Before Adam Lambert can even sit down at a sidewalk café in L.A.’s downtown Arts District, he’s greeted by name by a trio of 20-something guys at a nearby table. Unfortunately, it’s not his name. They call him Adam Levine. “I get that once in a while because we’re both Adam L.,” says Lambert, laughing it off. “It kills me though because apparently, he doesn’t know who I am.” Hold up. The Maroon 5 frontman and judge on The Voice doesn’t know who Adam Lambert is? But they’re on the pop charts together and even share a producer – Swedish hitmaker Max Martin – how can that be? “Once on The Voice, somebody sang ‘Whataya Want from Me,’” Lambert explains, referring to his Grammy-nominated hit from 2010, “and Adam Levine’s like, ‘I don’t know who originally sang that but you did it better’.” Wow, that’s like a double-ouch. “It was a low-key shady moment,” agrees Lambert. “But it was also kind of funny.”
If there’s anyone who appreciates a bit of humor with his pop stardom, it’s Lambert. “I love a little irony or a tongue in cheek moment,” says the singer. That applies to his personal style as well. Today, he’s having an “autumnal, earth-tone moment” in oversized olive “janitor pants,” a butterfly-print shirt, long copper trench coat and lava-colored aviators. “It’s very easy for artists, myself included, to go super emo with their songwriting and get very deep and dark. And there’s room for that,” muses Lambert who got his first taste of the spotlight performing in musicals in his hometown of San Diego. “But sometimes I feel like there’s a lack of comedy. Especially right now, we need songs that are going to help people escape and get through this crazy political time that we’re in.”
Lambert’s knack for not taking himself too seriously is part of what makes him the perfect fit for his ongoing side gig: filling in for the late, great Freddie Mercury in the rock band Queen. After a smash tour in 2014-2015 that took them everywhere from Saskatoon, Canada to Rio, Brazil, Queen + Adam Lambert are reuniting this summer for a 25-city North American tour. “Freddie was a god and it’s an honor to be carrying his torch into this era,” says Lambert who first performed with remaining members Brian May and Roger Taylor on the Season 8 finale of American Idol, the show that introduced Lambert to the world in 2009. “In the beginning, I was intimidated and concerned, like ‘Are fans of Queen going to accept me? Am I capable of singing all this music?’ But slowly but surely, I grew into it. For this tour, we have the challenge of reinventing the show with different songs and arrangements and fun rock band toys like lighting effects and flames and video content. And of course, I’ll get into the whole fashion thing.”
Lambert’s rule of thumb when it comes to putting his Queen look together is ‘What would Freddie do?’ “I want the look to fit their music and be sort of retro,” he explains before bringing up a photo on his iPhone of a pair of ’70s-esque Balenciaga platform boots he recently bought online. “I got the silver ones and they’re amazing,” he reports. “Now I want the snakeskin ones.” Lambert draws the line, however, at a Freddie Mercury ’70s porn-stache. “To get that look, the hair has to grow over the lip,” he explains. “It’s a little germ-y for me.”
The fact that Lambert is openly gay adds resonance as well. “It kind of completes the equation,” he says. “One of the things that made Freddie special was this part of his personality and if he were alive today, I have a feeling he would be out and proud without giving a fuck. It inspired some of his music. Whether he was wrestling with that part of himself or owning it and being proud, I don’t think he would have been the dynamic performer that he was if he didn’t have that conflict in his life.” Mercury died of AIDS in 1991, something Lambert has discussed at length with May and Taylor. “I’ve really wracked their brains about their experiences with Freddie,” he says. “At the time people didn’t know much about the disease but I heard from them that Freddie was very much like, ‘I’m not going to let this ruin my life.’” Lambert thinks about that defiance whenever he sings the Queen power-ballad “The Show Must Go On,” which was released as a single just six weeks before Mercury died. “It’s so poignant and dramatic because all of the lyrics are like, ‘I’ve got to go on. I’m not going to let this stop me’ and in order to make it work, you have to kind of go there,” says Lambert. “Singing it takes everything in me. Sometimes I’m dizzy when it’s over.”
With the release of his 2012 album Trespassing, Lambert became the first openly gay artist to have a Number 1 album in the U.S. Sure, Elton John, Ricky Martin, and George Michael all had Number 1s before him but they were still in the closet. “When I heard that statistic, it kind of surprised me,” admits Lambert. “It’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to tell my nephew or godson about someday.” Did he ever consider playing it straight or being one of those ‘I don’t talk about it’ kind of celebrities? “From the start, I had not a thought in my mind that I would ever try to hide or lie about my sexuality,” he says. “I’m so boy-crazy I don’t think you could keep it a secret anyway. I’m very outward in terms of my crushes.”
On the topic of this issue’s parallel theme of heartbreak, the currently single Lambert admits that “wine and weed” have often helped him deal with a broken heart. “It’s a tricky balance though,” he cautions. “Too much can push you further into the darkness.” Lambert adds that he’s just as likely to get his heart broken by a professional disappointment as he is by a romantic one. “I invest myself so fully into my work that if an outcome doesn’t match my expectations, it hits me very hard,” he admits. “Being an entertainer, you get kind of obsessive about your journey, your career. If you’re driven, which you have to be, you’re constantly looking for the next thing and it’s hard to feel satisfied. So I’m starting to challenge myself to appreciate where I’m at in the moment more.” Does playing to throngs of adoring fans with Queen help with that, offering a bit of relief from the pressures of the ever-changing music business? “That’s a really good way to put it, yeah,” he says. “It’s kind of foolproof.”
And when he’s back on the road this summer he’ll get to have lots of encounters with his current favorite sub-group of Lambert fans: female flight attendants. “They are always super sweet to me,” he says. “I think it’s because they see my name on the passenger manifests in advance.” Do they hook him up with lots of special perks, like unlimited booze and cookies? “It’s usually the big bottle of water that I want and that is very sacred on an airplane,” he explains. “When I ask for it, they’re usually like, ‘No, but I’ll refill your glass.’ But if I charm the right flight attendant, she’ll give me the whole big bottle.”
Chew on that, Adam Levine.
Written by Dennis Hensley
Photographer: Justin Campbell for Tack Artist Group
Stylist: Nicolas Klam for Jed Root
Hair: Frankie Payne for Opus Beauty
Makeup: Miho Suzuki for Opus Beauty using Urban Decay
Photography Assistant: Joseph Mitchell
Location: FixÉ Studio.