Dreams came true at an early age for Alex Newell. The 20-year-old Massachusetts native currently appears as Wade Unique Williams on Glee. The character is unique in more ways than one.
Unique, at the moment, is network television's only transgender character. Like the actor who plays her, Unique has a powerful set of pipes.
The role came his way via The Glee Project. Launched in 2011, the Oxygen Network reality series serves as an American Idol-styled audition process for young hopefuls who dream of being on Glee. Newell was a first runner-up during the reality show's freshman season. Videos of his Project appearances are now posted at YouTube, where Newell's growing fan base can look back upon his stunning rendition of "And I'm Telling You," the showstopper from the classic musical Dreamgirls.
Soon after, Newell was offered a two-episode gig on Glee itself. First seen in season three's "Saturday Night Glee-ver" episode (an homage to the classic film Saturday Night Fever) Unique, a male-assigned person who identifies as female, makes quite a musical splash. In the storyline, shy, soft spoken Wade dons a pair of high heels and discovers a self-assured female self. Unique brings down the house with a rousing rendition of "Boogie Shoes."
"I didn't plan on this," he said of his real-life fairy tale. "I submitted an audition for Glee through MySpacemine was one of 40,000 submissions. I got an email thanking me. They said they would keep my name on file.
"A few months later I got a Facebook message saying that I was under consideration for a reality series. I thought it was a fake, but then I got an email in my personal email account. Before I knew it, I was being flown to Long Beach, Calif. It was absolutely amazing. I would never trade it for anything.
"I was filming my second episode when my first episode aired. I remembered sitting down watching, thinking can this really be happening? To be on my favorite TV show ever?"
He explained what it is about Glee that appeals to him. "There's someone you can relate to on this show no matter what you are," he said. "Gay, straight, Black, white, male, female. For me it was Kurt, because I'm gay. He has a powerhouse voice. It's captivating, exciting, the epitome of who I want to be."
His relatives are pleased, Newell said: "My grandma is really proud. She's one of my number-one fans, very supportive. One of my little cousins in Alabama was asked, 'Are you related to Unique?' She replied, 'I'm related to Alex.'"
Brought back to Glee for its fourth season, Newell is now well on his way to becoming an LGBT icon. In July, he was a featured performer at San Diego Pride, belting out "Boogie Shoes" for the adoring crowd. Newell is giving the often-ignored transgender community a positive image with whom they can identify. Newell said that the feedback he gets on his Twitter feed is always supportive: "It's uplifting to see how people relate to the character. They're able to see that it's OK for them to be who they are."
Newell told Windy City Times that he's just an actor playing a role. "I myself don't identify as trans," he said. "I'm comfortable with who I am, no matter what I wear."
Newell's idols include Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and RuPaul. "I wanted to scalp Khan and put her hair on my head," Newell said. "Her voice has not aged, and I love that."
He's also hoping to find Mr. Right. "When people ask me if Unique is going to get a boyfriend, I ask, 'Is Alex going to get a boyfriend?' I'm desperately single at the moment," he said. "I'm looking for someone who's breathing, and if he makes more than I do, so be it. I'm not picky, but I'm high maintenance." He hopes to get married a number of times. "I want to be the gay Elizabeth Taylor," he laughed.
Of course, Glee will one day run its course, as all TV shows do. For Newell, the series will serve as a launching pad for what he plans to be a long career. "After Glee, I want to be on Broadway, do a sitcom, and films," he said. "When I'm really old, I'd like to do little cameos on Broadway, then another sitcom. I can multitask. My mom was a nurse, a single mom who who kept a happy home. She'd say good morning, go to work; then when I got home, dinner would be ready. If she could do it, so can I. She's one of my biggest inspirations."
His advice to those who might share his dream is simple.
"Be confident," he said. "Just do it. I almost didn't submit my video because I thought nothing would come of it. Just go to that audition because you never know when it's gonna happen."