Figure-skater Johnny Weir makes headlines for his bad-boy life off the ice.
“They’re not real or anything,” Johnny Weir is telling me, carefully slipping his Louis Vuitton-patterned skate guards over his blades. “But they’re fun.” They were a Christmas gift, from a little girl at Johnny’s old rink in Newark, Delaware. “Everyone around me knows how much I love Louis,” he says, admiring the elegant, intertwined LVs.
We’re at the Ice Vault, a nondescript rink in New Jersey where he’s trained for the past six months. Last June, Johnny, who grew up in Coatesville, switched coaches, after spending more than a decade in Newark. He’s just finished a 90-minute practice, and now he’s undressing, rhythmically undoing his layers: first the socks, then unwrapping the tape in between his toes like a ballerina. Then he stands up, and in the midst of one of my questions, Johnny Weir drops his pants.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. There’s a reason Johnny has the reps (yes, that’s plural) he does, one of them being his penchant for disarming candor. So I was prepared for — and maybe even looking forward to — a little shock entertainment. But the fact that he never broke stride or eye contact while, well, standing there semi-nude still struck me as a little alarming. And … kinda cool.
Off the ice, Johnny hasn’t exactly skated a clean program. While he’s hardly the pro-jock-gone-wild who gets tangled in a web of drugs/violence/gambling, he’s not as demure as he appears on skates. Take, for example, the continuing question of his sexuality. During the 2007 “Countdown to the Nationals” show, figure skating analyst Mark Lund, who is openly gay, said of Weir, “I cannot wrap my head around how overly out he is without saying he’s out. I’m sorry, I just don’t think he’s representative of the community I want to be a part of.” Lund wants him to just say it.
Good luck. “What it seemed [Lund] meant to say was because I skated to a piece called ‘The Swan’ and because I’m outspoken and because I wore a costume with a red glove, that I’m a bad representative of whatever community he was talking about. … ” Johnny trails off, shrugs. “In this sport there’s a lot of jealousy, because there are very few people who actually make it big and are legitimate figure-skating stars, and he never was one.” (Meow!) “So I’m sure he’s bitter and jealous that I have something and he doesn’t.”
Johnny says he wants to be remembered as someone who “pushed the United States figure-skating establishment,” and push he does: posing for a magazine in high heels and a minidress, wearing curious costumes for competition (in the 2006 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, he portrayed that feathery swan with a red-glove beak, a performance mocked by Jon Heder in the recent Blades of Glory). He’s described himself as “princessy” and his costumes as, among other things, “an icicle on coke” and “a Care Bear on acid,” and he once began a press conference by differentiating, in detail, “scarf” and “boa” for the assembled journalists. Oh, and in one program he portrayed Jesus Christ.
All of which had the ice-skating establishment muttering, Jesus Christ.
NBC commentator Tom Hammond once said Johnny was “considered a loose cannon by skating officials”; as if to prove the point, the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) has given Johnny sit-downs and slaps on the wrists for various outbursts. The unspoken message: Skaters should be seen — preferably doing a triple salchow — and not heard.
“My son will never be that way,” says Johnny’s mom, Patti, who has defended him so vehemently that she, too, has been dressed down by the USFSA. She credits Johnny’s dad for his stubbornness, herself for “his off-the-wall stuff,” and both of them for his often-brutal honesty. “He has strong opinions about things,” Patti Weir says. “Do I think at one point the USFSA wished he would’ve shut up or not been as outspoken? Oh, most definitely. But he’s allowed to say if he doesn’t care for something or if he thinks something is wrong.”
And here’s what no one in skating is saying: Johnny Weir may actually be the best thing to happen to the sport since Dorothy Hamill shook her shiny ’70s bob in Innsbruck. It’s Johnny’s unconventional personality — and sheer talent — that makes him the most popular kid in the class, bringing flash to a snoozy sport. His global fan base is so strong that a special banner ships among his admirers, spanning nations to support him at competitions. (One of the first things Johnny does when stepping onto the ice is look for it.) “I have no big international title,” he says. “I’m not an Olympic or world champion, or even a medalist in either of those events, so for me to have the fan base that I have, it amazes me.”
He has fans everywhere, it appears, except among the figure-skating intelligentsia. Celebs Hamill, Nancy Kerrigan, Peggy Fleming, Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton all begged off talking about Weir for this story. In a preview before the 2007 nationals, Kerrigan told other commentators, “Johnny is a little more out there, and it’s hard for people to relate to him.”
