Arts News

Here’s Johnny

Figure skater talks memoir, being ‘born this way’ and how the closet cost him a magazine cover

At only 26, Johnny Weir’s done more than most people do in a lifetime. But the skater-turned-everything-else is known for being flamboyantly gay – which he publicly announced before the release of his memoir last year – just as much as he is for tearing up the ice, starring in a reality series and even releasing a pop song, “Dirty Love.”

Weir, a three-time U.S. national champion, spoke to us recently about the media’s reaction to his not-so-shocking reveal, how “being gay isn’t a cause” and the gay magazine that bumped him from the cover for being closeted.

So that book cover, Johnny – how heavy was the disco ball?

(Laughs) The disco ball was hanging off the ceiling so I didn’t actually have to lift it. There had to be a flatbed truck to bring the disco ball in, and so there was an issue getting the disco ball through the street because it was so big.

Oh, so it wasn’t Photoshopped?

Oh, no. I laid on my back under the disco ball for hours that day.

How was your first book tour?

People came out in droves to support me and the book. We did New York and then my hometown in Amish country Pennsylvania; then I started to hit some of the places where my book probably wouldn’t sell as well as in other places of the U.S. I was exhausted and very cranky by the end of the tour, but I was very excited that I actually had time to get the word out that I had a book.

What was it like stopping in some of the less gay-friendly cities?

Wherever I go, the only anti-anything that I ever get is anti-fur. (Laughs) Since I’ve become quote-unquote Johnny Weir, people don’t really get upset with me about the gay thing because I live in a way that’s very non-aggressive. I don’t make an issue about being gay and I don’t make an issue about the people I’m with being straight. It just is what it is.

I’ve performed all over the place – in China, in Russia – and I’ve never had a problem. So here in my own country I’m never that worried, because I have experience of going to places that are pretty unfriendly to the gays.

That Johnny Weir can just go about anywhere and not put up with any BS, that’s progress.

Yes – that I can go somewhere and sell a book with me lying on my back with high heels holding up a disco ball and bright pink all around me, and nobody bats an eyelash, that’s definitely some kind of progress.

What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

It wasn’t so much what I learned about myself, because I never forget where I come from. But I realized a lot about my childhood as I was writing this book. That was kind of the wildest thing; I could remember stuff from my life that I hadn’t really thought about. When you’re young, certain things stick with you – like when you fall off your bicycle, or meeting a boy or girl for the first time. But you don’t necessarily remember that time that you were feeding the dogs and you got locked in the cage. (Laughs)

Are you surprised by all the attention you being gay has received?

I am, actually. I mean, honestly, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. I was in Russia, and then about a week after the New Year I was performing there and, on one of my last days of the trip, the People magazine article came out. My phone was blowing up and my email was going insane – my manager’s as well – and it really shocked me how hung-up people were on the gay thing. Yes, I’d never been explicit about it, but I’d never hidden it, either. To me, that’s one of the best things I can do as a gay man – not call attention to it.

So you were trying to make a statement without making a statement.

Yes, and I worried that people would think that I only talk about gay things in my book. My biggest concern was that people would think I was selling out just to make a quick buck, but that’s definitely not how I felt about it. I needed to talk about that part of my life, simply because you can’t write a memoir without doing so.

If I’m going to talk about falling in love and losing my virginity, there has to be a face attached to it – you can’t just say “they” or “them” or “that.” (Laughs) And that’s who I am: a very truthful person. I couldn’t not write about it. But my biggest fear was that people would think I was finally talking about it just to make headlines and make a spectacle of myself, and that’s never been my objective.

Did you ever feel pressure from the gay community to come out?

Absolutely. I’ve lived in a spotlight more than really any figure skater has for a long time. Michelle Kwan is quite famous, but from a pop culture standpoint, people have latched onto everything that I stand for and they support me and everything that I do, which is an incredible thing.

When you have that advantage people want you to use it for whatever cause. To me, being gay isn’t a cause. It’s just something that I’m born into. I always constantly felt pressure, especially after my first Olympics in 2006. After my first Olympics I was offered to do a cover for one of the big gay magazines, and it would only be if I came out in it. And my whole point to them was: I am only 21 years old and the least interesting thing about me is that I’m gay, so I don’t want to call attention to it. So of course I lost the cover because I didn’t want to talk about it.

