Deanna Daughtry didn’t make a big deal out of it when she handed her husband, platinum-selling rocker Chris Daughtry, a sheet of lyrics she’d written.
“She basically said, ‘If this inspires you, feel free to use it,’” Chris, 39, recalls. “She kind of downplayed it and walked away, which made me want to read it even more.”
Absorbing the words, he quickly realized what his wife had given him was a big deal. “It just felt very real and very honest,” he tells PEOPLE. His singer-songwriter’s wheels also began turning: “I instantly started hearing the chorus in my head.”
Today, the song, “As You Are,” is the brand-new single off Daughtry’s latest album Cage to Rattle. But the couple reveals it’s more than a unique, first-time collaboration. The ballad, both tender and powerful, is Deanna’s “coming out,” her victory in a lifetime struggle to embrace her bisexuality. The chorus, “I love you as you are,” is what Deanna, 46, is finally able to tell herself.
Until now, Deanna had confided her secret to only a handful of people, Chris among them. Soon after they met in 2000, he learned that her past included not only a divorce from a man but also a relationship with a woman.
“I didn’t care,” says Daughtry, who was 20 when the two met at a party in North Carolina. “I didn’t feel threatened. I wanted her to be happy with who she was and not hide that or be ashamed.”
Deanna, though, couldn’t find a way to come to terms with her bisexuality. “I was hiding and shutting down a part of myself,” she says, sitting next to her husband in their Nashville home, “and it was causing me to shut down so many good, beautiful things about myself. As I built these walls up to protect myself, I was creating a prison, and I couldn’t fully experience life and people couldn’t fully experience me — and it’s all based on fear.”
She harbored this fear through years of dramatic change in the couple’s life. When the two met, he was a vacuum cleaner salesman by day and an aspiring rock singer by night; she was a licensed massage therapist. Then six years later, Daughtry placed fourth on American Idol and rocketed to fame with such hits as “Home” and “It’s Not Over.” The pressures of stardom took a toll on their marriage, and Deanna’s struggle with her sexual identity only deepened her sense of isolation.
Her pain finally drew her into a long period of therapy, self-examination and growth. Finally, in 2015, she reached a fateful point of self-acceptance — and when the moment came, she wanted to make her declaration in writing. It was a natural impulse: She has used lyric-writing as a private outlet for expression since adolescence.
“I really wanted to be vulnerable and say, ‘This is who I am,’” she explains, recalling the moment of inspiration. “I love me. I hope you will love me, but if you don’t, that’s okay because I still have myself, and I do have people that love me as I am, and that’s all I want.”
Soon after she finished the lyrics, her husband walked through the door of their home — “and I had the guts to give it to him,” Deanna recalls.
Daughtry went to work on the song, but he didn’t reveal the finished product to his wife until he had recorded a demo. Listening to it together for the first time, he says, was “a very emotional moment.”
In partnership with Daughtry, Build-A-Bear is producing a special run of 8,000 “As You Are” bears, which will be pre-loaded with a download code for the song. A portion of proceeds from the sale of each bear will benefit The Trevor Project.
Now that Deanna’s declaration has been released as a single, the Daughtrys are eager to share the meaning behind the lyrics.
“It’s very important for people to know what the song is about and where it really came from,” Chris says. “Otherwise we’re not being authentic with the song.”
Deanna knows people may wonder why she’s revealing her bisexuality when she and Chris have made a monogamous marriage commitment. Her response: Openness is the only antidote to fear and shame. “I understand the fear of ‘what if someone finds out and they’re going to reject me?’” she says. “Those are fears that heterosexual people don’t need to worry about, and I’ve walked it.”
For his part, Chris is grateful that the song gives him a role in Deanna’s coming-out story. “I’m super-proud that she feels strong enough to be so open and honest about it,” says Daughtry, who is continuing to collaborate on songs with his wife. “We’re both after the same goal, and that’s being our true selves to each other.”
For more from Chris and Deanna Daughtry, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
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