In May of last year, David Archuleta was at dinner with his then-fiancée when he froze at the table — and found himself suffering a paralyzing anxiety attack.
"I was panicking. I didn't move for 30 minutes. I was thinking about having to be her partner and being intimate," Archuleta tells PEOPLE. "She said, 'What the heck is going on?' I was like, 'All I know is I can't be around you. I need three weeks. I'm going to work really hard. I'm going too fast. I'm going to pray.'"
Archuleta grew up in Utah as a devout member of the Mormon church, which condemns same-sex relationships. But for years, the singer — who rose to fame on American Idol — had repressed feelings of same-sex attraction, which finally led to his near-breakdown with his fiancée.
"I was having anxiety attacks when I was around her because you're trying to force intimacy with someone that you're not able to experience," says Archuleta. "I didn't want to accept that I was into guys."
Soon after, Archuleta called off his engagement, and in June 2021 he revealed he's a part of the LGBTQ community. Ever since, though, he has struggled with a "faith crisis," Archuleta says, "that's pretty much rocked my world." Suppressing his sexuality had taken a toll on him, and at his lowest, he says he contemplated suicide because of the church's doctrine: "I thought it would be a better choice to just end my life."
Today, Archuleta, who now identifies as queer, is still healing.
"I'm finally learning what it's like to actually love myself," Archuleta says over a Zoom interview from his Nashville home, where his new white Siberian kitten, Frosty, is playing nearby. "I feel liberated."
'No Matter How Hard I Tried to Marry a Girl, It Wasn't Right'
Raised in a conservative family in Utah, Archuleta's life revolved around his faith. In 2008, he charmed the country with his boyish good looks and angelic vocals when he competed on American Idol, placing second after rocker David Cook. His star only grew brighter after the show, when he released his lovesick single "Crush," which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Despite his success, Archuleta stepped away from the spotlight in 2012 to embark on a two-year Mormon mission.
After his mission, Archuleta continued to record music, which, he says, aligned with the fundamentals of Mormonism.
"It was all about music that invites the spirit into people's hearts so that they know God is there, and that they feel God's presence," says Archuleta, who, post-Idol, felt he was a "poster child" for the church. "Everything revolved around that. That meant: I'm going to marry a woman, I'm going to follow all these commandments, I'm going to live the Word of Wisdom. Everything was set out: no alcohol, no tobacco, no smoking, no sex before marriage, no gay relationships, God is your everything, go to church every Sunday, make sure you're worthy to hold the temple recommend so that you can go to the temple, and make sure you believe in Jesus Christ, make sure you believe that the Book of Mormon is true and that the Bible is true, and follow the prophet; everything he says is right and comes from God. That was my life; that was my bubble."
Indeed, Archuleta followed Mormon teachings. He was even previously engaged to three women before breaking off those separate engagements, he reveals.
"No matter how hard I tried to marry a girl, it wasn't right. And if you talk to my exes, they'll tell you it was rough," says Archuleta, who adds he's on "good terms" with his most recent ex. "I'm sure other people who've been in that situation can relate. People who are queer, who've tried to get married just to do the 'right' thing, it ends up not being a very good thing, and it's not very healthy for either participant of the relationship."
'I Had to Take a Break from Religion … for My Own Sanity'
Archuleta repressed his sexuality until that fateful dinner with his former fiancée, and the identity crisis nearly killed him.
"You just start feeling like, 'Oh, there's probably no point for me to live. I probably would be better off not living anyway. God would probably forgive me if I ended my life because it's better than what I could become, which is if I'm gay or LGBT of any sorts, I'm going to be in big trouble spiritually,'" Archuleta recalls thinking.
After his paralyzing anxiety episode, Archuleta did some soul-searching, and, after plenty of prayer and conversations with God, he began to accept his identity as a queer man.
"It got to a point where I was praying, like, 'God, if you are really there, please take this away from me because I don't know what else to do.' And finally, there was just a moment where my understanding of God said, 'You need to stop asking me this. You're not supposed to change yourself because this is how you are. You are created to be this way,'" Archuleta recalls. "That was just the most freeing thing for me."
Once he was able to reconcile his sexuality with his own spirituality, Archuleta began speaking to church leaders about Mormonism's views on the LGBTQ community. The conversations were futile and left him feeling frustrated and exhausted. Today, his relationship with the church is "very complicated," he says.
"For my own mental health, I can't keep putting myself in a place where it's so conflicting where they say, 'We love you so much, but at the same time, you must change who you are. Oh, you can't? Then we're going to ignore this problem,'" says Archuleta, who has received support from his family since he made the decision. "I tried to hide from this all my life, and I can't. I just had to take a step away, take a break from religion — because for my own sanity, I did not want to weigh out whether it was better for me to live and exist, or if it was better for me not to exist," he adds. "It hurts me because my religion was everything for me. But you get to a point where you realize there are some things not right here. I need to just live my life, because I already know I'm okay how I am." D
When it came to the religious values Archuleta grew up with, he says, "they're comparing being gay to murdering someone, and you're like, 'I don't want to be an evil person.'"
'It Feels Like Breaking Free'
Nearly 15 years after releasing "Crush," Archuleta admits he didn't fully connect with the song until last year, when at 30, he kissed a man for the first time.
"It felt effortless," Archuleta says of the kiss. "I was like, 'Oh, so this is what it feels like to like someone.' Now I see why everyone relates to my song."
Since first addressing his sexuality last year, Archuleta has been working on healing, and music has been a throughline of that journey. Last month, he released "Faith in Me," an upbeat, '80s-tinged single about the joyful direction he's heading in.
"I never release uptempo songs. I just wanted to release something happy, and it just says: I don't care what anyone says, I don't care what the rules are, it's just about being in the moment and enjoying it," says Archuleta, who will soon embark on a Christmas tour. "It feels like breaking free."
This summer, he found solace when he starred in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre in his native Utah, which he found inspiring — and where he felt at home.
"This was the most gay people I've ever been around; I always avoided being around other gay people because I thought if I was around it, it was going to bring it out of me," Archuleta says, but "it's great to be around queer people who actually embrace who they are."
As he continues on a path of self-discovery, Archuleta confirms he has dated men since coming out (though he wouldn't comment on his current relationship status). And while he's the first to admit "I just have to figure out who I am," he says he's in a better place since rethinking his "damaging" relationship with his religion.
"Once you step away, you're finally able to see the fuller picture," Archuleta says. "It's confusing because, literally, the pictures on my wall are all Christian-based pictures of Jesus and of scriptures and things. Now I'm like, 'This was my world, but now it isn't. Now what do I do?' I have no idea."
Still, he's hopeful. And in a better place.
"I've allowed myself to love myself for everything I am, to not be conditioned to shame myself — and to be not ashamed of who I am feels wonderful," he says, "because I didn't think it was ever okay to love myself."