EJ Michels is thrilled that he got to perform on NBC’s “The Voice.” He’s excited that two of the judges wanted him, and that he ended up on Blake Shelton’s team.
But the 31-year-old Draper man, who grew up in Sandy, is also pleased that he was seen. That his story was told. That viewers might understand that you can grow up as a closeted gay man in Utah — as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and come out happy on the other side.
“I feel like a lot of coming-out stories, there’s a lot of pain and trauma there. Which, obviously, I’ve been through myself,” Michels said. “And sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in that and live the rest of your life in that pain, that anger and that rage. But I think it’s really important for me to heal and to heal the people in the world around me.”
(The church still strongly opposes same-sex marriage, and mandates that gay members abstain from dating, marriage and sex.)
He was quick to point out that he “grew up in a very loving family” and “didn’t really have a crazy hard life,” he still had a “really hard time loving myself and finding myself” and living up to “expectations” about how he should “believe and think and behave and act.”
Both at church and at school, “gay was such a slander word. Like, ‘Oh, you’re so gay!’ There’s so much negativity around it. Growing up, you just kind of feel a sense of shame.”
He said he experienced “inner turmoil” beginning when he was in middle school. “Like — I’m experiencing this thing, but it’s so sinful and wrong.”
It wasn’t until after he came home from a Latter-day Saint mission, married a woman in the temple and then got divorced that he realized that “maybe this thing I was so afraid of is actually the thing that makes me unique and beautiful. This thing that I’ve been taught my entire life to run away from — by accepting it, I’m actually doing the opposite. I’m stepping into my life of beauty as opposed to into darkness and destruction.”
Michel said that he was particularly pleased with the “great job” the show did with a short feature about him that aired just before his audition. Many of his family members, most of whom “are still in the church, kind of took it with open arms and positivity. It brought them to tears. And I really think it’s kind of bringing people together as opposed to dividing people.”
Since his audition aired on March 13, a number of people reach out to him to say they’ve been through similar experiences. Including a man who “reached out to me [to say], ‘I was at USU. And it took me ‘til I was 43 to come out and have kids. I’m living with my partner and my kids, and my life is so much healthier and happier. And thanks for sharing your story.’”
“It brought me to tears. Just finding that level of connection with other people who’ve been through something similar is a really impactful thing for me,” Michels said. And he believes even those who come from a really different experience “can still kind of relate to not feeling like yourself and having to come into a more authentic place, whether that be within your family or your religion. I really feel like everyone can kind of relate to that message in one way or another.”
Music is his passion
Michels said music has long been his passion. Competing on a show like “The Voice” has been “my dream since high school.”
His rendition of Adele’s “Easy On Me” immediately caught the attention of judge Chance the Rapper, who quickly hit his button to turn his chair around. And, shortly before Michels finished singing, Shelton hit his button — meaning Michels got to choose which team he would join. Somewhat surprisingly, he went with Shelton. “It just felt right,” he said.
And he sounded a bit like he was working for the Utah Office of Tourism when the judges started talking about Utah. “Mountains, lakes, all four seasons — it literally has all of it,” Michels said.
The Utah native said he wants to be positive about his experience, not negative about Utah or the church in which he was raised.
“I hate painting anything in a bad light, and I don’t want to do that,” Michel said. “But I also need to tell my story and just say — it was hard growing up because of what I was taught within my family and my religion. I definitely had to eventually step away from all that.”
Next up are the battle rounds, which begin airing Monday at 7 p.m. on NBC/Channel 5. (The network has not announced in which episode Michels will appear.)
No matter how that turns out, the Utahn said he sees “The Voice” as an “opportunity to get on a bigger platform and reach a larger audience that I wouldn’t be able to on my own. People that would probably never even have heard of me or seen me.”
“No matter what happens in a competition, in my head, I’m just happy to be here,” he said. “And no matter how far I make it, it’s just going to be great exposure.”
Which, he’s hoping, will help when he releases his first solo album — which he completed before he went on “The Voice” — later this year.
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