Why Grown Women Worship Johnny Weir
Carrie Wesolowski needed to find the perfect outfit. It had to be festive and fun — something that would stand out in a crowd, look great in photos, and, most importantly, have megawatts of sparkle. After playing through a quick mental montage of her closet, she settled on a shimmery blue-and-bronze mini-dress with a vintage hat to match.
The outing that merited such a sartorial splash wasn’t a red carpet debut, big date, or glitzy bash. It was a performance and meet-and-greet with the figure skater Johnny Weir at New York City’s Bryant Park.
“I sort of considered two or three dresses that had sequins, but then I thought no, that’s the dress,” the 46-year-old actress tells Bustle. “I really wanted this glittery bedazzled outfit that would totally, totally be befitting of a picture with Johnny.”
Such wardrobe planning is not uncommon in the world of Johnny Weir superfans. In fact, on the spectrum of ways they show devotion to the fashion-risk-taking former Olympian, glamming up is the most basic. It only gets more elaborate from there. “WEIRdos,” as Weir fans sometimes refer to themselves, have flooded Facebook pages and forums dedicated to his career, created Tumblr shrines to his outfit choices, and sketched fabulous fan art. The most dedicated travel far and wide to see him skate or just for a coveted photo op. Weir has so profoundly impacted one woman’s life that she got a Johnny-themed tattoo — twice.
This month, Weir’s most enthusiastic fans have extra reason to celebrate (and flaunt their fandom). They’re setting their DVRs for the fashion icon’s primetime Olympics hosting debut. NBC announced last November that the Winter Games in PyeongChang, which begin on Friday, will feature Weir and his BFF, fellow former figure skating Olympian Tara Lipinski, as on-air analysts during the evening broadcast on NBC. Together, the two will fill the role held until 2014 by beloved commentator Scott Hamilton, making them the bedazzled-headset-rocking faces of one of the most popular events of the Winter Games. To fans, the new gig is more than a promotion. It’s yet another chance for Weir to shine — and provide more people with the example they say he has been for them.
“I’ve been following him since the first time he was in the Olympics,” says Paige Venta, a 21-year-old community college student in New Jersey. While in high school, she spent so much time watching Weir videos online that she once had to institute a one-week moratorium because she was getting behind on schoolwork. “He’s unapologetically himself. He’s such an inspiration.”
Figure skating, long called the “crown jewel” of the Winter Olympics broadcast, no longer commands the same U.S. audience it once did. In fact, ratings and interest appear to have fallen precipitously in recent years. (Overall ratings for the Olympics are down as well). But since he first spun onto the national figure skating scene in the early ‘00s, Weir's popularity has transcended the confines of the sport, and he has built a major fan base off the rink.
The Pennsylvania native “taught himself how to skate on the frozen Amish-country cornfields behind his home” when he was 12, according to his online bio. By age 16, he had a U.S. Junior National Championship under his ever-bedazzled belt. In the years that followed, he won three more national titles. He made his Olympic debut in Torino, Italy in 2006, but finished a disappointing fifth overall, and the showmanship he clearly enjoyed had provoked questions about whether he was a serious athlete or, as one critic later put it, all “schtick.” He returned to the Olympics in 2010, the same year he delivered his legendary “Poker Face” routine for his exhibition skate at the National Championships. Weir came in sixth, despite putting on a technically “flawless” program and scoring higher than the bronze finisher. (“Simply put, the judges didn’t like his routine much,” The Christian Science Monitor concluded.) Fans were livid. Weir was undeterred.
“As Lady Gaga would say, ‘I have all my role models out there,’” he told reporters at the time. “I may not be the most decorated person in the skating world, but judging by the audience reaction… they go on my journeys with me.”
