“I’m always ready for a kitty cat!” We gave Judas Priest legend Rob Halford a load of kittens to play with and asked him about heavy metal, becoming a gay icon and (sort of) being Dolly Parton's BFF

MHR385 Rob Halford Kittens
(Image credit: Future)

Tuyo, the theme song from Narcos, wafts lazily in the background of the dimly lit studio, as Rob Halford, Judas Priest’s iconic frontman, glares through the dark lenses of his aviator sunglasses, his head crowned by a shiny leather cop hat. The photographer snaps away. 

Dressed to the nines in his black biker coat, hands adorned with fingerless, studded gloves, Rob looks like he’s ready to rain hellfire and brimstone upon a stadium full of surging, wild-eyed headbangers. Then things get weird. “Are you ready for a kitty cat?” inquires Travis Shinn, the photographer. 

“I’m always ready for a kitty cat,” Rob replies, with palpable excitement. This is no saucy volley of double entendres, but an exchange that introduces a heart-melting spectacle. A tiny, orange tabby kitten is handed to Rob, and his stoic metal façade crumbles, revealing a man bursting with unadulterated joy. It’s obvious to every metalhead with an internet connection that Rob loves kittens. 

On Instagram (727,000 followers and counting), he posts an inordinate amount of feline memes, poses in kitty t-shirts, and often tags LA nonprofit Kitten Rescue. However, today’s photoshoot is at a recording studio in Rob’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, so we’ve called in local organisation the Arizona Animal Welfare League to brighten Rob’s day. 

Kiwi, the tabby, gazes deeply into the Metal God’s face before suddenly turning fugitive. After a swift rescue, he’s replaced with Hazel, a shy black kitten with saucer-sized eyes. She purrs her way into Rob’s embrace, finding solace in his snowy white beard. The room is now a symphony of coos and clicks, as Travis immortalises the love fest. Rob, lost in the moment, lavishes Hazel with affection, in a scene that’s oddly tender and starkly different from the metal fury that he’s known to command. 

“I love all creatures,” Rob says wistfully, after the last kitten has been whisked away. “Animals were here before we were, weren’t they? Ha ha! So there’s the respect right there. They’re such an important part of your life, whether you’re an owner of a dog, cat, lizard, snake… You develop a bond to this living, breathing creature. They’re companions, they have empathy. Particularly when there’s some kind of challenge going on in their person’s life, like a bereavement, they snuggle up to you. It’s a very profound moment.” 

We retreat to a snug back lounge in the studio – a hallowed ground where Rob’s etched countless tracks into the annals of metal history. His longtime partner, Thomas, delivers a steaming cup of coffee to him. We slump into the black leather couches, ready to get a sense of Rob Halford in 2024. In the public eye, he’s a screeching, leather-clad firebrand, a tireless preacher in the church of heavy metal, ever ready to spread the gospel to the horn-throwing faithful across the globe. 

He’s also a beacon of inclusivity and a much-loved member of the LGBTQIA+ community, coming out on MTV in 1998. But seated across from us today, Rob is mellow. His 72 years have resulted in wisdom born from raw life experience, and a sobriety streak running 38 years strong. He speaks with an ease that’s disarming, flipping questions back at us like a seasoned card shark. Decades in the States haven’t scrubbed away that thick Black Country accent, as if it’s a badge of honour he refuses to shed. 

“Who I am as a person has never really dissipated,” he says. Smiling, he continues, “We call ourselves ‘Yam Yams.’ To be a ‘Yam Yam’ is to come from my part of the West Midlands, or the Black Country, as we call it. And you don’t put yourself on a pedestal. You don’t elevate yourself because we’re all people, we all do different kinds of jobs. I happen to be a singer in a heavy metal band. The fact that it is who it is and what we’ve achieved is irrelevant.” 

In 1973, Rob joined forces with the rampaging British metal beast known as Judas Priest, adding his otherworldly vocals to a classic line-up that included guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, alongside bassist Ian Hill. Members have come and gone throughout the ensuing half century, including Rob himself, who took leave of the band from 1992-2003 to pursue various solo projects. 