Much as tattooed, hip-hopped, cornrowed Allen Iverson brought a new street-style brand of basketball to the NBA, Johnny Weir — the athlete-cum-divo whose candid and sometimes brazen comments rival those of Perez Hilton, and whose outrageous style and party-boy reputation are more worthy of coverage in Us Weekly than the sports pages — has brought a new, flashy face to ice-skating.
To understand Weir, you need to understand that ice-skating is an odd sport to begin with. Your score is determined, not by an agreed-upon, easily defined task (putting the ball in the hoop, the puck in the net), but rather by how well you can fawn before a panel of stone-faced middle-aged judges who look like they work for the DMV. It is defined by grace, fluidity and refinement, its signature swans crafting delicate fairy tales on ice. So imagine the ruffled feathers when a flamboyant, mouthy teenage shock jock skated onto the world stage in 2004, summarily winning three consecutive national titles and a trip to the Olympics in Turin.
On the day we first meet, a film crew from Retribution Media — two young guys he calls “the ladies” — sits with us. They’re here to pick up some clips for a planned reality series featuring Johnny, which as yet has no network or air date. He’s requested that I “look pretty” for our interview.
Looking pretty comes naturally to Johnny Weir. He’s a fetching hybrid of the feminine and masculine, an androgynous gossamer who attracts women and gay men equally. He’s lean and sinewy at five-foot-nine, and his most striking feature is his pouty bottom lip, the kind you want to bite, that anchors a top shelf of perfectly aligned, ice-white teeth. A brush of eyelashes frame kind, wide green eyes set off by a straight, serious set of eyebrows and a square jawline. He’s beautiful.
Then there are the costumes, covering up all his Johnny-looks-goodness with thematic glitter, glitz and jewels. “For a long time, I was told I had to ‘butch up’ and not be so balletic when I skate — this is the federation telling me this,” he says in disgust. “Christina Aguilera [his idol] never really let herself be told what to do.” He catches himself. “Except for her first album, we’ll give her that.”
At just 23 years old, he’s ranked among the top five male figure skaters in the world. And that may be the most shocking thing about Johnny Weir — cheeky quips and Cher-like showiness aside, he’s a total professional. Intelligent. Polite. These are the sides of Johnny the media doesn’t advance. By the end of the day, I want to spend more time with him—not for an article, but for the conversation. “The part that I will always hold dear is he can be so funny,” says Priscilla Hill, his Delaware coach for more than a decade. “He can get you with one word. But if it’s taken out of context, it can be used to hurt him, which is the unfortunate part. And that’s come back to bite him sometimes.”
His career began, not in a pricey private rink, but rather on the cornfield abutting his parents’ Lancaster County farm, where at age 12 he taught himself to skate after the melted snow froze over. He watched Oksana Baiul on TV and tried to copy her moves, and in warmer weather he practiced on roller skates. He picked the sport up quickly (while it usually takes years to learn a double axel, Johnny got it in one week), and after just three years was competing internationally. In his fifth, he won the World Junior Championship. He was 16.
His parents worked at a PECO power plant before his father, John, injured his back in a car accident. Eventually, Johnny, his younger brother and his parents moved to a modest home in Newark, so Johnny could train with Priscilla Hill. Patti worked three jobs while Hill picked Johnny up from school, schlepped him to and from practice, watched out for him, and became a second mom.
His 2002 Newark High School yearbook lists his likes as techno and pop music, French and Russian, *NSYNC and Versace. But unlike his classmates, Johnny was headed for fame. The trips, the accolades, the stardom — and all the accompanying travel and show costs — came fast. “It was rapid mentally, it was rapid talent-wise, it was like ‘Holy shit, what are we doing here? We’re broke. We’re not prepared for this,’” Patti says. Johnny’s family isn’t from money. Not poor, but not from money. His mom adds, “I gave him two years of just going butt-whoopie-wild.” Once he was out on tour, making money, Johnny indeed went butt-whoopie-wild, accruing more than 100 pairs of designer sunglasses, a Lexus, and more Louis Vuitton than Kanye. (“When I’m 40 and can’t fit into the clothes I have now, I’m going to make a fortune selling them as vintage,” he tells me.) He also accrued the headlines and the shushing by the federation. More recently, his outings on the ice have been tumultuous and unsuccessful, only feeding the Greek chorus writing him off as ice-skating’s Jessica Simpson. After he placed fifth at the ’06 Olympics and rival Evan Lysacek beat him out for what would have been his fourth consecutive national title, Johnny found his career, and confidence, on thin ice.
