A girly-boy’s best friend

Richard Burnett

I flipped for rising electro-dance pop star and wunderkind John O’Regan – who donned rainbow eye shadow and rechristened himself Diamond Rings (but is better known to his buddies as John O) – when he described himself as “the only kid on the block that wanted to pair a ballerina tutu from the tickle trunk with hockey gloves.”

If anybody can pull off that hybrid look, it’s our boy O’Regan. “I have photos of me wearing that as a kid!” John laughs.

“[But] when I was a teenager I spent most of my time playing sports and music really wasn’t central to my life at all,” says the six-foot-five-inch Oshawa native, who is nominated for a 2012 Juno Award. “I wanted to be a basketball player. But in university – I was on the volleyball team by then – I figured a professional career wasn’t going to happen. But I’ve always been athletic, active and in tune with my body.”

And what a body it is. The gender-bending glam fashionista then pointedly adds, “But I was never a jock. That whole culture is un-inclusive.”

So O’Regan played guitar for The D’Urbervilles, a band he formed at the University of Guelph. By the time he became a regular in Toronto’s west-end indie-rock club scene a couple of years later, O’Regan was writing songs alone in his bedroom and performing shows for friends at loft parties. His roommate, videographer Colin Medley, directed the home-recorded video for the song All Yr Songs, a video that featured green-screen trickery, over-the-top choreography and daring androgynous outfits.

Then the world came knocking: Diamond Rings – his one-man live-to-track act much like the Pet Shop Boys (“I saw them two years ago and was blown away by how much of the stage they were able to fill”) – has sold out SXSW showcases and opened for acts like La Roux and Owen Pallett. Then in October 2010, Montreal-based indie label Secret City Records released Diamond Rings’ debut album, Special Affections.

Rock critics went nuts. “Completely irresistible!” Pitchfork swooned, as NME raved, “Pretty much the best thing we’ve heard all year!”

Now Diamond Rings is up for Best New Artist at the 2012 Juno Awards on April 1.

“The attention [isn’t] overwhelming,” O’Regan says. “But when you’re in the middle of the [whirlwind] there’s not too much time to sit down and reflect. I don’t spend much time reading every word [written about me].”

Though I doubt O’Regan didn’t read about himself when Postmedia (formerly Canwest) opined, “It’s difficult to exaggerate the contrast between O’Regan’s everydude look as lead singer of the post-punk band the D’Urbervilles (big blocky glasses, tee, hoody and jean jacket) against the glam and glitz androgyny of his Diamond Rings persona.”

But O’Regan tells me, “You know, I’m not into the world of high fashion, but more into using clothes as a way to express myself. I really believe clothing can be really liberating [because] music can be just as regimented [as sports]. If you’re in the new rock band, you wear this. If you’re in the new punk band, you wear that. I started to find characteristics [I thought] were exclusive to the world of sports and athletics carried over to music. I mean, I’ve got guitar-rock songs but I’m doing them in make-up and tights! The mash-up of all that stuff shows people things should not be as exclusive as they are.”

That, of course, is a fabulous post-gay way of looking at the world. If anything, John O, now 26, identifies as queer.

“I don’t know if being openly queer will affect my career but I’m young and relatively naïve,” he says without blinking a rainbow-brushed eyelid. “But the idea that I would ever really sell any records doing what I do never really entered my thought process. People might actually buy this?”

O’Regan continues, “Maybe for an artist [like Rufus Wainwright] who came out in the 1990s when things were less open than they are now, that might be true. But at this point I think people are generally more accepting. My parents have been fully supportive of me ever since I came out.”

The week I blab with him John O is tweeting about Stevie Nicks (his Twitter handle is "@stayfierce"). So I tell him I love my women rock stars.

“I love women pop stars!” John O says happily. “I love Janet Jackson, Kylie Minogue – there’s something really fun and sincere and earnest about pop divas. [But] it’ll take a long time for me to get there [too]!”

Speaking of tweeting, my colleague Jian Ghomeshi of CBC’s Q once wrote in the National Post, “Diamond Rings was a great revelation to me (and I would imagine, most of us)… His emotional and powerful songs are impressive. And I think he’s just now hitting his stride. While his presentation is captivating (the boy is undeniably pretty), it’s his voice and writing that’s the star.”

I could not have put it better myself. As for John O, he tweeted Jian in response, “I’m blushing! Thanks!”

But I doubt anyone saw John O blush beneath all that fabulous make-up.

Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://blogs.montrealgazette.com/category/montreal/pop-tart/.

Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.