the show, we’re not sitting there crushing dreams, we’re having a good time with the contestants. It’s fun. People from all over the country come in and get to be transformed into their favourite artist and perform as them with big production around them.  

Why is it so important for musicians like yourself to raise awareness to the issues a lot of people face, like the work that your Feel Something Foundation does? 

The Foundation is focused on the LGBTQ+ Community and our allies. Obviously, I have a lot of fans that are not queer. It’s good to bring these causes to light for everybody. What we do is partner with existing organisations, at this point, because we’re a young foundation. It’s really exciting. In the process, I get to learn, and when I learn, I want to share it with everybody. For example, we did a collaboration with the Rady Center and that’s part of the San Diego Children’s Hospital, and they help, in a medical sense, families and young people with gender-affirming care. So, for anybody that’s going through a transition or is exploring their gender identity, they are giving you therapy, psychological, medical support, for families as well. I just think that’s so revolutionary and so next-level and it’s surprising how little of that exists in the US. I’m hoping it catches on. 

I hear you’re writing a musical… What can you tell us about it? 

I can’t give too much away right now because we’re not ready to reveal the big deal. It’s a biographical musical, it’s not about me, it’s about someone who is actually a real life figure. It takes place during the 70s for the most part, in New York. I can’t say much more. I’m working with a lot of different writers and producers on it, so in a way, I’m approaching the music writing process, almost how you approach putting together an album. What’s untraditional about it being a musical is that we’re approaching it like a pop project. That will come out before it turns into something that comes out on stage. A lot of the themes are things that I find really important and that I talk about a lot, so it definitely feels close to home.

Where do you find your inspirations for musicals, compared to songwriting?

It’s interesting because when you’re writing about someone else, it almost makes more sense because you’re in an objective position. When you’re writing about yourself, it’s different. I find it tricky to find what I want to talk about [when it comes to me]. I really like the exercise of writing for someone else, somebody else’s story.

How have you always wanted to be seen as an artist? 

In the early days, I felt as though certain choices I made, or the way I looked, or the way I performed wasn’t always taken seriously — even though I wasn’t taking it seriously. I don’t mean being serious about it, I mean recognising it as a legitimate thing. Early on, there was a bit of disregard in the sense of coming off this kind of show, [like] your talent isn’t real. Or the idea of being objectified or belittled like, “oh, how’s your guyliner?” I can laugh at myself and take the piss out of myself all the time, it was just, in the beginning, hard to be taken seriously.

Something that’s evolved over time is that I’ve been given some great opportunities to prove myself, and I understand that this is how it works and I’m feeling really good that I’m in a position now where people know who I am, and know what I can do, and recognise it more. Working with Queen was really a big part of that. It gave me a certain credibility. But it’s like anything, sometimes you have to prove yourself. It’s winning people over, and sometimes that’s not a quick overnight thing. That’s life.  

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would tell myself to take a deep breath, relax… Not only trust your gut but to trust what you have already, trust what’s already there. You don’t have to create everything from scratch.

What’s one question you’ve always wanted to be asked, but no one’s ever asked you?

I think something that I haven’t gone into a lot of detail about, that I’ve definitely been experiencing over the past five years, is that my journey with mental health has been really interesting. I think that’s something that’s becoming less taboo for people, but it’s not something that’s at the forefront of the line of questioning. I’ve definitely dealt with my share of anxiety. What’s great is that the more we all talk about it, the more we realise it’s pretty common, especially in this day and age. Especially after the year and a half we’ve had. Anxiety’s real. It’s a beast. 

Was that something that was exacerbated over the past year and a half?

In its own way, yeah. I’m sure there were lots of people who had never dealt with anxiety before that all of a sudden started dealing with it. A pandemic is not the most relaxing thing in the world. It’s not vacation. That’s something I haven’t really been asked about, but I am open about it. 

What would you like to say about it? 

I think it’s really important not to feel like there’s something wrong with you. I think it’s more common than we all realise. It’s now becoming more of a conversation, but I think for people that are older it’s been a taboo thing. This is all cliché, but it is okay to ask for help. I feel some people think that if they don’t ask for help then it’s not real. So, people avoid admitting themselves and getting the help they need because they’re in denial. You’ve got to be real with yourself and honest with yourself. If people in your inner circle aren’t volunteering that, you need to be like, ‘Hey, do I seem okay today?’ It needs to be an open dialogue that people care about. 

What’s your barometer for success as an artist? 

That’s one of the things I’m exploring in the musical: what is success? Obviously in the music industry, a lot of people measure success by the numbers. I think there has to be, for me personally, a compartmentalization of the business success and the numbers, but also emotionally and spiritually.  I can’t base my worth and happiness off of numbers that I can’t control. I have to find where it sits for me. There has to be a certain amount of personal success. If you write an album that sells a billion copies but the critics all hate it, is it successful? Or is it successful when you have a critically acclaimed album that’s underappreciated in terms of the public. Which one’s more successful? I don’t know. You can’t please everybody, and that’s ok. It’s being ok with that.

PhotographyJordan Rossi
WriterRy Gavin
ProductionChelsea Stemple, Kay Riley, Sarah Stanbury
Makeup ArtistJesse Walker
Hair StylistKeiichiro
StylistBen Adams
Photography AssistantsManny Owusu-Afram, Chelsea Nawanga, Sam Lort