Ricky tells how he was discovered by Michael Jackson, dishes about Madonna and talks about his Billboard-charting song, The New Alpha
Get used to hearing the name “Ricky Rebel.” This incredible artist, who charted on Billboard twice last year, has it all – from powerful vocals to impeccable choreography and dance, to the most outrageous wardrobes, and a message that reflects his own unique identity.
The title track from his latest solo album, “The New Alpha,” featuring former Adam Lambert guitarist Tommy Jo Ratliff, has staying power with its social commentary about gender roles that echoes back to David Bowie. The music video is an impressive artistic expression that is uniquely Ricky, and this one is sure to be a chart-topper!
One of your first big breaks was being discovered by Michael Jackson and getting signed to his label early on in your career. How does something like that happen? How did you get discovered by Michael?
I started off in the industry at a really young age, and I was booked on McDonalds commercials, Pepsi, and I sang on film soundtracks like Apollo 13 and Anastasia. During all of that auditioning, I auditioned to be in a boy band. I got the part, and was originally supposed to be a backup singer, but when I got behind the mike they realized I was quicker than the other guys and could sing leads as well, so I became the lead singer of the pop group. We made demo after demo, and it got the attention of an A&R representative at Sony, and he became a fan of No Authority. He would come to our sessions and say, “Michael’s going to love this.” And we were like, “Oh, okay, Michael. Some president of the label, right? We didn’t know it was THE Michael Jackson. When we finally found out that Michael Jackson wanted to sign us, my mind was blown.
That’s really an amazing story! What was it like working with Michael, and how do you think Michael’s advice helped you to become the artist you are today?
He led us to the launch of our album at Neverland Ranch. I got to be at the Neverland Ranch and spend time with him, and he’s a very kind, human person. He’s mysterious. He was funny and liked to laugh, and we would watch movies and go on all the rides. I danced for him and he looked at me and said, “You know, you’ve got a lot of nerve!” He could tell that I had that spirit about me. There was one family that lived on the ranch, and Michael Jackson considered them family. I was in a relationship with a girl that lived on the ranch, and she would invite me over, and we would play in the pool, eat with Michael, and that’s how it happened. His main advice that I remember him giving me regarding music and the group, was to stay away from girls. That girls ruin bands. That was his advice.
You have a lot of wonderful stories. Tell me about the first time you met Madonna. Your PR agent Lee just gave me a little teaser, and all she would say is, “It’s just not love until she slams the door in your face.” There’s got to be a great story behind that.”
My producer at the time, Ronny Jerkins, called me and said, “Ricky, come over now.” I asked why, but he said, “Don’t ask questions. Just come over.” I had an inkling of who he was working with. At that age, I only had one really strong hero in my life, and it was Madonna, and every other word out of my mouth was “Madonna.” And there she was in the studio, screaming at producers. I’m in the other room remixing a record with Ronny, and she’s down the hall recording her album. She would come out and scream at people. I didn’t even see her, I just knew she was there, and that was a big deal to me, just being in the same studio. I couldn’t take it any more, and my friend said, “Why don’t we go out and pretend to get something out of the truck, and you’ll finally get to meet her.” And I’m like, “No, no! It’s too embarrassing!” I went out and we pretended to get something out of the car. I was apologetic, and then we just started talking. She said, “You’re making a record with Michael Jackson I hear,” and I said, yes, we are. She was a very guarded person, she’s not very open, but she’s very sweet. I didn’t know that a couple years later she would be signing us to her label, Maverick Records. That meeting might have had something to do with it.
The story Lee was talking about, there was one point where she was in the studio on the phone, and I decided to walk by. There she was on the phone, and she gave me the worst look! And she got up and slammed the door. I walked by, and oh my God, I got the door slammed by Madonna! Awesome! I’ve always had an affinity for people who are not afraid to show it. If you’re pissed off, you’re pissed off. Or if you’re a natural bitch, that’s who you are, that’s cool. As long as you are not pretending. She never pretended to be an angel, which is why I love her.
