“I’m a fine mixture of blues and rock with a shot of Southern Comfort,” says Beverly McClellan, the bald lesbian rocker who made it all the way to the finals of NBC’s The Voice. “If Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge had a baby, and they invited over my grandmother — who’s Etta James — that would be me.” The Florida native got on the phone for an outspoken, sometimes outrageous interview with TVLine where she talked about making a living as an openly gay entertainer, winning over Voice coaches Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine with her “Sword of Troy,” and redefining the beauty standards we’ve come to accept from network television.
TVLINE | So before we talk about your performances on The Voice, I’m curious about how you ended up on the show in the first place.
After I dropped my fifth CD, just before March, my guy from the studio — SoundBox Records, Chris Monteleone — sent me an email he got at the studio looking for people that would be interested in casting for The Voice. In the subject line he put, “Ha-ha, I know you won’t do it, but this really is a gig for you.” And that’s how he got me to do it: Because nobody tells me what I can and can’t do. [For the finale], they told me “Don’t get up on top of that piano, Beverly. It’s only one of four in the world.” All the more reason why I want to lay and sing on it! I’m a bit of a rebel: Is that good with you?
TVLINE | Absolutely.
Right on, man. Where the hell did the rock and roll go? Epic moments were made: We need those again. I have no fear of it. I’m a kid that never grew up. I feel like I’m finally, for once in my life, where I need to be, showing the right people, even if it’s not something I planned on doing: Come out here and get famous. I thought, “S***, I have just as much chance as anyone else.” Am I blown away that I came this far? Yeah. But now I don’t want to slow the train down.
TVLINE | CeeLo made a comment on the show that if someone tried to make you compromise, you’d probably kick some a**. And that really seemed to sum you up. I mean, it’s not like you’d see an out, bald lesbian over the age of 40 on American Idol…
Abso-f******-lutely not, dude.
TVLINE | But the interesting thing is, here we are in a country with a lot of heated rhetoric about same-sex marriage, where we don’t see very many music stars who are gay, or who are out of the closet at the start of their careers at least, and you come on The Voice, present yourself and your sexual orientation very matter-of-factly, and you make it all the way to the finals based on the public’s vote. I wonder what that says about where the country is at in terms of accepting gay and lesbian artists.
Listen, dude, we’ve got to be the change we want to see. I have to set that precedent for myself. I can lay down at night and think, “Wow. I did everything in a way that I can live with myself.” And the children are our future: How can we show them a different way if we don’t continue it with every step we take? Doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and be a bit of a rebel, but break the right rules. There are the ones that need to be broken. I’ve never ever ever not lived out loud, and I’ve known my sexuality since a young age — kindergarten, really.
TVLINE | I have to say, too, that The Voice itself was very matter-of-fact in terms of its representation of gay contestants. It didn’t flinch from presenting your story but it didn’t make a big deal out of it either.
Exactly! And I’m finding out that I’ve inspired a lot of youth, and maybe people who’ve lived in my time. Being born in 1969, I’ve seen some things! I’ve been bald for 20 years! Walking around all hard at 25 years old in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, looking to make a name for myself. And I made a living down there off music. I quit my dental career, because I’d rather have followed my dreams, and lived exactly how I felt comfortable.
TVLINE | And yet there are plenty of gay and lesbian entertainers who don’t come out because they’re worried about the effect it’ll have on them commercially. Your success on The Voice kind of flies in the face of that.
There was a place called Tarpon Bend in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Two levels of a bar, but also a restaurant. It was right downtown near the Broward Performing Arts Center. You could get anybody from a mom with the three little kids, with the dad parking the car, and grandma and grandpa meeting ‘em there, or you could find the Friday-night boys there to take advantage of happy hour, and they’d get rotten hearing your performances and scream Lynyrd Skynyrd. And I entertained every last one of ‘em in that 400-seat place — while they were having dinner! I got the looks: “Oh my God, is she gonna sing punk rock?” “Oh God, she’s definitely gay.” But I just had to show these people a different way — and do it with class, in such a way they’d feel stupid about their own selves for ever having judged that. And music is universal, and I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed by God and my mother to have really beautiful deliverance about me. I don’t know exactly where it comes from. I don’t question it. But I am thankful for it, and if I can change the world doing something like that — giving the youth of today a direction to go — then so be it. I was looking up to Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, who’ve been speaking out loud since the day I was a teenager. We need those profound people in life. And I may not have sought out to be that, but if I am that, I’m okay with that. That’s something to be damn proud of.
TVLINE | Having made a living in music for two decades, was it weird or humbling going into the blind auditions, having the coaches with their backs to you, and having to wonder if anyone was going to turn around?
Honey, I didn’t go out there set for them to not turn around: I went out there with the Sword of Troy. I was singing so hard my veins were popping out of my head, and I could see the spit slinging from my mouth. And just in that split instant I saw Christina and Adam turn around, and I was like, “Oh, it’s on now.” [Laughs.] Of course I had to go with Christina: Why freaking not? She sings her face off. She’s an icon.
TVLINE | After that, you had to go into the Battle Round wirth Justin Grennan, where you duked it out on “Baba O’Riley” in a boxing ring. Was it counterintuitive for you as an artist to approach a duet like a duel?