Was that Out magazine?

No, it was not Out, but it was one of the leading gay magazines. (Coyly laughs) Then somebody of the older generation in the gay community was on my back about it because they’re from a completely different generation. They really had to fight to live their life freely and openly, and they had so many more obstacles than I’ve had in my life. They were the warriors that whole generation – from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Those are the gay warriors, and now that I’ve lived my 20s in the new millennium, I’ve always just felt like I don’t have to fight for anything. Thank you for the people who’ve done it before me, but I don’t have to fight for anything.

Part of the reason you made the decision to publicly come out was because of the recent gay youth suicides. How did that affect your decision?

I never really was afraid of anyone. Of course I was bullied, but I personally internalized it and it made me stronger. That’s how I used bullying to my advantage. It made me a stronger competitor and a stronger man.

When I heard about all of these kids across the country having so many issues with bullies and committing suicide and having such a rough time with it, that was hard for me to fathom – because I never got to the point where I thought of offing myself or crumbling just because there’s some loudmouth or someone scared of who they are as a person. When I was writing the book, it was important for me to not make being gay a point of making me different or special in any way. No matter what, you’re born this way, as the Gaga says.

I imagine a lot of youth look up to you because you’re able to be yourself. What kind of feedback do you get from kids?

It hasn’t been kids as much as it’s been the gay community who’s around my age or middle-age. While I was in Russia, so many people who felt different said “thank you” for constantly living in whatever image you see yourself in – it gives us strength and hope and power to do the same. And while that warms the cockles of my heart, and it feels good, I don’t do anything for an ego trip. But if people can find power just from me living my crazy life, then I’m proud and happy that I’m able to live the way that I live.

With the second season of Be Good Johnny Weir on Logo at the end of this year, what did you learn from the first season that you might be more aware of when you shoot season two?

You know, I’m an open book, really, so there’s nothing that I don’t let them film. Last year I was very keen on not letting them film me eat, because I feel eating is one of the ugliest things that you can show on camera. I was always terrified to be filmed eating. This season, it’s all about my journey to creating this huge variety show that I’m trying to put on.

Since it’s on Logo instead of the Sundance Channel, does that mean you can act even gayer?

I definitely don’t gay myself up for any reason. When I judged an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race I got a little campy and I went there and did a lot of those “you go, girl!” situations, but for my show I just… live. I want to show that even though my life isn’t normal and I’m certainly not what people would call a normal person, I try to show what it actually means to be Johnny Weir.

Do you feel like you’ve missed out on opportunities because of who you are?

Not only am I gay, but I also curse and I wear crazy outfits and I have a penchant for carrying purses. I’m very theatrical and dramatic all the time. There are a lot of things besides my sexuality that will turn people off. But there are a lot of opportunities that I could’ve, and should’ve, had. I think in my competitive career as a figure skater, it definitely hurt me to have a very loud personality and to be very eccentric and wild. There were several occasions, especially in the Vancouver Olympics, where my personality and my persona overshadowed the actual sport.

But for every door that closes, a window opens, they say. I’ve had so many people that have reached out to me simply because of who I am and the way that I live. The Human Rights Campaign, which I consider pretty conservative and which does things in a very political way – and I wouldn’t necessarily put myself in that category – honored me with an award. That’s amazing for me, because it shows that I can be acceptable to a conservative crowd.

The conservative crowd would appreciate your “dude walk,” which you did at a recent fashion show.

Oh yes. I did have to learn how to do a dude walk, and actually with Be Good Johnny Weir, I had a runway lesson with Miss J from America’s Next Top Model. Miss J came in and was teaching me how to walk, and I think my dude walk will be even better next time.

After all you’ve done – a reality show, skating, a song and a book – what’s left to do, really?

I’m hoping more skating. It really is who I am, no matter what people think of all these other projects. I’m trying to put my Spectacular together, which would be a dream come true – to have my own variety show and include amazing acts like Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera and Elton John. I’m working on a jewelry line and my fashion line. And I need people to love the second season of Be Good Johnny Weir. And I need to stay in shape and keep skating. I also need to learn Japanese. (Laughs)

Chris Azzopardi

As editor of Q Syndicate, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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