Even without an Olympic win, by the time Weir retired from the sport in 2013, the legion of fans joining him on his journey had only grown, thanks in part to a persistent stream of personality-driven side projects and the advent of social media platforms that amplified his global reach. He designed clothing collections, wrote a book, and starred in his own reality show, “Be Good Johnny Weir,” an eight-part Sundance series that premiered in 2010. Meanwhile, he earned accolades from the Human Rights Campaign and the Los Angeles PRIDE Parade for his work and visibility on LGBTQ issues. In 2014, Weir and Lipinski were tapped to provide commentary on the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia on NBCSN, NBC Universal’s cable sports channel, and online. Weir’s over-the-top fashion and the duo’s charismatic back and forth was Twitter gold. In the years since, the pair have brought their banter to the Kentucky Derby, the Academy Awards red carpet, and the Westminster Dog Show. In 2016, NBC Sports gave them a podcast, Tara and Johnny, and Weir got yet another infusion of fans thanks to Yuri!!! on Ice, the popular Japanese anime series about a young male figure skater that has many parallels to Weir’s story.
“Meeting Weir was life-changing for me.”
There were controversies along the way. Over the years Weir has attracted criticism for wearing fur, for not coming out sooner — he did not publicly state that he is gay until 2011, after he had retired and while promoting his book — and the tumultuous and public end to his 2011 marriage to fellow skater Victor Voronov. But for longtime fans, Weir’s journey, including his foibles, is part of the appeal, and they see his ascension to primetime as a vindication of sorts. And, of course, they love the dynamic between him and Tara.
“Figure skating is sparkly and fun and amazing and they bring a lot of that to it,” says Amy Anderson, a 36-year-old skating fanatic from Fargo, North Dakota who plans to DVR all the events. “They just crack me up all the time.”
“With other commentators you feel, like, apart,” Wesolowski adds, “They almost feel like they’re at a party in your house.”
Weir's setbacks — and his apparent commitment to sparkle in spite of them — are part of what draws fans to him. For Chris Kraft, remaining loyal to Weir through his ups and downs has helped her navigate her own struggles. The 56-year-old Tennessean, who has followed Weir from the early days of his career, feels strongly that he hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for his groundbreaking performances. “He was such a rebel in the figure skating world. When I watched him skate at his first Olympics, at the end I was crying and throwing things at the TV because he had been scored so harshly,” she recalls. “I think we’ve all been the underdog, the person bullied occasionally or feel like we’re on the outside, and that just drew me in.”
Kraft’s dedication has gone beyond watching Weir perform (though she’s done that many times). She loves the former Olympian so much that she has two Weir tattoos: a copy of an autograph he wrote for her at a meet-and-greet (a red heart over the “i”) stretches across her leg, and a short message her wrote her in Russian (Weir is a major Russophile) at another event is on her ankle. She got the autograph tattoo — her first and, at the time, only ink — done shortly after the death of her mother, who was also a major skating fan. So many strangers have asked her about the tattoos that she had a custom tote bag made with another favorite Weir quote that she can point to when explaining her decision. To this day, she travels the country to see Weir live and DVRs all of his TV appearances. She’s even taking a vacation from work to make sure she doesn’t miss a minute of Weir’s commentary during the Olympics. She says it’s the least she can do, given his positive influence on her life. “Meeting Weir was life-changing for me,” Kraft says. “[It got] me out of a depression [from] my mom being taken away.”
“When I go see Johnny, I wear a lot of glitter.”
Weir devotees not quite ready to take the permanent plunge with a tattoo often wear their support on sparkle-covered sleeves. Like Wesolowski, Jessica Klein, a 30-year-old entertainer who works at family and sporting events, wore “extra sparkles” — a blue sequin dress, and matching headband with a bow to meet Weir for the first time last month. As a major Olympics fan, she’d been tracking his career for years. “It was so cold, so I knew I was going to have to have my jacket on, but I still wanted to get glammed up underneath,” the Jersey City resident said of the early January night she went to watch Weir’s outdoor “Glitter, Glam and Gold” event at Manhattan’s Bryant Park.
Venta, the New Jersey college student, has also been following Weir since he first got into the Olympics (she’s also a member of the Yuri fanclub). Like the others, she tells Bustle that she covers her eyelids with silver glitter when she goes to see him skate (which is as often as she can afford). “Growing up, Johnny was such an inspiration to me. He always works it, always looks amazing,” Venta says. “I usually don’t do my make-up day-to-day. When I go see Johnny, I wear a lot of glitter.”
