Who was the real Freddie Mercury?
As a new box-set of Mercury’s solo work is released, Nick Levine considers the Queen legend’s mysterious identity – and his complex relationship with both his race and sexuality.
By Nick Levine
11 October 2019
In 1984, two years after the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organisation was formed in New York to combat Aids, Freddie Mercury scored his first solo hit with Love Kills. The song’s lyrics don’t allude to the disease which would claim the singer’s life seven years later, but it’s possible that its title could be a thinly-veiled reference. “Everything was about subtext with Freddie Mercury,” says Martin Aston, author of Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache: How Music Came Out.
Love Kills is included on Never Boring, a new box set gathering much of the material Mercury recorded away from Queen, including his only solo album, 1985’s Mr Bad Guy, and 1988’s Barcelona, an ambitious LP collaboration with opera singer Montserrat Caballé. The release offers a timely opportunity to explore Mercury’s complex identity and status as a queer icon, especially since last year’s enormously successful biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, was accused of playing down, or ‘straightwashing’, the singer’s relationships with men.
I've had my share of schoolboy pranks. I'm not going to elaborate further – Freddie Mercury
It’s impossible to know how Mercury might have defined his sexuality because, in public at least, he never quite addressed it head on. In his lifetime, British newspaper The Sun branded the singer a “bisexual rock star”, and in recent years the media has frequently referred to him as gay. But when music magazine NME asked Mercury in 1974, “So how about being bent?” Mercury replied: “You’re a crafty cow. Let's put it this way: there were times when I was young and green. It's a thing schoolboys go through. I've had my share of schoolboy pranks. I’m not going to elaborate further.” On another occasion, he answered a similar question by saying playfully: “I’m as gay as a daffodil, my dear!”
Last year’s Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek, was accused of playing down Freddie Mercury’s relationships with men (Credit: Alamy)
Though Mercury was living with Jim Hutton, his male partner of six years, at the time of his death, he bequeathed the lion’s share of his estate to Mary Austin, a woman he dated for a similar length of time in the ‘70s and remained close to. Austin still lives at Garden Lodge, a Georgian mansion in Kensington where Mercury spent his final years. She rarely gives interviews, but told the Daily Mail in 2013 that Mercury said before he died: “If things had been different, you would have been my wife and this would have been yours anyway.”
A new identity
Mercury’s sexuality isn’t the only aspect of his identity that’s complicated. In 1946, he was born Farrokh Bulsara to Indian Parsi parents on the island of Zanzibar, then a British protectorate and now part of Tanzania. He attended British-style boarding schools in India, where he began using the name Freddie. The adopted surname Mercury came later, after his family emigrated to the UK in 1964, and he began to pursue a music career in west London. “I think changing his name was part of him assuming this different skin,” Queen bandmate Brian May said in a 2000 documentary. “I think it helped him to be this person that he wanted to be. The Bulsara person was still there, but for the public he was going to be this different character, this god."
He basically had to masquerade as a white man to succeed - Leo Kalyan ★
This character also helped him to dodge some of the racial prejudices of the era. “There’s no room for brown people in the Western music industry, and Freddie kind of knew that,” says Leo Kalyan, a queer British Pakistani and Indian singer-songwriter who hails Mercury as “the greatest performer of all time”. Kalyan says that Mercury was “smart enough to know that he basically had to masquerade as a white man to succeed”, and says his South Asian heritage is still not fully understood today “because South Asians are still deliberately ignored within the Western music industry”.
Mercury’s sexuality isn’t now ignored in the same way, but there’s still no definitive way to describe him. “I think if Freddie were living now the way he lived in his own lifetime, we’d probably call him ‘queer’ rather than ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’,” says Ryan Butcher, editor of LGBT website PinkNews. “It wasn’t just about sexuality with him; it was about his whole identity and the flamboyant persona he projected on stage, which is one of the main things Queen are known for.”
But because Mercury never came out as LGBT or aligned himself publicly with the LGBT-rights movement, it could be argued that his status as a queer icon is questionable. His bandmate Brian May said in 2008: “I know that all through his life Fred didn’t think that whether he was gay or not was important.” However, Aston points out that Mercury became famous in the 1970s, a time when artists rare spoke openly about their sexuality. “David Bowie did describe himself as bisexual [publicly],” Aston says, “but he had the safety net of a wife and child.” Aston also points out that we readily embrace Judy Garland as a queer icon “even though she didn’t make statements about anything to do with homophobia and LGBT acceptance”.
He was so outrageously camp, it was almost like a double bluff – Martin Aston
By 1986, when Mercury and Queen gave their most iconic performance at Live Aid, there were some openly gay performers in the mainstream; the UK’s biggest-selling single that year was Don’t Leave Me This Way by the Communards, whose frontman Jimmy Somerville was proudly gay and highly engaged with the LGBT-rights movement. Nevertheless, Wham! singer George Michael remained in the closet, and Culture Club’s Boy George had navigated his first flush of fame a few years earlier by toning down his homosexuality. “Although I famously said at the time that I’d rather have a cup of tea than sex, my sex life was actually really rampant,” Boy George told The Guardian in 2007. “But I’d been brought up to think it was dirty and wrong, and not to be made public.”
