Best known for appearing on the seventh season of American Idol, gay singer David Hernandez was outed as a former stripper while he was a contestant. (He made it to the Top 12, then was eliminated.) But that pales next to the real-life drama he’s endured. Years ago, Hernandez began taking prescription drugs and later became so addicted to them that his life was virtually in shambles. Despite this, he still managed to make music, the result of which is his new EP, Kingdom: The Mixtape, and the song “Shield,” about how he keeps safe from dark cravings like Xanax and alcohol.
In an exclusive interview, Hernandez opened up to me about how he’s battled those demons—and the time he landed in jail as a result.
Hello, David. In 2009 you told me about your having been voted off American Idol, “It wasn’t the stripper thing. It was the gay thing. That’s Middle America for you.” Thoughts today?
I think that still probably holds true, for 10 years ago and a little bit now too.
You also suggested that Adam Lambert would be booted off soon for the same reason, but it turns out he made it to runner-up.
He’s a friend and extremely talented. I just ran into him. I don’t have the same views as back then. I’ve gotten older and wiser and more mature. I definitely believe that “gay former stripper”—all that together—was a recipe for a no go. It probably didn’t help that that week I did my shittiest song—”I Saw Her Standing There.” I wasn’t allowed to change the arrangement of it because it was a Beatles song. I don’t think it’s a shitty song, it’s just not a go-to for me, not a song I would sing.
Speaking of unwelcome developments, tell me about your Xanax problem.
It started about 12 years ago, before American Idol. I started taking it as a sleep aid. A piece here and a piece there, to go to bed. That was OK for the first couple of years. But I started taking more and more, not realizing my body was creating a dependency on it and at the same time was [becoming] resilient to the effects of it, so the doses got higher and higher. By time I got to L.A., there were so many psychiatrists who’d prescribe you anything you wanted. I kept trying to juggle anxiety that was coming on really thick, so I turned to Xanax as more than a sleep aid. I’d take a quarter in the morning, a quarter after lunch, and a whole pill before bed. It started losing its effect.
Why did you feel so much anxiety?
I was in pretty shitty relationships, tumultuous ones with verbal and physical abuse. I grew up not seeing positive relationships, so subconsciously that seeped into the people I picked to date. That’s sort of when I wanted to numb myself with alcohol and other substances. In L.A. things are pretty available, especially if you’re of any notoriety.
I’m so sorry to hear you were abused. Did you ever call the cops or have to go to the hospital?
No. There were some times when the cops could have been called, but it never happened to that extent. I think my prescription drug abuse started because of those relationships and anxiety of this business—failed record deals and so on. I didn’t realize I was slowly killing my body. I wrote a good chunk of the current CD during this period. It was really personal to me because I was so far down, and that was my only way out.
I hear that you were arrested once. Can you tell me now, exclusively, what happened?
When I was going through my first breakup, I had a DUI in Arizona. My best friend and I had been out drinking. I was taking Xanax and Adderall. I drove her car home and got pulled over. They said I was very, very drunk. I ended up in jail for nine days, under house arrest for 36 days, and with a breathalyzer in my car for two years. I was swerving all over the road. I think I made a right hand turn and pulled into the left hand lane, which would normally not be a big deal, but it was 2:30am and I was driving slow, so I was very noticeable.
I’m glad you weren’t speeding. Did you have to wear an ankle bracelet when you were under house arrest?
I did. I always wear skinny jeans, so imagine trying to cover that up. It wasn’t easy.
When did you finally go to rehab?
January 7 of this year. I said in January, “I need to get this shit under control.” I was at rock bottom, to say the least. I went back home to Arizona, to a voluntary facility, and I was there about a week. I thought I was OK, but then the onset of the withdrawal from Xanax could last for years. I didn’t realize when I checked out that I still had a long way to go. I was having hallucinations. My body was freaking out. My dad’s girlfriend had to call the paramedics, and I went to the hospital for a few days.
Going semi-cold turkey must be very rough.
Before I checked in, I was off of Xanax for three days. But they said, “You could have a seizure, you could die.” I almost died. My mom’s a nurse and didn’t know [if] I would ever bounce back. My mind was going through psychoses. I’d hallucinate people trying to kill me. In retrospect, I’d tell people to stay in rehab for a month at least.
Why did it take you close to 10 years to go to rehab?
I didn’t feel like I had a problem until then. My body started shutting down last year. My stomach was burning, but I would always treat that with more Xanax. I thought it was manageable. I didn’t think I was addicted to anything. You have to acknowledge you have a problem before doing something about it.
