Back in March, North Andover native Phillip Picardi was preparing to launch his podcast, all set to explore his complex relationship with faith in “Unholier Than Thou” from Crooked Media (the company behind “Pod Save America”) when, well, you know what happened next.
But the magazine industry prodigy — at 29, he’s the former editor-in-chief of Out magazine, former chief content officer of Teen Vogue, and founder of Conde Nast’s first-ever LGBTQ-focused brand, Them — said that thinking about faith over the past few months has better helped him to develop the tone and spirit of the weekly podcast, which now debuts Friday.
“It just became a more honest reflection, I think, of where I’m actually at with all of it, like witnessing my partner being an emergency medicine doctor and working through a global pandemic, and the pain and the strife that that’s caused. And then, of course, witnessing the string of killings of Black Americans at the hands of the police,” Picardi said, citing the deaths of George Floyd and Black trans man Tony McDade.
“I think people are in a moment where they are looking for answers, and the answers are not super clear,” Picardi continued. “I hope that the podcast is a moment of respite, for one, and I also hope that it's just an example of hope, and why we need to keep the faith, whatever your faith looks like.”
Picardi spoke with the Globe ahead of the first episode’s release about what to expect from “Unholier Than Thou,” and about how his childhood in the Boston area will play a role in the podcast.
Q. You’ve spoken about growing up gay in a Catholic family in North Andover, and your dad being particularly devout. When you look back at that experience, what do you remember most?
A. Religion played a central role, particularly with my dad. You know, my mom was raising five kids; when it came time for Sunday church, she was like, “You take the kids for once.” So my dad would have to load us into the car, and we couldn’t play any pop music, much to my chagrin — I’ve always been a big Spice Girls, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears fan, very formative to my childhood. My dad insisted that that was the devil’s music, so we had to sit in silence or listen to Gregorian chants.
So yes, my dad was a very instrumental figure, a very large figure in my childhood. We have a really productive relationship now. I'm really grateful for the evolution that my father committed himself to. I'm particularly grateful in this moment for his commitment to change, and his commitment to self-awareness has been a really beautiful thing to witness. I know how hard it has been for him.
Interestingly enough, when my mom was pregnant with me, my dad went to a religious site called Medjugorje with the friars of his local Franciscan center. And he felt in that moment that he was being called to something greater. I had no idea of any of this until I started doing the podcast, and he told me this. He felt like he was having a crisis of faith and a life crisis right before I was born, and so he was actually going to leave his job and go on a completely different path. But of course, with another child on the way, fourth child, and then after me, he would then have a fifth child on the way, my dad didn’t end up taking that path. It’s only recently that he’s now enrolled at Merrimack College in North Andover that he’s doing a master’s in spirituality that he feels like he can finally get back to connecting to that path.
Q. Something you mentioned in the first episode was that, in order to really explore faith from your perspective, you had to go back to where it all began. How are you going to look into that more throughout the podcast?
A. I was taught in the Catholic faith — which is the institution in which I was raised, and also the schooling that I went through for elementary school and high school, I went to Central Catholic High School in Lawrence — that Catholicism believed and the pope believed that gay people were sinners. And the only way to guarantee salvation was for you to not quote-unquote “act on your homosexuality.” I actually remember my teacher in high school particularly looking at me through her lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah to announce to the class that the official teaching of the Church was that homosexuality is a sin, and I remember her eye contact and I remember the eyes of my peers on me too in that moment. I remember being 14, and I remember going to church and praying that I wouldn’t be gay. I remember thinking about suicide. I remember looking up at the crucifix in Saint Michael church in North Andover and asking Jesus why.
And I remember eventually going to CCD because my father wanted me to and that was what everyone else in my family did to get confirmed, and I remember my CCD teacher who — thank God for her, a very progressive woman — handed me this list of things that confirmation was supposed to symbolize. And one of them was about — and I’m using this word, and it’s not the exact word — an allegiance to the Church. And I remember going home to my dad and just being like, “[Expletive] this. You want me to basically go through this ceremony and willingly submit myself to a pope who thinks that I’m going to hell for something that I can’t control.”
It's hard to unlearn the shame that accompanies those years of my life. Even though I was 14 and now I'm 29, you would think I would have a better grasp on that and a better perspective on it, but I'm still really mad. I'm really disappointed in the adults in my life, and I'm disappointed in how I let people get to me. I'm disappointed in how religion was used to make young people feel ashamed of themselves. I'm ashamed of the ways in which I thought I had to be a respectable homosexual in order to gain access to heaven or gain the approval of my peers or my teachers.
I can’t just sweep that under the rug. And I don’t really necessarily want to go my entire life feeling like God hates me, or feeling like I hate God. That, to me, is the ultimate form of daddy issues, and I would really rather work that out. So maybe I’ll work that out at church, maybe I’ll work that out in therapy, maybe I’ll work it out as a podcast, but here’s hoping that I can finally learn how to let it go.
Q. I’m really sorry that you went through all of that. I do think that there are a lot of people who question their faith or their relationship with religion for whatever reason, and so it’s really interesting to hear a podcast like this from that perspective. Since you are a print and digital journalist, why do you feel like a podcast is the best way to explore this topic?
A. I don’t know why I had it in my head from the beginning: podcast. Print interviews are wonderful and I love them, and there’s something about the print interview process for me maybe because of being an editor-in-chief that I felt like I had to have the answers before I would put pen to paper on some of these things.
Whereas podcasting, I feel like it’s so wonderful because you just get to listen to people figuring it out, and there’s less pressure to be perfect. I feel like I’m learning, and I don’t know where I’m going to end up. I don’t know if I’m going to figure things out or if I’m going to start going to church or have my come-to-Jesus [moment] that I’m looking for. I might have none of those things. And I actually think that that’s a great thing about podcasting: You can tune in every week, and you can track the growth and what happens and where the conversations are headed.
Interview has been edited and condensed. E-mail Alison Goldman at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @alisongoldman.