Weir expects to put his flamboyant side on ice for NBC gig
By Heather Salerno
It was bright and balmy one morning last August outside the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J. But inside the world-class skating facility, Johnny Weir was cold, wet and bruised.
The flamboyant three-time U.S. figure skating champion and two-time Olympian had been training hard, gunning for a third chance to represent this country at the 2014 Winter Games. He was on a strict diet and monastic sleep schedule, practicing toe loops and jumps over and over in twice-daily sessions and working on new programs to highlight his graceful athleticism, theatrical personality and, most likely, a few trademark over-the-top costumes. An extreme fashionisto, both on and off the ice, Weir has a penchant for sequins, lip gloss and Balenciaga bags. He once posed for a photo shoot in six-inch stilettos and gleefully called one of his head-turning skating outfits “a Care Bear on acid.”
He knew an Olympic comeback would be tough. At 29, Weir himself admits he’s “ancient” by elite skating standards. Nor had he competed much after finishing sixth at 2010’s Vancouver Games, focusing instead on an array of entertainment projects, including a reality show and fashion line. Yet this Olympics, which kicks off Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia, was different.
This round was about more than a final chance at a medal. A self-proclaimed “Russophile” – Weir speaks the language and has talked often about the great influence Russian skaters have had on him – he desperately wanted to finish his amateur career in a host nation that he’s adored since childhood.
“Russia is a very special place to me,” he says. “I had to at least give it a try.”
But during practice on that late summer morning, as he lay sprawled across the ice after a fall, Weir realized it was time to hang up his skates.
“It was a beautiful day outside, warm and sunny and I was in a dark, dingy ice rink freezing my butt off,” he recalls. “I looked up at the ceiling and it was just this moment of peace and kismet where I said, ‘Johnny, you gave it a good shot, but this isn’t for you anymore.’”
Two months later, Weir officially announced his retirement from competitive skating, but his Olympic dream didn’t end there. Not only is he still headed to Sochi, he’ll remain in the spotlight. The skating star will just swap the ice rink for a broadcasting booth, serving as an expert analyst for Stamford-based NBC Sports and its multiplatform Olympic figure skating coverage, along with 1998 gold medalist Tara Lipinski.
“I’m so honored that I will still be there, that I won’t have to give up the excitement of an Olympic Games,” he says. “There’s nothing really like being on the ground at the Olympics.”
For a recent phone interview, Weir was calling from outside a mall near his Bergen County home. He was getting ready to do some holiday shopping, but the location seemed like an appropriate place for this question: What can viewers expect to see style-wise as he shifts from performer to pundit, considering his usual Lady Gaga-worthy wardrobe?
“I don’t know how I’m going to be that anchor that wears puffy coats and sneakers,” he says. “I’ve got my sable fur and I’ve got my minks and I’ve got my tight jeans. I’ve got everything that makes me comfortable.”
It’s been very uncomfortable for Weir lately, however, because he’s been caught up in the controversy surrounding Russia’s newly passed anti-gay laws. In June, President Vladimir Putin signed legislation that outlaws “homosexual propaganda,” implying a ban on gay rights events and same-sex public displays of affection.
That has put Weir – who is such a big celebrity in Russia that his marriage to attorney Victor Voronov, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, was front-page news two years ago – in an awkward position. Despite being proudly gay, he’s had to defend his vocal opposition to an Olympic boycott. His decision to join NBC as a commentator also angered activists, who feel he should avoid traveling to Russia in protest.
Weir called the cry for a boycott “an idiot’s mistake,” one that would only harm the hard-working athletes who have sacrificed so much for a “one in a million chance” to compete. As for going to Sochi, he believes that his high-profile presence there shows support for the Russian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
“If there’s anything I can do … to show that the community is normal and solid and hard-working and just as able as any of our counterparts, then that’s what I’m planning to do,” he says. “I don’t need to pour out vodka in front of the Russian embassy. I don’t need to protest. I don’t need to wear a rainbow flag.”
In early December, members of gay rights group Queer Nation picketed in front of Barnard College, where Weir was giving a talk about the role of Olympic athletes. Demonstrators held a banner reading “Weir: Russian Olympic Clown,” and the skater later referred to the protestors as “idiots.” He apologized afterward for the remark in his regular column for the Falls Church (Va.) News-Press, and NBC issued a statement in support of that apology.
