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The outer limits: Will Adam Lambert's sexuality help or hurt his career?

DAVID BOWIE. Mick Jagger. Steven Tyler. Run through a list of rock stars, and you'll find plenty of ambiguous sexuality, theatrical flamboyance and machismo combined with mystery.

"American Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert is openly gay.
"American Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert is openly gay.Read more

DAVID BOWIE. Mick Jagger. Steven Tyler. Run through a list of rock stars, and you'll find plenty of ambiguous sexuality, theatrical flamboyance and machismo combined with mystery.

Now, hoping to enter the pantheon, comes Adam Lambert, "American Idol" runner-up, wannabe rock star and - recently - openly gay man.

When Lambert, 27, the überconfident "Idol" contestant with the painted nails and wailing high notes, came out to mainstream audiences in Rolling Stone magazine, he was joining a tradition of aggressive androgyny that's as old as rock 'n' roll itself. He was also breaking new ground: ending the mystery about his sexuality at the start of his rock career.

And the way he did it - both brazenly and playfully, posing on the cover with a come-hither stare and a snake running up his leg - represents a different sort of trajectory for a rock star. Rather than coming out midcareer, after gaining a measure of public support, Lambert is asking audiences to accept him first and make him a star afterward.

"There is something very contemporary about it - the fact that he is speaking openly about his sexuality, defusing it at a very early point in his career, making his calculation that he is going to be able to be a big success," said Tavia Nyong'o, a professor of performance studies at New York University who studies race and sexuality in the arts. "He's doing something very new and uncharted in pop culture."

Among devoted "American Idol" fans, Lambert's sexuality was an open secret, fueled by photos circulating on the Internet.

Openly gay men are common in certain musical niches, from dance pop to cabaret to confessional singer-songwriters. In American culture as a whole, gay artists have gained mainstream acceptance, led by sitcoms such as "Will and Grace" and culturally safe figures like Ellen DeGeneres.

But in rock it's still rare, if not impossible, to find a mainstream star who has ever come out as a gay man - or has discussed his sexuality as explicitly as Lambert does in Rolling Stone.

Even the late Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury - who shared Lambert's large vocal range and theatrical performance style - tried hard to keep his sex life private, or at least mysterious, said Freya Jarman-Ivens, a lecturer in music at the University of Liverpool and the editor of "Oh Boy! Masculinities and Popular Music."

When asked with whom he sleeps, according to Jarman-Ivens noted, Mercury once famously answered, "girls, boys and cats."

That was long ago, before political struggles and evolving mores made coming out more politically and socially acceptable.

Since then, many musicians have done so, with varying degrees of reluctance. Elton John first claimed to be bisexual before later coming out as gay. George Michael spent years cultivating a beefcake image and revealed his sexuality after a public sex scandal. Judas Priest lead vocalist Rob Halford didn't come out until more than 20 years after his band was founded. Even "American Idol" contestant Clay Aiken, the runner-up in the competition's second season, didn't declare that he was gay until years after the show had ended.

And many of today's successful openly gay pop stars, who fit the Aiken/Elton John mold, carry themselves quite differently from blustery rock stars, Jarman-Ivens said.

"They're never alpha-male types," she said. "I think it's because they're calling to a young female audience. They have to walk a fine line, culturally speaking, between being very attractive to the female audience and not being threatening."

In his Rolling Stone interview, and on "Idol" itself, Lambert has made it clear that his loyalties lie with harder-edged rock. In the "Idol" finale, he strutted across the stage with KISS in platform shoes, looking as comfortable as he ever did on the show.

During Lambert's "Idol" run, some gay men considered his flamboyance grating and unrepresentative, Nyong'o said. And in Rolling Stone, Lambert says that he isn't interested in serving as a spokesman for gay rights. The fact that he chose the rock magazine for his announcement, Nyong'o said, proves that he wants to distance himself from politics and culture, to be considered a musician first.

In the magazine, Lambert seems to send a dual message. On one hand, he looks more dangerous than ever, talking openly about sex and drug use. Yet he still presents himself as a nice guy beneath the makeup who marvels at being able to "play dress-up for a living."

But few of Lambert's ardent fans seemed surprised by his homosexuality, or wavered in their support, said MJ Santilli, who runs the site. Many female fans still expressed hope that he wasn't beyond their reach.

"They just adore him," she said.

But she also suspects that, given his image, Lambert won't get much radio play on pure rock stations - which is why she predicts that 19 Recordings, which signed Lambert to a record deal with RCA, will steer him away from Bowie-style glam rock and toward a safer brand of pop.

"He'll be a rock star the way Pink is a rock star," she said. "He'll do pop songs with a rock edge." *