The man who famously posed the question, "Can we talk for a minute?" is now opening up like never before.
Beloved R&B singer Tevin Campbell, known for sultry '90s hits like "Can We Talk" and "I'm Ready," recently appeared on the PEOPLE Every Day podcast for an in-depth interview, discussing his life and career and revealing for the first time what his personal experience has been as a gay man in the music industry.
"I refer to myself as a former child star because that's just what I am," says Campbell, 45, of his musical past. Discovered by famed talent manager Benny Medina at age 12, the Waxahachie, Texas, native was thrust onto the music scene a year later by mentor Quincy Jones — and instantly dubbed "the next Michael Jackson" for his smooth, savant-like vocals and impressive range.
The comparison was a "big compliment" that came with a lot of pressure, says Campbell. "I just kind of wanted to be me, you know?" Instead, he was packaged as a young, heterosexual heartthrob.
Michael Marquand Tevin Campbell
Signed to Warner Brothers Music, he released his debut album T.E.V.I.N. in 1991 and followed it up with I'm Ready in 1993, both to huge success. Campbell admits, "I don't think the sex symbol thing worked, but the love songs last."
For instance, "Can We Talk," a song that was almost given to Usher, his contemporary at the time, earned Campbell a Grammy nomination and has seen a resurgence in recent years thanks to a popular TikTok singing challenge. "I had no idea at the time, like when I was 15 or 16 recording this song that it would have that impact," says Campbell. "I was just a kid singing in the studio."
Coming of age in the heteronormative space of R&B at that time, "I didn't hide anything about me. I didn't try to act a certain way or anything," says Campbell. But also, he notes of that era in the industry, "You just couldn't be [gay] back then."
Partly due to changes at the record label, Campbell and his music got put on the back burner after his third album, released in 1996, didn't perform well. Around the same time, his personal journey began.
"When I came out to my family and friends [at] about 19 or 20, that was it for me. And then I went on the road of discovering myself. I didn't know who I was," says Campbell, who stepped away from the music industry and credits much of his growth to the six years he spent performing in the Broadway musical Hairspray beginning in 2004.
Paul Natkin/WireImage Tevin Campbell
"Being around people who were like me, LGBTQ+ people that were living normal lives and had partners. I had never seen that," he says. "That was a great time in my life."
Despite years of speculation, Campbell has largely kept his private life private. Earlier this year, he responded to a Twitter user's question about famous singers who are rumored to be gay. He simply tweeted "Tevin is…" adding a rainbow emoji.
"It was a casual thing for me," Campbell says of what many took as a coming out statement. In truth, he adds, "I love my fans, but what they think about my sexuality is of no importance to me."
Asked his thoughts on the recent success of young, queer Black stars like Frank Ocean and Lil Nas X who've opened up to fans, "It wasn't like that in the '90s," he says with laugh. "But I'm glad I get to see it. I'm glad that's changing. There are a lot of kids, especially young Black boys that need to see representation."
He adds, "They're not being taught to love themselves because of who they are."
For Campbell — who has new music in the works, recently performed at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville and took home this year's R&B icon award at the Black Music Honors — loving himself is his greatest accomplishment.
"What makes me happiest right now is how far I've come in life," he says, "You know, there are a lot of child stars that don't make it. But a lot of us do… and the fact that I've embraced me."
To hear Tevin Campbell's full interview, tune in to PEOPLE Every Day podcast, wherever you listen to podcasts. For video watch PeopleTV and for more on this story, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.