Home Pride The Importance of Queer Representation: Queer Youth in Spanish Singing

The Importance of Queer Representation: Queer Youth in Spanish Singing

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Article by: Andrea Ariza

This is not the first time I talk about Operación Triunfo (OT) for No Stunts Magazine.

In 2017, the singing competition (with a heavy reality show component) forbade contestants Agoney and Raoul, in a relationship at the time, to kiss in front of the cameras. They exploited their relationship, but they did not want them to expressly confirm it, and at the end of their performance together, the two singers went and kissed in prime time.

Whether the blame was on the TV show or on the Spanish Public TV Channel it was being broadcasted from, whether the OT 2023 edition was a carefully planned arc of redemption or it comes from the heart, the truth is, this time around, I couldn’t care less. The singing competition, now owned by Prime Video, hosted sixteen new contestants last November 2023, and for the first time ever, it represented with pride what Hollywood and the global entertainment industry is so desperate to hide: out of the sixteen theatre kids who grew up to be aspiring singers, only six turned out to be straight.

OT, however, went further than just casting openly queer, young singers in the making and letting them be. The Spanish equivalent to the French Stars Academy did an active job of inclusivity and sensitization, starting by bringing Spanish LGBTQ activist Daniel Valero for a talk. In Daniel’s own words, the contestants knew almost more on queer history than him; most of them intervened in the talk with evident enthusiasm and showed Gen Z’s true spirit.

Inclusivity can also come from smaller gestures, and in OT’s case, it should not go unnoticed how often the middle-aged, academy director, Noemí Galera, would casually use the gender-neutral Spanish terminations her generation despises or the way both the contestants and their stylists didn’t hesitate to break gender norms in the weekly shows where contestants were expected to prove themselves. From makeup and suits with skirts for men to more masculine outfits for the female contestants who might prefer them… We’ve seen it all!

The true merit, however, is on the contestants themselves. It is not too often that you meet straight men like Lucas Curotto, who has let his toxic masculinity aside and has no need to prove how manly he is or to compete for the imaginary Manliest Man award. On the contrary, Lucas is a declared One Direction fan. He can’t stop singing the band’s hits and did not surrender until they assigned him the closest to a 1D song they could find: One Way Or Another. Then, after he became one out of six finalists, he went on to sing Zayn’s Pillowtalk.

On the topic, the young Uruguayan told their acting professor (trans actress, screenwriter and film director Abril Zamora) he had been teased for his love for One Direction in high school. His classmates did not understand Lucas wanted to be part of the band, since 1D was marketed for young girls.

At fourteen, he attended a 1D concert and his admiration has lasted since then: he is a huge Zayn and Harry fan and, because of the lack of information about the outside world, had to deal with his fellow contestants teasing him

about the band reuniting. (Lucas might feel familiar to you if you follow the Instagram account Zquad or the Twitter account Zayn Malik Daily, both of whom did not hesitate to show their support.)

Now, moving on to the queer contestants, one thing that has made me extremely happy is the diverse profiles among those identifying as lesbian. We have had contestants like Salma, who is more masculine and had no issues with the TV show stylists whatsoever (according to her); Chiara, a lipstick lesbian who has openly talked about the struggles accepting herself as a teen, since she thought she was not masculine and thus, could simply not be a lesbian; and Bea, a plus-size woman with an amazing voice who has served as an inspiration for young girls all over the country and would end up being the semifinalist.


The combination of Chiara—with her love for Santana and Brittany (of Glee), her criticism of Bridgerton for being “too straight,” the sapphic songs she writes and her vindication of the word “lesbian” in a world where it is still common to use euphemisms—Salma and her first single, the sapphic tune “La mirá” and Bea, who wrote the now epic saying “Go, lesbians, go!” in a piece of paper and showed it to the cameras, even getting contestants to form a queue and dance to the chant, made OT2023 unforgettable.

But it does not end here for sapphics. Violeta and Ruslana, both bisexual, were not shy to join the team. Violeta used to talk about her girlfriend all the time and, in Daniel Valero’s talk, the reporter showed her journalism skills and how knowledgeable and informed she was about the LGBT community. Both her and male contestants like Martin expressed they had experienced guilt in the past for passing as straight, since they felt they “were not fighting” or doing enough.

Violeta in particular joined Chiara for a classic, sapphic anthem: I Kissed A Girl by Katy Perry. The girls sealed their performance with a kiss and just like two weeks prior, when she performed Padam Padam with Denna, she stressed how much she cared about normalising girls having other girls as love interests. On February, she released her first single, El x venir, a sapphic tune openly dedicated to a female muse with carefully planned references to the leftist and gay poet Federico García Lorca’s Romancero Gitano. Lorca was murdered by fascists at the beginning of the civil war for his political ideology and sexuality and his origins lay in the same place Violeta’s and mine do: the beautiful, Andalusian region of Granada.

On the following day, a tweet went viral: “I just got home and my twelve-year-old sister has told my parents she is a lesbian,” it said. “She was afraid to come out, but yesterday in the show Chiara and Violeta kissed and they clapped. That gave her the confidence she needed. My brave, little sister. Thank you, OT.”