You’re also good friends with Adam Lambert and you guys used to go clubbing together. How has that friendship helped to shape your career?
I met Adam Lambert before we went on to American Idol. We used to love to dress up with my friends and wear the wildest, craziest outfits and put on the craziest makeup. He threw a party in LA called “Society” and he would always invite me and my friends to come out a dance and have a good time. I ended up writing a song called “Society” and showing it to him, and he was blown away and said he wanted to collaborate. It never happened because he got booked on Wicked so he had to move to New York. I remember him wanting to smoke weed with me and my friends, and at one point asking me if we were going to have a threesome. Oh my God! I’m like, as soon as my friend wants to I guess so. Basically he trusted me, and honestly, he’s a sweet guy.
Let’s talk about The New Alpha. That’s just absolutely spectacular. I love everything about it, the vocals, choreography, the wardrobes. Everything comes together perfectly in that video and it’s getting a lot of traction. What kind of response have you had so far?
It has been very positive. I wanted people to like it, but I also wanted people to think, and I wanted to push buttons like my heroes have in the past. I don’t necessarily think that I pissed anybody off. Here I am, dancing in front of something I coined the “Wheel of Gender,” and I spin the wheel and impersonate different genders. On the wheel, there is actually a taco. My fans have a sense of humor. I was wondering if maybe some social justice warriors were going to come after me, but people understand that it’s artistic expression, and if I want to have a little fun, that’s what I’m doing. My version of The New Alpha is the realization that I can wear whatever I want. I can wear a dress, I can wear a suit, and those are tools to express my creativity, not my gender. I’m not speaking for trans communities or any other community, I’m just speaking solely about my own person. I’m trapped in a box in the music video that symbolizes all the labels, that people are constantly trying to put me in a box. As a child growing up, they put me in a box where I had to pretend to be straight, I had to pretend to be very masculine. Everyone said, you’ll never make it if you’re openly gay, so I had to hide who I was. Now I’m coming out as a more conservative person who has very hard-core liberal tendencies with social issues, but I’m also very conservative minded on certain things. Now I’m pushed into a box where I can’t talk about some of those views. You have to be 100 percent to the left, or you’re a racist homophobe. I don’t think it’s healthy to be radically left or radically right. I think we have to come to the center.
I understand completely, I lived in San Francisco for several years, and that’s very radical left out there.
That’s the epicenter of radical left! And I live in Hollywood. There’s only one view you’re allowed to have, and I resent that. The whole record is about that. I’m not resisting in the way they want me to, and that pissed them off. I resist the idea that you tell me who to vote for, that I have to vote for that person because I’m gay. I don’t like identity politics. The individual is most important, not the color of my hair or the color of my skin or my sexuality. Those things are part of my identity, but they’re not who I am or what I stand for. That’s what my work is all about.
And those clothing styles do put us in a box. When you look at it from a mile high, it’s very arbitrary. I spent some time in Southeast Asia for example, in Burma, where both men and women wear beautiful sarongs.
Isn’t that funny? You can go to different countries and they’re wearing dresses, and it’s totally masculine. We decide what things mean. Human beings decide that means girly, that means masculine, that means this. But if we all change our minds and agree on something, then all of a sudden that changes the meaning. The whole thing is malleable. So when I wear clothing, it’s just a piece of cloth. The New Alpha is free when it comes to fashion. Totally free.
Let’s talk about the wardrobes in that video. There’s a lot of wardrobe changes. Who was the designer behind those wardrobes and what was the inspiration behind it?
Ivan Vitton Stylehouse in Hollywood was responsible for the wardrobe. I want to give him credit because he houses all of these amazing designers, and he styles the biggest celebrities in LA. My art director, Elena Nazzaroff, she’s my co-collaborator in pretty much everything I’m doing right now. She and I come up with these costumes, I tell her how I’m feeing inside and what expression I want, and she helps deliver that with the styling and art direction. She co-directed that video with me, so I have to give her a lot of credit. We’ve created this, it’s who I am, which is a balanced duality of femininity and masculinity.
