It was round two of the semifinals on Season 7 of “American Idol,” and David Archuleta had just closed the Feb. 28, 2008, episode with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The performance — a master class in immaculate pop vocal precision — earned the then-17-year-old wild screams from the tween and teen girls in the studio audience and instant raves from the judges. Randy Jackson told Archuleta he was “born to do exactly what you’re doing.” Paula Abdul gushed that he was “destined for superstardom.” And Simon Cowell proclaimed, “Right now, you’re the one to beat.”
In that moment, with his father, Jeff, beaming from his seat just feet away, Archuleta knew he should be nothing but grateful for the praise. Instead, one thought kept drumming through his head: “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
He didn’t understand why those girls were screaming, let alone why tens of millions of people would vote for him week after week — ultimately catapulting Archuleta to the finale, where he would finish second to David Cook. He didn’t understand, either, why older male fans kept yelling at him to come out already, or why his own father would tell him about online speculation about his sexuality like it was hot gossip. He was overwhelmed by the unrelenting schedule. He hated being pitted against other singers. He desperately missed his family back home in Utah. Fundamentally, Archuleta didn’t know that he wanted any of this at all.
“I felt so disconnected from everything,” he says now, perched on his publicist’s couch on a scorching Los Angeles day in October. “Like, 13 years later, I’m piecing together what actually was going on. But it’s still a process because I still don’t understand why people were so into it.” Now 30, the singer breaks into a nervous laugh familiar to anyone who watched him on “Idol.”
“I think I was just in protection mode the whole time,” he says. “If anything, I was putting a wall between me and everyone else.”
Last June, Archuleta tore down that wall with an Instagram post in which he came out as being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. The decision came after Archuleta — a lifelong and devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — says God told him to share his story with the world, and Archuleta obliged by picking up his phone, writing the post and sending it without telling anyone in advance other than one of his sisters. Archuleta instantly became one of the most high-profile members of the Mormon faith to be openly LGBTQ, which has put him at odds with his church’s prohibition against acting on same-sex attraction — although Archuleta’s asexuality, which he also revealed in the Instagram caption, has made that particular hurdle a bit less onerous to navigate.
Still, it’s a journey that has been both bewildering and excruciating, pushing Archuleta to the brink of his religious beliefs and his desire to live at all. In a nearly three-hour conversation with Variety, it’s also clear that Archuleta’s coming-out post was the latest, most significant step in his decade-long struggle to wrest back the control of his life — and career — that he believes he lost that fateful February day on the biggest TV show in America.
When Archuleta was on “Idol,” he was perpetually abashed and tongue-tied, straining to string together a few sentences even when host Ryan Seacrest tossed him the easiest softball questions. As an adult, he does not have that issue. He’s retained his boyish, aw-shucks charm, but his words now tumble out of him, undaunted by even the most personal disclosures.
“My parents never talked to me about puberty,” he says. “I didn’t know what wet dreams were. I didn’t know what arousals were. I didn’t know that hair was going to be growing in parts of my body. All that was foreign to me. I didn’t know. And so I was freaking out.”