Similarly, one of the posts of the Instagram update account OTActualidad had a touching comment from a grandmother who described how much her granddaughter loved Chiara, her cheery personality, the fact that she does somersaults unexpectedly and yes, how she would talk about liking girls with a refreshing spontaneity. “Two weeks ago,” the comment said, “she sat by my side and, when she found the courage, she told me ‘grandma, I am like Chiara, I too like girls.’”

Representation is not for shit and giggles, it’s not to take away protagonism from the straights, to turn everyone queer or whatever extremists yell in their hateful, political campaigns, but so that kids grow up knowing there is nothing wrong with them or with their friends, and that kiss between two young women being televised made all the different for someone out there. Needless to say, when Violeta, the first of the two to leave the competition, went back to her small town in Granada and a fan showed her the tweet about I Kissed A Girl, according to social media, she was especially touched.

Of course, Chiara too left the contest eventually (sooner than I hoped, the week before the semifinal) and, like all contestants in her situation, gave some interviews. In one of these, the interviewer asked her about younger, queer girls seeing her as a referent and what she would say to them if she could. To this, the half Balearic – half English nineteen-year-old—accepted in the same music university a young, still unknown Rosalía graduated from with her album El mal querer as final project—replied “I’d tell them to enjoy life, we are who we are.”

Moving on to the boys, gay contestant Álvaro Mayo was, without a doubt, one of the most iconic singers to ever set foot in the academy.

From his defiance and humour calling himself “the twink of Spain” to his gender-crossing outfits and his extensive knowledge of queer history. 

Every minute Álvaro spent in that academy was a minute well-spent, defying the public’s conventions and beliefs, opening young people’s minds and showing young boys that it’s okay to be different, it’s even a good thing (after all, look how cool Álvaro is, who on earth would not want to be like him?!).

In week 8 (concert number 7), Álvaro performed Please Don’t Go by KC and the Sunshine Band, and introduced the public to vogueing, an addiction he proposed on his own accord. Vogueing, once introduced by African-American and Latino drag queens in the dance battles celebrated in the New York Harlem ballroom scenes from the 60s and through 80s, was part of a space free of judgement where queer people could be themselves at a time when doing so on the outside had severe consequences. And that week, Cris Regattero, one of the judges, thanked Álvaro precisely for adding vogueing to the performance and vindicating queer culture and history.

Other contestants like Cris and Paul Thin also expressed their queerness, and although they did not clarify their label, it became clear they were attracted to multiple genders. With Cris’ attempt to make his last song gender-neutral, the pride flag hanging from Paul’s suitcase, their outfits and makeup for the shows, always defying gender norms, Paul’s thoughtful interventions in the LGBT talk and how him and Álvaro Mayo would joke with fans shipping them without any type of awkwardness even though all they had was a close friendship… The always invisible bisexual and pansexual men had representation in the contest.

Finally, Martin Urrutia and Juanjo Bona, the last queer contestants that shall be pictured in this article, have in common with Cris and Paul the fact that they did not label themselves, but also expressed attraction to multiple genders (by saying they had liked other female contestants during the casting process). Up until that point, people had assumed both of them to be gay. Funnily enough, Martin, an eighteen-year-old Basque who dreams of becoming an actor, sings and dances like a charm and describes himself as a bohemian at heart, was first shipped with Álvaro Mayo.

You know how it works, people think two contestants fit together and suddenly, they are a ship (Violeta and Chiara also had their own ship called “Kivi,” once upon a time). However, this time fans quickly realised they were in the wrong: Martin was very evidently flirting with someone, and that person was not Álvaro, but Juanjo. The twenty-year-old from Zaragoza was presumed to come from a more traditional family—as soon as viewers realised he was not out, they unfairly assumed his loved-ones to be close-minded and unhealthily religious.

There was a striking difference between ships like that of Álvaro and Paul or Violeta and Chiara and what was soon baptised “Juantin,” and it was so very obvious fans felt ashamed of ever thinking otherwise: the latest was (and still is) undeniably real. In an academy with cameras in every corner except for the bedroom and toilets, with a twelve hours live video you can access on YouTube, we saw two young boys struggle similarly to Agoney and Raoul. One of them yearned to love openly and the other understandably refused his affections.

This all lasted until an audio of a private talk between Juanjo, Salma, Álvaro and Bea was leaked: in it, Juanjo expressed his worries about his relationship with Martin becoming public and how his loved-ones would react. That day, judgemental viewers, who had cancelled his family without proof, were surprised to find Juanjo’s mum commenting, on the Instagram post sharing the video, “good for you! My son, I just want you to be happy, and I love you no matter what!”

By concert number 4, Martin and Juanjo had a song together, a romantic duo performing God Only Knows by The Beach Boys while pretending they were in the cinema, having their first date, and by Christmas, as they would later confirm, they had got together. They began being more open, and they became the main couple of the edition (OT has always had a straight couple they used for PR, from David Bisbal and the now interviewer, Chenoa, in OT1, to Amaia and Alfred in OT2017, who represented Spain in Eurovision 2018 with a romantic song, and Flavio and Samantha in OT2020).

