Johnny Weir, iconoclastDec 07, 2022 12:06PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
“I think to myself of all of the times I’ve been knocked down. The betrayals of childhood friends, the numerous dips in my career, falling on quad attempt after quad attempt, being judged for things I had no control over, starving myself for the sake of art…The common denominator of all of those moments was the ferocity with which I forced myself to claw my way back up and move ahead.”
Johnny Weir, from his autobiography, Welcome to My World
The deity arrives
There is a cornfield just beyond the backyard of the home where Johnny Weir was raised by his parents John and Patti in Quarryville, and where after significant winter precipitation, scattered and smallish frozen ponds form between the dying and protruded tufts of stalks and the bramble.
He had been there before, beginning at the age of 10, but on one winter day in 1996, after an arctic freeze had shrouded much of Lancaster County in white, the 12-year-old Weir, holding the used figure skates his parents had just purchased for him (they had no support in them and were softer than bedroom slippers), trudged out to the cornfields and to a particularly unforgiving patch of ice. He fastened his skates and skated alone for hours, imagining himself to be in the glittering spotlight of the world stage, crushing triple lutz-triple toe combinations, triple Axels and triple flips, all in front of cameras that would capture these images and share them with the world.
The forces at work that led Weir to the cornfields were born after he saw U.S. figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi win a gold medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville.
If Yamaguchi served to inspire the young boy, then two years later, witnessing the gold medal-winning performance of Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baiul at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer positively altered the course of his young life. He saw the orphaned girl dig deep into her being and reveal herself as a vulnerable ballerina to the entire world, one honest and breathtaking program at a time.
He had found someone who had utterly touched his soul.
The deity had arrived, and the work began.
‘The fabric of me’
Every athlete and every artist is for the time they are developing their craft engaging in a forced but necessary loneliness, a permanent state of meditation choreographed through habit and ritual. They are powerless to it and therefore, willingly surrender. They are servants to an unseen deity, for reasons having to with the truth that there really isn’t any other place they would rather be.
The young Weir had a companion along for the journey: his mother.
“Johnny has always marched to his own drummer, and even when he was a child, he had blinders on,” Patti said. “It didn’t matter if the other kids in the neighborhood wanted to ride bikes or play hide-and-seek, if Johnny wanted to pretend he was a horse and leap over jumps, then that’s what he did.
“He had the most intense ability to concentrate on whatever he did, and John and I recognized that whatever Johnny did, it was going to be an individual pursuit, because of his ability crawl inside of it, and push it back out.”
“My courage comes from my family, and in particular, my mother,” Weir said from his home at the edge of Montchanin. “I saw my mother deal with the politics in the skating world, and then tell me, ‘Johnny, we’re going to do it our way.’
“It was simply a mother looking after her son, and saying you need to be brave and strong life is often doing things that hurt, and you will derive strength from that and be able to move forward.”
Weir left the cornfield, and soon after, Quarryville altogether. After a few years of making the 90-minute round trip from home to the Rust Ice Arena at the University of Delaware for training sessions, John and Patti moved with Johnny and their youngest son Boz to Newark, where Johnny came under the tutelage of coach Priscilla Hill.
With Patti as his constant companion, the self-described “country bumpkin” from Lancaster County set out to take on the figure skating world.
Beginning in 1996, Weir won regional and sectional competitions as a junior novice, and began medaling nationally.
In 2001, he was crowned World Junior Champion and was ranked the 18th-highest skater in the world.
From 2004 to 2006, he became a three-time U.S. National Champion, and was ranked as the fifth-best skater in the world.
He became a two-time Olympian, representing the U.S. at the 2006 and 2010 Winter games.
In 2021, he was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
While his accomplishments as a figure skater occupy the rarified air that few athletes get to experience, there is a common thread woven into the life of Johnny Weir that far exceeds his career as an athlete and his new life as a television personality, broadcaster and spokesperson for human rights.
For more than a quarter of a century, Johnny Weir has never apologized for who he is. He has stood down his severest critics and driven back the unkindest form of scrutiny with a casual toss of a wave. He has flipped his feather boas, used the microphone as a testimony from the heart, protected his brilliant flash of light, and lived unashamedly in the spaces reserved for those who will never relent.
“For Johnny, figure skating has always been about the beauty of making this piece of music dance around the ice,” Patti said. “I can remember a judge telling me that my son needed to lead with his elbow on the ice, not his wrist. ‘Men lead with their elbow,’ he told me. I told him that Johnny leads with his wrist because that’s how Johnny feels it.
“There is so much more accepted in men’s U.S. figure skating now, and I know that Johnny helped break down those barriers. It’s now okay for a man to wear sparkled costumes. It’s now okay to cry after a program. A male figure skater being his truest self no longer has to be afraid.”
“I was always told to believe in myself and explore the passions in myself,” Weir said. “Skating taught me about what hard work can do for you, but most of all it allowed me to believe in myself. No matter how different I am, I don’t want them to focus on what I am, but to focus on who I am.