Natasha Platt began following Weir not for his skating, but for his style. “To me, he’s part of this group of people that’s beyond androgyny, it’s the future of fashion,” she tells Bustle. “He looks beautiful all the time.”
Platt, a 30-year-old designer, loves Weir’s signature look so much that she encourages her boyfriend to copy it. For a night out at the Brooklyn club House of Yes, she dressed him in a sequined, silver T-shirt inspired by a blazer she saw Weir wear on Instagram. In another “totally Johnny Weir moment,” she picked out a shiny plastic mini skirt from Express, fishnet tights, and her shoes for her boyfriend to wear during a late-night trip to Target. “He’s breaking boundaries of men and women and gender,” Platt says of Weir. “He’s beyond an amazing ice skater — because I’m not really in the ice skating world —to me, he’s the future of gender.”
Getting dressed up to meet a celebrity — or even mimicking their signature style — might sound like garden-variety fandom. But for Weir’s biggest supporters the act is about more than looking their best when they meet an idol. It’s a tribute to what they see as the essence of Weir and his massive appeal: his indomitable sense of self.
“I love his personality and his fearlessness,” Klein explains. “As society has progressed and gone on, he’s been a pioneer for a lot of men to express themselves through their fashion, not to be afraid of their personalities.”
“He was, and still is, an extraordinary artist — with bling!”
Marissa Ulie, 23, first took note of and inspiration from Weir during her own time as a figure skater. For too long, the standard was to skate to solemn music that brought a seriousness to the sport (think all those Les Mis and Carmen soundtrack mashups). Weir, on the other hand, routinely burst onto the ice to Lady Gaga — undulating and using dramatic gestures and expressions to bring his performance to life. “He always seemed to be having so much fun,” Ulie says.
Years later, the graduate student and makeup artist has an even deeper appreciation for how groundbreaking Weir’s performances really were. “To do the performances he did, which were so flamboyant and can be seen as extremely gay in the time he was doing it, it was brave,” she says. “I was a shy, timid, nervous child and I envied that. I wished I could be that brave when I performed. I looked up to that characteristic with him.”
As she grew older, Ulie also found inspiration in Weir's explanation of his sexual orientation. Weir says he didn't come out while he was skating competitively because his sexuality didn’t need to be a statement. “I wear my sexuality the same as I wear my sex or my skin color. It is something that simply is and something I was born into,” he tweeted recently. “I never ‘came out’ in sport because I didn’t imagine it as a great secret & it had nothing to do with my skating or my dreams.” Some members of the LGBT community interpreted the tweets as minimizing the importance of representation — he sent them in response to news of two openly gay men competing in PyeongChang — but for Ulie, they struck a chord.
“I understand that. It’s like, I’ve just been living my life and I don’t think I have to stop and publicize [my] personal life to somebody,” Ulie, who identifies as queer, says. “He was being himself.”
Weir’s bold performances on and off the ice have done more than inspire individuals — he’s also been credited with attracting droves of new followers to the sport. “Younger generation fans were fed through his sometimes unorthodox, yet entertaining, routines he delivered in his exhibition programs, along with interesting costumes,” Paula Slater, founder of the international figure skating site Golden Skate, told Bustle. “He made bold statements with flair. He was, and still is, an extraordinary artist — with bling!"
The next big test for Weir and his superfans will be whether the passion he’s sparked in them spreads to the masses as he takes on a bigger role in NBC’s broadcast. There will, inevitably, be critics who complain online about his commentary and fashion choices. But 30DB, a firm that analyzes online opinion, says 79 percent of tweets about Weir sent over the last three months were positive. And his most loyal fans are confident he will land this performance with the pizazz that made him an outlier in figure skating and an imperfect, flamboyant force for inclusion in the world of his fans.
“The thing I believe the most in is Johnny’s message,” Wesolowski says. “In so many ways, people who might not even look like an outsider sometimes feel like they are struggling … If you can speak to that outsider in all of us, I think that’s a beautiful thing.”