The year is 1997, and talk show host Rosie O’Donnell is interviewing me about the smash hit “I Want You.” It’s a song Rosie helped make a Billboard Top 5 hit, having played what she affectionately nicknamed “The Chica Cherry Cola Song” incessantly during her show’s intro segment for months prior to us even landing a U.S. record deal.
Rosie’s obsession led to U.S. airplay, then a bidding war between major record labels, and suddenly, there I was, Darren Hayes, this inwardly shy kid from Brisbane ― a blue-collar, conservative, hyper-masculine city in the north of Australia ― sitting comfortably on the couch of the biggest daytime television show in the United States, oozing star power as half of the hot new Australian pop duo Savage Garden.
To the casual observer, I appeared confident, full of swagger with my vaguely ’70s blow wave and a blue-black dye job that could rival Elvis in his prime. But my bravado was a carefully crafted persona, built to protect me from years of bullying at school, denial and shame about my sexuality, and a mask to hide the rapidly increasing depression that would soon become overwhelming.
I was beginning to experience the full force of a mental illness that had seeded itself when I was a child, partly inherited from my mother’s side of the family but mostly activated by trauma that had begun incubating from the age of 3 after my exposure to extreme violence growing up with a violent, alcoholic father who physically and emotionally abused my mother.
Nobody could have known any of this as they watched me on Rosie’s couch. Savage Garden was on the precipice of global fame and would go on to sell 26 million albums, have two Billboard No. 1 singles and tour the world. Yet no one knew I was deeply unhappy, barely containing secrets that would soon devastate me emotionally and send me to the brink of suicide at the height of my fame.
I like to think that, even at the beginning of my career, I had a healthy fear of celebrity, so much so that I was able to curate a very particular kind of fame, one I refer to as “Google-able.” When I walk down the street, nobody stops me. I almost never get asked for an autograph unless I’m performing, and even at the height of my chart success, the paparazzi were always following someone else.
I like to think I designed my strange secret celebrity to be that way because of my sense of foreboding about what might happen to me should someone dig too deep and find out the horrors that lay beneath. I was completely unguarded and transparent in my music, in my lyrics, and when I performed, but there was this anvil of shame over my head for so long that I had learned to keep a very healthy distance between the real me and the public persona.
I guess I was used to keeping secrets.
Although most of my childhood memories involve extreme violence and imagery that still haunts me ― a blur of blood, violence, fists through walls and my mother’s black eyes ― I instinctively knew we were forbidden to speak about this. It was the ’70s, and at that time, domestic violence in Australia was a shameful secret, and there was little reprieve even if you went to the police. There was zero financial support from social services. Within our family, the stigma of what other people thought of us seemed more painful than the lives were living, perpetuating the abuse. So, we suffered.
The other secret brewing in me was my sexuality.
I remember the first person to ever call me a faggot was my father. Then it was other school children. I was called “gay” before I knew what the word meant.
The ’80s were a horrible time to be a queer kid. We were inundated with warnings about a so-called “gay plague,” and popular culture was littered with negative stereotypes of what a gay person was. I had no public role models I identified with. I saw nothing but death on the news, and although I’d never even told a soul about my crushes on boys, I had convinced myself that by sheer thought alone, I had contracted AIDS.
I convinced my mother to take me to a doctor and feel my swollen glands ― a symptom I’d read about in Time magazine. I remember waiting in the doctor’s office as he examined my neck ― red from my constant rubbing ― almost wishing for him to tell me and my mother the terrible news. I thought anything would have been better than the terrible dread I felt in my stomach every night and knowing that I was ― according to everything I knew in my tiny world ― going to hell.
I had a brief window of happiness at the age of 13 when I had an epiphany that would change the trajectory of my life. I remember being at a Michael Jackson concert. It was 1987, and by sheer luck, I ended up near the front row where I found myself gazing into the eyes of the perfectly androgynous pop star onstage and seeing someone who, for the first time, looked how I felt.
Even though I was mocked for screaming his name ― even kicked and called gay slurs during the concert ― it was in that exact moment in time that I decided the way out of my own personal hell was to become a star, too.
I made an impossible, magical pact with the universe that I would become an entertainer and that I would one day make an audience weak at the knees and make an entire auditorium forget their problems. I would fill this awful, horrible wound in my heart with the love of an audience. And whaddya know? For a while, it worked!
Ten years later, Savage Garden sold out that same arena. Twice.
Though the success of the band came with extraordinary riches and accolades, it did not fill the God-shaped hole within me. There was a massive part of me ― the still-terrified child, the imposter still afraid the world would be repulsed if it knew who I truly was inside ― that could never receive the love and attention heaped upon me. It was as if I had created an avatar; a facade behind which the real me could hide but also a filter that kept any sense of pride or validation from ever truly sinking in.
By the time Savage Garden was a household name, I had married my college sweetheart and essentially tried to pretend my attraction to men was just another secret. I believed that since I’d never acted upon it, this part of me was something I would never have to deal with.
But my true nature had other plans.
Soon, I began to meet actual gay people (they existed!), and my heart sank knowing that my life was going to change whether I wanted it to or not. I actually re-created this feeling in my recent music video for my song “Let’s Try Being In Love,” and the tears I cried on that set were as real as the ones I cried 20 years ago. Ending a marriage, even though it was the right thing to do, felt like destroying innocence.