K.K. Downing left in 2011 and, for several years now, the line-up has featured Rob, Glenn and Ian alongside drummer Scott Travis (since 1989) and guitarist Richie Faulkner (since 2011). They’re now poised to release Invincible Shield – incredibly, it’ll be the 19th album for the band, and the 17th for Rob. 

These days, Rob’s a long way from his fellow Yam Yams. He first set foot in Arizona in 1988, rolling through town after a show in Las Vegas. Phoenix, a bizarre cocktail of painted desert mirage and concrete reality, whispered seductively to him, its sun-blasted landscapes cutting a stark contrast to the industrial West Midlands. 

“I’ve always said that everybody has another favourite place, don’t they?” he says. “Like if it’s a vacation place, you keep going back to that one special vacation place because it means so much to you. That’s what happened to me with Phoenix.” 

Over the years, myriad bands have asked Rob to share his insights for surviving the steel-jawed carnivore that is the music industry, including a young System Of A Down passing through Phoenix in the 90s, while opening for Slayer. “I told them that you have to remember to love each other, talk to each other and give each other hugs,” he says. 

“Every band is this great big emotional fireball. It’s a very difficult process to keep it all working well. On the musical level, things might be working fine, but it’s the other stuff you really need to pay attention to as well. That’s why I always say, in my bits of Gandalf metal wisdom, talk to each other. Whatever’s on your mind, just say what it is. The development of your relationship with people in the band is probably more important than your relationship with the music.” 

In 1986, after years of relentlessly punishing his body and his psyche with booze and drugs, Rob put himself before the music and raised the white flag with his bandmates. He dove headlong into recovery, and has remained clean and sober ever since. In 2020, he underwent treatments to remove cancerous growths from his prostate, receiving the all-clear from doctors a year later. 

“Before,” he says, “when I was faced with life issues, particularly when I was in the closet, I’d just get blitzed out of my mind because a) it would make me feel better and b) it would kind of dampen down the pain I was going through. So to be at this place now where you deal head-on with, ‘Oh, you’ve got cancer’ – back in the day, it would have been ‘Give me a couple of lines,’ or ‘Let me do a gram.’” 

Today, Rob exudes a deep sense of ease. Every morning, he does a prayer ritual, and every night he practises gratitude. “Now I’m always at this kind of peaceful place, to deal with anything that life throws at me,” he adds. “It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? It is a gift.” 

It’s a gift that served him well in 1998 when, during his time away from Judas Priest, he stepped into the glaring lights of MTV and came out to the world. “I think that most people know that I’ve been a gay man all of my life, and it’s only been in recent times that it’s an issue I feel comfortable to address,” he said on camera. “This is the moment to discuss it.” 

“When I made that announcement at the MTV studio, I didn’t really realise how big of a deal that was going to be,” he says today. “This was before the internet, so the way the message was communicated was at a snail’s pace. Which isn’t a bad thing, because when Billie Eilish finally made the pronunciation of who she is [she unintentionally came out as bisexual in 2023], the world was on fire for 48 hours and then the world moved on. I think I understood within a matter of days how I’d now put myself into a place of, ‘What’s going to happen next?’” 

In the landscape of the 90s music industry, coming out as LGBTQIA+ was akin to stepping into a hurricane. An artist risked lost record deals, vanishing radio play and a mainstream audience recoiling in their archaic prejudices. For Rob to go public was pure courage on display, and he felt a flood of relief. 

“There’s no doubt that I became a better person because I could just let go of a lot of the walls that I had to create around me for my own protection,” he continues. “Mostly for the band’s protection. If I’d have gone back to Priest as I did, and I still hadn’t come out of the closet, would I have made that announcement? Life has these beautiful things that happen to you that are sometimes out of your reach. So that coming out episode was probably the best opportunity that I had to suddenly be who I am.”

Today, Rob is not only a well-loved member of the metal community, but of the mainstream. In 2022, Judas Priest were finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, alongside country music legend – and gay icon – Dolly Parton. The ceremony unleashed a bizarre yet brilliant spectacle, with the Metal God joining forces with Dolly or a rendition of her massive hit Jolene, resplendent in a long, black, glinting jacket with vertical, stud-embellished white strips. 

