At age 20, two-time U.S. National Figure Skating Champion Johnny Weir is America's best hope for a medal at this week's World Championships in Moscow (he is currently in 7th place, entering Thursday night's free skate), and a real threat to break Russia's domination of the event at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. We met over coffee during his recent stay in New York to talk about the road to the Olympics, Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, and the challenge of drawing attention to the men's side of a sport historically dominated by women. Our conversation touched upon Weir's practice of Kabbalah, his love of fur, and his reverence for Paris Hilton.
As we talked, I began to sense that I was in the presence of something entirely new in the world of men's figure skating: a man who has never asked himself the age-old puzzler, What would Brian Boitano do? Indeed, Johnny Weir is an original. From his new love to his new Balenciaga bag to his old nickname "Tinkerbell," almost nothing was off the table in a wide-ranging talk with America's next great gold medal contender.
What is it like to be so exalted at such a young age?
It's really interesting because a few years ago I had a lot of problems with my skating and with how things were going in my competitions and things, so a lot of people started to write me off and say, "Oh, he's not going to really culminate and become what we think he can be." So to kind of shove it in everyone's face, and show everyone that I can do this, and that I was really born to skate and that sort of thing, it's really the icing on the cake.
What was your point of inflection?
I had trouble in the nationals in Dallas, which is 2003, and I hit the, the wall, when I was competing.
Literally or figuratively?
Really, I hit the wall. Like, I was stuck in between the ice and the wall, and I fell down and I kind of popped my back out of place, and I got up and I was so stunned, like I just went, "Oh my God!" And, um, people thought I was faking it and then I tried to keep going with the program and I fell again. My kneecap, like, moved out place. So I was really injured, and I stopped ... I decided, you know, I'm not going to hurt myself anymore. I'm done.
And I took a lot of criticism for that.
And that was, at the same time, what allowed you to come back and become a champion?
Because without something bad happening I don't think you can really appreciate the good times in things, and that's in anything, your career, your personal life, or anything like that.
Your style has been original, but at the same time you are in a sport historically dominated by women. How do you think that the way that you see the sport differently could affect its place in the American sports psyche?
Well I'm kind of hoping that with all of the young skaters right now, since most of us are 20 or younger, um, that it kind of brings a new generation into the sport ... But my style, personally, is just me being free and trying to express myself, and figure skating is different from other sports because you have the opportunity to be athletic but at the same time you can make it an art form and really present yourself in a different light, and not do things the same way that everyone else does. And that's just always been my philosophy on my skating, and I love being a little bit different than my competitors and it's nice. And I'm hopefully going to inspire younger skaters to be their own skater, and kind of march to their beat.
You have a real interest in fashion. Who are some of your favorite designers? Did you watch "Project Runway"?
I don't watch TV. I just tune in for "The Simple Life." Have you seen it yet, with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie?
I saw Season 1. Not Season 2.
Season 2's done now, and they're on Season 3. So that's the only TV I watch.
Are you a Paris Hilton fan?
Yeah, I think she's hilarious.
What do you like about her?
I like that she's famous for really not doing anything. And I like her because she rolls with it and she is a huge celebrity now, and she's famous for being famous, as someone quoted at one point, and she definitely goes to her own tune, and I think that's admirable ... But as far as design and stuff, I like the people that are a little bit different. As far as women's clothing, I really like Heatherette. I think they're crazy with everything they do with the rhinestones and the paint, and I think it's very cool. But as far as stuff I wear, I just like things that are different and things that are well made. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a Roberto Cavalli jacket or, um, like a Balenciaga bag. Which I bought yesterday.
Do you see yourself segueing into fashion?
I'd love to be a fashion designer. I think it would be an amazing experience and, um, I have so many ideas and just creative juices running all the time, and even if it's a flop, it's still something that I would like to try and pursue and just see what happens.
One of the materials that you like is fur ...
When is PETA just going to realize that fur is fabulous and drop this whole charade?
You know, animals wear fur coats, so I don't see any reason why I can't. It's discrimination, I think.
Do you take furs with you on the road?
Yes, I have one that I take when I go to Russia or somewhere that's really cold.
What is it?
It's just, it's coyote fur. It's somehow like a coyote shearling of sorts, and it's really nice, and it's long, and it's beautiful ... I love beautiful things, and if it means having a fur coat or diamonds -- or even if I want to wear a tiara someday -- then that's just the way it's going to be. You know, I really, I don't seek approval or anything.
So I don't think PETA will ever realize that fur is fabulous. But for now I think it is.
You practice Kabbala.
Yes. My string actually fell off while I was up here, so I'm purged of all my negative energy ...
While you were where?
My string, my red string that I wear?
It fell off while I was in New York, so it means that I'm purged of my negative energy.
So, while the string is on it collects negative energy and when it falls off you're free?
Yeah. And the red string kind of saves you from other people dissing you. It kind of saves you from the evil eye, is what the story says. It sort of collects your evil energy, and then when it falls off you're done. But then I put another one on just to be safe after. So it's a cycle, but when it comes off it's a nice feeling, like a weight's off your shoulder or something. It's weird ...
