What You Don't Know About Alex Newell

Alex Newell has been marching to his own beat his entire life. The trailblazing actor and powerhouse vocalist is best known for his turn as transitioning teen Wade "Unique" Adams on the Fox musical series "Glee." Since then, Newell has established himself as a truly unique talent, having appeared on the big screen and topped the dance charts with original music.

He made a splash on Broadway, starring in a revival of "Once on This Island" as a character previously played by women. In "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist," he enjoyed a second groundbreaking performance as Mo, a genderfluid confidant to Jane Levy's musical empath, for which he received a Critics Choice Award nomination. Although he's received accolades for his performances, it may be Newell's off-screen influence that distinguishes him the most.

Openly and proudly gay, Newell also identifies as gender non-conforming and noted on Twitter in 2021, "All pronouns are accepted and preferred here!" Growing up, he says he never saw people like him in anything he watched. "I don't think for myself — who I am — I've ever been represented on any platform, other than me, because I've kind of made this lane for myself in a way," he explained to Playbill. In that lane, he's been breaking down barriers for years. There is much more to this inspiring star than meets the eye, and we've got the scoop.

He was shunned by his church for being gay

Alex Newell was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, where he spent much of his childhood in church. "My mom was in the choir, my father was a deacon," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2020. His fellow church members felt like family. But when he was older, the church he loved turned its back on him. 

"They did not like a piece of me," he said, but couldn't figure out exactly what was going on. After coming out on "The Glee Project" as a teenager, Newell explained to Entertainment Weekly, "I had a pastor that told my mom that I wasn't right with God and that something was wrong with me," he said. "He was the leader of the parish that my mother still attends, and it rubbed me the wrong way." 

Per Vice, when a newer pastor refused to let Newell sing at his church service, the "Glee" actor wouldn't back down. Newell said, "That's strange, because I'm pretty sure I've sung here since I was a toddler, I was here before you were the pastor, and I'll probably be here after you're the pastor of this church." That pastor eventually left the congregation, and Newell and his family still go to services there. The pastor who succeeded him was more welcoming, even planning a trip for parishioners to see Newell perform on Broadway.

He grew up without a father

Alex Newell's dad died of cancer when he was six, per MetroWeekly. His mom worked nights to support them both and Newell subsequently had to grow up hastily, taking on a lot of household responsibilities to help out. Speaking to Stylecaster, he shared that his mom was supportive when he came out to her at 17. "I screamed it at my mother and she said, 'Go to bed. I just took a Xanax," he shared with Stylecaster. "The next morning she was like, 'I'm fine. Are you fine?' And I was like, 'I'm great! I love you."

As for everyone else in the community, not so much. Newell told Vice in 2018 that he would constantly be taunted by other boys in his neighborhood. Specifically, he suggested that Black boys and men face pressure to adhere to traditional modes of masculinity. "There's this expectation of being a Black man, of being stronger than most; having that rigid, hard back, that almost arrogant feel," he explained. As a result, he'd face questions like, "Why do you talk that way?" "Aren't you Black?" and, "Why is your voice so high? Are you gay?"

As for his gender identity, the actor, who identifies as a gay man, sees that as more of a private issue. In 2021, he told Gold Derby, "People are always like, 'What are your pronouns, and I'm just like, 'Get to know me first and then we can go to pronouns later."

Newell has fought body shaming his whole life

Throughout his life, Alex Newell has been the proud owner of a plus-size body, telling Vice, "I always had jelly on my hips and a swish in my step." Sadly, his size was just another target for his classmates. "I was always a chunkier kid," he said, which made him insecure through middle and high school. "Bullies love to find a weakness and pick at it. Especially when you're the only gay kid at a Catholic school."

Newell never had the right thing to wear and would often feel uncomfortable in his clothes. He noted to Vice that his mom usually dressed him, and that wasn't her strong suit. "I'd look like a miniature version of my 45-year-old uncle," he said. "I was always like, 'Great, I'm in a zoot suit, living my best fashion life."  

Speaking to Stylecaster, Newell revealed that his size had been unfairly judged as an adult, too. In 2015, he was asked to read for the lead role of drag performer, Lola, in "Kinky Boots." The audition seemed to be going great, but the director didn't cast him. Newell alleged he was told he was too big for the role, explaining, "I was like, 'This is a show where they're encouraging you to be who you want to be. Don't let them tell you who you should be." Newell added that no matter what he weighs, there are no constraints on what he can do.

'The Glee Project' was like entertainment bootcamp

A musical theater buff, Alex Newell always dreamt about being on Broadway, per The Hollywood Reporter. So when he saw the opportunity to try out for "Glee," he jumped at the chance. In 2011, he was one of 34,000 young performers chosen to compete on Season 1 of "The Glee Project" for a gig on the Fox series. Newell told Collider that working on the reality TV show was a grueling regimen. "It was like musical theater, television Bootcamp," he said. "Every day was a new lesson on how to perform in front of a camera and how to sing in a recording studio and how to act. We were working ungodly hours."

