Paula Abdul changed Jim Verraros’ life.
The musician appeared on the first season of “American Idol” in 2002, but it was his love of Abdul that prompted him to audition in the first place.
When a friend called him and told there was this new show premiering and Abdul was going to be a judge, he knew he had to try out.
“I like, lost my shit,” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to meet Paula.’ I didn't even really care about the record deal as much, I just loved her.”
That set him on a trajectory of new-found, instant fame, and into uncharted territory.
It led to a couple of albums and movies. He’s made Out Magazine's "Out 100" twice and graced the cover of The Advocate.
His first album, Rollercoaster, was released in 2005 and his song, “You Turn It On,” peaked at #21 on the Billboard Dance Chart, making him the first openly gay Idol finalist to chart.
Music ran its course in Verraros’ life with him eventually taking a break. But after a 12-year hiatus he’s recently returned to his roots releasing the song Take My Bow.
In an interview with OutSFL, Verraros took a look back on his life and career, and the decisions that helped shape him into the person he is today.
Verraros, who was 19 and mostly out when he appeared on “Idol”, didn’t discuss his sexual orientation. His backstory on the singing competition revolved around his parents, who are deaf. His first song in front of the judges, he signed it, earning him a ticket to Hollywood and endearing him to the public.
Even though it’s been 21 years since his time on the show, he doesn’t mind being asked about the experience.
“It was a big part of my life and […] opened doors for me,” he said.
“Being on the first season, the contestants had no idea what was in store for them. And no one really knew how successful the competition would be.”
As everyone knows, “American Idol” not only took off – it became a cultural phenomenon. As for Abdul, it launched a new career for the multi-talented celebrity – television show judge.
“Every major moment that happened was like a surprise,” he said. “You're going to be on an album. That's going to be in stores. Surprise, you're gonna go on tour, and then surprise, you're gonna be in a Ford Focus commercial. It was just like, Ok, I'm here for the ride. It was really exciting.”
Verraros made it to the Top 10 but was cut in the first week after singing his rendition of “Easy.” The judges panned it at the time even though Abdul tried to soften the blow calling him an Olympian, while saying it may not have been his “golden moment.”
The theme was Motown. Back in those early days of “Idol”, budgets were limited and so were song choices. He recalls only having eight or nine options.
“I literally had maybe heard of one song on the list,” he said.
One of his takeaways from the competition was to never change who he is.
“I’m grateful for all of it because it taught me a lot about the industry,” he said. “It taught me how to just be authentic and genuine, no matter what the cost. So I just look back with really fond memories and gratitude.”
But it was the tour, after the show wrapped up, that’s the most memorable part of his experience. With 30 concerts in 40 days, he called it “pretty chaotic.”
“It was just kind of amazing that you were sort of given […] this built in fan base. And then you were able to bring that with you on tour,” he said. “So it was just an incredible experience to play to thousands and thousands of people in stadiums and arenas.”
On the flip side, the biggest challenge was sort of going back in the closet. While he was open to the producers and fellow contestants, the public did not know he was gay.
By the end of the tour, he had decided to come out to the world in an issue of the Advocate. But there was one problem: his father didn’t know he was gay. Luckily, his family was coming to Seattle to attend the last stop of the tour.
He still recalls staying at the W Hotel in Seattle.
“I felt very fancy. I felt empowered to sort of treat them to dinner in the room,” he said. “And that was when I told my dad that I was gay.”
But then he dropped the real bomb.
“I told him that I would also be telling the world in The Advocate, and so that was hard for him to process for sure,” he said.
Verraros may have been the first “Idol” to publicly come out and make a splash, but he wouldn’t be the last. Others like Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert have since done so.
But Verraros will always remain the trailblazer.
“I was just thinking I need to live my life and I need to be happy. I hope it served as inspiration for fellow idols to come out in future seasons,” he said. “I hope it said to people that want to pursue a career in entertainment that they could be true to themselves. At the moment, I was just thinking, ‘this is the right thing.’”
Being a starry-eyed 19-year-old on a brand-new surprise hit television show though, it’s hard to know what’s best for your future, personally or professionally.
“There are some challenges when you are openly gay on that show,” he said. “A lot of people at that time advised me not to do that. They really thought it was going to affect my career. And I should just keep my mouth shut. I just couldn't do that. Even though they may have been right, probably at the time, I just couldn't.”
And he didn’t.
But that doesn’t mean everything was sunshine and roses. Those challenges proved to be true. And at times he’s struggled professionally and personally over the years.
“When you expose yourself on national television, it's sort of a free for all, and there are parts of you that you find hiding,” he said. “So it's very dangerous when you do that, because parts of you are sort of left missing, and you kind of spend your later years searching for them.”
It took him a while to figure it all out.
“I've learned through years of therapy that it was really, really hard, and I don't think I really sort of absorbed how tricky it was until many years later,” he said.
