D’Haven is a modest event space and lounge in Woodside, Queens, just across the street from an auto body shop and about a 10-minute walk away from a street that was recently renamed “Little Manila.” Jake Zyrus, the world-conquering Filipino singer who, in 2010, became the first solo Asian artist to land a Top 10 album on the Billboard charts, is here to perform at a Philippine independence day celebration where he’s the star attraction, on a bill that includes singers from The Voice and The X-Factor.
Still, in the holding area, Zyrus tells me he’s nervous. “Whether you sing in front of five, 10 or 10,000 people, it’s the same feeling,” he says. “When it’s really bad, I get anxiety and I feel it here,” pointing to his chest.
In 2008, at just 16 years old, Zyrus brought a crowd of 18,000 to its feet as the special guest at a Celine Dion concert in Madison Square Garden. Singing the superstar’s 1996 hit “Because You Loved Me,” the teenager exhibited beyond-his-years composure and a VH1 Divas Live-ready vocal range as Dion looked on with pride, raising her hands in disbelief. Reviewing the concert, The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica praised the teenager’s “impressive voice,” writing that “[Zyrus] explored the song’s heretofore unheard rougher edges, with ample gesticulations and melisma.”
Watching the performance on YouTube in 2022—the unofficial video has more than 41 million views—the sheer impact of it can still knock you out, a pint-sized lifetime’s worth of singing competitions, survival, and raw talent culminating in a triumphant moment beside one of the world’s greatest vocalists.
But that was in a past life and under a different name. In 2017, the singer came out as a trans man, making the announcement on Twitter by simply saying, “My first tweet as Jake. Overwhelmed. Saw all your love [and] comments and I’m so happy. Finally.” Before that, Zyrus had come out as a lesbian in 2013, though he later said that his soul is male.
“Growing up, I didn’t know about transgender people or what it meant to be trans,” he tells me now. “But I always knew deep in my heart that I was born in the wrong body.” When Jake was 20 years old, a friend told him about the transition journey of Chaz Bono, the child of pop legends Cher and Sonny Bono. After doing his own research, Zyrus realized that he might be trans too.
“When I was performing [Celine Dion songs], behind closed doors I would imagine myself singing Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Justin Bieber,” he says. “I would sing that in my bathroom.” Today, he finds himself drawn to the music of Frank Ocean and Zayn Malik.
Fourteen years ago, when Zyrus went to New York to sing at Madison Square Garden, he was riding a wave that had started with performances on the Korean talent show Star King, led to high-profile appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show—where the talk show host called him “the world’s most talented [kid]”—and culminated with a buzzy role on Glee and the Top 10 debut of his album Charice.
Today’s show—in a small ballroom in the middle of Queens—is more intimate. One could choose to see that as a step backward for Zyrus, from an 18,000-capacity arena to an events space with a little over 100 guests. But this is just part of the process of reintroducing yourself.
And whatever nerves Zyrus felt backstage, he’s able to summon the swagger of a pop star as soon as the spotlight hits him. He starts his set by walking through the crowd, breezing through a cover of Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic.” He follows it up with a cover of the Filipino ballad “Hatdog” by Zack Tabuldo and James Reid, blowing the audience away with his falsetto.
“Jake worked past being [a child prodigy] very early in life,” says music producer David Foster, the man behind pop classics like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart.” “[He was] just a killer by age 15… The novelty thing wore off and the great singer just stood there and delivered night after night after night.”
Foster mentored Zyrus in the late 2000s and toured with him for a few years. “The musical knowledge has not gone anywhere,” he says “Whatever Charice could do, Jake can do, it’s just six tones lower—certainly in the range of all the great guy singers.”
But virtuoso singing is one thing—and in today’s pop world, hardly essential—and adult success is another. Today, Zyrus finds himself in a position that isn’t unlike that of countless other child prodigies: old enough for the shock of your talent to be taken for granted, but young enough for the baggage of the past to be the biggest stumbling block to your future.
In 2008, when Zyrus appeared on Oprah for the first time and delivered an impassioned cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” that brought the studio audience to its feet, a stunned Winfrey asked, “Who are you?”
Zyrus told Oprah his story: about surviving domestic abuse and childhood poverty. He relayed the story of being three years old and watching his father choke his mother and point a gun to her head. “I’m singing for my mother,” he said, “to help her because I wasn’t able to help her then.” Zyrus didn’t say it then but he had also survived sexual assault, a revelation he would make in I Am Jake, his 2018 memoir.
As the waves of applause reached him after singing “I Have Nothing,” the child cried, telling Winfrey that it was a dream come true. “I’m just proud of myself,” he told her through tears, and it seemed like he meant survival, not just fame.
There’s a misconception that people love to watch singing competitions because they discover stars—that’s partly true but mostly wrong. For a lot of viewers, the appeal of these shows, from Star Search to The Voice, is the promise of recognition—not necessarily in the way of fame but in the way of being perceived completely, in the way of being seen. This is why people still watch American Idol, even if it hasn’t given us a Kelly Clarkson in years, and why people still watch The Voice, despite the fact that they’ve never furnished a mainstream star.
And it’s what made people root for 16-year-old Jake Zyrus on Oprah, the promise that one might overcome a mercilessly punishing life, that it might even prepare you for your moment.
In 2009, Zyrus was introduced to Whitney Houston, the woman he had studied for so long, by Foster. Before he could say anything, Houston said, “I know who you are. You sing my songs better than me.” She hugged the teenager and Zyrus burst into tears.
Houston was on the promo tour for her final studio album, I Look To You, when they met. “I remember watching her and thinking, it’s like looking in the mirror,” says Zyrus. “Looking at her body language, I knew that she was having anxiety, she was shaking. And in my head, it’s like, you’re fucking Whitney Houston, you know? That humbled me so much.”
