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Patti LaBelle Explains Why Luther Vandross Never Came Out

Leave it to Andy Cohen’s disarming interview style to extract a scoop so casually. During the Watch What Happens Live after-show, Cohen asked Patti LaBelle how fellow guest Sam Smith compares to the late great Luther Vandross (not at all if you ask me, which Cohen didn’t). “There are voices in this world and once they sing it’s a stamp on everybody. Luther did that and he’s done it,” said LaBelle, which is both respectful and a little bit of a boring way to answer the question.

After discussing the origins of LaBelle’s friendship with Luther, Cohen slipped in: “Did [Vandross] struggle with the idea of coming out publicly? Was that something that you talked about at all?”

“We talked about it,” said LaBelle. “Basically, he did not want his mother to be...although she might have known, but he wasn’t going to come out and say this to the world. And he had a lot of lady fans and he told me he just didn’t want to upset the world.”

Vandross was long rumored to be gay, though he never said as much—in interviews, he’d generally either roll with a line of questioning that assumed he was straight or refuse to answer direct questions about his sexuality. I’ve never heard someone so close to him effectively confirm it (Bruce Vilanch and Michael Musto discussed it not long after his 2005 death). If LaBelle’s assessment is correct, it’s unfortunate that Vandross declined to share who he was for the sake of his audience’s comfort, though given the state of queer acceptance back then, it’s not exactly surprising. Sounds like a hard life, though it didn’t impede Vandross’s art—perhaps it made it even more aching. I’m glad Patti LaBelle, though, filled in some details of Luther Vandross’s humanity. That’s what a good friend does.

LaBelle discusses Vandross at the end of the clip below. Also featured is Smith’s take on the recent New York Times Magazine profile of his tear ducts. He loved it, of course. Cohen asked him about the criticism it received, attributing it to Dan Savage (though I think Cohen meant Michael Cunningham). “I think he felt that they portrayed you as an overemotional ninny a little bit,” said Cohen. “Well I am,” said Smith. Touché.

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