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 Lifted Off The Ground - An Interview with Chely Wright
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Chely Wright as Grand Master of the Chicago Gay Pride Parade, 2010, as seen in "Chely Wright: Wish me Away," a film by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Knopf. A First Run Features Release
Chely Wright is happy. I could hear it in her voice the minute I picked up the phone and began speaking with the country music superstar and 1995 Academy of Country Music Best New Female Vocalist.  Wright is probably best known for her #1 country music smash "Single White Female," a smart and sassy tune with a sexy and sassy video that helped to propel Wright's already popular music into the country music stratosphere. After the 1999 song topped the charts, the already rising Wright became one of country music's "it" performers. Wright was, and still is, sexy and wasn't afraid to show it. Popular media loved her and she also had a series of high profile relationships with high profile men, most notably country superstar Brad Paisley.

While Chely loved having fulfilled the dream planted as a young child of being a country music recording artist, the simple truth is she wasn't happy within herself.

As I picked up the phone, I was immediately struck by a warmth and openness you might not expect from someone who, by her own accounts, has lost 2/3 of her fan base and experienced both hate mail and actual death threats since her May 2010 decision to quit living a lie and to become the first major country music performer to come out as gay.

Her life, it might be difficult to imagine, has never been happier. Since Wright's well thought out and planned decision to come out in a full-on media blitz in 2010, Wright has released a highly acclaimed book, "Like Me," and an equally acclaimed record called "Lifted off the Ground" on Vanguard Records. In 2011, Wright wed LGBT rights advocate Lauren Blitzer in a wedding officiated by both a rabbi and a reverend. Not long after she made the decision to come out, Wright also began a series of stunningly intimate and revealing video diaries that would serve as the seeds for the blossoming of Chely Wright: Wish Me Away, a feature documentary picked up by distributor First Run Features and opening in both New York and Berkeley on June 1st, 2012 on its way to a limited nationwide run.

Chely Wright chatted with The Independent Critic about her life, her coming out, her music, Wish Me Away and her passion for working on behalf of LGBT youth through an organization she founded in her hometown of Kansas City, Kansas called Like Me Lighthouse. 
Chely Wright

Hi, Richard. How are you?

The Independent Critic

Fantastic, thank you. Thank you for agreeing to spend some time with me. I'll get started quickly here because I want to be respectful of your time today. I was sitting in my home screening Wish Me Away and I was completely blown away by it. So, first off, congratulations on your film. I was planning on writing my review after the interview and I couldn't wait. I needed to process the film. Can you talk about your journey? Obviously, you've been open about the fact that you had the experience of a "breakdown" and bottoming out and realizing that you needed to "come out." That kind of segued into writing a book and you were doing the video diaries, as well, as part of that book writing process. Then, you were doing a film. That's a lot. Can you talk about that journey?

Chely Wright

Yeah, I obviously had my breakdown in 2006 which I now like to call my breakthrough. I made the decision to come out in December 2007 and the day that I decided to do it I went downstairs and cracked open my laptop and wrote a title page for my book and began writing my book for six days. They were really long 12-hour days. I couldn't write anymore. I was emotionally exhausted and terrified. I knew what a breakdown was looking like on the page and I knew what my breakdown was sounding like on my record. I guess maybe it was just the artistic person in me that wanted to see what it looked like. So, I grabbed a video camera up on the mantle and just started talking. I always journal. I think I needed to journal, but I couldn't write anymore. So, I wanted to do a video journal and I began doing those. I did those for nine months before I ever came into awareness of the filmmakers. I met with a mutual friend in New York. I was in New York to meet with Craig Karpel (Owner of The Karpel Group) about marketing my upcoming record and I saw his poster for Be Real (a documentary about people's experiences with coming out) on his wall. I said "Ah, Craig. I love that film." I saw it on Logo, of course with my shades drawn in Nashville. He said "Oh, I know the filmmakers." He said "Do you happen to have any video? Have you been filming your process at all?" I said, "No...Well, I mean I've got video diaries." He said "You need to meet them." I met with them and told them I was coming out. They called me the next day and said "We want to make a feature film." I didn't really know what that meant and said "What does that entail?" I didn't give them my video diaries until about a year later. It took me that long to dig them up and, quite frankly, get the courage to give them to them.