By January, the young couple was no longer hiding. Despite the show censoring a kiss here and there at the beginning (supposedly to protect their privacy, something by February stopped making any sense, since they were kissing all the time), we saw their love being aired live, public signs of affection that were received with excitement by the vastly queer audience.

Their relationship has not only served as representation for young, queer boys, but also, thanks to their extensive communication and openness about their feelings, as a prime example of how a healthy relationship should be,

which is something we are lacking when it comes to contemporary love stories between young adults.

A very emotional moment arrived when Raoul visited the academy. He had an afternoon snack with the 2023 contestants and, at one point, looked at Juanjo in the eyes and said “I love how you guys live on your own terms, because I did not allow myself to do the same.” Raoul has given multiple interviews about what a hard time he had in OT, with the acting professors that year pushing him and Agoney for their performance together and his family not being aware of his sexuality before the contest started. While Agoney wished to be more open and was the one to later confess they were not allowed to kiss, Raoul has insisted he was not ready to come out, and the situation forced him to.

Even if homophobia always finds a way, in this case, with unfair criticism that Juanjo and Martin only reached this far in the contest for their relationship—which has never been said of straight ships and real-life couples formed in OT and is a bold thing to affirm considering Juanjo’s lack of criticism from the jury, his powerful voice and flawless trajectory; and Martin pulling off impressive performances like Alors On Danse, where he did pole dance, Footloose and Murder On The Dance Floor—their pure love has even moved other contestants and people abroad.

They had, for example, contestants calling them “lovebirds” because of their inability to be apart (Lucas even gifted them a song he wrote inspired in their relationship, called by that very name), and many fans from Italy, the US, France, Sweden and Saudi Arabia interacted and sent videos to the TV show showing their support. They were also featured in Spanish newspapers, where they were called the real-life Spanish Hearstopper, and in International media. Moreover, TikTok attracted viewers from all over the world, queer men and women who were posting videos in English with captions such as “I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m only here for Juantin anyway”—not to mention celebrities such as the Spanish singer Pablo Alvorán and the actor from Glee Kevin McHale interacting with clips of them. Personally, I can’t stop thinking about the girl from Saudi Arabia, who lives in a country where being queer is still persecuted, did not speak a word of Spanish, and yet she could not stop watching.

Fans have given them bracelets with pet names they use for each other, they have received gifts (a couple of lovebirds, for example) and, up until the final last 19th February, were completely unaware of the ugly side, the hate and rampant homophobia all over the internet, sometimes from gay men who preferred Álvaro Mayo and felt these two young adults were stealing attention from him. Of course, these contestants are so much more than their relationship and, no matter what anyone says, people may have got to know them as the two queer boys who were brave and supported enough to love each other before thousands of eyes, but they will either stick around for their music and raw talent or quietly walk away.

Spanish fans compared the two contestants to younger Harry and Louis all the time, but the truth is Juantin has little to do with the boys who, in 2010, were not allowed to love each other in public, and we ought to be thankful for that. No, Martin and Juanjo represent a more innocent and hopeful scenario, the two opposite sides of a coin: on one hand, things are getting better, OT and their future careers have and will continue showing it is no longer impossible (only significantly harder) to be openly queer and successful and PR can work just fine with same-sex couples. On the other hand, if you have been following the competition and are reading this, you and I both know Martin and Juanjo’s talent and character would have never been questioned were they not a same-sex couple.

Martin specifically did something, in the final while all of their families sat in the stands and millions of people watched at home, that, for me, went beyond the cute moments Juanjo and him had given us from the academy: he publicly referred to Juanjo as the person he was in love with. When the same happened with a straight couple and Alfred professed his love to Amaia in 2017 it was already a big enough event, but the fact that an eighteen-year-old was so open with his feelings in arguably the most public situation possible and declared his love for another boy during the final of the most successful singing TV show of Spain in front of a young audience is remarkable to say the least.

Apart from LGBT sensitization, contestants also made public their experiences dealing with bullying (in Paul’s case) and TDHA (Lucas and Chiara) when the competition gave them informative talks on the topic. There were three black contestants as well (Cris, Suzette, and Omar) and, over all, its diverse cast created a precedent in this type of reality singing competition.

Last 19th February, the show came to an end and the public crowned Naiara winner. The twenty-six-year-old orchestra singer from Zaragoza, who has been singing to help her family make ends meet since she was a teenager and proudly reclaimed the title of chavette on herself, won a monetary prize of 100,000 euros, followed on the ranking by Paul Thin, Ruslana, Juanjo, Lucas and Martin. From April on, the sixteen contestants are going on tour, performing in the Palau San Jordi and the Wizink Centre, the same venues which hosted Harry and Louis in the past two years, apart from some other destinations spread all over the country.

We shall wait and see who makes it to the top of the music industry and who finds success in living by doing what they love rather than based on numbers. Regardless of what happens, one thing is for sure: a wave of representation is coming to the Spanish entertainment industry.

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