Will Young on 20 years of Pop Idol, standing up to Simon Cowell and his gay superpower

Will Young arrives on his "Election Bus" for the final week of filming of the reality TV program "Pop Idol" on February 4, 2002 in London.

Twenty years ago, Will Young was a 22-year-old student blessed with an angelic voice.

A university classmate told him about an advert he’d seen in the News of the World, looking for singers for a new TV show.

The rest is one of Britain’s most well-known reality TV success stories. Will won Pop Idol, beating out the favourite, Gareth Gates, and forged a career as one of the UK’s biggest pop stars.

To celebrate 20 years since his history-making Pop Idol win – and the release of his new greatest hits album – PinkNews caught up with Will Young to talk about his incredible career, overcoming homophobia in the music industry, standing up to Simon Cowell, and why being gay is his superpower.

PinkNews: What inspired you to apply to be on Pop Idol in the first place? 

They had Popstars the show on before Pop Idol and I remember saying to a friend: “I just need a show for one singer. If there’s a show for one singer, I think I could win it.” As an openly gay politics student who at that time didn’t write his own music, I thought, no one’s going to sign me. But I had a sense that if I could just get on television and sing, people wouldn’t be caught up by all the other stuff. And I suppose I had more faith in the public than in record companies at that time.

Will Young

Will Young. (Joseph Sinclair)

What was your experience like behind the scenes – was Pop Idol a good experience? 

It was. I’m not going to say I was fortunate because I think that’s the way it should be, but it was a really good experience. It was a new format so no one knew what was going to happen – I think it started with something like 300,000 viewers and ended up with 16 million. Because none of the powers that be knew how successful it would be, they couldn’t manipulate it – they just let it run.

I think we were lucky, all of us, that it was a new thing, because none of that nasty stuff was going on. I could just enjoy singing and getting good feedback by staying in every week. My confidence grew, and that was the most amazing experience – because we all need some validation and I was getting it very quickly and instantly, and that’s a beautiful thing to experience.

You were really young when you went on Pop Idol – just 22! – was it hard to cope with becoming famous overnight? 

I mean, it was there, but it sort of wasn’t the main event. The main event was singing and hopefully becoming an artist and sticking around so I could be there in 20 years time. I think because I always wanted to be a pop star I knew fame would come with that – I wasn’t in it for the fame and yet I knew that fame would come with it. I was quite matter of fact about it really, and I didn’t let it distract me from the main event, which was the music and singing.

Will Young photographed for his Greatest Hits album

Will Young photographed for his Greatest Hits album. (Joseph Sinclair)

There’s quite a famous clip from your time on Pop Idol where Simon Cowell had some negative feedback on what you had done, and you spoke back to him. I always love seeing that clip because it’s such a refreshing moment. 

We all have times when we need to stand up for ourselves. I had a politics degree, I used to go on protests, I was very much not keen on seeing people being abused in any form. And so really it wasn’t just for me when I spoke up, it was for all the other people that he had been horrible to. People who are bullies, they’re only as powerful as the power you give them, and he didn’t have any power over me so I didn’t give a s**t.

We see it time and time again, don’t we? We see people who are in positions of power that can offer you “opportunities” and maybe abuse that for entertainment value, and I wasn’t going to have that. I was as much rallied by how other people had been treated as I was by the fact that I felt he was trying to sabotage me. I’m very proud of it – particularly for speaking up for others, I think.

For a long time, Simon Cowell’s “mean” streak was glorified, but in the past few years that’s started to shift. Do you think it’s a good thing we’re having that reckoning?

Yeah, but I wouldn’t limit it to just Simon Cowell, I would say entertainment shows in general. They’re not really known for wellbeing, are they? And I wouldn’t rest on our laurels by saying it’s all brilliant now to be honest. I think what’s really good is people aren’t afraid to speak up about things now. You’ll see that everywhere, from Love Island to Jeremy Kyle… It’s just entertainment for the masses. Did the masses care about whether people were being treated well or not? They probably didn’t. Do they care more now? They probably do.

It’s great that things are starting to change.

People feel like they can speak up, I think that’s what’s changed.

We’ve seen that with The X Factor in the last few years, where past contestants have come out and said their experiences on the show weren’t great.

I will say that [with] Pop Idol, we didn’t have that experience. No one has spoken out because there isn’t anything to say.

Will Young

Will Young. (Joseph Sinclair)

That’s amazing. You can see that everyone was enjoying themselves when you watch back some of the clips, such as the moment you were announced as winner of the contest. What was that like for you? 

It was remarkable actually. There aren’t many times that you can say your dream came true. There’s something quite amazing about being able to live out your life and say, I attained one of my dreams. That’s amazing. You get a lot of freedom from that, to say, wow, I actually did it. There was a lot of hard work, and I knew the hard work would start once I won, but it was really lovely to just have a moment where you can just celebrate. What was as fun as winning was getting to spend it with my family and friends. I remember everyone being so happy.

Shortly after you won Pop Idol a tabloid newspaper tried to out you, but your response was so interesting – you basically said: “What’s the big deal? I’m gay.” Were you confused by that clamour for you to come out? 

I wasn’t confused by it, but I suppose my point was deliberately to not make a point about it. I thought that would be the most powerful thing to do in a way, turning it back on people and going: “What’s the big deal?” I’m pleased I did that. I don’t think it was easy, now I look back on it. I did get a lot of abuse. I’m not quite sure how I managed to get through that, really, but I suppose all gay people at that time were just used to getting abuse so it wasn’t like it was out of the blue. It’s only now looking back on it, because times have changed, that I think: “God, how awful for so many of us that we had to go through that.” And it makes me even more proud to be gay and proud of my community.

Will Young in an archival photo from his Pop Idol days.

Will Young in an archival photo from his Pop Idol days. (Provided)

It’s great that you’ve been able to take something positive from something that was quite a difficult experience. 

I think you have to because otherwise, who’s going to lose out? It’s only me who’s going to lose out. I don’t want to remain bitter about it – there’s no point in remaining bitter. I want to be as happy and light as possible in my life, which is why I’ve written a book on gay shame, it’s why I’m interested in wellbeing. I actually think being gay is such an incredible gift, because we exist on the periphery and you get to observe things that aren’t the norm, and actually you get to make your own choices for your life and you can choose your happiness. So I think being gay is a bit of a superpower.

You mentioned that you got a lot of abuse when you came out – was that coming from the media or more from wider society? 

It was everywhere, but I think any gay person will relate to that. It was just normal then. The amazing thing was that at a time when record companies, PR companies, everyone would be like: “Don’t talk about your sexuality, don’t be authentic.” I came out and then my next record sold double. So actually people should trust more in other people. I think if there’s ever a story about the empowerment of people, it’s Pop Idol, because none of the fat cats were involved in it.

Will Young.

Will Young. (Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)

It’s been 20 years since you were on Pop Idol – how much do you think has changed for LGBTQ+ artists in that time? Is it better now for queer artists?

I think it is, undeniably so. I have to remind myself – I can’t believe we’ve gotten to this day where people don’t care. People will have different stories I’m sure, but I hope that no one has to go through what people like myself had to go through. Also let’s not forget other complete icons who I think are often forgotten. People like Andy Bell, Jimmy Somerville. These people are heroes, and I don’t think they’re spoken about enough. People think about George Michael, Boy George, and that’s brilliant, but actually people like Jimmy and Andy, they were flying the flag and they didn’t give a s**t. I can’t imagine what that was like. They should be knighted.

Will Young’s new album 20 Years – The Greatest Hits is out now.