Jake Shears, of Scissor Sisters, Stages His Own Comeback

Jake Shears, formerly of the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters, in his Broadway dressing room. He stars in the musical “Kinky Boots.”

“This is so weird,” Jake Shears said one afternoon in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. He was standing on South First Street, in a leather jacket and a backpack, staring up at the building where he lived in 1999, when he was new to New York and not yet the frontman of the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters.

He wasn’t Jake Shears then, either, but Jason Sellards, a skinny 20-year-old who had moved from Seattle to try to make it, though he wasn’t sure at what. While studying fiction writing at the New School, he saw a flier for an apartment in a former cake factory.

“The whole floor was just a raw space with some drywall put up,” he said. The rent was $700 a month (condos there now sell for $1.2 million). The entrance looked like a crime scene (there’s now a state-of-the-art intercom, which Mr. Shears scrolled through with fascination), and when it rained, it rained into his bedroom (presumably no longer a problem).

But the French guy who showed him the room was too handsome to resist, and “when you’re 20 years old,” Mr. Shears said, “you don’t know any better.”

His shifting set of roommates included a heroin addict whose bedroom looked like an opium den. In the fall of 2001, Mr. Shears decamped to the East Village, where he was working as a go-go dancer, after returning from a backpacking trip in Europe to discover that one of his roommates had been subletting his bedroom to a couple from Brussels. Ten days after Sept. 11, he and his friend Scott Hoffman performed for the first time as Scissor Sisters (slang for a lesbian sex move), with Mr. Shears singing along to a synth track in a kimono.

If this combination of details makes you wistful — a freewheeling Williamsburg, weird roommates in unsanctioned living spaces, post-9/11 avant-garde escapism — chances are that you danced to a Scissor Sisters song, or even saw Mr. Shears perform one in a thong.

Credit...Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Beginning with its 2004 self-titled debut album, which became the best-selling record of the year in Britain, and continuing with its 2012 anthem “Let’s Have a Kiki,” the band brought seedy downtown glam to a global pop audience, with Mr. Shears as its proudly gay pinup boy. Part Elton John-style exhibitionist, part Chippendales dancer, he was a totem of good times in a terrorized city straining to have fun.

Then, five years ago, he all but disappeared.

Exhausted and artistically stymied, he put the group on indefinite hiatus and moved to Los Angeles with his longtime boyfriend, Chris Moukarbel. “I had a really hard time out there,” Mr. Shears said. “Without the band, without Scott as my songwriting partner, I was just unmoored. I was really lost for a couple years.”

The relationship ended in 2015, and Mr. Shears fled to New Orleans, where he now keeps an apartment in the Marigny district. (He splits his time between there and Los Feliz in Los Angeles.) “It was a very dark time in my life,” he said. But he loved New Orleans, and he started making new friends and new music. At the suggestion of an editor at Simon & Schuster, Rakesh Satyal, he began writing down the story of his bedazzled life.

Now Mr. Shears, 39, is back in the limelight. Through April 1 he is starring on Broadway in “Kinky Boots.” He recently toured the South, gearing up for his first solo album. And his memoir, “Boys Keep Swinging,” comes out Feb. 20, chronicling not just the ups and downs of rock stardom but a saucy slice of downtown New York in the aughts.

Consider this scene: 2001 at the Roxy, a gay club in Chelsea. The night of his college graduation, he writes, he met “a man with silver hair wearing a black T-shirt” named Anderson, who hosted a TV game show called “The Mole.” They kissed near the dance floor and went back to Anderson’s place for a night of “laughing and making out,” before waking up the next day and seeing “Moulin Rouge.” Not long after, they met up in Rome for a two-day tryst.

Yes, this mysterious fellow was Anderson Cooper. They dated for a few months, lost touch and have since reconnected. “We’re still really close friends,” Mr. Shears said.

Reached by phone, Mr. Cooper said, “Our first official date after meeting at the Roxy was his graduation dinner with his parents.” Mr. Shears’s father had flown planes, and “I had been around the military reporting, so he knew we’d have something to talk about.”

“He used to sing, and I remember telling him that he really needed to buckle down and look for a job,” Mr. Cooper added. “Thankfully, he did not listen to me.”

Mr. Shears had long craved the spotlight, ever since his mother enrolled them in a tap class together when he was in fourth grade. Growing up in suburban Arizona and a harbor town in Washington State, he obsessed over David Bowie and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and watched the Playboy channel for its “upscale-trash aesthetic,” he says in the book.

Adolescence, he writes, turned him into a “girlie freak.” “When I was coming out, I was dressing very aggressively,” he said. “Lots of consignment-shop skirts and fishnets. I would buy bondage belts from my tweaker friends who needed money for drugs.”

Even while he went goth and sneaked out to Phoenix gay bars, he got baptized in a Christian youth group and was closeted to his family. In 1995, his parents sent him to a prep school in Seattle, where he started calling in to Dan Savage’s radio advice show, “Savage Love Live.”

“He was just really funny and sweet and vulnerable and a little at sea at 16,” Mr. Savage said. They met face to face at a queer-youth dance in Seattle. Mr. Savage had advised him to come out to his parents, and it hadn’t gone well. Feeling responsible, Mr. Savage got his mother to call Mr. Shears’s mother. (“My mom is very good at guilt,” Mr. Savage said.)

Mr. Savage and Terry Miller, then his boyfriend and now his husband, became Mr. Shears’s gay mentors, inviting him over to play video games and attending his high-school production of “Guys and Dolls.” One day, Mr. Savage picked up Mr. Shears after school and took him to an AIDS funeral, to show him the risks of unprotected sex. “He kind of took me on as a project,” Mr. Shears said.

