With a hard-driving ambition to become a star in the conservative, mom-and-apple-pie world of country music, Kansas native Chely Wright had to climb deep into the closet to conceal a closely held secret: She is gay. And she might very well have stayed there if the pressure of a dual life hadn’t become so torturous that she nearly took her own life.
Now, 15 years into a chart-topping career, Wright has stepped forward and become the first mainstream country music star to acknowledge their homosexuality. The pretty 39-year-old revealed her secret in print to People magazine, and on the air on TODAY Wednesday, in an interview that coincided with the release of her autobiography, “My Life.”
‘Don’t let me be gay’
Speaking on TODAY Wednesday, Wright told Natalie Morales she knew she was different from other girls as early as third grade, and prayed to God, “Please don’t let me be gay.”
“Country music is typically known to be conservative,” she said. “Our fan base is conservative; pretty much our industry, the people who run it, have conservative beliefs, and it’s widely known to be about God and country and family. For some reason, people don’t think that can coexist with being a homosexual.”
And Wright herself bought into the belief. Even as she was named country music’s top new artist in 1995, and scored No. 1 hits with “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female,” she kept mum about her sexual identity. Even though she had been living as a gay woman since her 20s, she pushed away country radio deejays and journalists when they tried to scratch beneath the surface, damaging her image in the process.
“I became so detached, I think people thought I was snotty or cold or hard to get to know,” Wright told Morales. “But that’s the way I had to live my life.”
Even as she dated the likes of handsome male country singers Brad Paisley and Vince Gill, Wright had a long-standing relationship with a woman. But in the close-knit music community in Nashville, tongues still wagged about Wright and whether she was gay.
Wright said she got hit over the head by the rumors in 2005 when confronted by country singer John Rich, half of the million-selling duo Big & Rich.
“John said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to hit this gay thing head on, you’re not gay are you? If you are, people won’t have it. It’s sick, it’s deviant; it’s unacceptable to country music fans.’
“I lied, and I knew I had gone from not talking about it to ‘Now I’m a liar.’ ”
It led to a harrowing crisis of conscience for Wright, who told Morales she hit rock bottom months after telling Rich she wasn’t gay.
“I had a 9 millimeter gun in my mouth,” she said. “I was taking inventory of my life and I realized I had pieces that I just couldn’t get to intersect. I was living a secret life and I was very much a country music celebrity, and I saw no way to get those to coexist.
“I gave up hope and I was ready to take my own life.”
A changed prayer
But Wright, who had always tried to be stoical about her double life, finally allowed herself to cry. “That’s what broke the dam for me,” she told Morales.
“I put the gun down and went upstairs. The next morning when I awaked, I was afraid to go downstairs because I was afraid of that gun. Rather than go downstairs, I got on my knees and spoke out loud to God and I stopped praying for what I always prayed for, which was help me figure out a way to still have my career.
“I changed my prayer, and my prayer was, ‘God, give me a moment’s peace.’ I got up off my knees and got my moment’s peace. I didn’t hear God’s voice, I didn’t see a guy in a robe, but I heard God say what he’d been whispering in my ears all along: ‘I expect one thing of you, and that is to tell the truth.’ ”
Wright then began putting pen to paper to tell her story, and after three reflective years, she finished her autobiography. The book’s release Tuesday coincided with a new CD, “Lifted Off the Ground.”
Only time will tell whether her fans will embrace Wright’s honesty, or if she will suffer a backlash. But Wright still couldn’t hide her enthusiasm in finally being honest with herself.
“It feels incredible,” she told Morales. “I feel as if it’s my birthday.”