Darin Zanyar on coming out as gay: 'There is no perfect moment, but a world of love awaits you'

Exclusive: "I guess dating's going to be much easier now!" says Sweden's king of pop, as he talks working with Robyn and meeting Beyonce


Words by Jamie Tabberer; pictures by Koury Angelo

Kurdish-Swedish pop star Darin Zanyar shot to fame at 16 on the Swedish version of Pop Idol in 2004 - but it would be almost exactly another 16 years until he felt ready to come out publicly as gay.

"Every coming out story is different," the now-33-year-old tells Attitude in his first interview since sharing his sexuality with fans last August.

"My story - even without coming out, it was hard growing up the way I did," the star explains via Zoom from his apartment in Stockholm. "I could barely go out in the first years after finding fame because it was so hysterical on the streets. I didn’t expect to be so loved and hated at the same time. It was hard to take in. And the hate made me insecure about being gay."

A decade and a half (and seven Swedish number one albums) later, Darin came out in fabulous - and fabulously understated - style, in a seaside Instagram picture and the accompanying caption: "Everyone in the world should be able to be proud and accepted for who they are. I know how difficult it can be. Took me a while, but I am proud to be gay."

"There is probably no perfect moment to come out," admits the star today. "But please know that you can draw strength from others. There is a whole world of love waiting for you."

Here, Darin talks about dating as a public figure, his new single 'Can't Stay Away' and the time he received a phonecall from Swedish pop royalty - otherwise known as ABBA's Agnetha Fältskog...

Hi Darin! How was lockdown?

Sweden didn’t have lockdowns – of course, we were affected. Especially with tours. I couldn’t go on tour, which sucked. But if I compare it to my friends in Europe, we were freer. Then I moved to Spain last October. I have a lot of good friends there, and the weather and nature - it’s not as dark or cold as Sweden.

What can you tell us about the new song?

It’s the first I ever wrote on Zoom. I wrote it with Jamie Hartman, one of my favourite writers ever. He was in LA, I was in Spain. It was the first one we wrote. It’s about the pandemic – of meeting someone and you’re like, what do I do now?

Was it inspired by someone specific?

It might be!

You’re focusing on the US and the UK this year – how come?

I released a lot of albums in English a long time ago. Then Swedish, for the Swedish market. But I’ve never released my music in the US or UK. But the time is right.

How would you sum up your music and vibe?

My new stuff is quite different. Happy, up-tempo, you can dance to it. I want to make people happy and dance. That’s how I feel myself.

You came out last August – what was the reaction like?

I didn’t know how people would react, especially at home. But I felt, ‘if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.’ And I’d wanted to do it for so many months. When I woke up that morning, I didn’t know I was going to come out! I decided a few hours later. I wrote that text, it felt good, I talked about it with my closest friends. My sister was on the phone: ‘Come on, just do it!’

I pressed the button and… of course I expected it to become a thing, but not for it to be covered that much. Even here in Sweden, I didn’t expect it to become the thing it did or mean as much as it did to so many people. It touched me. There was so much love.

Was there any negative reaction?

Of course, with my background, having Kurdish origins. But then, I don’t understand the Arabic letters, which was good for me! It’s been both positive and negative from there. But I expected that. However, I didn’t expect so much love from people from there, including the older people here in Sweden who were originally from there.

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In your Insta, you said you know how “difficult” it can be to accept your sexuality. Also, you were a public figure for so many years before coming out publicly. Can you talk me through your journey, for the sake of fans struggling with theirs?

When I had my career breakthrough, it was different, it wasn’t as accepted to be gay. The media gave me quite a harsh time for that, constantly speculating about my sexuality and other things as well. Then, the last couple of years, I remember reading the book The Velvet Rage and it made a big impact on my life. I also watched a documentary about the Stonewall Riots – all the people who fought for us - which moved me. I was like: ‘What am I doing? Why am I hiding this? Especially with where I am, can I make a difference, even with one person?'

Has life changed since?