In Seattle, Mr. Shears used a fake ID to get into a drag bar called 20th Century Foxes, where he would lip-sync James Bond songs, before moving to New York City in 1999. There, he soaked in the counterculture, including the cabaret duo Kiki and Herb and electroclash stars like Fischerspooner and Chicks on Speed.

He got a job go-go dancing at IC Guys, a closet-size gay bar in the East Village, and interned at Paper magazine, interviewing artists he longed to emulate. “He was an exhibitionist,” said Mickey Boardman, an editor there. “At Paper, it’s like being in a room of exclamation points. Everyone’s fighting for attention, whether they admit it or not.”

He and Mr. Hoffman made their first appearance as Scissor Sisters at a show at the Slipper Room on the Lower East Side, where the M.C. was the bawdy entertainer Ana Matronic. On a whim, Jason Sellards renamed himself Jake Shears, a play on “scissors” (his friends still call him Jason), and Mr. Hoffman went by BabyDaddy.

Soon after, they invited Ms. Matronic to join the band. They got a gig at Luxx, a breeding ground for the electroclash scene in Williamsburg, which they advertised with fliers reading, “You Gotta Pump Your Body, if You Wanna Be a Hottie,” from their song “Electrobix.”

Before long, they migrated to Luxx’s popular Berliniamsburg party, hosted by Larry Tee and Spencer Product. “I remember almost right away thinking, ‘Oh, these will be the guys that make the money,’” Mr. Tee said of their catchy, danceable tunes. “They’ll be the big hit of electroclash.”

True to “Rocky Horror,” the group performed in outrageous costumes, like pirate garb or black clothes drizzled in toxic green paint. “Scott would be in a sleeveless union suit, and I would be in denim cutoffs with a leather harness or something really trashy, or my go-go-dancing G-string,” Mr. Shears said. “We didn’t have money to get clothes, so we would basically raid our costume closets at home and try to make it look festive.”

They broke into mainstream pop with their 2004 album, which included a falsetto cover of “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd and louche dance hits like “Filthy/Gorgeous,” for which John Cameron Mitchell directed the music video. With Mr. Shears’s skimpy yet flamboyant outfits, he melded two sides of gay culture: the drag performance-art set and the gym bunnies he worked out alongside at Crunch.

Still, he was uneasy with how the band was labeled. He resisted getting lumped in with electroclash — they now had live instruments, after all — but they also didn’t fit in with rock groups like Vampire Weekend and the Strokes. Music journalists would describe them with what Mr. Shears saw as homophobic dismissals, such as “camper than a row of tents.”

“It was really frustrating when you’re making great music and the big deal is that you’re gay,” he said.

Then came the inevitable pitfalls of fame: internal squabbles, exhaustion and creative paralysis. “With the success came this huge responsibility for other people, including the band,” he said. “That was extremely anxiety inducing. It’s not something I’d thought about. I suspected that there was going to be some kind of comeuppance.”

In his memoir, he writes of sinking into a depression, which his new friend Elton John tried to assuage by shutting down a Dior Homme store and buying him the entire collection. But what he needed was inspiration. “We’d been writing a bunch of music, and I wasn’t really happy with anything,” Mr. Shears said. “When you have no life, you’re just spinning your wheels and making empty music.”

After the second Scissor Sisters album, “Ta-Dah” (2006), Mr. Shears bought a one-way ticket to Berlin, where he spent four months trying to recharge. Two albums later, he decided to call it quits.

“We were doing it initially to have fun, and the next thing you know, 10 years of your life have been hijacked,” he said. “Everybody needed to live their own lives.” (Ms. Matronic, who now hosts a disco show for BBC Radio 2, declined to be interviewed.)

He and Mr. Moukarbel, a filmmaker, were living in a TriBeCa loft, where they threw rowdy house parties attended by friends including Calvin Klein, Sandra Bernhard and Rufus Wainwright. “There would be too many people, and they would run out of ice early on,” Mr. Cooper said. “The music was fun, but it was always too loud and the police would be called. I always stayed five minutes and then felt way too old and not cool enough to be there.”

Mr. Moukarbel’s work was pulling him westward (he directed documentaries about Banksy and Lady Gaga), so they gave up their New York life and bought a Streamline Moderne-style house in Los Feliz for $1.92 million. “I had nothing going on. Just partying a lot,” Mr. Shears said. (He celebrated his 35th birthday with a disco foam party in the backyard.) “That first year in L.A., I was just lost. Wanting to work, because I’m happiest when I’m working, but without the band I didn’t know what to do.”

The end of his 11-year relationship with Mr. Moukarbel was “brutal.” Even now, he said, “I think I’m over stuff, and I’ll wake up from nightmares.” (Mr. Moukarbel, for his part, said, “Jason and I basically grew into adulthood together and I still think of him as family. He’s always inspired me and I’m incredibly proud of his recent work.”)

As Mr. Shears’s personal life was falling apart, the director Moisés Kaufman cast him in the play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum. “That was a real catalyst for me and made me examine my life and really ask myself how I was going to make myself happy again,” Mr. Shears said. “I learned that it’s really important to be creative for the right reasons. And if you’re not, it’ll come back and bite you.”

Still, it wasn’t until he got back to writing music, and writing his life story, that Mr. Shears returned to his swinging self. In addition to the new album, he is working on a musical with Elton John, following up his 2011 stage adaptation of “Tales of the City.” In June, he ended his solo tour with a concert in New Orleans, the same weekend he was celebrity grand marshal of the city’s gay pride parade.

“All my friends were down, my mom, everybody,” he said. “Everyone got to be in the parade. It was one of the best times I’ve had in my whole life. This sounds so stupid, but it felt like a wedding, even though I wasn’t marrying anybody. It was just this amazing celebration I got to have with everyone. It felt like I had found myself again.”

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