When Kevin Yee was a teenager, he was in a boy band. The experience almost soured him on the entertainment industry. He was explicitly told to lie, mostly by his managers, and mostly for the sake of marketing. His story isn’t unique, he says – not in the music industry, at least.
The boy band, Youth Asylum (think multicultural Backstreet Boys), was targeted at teenage girls and Yee was supposed to be the Asian hottie. When he turned 16, his managers told him to say he was still 15; the worst, though, was the day they told Yee to hide his homosexuality. It was bad for business.
“That experience taught me that I couldn’t be gay in the music industry,” Yee says, his voice flattening and his usually chipper cadence slowing when he talks about those years. “To fail at such a young age, you kind of don’t know what to do with the rest of your life.”
It was like losing his voice, and he walked away defeated, unsure of who he was or how he fit in. Yee left the band in 2000 after three years and two unreleased albums and turned to musical theater.
He had a history with theater, having made his professional stage debut at age 6 opposite Rudolf Nureyev in “The King And I,” and he stayed busy.
For the next decade, he was in three major shows – “Mary Poppins,” “Wicked” and “Mamma Mia!” – often performing in eight shows a week. During that period, a friend playfully suggested Yee write a song about a piece of fruit. And just like that, Yee found his voice again.
He realized he had a knack for comedic pop songs and started performing on the comedy stand-up circuit. Three years into his new career, Yee has found that being himself – openly, outspokenly gay – is good for business. His latest music video, the title of which cannot be printed in this newspaper, accrued upward of 33,000 YouTube views in its first week alone.
Now his catchy – often raunchy – comedy pop songs are a standard part of his stand-up routine, which brings him to the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival in Chapel Hill, where he’ll perform Thursday and Friday.
After years of subverting his personality to find commercial success, Yee, 33, says he’s not “acting” now.
“It’s not about going out there and doing something different and it’s not about going out there and changing the way stand-up comedy is,” Yee says. “It’s about honesty to myself and having this specific skill set that I have and going onstage and being truthful.”
At times, that has cost him. He’s been heckled in bars and booked by colleges only to have them turn around and cancel his show. Sometimes it’s because his routine is unsettling to those uncomfortable with homosexuality; sometimes it’s because he’s unsettling to the politically correct.
Yee accepts that not everyone’s going to love him.
“If that’s not the audience for me, it’s not the audience for me,” he says. “I can’t make everyone happy.”
Yet he’s content – ecstatic, even – to have found his voice as an entertainer, singing “you can’t get pregnant/making gay love,” with contagious enthusiasm. He has no desire for a record label – been there, tried that, hated it – or even negativity in his routine. True, he’s dabbled in political and social commentary, such as with a protest song ahead of the Sochi Olympics in 2014, but says he’d rather just celebrate the good without even acknowledging the bad. He’s found a way to be himself onstage, and that’s enough.
“As a teenager, I didn’t really know about love. That’s all those songs are about, those pop love songs. I was writing about things I didn’t know,” he says. “These comedy songs freed me to write about whatever, which was really liberating.”
North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival
The festival runs Feb. 1-14 with shows and workshops at DSI Comedy Theater, the Cave, the Arts Center, Flyleaf Books – all in Chapel Hill.
Yee is one of five comics performing starting at 7 p.m. Thursday at DSI and one of nine scheduled to perform Friday at Local 506, starting at 9:30 p.m.
To see the full schedule of entertainers and show times, go to www.nccomedyarts.com. Tickets from free to $20 are available at the door for all shows on the day of the show. Online reservations are the only way to guarantee tickets. Tickets are not sold over the phone.