Here’s the difference between what people see on TV and the reality of the situation. Grennan and myself never really wanted to go up against anybody. We just wanted to be involved in being possibly The Voice. And then to have to go up against a friend I had made there — who’s also a really wonderful vocalist with more of a Stevie Wonder-Kenny Loggins vibe… I definitely have more of that Janis Joplin rasp. Put us both together, and it was a magical moment. And I said, “Look dude, at the end of the day all we can do is go out there and be ourselves, and I wish you nothing but the best. And I’ve given you absolutely every tool I can.” We sat and we learned the song together because he’d never even heard it. And I thought to myself, “Oh no.” But I taught it to him. We listened to it. We sat and we practiced it. And it was royally wonderful. So at the end of the day it was just a matter if they wanted shrimp or chicken, because they’re both awesome.
TVLINE | Your Quarterfinal performance was a cover of Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One.” Did the added pressure of performing in front of a TV audience of 12 million people freak you out at all?
I didn’t think about that. I did not for one minute think about that. I thought, “I’m in the room with these people now, and they can physically see me. So I’ve got to give it my all.” And the capture of the camera told the truth; the camera don’t lie. When it’s live it’s live. And all my shows for 20 years have been live, so bring it on. It didn’t matter if five people showed up to my gig or 200 people: They still got the same show, because I love what I do. I have sacrificed as an individual, and given up a career that I went to school for — because my mother would say, “Beverly, you’ve got to have something to fall back on. You can’t just do music.” “Oh yeah? Why not?” I’ve proven her wrong, just by being that rebel.
TVLINE | It seems like you’re something of a throwback to a different era of music…
I’m a Led Zeppelin fan. I’m a Foo Fighters fan. I’m all about “Let it be live, baby. Let it be live.” But I’m a Lady Gaga fan, too. And secretly, on the down low, I desperately want to be on a hip-hop record for some reason. I just love music: Any aspect of it.
TVLINE | On “The Thrill Is Gone,” you changed direction, sat at the piano, went for something more bluesy and a little less rock. It seems to me like that’s really your wheelhouse, but I’m curious how you see it.
My fans know me, and they were not shocked at all. If anything they sat there and cried because they saw me give the world myself. Because my favorite singer is Etta James. And some Otis Redding and some Ella Fitzgerald and — come on! — some Nina Simone.
TVLINE | I especially loved your duet at the finale with Christina Aguilera on “Beautiful.” That point where you first sing the line, “I am beautiful, no matter what they say,” you had such a look of intense joy and satisfaction…
Oh, it was completely a satisfactory moment, are you kidding? I got to tell the whole world, “I really don’t care what you think of me!” It was the most beautiful, elegant way to say “Whatever.” And how beautiful was that, with Linda Perry there, too?
TVLINE | It’s a pretty demanding song, vocally. What was your first thought when Christina suggested it?
“You better work, girl! I am all day with that, honey!” I had actually told her at our outing — after we went out to dinner and the cameras were off — she asked everyone what their favorite song was. And I said, “Beautiful.” That’s my favorite. I know Linda Perry wrote it, but I really relate to the song and the video. We’re all mistaken for something we’re not. If people would take the time to really look, you’d see more than what you really bargained for.
TVLINE | So let’s talk about the first time you heard “Love Sick.” Did you consider other original songs for your final Voice solo?
I only wanted that one. And to be honest with you, I changed it up from what it originally was. Bill Appleberry and I made an epic rock record, that’s how I feel. And that’s definitely something that I dreamed of as a child, while I was standing in the mirror with a hairbrush — [Sings intro to “Rock of Ages.”] Gunter. Glieben. Glauten. Globen. I was a Def Leppard fan hardcore, so it just felt so right. And I loved Journey. And I got back to [Sings a bar of Twisted Sister.] “We’re not gonna take it!” These are epic records. I wanted one like that for sure, and I look forward to doing more like that.
TVLINE | Getting back to “Beautiful” for a second, in a sense, when you were singing, “I am beautiful, no matter what they say,” you seemed to be commenting about what our beauty standards are in this society, and challenging people that a bald lesbian can be beautiful, too.
Honey, women come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. And if I put a different flavor into the mix, I’m thinking the world said they’re okay with it — loud and clear. And Frenchie Davis, same thing. Even Emily Valentine. Casey Desmond. So many of us on The Voice redefined what beauty is. Like I said, I go back to when Madonna and Cyndi Lauper walked around with the craziest hair and outfits ever, and everybody wanted to be them. Why not pull that card? Come on: Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Heart, Lita Ford. Melissa Etheridge changed the world, too. I talked to her twice, and she’s really the real deal. And Stevie Nicks, too. Wonderful. For me? Linda Perry, Christina Aguilera, those two together at the same time, and then let’s pop over to Blake Shelton’s wife, who wants to sing with me. Cee-Lo calls me Killer B. I’ve met so many cool people and I feel very accepted, and life feels like a pretty good dream I wake up to every day. All I ever wanted to do was be accepted, and I finally feel like I am. If that paved the way for anyone else, then God bless that situation.
TVLINE | What’s next for you?
Everything. Everything. America needs to watch out, ’cause they’re not even ready for what’s coming to them: Beverly McClellan, Vicci Martinez, Emily Valentine, Tyler Robinson, Kelsey Rey, and so many other folks from The Voice. And the list goes on.