The first thing I notice about Cameron Mitchell is the bullet casing hanging from his neck by a thin piece of ribbon. It’s strange because Mitchell is the opposite of a violent guy. He is an all-or-nothing hugger, the kind who wraps himself around strangers like he’s met them 100 million times before. Huggers don’t usually keep bullets in handy places. I think.

Mitchell is sitting inside a packed Pei Wei near Southlake Town Square, where he goes unnoticed by other people who like unappetizing Asian food. He’s eating his usual order of Pei Wei Spicy, using his chopsticks properly instead of electing to stab each chicken piece. In 20 minutes, he’ll drop one of the sticks and get a new pair, but for now, he’s attempting to be what he calls “authentic.” Even though the clamor during lunch hour makes it almost impossible to hear whatever Billboard Hot 100 song is leaking through the restaurant’s speakers, Mitchell picks out the chorus to a Kid Cudi jam and starts singing, “I’m on the pursuit of happ—” Then he stops and remembers he was in the middle of telling me about his necklace.

“It’s a reminder of what I was like on the show,” he says. “The Glee Project really made me realize who I was.”

Mitchell (one of TigerBeat’s “cutest boys you’re not crushing on … yet!”) is 23, lanky, and gives off the same sweetheart vibes as Taylor Swift, whom he’d date if the pop star ever asked him out. As far-fetched as this scenario might seem for other guys, it could actually happen for this particular Swifty admirer. After all, Mitchell is a teenage heartthrob himself. No matter what season it is, his usual uniform (whether he’s performing or not) consists of skinny jeans and one of the eight pairs of Warby Parker glasses he has. His dirty blond hair is kept deliberately messy and tousled, like he just got out of bed. And the Colleyville native doesn’t sing—he croons.
 
The ladies—or, should I say, girls—love it.

The first Cameron-obsessed Tumblrs started clogging up the internet after Mitchell made it onto The Glee Project. The Oxygen network reality show was a spinoff of Fox’s popular show-choir comedy, Glee. The Glee Project more or less served as an extended audition for 12 wannabe Gleeks. Co-creator Ryan Murphy promised the winner a spot on Glee and a seven-episode arc.
 
Girls from all over the world, especially from Brazil and the Philippines, latched onto Mitchell’s every awkward dance move. It was the summer of 2011, and Mitchell, a Colleyville High School dropout who wrote original songs like “Love Can Wait” in the privacy of his parents’ basement, was new to all the attention. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an interview that, before this, his biggest audition was singing a new song to his mom in the kitchen. Now he was auditioning for Glee on national television.

There were a few speed bumps for Mitchell in the first handful of episodes; in one, Murphy worried that Mitchell was “too perfect for the show.” But the real hiccup didn’t come until episode five, “Pairability.” Cameras focused on Mitchell dialing his mom, Dedo, after Lindsay Pearce kissed him during an acting sequence.

“Mom, Lindsay just kissed me out of nowhere. It was honestly a terrible, terrible feeling. I can’t even tell you how crappy I feel about it.”
 
Calmly, Dedo asked her son, “Why do you feel bad?”
 
“I feel like I’ve cheated, Mom. I’ve never cheated on a girl my entire life, but it honestly feels like I have.”

At the time, Mitchell was in a relationship with an aspiring singer and songwriter. (Mitchell, you could say, is attracted to talent. He was Demi Lovato’s first boyfriend when she was in seventh grade.) Receiving a kiss from someone other than his girlfriend made Mitchell feel at odds with his Christian faith.
 
He used to lead worship at church. That’s how he learned how to sing and perform. His dad, Preston, served as a pastor at Fellowship Church from 1995 until 2011. Before that, Mitchell was the first baby to ever attend Fellowship, back when it was still the mission church of Irving’s First Baptist Church. The Mitchells—Cameron, his dad, his mom, and his two sisters—grew as a family within their church community.
 
Then the seventh episode, “Sexuality,” happened. After evading a kiss with Hannah McIalwain, Mitchell shocked everyone, including Ryan Murphy, by deciding to forfeit his spot on The Glee Project. His moral side (the side his dad is proud of ) couldn’t take being on the show anymore. Murphy visited Mitchell in his dressing room. “I’m sad,” Murphy told him. “I feel like I could have written you a role, and I do think you could have gone all the way to the finals. I think you could have touched so many people.” Mitchell, red-nosed and teary-eyed, still chose to leave The Glee Project spotlight. His departure saved his best friend on the show, Damian McGinty, from being eliminated.

ryan_murphy Glee co-creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy wanted Cameron Mitchell to stay on the reality show. Still, he chose to drop out. Photography courtesy of Corbis Images

It’s fall 2012 now, more than a year after he left the show, and Mitchell still doesn’t regret his decision. Not much has changed in his life, besides the fact that he’s now single. Every morning he goes through his usual routine: wake up at 9 am, eat breakfast (either Pop-Tarts or Kix cereal with soy milk), take a shower, sit down (in sweats), and start singing. His bedroom, where he works, is adorned with a poster of the Beatles, his favorite band. The only difference is that he’s doing it in West Hollywood, where he lives with McGinty, his Irish buddy who used to sing with the band Celtic Thunder.

