Lynn’s Alex Newell relishes ‘Unique’ role on ‘Glee’
Alex Newell knows it’s supposed to be more difficult than this. The road to stardom is supposed to be paved with disappointments and heartaches before you hit the big time.
“Yeah, I get reminded of it every day,” said Newell, who grew up in Lynn.
It’s not his fault, though, if he’s rocketing to the top.
Newell, 21, was one of the runners-up on the “Glee Project” in 2011, a reality TV show that won him two episodes on the hit show “Glee.” He was so good, though, that he now has a recurring role on the show as Wade “Unique” Adams, a male-to-female transgender teen who embraces her female identity through music.
The 2012 graduate of Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody was among 34,000 to submit an audition video for the Glee Project the year he was selected as one of 12 participants.
It was well before that, though, when his mother, Brenda Newell — who admitted she is “flabbergasted” by his recent success — realized his talent. It was during an outing to the Topsfield Fair when Alex, then a precocious 2-year-old, wandered away from his mother while they were watching a show.
“I went to get something out of my bag and I turned around and he was gone,” she said. “The man on the stage said, ‘Oh, look at this little fella coming up on stage. I think he wants my job.’ The man hands Alex the microphone, and I’m running, trying to get to the stage. And before I got there Alex had the mike and he’s singing a song that we sing at church, and he did not miss a note, he knew all the words. And that was our big discovery.”
The song? As if he knew the future, the gospel anthem “Victory Is Mine.”
In addition to “Glee,” Newell has a role in the newly released movie “Geography Club.” The film, which is based on the book of the same name, is “about teens in high school trying to come to terms with their sexuality and find their way in high school. It’s a really good story,” Newell said.
He can’t remember a time when he ever wanted to do anything other than what he is doing right now.
“I don’t think I can remember that far back,” he said. “I’ve always known that I wanted to sing, and I wanted to dance, and I wanted to act.”
Newell never had any formal voice lessons before landing the part on “Glee.” His early training came from the choir at Zion Baptist Church in Lynn and in high school musicals. He had been planning to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston before landing the role on “Glee,” where he plays the first transgender teen on a major TV show.
“I get to play an inspiring character who reaches millions of people every week,” Newell said. “As a black, gay male I can relate to an extent, when I remember my high school experience and coming out to friends and classmates. It wasn’t easy, so Unique hopefully inspires others in this scenario.”
While he enjoys acting, music is his biggest love. His voice recently landed him a recording contract with Atlantic Records.
“Singing is my passion, regardless of anything else that I’ve ever done,” he said. “That’s the one thing that no one can ever take away from me is my voice, and that is what I really want to do.”
Virginia Peacock-Makkers, Newell’s music instructor at Zion Baptist Church and at KIPP Academy in Lynn — which he attended before Bishop Fenwick — saw the beginnings of his future success.
“Alex was born gifted,” she said. “He had a natural gift for music. So when he applied to “Glee” and was accepted, I was not at all surprised.
“I would say it’s OK to use the word prodigy for him.”
His high school music teacher knew it was just a matter of time before fame found Newell, whose voice he compares with that of Michael Jackson.
“When he came in at the end of his eighth grade to audition for the honors vocal ensemble, even at that time, his musical maturity was way above the level of the average high school student,” said Ivan Stefanov, who now teaches at Cambridge Rindge & Latin. “I usually do not push students to make careers in music, because it’s just not for everyone. But he’s one of the few students that I have actually actively encouraged to pursue that, and I’m glad that he took it to heart and I’m glad he’s been successful with that.
“The more impressive thing was the musical interpretation that he was able to accomplish — the voice that he had was way above what I usually hear in high school, and at the time he was in middle school. He was well above the vast majority of high school students that I have heard over my 20-year career.”
Newell, who now lives in California, was back home in Lynn for Thanksgiving and has again returned for Christmas and New Year’s. Peacock-Makkers is looking forward to having him sing at church. His signature song is “Amazing Grace,” but the last time he sang for the church, he did what she called an “Alex arrangement” of “O Holy Night.”
For Brenda Newell, who has raised Alex alone since his father died when he was 6, it’s just nice to have her only child home. Like any other parent, she worries about him when he’s away. She believes he is doing what he is meant to do.
“I don’t believe that he has reached his full potential,” she said. “There’s a lot more in his grasp. My cousin used to ask him when he was little what he wanted to be when grew up, and his answer was always ‘a superstar.’ We still laugh about that today, and now when he comes home she says, ‘Look at my little cousin, the superstar.’ ’’
Alex Newell isn’t taking his success for granted.
“There are times I’ll walk into work or I’ll read a script and be like, ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “That’s something that I never thought would happen when I was back home in my room singing in front of my mirror, or at North Shore Music Theatre singing on stage thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this in a couple of years.” . . . I mean, how many people in their life think they’re going to get something and then follow through with getting signed to a major record label and get to hear ideas and have the CEO of that record label come here and sit in front of you and tell you everything that he wants and has planned and tells you that you have a one-in-a-million voice?”
But he knows he has enough family and friends to keep him grounded.
“They treat me just as they did before the show,” he said. “They just can watch me on “Glee” each week.”
Watch: Alex Newell performs “Starships” on “Glee.”