In 2017, while undergoing top surgery, Zyrus unconsciously announced himself with a Lady Gaga song. Sedated with anaesthesia, he was told that he started singing the lyrics to “Born This Way,” Gaga’s queer call to arms. “‘I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes, I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way…’ I literally don’t remember it but they said I started singing it,” he says, laughing. “That’s going to be a core memory for me.”
The years after his breakthrough saw Zyrus dealing with personal tragedy. His estranged father was murdered in October 2011. At the same time, his relationship with his mother was beginning to crumble. Beyond that, he was also finding himself, coming out as a lesbian in 2013 before eventually coming out as a trans man in 2017.
Grappling with one’s identity and sexuality is tough, but all the more when you’re growing up in the public eye. Before coming out, Zyrus attempted to take his own life three times.
After the third attempt, while on tour in Singapore with David Foster, he woke up to find his mentor by his side. Foster was worried and told him that he didn’t have to perform that evening. But Zyrus insisted and found that, despite never telling his mentor what was on his mind, he seemed to understand.
“He knew that I was having a hard time,” Zyrus has said in interviews. “I remember, just a small gesture from him, telling me, ‘You know what? For tonight, you don’t have to wear a dress.” That was the first time he was able to present himself in the way he wanted.
“Ignorantly, it never occurred to me before,” Foster says now. “We never could figure out why Jake wasn’t comfortable in dresses… It must be torture to be in the wrong body.”
“I’m still trying to survive today,” Zyrus tells me. “I think with everything that happened to me, childhood trauma and all that, sometimes it really still gets to my head.” Zyrus is in therapy but admits that years of being in the closet has made it difficult for him to open up. “[For a lot of queer people,] it becomes a part of your life to hide. Sometimes, even your feelings get dragged into the closet because they were with you all along—how you’re really feeling, your freedom, everything.”
It’s easy to forget that in a pre-Bruno Mars world, Jake Zyrus was the great Filipino hope for pop superstardom. And by transitioning and relinquishing that superhuman vocal range, he abdicated from a role he worked toward despite never fully understanding the cost.
“The beginning of my transition, I couldn’t even do falsettos, because my voice was adjusting,” Zyrus says. “I was so nervous because as a singer, when you’re hoarse or whatever, that’s your friend right there.” But as he’s grown comfortable with his new range, Zyrus has gotten his confidence back. “I get to play around with my voice again.”
He’s rediscovering dance, too. “As Charice, I used to dance—I loved doing that and for a while I got insecure because I wasn’t comfortable in my own body,” he says. “I’m trying to build back my pop side.”
“If I’m being honest, it does feel like I’m home when I’m in America,” Zyrus tells me. “It’s not perfect—I still experience shitty moments with people here—but I still feel more accepted, you know? And I guess that’s the sad part because the Philippines will always be my home.”
He pauses. “But we can’t deny that most Filipinos just tolerate, you know what I’m saying? Tolerate rather than accept.”
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful and compare, because there is progress too,” he continues. “But we have to open our eyes. There’s still so much discrimination… Sometimes, it really makes you think about how we’re moving forward but at the same time, we’re not really moving.”
A 2019 Pew Research study found that 73 percent of all Filipinos think “homosexuality should be accepted by society,” higher than Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and India. But while the Philippines is a nation known for its embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s also the same country that let a U.S. Marine who killed a transgender Filipino woman fly back to America as a free man. In the same way, the country’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression Equality Bill, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, has been pending a second reading in the senate since 2020.
“It is oftentimes said that the Philippines is very accepting of the LGBTQ+ community,” says Congresswoman Geraldine Roman, the first transgender politician elected in the Philippines and one of the Bill’s champions. “But I believe that more than being accepting, it is merely tolerant. It allows LGBTQ+ people to exist but does not want to recognize their existence officially and legally in the law, as well as their inherent rights as Filipino citizens and human beings.”
And it’s true that back home, to a lot of people, Zyrus has gone from golden child to pop culture curio, and that the conversation has moved on from his music. But he’s also become a hero—at least to young people—and it’s not hard to see him being celebrated by history as a pioneer.
“I get messages saying that because of me, they found the courage to come out,” he says. “Even my situation with my family, the abuse—I was sexually molested when I was a kid—I get messages saying that they also had those experiences. Those messages become my inspiration… It makes me feel really proud of them and it makes me feel really humbled that this is my purpose.”
“Someday when I have my kids and all, I can’t wait to tell them that this was my journey,” he says. “Like, ‘This is what happened.’ That will be my biggest achievement in life.”
Zyrus currently resides in California and is plotting a U.S. tour. “I’m very excited because it’ll feel like the first time, being onstage as who I am. It’s a different feeling.”
“I just want to sing for people,” he continues. “My dream is that someday, they’ll say, yeah, the music is still there. Whether it’s Charice or Jake Zyrus, I’m a singer.”
Like other teen stars who’ve had to rebuild as adults, Zyrus seems to understand that the cards are stacked against him but that he’s still got enough talent and enough time to build something he can be proud of.
“God has given me this,” he laughs, pointing at his perennial baby face. “I’m 30 but I still look 12. I’d like to take advantage of that.”
The devoted, at least, are listening. Angela, a fan of over 10 years, took a three-and-a-half bus from Rhode Island in order to watch him sing two songs at D’Haven.
“I’ve been with him through it all, through the transition, through the ups and downs,” says Angela, who’s seen Zyrus perform everywhere from Hawaii to Los Angeles. “I used to be a Chaster,” she says, referring to the name for Charice fans. “Now I’m a Jakester.”
Grooming by Cheesa Laureta