Authenticity is a slippery concept in the world of pop music. While a relatable façade is a selling point in the pop star marketplace, the moments in which pop idols have gone rogue — a wild-eyed Britney shaving her head, Miley twerking and topless — have revealed that the curated image is not always entirely the truth, and that what’s simmering underneath is typically darker, weirder and vastly more interesting.
This Rubik’s Cube of pop perception and reality is why Ricky Rebel was confused when told he was being “too feminine” onstage. The singer was 18 years old at the time, and performing for crowds of thousands of mostly teenage girls as a member of the late-'90s boy band No Authority. He had not yet realized he was gay, although his management had a hunch.
“The label reps were like, ‘It’s OK if Ricky’s gay,’” Rebel says, “'but he can’t be gay in front of everybody else.’”
It was an authenticity paradox that he would bump into throughout his career, as he tried on different personas on his quest for fame. Rebel (who prefers not to divulge his real surname) grew up in the Inland Empire city of Upland, the son of a court reporter and a carpenter. He was always feisty and athletic, getting into fights with kids who teased him and coming in 13th at a national gymnastics competition. He was being groomed for the Olympics but decided to focus on dance instead, as that activity didn’t involve judges holding up scorecards after every routine.
When Rebel’s older brother passed him a copy of Madonna’s Like a Virgin, his destiny was clear. He entered the entertainment world with the ease of a natural-born performer; living in close proximity to Los Angeles helped. His mom managed him, and by his early teens he had booked commercials for companies including Pepsi, Sears and McDonald's.
The late-'90s pop renaissance was brewing, with acts such as Destiny’s Child, Backstreet Boys, Spears, Christina Aguilera and *NSync all on the come-up. Rebel joined the bubble-gum revolution when he won a spot in No Authority, a four-boy band assembled in L.A. While the group was intended to be a backup act for a yet-to-be-found lead singer, “at the end of the day,” Rebel says, “I was really the leader.”
For Rebel, the gig was a dream come true, and a promising stepping stone to a solo career in the mold of his idols Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson. No Authority signed with Epic Records and worked with Rodney Jerkins, the producer known as Darkchild, who would go on to produce hits including Destiny’s Child's “Say My Name” and Lady Gaga's “Telephone.” Their debut album was released by Jackson's MJJ Music, and their sophomore LP was bought by MJJ parent label Epic and Madonna’s Maverick label, altogether a thrill for Rebel.
While the guys never reached the TRL ubiquity of Orlando-bred mega-acts Backstreet Boys and *NSync (“I don’t think they’d be where they are today without Lou Pearlman’s money,” Rebel says, referring to the controversial Svengali who financed those boy bands), they did find success. In 2000, they scored a hit with “Can I Get Your Number (A Girl Like You)” — chorus: “Hit me with those seven digits!” — and toured with acts including Aaron Carter and Spears, with whom Rebel would discuss the book series Conversations With God. At a stop in Europe, a crowd of rowdy fans shook the No Authority tour bus, and Rebel felt closer to the “can’t leave the house” level of celebrity that he craved.
“It was my first experience with fame,” Rebel says, “and I really liked it. I liked the feeling of being a successful artist.”
At the same time, like a growing run in one’s pantyhose, the cracks in his forward-facing persona were beginning to show.
“I wasn’t technically gay at the time,” Rebel says. “I was in a relationship with a woman, and I was very confused. We were doing bigger tours, and I had extreme anxiety stepping off the bus to all the fans.”
Then, during a truth-or-dare game on the tour bus, he hooked up with a guy. “It really bummed me the fuck out,” Rebel says. “Like, holy shit. All of this stuff they were saying about me is fucking true. I thought maybe I became that way because [my management] had manipulated me. But I did like hooking up with this guy, so it must’ve been cool.”
Rebel was “depressed for a long time” after No Authority dissolved. He didn’t have the money to hire songwriters or producers (at one point, he sued the group's management company for unpaid wages), but he taught himself Pro Tools and guitar. He recorded a rock album under the name Ricky Harlow, finding new inspiration in David Bowie’s baritone voice and chameleonlike persona. He still, however, was encouraged by those around him to hide the fact that he liked guys.
Then, Rebel scored a gig as Show Pony, a fictional character created by the emo band My Chemical Romance in conjunction with their 2010 album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Rebel’s job was to sport polka-dot leggings, a crop top and a space helmet and gyrate around in the video for “Na Na Na” and at MCR-related events. “Gerard Way told me I had the best ass he had ever seen,” Rebel recalls.
While some may have considered Show Pony a B-list gig, Rebel loved the role, and with it took a big step toward embracing the flashy, theatrical, Madonna-worshipping essence that had eluded him in his prior incarnations.
Out of Show Pony grew Ricky Rebel, a glam pop singer with mermaid hair and makeup and Grace Jones' fashion sense. His 2015 single “Star” is being played in “15 countries around the world,” and his forthcoming track, Rebel says, is an updated version of Katy Perry's “I Kissed a Girl.” His debut full-length as Rebel, The Blue Album, is available on iTunes. Upcoming performances include a Pride event in Tucson and a gig at Avalon’s long-standing gay night, Tigerheat.
Ricky Rebel hasn't reach tour bus–shaking levels of fame yet — as of this writing, his eye-popping video for “Star” has a respectable but not world-beating 114,000 views. But even if his next brush with pop stardom never comes, he's still living his truest incarnation thus far.
Ricky Rebel performs at Tigerheat at the Avalon on Thursday, Feb. 25.