After just two albums, our band broke up. For me, it was a devastating blow. The work was the only thing keeping me sane. I was still the 13-year-old desperate to fill the emotional void from never having bonded with my father, only now, I had accepted that I was gay and trying to navigate a post-divorce world that was not kind to gay people.
This was pre-“RuPaul’s Drag Race” and before Ellen DeGeneres had her hugely popular talk show. The music industry was extremely homophobic then (and in many ways, remains so), and the idea that I would have to continue as a solo artist competing with the likes of teen idols like Justin Timberlake felt near impossible.
There were times I was so depressed I would sleep entire days away. My team later admitted to me that they would come into my room to check that I was still breathing.
It was around 2002 when I started seeing a psychiatrist, a first step in finally dealing with the residual pain from my childhood and my burgeoning sexuality. I remember the therapist asking me, “Have you ever cried about your childhood?” I thought it was a ridiculous question. Of course not. I was a survivor. I was strong. Then he reminded me that every child was entitled to feel safe. Had I ever felt safe as a child? he asked. That seemed preposterous.
He informed me that feeling safe was a basic survival need and that without it, the brain can develop complex coping mechanisms in order to function in the world. I learned that I had been existing by deploying a variety of trauma responses, invented by the child version of me, because that was the only way I knew how to cope.
My family history also complicated things. I have family members who, sadly, have died by suicide, and I, like my mother and several relatives, live with a major depressive disorder.
I was first introduced to antidepressants over 20 years ago, and it’s safe to say they saved my life.
Despite the progress I was making with my mental health, the beginning of my solo career in the United States was tarnished with homophobia. I made a music video for my first single, “Insatiable,” and prior to shooting it, everyone I talked to was thrilled with the song and the album. “You’re going to win a Grammy for best male pop vocal,” one radio executive gloated as he literally jumped on a desk and spun around. But when it came time to look at the rough cut of the music video, my entire U.S. career came to a sudden halt.
I learned there were fears that audiences would think I was “too gay” and that my image needed to be completely overhauled so as not to scare off fans.
Essentially, I was to be neutered.
Seemingly overnight, I went from duetting with Luciano Pavarotti, performing at the American Music Awards and selling tens of millions of albums to this devastating new reality. I was shipped off to Europe, where, thankfully, the British loved my song, my music and my tour.
I have my largest audience to date in the United Kingdom as a result. But I still lament those stolen years.
It’s now 2022. I’m proudly out, I’ve been married to my husband, Richard, for 17 years and I’m making authentically queer music and intentionally doing all the things I had been discouraged from doing earlier in my career.
My new music videos are a personal triumph for me because I’ve been in charge of every aspect: my clothing, the art direction, and yes, even the man I made out with in “Let’s Try Being In Love” — the proudly out actor Scott Evans, who is phenomenally talented and, in my opinion, most handsome Evans brother (yes, he is Captain America’s brother, if you must know!).
Because I have embraced myself fully in my art, I no longer feel the shame and stigma around my sexuality or my mental health. I openly speak about both because I believe they are connected, and by speaking about what most embarrasses us, it’s my hope that bringing light to sadness drives away the darkness.
In my latest single, “Poison Blood,” I refer to my mental health as “a blessing, a gift and a curse.” I sing, “it’s not that I don’t want to live, it’s the pain that I wish I could kill. All the times that I wanted to die, I made a promise I was gonna survive. Every day’s a decision to stay with my poison blood.”
I got a text from my mother the other day about the song. She told me how proud she was of me for speaking so candidly about depression, but she also tried to apologize for having passed down the condition.
I stopped her in her tracks. I told her I see it as a superpower. My depression comes with some downsides, of course, but it also allows me to see and feel emotions that are invisible to many people. There’s a spectrum of color and feeling that is off the charts for many, but available to me and my art. All of that came from the warrior, the survivor, who is my mother.
I told her, “I wouldn’t want any other blood rushing through my heart than yours.”
Darren Hayes will return to Australian and UK stages for the first time in over a decade in January/February 2023 with his “Do You Remember?” Tour – 25 Years Of Savage Garden, Solo Hits And More. For more information and ticket info, visit http://www.darrenhayes.com and follow him on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube.
As lead singer and songwriter of Savage Garden and as a solo artist, Darren Hayes has sold over 30 million albums globally, has achieved two U.S. Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles and the longest-running Adult Contemporary hit in the chart’s history with “Truly Madly Deeply,” which stayed 123 weeks in the chart. He has won 10 ARIA awards for Savage Garden’s debut album alone, and 14 ARIAs in total. He has also won 10 APRA songwriting awards and was named “one of Australia’s 50 greatest artists of all time” by Rolling Stone Australia. Darren has sold out shows around the world, including at Royal Albert Hall, Sydney Opera House and Radio City Music Hall. He has taken the stage with Luciano Pavarotti and performed to a global audience of hundreds of millions at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. In addition to his 25-year career as a singer and songwriter, Darren has also studied sketch comedy at renowned improv school The Groundlings, has co-hosted over 100 episodes of the film podcast “We Paid To See This” and holds a Bachelor of Education. In 2022, Darren will be releasing his first album in 10 years and will be celebrating 25 years since the release of Savage Garden’s debut self-titled album.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.