I love the Marilyn Monroe costume, that was wonderful.
Thank you! That was my idea. I wanted to be the most ultra version of my most feminine side, and it came out like Marilyn. I call her “Marilyn rebel” because she has a thing for the second amendment. When you do drag, your male persona comes out too, in a different way. I noticed I was much more bossy as Marilyn. When I’m the male, what I called “Bogart Rebel,” the role was harder for me. What that informs me is that as a performer, I have to be more comfortable with my masculinity. That’s what I want to do for some of the gays in the community. I don’t want this toxic masculinity idea to spread any more than it has. I think it’s a bad idea, because masculinity, done in a balanced measure, is super important. We can’t be effeminate all the time, you can’t be passive all the time, or whatever the feminine part of the wheel is. It’s just not healthy.
Let’s talk about some of your musical influences. Of course, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, I can hear some David Bowie in your vocals. Michael Jackson’s influence is also there in that flawless, flawless choreography. Who would you say are your biggest musical influences?
The biggest influence for me is David Bowie of course, especially now. At the beginning of my career it was Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Elvis Presley. What I realize now is that I don’t necessarily like music as much as I like the artist. I like what the artist stands for. Madonna stood for a lot back in the day. She fought for equality of the sexes in a sexual manner, she fought for a lot of things. I thought it was cool that she put herself out there. She was deemed uncool by a lot of my friends, but I tend to like people that others think are uncool, because they’re speaking out. David Bowie of course, I love him just because of his visual ability to use makeup in a very cool way, costumes and outfits, styling and fashion sense. He’s such an artist. And Prince, musically speaking, has informed me the most.
How do you think your music has evolved over time, from your time in the boy band No Authority, to the present?
Oh my gosh! I’m a totally different human being. I started off with a real R&B background, and then we were full fledged pop, because that’s where I wanted to go. Then the music industry exploded and died, the record labels died, and we had to pick up the pieces and learn how to be on my own. Somewhere in my thirties I just started making music that I wanted to do myself, just me, not trying to please the producer or others I’m collaborating with. That’s when I started developing a sound of my own. Now I feel that I have my own vibe, my own sound. It takes a long time to find your voice.
You’ve had quite a fascinating career, playing at Cannes and SXSW, working with and performing with some of the biggest names in the business, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Madonna, a lot of huge names. What has been the high point of your career so far?
I remember being on tour with Britney Spears, and we were in the arena on the tour bus. I remember seeing a big ad in Billboard Magazine: “No Authority, the second most added record on the charts.” Number one was Janet Jackson. I just closed my eyes and had this moment. I’m like, this is an incredible moment in my life, and I’m grateful. I was on tour with Britney, somebody who I admired; signed to Madonna’s label, and here we are, the second most added record in the country with Can I Get Your Number. That was real.
My second favorite moment would be when I found out that Boys And Sometimes Girls was charting on the Billboard Dance Club chart. The milestone of getting into the Top 40 on Billboard was incredible, and that happened twice. The other thing was going to Cannes and performing there, the whole trip was incredible. The most beautiful people on the planet were there. I love the French culture and the people! Maybe it was just the people who were there for the Cannes festival, but wow, so beautiful. So nice, sweet, and loving towards me. They called me “Mademoiselle.” Men with their wives would just grab me off the street and say, “Oh, you’re so beautiful!” mwah, mwah, mwah! And kiss my hand in front of their wives. It was so open. The men there are just so much more comfortable with their sexuality. My God, that’s hot. That’s the New Alpha. I like that.
I saw an article in Billboard where they referred to you as a “glam rocker,” but somehow that term seems limiting. If you had to define yourself, what would it be?