What’s your attitude today about all this?
I’m terrified of going down that rabbit hole again. I’m much more focused, still driven, in the studio all the time, and still touring.
Do you have any vices now?
I’m a work in progress. Every day is a step in the right direction. I‘m always going to have that monkey on my back, so to speak. But I’ve not taken a pill since before January 7 and I don’t plan on it. Going through what I went through is like a separate universe. Your mind is disconnected from your body.
What does your song “Shield” mean to you?
“Shield” is sort of a universal song. People can interpret it the way they want to. For me, it’s an empowering song. I originally wrote it from my stronger self to my weaker self. When I sing it, I dedicate it to my friend who had a stroke, so he knows every step of the way that someone is there for him.
Do you talk about your personal problems in concert?
Not this. But I talk about my shitty relationships because people can relate. I talk about my mom. People connect because I’m a real person and there’s no Hollywood-ness about me.
How’s your love life today?
It’s great. I try to keep it as private as possible. People on social networks start stalking whoever I’m dating.
But you feel healthier?
I feel very happy in my love life and career-wise, things are going really well. I have a great agent. This mixtape is all self-promoted. I don’t have a label or a big time manager. It’s catching fire. And there are 23 songs. The stuff that happened until I got clean was the time I wrote all these songs that were supposed to be reaffirming, and they were. But I really needed medical help to get through. You can’t do that on your own. But music gave me a purpose. It really saved me. I can’t tell you what would have happened if I didn’t have that to guide me.
Of Timothée I Sing
In other drug survival news, Nic Sheff’s memoirs—and his dad, David’s—have been turned into the film Beautiful Boy starring the Oscar-nominated duo of Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell. At a luncheon at Lotos Club the other day, Chalamet was asked why he took the role, and he replied, “I had no career at this point. This was a job.” Carell chimed in, “And I continue to feel that way.” We all laughed even louder.
“It resonated with me,” continued Carell, “and the hope was it would resonate with people that saw it and it would start a conversation.” Having mulled over his abbreviated response, Chalamet then added that he read the books and the script and felt, “I need to be in this. A lot of people my age are going through this. Last year, I was in a film that felt like it was a new window of experience that people hadn’t seen before.” Naturally, he meant Call Me By Your Name, the movie that had his character—and the entire world—going gay for Armie Hammer. He felt that Boy, in which addiction is treated as a disease and the victim isn’t blamed, is similar in that regard. “It’s a human story,” said Chalamet, “and the biggest thing I learned in researching this role is that there is no recognizable face to drug addiction. It’s scary and complex to some people and it raises questions and a stigma. I was looking for a clue or a way in, and it’s a story about humanity. I’m not going to play a drug addict. I’m going to play a human who’s addicted to drugs.” Cheers—with cranberry juice.
“Tired Old Queen” Steve Hayes Is Not Tired at All
Another drug survivor who’s flourishing: Known for the movie Trick (1999) as well as The Big Gay Musical (2009) and his “Tired Old Queen at the Movies” videos, Steve Hayes is a very funny man who’s been there and back. In a performance for TWEED’s Sundays At 7 series at Pangea, presented by Kevin Malony, Hayes was wildly endearing as he talked about going to L.A. to the house of the producer of the Trick sequel and practically orgasming when he saw a French poster for the pill-popping camp classic Valley of the Dolls on the wall. The producer immediately went into Patty Duke’s dialogue from the bathroom scene, and Hayes responded with Susan Hayward’s lines, and they played it all the way through—“and we hadn’t even been formally introduced!” Hayes also talked about his youth, when he valiantly tried to bond with his father by joining him in tarring the roof of their house.
At one point, dad realized that Steve had tarred himself into a corner and was visibly crying. “What’s the matter?” asked dad. “I’m gay and a drug addict!” blurted Steve, to his own surprise. Dad offered comfort, saying they’d get through this together (the drug addict part, anyway) and then he hooked him up with Steve’s nurse sister, who provided some rehabbing action. (“And I got sober 15 years later,” laughed Steve.) As for the gay stuff, Steve eventually was so out that he was asked to sit down with his 17-year-old gay nephew and give advice. (“Don’t eat yellow snow,” was his best offering.) Hayes also performed a medley of hard boiled dialogue from film noir classics, and he closed with a rousing “I Am What I Am”. He certainly is. Give him the ovation.