Whitney Houston’s starring role – the last before her tragic death earlier this year – isn’t the only reason “Sparkle” has gay written all over it: there’s the flamboyant style of the ’60s, an all-girl singing group and, well, the movie’s name. Seated in a suite at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel, not far from where the film was shot in Detroit, “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks lights up – applauding, even – knowing how many of her gay fans will see her on the big screen in her movie debut.
Sparks’ return to Motown in early August was even more appropriate when Aretha Franklin, who sang on the soundtrack for the 1976 original, showed up to walk the red carpet at the Royal Oak Emagine with the remake’s star. Even though she lost a nail, the 22-year-old said having the Queen of Soul there was “absolutely incredible.”
About the finger fiasco: “I was freaking out because I looked at the picture of Aretha and me and the nail is gone.” That’s not a problem today, however. “I made sure I glued these suckers on like nobody’s business!”
Ever so bubbly, Sparks also chatted about Whitney’s mutual adoration for the gay community, addressed “mean” rumors of her anti-gay upbringing and recalled her first time at a drag club.
What are some of your favorite parts of Motown in the ’60s?
I’d already grown up listening to (Motown music) because my grandparents introduced it to me when I was really young. I listened to Diana Ross and The Temptations and all of them, so being here, knowing that’s where Motown started, you could feel the energy. I loved singing the music that was like that. And the clothes, come on now! The clothes, the makeup and the hair – it was so much fun to transform into that every single day.
Which outfit do you wish you could’ve taken with you after “Sparkle” wrapped?
The outfit when I walk into Columbia Records: the hot pink dress with the white stripes on it, when I walk into (label head) Larry Robinson’s office. It was my favorite one. It fit so good!
What was it like spending your 21st birthday at a drag club in Dallas?
It was the best thing ever. It was my first time, and I was just beside myself because I had never seen a drag show live before. I was just so amazed at how they transform and lip-sync to a T. So much fun! They were doing these tiny tube shots and my hairdresser and his partner were there and we were just having a blast. All of us had a great time. I can’t wait to go back.
Do you hope there will be a “Sparkle” drag queen?
I’m waiting for it! I’m waiting on them to come out in a red dress like that (points to movie poster) with their hair down, singing to my songs. I can’t wait. And hey, Halloween is coming up, too!
What is your fondest memory of being here in Detroit with Whitney?
For me as a singer, growing up and loving her and listening to her so much, the whole experience was amazing. But also, she was just so open and wanted to get to know us. That was very unexpected.
Was there a specific scene she guided you through?
She was there for a lot of the songs when she didn’t need to be there, which was really sweet. One thing she did say was, “Believe in the gift that you have; believe in your talent,” because there were times when I was really unsure since I’d never done a movie before. She was like, “Mama’s here, it’s OK.” And she used to call us her babies. When you see us up on that screen and we’re telling each other that we love each other, it’s genuine. We got to know her and we cherished her. We loved her.
You grew up in Arizona and now you’re a part of Hollywood. How did your gay circle change when you made the move?
I didn’t know as many (gay people), but I did drama club, and the head of my drama club in the ninth grade – his name was Eric and on the weekends he was Sapphire St. Regis, and he was so amazing! He was the president of the drama club, and so talented and so fun. Then I did community theater, and that introduced me to more. I have some (gay) family members as well, so I’ve always been used to it.
The rumors of you growing up in a Christian family that wasn’t very accepting of gay people are just nonsense, then.
That’s all stuff that people write. I grew up in a Christian family, but I have cousins and I have tons of friends (who are gay). Some of my closest friends are actually gay, and some of my band members are, as well. So, for me, I’m just like, whatever! Those are just mean things that people say.
Your boyfriend, Jason Derulo, has a following in the gay community for many reasons. One of those is an It Gets Better video he filmed. Have you thought about getting involved in anything like that?
I would love to. You see people being so hateful toward other people, and I wasn’t raised like that. I was raised to love everybody, and some of the funnest times I have had are with my gay friends. So, for me, I am all for it and I would love to do something like that.
Did you make anything of how closely related the name “Sparkle” is to “Glitter,” Mariah Carey’s infamous film?
If you haven’t seen the original “Sparkle” you kind of assume it’s a sequel: “Glitter,” “Sparkle,” sprinkles, fairy dust – they all go together! I hadn’t realized it was such a cult classic. I had no idea until I got the part and then I had people coming up to me going, “You better not mess it up.” “Is this song on the soundtrack?” But I love Mariah Carey and I hear “Glitter” and I’m like, “I love Mariah!” I think “Sparkle” is definitely very different than “Glitter.” (Laughs)
The song “Celebrate” with Whitney Houston could work as a gay anthem. What do you think about that?
Whitney and I didn’t get to do it in the studio together because our schedules didn’t allow it, but when I recorded my part, I heard her as I was recording and she sounded so happy. Whitney loved her gays. She absolutely loved them. For me, being one of the last songs she did – a song just about loving each other and celebrating each other and it just being so encouraging and uplifting – I think it’s one of the best gifts she could’ve left. I feel like that song is one of the best gifts she could’ve left for the younger generations who are going to discover her music and discover her – and also for the people who still love her.
Did Whitney talk about her gay fans on set?
No, but her family would tell us. They’d be like, “She loves her gays, honey,” and there have been a few other reporters who have interviewed her before and she absolutely represented. Hello! How can you not? I will say, I have Googled “drag queens singing Jordin Sparks.” I just love it so much. I think it’s the best thing ever. I love watching them sing and sometimes I’m like, “They look better than I do! What is going on here?”
When did you first become aware of your gay fan base?
In the very beginning during meet-and-greets after concerts. There was just a huge array of people: all different races, orientations and ages. I just remember because I didn’t think boys would like my music, but I have some straight male fans who love my music and then I have my gay fans that love my music.
More gay than straight?
Yes. Very much so! It’s actually really surprising when I have a straight male fan that’s like, “Yeah, I love your music.” And I’m like, “Really?”
What’s coming up for you? A new album?
I’m putting out a new album. I’m working on it now. I’ve got about seven songs that I’m really feeling strongly about. “Sparkle” is actually giving me the opportunity to do something stylistically different than I did before, so it’s going to be a little more R&B. Early Mariah, early Whitney is what I’m going for. That’s what I grew up on.
I’m already filming my next film. It’s called “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” and Alicia Keys is executive producing and Jennifer Hudson is actually in it. It’s an indie drama and I don’t sing. I just play an Afro-Latina from the Bronx and I just get to be the character. I’m excited to see how that goes.
Not as glamorous as your role as Sparkle?
Oh, she’s glamorous! The other day I had my hair pulled back in twists, almost like cornrows, and then my hair was on the side in a huge, curly side ponytail. Then the lashes! And my nails were crazy. She thinks she’s so fabulous.