Sam Smith: On a long journey to self-acceptance

"I've always found it hard to be on stage in front of people in any capacity, but there's obviously still an insecure person in me who needs - who really needs - the applause."
Sam Smith: On a long journey to self-acceptance

No-one would deny it's been a big year for Sam Smith.

First, the 27-year-old pop star came out as non-binary, a decision that prompted both praise and confusion from the public and media. Then they delayed their much-anticipated third album, To Die For, due to the pandemic, making the decision to scrap the title to avoid any disrespect.

More generally, the final months of 2019 marked a blossoming in both Smith's personal and musical lives.

"I was going through a period where I was really deep into exploring my gender, exploring my queerness," they explain from their London home.

"I changed my pronouns and I was feeling so happy to be myself.

"I was going out in Los Angeles a lot and I was dancing and I was drinking loads, having a wonderful time with all my friends.

"I went into the studio and the guys who were writing with me said: 'What do you want to say?'

"And I literally said in that moment: 'I finally feel like I'm ready to fall in love. I'm ready to show myself to someone. Because I'm liking myself for the first time and accepting myself."

Smith eventually recorded the song in question, called - you guessed it - I'm Ready, with Demi Lovato, another star whose road to self-acceptance has played out in the public eye.

The former Camp Rock star, also 27, has endured a tumultuous two years, including a near-fatal drug overdose and prolonged break from music.

Its technicolour Olympics-themed video, directed by Jora Frantzis and filmed in a "proper LA high school" before the outbreak, features queer dancers and performers, and a glamorous 100-metre sprint.

"If I see artists speaking up and trying to help queer people - people like me - then it immediately makes me love them more," Smith says of Lovato.

"I feel they're rooting for basic human rights," they add brightly.

Smith is a rarity among pop stars - a candid interviewee with a disarming sense of humour and a knack for self-deprecation.

Their journey from Cambridgeshire crooner to international pop darling happened nearly overnight.

Emerging bequiffed on Disclosure's 2012 song Latch, Smith initially impressed with their vocal gymnastics ("Like butter," Beyonce said).

By the age of 22, Smith had secured a series of hits (Stay With Me, Money On My Mind), won a handful of Grammys, and made a bevvy of celebrity friends like Elton John.

Smith's journey to self-acceptance and LGBT role model took a little longer.

In September 2019, Smith came out as non-binary in a lengthy post to their 13.4 million Instagram followers, asking to be addressed by the pronouns they/them.

"After a lifetime of being at war with my gender, I've decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out," they wrote.

For the uninitiated, a person who identifies as non-binary does not define themselves exclusively as masculine or feminine? - and generally prefers they/them pronouns, rather than he/she.

The intervening months have been both the most "tough" and "amazing" of Smith's 27 years.

"I decided to take hold of my life," they recall.

"I realised people weren't perceiving me in the way that I was feeling. And people needed to know I feel this way inside. I feel a certain way about my gender, I always have."I feel my whole life, I've been tiptoeing around, trying not to be a nuisance to people.

"My whole life, trying to move in the ways that a man would move, to try and make things easier for myself and everyone else.

"And I got depressed. I got really, really sad. I realised I can't navigate my life through that, pretending to be something I wasn't."

While Smith's announcement was met with rapturous applause from the LGBT community, some were left bemused.

Smith is aware they "put people's nose out place" but says they were only coming from "a place of love".

"You have to stop and ask why something has upset someone so much that has really got nothing to do with them," they say with a sudden steeliness.

Smith was gearing up to release To Die For just as the coronavirus outbreak reached British shores.

But like Lady Gaga, The 1975 and Alicia Keys, they decided to postpone.

Unlike those acts, Smith took a further step - making "some important changes and additions" to the record, including its name.

Smith's reputation as "the nice guy" seems well-earned.

"What we put out there, we're under constant scrutiny, so it's really difficult," they say with a sigh. There are conversations about every move right now, because I don't want to offend anyone.

"It's never my intention to upset."

Like all us all, Smith is hunkering down at home - working, listening to music, bingeing Netflix series.

"I spend hours in the bath," they laugh.

"I might listen to classical music and just in sit in the bath and just think - it's really quite dreary but yeah, that's pretty much it."

Lockdown has also prompted Smith to consider what drew them, as an introvert, to the public life.

"My relationship with my music and my voice, it's an extremely personal one," they say.

"I've always found it hard to be on stage in front of people in any capacity, but there's obviously still an insecure person in me who needs - who really needs - the applause."

Smith has managed to keep themselves busy performing, including a remote duet with John Legend during the World Health Organisation's star-studded One World show.

Sat at their respective pianos, the pair sung an elegant version of Ben E King's Stand By Me.

The livestream revealed Legend's haul of awards displayed on a shelf next to his piano, including a full EGOT (an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award).

Despite Smith's best attempts to hide their own (among them an Oscar for their Bond theme), they appeared visible in a conveniently placed mirror.

"I actually deliberately wanted to keep my awards out, because I didn't want to look like I'm showing off," they admit sheepishly.

Despite the glittering gongs and adoring fan base, Smith is still struggling with the question of what it means to live in the limelight.

"I've always struggled with that whole thing of trying to be a role model, because I feel like I'm still trying to figure things out - I'm 27.

"But to know that maybe what I'm doing has helped a young kid that felt like me when I was 10 years old, and felt very isolated - if it's helped them, that's absolutely wonderful. And I hope I can continue to do that in whatever capacity."

I'm Ready featuring Demi Lovato is out now.

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