Alex Newell Shines in His Efforts to Bring Global Consciousness About HIV to His Generation and Beyond
by Dann Dulin
Photos by Ricky Middlesworth Photography
What a force!
Standing in the warm, shimmering sunlight on this late summer morning, Alex Newell waits patiently as I open the security door of my West Los Angeles apartment building. He cuts a commanding figure, not only in my presence, but on television, portraying the transgender character, Unique, on the popular series Glee. I was instantly taken by his gentle aura, his openness, and evolved sensibility.
His gracious soft-spoken mother, Brenda, a cross between Loretta Devine and Gloria Gaynor, accompanies him. Her eyes sparkle pride for her only child and there’s no doubt that Alex was raised in a loving supportive home, despite the loss of Alex’s father to cancer when he was just six years-old.
At twenty-two, Alex has been so dynamic in raising public awareness of HIV/AIDS, even the most seasoned activist would be impressed. In a capsule, he’s been involved with GMHC, S.T.A.G.E. (a benefit for APLA), AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, and Divas Simply Singing. He’s also reached out to other causes as well, including the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBT community. He’s been the Grand Marshall of several Gay Prides.
For World AIDS Day 2012, Alex was the New York host of a Planned Parenthood webcast that originated from Johannesburg, South Africa. Young people from around the world posed questions to HIV/AIDS activists. “That’s how we’re going to fight HIV/AIDS,” Alex explained to CNN, “by engaging and empowering young people to help themselves and their peers stay HIV-free.”
In the opening ceremonies of AIDS Walks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, Alex serenaded the attendees with the right-to-your-gut “I Know Where I’ve Been,” from the musical, Hairspray. “I had to say ‘No’ to one AIDS Walk because I was literally going from coast to coast,” says Alex, with a twinge of guilt, now seated across from me in my living room. “Those people at the AIDS Walk are my heroes.”
Alex cuts a robust, full figure, yet he carries himself like a dancer, light and lofty. Clad in black stretchy jeans and a soft-white untucked dress shirt that mostly covers a T-shirt (with the inscription “Live To Thrill”), Alex has painted alabaster-colored nails and wears contemporary brown pointy shoes. He’s not only a clotheshorse, but has a shoe obsession, as well. His designer of choice is Christian Louboutin.
“I worked so hard to get on the show,” he recounts, his hand toying with the bottom of his shirttail. “It was three years of grueling hard work that finally paid off.” Alex won a two-episode story-arc on Glee’s third season. His character instantly connected with viewers and he became a series regular in the fourth season. It is not yet certain that he will be part of the sixth and final season of Glee. He appeared in the film Geography Club, now available on VOD and DVD. In June he released a single, “Nobody To Love,” and he’s currently in the studio laying tracks for a full album. (Beyoncé is his absolute favorite singer, and he adores Whitney, too. “If I ever met Beyoncé,” he bursts with buzz-exaltation, “I think I’d be on the ground…crying!” He then adds, “If I’m reincarnated, I want to be Beyoncé! Just let me be Beyoncé!”)
Alex’s role on Glee was challenging, but never intimidating. “It was hard,” he tells me in his most polite Sandra Dee voice. “For ten hours we’d rehearse one number over and over and over and over again—all day! I got bored actually. I was dead by the end of the day.” He gingerly tilts his head. “It was therapeutic to play Unique. She’s such a breath of fresh air, jubilance, and youth. I really have fun with her.”
Raised in Lynn, Massachusetts, thirty miles north of Boston, Alex lived in a diverse neighborhood, which inspired his interest in global issues. His focus in the HIV/AIDS community is youth. He hopes to create dialogue among his peers and to keep them educated on the vital facts of the pandemic. (Forty percent of new infections worldwide come from the younger generation and a recent CDC report found that half of the U.S. infections are in the thirteen to twenty-four age group. Most don’t even know that they’re infected.) “There is strength in community and to win this battle we must all come together,” Alex asserts, shifting his posture and becoming more erect.