Queen (here pictured in 1981) allowed Mecury to express his natural campness, while their name can be seen as a winking allusion to his identity (Credit: Alamy)
Mercury’s approach to reconciling his private life with his public persona as the frontman of a rock band with a sizeable straight, male fanbase was playful and sophisticated. Because he never responded to rumours about his sexuality, it was easy for this fanbase to interpret his super-flamboyant and theatrical performing style as what Aston calls “a camp laugh” rather than something evincing queerness. Mercury’s solo song Living on My Own, originally released in 1985, but which reached number one in the UK two years after his death after getting a club-friendly remix, is a catchy __EXPRESSION__ of loneliness that paints Mercury as a bachelor, but not necessarily a “confirmed bachelor” in the now somewhat dated euphemistic sense. “He was so outrageously camp, it was almost like a double bluff,” Aston adds. Ryan Butcher goes further, describing Mercury as “almost a covert agent for the LGBT community, dropping these little seeds of queer culture into the heterosexual mindset”.
In the ‘80s, Mercury was known for his tight white vests and moustache – his take on the Castro Clone look that originated in San Francisco’s queer Castro district and became popular in the gay underground, but which was less familiar to mainstream music fans. It could be argued that Mercury was effectively hiding in plain sight. Certainly, he didn’t let his massive fame stop him from visiting popular London gay venues like Heaven and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Actress Cleo Rocos wrote in her 2013 memoir that she, Mercury and comedian Kenny Everett even managed to sneak Princess Diana into the latter venue by disguising her in drag.
The clues he gave
Perhaps one of the most daring ways in which Mercury expressed his natural campness was in Queen’s 1984 video for the single I Want to Break Free, in which he and his Queen bandmates dressed as female characters from the British soap opera Coronation Street, a decision which damaged their career in the US. Brian May recalled in 2017: “I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people’s faces turning ashen and they would say, ‘No, we can’t play this. We can’t possibly play this. You know, it looks homosexual.’”
In Queen’s music, meanwhile, there were always clues about Mercury’s private life for fans who wanted – and had the knowledge of the gay scene – to spot them. On Queen’s 1978 hit Don’t Stop Me Now, Mercury sings that he wants “to make a supersonic woman of you” and “a supersonic man out of you”. In the video, he wears a T-shirt from Mineshaft, a popular New York BDSM gay bar of the time. Even the band’s name, Queen, can be seen as a winking allusion to its frontman’s identity. “It’s so obvious what ‘Queen’ is getting at,” says Kalyan, “but when I told my mum a few years ago, she couldn’t believe it. She said she’d always thought that ‘Queen’ just meant regal or majestic.”
In a similar way, Kalyan says Mercury’s music contains signifiers of his South Asian heritage, citing the use of the Arabic word ‘Bismillah’ in Bohemian Rhapsody. “Only a person with an awareness of Islamic culture would have known that word, which is the first word in the Koran [meaning In the Name of God], and put it into a song like Bohemian Rhapsody,” he says. Kalyan adds that among the South Asian community, “it’s very common knowledge that Freddie was Indian and had been massively inspired by Bollywood singers like Lata Mangeshkar, who is known for having an incredible vocal range like Freddie”.
1984 album Mr Bad Guy was Mercury’s only solo LP and is part of a new box set of material he recorded outside Queen (Credit: Alamy)
But when it came to both his sexuality and his ethnicity, Mercury favoured privacy over direct proclamations until the end of his life. As Kalyan points out, “he didn’t talk about going to school in India or his love for Lata Mangeshkar. That wasn’t part of his narrative”. Nor was his sexuality: on 22 November 1991, following what he called “enormous conjecture” in the press, Mercury finally released a statement confirming that he had been tested HIV positive, and had Aids, but made no mention of his relationship with Jim Hutton. Around 24 hours later, he died. “Think about the immediacy of that – one of the biggest stars on the planet announces he has Aids, then dies of the disease,” says Ryan Butcher, who calls it “a culture shock that seems almost unfathomable today”. Privately, Mercury had been diagnosed as HIV positive four years earlier, and Butcher suggests, speculatively, that his friendship with the late Diana, Princess of Wales while living with HIV and Aids could have been a contributing factor in her decision to promote better awareness of the disease. But this, like so much with Mercury, is something we’ll probably never know for certain.
Nearly 28 years after his death, the real Freddie Mercury remains cherished. “At this stage, he’s not just an icon, but a British national treasure,” says Aston. Kalyan calls him “a massive queer icon” and “a brown South Asian icon in western music”. Whether Mercury would have liked these terms or not, it’s hard not to respect what he achieved in his lifetime. In an era when homophobia and racism were far more prevalent than they are today, Freddie Mercury was the queer, South Asian frontman of the band who released one of rock's most iconic singles, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the best-selling album in UK chart history, Queen's Greatest Hits. However it’s also arguable that the mystique he cultivated around his identity, whether he felt forced into that or not, has only burnished his status as one of pop’s most captivating enigmas.