|Who was Freddie Mercury?
Flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury and his band Queen became one of the most successful rock acts of all time despite his shifting gender presentation and relationships with both women and men.
Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on Sept. 5, 1946, in the British colony of Zanzibar, an island off the coast of what is now Tanzania. His parents were Parsees (Zoroastrian Indians of Persian descent), and his father worked for the British civil service. In the early 1950s, the boy was sent off to St. Peter's English boarding school outside Bombay, where he studied piano and, with five friends, formed his first band, the Hectics. Though he rarely said much about his childhood, Mercury later told an interviewer he was bullied by his classmates. "I was considered the arch poof," he recalled.
Mercury returned to Zanzibar after completing school in 1962, but two years later, when the British were ousted from the island, his family moved to Middlesex, England. He enrolled at the Ealing College of Art in London, where he majored in graphic art and design. After graduating in 1969, he opened a stall with a friend in the hip Kensington Market, selling art and secondhand clothes.
In 1970, after performing with two short-lived bandsIbex (later known as Wreckage) and Sour Milk SeaMercury joined with friends Brian May and Roger Taylor to form Queen. "It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations," Mercury said when asked how the band's name came about. "I was certainly aware of the gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it."
By this time, Mercury had adopted his new surname and an androgynous glam style, replete with velvet and fur clothing, makeup, and black nail polish. A natural showman, he had already developed a flamboyant stage presence, though he was otherwise rather shy. His campy demeanor and flashy outfits did not seem to raise many eyebrows. "Ambiguous sexuality was par for the course then," recalled one former band-mate. But, said another, if Mercury hadn't quite come out of the closet yet, "he was certainly looking through the keyhole."
That same year, Mercury began dating Mary Austin, a girl from a poor family who worked near his market stall. After they had lived together for six years, she began to feel that something was amiss with their relationship. When she confronted him, he told her he thought he was bisexual; she replied that she suspected he was probably gay. The couple ended their romantic relationship but remained close friends.
Even as a teenager, Mercury had told everyone he'd one day be a star, and his prediction came to pass. In 1974, Queen's third album, Sheer Heart Attack, catapulted the band to fame. Though some critics complained that they were all show with little musical talent, Queen became phenomenally popular and drew crowds in the tens of thousands wherever they performed around the world. "[W]e break a lot of rules," Mercury said after the release of "Bohemian Rhapsody." "It's unheard of to combine opera with a rock theme, my dear." The stadium anthem, "We Will Rock You," came out in 1977, followed a year later by the Jazz album, featuring "Fat-Bottomed Girls" (about the corruption of a skinny lad by his naughty nanny) and "Bicycle Race" (for which the group staged a bicycle race of 50 naked women as a publicity stunt). In 1982, the band members were listed in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain's highest-paid executives.
A man of many faces, Mercury changed his image in 1980, adopting a macho "clone" look with short hair, a moustache, and a leather biker jacket and cap. He professed his love for opera and flowers and peppered his speech with "dears" and "darlings." His affairs with men were an open secret, but he never explicitly announced his sexual orientation. "He was a 'scene-queen,' not afraid to publicly express his gayness but unwilling to analyze or justify his lifestyle," John Marshall wrote in the January 1992 Gay Times. "It was as if Freddie Mercury was saying to the world, 'I am what I am. So what?'"
Despite having numerous lovers, admirers, and hangers-on, Mercury often felt disillusioned. "No one loves the real me inside," he once said. "They're all in love with my fame, my stardom."
Mercury learned he had AIDS in the mid-1980s, but only told a few confidantes. He gave up his hedonistic lifestyle, settling down in his London mansion with his partner, Jim Huttonwho passed as his gardenerand several exotic cats.
As Mercury's health deteriorated, Queen stopped touring. The band gave its final performance in 1986, but continued to do studio recordings until just before the singer's death. Mercury died at home in November 1991 due to AIDS-related pneumonia, attended by Austin (to whom he willed his mansion and most of his fortune) and Hutton (for whom he bought a plot of land in Ireland). Mercury was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with his fellow band members, in 2001.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No.12 August 26, 2005