“Somehow, instinctively, I knew we were going to meet,” Rob explains with a radiant intensity. “I always tell the story of my mother’s grandmother, who was a clairvoyant, and I still think I’ve got a little of that in me, because something went, ‘You’re going to meet Dolly Parton.’ 

Two or three days later, these emails come into the office, and Dolly’s reached out, asking, ‘Would you sing some lines on Jolene?’ You sit at home and go, ‘Oh my god, this is truly going to happen!’ Being a gay guy, ‘I’ve got nothing to wear!’ I know that she likes to sparkle and I like to sparkle, so what I wore on that night was apropos.” 

When they first met at the rehearsal, the two legends clicked immediately. “She goes, ‘I love your beard!’” he exclaims, “and she starts to clean my beard! It was so surreal! I’m meeting this living legend and she’s tickling my beard and going, ‘So you’re going to sing some Jolene with me?’ I was just floating.” 

In 2023, the two duetted on the song Bygones, for Dolly’s crossover album, Rockstar. Rob opens his arms and gestures broadly across the room, explaining that he recorded his vocals in this very studio while she was in Nashville with her producer, Kent Wells. 

“We’re on the phone to each other and she’s going [puts on a credible Southern US accent], ‘Send me the files! Send me the files!’ So I sent her the files and she calls back and goes, ‘I love these! This is gonna be great!’ This is Dolly Parton on speakerphone! Ha ha! She’s just this beautiful beacon of life. You can tell by the way I’m speaking that this is important to me as a musician, to have had this literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with someone so great.” 

It wasn’t the only once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Rob had last year. On October 7, he walked onstage at California’s Power Trip – one of the biggest metal festivals in history. With upwards of 200,000 attendees over three days, it featured Metallica, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Tool and there, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of Ozzy Osbourne’s unfortunate cancellation due to health reasons, Judas Priest. 

Reviewers, in a blissed-out, post-festival haze, anointed Judas Priest as the weekend’s zenith, eclipsing even the mighty AC/DC. It was a thrilling testament to the electrifying allure of OG British metal in a world overrun by a mainstream gone stagnant. “It felt right,” Rob says. 

“It felt like we needed to be there. I saw all my friends who were going to be playing, including Ozzy, and I thought, ‘Man, this is so great. What a great cross section of rock and metal.’ But Power Trip was more about showing this league of musicians together in a very unique presentation. The sadness that Ozzy wasn’t able to make it and the thrill to get the call – that Ozzy would love to see if you guys would step in – that kind of completed the picture in a lot of ways, minus Ozzy.” 

In 2018, Glenn Tipton stepped away from touring duties after disclosing a diagnosis of later-stage Parkinson’s disease. He’s remained active in the studio and has appeared onstage with the band a number of times since. In the dusty California desert, he joined them once again to the roaring delight of the crowd. 

Beaming with pride, Rob says, “It was just beautiful when he came out and the audience went, ‘Glenn!’ He’s such a hero and he received so much love and respect, as he deserves, because he’s one of the greatest ever metal guitar players that’s lived. There is no other guitar player like Glenn Tipton. “That was a special moment for Glenn. It was almost like a complete cycle because – I won’t say this with my hand on my heart – but there’s a possibility that was the last time that you saw Glenn play live.

It’s getting increasingly difficult for him. So for him to find the strength to actually come out and play is a beautiful thing. Having said that, we’re about to start the big Invincible Shield tour in the UK and, if I know Glenn, he’ll get in his car and drive to Glasgow, do the show and then drive home. Ha ha!”

[since this interview, Glenn has indeed made two more appearances with Judas Priest as part of the band's UK tour]

Rob Halford 2024

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

With Rob, Glenn and Ian in their 70s, it’d be both easy and misleading to view Invincible Shield as a bookend to Judas Priest’s storied career. For Rob, it’s a continuation of what they’ve always delivered. “It’s another strong, solid representation of what this band can do,” he says. “We’re not holding back. There’s still this full-on determination to see if we’ve still got it.”

With Invincible Shield, they have distilled the essence of their past and blended it with the force of modern production. In the ‘Don’t Repair Things That Work Just Fine’ category, the guys relied on the songwriting model that’s served them faithfully for decades. 

