Wednesday, February 21, 2018

BREAKOUT STAR

The surprise American star of these Olympics is walking through a rainstorm, not a drop on his black leggings and ankle-high boots, not a splotch on his styled hair and pale makeup, when suddenly he stops.

"Wait, I want to finish saying this," says Johnny Weir, standing unspoiled under an umbrella while a storm rages above. "I am not protesting. I am not making a statement. I'm just being myself."

Yet, what a fabulous self he is, and what a splendid statement that makes.

Weir, 29, a gay former national skating champion who serves as a commentator on NBC Sports Network's early morning skating coverage, has entranced and delighted American viewers since the Sochi Games began with his flamboyant outfits, bratty chat and a Putin-defying openness.

In an Olympics clouded by Russia's anti-gay laws, Weir has been America's raised fist. There have been no athlete demonstrations, yet Weir has sent the message that one can also fight intolerance simply by putting on a tiara and showing up for work.

Yeah, a tiara, and that's the most subtle thing he's worn.

"If me being myself and living my life and wearing a pink blazer and tiara on television in anti-gay Russia, if that is helpful in any way, I think it's a huge benefit," he says in an interview at Olympic Park on Tuesday. "But I'm just being me."

He has also captured the Olympic buzz back home by showing up on TV with lace blouses, leather pants, studded loafers and saucer-sized brooches. The most popular U.S. Olympic outfit here has not been the Ralph Lauren opening ceremony sweaters, but Weir's vintage pink Chanel blazer, Gareth Pugh leggings and Rick Owens wedges.

"I brought three full suitcases here," Weir says. "I do not believe it is possible to overpack."

His narrative would be as thin and fluffy as some of those shirts, except once he starts talking, Weir is just as compelling. He and former Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski light up the American mornings with live wisecracks and wisdom about a serious skating world that shines with their delightful interpretations.

He'll watch an oddly matched pairs team and say what you're thinking: "The man is the peacock of the couple and that usually doesn't happen."

You'll wonder if skaters are nervous as they raced around the ice during warmups, and he says, "I've always skated as slowly as possible, hoping that a light would fall on me."

He refers to one skater as a "hockey player who is a really good dancer." He watches a sibling dance team and says, "It's hard to do sexual dances when you are brother and sister."

For a few hours nearly every morning, he subtly counters the intolerance of Vladimir Putin's Russia with Johnny Weir's America, campy, irreverent and fun. He, Lipinski and host Terry Gannon step aside every night so a veteran team led by Scott Hamilton can call the tape-delayed events, but social media are filled with cries for NBC to move Weir's team into the starting lineup. The ratings bolster their perception, as a recent six-weekday stretch during the Olympics contained the six most watched daytime shows in NBCSN's short history.

"We try to take the reality of what is happening on the ice and turn it into something entertaining instead of just sitting there watching people's dreams get crushed," says Weir.

Weir, 29, knows something about being crushed. Although he was a three-time national champion with colorful clothes and hilarious quotes, his attempt to entertain sometimes interfered with his ability to compete, and he never finished higher than fifth in two Olympic appearances. Now his Olympic broadcasting style is under attack, by gay CNN commentator Don Lemon, who said, "No one likes a gay minstrel show." Weir has also been criticized by some gay activists for even showing up at Sochi. He hears it all and shrugs.

"There are parts of the United States where I'm still considered a subhuman, don't you think Americans should try to change our own country first?" he says. "As foreign citizens, we can't change anything about the way they do things in Russia, so just being here to lend support to the people is the biggest thing we can do."

Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the leading gay-sports website, Outsports.com, agrees, saying, "I believe you don't win anything in sports by sitting on the sidelines, you win by showing up, and Johnny Weir has showed up. He is not afraid to be himself, and that is so important to bring that message to the Russian environment."

Yet Weir continues to insist it's not a message. It's just him. The surprise star of these Olympics stops outside the NBC studio and, even though it is still raining, he closes the umbrella before walking through the door, politely refusing the help of an aide who is trying to keep him dry.

"I'm good," he says. "I'm good."

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