Jake Shears, of Scissor Sisters, Stages His Own Comeback

If this combination of details makes you wistful — a freewheeling Williamsburg, weird roommates in unsanctioned living spaces, post-9/11 avant-garde escapism — chances are that you danced to a Scissor Sisters song, or even saw Mr. Shears perform one in a thong.

Scissor Sisters – Let’s Have A Kiki – Instructional Video Video by scissorsisterstv

Beginning with its 2004 self-titled debut album, which became the best-selling record of the year in Britain, and continuing with its 2012 anthem “Let’s Have a Kiki,” the band brought seedy downtown glam to a global pop audience, with Mr. Shears as its proudly gay pinup boy. Part Elton John-style exhibitionist, part Chippendales dancer, he was a totem of good times in a terrorized city straining to have fun.


Mr. Shears and Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters performing at Trafalgar Square in 2006.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Then, five years ago, he all but disappeared.

Exhausted and artistically stymied, he put the group on indefinite hiatus and moved to Los Angeles with his longtime boyfriend, Chris Moukarbel. “I had a really hard time out there,” Mr. Shears said. “Without the band, without Scott as my songwriting partner, I was just unmoored. I was really lost for a couple years.”

The relationship ended in 2015, and Mr. Shears fled to New Orleans, where he now keeps an apartment in the Marigny district. (He splits his time between there and Los Feliz in Los Angeles.) “It was a very dark time in my life,” he said. But he loved New Orleans, and he started making new friends and new music. At the suggestion of an editor at Simon & Schuster, Rakesh Satyal, he began writing down the story of his bedazzled life.

Now Mr. Shears, 39, is back in the limelight. Through April 1 he is starring on Broadway in “Kinky Boots.” He recently toured the South, gearing up for his first solo album. And his memoir, “Boys Keep Swinging,” comes out Feb. 20, chronicling not just the ups and downs of rock stardom but a saucy slice of downtown New York in the aughts.

Consider this scene: 2001 at the Roxy, a gay club in Chelsea. The night of his college graduation, he writes, he met “a man with silver hair wearing a black T-shirt” named Anderson, who hosted a TV game show called “The Mole.” They kissed near the dance floor and went back to Anderson’s place for a night of “laughing and making out,” before waking up the next day and seeing “Moulin Rouge.” Not long after, they met up in Rome for a two-day tryst.

Yes, this mysterious fellow was Anderson Cooper. They dated for a few months, lost touch and have since reconnected. “We’re still really close friends,” Mr. Shears said.


“I had a really hard time out there,” Mr. Shears said of his move to Los Angeles. “Without the band, without Scott as my songwriting partner, I was just unmoored. I was really lost for a couple years.”

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Reached by phone, Mr. Cooper said, “Our first official date after meeting at the Roxy was his graduation dinner with his parents.” Mr. Shears’s father had flown planes, and “I had been around the military reporting, so he knew we’d have something to talk about.”

“He used to sing, and I remember telling him that he really needed to buckle down and look for a job,” Mr. Cooper added. “Thankfully, he did not listen to me.”

Go-Go Boy to Glam Rocker

Mr. Shears had long craved the spotlight, ever since his mother enrolled them in a tap class together when he was in fourth grade. Growing up in suburban Arizona and a harbor town in Washington State, he obsessed over David Bowie and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and watched the Playboy channel for its “upscale-trash aesthetic,” he says in the book.

Adolescence, he writes, turned him into a “girlie freak.” “When I was coming out, I was dressing very aggressively,” he said. “Lots of consignment-shop skirts and fishnets. I would buy bondage belts from my tweaker friends who needed money for drugs.”

Even while he went goth and sneaked out to Phoenix gay bars, he got baptized in a Christian youth group and was closeted to his family. In 1995, his parents sent him to a prep school in Seattle, where he started calling in to Dan Savage’s radio advice show, “Savage Love Live.”