“When Glenn and Richie and myself get in a room, like Priest have always done, as a three-piece – two guitar players and a singer – that’s the metal magic,” Rob explains. “All of that energy, all of that youthful exuberance was still there in those initial writing sessions.” 

Rob then answers the question about Glenn that’s been endlessly asked on social media. “He’s still an important contributor to everything this band does,” Rob says, “including his work all over Invincible Shield. That’s Glenn playing the guitar. So whether it’s just a chord, whether it’s riffs, or whether it’s a little bit of lead, Glenn is on Invincible Shield. That needs to be said. His value and his input have not diminished; he’s just as important a part of Priest as he ever was.” 

As Rob listened to the grooves coming together, the lyrics and themes began revealing themselves to him – particularly the defiant title track. “I realised that all of these songs are part of an invincible shield,” he explains. 

“Priest is an invincible shield. Metal is an invincible shield. Our fans create an invincible shield. I just love the visualisation. Initially, a shield defends you, but it also lets you push forward. It’s a great object, a shield. Then you put the word ‘invincible’ next to it and man, that’s a big statement right there. I presented the whole idea to the guys and they were like, ‘Yeah, thumbs up – let’s do this!’”

Longtime producer Andy Sneap has taken on an even greater role. In addition to stepping in for Glenn as the band’s second guitarist, he wields a galaxy of experience gleaned from producing and jamming with a legion of metal bands. 

“Andy’s a blessing,” says Rob. “Firstly, the day that Glenn said he felt that he was going to step back and let Andy stand in his place onstage, that was a very profound moment. Andy was able to do Glenn’s parts really well. He was in a band called Hell and he was in a band called Sabbat.” Rob grins. “That’s the black dog metal – the evil stuff, as I call it.” 

Invincible Shield opens with an eyebrow-searing firestorm of Panic Attack, The Serpent And The King and the title track. “We always think about those first three tracks,” explains Rob. “I think that every band understands that your fans have been eagerly awaiting your new music and you’ve really got to be strong and forceful in what you’re displaying. By the end of your third song, the commitment should be there from your fans. They’ve got to be going, ‘You guys have got it. I’m all-in!’” 

At this moment, Travis, our photographer, walks into the room to bid farewell. He compliments Rob on the black leather codpiece he wore during the shoot, before turning to leave. “Travis! Come here… Travis!” shouts Rob. As he re-enters the room, Rob flings the codpiece to him. “Are you serious?” asks a gobsmacked Travis. 

“Yes. It’s a new one, actually,” Rob says. 

“You just made my day,” says our intrepid photographer. 

“You can send me a Christmas card with you wearing that,” laughs Rob. “Have you ever, in your life, with all the bands you’ve worked with, had a gift like that?” 

Howls of laughter fill the room. Along with a new album and touring, 2024 ushers in a momentous occasion: the anniversary of Priest’s debut album. For Rob, it’s something of a full-circle moment. 

“We are going to be celebrating 50 years of Rocka Rolla, so I’ve just sat down and been listening to it again. We’ve got some exciting things in the pipeline for that record,” he smiles. “The timing on One For The Road, and the phrasing on that, it’s so peculiar, so different, it’s so never-been-done-before… those little elements have been with Priest from Rocka Rolla to Invincible Shield.” 

At 72 years old, Rob remains energised, still delivering metal bangers with convincing passion while taking time to donate codpieces to wayward photographers, cuddle cats, run a wildly entertaining Instagram account and be a generally awesome human being. Though seasoned by the years behind him, Rob Halford continues to look squarely into the future, embracing change and living in a state of gratitude. 

“What I like today about the music business is that people used to have to fit into boxes. It was almost like there was an expiration date, you know? Ageism would play its role and the way you looked played a role. All that’s done now. 

There’s just total respect there for everything that you do, how you look, what you say, whether you’re straight, gay, whatever. That’s irrelevant, because we’re all people and we’re all being creative in the music world.” 

He smiles. “We’re still a bunch of kids, really! Ha ha! We get in the van and flip each other off! It’s stupid but it’s beautiful.”

Invincible Shield is out now via Sony. Judas Priest are on tour now. For the full list of dates, visit the band's official website

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.