So it's like a karmic muffler?
That falls off when it's full?
So, what do you get from Kabbala, and do you plan on changing your name to Esther in the near future? [Madonna changed her name to Esther after she began studying the Kabbalah.]
No, I don't plan on changing my name to Esther! But, um, I've always had a big interest in the Jewish faith, and I was raised in a Catholic family, and my mother would like it if I stayed Catholic and that sort of thing ... Judaism is just something that stuck out to me, and a friend introduced me to Kabbala actually before Esther started doing it ... It's about living your life as a good person and trying to be the best person possible and not worrying about what criticisms might come your way, and at the same time not criticizing other people for their shortcomings. For a while I was getting a big head about how good I was becoming and what was going on with me, and it just sort of helped me stay centered and that sort of thing. You know how you tie a string around your finger so you can remember something? It's like that. You have a string tied around your wrist and when you look down you see it and you think, "Oh, well that was really mean what I just said." It makes you kind of realize what you're saying and how you're acting.
A lot of people in your position have this sort of paradox where, you're so famous and beloved, yet, when you look at their personal lives they don't have time to have anybody. How have you dealt with that?
Well, I'm seeing someone and it's been almost 13 months now, so that's the longest relationship I've had, and it's difficult at times because I don't get a lot of time away from skating when I can work on my relationship, and, um, it is tough. But I think if you really love somebody, it's not going to just fade away because you're gone for a little while. It's just something that will always be there, and always you can feel the love coming to you, and you can always give love back.
When you win the gold medal in Torino, and you're on the podium, the DJ looks down, he's like: "Dude, we don't have the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' Tell me what to play." What would you have him play?
"Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera.
Why do you like Christina Aguilera?
Well, she's so talented and I feel that I'm very talented at what I do. And she's been criticized and sort of knocked down and I feel like that's happened to me, and it's just a feeling that I get that a lot of people don't want me to succeed because people are jealous of talent and people that are just naturally good at something ... She's just my biggest role model. She's my idol, I guess I could say.
So you've got two nicknames: Tinkerbell and Simba. Right?
Can you explain them?
Simba is just a name a friend has given me because for a while I had really long hair, and when I was skating, like, the pictures in the magazines and the newspapers would always be like, my hair sticking straight up the sides and straight up and I looked like a lion. So, it was like I was Simba, the Lion King. Because I'm small, I'm tiny, so I can be a lion cub. And then, Tinkerbell [skater] Nicole Bobek actually gave me on tour last year just because she says I kind of float around, like even when I'm on the ice and off the ice. I kind of float around and am very quick, and doing everything all at once and, I don't know. I guess she kind of thinks I'm like Tinkerbell.
What do you think are some of Michelle Kwan's greatest strengths and her greatest weaknesses?
Her greatest strength is she is an amazing competitor. She can go into any competition, maybe not as trained as she was when she was younger and maybe not, ah, maybe not as strong ... um, technically as some of the other people. But she still, she goes out and she rocks it and she does her program with flair and elegance. I mean, she's very admirable in that way because she can just pull it out of her anywhere. She can pull a performance out of her nether regions ... As far as weaknesses go, it's only like nitpicky skating things that are her weaknesses. She doesn't have as strong jumps as some of the other athletes, and some people are saying, "That's gonna kill her," and that sort of thing. But, you really can't deny someone that talented, and that has had as much longevity.
Isn't her look a little dowdy?
A little bit. She's working with Vera Wang now.
Yeah. So, uh ...
Nancy Kerrigan was the one who started working with Vera Wang, right?
Yeah, but Michelle's sister Karen actually was an assistant or an intern for Vera Wang, so they kind of got in the door that way. And, they make beautiful dresses. But I say she could jazz it up a little bit more.
So what does the next year hold for you?
Of course I'll progress as a skater, and hopefully as a person as well, and just this is crunch time now. It's like doing an all-night cram session before a big exam. This year is just going to be all about working up to the Olympics, I think, and making sure that I'm ready and that I have the right look and the right programs, and just being strong. Because I'm just now starting to become more noticed and more in the limelight. So, I mean, going to the Olympics as a medal contender will be a big deal for me, so I want to capitalize on it and make it the best I can, and not really second-guess anything and just go all out and go for the Olympics and whatever happens, happens.
What do you think of Plushenko's style?
It's more dynamic than me. He's more, if I'm doing dances he's more like salsa and I'm more ballet, I think.
What do you think of his look?
I think he looks good. I think his costumes are interesting, and his programs are always interesting and I like his hair. Because my hair is really curly so it's hard to get it to, like, do anything. And he has nice blond, straight hair. And he looks different. He has a really big nose. And some people might say, "Oh, that's hideous and it's ugly," but I think it just makes him different and I think that's cool. So, I'm in extreme admiration for him and what he's done for our sport, and for men's figure skating. And, ah, he's definitely my favorite men's skater. Besides myself.