When she was a little girl, Chely Wright says she dreamed of becoming a country music star. In the small town of Wellsville, Kansas, Chely spent her childhood listening to legends like Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith and Buck Owens. "I read liner notes of albums much like a kid would read fairy tales out of storybooks," she says.
Chely says she also scoured country music history to find someone like her...someone different. Even as a child, Chely says she knew the truth about herself. She was a lesbian.
"I was told in church that there were building blocks of sin and evildoing, and these words were strung together to scare me—drunkard, thief, adulterer, homosexual. I thought, 'That's what I am,'" she says. "I prayed every day for God to change me. And it was: 'Dear God, please don't let me be gay. I promise to be a good person.' I said that prayer every day, multiple times a day."
Chely hid her sexuality from family and friends, and after high school, she moved to Nashville. After landing a recording contract, Chely's childhood dream finally came true. In 1999, her song "Single White Female" shot to the top of country music charts, and she received top honors at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
Despite her professional success, Chely was haunted by her closely guarded secret. "I was never able to fully absorb the joy of my accomplishment. With each rung of the ladder I climbed, people wanted to know more," she says. "Had you told me in 2000, had you said, 'You're going to be the first chart-topping country music singer to step forward and acknowledge her homosexuality,' I would have laughed in your face. I knew it would ruin my career."
But, in May 2010, Chely made the decision to stop living a lie. In her memoir, Like Me, Chely tells the world she's gay and describes how a lifetime of deception almost drove her to suicide.
On and off for 12 years, Chely says she carried on a secret affair with a woman she calls "Julia," the love of her life. The two women even lived together for a short time, but few people knew the truth about their relationship.
"We worked very hard to hide our relationship. We didn't allow many people to visit our home, but those who did enjoyed seeing her bedroom and my bedroom," Chely says. "It was insane. If it looked crazy, it's because it was."
In 12 years, Chely says only five people knew she and her partner were more than friends. Chely even kept her best friend and family in the dark. "When you start telling people, it puts people in the position to lie for you, and I knew that. So I just didn't tell people," she says. "I wasn't just in the closet. I was behind the sheet rock in the closet. The duality of my existence was so much work."
When their relationship ended in 2006, Chely says she was heartbroken and left without anyone to confide in. This is when Chely's breakdown began. "I couldn't find a way to get the pieces of my life to fit, and [I thought]: 'I'm trapped. I can't come out because there's never been an openly gay country music singer,''' she says. "I decided on that night I was done. I was tired. I couldn't do it anymore."
Chely says she took out her 9mm gun and put it in her mouth. "I said a prayer to God to forgive me for what I was about to do, and I began to cry," she says. Thankfully, she didn't pull the trigger.
Looking back, Chely says years of shame, self-loathing and fear brought her to her knees that night. "There was not a cataclysmic event that had led me to that night," she says. "It was layers of a lifetime of hiding and lying. ... [I thought], 'I'm a successful country music singer, and I'm a lesbian.' Those two things had historically never co-existed, and I had painted myself into this corner."
Chely says the deception began when she first moved to Nashville and landed a job at Opryland theme park. While working at Opryland, Chely met openly gay men for the first time, and she says she was terrified they would discover her secret.
"I was afraid that there was some identifiable factor in me that they could pick up on that they might know that I was gay," she says.
To mask her homosexuality, Chely says she said things she now regrets. "There was a young man, a great performer by the name of Ray," she says. "Another gay boy walked up behind him and just playfully smacked him on the butt, and Ray said, 'I know you want me.' And I said: 'I wish you'd keep that out of my face. It's a sin.'"
Chely says she couldn't believe those words came out of her mouth. "I spewed the nastiest things," she says. "I'm mindful now of people who do that."
Even though she knew she was a lesbian, Chely occasionally dated men, including some of country music's biggest stars, such as Vince Gill and Brad Paisley. "My dating men was my giving it a Hail Mary toward normal," she says. "I ultimately just confused the heck out of them because I couldn't love them the way they loved me."
Chely says she has many regrets about the way she treated these men, particularly Brad Paisley. "I have a lot of regret for how that began and had a middle and ended," she says. "I had no business being in a relationship with him."
When she started dating Brad, Chely says her relationship with Julia was falling apart. "I was making a deal again with myself," she says. "[I thought]: 'Well, Chel, you'll forego love. You'll go without love. Find someone with whom you can spend your life that makes you laugh, that you like how they live their life, that you can share a life with.'"
From the beginning, Chely knew her relationship with Brad was wrong. "Doing anything with someone you shouldn't be doing something with—having sex with him, kissing on him, going into a movie and holding hands with a man when you're a lesbian—feels wrong," she says. "When you want to be with someone else, it's wrong. I wronged him."
When people hide from their truth, Chely says they wreak havoc on themselves and everyone around them. "I damaged [Brad], and I hope he forgives me," she says. "I hope this fills in some emotional gaps for him. I don't assume he's pining over how Chely Wright hurt his feelings a few years ago. I'm assuming he's happy and moved on, but I would welcome any chance [to talk to him]."
Chely's lifelong secret also affected her relationship with her family. "When one lives a closeted life, there's a compartmentalization that happens. That's my experience," she says. "I became a skilled liar, and I lived two different lives."
Then, one day, Chely received a phone call from her father, Stan. "He said: 'Chel, what have I done? Are you mad at me? Is there something wrong? Why aren't we close?'" she says. Soon after, Chely found the courage to tell her father the truth.
After a concert in Missouri, Chely sat with her father and faced her fears. "[I said]: 'I have to tell you something I've needed to tell you my whole life. I've been afraid, though, to tell you because I'm afraid you won't love me, and I'm afraid you'll be ashamed of me. ... I'm gay,'" she says.
At first, Stan didn't say a word. "I grabbed her, and I put my arms around her," he says. "I told her it was all right. It would be fine."
Stan says he was raised to believe that homosexuality was wrong and sinful, but he found out quickly that was not true. "I knew her heart. I knew her mind. I knew her soul," he says. "You hear a lot of times unconditional love. Well, in this old man's world, it's true."
Before passing judgment on others, Stan offers one piece of advice to people in the same situation. "The simplest thing I can tell anyone is, do not close the door," he says. "Open the heart."
Since Chely came out to the world, she says few country music stars have reached out to her. In fact, only two have contacted her.
"They all have my email, and it's been a little disappointing that I haven't heard from more," she says. "That said, I have had hundreds of emails and phone calls and text messages from the country music community at large. ... The response has been overwhelming. People are coming out on my Facebook page. It's been incredible."
Oprah: Did you think you would lose your career?
Chely: I still don't know that I won't.
Oprah: But it was worth it to you to take the risk?
Oprah: What made it worth it to you to take the risk at this time in your life?
Chely: I had a gun in my mouth. This is all gravy.
From this point on, Chely says she's taking her power back. "I've been whispered about in country music for a long time. ... The word 'lesbian' has been used as an insult," she says. "[Now], you can say I'm ugly. You can say my songs are stupid, but I won't allow the word 'lesbian' to be used as an insult toward me anymore."
Today, Chely is living her truth for the first time. "I feel like I'm about two weeks old," she says. "This is who God made me to be, and of course I came out because if I don't, I will never be whole."
Chely also hopes her story helps men and women like herself.
"Young people in every corner of America are being told by their churches, and their parents are echoing what the churches are telling them, that they are damaged goods. And they are not," she says. "I have to stand up. I'm uniquely positioned in my culture of country music. ... Country fans know me. They already think I'm a heck of a gal, a patriot, a good girl, and I am a lesbian. I have been the whole time."