That’s a hard one. You might say glam rock, but I go “glam pop.” I love rock, don’t get me wrong, but I’m starting to lean in that direction more and more. The glam, I don’t know what else would be a great description for Ricky Rebel, I’m more than my music. There’s a movement within me that I can express to my fans. On Tuesdays I talk to all my fans, get together and chat about my views as a person. Freedom of speech and expression is probably going to be defining me more as an artist in the near future. It’s a real strength of mine. That’s the next step for me, starting a movement, a tribe of open-minded people where we don’t vilify people for having different points of view, different opinions, but we still hold true to our thoughts and beliefs.
I see myself as a brand, too, and I could sell products I really believe in. the necklaces I’m selling for example, I have this really cool necklace line called Ricky Rebel’s Renaissance collection. I met this man at Cannes, and he gave me a necklace and I wore it every single day. He knew I loved it, and said, “How about we start a line for you called the Ricky Rebel Renaissance line?” So we collaborate on ideas, I wear the necklaces religiously, and people love it.
Along the lines of fashion, you’re also a fashion contributor at US Weekly. Men’s fashion is especially challenging to write about, especially where I’m from here in Indiana where most men buy their entire wardrobe from the Tractor Supply Store!
If you had to give one fashion tip to American men, what would that fashion tip be?
Look at the way European men dress a little bit more! When I started, when magazines were actually a thing, I would look through men’s runway magazines and take photos that inspired me. I would tell them to look online and start finding out how they want to be seen as men, what is their look defined as? Are they more clean cut, conservative? A little more rock and roll? The list goes on and on. Figure out who they are inside, like a journey. Create a board and do your best to create that for yourself.
I think American men have this hangup, especially the ones who are conservative, about looking gay. At the end of the day, people should put that to rest. Straight men should put that to bed. Why? Because women love men that know fashion and know how to dress themselves. They will throw their bodies at you when you have a little bit of style and flair. You have to look at the peacock in the jungle. The peacock with the most beautiful, ostentatious tail is going to attract the female much more than the dull, grey one. American men have to put away their hangups on sexuality and homophobia and their fear of looking gay. Put that away. Look at things that inspire you and find ways you can stand out in the crowd. Women are going to love you. They love brave men who do not shop at the same place. They love men who look creative and in style, and still rockin’ in the bedroom. The more they embrace their inner style, it’s not going to change their sexuality, if they don’t want it to. If they want it to, that’s fine!
Even gays have the problem of style, it’s not just a straight thing. A lot of gay guys are afraid to step out. If you look at West Hollywood, they wear the same thing over and over again. They show off their arms, they cut off their sleeves, they wear jeans. They wear the same things. People just have to stop acting like sheep, trying to be safe all the time. You have to put that away if you’re trying to up your game.
That’s another thing I love about Western Europe, people are not afraid to take the extra effort to look good. There are a few places in the US like that, like Las Vegas. People dress in Las Vegas.
Uh-huh! When I went to Europe, I loved the men, especially when I went to France. They look better. Not only because they dress better, it makes them look better as men. It’s crazy. They just look better, and I think it’s because it shows conscientiousness. It shows a little more attention to detail. I don’t think they are any more good-looking than men here in America, it’s just those things are a reflection of what’s going on inside.
What’s next on your agenda? A tour? New recordings?
I am recording a new record that is an extension of The New Alpha. I did a bunch of songs that I’m working on for an extended EP of the record, with pretty much the same message but it’s augmented to even more of what I think and I want, that is the new alpha male and female. Then I have show coming up at the Satellite on September 10, in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. And I am currently working with a manager, who had managed Creed for a while, who is helping me to start getting into a more political sphere, doing speeches, advocating for free speech. I will be doing that in the near future as well, going around and speaking. We’re planning on doing a rock tour with it, where we perform as well. I have a new music video coming out called “Life is a Runway,” and I filmed it at New York Pride. Lady Gaga was there at New York Pride this year, and there was a big crowd and I got this incredible footage of the Pride performance itself, and me, living my life in New York, dancing around and inspiring people to make life their runway, their passion.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.