On Tuesday, it had been 24 hours since the news leaked: Chely Wright is now the first openly gay performer in country music. “It’s been an interesting day for me,” said Wright, 39, as she was about to launch a press tour that included a stop on the Today show. “Wonderful, dynamic, emotional, and great.” Wright, whose songs include the hit “Single White Female,” decided she would come out four years ago, but it was a long and self-reflective process. In that time, she wrote her memoirs, Like Me, and a new album, Lifted Off the Ground, that includes a song about a woman. While it seems as though it’s not as hard for celebrities to come out of the closet now—Lance Bass, Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Martin—country music is a different beast. “The Nashville music industry has yet to offer a gay artist,” Wright says, though she won’t disclose whether there are other closeted country superstars. “I don’t want to invite founded or unfounded speculation on anyone,” she says.
Wright decided to sign off from the Internet six weeks ago to keep herself in a protective bubble (“I didn’t want any negativity to permeate the positives in my life”), but her publicist read her some new fan mail from Facebook. “It was so powerful,” she says. “I needed a good strong cry.” Here are five reasons why she finally decided to come out, as she told NEWSWEEK in an interview:
1. “I had a gun in my mouth. That’s the most compelling reason. I was going to kill myself. In early 2006, during my breakdown, during a time I couldn’t connect the dots, I took inventory of my life. I had been and always was a lesbian; I always knew it. I had always been hostage by my secret. I realized I didn’t have a way to work out my problem. I had had a partner for 12 years, and the hiding ripped us apart. There had never been an openly gay male or female homosexual who had had success in country music. No one in my vocation had acknowledged his or her homosexuality. I didn’t want to be the first. There was no way out. I went upstairs and loaded my 9-millimeter. I live in a house that’s 100 years old in Nashville. There’s a mirror in the foyer. I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself. I was out of body. It shocked me how little emotion I had at the moment. I remember thinking, don’t people cry when they kill themselves? I said a prayer to God for what I was about to do. I prayed that God would forgive me. I thought of my ex-partner and how much I loved her and I thought of sunshine on my skin and how good that might feel and I thought of the gift of music and how much I love music. Then I heard something. It wasn’t the sound of a gun; I heard my heart pumping in my head. I heard my heartbeat. I looked in the mirror and I saw that I was crying. The emotional dam had broken and I came back in my body. I put down the gun. I knew that in the moment that I wouldn’t do it. The next morning, I got on my floor in my bedroom. What I prayed for in that day: “Dear God, I’m praying for a moment’s peace. I don’t care if it’s a minute or an hour, please give me a moment’s peace.” The moment I said “Amen,” I got it. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what God had been whispering in my ear: ‘I expect one thing of you and that’s to tell the truth.’ ”
2. “I assumed I wasn’t alone. I’m a pretty well-adjusted, relatively successful human being, relative success, relative health, relative financial security, if it was this hard for me to hide and feel rejected in my spot in the world. I imagined a kid in Lincoln, Neb., who is like me. I could no longer look myself in the mirror and feel good about myself by not standing up.”
3. “We obviously have country-music fans who are gay. But what we will as an industry allow our fans to choose from is different. Country music seems to be the place you can go if you want to stay away from the gays. It’s a ‘safe’ zone. You don’t have to talk about it, see the gays, touch them, smell them. It’s like you’re running a restaurant and you only offer three things in the menu. That’s all you offer. I imagine there will be gays who Google me: ‘She stood up and gave me a voice.’ It would’ve been so awesome to have been the fifth gay country singer—I could’ve just tweeted it. I had to tell my story completely and comprehensively. My coming out is no different than a junior-high math teacher. I have to share my voice because I have public capital.”
4. “I’m single. I made a promise to myself through this pilgrimage to be single. I didn’t want anybody to lie for me again. I didn’t think it was fair, to get in a relationship and ask her to. Who wants to be alone? Not me. I want to be a whole person.”
5. “The day I decided to come out, I slept for the first time like a baby. I feel incredible. I’m so glad I titled my album Lifted Off the Ground. I really do feel lifted off the ground. I have no secret now. I feel like I’m floating. I’m so proud to be standing where I am today. This 24 hours of freedom—if everybody could feel it, I would bottle it up and FedEx it anyone on the planet.”