Back in those days there wasn't much queer representation in the music industry in the U.S., so Verraros felt like there was no framework for his future.
“If my career started a little bit later, I would have had, I think, a better shot,” he said.
Even with the hurdles he faced he’s still grateful for Idol and the doors that were opened for him.
Once out, Verraros embraced his queerness.
“I leaned into it. I mean, [look at] my music, and my film choices,” he said. “I was really excited to be a part of queer cinema at that time.”
That queer cinema includes “Eating Out,” a campy gay comedy, released in 2004.
His first album was filled with songs that honored his sexuality. Anthems like So Deep with these lyrics:
Take me up to your room
I wanna see what you can do
Throw me on the bed and tie me up
Handcuffs 'till i can't get enough
“Being an openly gay artist, I’m out, so why not, right? I mean, I didn’t pronoun my songs,” he said. “But I just felt like you get one shot at this. So do the things you want to do. Let people say what they want to say. At least I can look back and say […] I was very much, authentically myself.”
Through the years he’s performed at Pride festivals and in bars, done pop-ups, and even acted.
“I think that it sort of ran its course for the time,” he said about taking a break from the entertainment industry. “So I just ran out of options.”
Instead, he settled in with his first spouse and moved back to Chicago getting involved with his husband’s business of bridal fashion.
“I immersed myself in that world,” he said.
They were together 11 years and divorced in 2017. He attributes some of the problem to their age gap of 17 years. The two met when Verraros was 22.
“I got married at 26. Very young,” he said.
He had it all – or so he thought. The house in the suburbs. The dogs. The business.
“I think we were just very much in different places,” he said. And one piece of advice he offered up: “never work with, or for, your partner. That is bad news.”
He’s not bitter, though, adding, “I hope he's doing really well.”
After splitting with his first husband, he quickly met his future one on an app. Venturing back into the dating world scared him and brought out his insecurities.
“Is anybody gonna think I'm cute after, you know, being in a marriage?” he said. “I harbored so much guilt for being so interested in someone so fast. A lot of shame for wanting to move on.”
He doesn’t mind chatting about his divorce. For him, it’s cathartic.
“You don’t hear a lot of gay men really talk about it,” he said. “I also talk about it just to be transparent and say, ‘You know, it wasn't all perfect, but it wasn't all bad either.’ And if you do go through something like that, you're still you. You can still be able to find love. You aren't broken. You are deserving of that.”
During his break-up, he even leaned on his old pal Kelly Clarkson, the winner of “American Idol” season 1, texting with her.
“I, at least, have some sort of connection to most of them,” referring to his fellow top 10 contestants. “Christina [Christian] and I are still very close. R.J. [Helton] and I are close.”
Verraros is older and wiser and embracing his age, especially in the sexy photoshoot he’s produced for Take My Bow.
“I’m 40-years-old. It's not like I'm coming off with the Disney Channel. It's like the jig is up. I've been married – twice. I've been through shit. I just feel like there's no other way to be than just here it is,” he said. “It's also just embracing yourself, where you're at in your life.”
He’s especially proud of the photo featuring him in a jockstrap.
“There's nothing more freeing than taking a picture in a jockstrap in a club. I'll tell you that,” he said. “I always just wanted to do it. I was like, ‘What do I have to lose at this point?’ So if people like it, great. If not, that's OK.”
The photo shoot took place inside Beauty Bar in Chicago, where he lives with his current husband, Sean. The two have been together for six years.
“He's wonderful. I think Sean is one of those people that is a constant – like a rock – who is unflappable, and I am not like that,” he said. “So it's a nice balance.”
Earlier this year, he started getting that musical itch, prompting him to jump into the industry.
“I was torn between saying something political, because the Republican Party makes me want to fucking, you know, throw shit,” he said. But then he asked himself: “Do I want to focus on that and stare at the negative shit, or do I want to focus on bringing joy into the world?”
He chose joy (with a bit of sexy).
He co-wrote the song with Jayce Green.
“He’s an incredible queer songwriter out of Oklahoma City,” he said. “He's amazing. He's just so wise beyond his years."
Verraros doesn’t quite know what’s next.
“Does anybody really know? I don't fucking know,” he said.
In the immediate future, he has three remixes of Take My Bow that will be released in the UK soon.
“The goal is hopefully, fingers crossed, to have it kind of make a splash on the charts overseas,” he said. “Then I've got some remixes for the U.S. that I'm really excited to release.”
Beyond that, he’s hoping to make a video for Take My Bow, something he’s never done.
Verraros points out that the world has changed in the entertainment industry since his coming out 21 years ago. Nowadays, there are many successful LGBTQ artists.
“It showed me that maybe it's worth exploring again,” he said.
Back in the spotlight, Verraros is once again ready to take his bow.
You can find Take My Bow on Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and other streaming services.
This story originally appeared in the OutSFL magazine. SEE IT IN PRINT.