Todrick Hall brings song, dance and good conversation to UMSL – plus a Beyoncé-inspired acrostic
He’s already well known as a vocalist, producer, choreographer, actor and all-around YouTube sensation, but it may be time to add one more phrase to the extensive list of descriptions for 32-year-old Todrick Hall: life coach.
The entertainer’s ability to motivate others was in the spotlight alongside his many other talents on Tuesday at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where he performed for hundreds of enthusiastic students and community members.
Visiting campus as part of the Office of Student Involvement’s Speaker Series, Hall drew applause, cheers and even screams of delight during his song-and-dance-filled show at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. Then, after all the excitement and fun, he sat down to talk.
And if you ask junior anthropology major Claire McCroary, that conversation – moderated by Ashlee Roberts, UMSL’s assistant director of OSI – was perhaps the best part of the entire evening.
“I appreciated how it wasn’t just a performance but also a talk about success,” McCroary said afterward. “As a queer person, seeing someone as successful and open about his identity as Todrick is visiting a school in Missouri shows that the school is willing to be open to new things. And his openness and how unapologetic he is about his identity has definitely inspired me to try and be more open in my life.”
Over the course of a half-hour-long question-and-answer session, Hall spoke candidly about his experience as an out gay black man, his less-than-traditional journey in the entertainment world and some of the issues he is most passionate about.
More than anything, a theme of persistence emerged as Hall shared instance after instance of unlikely and hard-earned progress toward his dreams. The path following his 2010 appearance on “American Idol” has seldom been an easy one, he said.
“People close the door in your face? Go look for a window,” he urged the audience at one point. “Go look for a gate with a rickety lock on it and find a way to get to where you need to go.”
Hall’s positivity and down-to-earth personality were striking to UMSL student Christopher Aiken, a junior majoring in international relations. Aiken said he came away encouraged about what is really possible for an individual to accomplish. And the one “rule” that Hall set down – when he offered a word of advice about dealing with criticism as well as “haters” – is something Aiken intends to remember going forward.
“Any time that I want to respond to some negativity, I have to first – before I respond to that – respond to 10 positive comments,” Hall said during his talk with Roberts. “And 100 percent of the time I don’t even get to the negative comments because I’m so grateful for the positive comments.”
While Hall’s repertoire of accomplishment includes everything from an MTV show to millions of YouTube fans, he called his recent role in the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots,” in which he starred as a drag queen cabaret performer, “the most fulfilling thing that I think I’ve ever done in my life” to date.
“To be in a show that’s all about love and acceptance during the time that President Trump moved into the White House was really, really, really just so fulfilling to me,” Hall said. “Because it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican – I think that the message of ‘Kinky Boots’ and love is, like, what we need in our country so much, more than ever.”
Hall, who noted that he doesn’t do a lot of college shows but decided to come to UMSL when he heard that the invitation was from St. Louis, thanked the crowd for the energy they’d added to the evening. He admitted that he was feeling pretty tired during what’s been a particularly hectic season of his career.
“You have to be able to, no matter what, try to push through,” he said. “I’m glad the crowd was so lit today and I was able to still sing.”
Even students who didn’t know much about Hall going in were impressed, including senior Travonte Harris.
“I came away as a fan – he really won me over,” said Harris, a media studies major at UMSL. Harris added that his biggest takeaway from the evening was “that it is better to try and fail than to never try and give up.”
That point dovetailed with a discussion of perfectionism, which Hall said he tries to avoid even as he works to constantly create the best productions he and his team can muster.
“Now I look back and I am legitimately embarrassed at some of the videos I’ve put out,” Hall admitted. “But I won’t take them down, because that’s part of my story, and it’s part of my journey, and I would not be able to do the things I’m doing now without that video and without every mistake that I’ve made.
“And so I’m just really grateful that I’m learning things and also teaching myself how to be happy and content in every moment that I’m in, because it’s very easy for a lot of us to compare ourselves to other people and other people’s success.”
When Roberts asked Hall if he wanted to share any closing thoughts with the audience, he reiterated seven key points he’d already emphasized between songs during the earlier part of the show. Asking the audience to say each reminder along with him, he repeated them once more: “Believe, entrepreneurship, yasss, own your brand, network naturally, challenge yourself, evolve.”
Add the first letter of each of those points together and they form an acrostic of sorts – one that brought a huge smile to Hall’s face as he revealed it to the audience: Beyoncé. She’s one of Hall’s idols, and he’s cognizant that some people look up to him just like he admires her.
“I just want people to really recognize that every single person that you look up to is a human,” Hall said.
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