“My generation can be very hardheaded,” he admits. “I also have stubborn moments. People are reckless. They can be so uncaring and unfiltered. But you just have to keep yelling and screaming,” he emphasizes. “Remind everyone to protect themselves, go get tested, so they can live a healthy vibrant life.”
His own friends discuss HIV openly and get tested. Alex was tested for the first time last year and he was negative. “I was so happy,” he notes. “I was out on the street one day and came across this mobile station. They asked me, ‘Wanna get tested?’ I thought, ‘I’m not doing anything, might as well.’ Those units are so convenient. Everyone should take advantage of them.” At one point, OraQuick, the HIV rapid test company, asked Alex to be its face, but he declined due to scheduling conflicts with his work on Glee. He murmurs to himself, affirming, “Hmmm, I can do it now. I need to reach out to them again….”
If one of Alex’s friends contemplated engaging in unprotected sex, Alex says he would scream at him! “If you don’t speak up, you’re not just hurting that one person, you’re hurting the partner, too. That person, in turn, will hurt someone and it just spirals out of control.”
“None of us want to get sick,” he snaps, crossing one leg over the other. “We want to live healthy lives for our own children, so they can grow up with two parents.” Though Alex is not currently involved in a relationship, he aspires to have a husband and children.
Several of his friends are HIV-positive but they live very full lives. “Even if we contract the virus you can still live a positive life….You can!” he assures, his voice an octave higher. One of those friends is much older and Alex looks to him for advice. “He educates me and all of my friends. He’s a driving force behind us.”
Alex never knew a world without HIV/AIDS. Awareness came early for him. “It might be because I am African-American and it’s giant in our community and secondly, because I am gay and it’s a part of our community.”
Although he was born a Baptist, Alex attended an all-white Catholic high school. “So I could wear a cute yellow uniform,” blurts Alex, with a sly glance. “…And sex was never discussed! We didn’t even talk about Planned Parenthood. If you got pregnant they kicked you outta school, but no one ever got pregnant.” He ponders a moment then concludes, arching one eyebrow, “Catholic school was a doozy.”
“I never made school a priority, which was terrible, but I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I mean, when I’m singing on stage, am I going to be pulling out a protractor?!”
Alex treated high school like a red carpet event. A self-described Fashion Diva, he attended every prom starting with his freshman year. “Prom was my thing. I loved it. I escorted girls who couldn’t get a date—and I made the perfect date.” Admittedly, he likes people and enjoys attention—and he certainly got attention in high school.
But Alex’s education didn’t begin that way. “God help us all,” he replies laboriously when I ask about elementary school. For the first few grades, he attended a Christian school. On Fridays the students would be issued a square rug-mat to sit on the gymnasium floor and sing “Kumbaya,” accompanied by a strumming guitar. Next, they prayed. “I was not having it!” jovially declares Alex. “I can’t be around all of this. I grew up in a black Southern Baptist church where there’s shouting and singing.”
He transferred to public school and then to a charter school. “That was…the….worst…time…of….my…life,” he laments with slow and heavy precision. His mother speaks up from across the room. (His dour publicist is seated next to her, preoccupied with her cell phone throughout the entire interview.) “I thought you said it was so good?” inquires Brenda with a concerned tone. “No, no. It was awful.” He shakes his head. “Those years were terr-i-ble…,” attests Alex, stretching out the syllables, explaining, “…because we went for ten hours a day and teachers had their favorites. I wasn’t one of them and it was awkward.”
The school concentrated on sports, rather than Glee-type activities, which was Alex’s passion. “I felt like an outcast. As a kid you are well aware of how people feel about you,” he remarks with old soul insight. “They always treated me differently from everybody else and I don’t know why.”
Alex recalls an incident in the seventh grade when he had not done his homework because he was performing in regional theater. The teacher was angry with him and told him to leave the show. “We were opening the next day and I told her I couldn’t do that.” The teacher countered, “I can get you to do it. I’m your vice principal.” Alex replied, “Yeah, but you’re not my mother.” He pauses to take a meaningful breath. “She was always very stern with me. I don’t think that she cared.”