Newell won runner-up in the competition, landing a guest starring role. He then became a series regular on "Glee," as Wade "Unique" Adams, one of the first transgender teen characters on TV. However, the "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" star told Flick Direct that while he appreciated the experience, he'd likely never do it again. As an 18-year-old high school student, the demands of the show took their toll on him. As for what he learned on "The Glee Project," that was invaluable. "That show prepared me for everything," he told Collider, adding that it helped him hone his craft. "It really taught me all the lessons that I've used and given me all the tools that I use to this day."

His role on 'Glee' made him a role model

As noted by the Los Angeles Times, "Glee" was ahead of its time in delving into formerly taboo social issues on mainstream television. During his run on the critically acclaimed series, Alex Newell was surprised by the overwhelming number of messages from the LGBTQ community about "Unique's" groundbreaking representation on network TV. "I remember getting so many thank yous from so many kids and their parents, and I remember asking myself 'why are they thanking me?" he told TODAY. "I've been myself for so long and I've only shown my true self, so it shocked me." He added that he's grateful if any characters he's played might have helped parents build stronger bonds with their children. 

Newell told Gold Derby he's excited to see that more and more TV shows are featuring people he can identify with. Particularly as he didn't see his own experience or perspective represented on television when he was growing up. "It's really refreshing for me to, kind of, 'play myself' but not really at the same time," he explained. "To go into work and be blessed with the fact that someone took the risk to tell my story." Speaking to Flick Direct, Newell pointed out that being a role model isn't something you do intentionally. Rather, it's what you do by just being your true self. "If you can live your life authentically and beautifully ... without thinking that you are a role model" he added. 

His dream role may surprise you

When the 2016 "Dreamgirls" movie starring Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson came out, Alex Newell discovered the Broadway musical it was based on. In a 2021 interview with The New York Times, he explained how he identified with the story of three female soul singers struggling to make it in the 60s. The musical helped to make him who he is today. "Effie White rang true to who I am," he said about the "Dreamgirls" character. "You see this beautiful Black woman who was passed over because she was not as thin or as commercial as her friend who she grew up with." 

Newell can relate to that, after being told he was "too big" to star in "Kinky Boots" back in 2015. Additionally, he told the outlet, "I've been cut out of scenes in musicals because I didn't fit the costume plot." All of it was a bitter pill to swallow, but the performer drew strength from the musical. "It's one of those things that I watched in Effie — how you have to jump over the mental hurdle of that and find solace in yourself and the beauty in life," he explained.

In 2013, Newell told Ebony that the character was his dream role. So much so that he'd be willing to fight former "Glee" co-star Amber Riley to the death for it. Hopefully, someday he'll get the chance to belt out the coveted torch song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."

Alex Newell blasted Bill O'Reilly for his transphobic remarks

In 2012, conservative firebrand Bill O'Reilly took up the subject of Alex Newell's character on "Glee." Per Media Matters, the Fox News commentator appeared to suggest that potentially vulnerable children may want to experiment with homosexuality after being exposed to the transgender character. "If you make it glamorous in a program like 'Glee' ... a lot of these dopey kids are confused about who they are," he was reported as saying.

In an interview with Fusion (via Hypable), Newell called out O'Reilly for his statements. "When it's something this poignant and such a big part of the society, you can't call kids dopey because this is something that they're actually going through, this is what they feel on the inside, there's nothing dopey about it," he said. After the interview, the actor told the Boston Herald he took it all in stride, mentioning that his mom always said you're doing something right if O'Reilly is talking about you.  

The reality, he added, is that every young person will discover, and embody, their own identity eventually — with or without the approval of people like O'Reilly. "They just can't shut it out," he said. "There are people like Wade and Unique, and (they're) being themselves. If kids want to go and do that, that is them expressing who they are."

He supports LGBTQ youth

Having started his career as a teenager himself, Alex Newell has gone on to help LGBTQ youth. Per Metro Weekly, on top of offering his voice at benefit concerts in Los Angeles and elsewhere, he also supports The Trevor Project, an organization providing 24/7 crisis support services to LGBTQ young people. "It's an astounding organization helping those in need — one of the best things that anyone can do," he said.

In 2013, Newell had another opportunity to represent the LGBTQ community on-screen, per The Advocate. Playing Ike in the film "Geography Club," the actor portrayed a gay youth grappling with his sexual orientation. "Everything Ike goes through I had to go through for a brief moment as well," he said. "Testing the waters of coming out. Understanding your choices and the consequences of coming out," he added, explaining that he drew some of his knowledge about coming out from characters he saw on TV. That included the sitcom, "Will & Grace," which helped him to feel comfortable with his sexual identity. 

Of course, a coming-out story for a teen is very different from one for a grown man. "I think a film like Geography Club would've been helpful for someone like me and my mother to watch when I was younger," he said. In the meantime, he will continue to push for visibility and to inspire people to proudly be themselves.