The Independent Critic

The video diaries are amazing. For me, they were actually my favorite part of the film because, well, obviously they were so honest and vulnerable. They also provided the full spectrum of who you are and your life experiences. I mean, obviously you're very comfortable with the glamour of being a celebrity, being beautiful, being sexy. There's that scene in the film where you get upset with your book editor for questioning the authenticity of one of your "beautiful" photos. So, I loved how the video diaries helped balance everything and provided an incredible depth.

Chely Wright

Thank you. You know, nobody looks good when they're crying their eyes out in the morning but, oh well .

The Independent Critic

Yeah, but it was part of your journey and just think of how many teenagers have done that very thing. How awesome it is, at least to me, that you allowed yourself to be seen in that way. I think that in some ways it helps give permission to others, as well.
Chely Wright

That's exactly why we wanted to make this documentary. You know, not everyone reads books. Sometimes, people need to not just read it but see it, feel it, taste it, smell it or just to watch the experience. I wanted young people to see "Okay, there are other people like you. There are other people who sit around by themselves and cry." Then, there is triumph. There's light at the end of the tunnel. I'm not saying it's easy to get there. When some people say "What a brave thing you did," I try my best to not say "No, no, no. Don't call me brave." You know what? I know what courage it took because I had to muster it up. I never want to "poo poo" on someone who says "How brave of you." I know it's brave. You know what? It's brave when everybody comes out. If you're a teacher, if you're an attorney at a conservative law firm...everyone has the same journey coming out. We all have a fan base. It just happens to be that mine was a little bit different. It's all relative and the stakes are high for everyone who comes out. I wanted young people to see and think "If she can do it, then I can do it."

The Independent Critic

How did you keep yourself safe as you started your journey? It looks like you did a great job of establishing a support system. Still, though. Number one, you had a very public coming out which was obviously intentional on your part. How did you keep yourself safe? I mean, it could have exploded and maybe failed miserably?

Chely Wright

Yeah, well. I viewed it as not really having a potential to fail because the win was freedom. Whatever collateral fallout there may have been, I knew that would pale in comparison to liberation. I did really have to fortify myself in many ways over the couple years it took to prepare to come out, to write my book and get my team together and to, essentially, orchestrate this very public coming out. The way that I cared for myself was that I moved to New York into a place that I felt safe to finish my book. I wrote ten hours a day then got on my bicycle and rode thousands of miles in Central Park. I got very quiet. When you're contemplative and quiet, you learn a lot. You learn a lot about your spiritual path and get centered. I had anxieties, but they never got the best of me because I was embedding myself with these organizations that were educating me so I could hit the ground running. I knew if I learned what I needed to learn and took care of my mind, body and spirit that it absolutely could not fail.

The Independent Critic

That's amazing.

Chely Wright

I mean, it could have failed in...well, let's talk about the failures.

I could have gotten hate mail. It happened.

I could have gotten a death threat. It happened.

I could have lost 2/3 of my audience. It happened.

I still view it as a win.

The Independent Critic

Speaking of the record, how has the record label been? You're on Vanguard now?

Chely Wright

I'm on Vanguard, yes. You know, I heard that they'd heard my record and they liked it. A producer that I knew in Nashville gave it to Vanguard. Vanguard contacted me and said "We want to put out your record." This was in 2007. I got on a plane and flew out there. I met with Kevin Welk (President of Vanguard) and said "Thank you very much. I'm glad you're interested in working with me. I need to tell you what I'm about to do." He listened to me. He turned to me. He turned to a couple of his advisers. He said "We love it. We're in." He said "You put it out when you want to put it out." They stuck with me. We sat on that record for a year and a half ... no, two years. They just said "You put it out when you're ready and we're on board."
An Independent Voice for the Reel World

The Independent Critic
Email: theindependentcritic@yahoo.com

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