Glee Project's Alex Newell on Being a Drag (Not a Diva), and Facing 'Genuine Hate'

Alex Newell wants you to know he’s not a diva — and he doesn’t even think he played one during Season 1 of Oxygen’s The Glee Project. TVLine caught up with the big-voiced teenager to talk about making his drag debut in front of Glee creator Ryan Murphy (and a national TV audience), getting into a tiff with fellow contestant Matheus, and revealing a lot more personal info during the show’s run than he’d ever intended to share.

TVLINE | You definitely took some heat from the judges and some fans during the “Dance-ability” episode, where you essentially implied you wanted to let someone else win a challenge because you’d already won several times and because you were a superior dancer. Ryan Murphy even asked if you somehow thought you were better than your competitors. How did you feel watching that back on TV?
About that situation, I knew as soon as I said it that it was gonna be taken the wrong way, and it was gonna be blown completely out of proportion. I dunno, playing it back I was like, “Yeah, still blown out of proportion.” But like I told [Ryan], I don’t think I’m better than everybody. I just knew that my dancing was the strongest. Out of everyone, I had the best dancing, ’cause I’ve been working at dance all my life. So it was like, “What would it mean for me to win? Just let somebody else win.” I didn’t throw it. I still went for it in the challenge and gave it my all, but I guess generosity isn’t always a thing.

TVLINE | There was also a lot of time spent on a tiff between you and Matheus, where he told the judges that some of your comments — specifically about your ability to hit higher notes than him — made him feel hurt and upset. Were you surprised he went there?
It was always awkward. Watching the interaction, to this day, I didn’t say anything. I said nothing to [Matheus], and then when he told Ryan all the stuff I had supposedly said, I thought, you can go back and watch the extra footage, the footage they showed, I still didn’t say anything. It just didn’t add up to me, but I got over it. He’s apologized, and I’ve apologized for the things I had and hadn’t said.

TVLINE | Were you worried during filming that you might get the diva edit?
At first, I wasn’t worried about it. My friends at home know this diva thing is my whole act of being funny. Everybody laughs it off, and everybody gets it. And at the same time, I wasn’t a true diva. In the interview rooms, I’ve never spoken bad about anyone. I only spoke good things about them. I just feel that [the producers] were like, “Oh, well, he’s not being a diva, so we’ll make him look like a diva.” And I think it kind of backfired because people genuinely hate me.

TVLINE | How does that reaction affect you?
It’s hurtful, but at the same time, what can you do?

TVLINE | During one of your last-chance performances, Ryan and the judges made a casual comment about drag, and then next time you were in front of them, you came out in a dress, heels, and wig. Had you done drag before?
This was the first time I had ever done drag, and it was kind of hard. I was apprehensive toward doing it because my family was watching the show, and I didn’t know how they’d take it. But other than that it was pretty good.

TVLINE | When you made the decision to do drag, was it a spontaneous or had you been mulling the idea for a bit?
They offered me the idea of doing the whole thing in drag, and I thought, “Why not? What do I have to lose? Ryan wants to see it, so let’s put it on for him.”

TVLINE | You said you had some apprehension the first time you did it: Did the nerves go away once you began to sing?
I was nervous all the way through. Granted, it’s Ryan Murphy sitting in front of you. And you’re just like “What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?” But other than that, it was all right, I was all right. Good times.

TVLINE | On two episodes, you talked about losing your dad at a young age, and you even wound up singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which had been played at his funeral. Did you go into the show thinking you’d be revealing so much about yourself and your personal life?
Talking about my father on the show, I never thought I’d have to go that far. But being gay and all that other stuff, I knew it was coming, because I was the only one on the show. I knew they were gonna shine some light on it. So to answer your question, yes and no. I knew some personal things were going to come out, but not the extent of everything.

TVLINE | In the season finale, the judges talked about how brave you were to perform in drag, and to take the journey you’d taken through the season. How was that for you to hear?
It was great. They understood what I was trying to portray, understood who I was and the people I represent, and understood what my goal was to be on Glee.