So in June he chucked all those years of nurturing from Hill, switching coaches, rinks, choreography and programs. “I’m old now, so I don’t need someone to teach me basics and techniques. I need someone to push me,” he says. “I think once you’ve been at the international level for a certain amount of time, people start expecting you to phase out, and that’s completely natural, because there are young kids coming up that everyone wants, because they want to see the young hot-shot kid.” In other words, the kid Johnny was not too long ago. He slides a bag of ice down his pants, inching toward his sore hip. “I’m getting to the point where I know I only have three more years to really make my mark.”
It’s 11 o’clock on a Thursday morning, and Russian techno thumps through the ice rink. A vision in a red CCCP half-zip nears the entrance doors to the ice, parading by the spectator side of the glass. His dark hair flies around his eyes as his white-gloved hands wave to a dozen little girls watching from upstairs. In their midst is a middle-aged woman from Japan who has flown in for a week just to watch Johnny practice. Even the usually raucous and trash-talking teens passing through for hockey camp wait, leaning against the boards. Because all of them — the little girls, the disaffected teens, the crazy lady from Japan — have come to gaze, to gape. To do what people have been doing for years: see what Johnny Weir is going to do next.
Johnny steps onto the ice, skates a few quick laps, then glides to the center. He stops, shimmies, and hikes up his black Lycra pants. He looks over to his coach.
Cue program music.
It begins with echoes of a tolling bell. The first 10 seconds of music get cued and re-cued while Johnny works on the intro at least 20 times, each more focused than the last. He’s serious, and the performance is serious, accelerating with jumps and runs across the ice, ending with 20 solid seconds of standing and sitting spins.
Against the boards, Johnny’s new coach, Galina Zmievskaya, stares. Zmievskaya is, to say the least, the polar opposite of motherly Priscilla Hill. A stern five feet, give or take, in knee-high furry boots and a Bolshevik-red coat, she sports fuzzy blond hair and a seemingly permanent scowl. Her hands folded behind her or crossed in front, she looks like the Kim Jong Il of ice skating. She barks commands, mostly in Russian. Johnny — knowledgeable in French, Russian and Japanese; he studied linguistics before dropping out of the University of Delaware — has made a point to learn the native tongues, not just of his coaches, but of his fans, especially the Russian ones. He’s obsessed with all things Russian. “I probably have too much fur,” he confesses to me. On his MySpace page he declares himself an anti-PETA poster child. That page also lists his hometown as Moscow. He wore Soviet Union-inspired apparel at the Olympics, and now is being trained by the woman who took Baiul and Viktor Petrenko to world titles. Johnny may be eccentric, but he’s also calculating and deliberate.
“Competing is exciting and it’s fun, you put on the costume and the makeup, but this is it,” he says. “This is ice skating, in practice rinks. In practice, we cry, we get pissed off, we kick walls, we spit, we punch things. But people never see that, because when we’re on the ice, we’re glittery snow angels.”
So can Johnny Weir finally get it all together? (And we don’t mean accessorizing Gucci — we know the answer to that.) He has become a celebrity, but based mostly on showmanship instead of athletic achievement — on his sheer brazenness in thumbing his nose (and other body parts) at skating’s stodgy establishment. Beneath all the sequins and smart-aleck remarks, one thing is clear: Johnny Weir wants an Olympic medal.
It’s going to be tougher than ever to earn. A new scoring system implemented by skating’s professional body in 2006 emphasizes athletically demanding performances — more points for jumps, fewer for showmanship. “I like to make an impression, I like to make art,” Johnny says. “With the new judging system, it’s taking away the individuality of the sport. At the moment, it’s looking a little bit like tennis, just hitting back and forth and nothing changes. That’s a shame to me.”
But the skater who thrives on drawing in the crowd with aesthetics isn’t buckling. His latest costume is split down the middle, black on one side, white on the other, like a crazed yin-yang sign. Low-cut in the back, and, ahem, off the shoulders. Crisscrosses everywhere. A red heart over the chest. It’s no swan, but it could be Dancing with the Stars material.
He glided away with gold at both the Cup of China and the Cup of Russia in November, but the real test — the one that will show whether Johnny Weir has any Freon left in the tank — is the 2008 U.S. Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, on January 27th. He’ll be showing off a four-and-a-half-minute program titled “Love Is War” that may determine which of those will define his relationship with the skating establishment before his career ends.
“If he really is saying ‘I’m back, I’m better,’ I don’t think there’s any stopping Johnny Weir,” says USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. “Johnny’s problem is Johnny, not the judging system.”
When I ask Johnny Weir what he thinks of his critics — the press, the judges, those who bitch about him behind his back — it’s fitting that he doesn’t say a word.
He just holds up a middle finger and grins.