'I was told my career would collapse if I came out,' says Ricky Martin

His declaration has exposed pop's attitudes to homosexuality, says Fiona Sturges

He has sold more than 60 million records worldwide, topped the charts in 60 countries and has been named one of the most beautiful people in the world. Now the Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin, best known for the 1999 single "Livin' La Vida Loca", has made headlines for an entirely different reason: he has finally admitted that he is gay.

"I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man. I am very blessed to be who I am," he wrote in a lengthy open letter to fans on his website. He explained it was the process of writing his autobiography that prompted him to make the announcement.

"Writing this account of my life, I got very close to my truth. And this is something worth celebrating... Many people told me 'Ricky it's not important', 'It's not worth it', 'All the things you've worked and everything you've built will collapse'. Because all this advice came from people who I love dearly, I decided to move on with my life not sharing with the world my entire truth. Allowing myself to be seduced by fear and insecurity became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sabotage."

For the majority of pop fans and celeb-watchers, Martin's statement will hardly come as a shock. His sexuality has been one of the worst-kept secrets in the music industry for years. But there is more to this than the simple tale of a man finally setting aside his fears and coming out of the closet. The message that Martin's story imparts is that homosexuality is a career-killer when it comes to pop music – that it is more acceptable in the 21st century to be a drug addict like Amy Winehouse or Pete Doherty than it is to be gay.

It is worth noting that this is the record business we're talking about, an industry that in the last 50 years has stood for liberalism, equality, individualism, creativity and progression. It is meant to be about breaking down barriers, exploding preconceptions and celebrating a person's right to express themselves in any way that they see fit. Any way, apparently, as long as it doesn't disturb the glorious idyll of the heterosexual lifestyle.

So should we be surprised? Not according to Matthew Todd, editor of the gay lifestyle magazine Attitude. "The record industry itself is pretty pro-gay, but the outlets that support it, particularly radio and TV, are not," he said.

"Ricky Martin's main market is America, and there the radio and TV stations wield a huge amount of power. Just look at what happened to [American-Idol winner] Adam Lambert after he kissed a man on stage at the American Music Awards. He was kicked off all the TV shows he was due to appear on, and was replaced by Chris Brown, the man that famously beat up Rihanna."

Even so, the record industry has a lot to answer for in refusing to get behind gay artists. We all know that a mainstream artist's appeal can rest as much on their attractiveness as their ability to sing in tune. In the realms of chart-friendly pop, homosexuality has proved a particular thorn in the side for music executives. Artists such as Ricky Martin are primed for their sex appeal to a generation of teenage girls – tell them their idol is gay and the myth is ruined.

That's the thinking anyway. But how does that explain the success of Rufus Wainwright, or k.d. lang, Will Young, Beth Ditto, The Pet Shop Boys, Scissor Sisters or the countless other artists who enjoy great sales and critical kudos and make no bones about being attracted to people of the same sex? That they are not all sex symbols, and therefore not tailored purely for teenagers, is without doubt their saving grace.

But the record industry has long underestimated the loyalty and intelligence of music fans by peddling manufactured artists masquerading as the real deal, or by trying to pull the wool over their eyes about their artists' lifestyle choices.

When the late Stephen Gately of Boyzone announced he was gay in 1999, fans were expected to throw their hands up in horror. In fact, they rallied round in support. The same went for Will Young, who came out to fans shortly after winning Pop Idol.

Eight years later Young has had nine top-10 singles and has been nominated for 10 Brit Awards – hardly the achievements of a man who is loathed for his lifestyle choices. More recently, when Mark Feehily from Westlife came out of the closet, few even noticed.

So does anyone care whether their icons are gay or straight? And is it any of our business anyway? The truth is that, as consumers, we care about an artists' sexuality just as much as we care how big their house is, who they're dating and what they buy in supermarkets. In the era of celebrity magazines, we are interested in every facet of a musician's or actor's or reality star's existence. Sexuality is just a part of the picture.

Todd notes that it has become harder in recent years for gay people to keep their sexuality a secret. "Twenty years ago, the majority of the population didn't know a gay person, or, if they did, they didn't know it," he said. "In the case of male pop stars you had bachelors, and it was assumed they just didn't want to settle down. Nowadays we all know gay people, and it's become more difficult for pop stars to stay in the closet."

As for Martin, his career has been on a downward slide in Europe and the US for some time, a fact that has less to do with his sexuality than that his music has gone out of fashion. He has had plenty of chances to come out over the years, and has chosen not to.

The veteran interviewer Barbara Walters famously gave him a grilling about his sexuality in 2000, asking him what Gloria Estefan had meant when she told him to "enjoy your sexuality". Martin refused to be drawn. Earlier this week, Walters admitted that her line of questioning was "inappropriate".

Todd believes that Ricky Martin's decision to keep his sexuality to himself for all this time is sad, but ultimately understandable. "There are still a huge number of gay men who are troubled about their sexuality," he said.

"There's so much homophobia out there that it's easy to feel ashamed. In the case of Ricky Martin, on the one hand his reluctance to come out doesn't send out a great message, but, on the other, if he'd come out, would he have got the breaks he had? You have to wonder: why did he take so long?"

Stars who came out

Elton John Coming out made little difference. He is still hugely popular.

Will Young After winning Pop Idol in 2002, he came out. Since then he has released four albums and has been nominated for 10 Brit Awards.

Stephen Gately As a member of Boyzone, he racked up 16 consecutive top-five singles. He came out in 1999, and his solo album New Beginning reached the top of the album charts.

George Michael One of the biggest pop stars in the world, both as a member of Wham! and as a solo artist, he came out in 1998. He still enjoys global success.

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