NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two years after becoming the first country star to come out as gay, Chely Wright is now at peace, living honestly and married to another woman, but she feels somewhat cut off by the country music world to which she has devoted her life.
Gay artists have long struggled with the impact that coming out might have on their careers, but Wright thinks the time has never been better to be open despite her struggles depicted in a new film documentary, “Wish Me Away,” in U.S. theaters June 1.
Still, since she announced she was a lesbian in 2010, the invitations for charity events, award presentations and radio appearances have all but disappeared, said Wright, who is as famous for her hard-working nature as she is for her good looks.
“When people say, ‘it’s not that hard. Who cares anymore? Coming out is no big deal.’ Oh, it really is, and I think ‘Wish Me Away’ really displays that narrative of any person coming out. Not just for a singer, for anybody it is hard,” she told Reuters.
The movie is a follow-up of sorts to her coming out memoir “Like Me: Confessions Of a Heartland Country Singer” and her last album, “Lifted Off The Ground” with the single “Broken” that chronicled her true romantic heartbreak. It also completes a two-year period in which Wright, 41, has spoken openly of hiding herself for fear of losing her hard-won success.
But with the aid of tear-filled video diaries, the film goes beyond the book in offering a behind-the-scenes look at prepping a public figure for the pressure and anguish of coming out.
As with the book and album, Wright said she allowed the filmmakers to document her life because she wanted to give young gay people strength and show others what it is really like to face oneself truthfully.
“It’s important for those who don’t understand the journey, the real fear,” she said. “And those very deep profound moments of feeling isolated and afraid to take a step that might get you kicked out of your church, might get you kicked out of your social situation or might cause you to lose your job.”
The film documents Wright’s rise through country music to her first top 40 hit in 1997, “Shut Up and Drive,” and her first country No. 1 single two years later, “Single White Female,” in a career spanning seven albums and over a dozen hit singles.
She was named one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people and briefly dated country singer Brad Paisley.
“Wish Me Away” also delves into her parallel secret life, living for years with another closeted woman in a 12-year on-and-off relationship. Of her double life, Wright now says: “I put myself through a military-like discipline to pull this off ... I became a very skilled liar.”
Her lowest point came at age 35 when a male country singer confronted her about gay rumors and said fans wouldn’t accept it, leading her to deny being lesbian, break off her relationship and eventually put a gun in her mouth.
“I reached my breaking point, but thank God I didn’t pull the trigger,” she said.
The film recounts a sometimes troubled childhood growing up in Kansas and a strained relationship with her mother, as well as a continuing strong commitment to her religious faith.
“I felt like a sinful person when I dated men and allowed them to feel for me in a way I knew I could never naturally feel for them. That felt wrong and a lie,” she said.
After coming out, she added, “I felt honest ... I have peace inside of me now.”
But being honest in public has had its drawbacks. She has lost some fans. Her last album - less country than previous efforts - sold only a third of what she usually would have.
Since coming out, she said she hasn’t been invited to return to old venues where she once performed or asked to become involved in charity events that typically would lure celebrities of her former, straight stature.
“I was one of those people the community engaged, and they don’t engage me anymore,” she said. “I don’t want to make it seem like it doesn’t hurt my feelings. It does hurt my feelings to be excommunicated from one’s passion in an industry that I worked very hard in. It’s unfair, but it’s not ruining my day.”
Wright is quick to add that she “knew this was coming.”
Tony Brown, a top Nashville music executive and producer on some of Wright’s albums, said he thought her absence from award shows and social functions was mostly to do with a fixation on today’s new crop of stars.
“Chely’s just carving out a new place in her celebrity. She’s always been so driven that she easily gets impatient,” he said. “I am proud of Chely and her status as a person, and her celebrity has been elevated in my eyes.”
Wright said she is hopeful of attracting new fans and regaining old ones for an album she will start recording this year. And she isn’t about to give up her beloved country music.
“If I wanted to be a pop singer, I would have done that 20 years ago,” she said. “I love country music.”
Reporting by Christine Kearney; Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte