In his debut video, “Girly,” singer John Duff channels the likes of Mariah Carey, Madonna and Britney Spears, among other era-defining pop icons. In doing so, the 28-year-old says he hopes to fill the “fun” void he feels is missing from the music scene today.
Duff, who hails from Baltimore, teamed up with choreographer Dexter Mayfield to create “Girly.” As seen in the newly released behind-the-scenes clip below, they worked together to re-create the vibe of Carey’s 1999 “Heartbreaker” video, with cheeky references to hits by Madonna and Spears, as well as Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé, throughout. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” veterans Mariah Balenciaga, Willam Belli and Bianca del Rio loved the concept, too, and signed on to play Duff’s sassy entourage.
Duff, who has a background in musical theater, came up with the idea for “Girly” after realizing that producing his own music wouldn’t require him to perform “in a polite, heteronormative manner.”
“I was told so many times that being myself wasn’t going to work [and that] I should play into a more masculine, generic vibe,” he told HuffPost. “I’m not going to be intimidated into lying about who I am. I’m gay as hell and I love it.”
Still, Duff’s faced a few setbacks along the way, including a failed 2011 audition for “The X Factor” in which he reportedly presented himself as “a male Katy Perry” ― only to be dismissed as “strange.”
That “bizarre” experience, he explained, turned out to be a lesson in “perseverance [and] self-worth.”
“I didn’t know how to fight for what I believed in,” he said. “I know how to do that now. Every wrong turn supports the right one, and now I know how to make the right ones.”
By independent artist standards, “Girly” is a hit. As of Wednesday, the video had been viewed more than 453,000 times since its Aug. 24 debut on Out magazine’s website.
But Duff’s approach is not to everyone’s taste. In an Aug. 28 article that appeared in Grindr’s digital publication, INTO, journalist Mathew Rodriguez wrote that “Girly” portrayed an “ephemeral” embrace of femininity by a conventionally attractive man.
Seattle Gay Scene writer Michael Strangeways expressed similar thoughts in a blog post that week, arguing that the video’s message felt “odd” coming from a “cute yet quite masculine, gym-toned” gay “hottie.”
Duff, however, said he feels “no shame” in embracing his feminine side, and believes his critics may be missing the point.
“I don’t take myself that seriously,” he said. “I’m not afraid to look stupid or ugly ― I kind of like it. Fluidity is ideal [and] rigid things break easily. I’m not going to dumb myself down to help someone else feel comfortable.”
Looking ahead, Duff says he hopes to parlay the buzz “Girly” has received into a “fearless” full-length album, much of which he’s already written and recorded. As for his next video, he’s planning an homage to a different pop culture staple: ’90s romantic comedies.
The ultimate aim, he said, of his music, videos and performances is to “help [others] feel like they aren’t alone” while serving up plenty of levity along the way, too.
“Sonically, visually ― however you want to view it ― I’m having fun. I don’t see that in most music out today, so that’s where I stand out,” he said. “It’s fun to be LGBTQ and it’s brave to explore all facets of gender and identity. I’m proud of who I am, and I am proud of this community.”