Weir insists that he has no plans to address the new Russian law at all while at the games. If asked about it in interviews, he says he’ll be “diplomatic.”
That closed-mouth tactic may shock those used to an irrepressible, outrageous Weir, who has gained fans and critics over the years by saying and doing whatever he likes – and not caring what anyone thinks.
When he was competing, Weir refused to abandon his dramatic costumes, face paint and edgy routines, even though some speculated that his over-the-top antics cost him points with the judges and overshadowed his skating skills. He held a press conference during the Vancouver Olympics to address remarks made by two Canadian commentators who joked that he should be asked to take a gender test. That same year, he publicly claimed he wasn’t hired for the “Stars on Ice” skating tour because he isn’t “family friendly,” which the show denied. And his rivalry with gold medalist Evan Lysacek – who Weir dismissed in 2010 as a “slore” (a combination of “slut” and “whore”) – is said to have inspired the Will Ferrell-Jon Heder comedy “Blades of Glory.”
By contrast, Weir, who legally shares a surname with his husband, now says that he doesn’t know whether Voronov will accompany him to Sochi. That’s partly because he’ll be working throughout the trip, but he also doesn’t want to call attention to their relationship.
“While I’m not afraid of getting arrested going solo, I think it would be a little bit provocative if I brought my husband,” he says. “If we entered the country with the same name, shared a bed in the hotel? Anything could be weird.”
And getting back to that fierce fashion sense? He’s actually planning to dress down during the games. Weir insists that strategy isn’t about “covering up my gayness.” Rather, he prefers to be a “smart traveler” and avoid a “bad situation” by adapting to local customs.
“If I go to Canada, if I go to Japan, I’m full-on Johnny Weir, Birkin bag crazy,” he says. “But in the more sensitive countries, like in China or Russia – even when I go to the middle of my own country – I tone myself down.”
So after years of embracing the part of provocateur, why is Weir seemingly playing by the rules all of a sudden? Well, the skater says, there’s a huge difference between this Olympics and those he’s previously attended. Before, Johnny Weir was representing Johnny Weir. Now, he’ll represent NBC.
“For the most part, I’ve made a career out of promoting myself and being myself and working for myself exclusively,” he explains. “Now I’m working for somebody else.”
No one at NBC has schooled him on how to act, Weir says. He’s simply being professional.
“Like anybody else who goes into any job, you have to be aware of who you’re working for and I don’t want to upset my boss,” he says. “I don’t want to be outrageous just for the sake of being outrageous and getting attention.”
NBC Olympics Executive Producer (and Fairfield County resident) Jim Bell says Weir understands his role at the network, and he’s done well on the figure skating telecasts leading up to the games, including the ISU Grand Prix series.
“We hired Johnny to analyze a sport that he excelled at for 16 years,” he states in an email. “We expect our viewers to enjoy his colorful commentary.”
Raised in Quarryville, Pa., where there is a strong Amish community, Weir began figure skating at the relatively late age of 12. He became interested in the sport after seeing Oksana Baiul on television at the 1994 Olympics, and taught himself how to skate on the frozen cornfields behind his home. By the time he was 16, he’d won the world junior championship.
In his new position as an analyst, Weir says the biggest challenge has been adopting the mindset of a cheerleader after so many years as a competitor. He used to watch other skaters and see adversaries. Now, he’s learning to appreciate their abilities. In particular, he’s looking forward to having a front-row seat for performances by Canadian Patrick Chan, the current favorite to win gold in Sochi.
“I’m in a position now where I have to be very formal and address each skater in a very positive way, even if I hated their guts before because I was competing against them,” he says with a laugh.
Weir isn’t leaving the ice behind completely, though. He still plans to perform in shows and following the Olympics, he’ll join group tours of Russia, China and Japan. He hopes that the Winter Games and his NBC gig will generate new interest in figure skating in America, with the possibility of staging his own tour.
“It’s been a while since we really sold out a building,” he says. “And I want to bring that back – not just for myself, but for my sport.”