A lot! For the first month, I hid in Spain. The press was writing a lot about it and I didn’t want to go back to Stockholm. Because it was overwhelming. The biggest process started afterwards – it’s affected my artistry and creativity; it doesn’t limit me so much.

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Was it difficult dating? And is that easier now?

Of course. Even walking around with someone. It was like coming out every time. I was like ‘why not come out to everyone?’ But I’ve been lucky and met some incredible people throughout the years. But it’s been really difficult – not that I’ve dated that much, to be honest! But I guess it’s going to be much easier now!

Have any LGBTQ celebrities been in touch since you came out?

Yes. Sam Smith congratulated me, which was sweet of them. Anderson Cooper reached out. They’re both super nice.

Regarding your Kurdish roots – we were all really shocked by the story this year about the non-binary gay man Ali Fazel Monfared being allegedly beheaded by members of his family in Iran. Did that affect you a lot?

Of course. It just proves it’s not accepted over there. Here in Sweden, and in the UK, it’s so open - some people don’t even need to put a label on it. They question me and why I didn’t come out. They don’t understand, that’s what it looks like in some parts of the world. It’s sad, in reality we have a long way to go. It touched me, especially as it’s not that far from where I’m originally from.

How do you feel about visiting Iran and other parts of the Middle East now you’re out?

I guess I wouldn’t let it stop me. My parents are from both parts of Kurdistan, both Iran and Iraq. If they were to ask me to go back for a concert? Of course, I’ve thought about it, but at the end of the day, I’m not going to let that stop me. Like I said, there are so many who are happy for me over there. It’s important not to forget there are two sides to it.

Are you religious yourself?

I’m not - I’m spiritual, but not religious. I’m curious.

Is there an issue affecting LGBTQs in 2021 that’s closest to your heart?

Definitely violence and discrimination against trans people. I hope we can all learn to accept people for who they are. I’ve written about human rights and equality in songs. It’s always affected me.

What’s your message to someone struggling to come out?

I’ll say what my best friends said to me. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s actually just making you even more beautiful. You’re great just the way you are. The people that matter will love you just the way you are.

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What’s your advice to someone facing religious and/or cultural pressures from family and friends?

Different cultures see things in different ways. Growing up with two cultures, I’ve always known [there is more than one side to things]. For me, what helped was getting out of my own head and reading more about different LGBTQ life stories and watching documentaries on queer culture, both past and present.

Was it difficult to reconcile your gay identity as a teen, when you were a heartthrob figure to so many girls?

I guess at the time I didn’t think about it that way. Of course, it would’ve affected the audience if I did come out. But I accepted myself much earlier than I came out. I did come out to my closest friends years before the public. But in recent years my audience has changed. They’ve grown up. It hasn’t affected me now the way it would have.

What’s Robyn like? Are you still in touch?

We’ve never hung out like that, but we’ve worked together a few times. She’s as cool as she seems. I remember at the beginning she was giving me a lot of advice as I was very young, and so was she. She was a little bit protective. It was nice of her to care. She also wrote my first single!

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I assume all Swedish pop stars know ABBA…

You guessed right! [Laughs] No, I don’t know all of them. But Agnetha actually called me when I was recording my last album. I was recording in their old studio and the owner came out of her office and said: ‘Hey, my friend wants to talk to you…’ I thought it was a fan. I was like ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ ‘Agnetha Faltskog.’

She was like ‘I heard you were recording in our studio! I’m looking forward to your new music and hope we meet someday!’ I haven’t met her yet. I saw Bjorn and Benny once at Universal to say hi to.

When were you most starstruck?

When I met Beyonce in Stockholm at the Globe right before her concert. I didn’t expect that. But there’s something about her. I was 17 and had braces! I was standing there, shaking her hand, smiling. She was like, ‘Oh you’re so cute!’ I said: ‘Thanks, you too!’

Darin's new single 'Can’t Stay Away’ is out now.

The Attitude July issue is out now.

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