The first runner-up on season five of American Idol, best known for her elevating rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Katharine McPhee is second to none when it comes to her breathtaking beauty and powerful pop performances. Now trading in her trademark brown tresses for a platinum blonde bob, McPhee follows up her 2007 self-titled debut with her new album, Unbroken. Also a blossoming actress who memorably appeared in The House Bunny and next stars in You May Not Kiss the Bride, the 25-year-old Los Angeles native discusses her lesbian admirers and why gay boys thought she was “McPhierce” long before America caught the “McPheever.”
By Brandon Voss
How does the vibe on Unbroken compare to vibe on your debut?
Katharine McPhee: A friend who has an advance copy just told me, “I was doing Runyon Canyon and it’s the perfect hiking record!” A lot of people said they listened to my first record when they danced or went running, but this record is more relaxing and moody. So it’s definitely more for hiking than for cardio.
You co-wrote many songs on Unbroken, collaborating with fellow singer-songwriters like Paula Cole, Ingrid Michaelson, and Rachel Yamagata. But even though you’re now married, you go to some dark places about breakups and lost love. Is it just easier to write about heartache than happiness?
That’s completely it. It’s just easier to be pessimistic about life than it is to be positive, so I found it was way easier to write about past relationships or even the ups and downs of my marriage than it was to write about happy stuff.
Which track on Unbroken will your gay fans enjoy the most?
I know they’ll love the one cover song, “Brand New Key.” It’s by Melanie from the early ’70s. It’s a kooky song that’s really fun to dance to, and it’s the sort of song that people who weren’t born before the ’80s discover and say, “When did this ever exist?”
Are you aware of that song’s alleged double meaning?
Yes, but it took me a little time to figure out. When we started working on it, I was like, “Yeah, there’s definitely a sexual undertone here.” And that’s fine with me!
When did you first become conscious of your gay following?
I grew up in a very theatrical family, and my mom was a cabaret singer who trained a lot of gay students, so I was always around gay people, and it was a very natural thing for me. I also went to a musical theater program at Boston Conservatory, and all us girls had little gay followings even then. The musical theater boys had girls they called “fierce,” but they’d call me and my sister “McPhierce.” And when I performed at the gay club TigerHeat in L.A., the crowd was so awesome and high-energy that you would’ve thought I was Britney Spears!
When you do sexy photo shoots like the one you did for Stuff, are you aware that those pictures will appeal not only to straight guys but also to your lesbian fans?
I’ve never thought about that, but it does make sense. But when I’m doing a sexy shoot, I’m not thinking about the straight men either. I’m just having fun and trying to get in touch with my sexy side.
It was actually a lesbian website that called my attention to your FunnyorDie.com PSA for Stand Up For Cancer, in which you attend a breast-exam slumber party with other hot young actresses — which reminded me of the time Tyra Banks felt you up on her talk show.
Oh, my gosh, that’s hysterical. But hey, lesbians are women with boobs, so why wouldn’t they put it on their websites? I remember how that whole Tyra Banks thing became the phenomenon of the week and all the late-night shows were making fun of us, but you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself. In hindsight, that was probably the silliest thing in the world.
Do you have a celebrity girl-crush?
Oh, yeah. It might be kind of cliché, and it’s taken me some time to fully admit it, but Megan Fox is definitely my female crush just for physical appearances. Sometimes she’s a little too vulgar for me with the things she says, but she’s a gorgeous woman.
Since your debut album was released, two other American Idol runners-up have come out of the closet. Do you think gay contestants will feel more comfortable coming out during the competition now that there’s an openly lesbian judge?
First of all, I love Ellen and think she’s going to be great on the show, but that’s a tricky thing I can only compare to someone who’s really spiritual or religious: You don’t need to wear your religion on your sleeve. The competition is not about your faith or your sexuality but about you as an artist. Look, I think everyone knew Adam Lambert was gay. I don’t feel it was a big surprise, and I think Adam did the right thing by coming out with that Rolling Stone cover. He was just as flamboyant on the show as he is now, but anytime you say too much about your personal stuff, it can hinder you in the competition. If people saw the pictures of me being crazy in college with my gay friends and my girlfriends, they’d probably think differently of me on the show. So it’s a fine line you have to follow on a reality show competition when all of America is voting.
Many Idol alums have gone on to star in Broadway musicals. Do you have any Broadway aspirations?
I would love to do Broadway. I’ve already had opportunities to do a couple shows, but I don’t want to just go in and replace so-and-so. I’m a total theater geek and I always will be, so if and when I do Broadway, I want to make sure it’s the perfect vehicle for me. It has to be something special that I’m really passionate about.
What’s your musical dream role?
Well, Elphaba in Wicked is every belter’s dream to play. Of course, that show’s been running for years now, but there’s always the movie version! I love sexy ingénue roles like Shirley MacLaine’s in Sweet Charity with great singing, great dancing, and a lot of heart. When I heard they were thinking of doing a new movie version of Damn Yankees, I was like, “Ooh, I’ll be in there fighting for the part of Lola.”
You’ve always been associated with your long, luscious, chocolate-colored locks. Did you have to fight any cog in the Kat McPhee marketing machine for permission to go short and blonde?
I just decided that I wasn’t going to tell anybody but my husband that I was doing it, so once it was done there was nothing anybody could say. [Laughs] I’m sure some people behind the scenes were freaking out, but they were very nice to keep it to themselves.
NightTimez, January 2010.