The figure skater talks ballet, peeing his pants at the thought of meeting Baryshnikov and his best idea yet---becoming Carmen.
Mon Oct 17 2011
Photograph: Leah Adams
They're not ideal interview circumstances: 30 minutes with figure skater Johnny Weir, speaking from a cell phone at a car wash. But you take the good with the bad. As part of Ice Theatre of New York's season, Weir, one of his sport's most impassioned artists, will be honored at the aptly titled "Dare to Be Different" gala. Weir is currently taking the year off from the competitive circuit—though he will be the face of MAC Cosmetics' holiday campaign—but never fear. He's still skating, as "it keeps my ass high and tight like a neck brace." That is, as he points out, where it needs to be. He's planning a comeback—and if all goes well, as Carmen.
You're not performing with Ice Theatre, are you?
I'm basically just coming on as a sort of a guest star. [Laughs] But I've performed for them twice before. Ice Theatre of New York gives a lot of skaters who never got to the Olympic level or a world-championship level the opportunity to perform and really do something different on the ice and be artistic. So being an artist who's known for his artistry, it's a really natural fit for me to perform with them. Last year, Dorothy Hamill was honored at their fall gala. I took part in that, and last year I performed with them as well.
What do you think of what they do overall, in trying to create a different format for figure skating?
You know what? It's really all about New York. In New York anything can happen and that space can be different and artistic. It automatically has a huge bar set for it—competing with Broadway and gallery openings. Ice Theatre performs at Chelsea Piers, and they always have really modern and interesting choreography for skating, where we're kind of known for doing The Nutcracker or Carmen or Swan Lake and things like that. Ice Theatre will always choose really interesting pieces of music, whether it's an underground Norwegian rock band or a great Italian composer that nobody really knows of—the costuming is great, and they try to really create beautiful imagery on the ice. In competitive figure skating, that art is often lost on scoring points and doing technical jumps and spins and things. Ice Theatre really is a theater as its name suggests. They have the talent, the drive to do something very different.
Is figure skating art? Can it be?
To me, figure skating is an art form, and that's what I always try to bring in, even to my competitive programs. I always put a lot of thought into the music that I skated to and to the costumes that I wore and designed. Creating emotion was what my career was all about. I wanted people to laugh at me; I wanted people to cry with me. I wanted people to feel good or to think about something when they watched me. I think that's why, even not being an Olympic champion, I have such a huge following around the world.
When will you return to competitive skating?
For this season, I decided to take one more year off. I thankfully have so many great opportunities, like filming the second season of my reality show and performing in shows all over the world and being the face of MAC for its holiday campaign and so many exciting things that never happen for figure skaters. I wanted to really take advantage of them, especially since at Vancouver, at the last Olympics, I really competed better than I ever had in my life. I did two standout performances that I'll always remember, and even though I didn't win a medal, people really responded to what I did on the ice and who I am as a person. So luckily, I'm super busy. Also when I return to competitive figure skating, which I hope to next year, it'll be the final season before the winter Olympic season in Sochi, Russia. I want to come back kind of how Madonna reinvents herself every ten years or so. Granted, it's a shorter time period, but I want to be completely reinvented, and I think I'll be able to do that with all of the entertainment [projects] I've done, whether it's wearing a great costume that Gilles Mendel created especially for me or performing live to different artists, like Aretha Franklin—just being exposed to all these different forms of entertainment. I think I'll be able to bring a whole new style and taste to figure skating. I'm going to work hard to try and make that happen.
Could you comment on the taste level of figure skating? I think your taste is great, but overall, why is it so dire?
The taste level of figure skating is a little bit suspect. It is, after all, a sport, and people will try to do anything to win a gold medal. So people will try to play by the rules and, in general, those rules are made by people that are 50 or 60 more years advanced in their lives than the people that they are judging or telling what to do. My coach, for example, was born in 1946 in the Soviet Union, and her ideals are very different than mine are. So there has to be some leeway between skaters and their coaches or judges and what they're trying to judge because tastes change. You can't really always stay the same. You have to change, and I think figure skating is a sport that doesn't change very easily or very rapidly. You have the champion, Evan Lysacek, who is American, and I have such a huge, great following around the world. I am an American man, and in America, we still think of figure skaters as little girls in pretty, sparkly dresses—I worked very hard to change the perception and image of figure skating, and I think I've done a great job on my end, but in figure skating, taste needs to evolve.
What is the culture of figure skating like in Russia? How are you treated when you're there?
In Russia, I'm absolutely treated like how we would treat Troy Aikman or Alex Rodriguez. I'm treated like a sporting superstar. Again, different countries have different tastes and in Russia their ideal of a masculine, macho man is Mikhail Baryshnikov. Rudolf Nureyev—these great ballet dancers. And figure skating isn't such a far cry from ballet.
Well, it is and it isn't.
It is and it isn't. It is a sport, and ballet is a theatrical offering. Russia is a very homophobic country, and I'm about as gay as a handbag full of rainbows. Even taxi drivers in Russia know who I am because I'm an Olympian, I'm an athlete. I wish that in America, my sport and my art would be more revered and accepted like it is in Russia or in Japan or in South Korea. Russia, in particular, is so cold and solid and they believe in their sports machine and their hockey players and their soccer players and to be rolled into the same category as these great macho sweaty stars of sports, it's a beautiful thing for me. Male figure skaters are always billed as second, but in Russia, we're number one. That's why I always love performing there. And that's why the next Olympics being in Russia is so special and intriguing to me.
When you're in Russia, are you mostly in Moscow? Is that where you train?
I'm generally in Moscow. When I train in Russia, I train in Moscow. But I do go to St. Petersburg every once in awhile and I just recently performed in a city in southern Russia, near the mountains, and there's a huge factory there for Gazprom, which is Vladimir Putin's gas company. We performed for International Women's Day—and they really only celebrate women's day in Russia and in China, but it's on the 8th of March, and we went there to perform for all the wives that work in the factory. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. There was snow up to my shoulders, one highway with one lane on each side—it was like I was in Doctor Zhivago. You get to see what real life really is like in Russia, not just in the big cities that have lots of money flowing through. So as a Russophile it's so interesting.
Do you know Mikhail Baryshnikov?
I've never met Baryshnikov and I would probably faint or pee in my pants if I did.
No, you wouldn't!
I absolutely would. There are people that I'm so starstruck by. I loved Elton John for a long time and when I met him it was a normal, Oh I'm supposed to meet you, but there are certain people I hold at such a high standard. Karl Lagerfeld, Mikhail Baryshnikov—they're kind of the same hero status for me. I would definitely faint to meet either one of them. [Laughs]