“He was just really funny and sweet and vulnerable and a little at sea at 16,” Mr. Savage said. They met face to face at a queer-youth dance in Seattle. Mr. Savage had advised him to come out to his parents, and it hadn’t gone well. Feeling responsible, Mr. Savage got his mother to call Mr. Shears’s mother. (“My mom is very good at guilt,” Mr. Savage said.)

Mr. Savage and Terry Miller, then his boyfriend and now his husband, became Mr. Shears’s gay mentors, inviting him over to play video games and attending his high-school production of “Guys and Dolls.” One day, Mr. Savage picked up Mr. Shears after school and took him to an AIDS funeral, to show him the risks of unprotected sex. “He kind of took me on as a project,” Mr. Shears said.

In Seattle, Mr. Shears used a fake ID to get into a drag bar called 20th Century Foxes, where he would lip-sync James Bond songs, before moving to New York City in 1999. There, he soaked in the counterculture, including the cabaret duo Kiki and Herb and electroclash stars like Fischerspooner and Chicks on Speed.

He got a job go-go dancing at IC Guys, a closet-size gay bar in the East Village, and interned at Paper magazine, interviewing artists he longed to emulate. “He was an exhibitionist,” said Mickey Boardman, an editor there. “At Paper, it’s like being in a room of exclamation points. Everyone’s fighting for attention, whether they admit it or not.”

He and Mr. Hoffman made their first appearance as Scissor Sisters at a show at the Slipper Room on the Lower East Side, where the M.C. was the bawdy entertainer Ana Matronic. On a whim, Jason Sellards renamed himself Jake Shears, a play on “scissors” (his friends still call him Jason), and Mr. Hoffman went by BabyDaddy.

Soon after, they invited Ms. Matronic to join the band. They got a gig at Luxx, a breeding ground for the electroclash scene in Williamsburg, which they advertised with fliers reading, “You Gotta Pump Your Body, if You Wanna Be a Hottie,” from their song “Electrobix.”

Before long, they migrated to Luxx’s popular Berliniamsburg party, hosted by Larry Tee and Spencer Product. “I remember almost right away thinking, ‘Oh, these will be the guys that make the money,’” Mr. Tee said of their catchy, danceable tunes. “They’ll be the big hit of electroclash.”


Mr. Shears with Elton John in 2006. They are collaborating on a musical.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

True to “Rocky Horror,” the group performed in outrageous costumes, like pirate garb or black clothes drizzled in toxic green paint. “Scott would be in a sleeveless union suit, and I would be in denim cutoffs with a leather harness or something really trashy, or my go-go-dancing G-string,” Mr. Shears said. “We didn’t have money to get clothes, so we would basically raid our costume closets at home and try to make it look festive.”

Scissor Sisters – Comfortably Numb (Live at Bestival, 2006) Video by ScissorSistersVEVO

They broke into mainstream pop with their 2004 album, which included a falsetto cover of “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd and louche dance hits like “Filthy/Gorgeous,” for which John Cameron Mitchell directed the music video. With Mr. Shears’s skimpy yet flamboyant outfits, he melded two sides of gay culture: the drag performance-art set and the gym bunnies he worked out alongside at Crunch.

Still, he was uneasy with how the band was labeled. He resisted getting lumped in with electroclash — they now had live instruments, after all — but they also didn’t fit in with rock groups like Vampire Weekend and the Strokes. Music journalists would describe them with what Mr. Shears saw as homophobic dismissals, such as “camper than a row of tents.”

“It was really frustrating when you’re making great music and the big deal is that you’re gay,” he said.

Then came the inevitable pitfalls of fame: internal squabbles, exhaustion and creative paralysis. “With the success came this huge responsibility for other people, including the band,” he said. “That was extremely anxiety inducing. It’s not something I’d thought about. I suspected that there was going to be some kind of comeuppance.”

In his memoir, he writes of sinking into a depression, which his new friend Elton John tried to assuage by shutting down a Dior Homme store and buying him the entire collection. But what he needed was inspiration. “We’d been writing a bunch of music, and I wasn’t really happy with anything,” Mr. Shears said. “When you have no life, you’re just spinning your wheels and making empty music.”

Continue reading the main story

Source link