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When the stars 'come out'

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
  • Celebs coming out not just personal revelation; it's media event
  • Country singer Chely Wright joined stars like Ricky Martin and actor Sean Hayes
  • GLAAD president says "door has been creaking open" since Ellen DeGeneres came out

(CNN) -- Outside the circle of country music fans, few knew much about singer Chely Wright.

She wasn't a regular on the red carpet, she hadn't appeared on the cover of any major magazines, and reports that the nine records Wright has released since 1994 have sold a total of 975,000 units, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

Then Wright announced that she is gay.

In becoming the first openly homosexual country performer, Wright was suddenly everywhere, including "The Today Show" and an upcoming article in the pages of People magazine.

For celebrities, coming out is not just a personal revelation; it also raises their profile and generates buzz.

"I think the climate has changed a lot," said Jeremy Kinser, Arts and Entertainment editor for The Advocate, a gay and lesbian magazine. "People are more comfortable with the gay lifestyle. It's not a career-killer like it used to be."

Wright joins a growing list of performers who within the past several months have announced that they are gay, including actors Meredith Baxter and Sean Hayes, singer Ricky Martin and former Christian artist Jennifer Knapp.

Kinser said that when a celebrity reveals they are gay, they have a host of worries beyond those of the average citizen.

Video: Country star: 'I'm gay'

"The bottom line is making money," Kinser said, adding that he thinks that the more stars come out, the more positive the atmosphere is for such events. "Most entertainers want to reach as broad an audience as possible, and you don't want to give people a reason not to like you. There are some people who are biased against gay people, so there is a whole different level of concern when you are in the public eye."

Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said that coming out is a double-edged sword for stars.

"Since Ellen DeGeneres [came out in 1997], the door has been slowly creaking open for celebrities to come out of the closet and live their public lives as honestly as they live their private lives," he said. "Still, there are segments of the entertainment industry where there haven't been openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender celebrities."

The Spanish-speaking media and country music represent two such segments, and that is why Martin and Wright's revelations have such resonance, Barrios said. And just like everyone else, stars must face their fears when coming out, especially given that it is national news, he said.

"Before you come out, it's hard to imagine anything but the worst, and that's why you are in the closet," Barrios said. "There's fear and concern, whether it's over familial rejection, loss of professional stature or business. This is the nature of the closet."

Publicist Howard Bragman knows all about that worry.

He has become the go-to professional for celebs looking to go public, and in the past several months, his clients have included Wright, actress Baxter and Cher's daughter Chaz Bono, who transitioned to become a male.

Bragman, who himself came out more than 30 years ago, has helped more than 10 celebrities navigate the revelation that they are gay.

He said there is no formula for managing the publicity of stars when they come out.

"Everybody has a different reason [for coming out], a different purpose and a different level of celebrity," Bragman said.

But there does appear to be a commonality in the course of some celebs' coming out. First, there is the speculation, sometimes followed by hints dropped on blogs and websites.

What follows is usually plenty of buzz, sometimes a leak to the press and then a media tour including talk shows, magazines and possible book deals.

With Wright, Bragman helped stoke anticipation before the big reveal.

"What I can say is that there are two kinds of coming outs," Bragman said in an e-mail to the Washington Post days before Wright came out. "Duhs (Ricky Martin) and Wows (Meredith Baxter). This one qualifies as a Wow."

Some clients have come out in conjunction with sponsorships, Bragman said, and some for personal reasons. In the case of Baxter, a tabloid had threatened to out her.

"In Chely's case, we have both a book and a record to sell, so we certainly wanted the press," Bragman said.

And although Bragman said Wright's book has been doing well and the media have been flocking, he rejects the notion that his client came out only to make sales.

"That's a joke because there are a lot of people who think coming out in country music is suicide," he said. "Chely is the happiest she has ever been. She feels like she has been reborn."