"It feels like we're closer now than ever to having an openly gay contestant on the show," says Jim Verraros, who came out after his run as a finalist on the first season of "Idol."
"I'm not here to name any names, but I feel like there are some definite possibilities for this to happen this year," he said. "Do I think it'll happen? I don't know. I hope it does."
On Thursday, the current 16 semifinalists will be narrowed down to 12 finalists, who will perform live each week until the seventh winner of "American Idol" is selected by the voting public. At its core, "Idol" is a singing competition, but finalists' popularity has always seemed to play a big role in who moves forward.
When reached for comment about this story, Fox and "Idol" producers issued the following statement to The Associated Press: "We do not comment on the personal lives of the show participants." None of the current contestants have been made available for comment.
Over the years, however, "Idol" has devoted plenty of screentime to participants' personal lives, ranging from asking intimate questions of the contestants (this week it's "What was your most embarrassing moment?") to aiming the camera at their sobbing significant others in the audience, to airing fully edited segments about their backgrounds.
"The show hasn't seemed very conducive or gay friendly to contestants coming out," says Michael Jensen, editor of AfterElton.com, a Web site about gay and bisexual men in entertainment and the media. "Simon and Randy have not hesitated to mock effeminate contestants and crack the occasional gay joke. It has not communicated to contestants that it would be a good place to come out."
Every season, blogs and message board users endlessly speculate about the sexuality of contestants. Online clues hinting at their sexual orientation often emerge, but Fox and "Idol" producers have never addressed such rumors or depicted openly gay finalists as such on the show or on AmericanIdol.com.
Such speculation isn't new.
Will Young, the first champion of "American Idol's" British predecessor "Pop Idol," was rumored to be gay -- then publicly came out following his win. In 2005, a gay personal ad featuring U.S. season-four finalist Anwar Robinson was discovered on BlackPlanet.com. And second-season runner-up Clay Aiken continues to be a constant source of "is he or isn't he?" gossip -- though he's always maintained that he isn't.
"Gay people, like everybody, want to see themselves reflected on television," says Jensen. "I think that when a show hasn't reflected that, and goes on and on not reflecting that, it sort of raises the ante, and each season people begin speculating even more intensely about who may be gay."
This week, a video of flamboyant current semifinalist Danny Noriega lashing out against Santa Claus appeared on MySpace and was posted on several blogs. Another video of Noriega singing Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" and rapping about being gay -- all while wearing a do-rag -- was also posted on YouTube.
"Yeah, I'm gay," raps Noriega in the video. "But you eat hay for dinner, 'cause you look like a horse ... ."
Last week, "Idol"-bashing VoteForTheWorst.com posted photos of scantily clad semifinalist David Hernandez working at gay nightclub Burn, as well as rumors that he was a stripper at Dick's Cabaret in Phoenix. Club manager Gordy Bryan told the AP on Monday that Hernandez did indeed dance fully nude and perform lap dances for the club's "mostly male" clientele.
Club manager Bryan says he did not know anything about Hernandez's personal life while he was stripping at Dick's Cabaret. Hernandez's MySpace profile lists his sexual orientation as straight.
First-season finalist Verraros, who says he was out to fellow contestants and "Idol" staff but not on the show, was publicly outed when an online journal he kept in college, which included comments about dating guys, was discovered. "Idol" producers later asked Verraros to take down the LiveJournal.
"The message boards were so homophobic. The gay-bashing was awful," says Verraros. "It was horrible. They said a faggot would never win 'American Idol.' It was pretty intense. I think it's something you have to expect in this industry, whether it's 'American Idol' or a sitcom or Broadway. It's going to happen the more exposed you are."
Verraros decided not to come out until after the show and the subsequent tour, doing so in the pages of gay magazine The Advocate. Since then, Verraros released his first album, starred in the gay-themed indie film "Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds" and his currently working on his second album.
"Regardless of whether or not a contestant is gay, the talent is there," says Verraros. "That should always come first and foremost."