Imagine the scene. An ante room in a horribly opulent Beverly Hills hotel. There are gaudy flower arrangements and vomit-print furnishings as far as the eye can see. And in the very middle of it, stands Sam Smith, convincing his management that he can go on camera and not make a fool of himself. “This time I’ll be different,” he says. “I can do this. I’ll just say thank you to my mum and my dead childhood pets and I’ll leave the podium – I promise.”
A flunky will smooth down his tuxedo as his PR gently reminds him that gazillions of people the world over will be watching, and Sam eagerly nods and says, he knows, he heard it’s even bigger than a crowd at Wembley. Or something like that.
You’d think this conversation wouldn’t need to happen at Smith’s level of fame – but media training and Sam Smith are strangers across a crowded room. Not that you can be media-trained for the specific brand of “Did I really just say that?” that Smith does so well.
Behind him lies a trail of gaffes, from the innocent denial disco existed before 2013 to his surprise that a new puppy would go to the toilet, via a problematic assertion women should go back to wearing pretty dresses and just singing on stage.
But as annoying as they no doubt were for his management – these were print interviews and there was no footage, no tweets – things have been ramping up in that department a gear recently. His well-intentioned but incredibly low-wattage attempt to shine a light on racism on Twitter, and his dismissal of Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke have meant that Team Sam Smith have never been so busy smoothing things over.
Spare a thought, too, for Sam’s longtime collaborator and fellow award-winner Jimmy Napes – doing his level-best not to send his eyes skyward as Smith plonks his Burberry-shod trotters in his mouth for the umpteenth time. The bill for Napes’s ophthalmologist must eclipse Elton John’s “fruit and flowers” chitties from his most hedonistic days.
And now the big one, the Oscar. Widely expected to lose to the much-publicised Lady Gaga song from hard-hitting documentary The Hunting Ground, Sam actually got to raise the big gold guy aloft for his theme to latest James Bond epic Spectre. Whether he was woefully underprepared, or nervous, or merely 23, or all three, he gave a speech that aimed high but ultimately flopped like a leaden frisbee chucked across a park on a day without weather – by an asthmatic toddler. And there was no praise for the effort; it was merely the failure to launch that everyone noticed.
Smith’s speech has been screen-grabbed and quoted in every corner of the internet, but the gist is that he misquoted a magazine interview with Sir Ian McKellen, in which the esteemed actor complained there’d never been an openly gay man win an Oscar for acting.
Openly gay men are fast running out of things to be first at, and in a culture that celebrates leaders and record-breakers more than consistent achievement, it’s no surprise Smith saw his chance to be a Wikpedia reference forevermore, and gushed that he might be the first out gay man to win an Oscar, to an open-mouthed audience of millions.
In isolation, I have to say, there was nothing wrong with Sam’s speech. He didn’t say he definitely was the first openly gay man to win, and he probably got a bit carried away, and will have been hugely nervous. He’s just some guy, after all. And at least he mentioned LGBT people in his speech – how many others have ignored them? He probably didn’t run this factoid by anyone beforehand. If he had, it would have been shot down. I like to think so, anyway. And, really, as much of a gaffe as it was, it should have ended there.
His management team very probably disappeared into their pelvic floor with brief mortification, the show carried on, and Sam (and the long-suffering Jimmy) plodded off to face the press – but then typing fingers across the world got busy with the criticism.
Ten such digits who simply couldn’t resist getting up close and personal with a keyboard were those belonging to a fellow Oscar winner and ‘open gay’, Dustin Lance Black. The 41-year-old screenwriter, director and producer seemed a little miffed at Sam Smith’s “firstwashing” and wanted to remind him that he, too, had an Oscar to call his own. A link to a Wikipedia page or a GIF of Elton John screaming at a lackey would probably have done, but instead DLB took things to a Snapchat level of personal with this tweet.
Oh, yeah, and in case you’ve not been following Dustin Lance Black’s storyline – and there’s no reason you would, really – he also happens to be engaged to Olympic diver Tom Daley. You have to wonder how learned Dustin himself was at 23, or even how much his husband-to-be knows about past Oscar winners – he and Smith are of similar age.
There was barely a gay man in the universe who didn’t see Black’s tweet and pull their chair a little closer to the screen. The force of the “Quote Tweet” button and screen-grabbing mechanism being applied in those few short seconds could’ve powered the London Eye for centuries.
While this was going on, Sam was largely oblivious, learning from just about everyone who could get a microphone near enough that he wasn’t the first, nor the second. I have to take my hat off to whoever taught Sam Smith at school, because while they may have failed him academically, when it comes to chutzpah, this guy’s got straight As coming out of every orifice. On hearing that one such openly gay previous Oscar winner was lyricist Howard Ashman – who won twice, for The Little Mermaid and, posthumously, for Beauty and the Beast – said “I should date him”.
The “posthumously” gave it away, I guess, but Howard Ashman is dead – he passed away from an AIDS-related illness in 1991. Smith can’t possibly have known this, of course, but it does make you wonder why he didn’t just… stop talking, or admit he hadn’t heard of him. Better to be an ignoramus than to babble on, reducing yourself to nothing more than your sexuality and how that technically makes you available to others who share it – “Ooh another gay guy! I should be dating him!” Leaving aside for the moment that Sam is that embarrassing auntie who tries to fix you up with a random gay guy at her work, his ignorance of LGBT history wouldn’t be so pitiful if he weren’t utterly convinced that he was creating it.
And nine hours after his original tweet, during which I imagine lots of calls to fiancé Tom went unanswered, Dustin Lance Black clarified this was the point he’d been making all along, and not merely trying to embarrass Sam.
Sam’s reply, no doubt sent through the horrified filter of a hangover, but one with an Oscar-gold sheen, was humble enough, but contained some arch shade which proves once and for all that Smith is not as clueless as his pull-quotes would have you believe.
In other words: “Tom and I never talk about you or what you do.” 1-0 to Smithy.
When everyone had finished laughing themselves blind at this, DLB went on to clarify that he was not calling out his fiancé and “the millionth openly gay man to walk in a straight line” for filthy messages, but merely they’re pals and Sam should know better. And so should the stupid old internet, for getting the wrong end of the stick. The Stephen Fry defence.
And that’s the message here. Sam should know better. So should we all. As LGBT people – and I guess I’m talking especially about the white gay men here, because we don’t half shout and whinge and cry “traitor!!” the loudest – perhaps we expect too much of Sam Smith.
He’s said in the past that he never actually had to come out as he was “always out” since childhood, but he acts like a teenager who’s only just admitted to himself that he’s gay. He shows no recognition for previous generations and their struggles or achievements, doesn’t seem to be grateful at the platform his fame has afforded him and seems keen only to use it for self-promotion.
When he speaks out about Grindr, we slate him; when he says he wants to be a role-model, we scoff; when he talks about how sexuality shouldn’t be a big deal, we down the tranquillisers with a vat of whisky. Nothing he can do will ever be good enough, mainly because we’re not sure *what* we want him to do, except not say stupid things. Or learn that it’s OK not to know stuff. Or indeed speak ever.
But we think he should know better. And one day, he will. But it won’t be because we’ve taught him how, and it certainly won’t have anything to do with Dustin Lance Black’s self-serving 140-character history lesson. It’s because he’ll grow. He will, hopefully, read those headlines back, go check a few sources, stop limiting his nous to a throwaway interview in an airline magazine and will think, “Fuck, I really need to educate myself”.
Let’s hope it’s soon. Real, real soon. From now on, I swear, I’m going to leave him alone to get on with it. Good luck, Sam.