He is a successful recording artist

While he was still on "Glee," Alex Newell signed a deal with Atlantic Records. Per The Hollywood Reporter, the contract allowed him to continue working with Adam Anders, the show's music producer, to cultivate the singer's talent. After collaborating with pop group Clean Bandit on "Stronger," and The Knocks on "Collect My Love," Newell dropped his first solo EP, "POWER," in 2016.

Apparently, EDM fans liked what they heard and the EP hit No. 4 on Billboard's list of Hot Dance/Electronic Albums. Newell told app. that he took his time recording music for the release, trying to find the right sound that truly represented him. "['Power' is] dance-pop, retro R&B, kind of everything mixed together, and a throwback but current at the same time," he explained. "... It was just time for me to come out with my own music."

The EP features collabs with DJ Cassidy and thirteen-time Oscar-nominated songwriter Diane Warren and was well received, with James Grebey of Yahoo! Life, writing, "[Newell's] debut EP, 'POWER,' more than surpasses our lofty expectations." That same year, the star joined forces with fellow "Glee" alum Adam Lambert, opening for the "American Idol" finalist on his "The Original High Tour." Speaking to Pridesource ahead of the tour, Newell said he was thrilled to be working with his openly gay pal. "It's gonna be the gayest event of life," he said. "Two gays on the road! How fabulous!"

He played an earth mother on Broadway

Alex Newell left the West Coast for the East Coast in his early twenties. As he told The New York Times, he was disillusioned that his future in Tinseltown would revolve around his appearance. In New York, he hoped things would be different and as it turns out, they were. In 2018, a lifelong dream came true when he was cast in the leading role in the Broadway revival of the Tony-winning musical, "Once on This Island," per Rolling Stone.

Newell played Asaka, Mother of the Earth, one of the gods who run an island called the Jewel of the Antilles. Critics and theatergoers were blown away by the star, who brought the audience to their feet after his powerful solo, "Mama Will Provide." "Newell's gender-bending portrayal has been one of the showstoppers that wow audiences," wrote Rolling Stone's Brittany Spanos. Newell told her, "It rarely ever happens that anyone gets a mid-show standing ovation ever on Broadway."

Still, the star struggled with the show's demanding schedule, particularly on top of other challenges like food poisoning and a bout of the flu. But after getting that standing ovation he added, "It reminds me that there's a reason that I'm doing it." As for those who said he couldn't grasp what it's like to be a mother, he told Vice, "'I also don't know what it's like to be a god. No one knows what it's like to be a god — except for maybe Beyoncé."

He inspired his Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist character

In 2020, NBC launched a new musical dramedy, "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist," starring Jane Levy and Skyler Astin. When Alex Newell was brought in to play Mo, he told The Hollywood Reporter, producers were originally looking for something different. "Mo originated as a 31-year-old bisexual Black woman. Nothing that I am," he said. "Black, but I'm definitely not 31!" When they couldn't find what they wanted, they tapped Newell. He added, "The essence of Mo really was me in a way and they modeled the role around me."

Over the course of two seasons, Newell told Playbill he worked closely with the show's creative team to create a layered, authentic character with a storyline many people hadn't seen before. "You never really see a [gender non-conforming] person's dating life ever on television, or you don't see an effeminate or plus-size person have a love interest on television," he said.

In 2021, Newell was nominated for a Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy for his role on "Zoey." He told The New York Times that he was beyond honored for the recognition, stating, "I felt like a toddler seeing Christmas for the very first time." Growing up, he never saw a performer who looked and sounded like him, until he discovered "Pose" star and Tony-winner Billy Porter. Now he could be that person for someone else. Newell told Playbill, "It's nice ... knowing that someone could see themselves in me."

Newell has a closet dedicated to his gowns

As evidenced by his sartorially jubilant Instagram profile, Alex Newell really enjoys dressing up. Speaking to Fashionista, the "Glee" star confessed to having sacrificed his guest room for the good of his clothes, explaining, "It's a full-fledged Carrie Bradshaw closet." While one side is for everyday apparel, the other is dedicated to his gowns. All of them represent memories of landmark moments in his career, like his first performance at the Tonys or when he took the stage at Carnegie Hall. "They're my keepsakes," he said. "To me, it's just like someone keeping their wedding gown."

Rocking an eclectic style, Newell stated that his various looks nonetheless all reflect his identity, telling the outlet, "Fashion is just an expression of who you are." An avid TV viewer, he finds some of his inspiration from his favorite shows, such as how fashion defined Blake Lively and Leighton Meester's characters on "Gossip Girl." For Newell, shopping is often challenging, especially in retail stores. He told Instyle, "Sometimes they just literally say, 'Oh well you're plus size, here's a muumuu."

That's why he relished working with "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" costume designer Heidi Higginbotham to create Mo's diverse looks on the show. Newell said the pair took cues from the script and had fun with it. "If it calls for Mo to be the building super and be doing work around the building, it's more 'Let's find a fun way of showing how Mo would express being the super."