Rebel Prince

Eccentric pop auteur Rufus Wainwright is ready for his close-up

Wainwright's audible embarrassment at the thought of his own groove acumen is a rare case of humility for this endearing egomaniac. Something of a musical prodigy as a child, Wainwright didn't follow the standard garage-band route as a teenager. Instead he spent his days "playing with the imaginary orchestras in my mind," or visualizing himself as one of the doomed romantic characters in one of his many beloved operas.

Wainwright's debut record -- as with many debuts -- featured material that had been accumulating for years, in his case between the ages of 17 and 22. For Wainwright, these were years of self-discovery as a gay man, and the record is loaded with tales of tragic, or doomed, love, with Wainwright as modern-day Oscar Wilde, getting his heart broken by screwed-up pretty boys.

Doomed love rears its romantic head on Poses, but the album's true theme is the artificiality of identity, and the notion that you can don a new persona by putting on a "new red fetching leather jacket." Written in a red-neon-bathed room during a temporary stay at New York's infamously seedy Chelsea Hotel, Poseswas Wainwright's direct response to finding himself the object of attention from strangers, for the first time in his life.

Rufus Wainwright: Cigarettes and chocolate milk are only two of his vices.
Rufus Wainwright: Cigarettes and chocolate milk are only two of his vices.
Wainwright is the spawn of singer songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle.
Wainwright is the spawn of singer songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle.

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"I think with some of the songs, after finding this new position in society, as a songwriter, this was more about my offhand observances of the world that I'd found myself in," he says. "For instance, none of the songs are necessarily related to me personally. They're just related to the type of life that I was leading.

"It was night and day," he says of the change he experienced in the way people responded to him. "You can't really underestimate the power of having a record under your belt and having sort of a calling card, DreamWorks, behind you. People are easily seduced by bits of fame here and there."

Being a public figure might have required an adjustment, but Wainwright most certainly doesn't fall into the whiny, leave-me-alone school of pop stars. He's refreshingly open about his desire for stardom, and he has a way of saying ridiculously arrogant things about himself and getting away with it, because the whole thing is done with a laugh and a wink. It's the same way Muhammad Ali could charm people with his boasts, while Larry Holmes sounded strident whenever he tried to do it.

And Wainwright may be a drama queen (from "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk": "I'm just a little bit heiress/A little bit Irish/A little bit Tower of Pisa"), but he's nothing if not a self-aware drama queen.

"It's interesting, 'cause I always thought I was famous when I was young, even though I wasn't," he says. "I sort of acted that way. It got on a lot of people's nerves, actually.

"But in a funny way, especially when I go back to Montreal, people tend to say, 'Oh, my God, he wasn't kidding. He really did want to do this, and he really was going to make it.' And they're almost a little shocked. But I've had a lot of practice in front of the mirror, and I've stayed up long enough doing mock interviews with Letterman and Barbara Walters in bed, before masturbating. So I think I'm ready for it."

Talking about his love of opera, and the need for a good libretto, he weighs the relative importance of music and lyrics. Deciding that lyrics are tougher for him, he says, "I'd rather be a great lyricist any day over a great musician." Then, almost as if to make sure you're still listening, he adds, "But I don't have to deal with that problem, 'cause I'm both." Once again, he laughs at his own hubris.

One of the more intriguing facets of Wainwright's career is the Judy Garland-in-reverse effect he has on his female fans, who tend to swoon over him at shows, either because they like the fact that he's unattainable, they dream of making him a switch-hitter, or they empathize with all his sad songs about boys.

"I get a lot of it," Wainwright agrees, "and I wouldn't say it's weird, it's something that's absolutely unexplainable in a certain way. Well, not exactly unexplainable. I guess I'm pretty hot. But it's like a force of nature that, needless to say, I've got no control over. I think they're screaming, but I don't think it's due to anything that I'm doing purposely, so that's always bizarre.

"But gene pools are gene pools. They could always get some Rohpynols or something, drug me and mount me or something." He considers the thought and says with a laugh, "That's disgusting," before turning serious: "I've never made a distinction between straight men and gay men. In fact, I probably more often fall for straight guys as well. So I can understand it, for sure."

The only limitation on such female admiration has been the same one that's kept Wainwright in the "cult artist" category: restrictive playlists that don't know what to do with artists who can't be classified in simple genre terms. Thirty years ago, smart eccentrics like Randy Newman were able to find at least a small window for themselves on FM rock radio. These days, that window is shut tight and boarded up.

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