At the young age of 20, Sheldon Riley of The Voice Australia is becoming the man he's always wanted to be - purple fur, feathers, white lace and all.
"I get moments of self-doubt all the time - like even walking into the studio today wearing these big blue dangly pants. It's scary. People look at you on the street and they think -What is he wearing? But it's these little moments that you go - This is who I want to be so I'm going to do it."
While Sheldon Riley first gets noticed for how he dresses, what he truly gets remembered for is how he uses his voice.
His father's son
Born of an Australian mother and a Filipino father, Sheldon Riley (real name, Sheldon Hernandez) recalls a childhood that was "lots of fun" but also quite difficult.
Growing up, he shares that he had always struggled with his sexual identity and perceived lack of masculinity. While Sheldon shares that Filipinos have "a very beautiful feminine touch that not a lot of other cultures have", he still had to contend with the notion of what it meant to be a man in Australia.
"I always used to blame it on the fact that I was the mix that I was and I had the culture that I had. Why couldn’t I be a stronger man or someone who could grow facial hair? I wanted to be more masculine - that’s where the negative stuff came from. I was blaming myself for not being more manly."
Sheldon shares that being gay was what set him apart from everybody else and "what made growing up a little bit harder". And although he attributed some aspects of his effeminacy to his Asian background, he shares that he has always been proud of his Filipino heritage.
"My biggest connection to my Filipino background is definitely the food. We had lots of Filipino parties, celebrations and food. I love Filipino food so much...pancit and adobo and sinigang and all the food is amazing," he laughs, adding, "But what is so special about being Filipino is the family aspect of it. Everyone is so together. It's all about love and celebration."
And when it comes to love and celebration, the ones who love and celebrate Sheldon the most for who he has become are the ones he referred to as "the best friends that I've got" - his sister, his mum and his dad.
His dad, in particular, has been instrumental in Sheldon coming to terms with who he is as a person and as an artist.
"I’ve always had such a strong relationship with my dad. My dad works in the business world but he's an artist first. I think I've always connected with that because I'm so artistic myself. We’re very creative together."
The Voice Australia
Their creative collaboration was evident when Sheldon decided to audition for The Voice Australia.
"All the outfits I wore on The Voice were made by myself. My dad helped with everything, staying up [with me] until 3 o'clock in the morning painting. He taught me how to use a sewing machine. He was the first person to show me that."
And one of the pieces that was produced from this collaboration was the memorable purple fur-sleeved top Sheldon wore to his first audition on The Voice.
"I [asked myself] - Who's going to accept this? Is anyone really going to love this? - because I loved it. I remember staying up all night dyeing that purple. I sewed the fur and it was so great, but I had this moment where I went - What the hell am I doing?"
Despite the fear of people rejecting the image he wanted to present, Sheldon took a breath, determined to sing 'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?' by Boy George, who unbeknownst to him then was to become his coach.
"I was so emotional and people were like, Were you really upset? That was the most emotional I've ever been. I've done other TV shows before like X Factor and Young Talent Time - but the performer I was when I did those particular shows was a bit different. I didn't love who I was then."
His first go at The Voice Australia landed him on the Top 4.
And while Sheldon didn't win the title last year, he returned to The Voice this year as an All Star - more confident and more self-aware.
"Instead of just being me, I was being unapologetically me. I wasn't saying sorry to anybody for doing what I was doing. Last year was a lot of sorrys - I'm sorry for this and that and people were like What are you saying sorry for? We love what you're doing because you're being you. So this year, going in - amazing! I walked into my audition the way no one's ever [walked into it] before. I completely covered my face with crystals...because, why not?"
Despite the crystal mask and the turned red chairs, Sheldon's distinct voice was instantly recognisable after only a few notes.
"Boy George - I remember his face. He popped up and straight away...it was like the first line I sang and he was like - It's Sheldon! I think it's really cool to have a sound that people know from the second I start singing."
This is me
His distinct voice and style have even birthed a potentially new genre in music, with Sheldon sharing, "A lot of people ask - Is it pop? Is it jazz? Orchestral dark pop is what I think it is. It's really emotional but there's so much light and beauty in it as well."
And to think this well-defined characterisation comes from someone who once came from a place of struggle, a place of trying to figure out where he belonged in "a world of artists where everyone’s doing similar things".
"That was a really rough time with myself - finding who I was and realising that there’s a spot for everyone in this world," he shares, adding, "The person that I've always wanted to look up to - that's me now. I get to be myself. I get to walk around in the clothes that I wear. I get to sing the songs that I want to sing and I know that people are going to want to listen to them."
Although Sheldon enjoys a strong fan base, he hopes that his future plans will only further extend his reach.
"Eurovision is a main goal. It has always been my thing as a little kid watching. They're just so weird and so different and so accepted for doing absolutely everything," he admits, adding, "But big things are coming. I can't talk about them [right now]; but if you think that my performances have been big, just wait to see what's in store."
While fans await for what is in store for Sheldon in the future, this self-confessed onstage-extrovert and offstage-introvert shares that he is reveling in his current status as a role model for young people, gay people, and people who have felt different or afraid.
"I've always said to people just be yourself but the new advice I give is: whoever you are, whatever type of person you are, whether you're an introvert or extrovert, no matter what cultural background you're from - find that little part of you that likes to have fun. If you're going to sing, sing really loud. If you're going to dance, dance really hard. Find an alter ego," he shares, adding, "Because that has been the biggest blessing in my life - finding [that in me] and [allowing] that [to] grow."
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