“Yet, if I had not gone through those experiences in middle school I would not be the person I am today, and I definitely would not have been the person I was in high school. When I got to high school,” he stops for effect, “I knew who I was!”
“You can thank her,” I say to Alex. A thoughtful expression sweeps across his face. He flips his hand theatrically above his neatly styled two-tone pompadour afro and offers, “I did, in a backhanded sort of way. I wrote her a very nice e-mail two weeks ago. I told her that this wasn’t a hateful e-mail and that I wasn’t trying to make her wrong,” he exclaims slowly. “I did want to tell her how awful she had been to me and that she was not a good teacher, but I just told her that if she had not been my teacher, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I always wanted to prove her wrong!” he announces intensely, tapping the side of the chair to underscore his words. “I’m like that. If someone says I can’t do something, I want to prove I can.” His teacher has not responded.
A few days after our interview, Alex is off to a fundraiser in San Francisco. What motivates him to care? Straight away he replies in a low innocent tone, “Why shouldn’t I? I can’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t. Many people don’t have a voice—they’re either unable or too frightened to speak out. The least I can do—the absolute least I can do—is give back and do it for all those other people who can’t, won’t, or just don’t.” He remembers something his mother taught him, “If you just clench your fist and never give anything out, you never get anything back.”
As he prepares to depart for another media activity I ask, “When you sing at these AIDS Walks, do you walk afterwards?” “Child, no!” Alex quickly responds. “That’s why I wear my heels, so they can’t ask. That’s a looong walk.” He takes a beat and whispers, “I’ll golf-cart it though…!”
Where do you go for downtime?
Have you ever been starstruck?
I get starstruck when I meet iconic people like Tyra Banks, Kristin Chenoweth, Loretta Devine, and Sheryl Lee Ralph.
What individual has inspired and/or impressed you the most?
Kristin Chenoweth. The girl’s been through a lot. She’s the most positive person…
Whom are you dying to meet?
Beyoncé! [He howls then adds]…and Chaka Khan, too.
Share your favorite beauty tip.
I have to keep the car frigid when I’m going to an event, keeping the air conditioner on full blast so my face doesn’t get oily.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Awwww…. [He whispers eagerly] Tony Danza!
What pisses you off?
Everything! [He shouts.] No. I just get annoyed so easy nowadays. I don’t know what it is. I think I’m just getting old and set in my ways. Incompetence annoys me. Incessantness too.
Complete this sentence: What bothers me most about fame is…
Always having to be ready, always being “on,” always having to smile even on my worst day. I’m human. I have terrible days.
If you could star in one movie which film would it be?
[One of the three female singers in] Dreamgirls.
What do you believe happens after we die?
[He instantaneously answers in a lifted voice] We all turn into unicorns and frolic through the lands….[trailing off]. I’m kidding. I believe there’s a God, obviously, and that there’s a heaven. I don’t want to think there’s a hell because they certainly don’t serve margaritas, and it’s going to be a little too hot not to have a margarita.
Alex reveals his favorites!
Food: Fried chicken
Music: Hybrid between gospel, musical theatre, and pop
Classic Film: Hello Dolly!
Clothing: Everything I own!
Sitcom: Will & Grace
Historical Figure: Mary McLeod Bethune
Physical asset above the waist: My smile. [He pauses.] People tell me it reminds them of RuPaul. [Alex likes the comparison.]
Physical asset below the waist: My legs! They get me so many jobs! [He screams.]
Actor: Meryl [He doesn’t say her last name.]
Moment: Receiving the phone call that I was going to be a series regular on Glee.
Alex gives a one-word response to these people who have touched his life.
Cory Monteith: Genuine.
Ryan Murphy: Inventive.
Loretta Devine: Flawless.
Chris Colfer: Sweetheart. [He beams then concludes] I love him so much.
Lea Michele: Talented.
Cameron Deane Stewart: Cute.
Jane Lynch: Astounding.
The word he chooses to describe himself is “Honest.”
Dann Dulin interviewed Michael Urie for the July cover story.