When fans first saw how chummy the two were on The Glee Project, they gave McGinty and Mitchell the name “Dameron,” the kind of celebrity-couple portmanteau that’s usually reserved for, well, couples. (To be clear, there are two camps of Dameron fans out there: the less intense group celebrates the bromance aspect, while the other one uses the Dameron name the same way they’d use “Brangelina.” This latter population includes a small subset of hard-core admirers who write extremely graphic fan fiction involving the roommates, which Mitchell says has left him “scarred.”) Despite this, McGinty and Mitchell love their Dameron fans. Every single one of them. They even use the moniker frequently in their YouTube series, CDTV (as in “Cameron Damian TV”), to refer to themselves whenever they post song collaborations and video updates on their lives. They’re Dameron, and they’re proud of it.

“We do everything together just because I have to drive him everywhere,” Mitchell says. “He doesn’t have a car.” Fun at the McGinty- Mitchell residence means waking up at 4 am to watch soccer matches or playing hours of the FIFA Soccer video game. Mitchell plays as Brazil, and McGinty usually picks Madrid or Spain. “The only time he gets mad is when I beat him in FIFA,” Mitchell says.
 

C_Mitchel_glee_friends Mitchell with The Glee Project co-stars Damian McGinty and Hannah McIalwain Photography courtesy of Newscom

When Mitchell talks about life in West Hollywood, it’s obvious that he’s homesick. Mitchell only agreed to live in that part of L.A. because McGinty wanted to be closer to Glee’s set. (After Mitchell forfeited, McGinty ended up tying for first place in The Glee Project with Samuel Larsen.) Mitchell escapes from L.A. as often as he can, citing irreconcilable differences. Every couple of months, he flies into DFW to visit his sister Whitney, and also his friend Jon Draper, who lives in Keller. This explains why he’s here for the weekend.

“In Texas, I feel like it’s pretty dang friendly,” he says. “People don’t hang out with you because of your status. Hollywood takes a certain kind of person. I’m not that person.”

Mitchell is tired of talking about The Glee Project and is “pretty much over it,” but he humors me anyway when I ask him why he left. “Obviously, they played up the whole angle of kissing another girl and how Cameron doesn’t do that because he’s a Christian, which is true. I am. I’m a strong believer,” he says. “But, looking back, I would not have enjoyed being on Glee whatsoever. That’s not me. I don’t care about the glitz and glamour. The money’s nice, but honestly, the worst part is imagining myself going to a dance
rehearsal every day at 5 am and then going to film when I’m not even an actor.”

Mitchell, still working on his Pei Wei Spicy chicken, continues: “Really, it had to do with my beliefs. It came to a point where I saw all these kids willing to slit each other’s throats for that spot on Glee. It was cutthroat. I felt vulnerable. It was bad. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I was never raised to be like that, to be that guy who’s so desperate for a role on something you’ll take anyone down until you get to the top.”
 
Despite what everyone else may think, Mitchell swears he hasn’t been corrupted by Hollywood. People have tried, he says, but it hasn’t worked. “Instead of going out and drinking with everybody else, I’m the one who stays back and works on music and drives them if they need it.” Even though he can’t stand the Hollywood culture, he believes his purpose is to be a light to others. There is a reason why he’s in L.A.

About an hour later, after Mitchell gives up on his bland food, he takes me to Jon Draper’s home in Keller. It’s a 15-minute drive away. Draper’s dad opens the door and tells us to go upstairs, where his son—Mitchell’s childhood friend, audio engineer, and music video director—is playing online poker on his iPad. This tiny room is apparently where most of the music magic happens. A tour of it takes 10 seconds, maybe less. To the right of the doorway, a tiny closet doubles as Mitchell’s vocal booth. A drum set lies against the back wall, its throne occupied by Draper, who yelps every now and then when his virtual opponent comes up with a better hand. Draper alternates between mumbling to himself and pausing his game to help Mitchell find the right files on his Apple computer.

Mitchell and I are sitting in front of Draper’s desktop when he presses play on one of his songs, an electronic-pop cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” that I haven’t heard yet. Mitchell bobs his head to the bass line, glancing over to see how I like it. It’s obvious that he’s trying to do something big here, something serious with his music in his attempt to capture the anthemic feel of Coldplay. The heavy reverb and ambient buildup kind of give it away. But Mitchell is still testing out his style. For another song on his album, The Covers, Mitchell switched gears and recorded the Beatles’ “Blackbird” with just an acoustic guitar and drums. It’s drastically different from “The Scientist”: his voice—soft, gentle, and unadorned—is almost naked in comparison. This is the song Mitchell sang that made Ryan Murphy want him to stay on The Glee Project.

“It’s always a constant battle to find what my sound is. What exactly do I want to sound like?” Mitchell can’t say for sure. He’s still in his experimentation phase, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It’s trial by error. Basically, this has been the theme of his life since The Glee Project, when he realized the show wasn’t for him. The same thing happened with Hollywood. It didn’t work out. This is an early education, if anything, in how the world works. How people, fame starved as they are, function outside of his protective bubble. But that’s okay. Mitchell is only 23. Something that he said earlier, soon after he heard the Kid Cudi song play inside Pei Wei, assures me that he’s going to do just fine, whether he makes it or not.

“Money only gets you so far. It never leads to happiness. Create your own happiness. Everyone pursues it in Hollywood. I’m going to create my own dang happiness.” As if to prove his point, Mitchell finally left Hollywood behind in March, going on an extended road trip that took him through Texas, before arriving in his new home: Nashville.

“When disappointments or people try to derail you, that’s when you know something massive is about to happen,” he tweeted on March 31. “Won’t look back.”