The singer on moving from bullying to broadway to television — and ultimately discovering his wild side.
Once you lock eyes on Brian Justin Crum, it’s hard to look anywhere else in the room. But don’t let appearances fool you: What seems at the outset to be an eye-catching confluence of top-notch genes and showbiz good fortune doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what’s going on here. Everything about the singer/songwriter is intentional — from his scruffy dreamboat aesthetic to his soaring tenor and his ever-so-suggestive music video, “Wild Side.”
It’s actually good news that nothing about Crum’s image, music or presentation is left to chance, because that means at the end of the day, he is entirely a product of his own creation. And while he’s quick to admit his latest iteration more closely resembles his current view of himself than some he’s worn before, it’s also one more skin he may one day shed in favor of something that conveys his continuing evolution more accurately.
One thing is for sure: the artist’s yearning to mold the ideal version of himself began long ago, and it’s been an elusive vision he’s chased ever since.
“I’m the youngest of three,” Crum explains. “I have two older sisters, and my Mom was a single parent, so that meant lots of after-school activities. I guess I went into a theater youth program at five, and after that, there wasn’t a time when I wasn’t either in a show or auditioning. I pretty much grew up in the theater.”
Early on, he harbored an infatuation with pop singers like Whitney Houston, George Michael and Celine Dion. But at the same time, Crum began to struggle with his weight — and while his family was understanding, his own awareness of being both gay and larger than his classmates took their toll.
Then, barely into his teens, he decided to come out: “My mom approached me about it,” he recalls, “and the conversation went pretty quickly from me being bi to me being gay. But my Mom was a nurse, and her want and need to be a caretaker is all part of that. One of my sisters is also a nurse, so and they all loved and accepted me.”
His schoolmates were another story entirely. Crum was teased and bullied to the point where, with his mother’s permission, he transferred schools from San Diego to Salem, Oregon to finish his diploma.
Looking back, the performer says, he feels nothing but gratitude — to his mother, to his aunt and uncle who took him in — and ironically enough, to those who taunted him just for being himself.
“I’m still able to tap into some of those feelings now,” the performer confides. “I so appreciate that those experiences made me a tender and caring adult with a lot of love for myself and other people. I think it also helped me not just sing to people but into people, That’s a way that we’re so beautifully connected. Music is the universal love language. No matter who you are or where you come from, people can hear it and feel it.”
Besides, he says, “’I’m not a victim of my circumstances. I’ve already had a great career. I did my first Broadway show at 18. So many people have had it so much worse, and it wouldn’t be fair to wallow in feeling sorry for myself. I live in a place of gratitude, and hope that people who find out what I went through come to understand that they can have a beautiful life on the other side of that situation, too.”
It’s a Hard-Knock Life
In show business terms, Crum was the kind of kid that agents, producers and talent scouts would often remember as “a trouper.” Luck played a part in his success, but only a small one.
“My mom was always very supportive,” he explains,” looking out for auditions in LA or on the internet sites that posted them online. She or someone else would then drive me up and we’d sit in those long non-union casting calls. There was a casting director doing a production of Hairspray at the Luxor in Vegas that I was lucky enough to impress — although I didn’t get that show — and he started bringing me in to audition for everything. Finally, after the fourth time, I got a job called ‘universal swing’ in Wicked, which means you play different roles in different casts. Each company was a little different, so I was like a little sponge, soaking up all these other people’s experiences.”
At 21, Crum found himself in a revival of Grease. That’s when someone came to my Mom and said, “Brian’s looking awfully large.” And so I got a trainer. And almost immediately I lost a ton of weight. I had never really done P.E. in school; we had dance instead, so I never felt like I could do the gym. Now it’s something I look forward to; it’s something that clears my head.”
Crum quickly vaulted from one show to another, darting through a revolving door of musicals including Altar Boyz, Next to Normal, Tarzan and Jesus Christ Superstar. “I was constantly auditioning for one show while I was in another,” as he remembers it, “and then I did a couple of concerts while I was doing Queen’s We Will Rock You at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. TV and film were never really passions of mine. But I started to put some videos on YouTube, because I’m really a social person and I love making connections with people. And people kept commenting, ‘You should go on The Voice,’ and things like that.”
That’s when he began to pore over each of the reality shows to see which competition suited him best. His criteria? “I wanted the one with the least amount of hubbub, because there are some that don’t allow the talent much room to create, and I knew I didn’t want that. America’s Got Talent were so relaxed and supportive about giving people a platform. It was, ‘If they won, they got this,’ and even if they didn’t, they still got something valuable. There was a humanistic quality to their approach.”
Ultimately Crum placed fourth in the 2016 competition, and has no regrets whatsoever. “They were so supportive at AGT,” he’s happy to attest. “The show is there to give people there a real platform, and I had a great time picking the music team. And — in telling my story, I was albe to give a lot of people who didn’t have a voice someone who could speak for them.”
Moreover, Crum explains, “I’m so happy AGT is around, because there’s a lot of mediocrity. There’s a lot of people who can really sing, and sometimes you get people who can really tell a story through a song. But unfortunately there are also a lot of people who only see it a business.” He agrees with the age-old show biz adage: you can use the business, or you can let it use you. “I never had any intention of going in with secrets and hiding,” the singer says.
Walk On the Wild Side
Crum’s new video, “Wild Side,” underscores that belief. When the conversation turns to the softcore BDSM aura his video projects — alongside images of repression and reparative therapy — Crum simply laughs.
“When I first heard the song,” he says, “it was called ‘Vanilla Life.’ And it had this kind of cool sound and beat, but I didn’t think the lyric really reflected where I am in my life right now, because I’m a sexual person and feel very empowered by my sexuality. But (collaborator) Frankmusik was very receptive to my ideas. He said, ‘Absolutely. Come into the studio and let’s see what we can do to create something else. I said it has to be about embracing your wild side, and while that can be scary, it’s also liberating. We should all give ourselves permission to express our wants and desires.”
“For the first time out,” he says with certainty, “I wanted to do something different. For me, it’s not about pushing boundaries. It’s about good images and storytelling. I kept going back to Madonna’s “Erotica” as a reference. I wanted to show just enough so that people would have that next image in their minds rather than on the screen. I wanted ‘Wild Side’ to show just enough to spark their imaginations. There are hints and flashes, but nothing sits there too long. It’s just a little taste, and the rest is up to people to create for themselves.”
True to form, Crum intends to switch it up for his next release. “I had spent so much time on TV in the world of ballads that I wanted to do something that showed more range to start with. But this new track we’re putting out, ‘Whisper?’ It shows more of an emotional side. Right now, we’re basically doing singles, and it’s fun to just keep putting music out and to take one day at a time.” brianjustincrum.com
Last modified: March 8, 2018