“It’s that mentality has kept me away from worrying about what people were saying about me, first as a skater and now as a commentator and entertainer. I hope they look more at the fabric of me, than merely the end result.”
Stepping into the light
In the nine years since his retirement from competition in 2013, the world that Johnny Weir occupies now is removed from the exhaustive and insular world of competition that once dictated his life. In its place, he has created a second act constructed purely of his own invention applied with the boldness of a fashionista and the flair of a Hollywood ingénue. In short, he has taken his star off of the shimmering ice and carried it with him to the entertainment industry, where he has appeared on shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” “Master Chef” (with his brother Boz), and “The Masked Singer” on Fox, “The Wedding Cake Challenge” on the Food Network, and most recently as the U.S. host for “Eurovision Song Contest 2022” for the Peacock Network.
“Like many former athletes, I didn’t know where my niche sport was going to take me at first,” Weir said. “When most Olympians retire, many transition into coaching, but coaching wasn’t on the docket for me. I really wanted to step into the light. I have done movies, television shows, and commentating, and it all comes from being brave, from being able to seize an opportunity, and grow into a person who allows himself to fail.
“It’s the hard things that make you really find out who you are, and whatever people want to say about me, it doesn’t matter. If I can die knowing that I made one person laugh, smile or learn something, I will have done my job.”
For the last several years, Weir has had a partner along for the ride. From the time Weir and former Olympic figure skater Tara Lipinski were first hired to do ice skating commentary in 2013 – followed by their appearances on “Access Hollywood” to provide fashion commentary on the Academy Awards’ red carpet event in 2014 -- their pairing has continued to be a media sensation that combines the gifts of charm, verve, moxie and humor. The tandem has worked together as fashion and lifestyle commentators at the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl and at several dog shows, but they are most prominently known for their coverage of men’s and women’s figure skating during the past three Winter Olympics. Paired with sports commentator Terry Gannon, Weir and Lipinski have been highly praised for their broadcasts, which one TV critic called “a one-stop for knowledge, sass and brass” and what GQ called “a ability to demystify figure skating for the uninitiated.”
“Tara and I both come from a world where you can’t trust anyone, but we were also entertainers, so we quickly respected that which makes us the same and that which makes us different,” Weir said. “In the process, we have created a beautiful relationship.”
‘Delaware has become my home’
The southern light exposure from the dining room windows illuminates the main room of the home Weir has lived in since 2018.
Along its four walls and above the floor’s white porcelain tiles are framed portraits and photographs arranged in a cornucopia of diversity, all there as symbolic gestures toward what brings the home’s owner joy. There is anime, landscapes and sketches of Russian peasant women – all offset by two crystalline chandeliers, colorfully upholstered chaise lounges and a breathtakingly large photograph of Mikhail Barishnikov that welcomes every visitor through a large wooden doorway.
A little more than a two-hours from Manhattan and a 15-minute drive to downtown Wilmington, Weir’s home has become his oasis of quiet, a respite from what he calls the “high energy and high hair” of a schedule that takes him all over the world. In 2007, he moved just outside of New York City in order to train for his second Olympics, and fell madly in love with Manhattan and imagined spending the remainder of his life there. After a difficult chapter of his life, however, he left New Jersey and moved back to Newark with his parents.
“During that time, I reacquainted myself with Delaware, and fell in love with Greenville, Centreville and Montchanin, and thought that with all of the traveling I do for a living, I wanted to have a place that felt like home, and I have it here,” he said. “It’s not just my home, but my place. Delaware offers me comfort, quiet and balance, and part of the charm of this area is that I am in the middle of everything but also miles from everything.”
Despite keeping a relatively low profile, Weir has managed to become a squire about town, exploring the downtown Wilmington restaurant scene, dropping by artisan shops and floral boutiques, in between his workouts and skating at The Skating Club of Wilmington.
“When I first left Delaware in 2007, I was always looking over my shoulder, whether it had to do with my sexuality or dressing differently,” he said. “Since returning eight years later, however, I have seen that acceptance of people for their differences have improved dramatically. I feel comfortable in knowing that I can walk anywhere and know that nothing is going to happen because of the way I look or the way I dress or the way I act.
“Delaware has become my home, and I am so honored and happy that I live here, and whatever goodness I can do for this community, I am happy to do.”
Photos by Jie Deng, In The Eye Photography
Hair styling by Mariola Zysk
Do more. Learn more. Be more.
The following Delaware-based organizations provide services, counseling and support for those in the LGBTQ community and their families.
Delaware LGBTQ Social
(See Facebook page)
Parents of Trans Kids and Support Group – PTKDelaware
Email: [email protected]
LGBTQ Youth Support Group Meeting
Email: [email protected].
Jewish Family Services
www.JFSDelaware.org or call (302) 478-9411
The United Way DE PRIDE Council
PFLAG Wilmington Delaware