LGBT

Johnny Weir Is Inarguably the Best Figure-Skating Commentator in Sochi


So why isn’t NBC putting their greatest asset in the prime-time slot? Why do you think?



At every Olympics, a star is born, and Sochi is no exception. Though during the Winter Olympics the star is usually born on the ice, this time it’s former champion skater Johnny Weir­, who has been causing a sensation with his bold outfit choices and his sassy commentary with his BFF and fellow commentator, Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champ.

The irony of Sochi being Weir’s moment shouldn’t be lost on anyone. An out-gay skater, who is purposely flamboyant in his fashion choices onscreen and off, dishing about figure skating in Vladmir Putin’s gay-bashing Russia? Well, that’s practically an F-U to the Russian government, sent with love from NBC.

It’s too bad then, that Weir, Lipinski, and Terry Gannon, their chaperone, the straight man (literally and figuratively) to the Will and Grace of figure-skating commentary, are relegated to the live broadcast only—which in America airs at 10 a.m. Eastern/7 a.m. Pacific. Sadder still, you can’t find many clips of them online and the replays feature a totally different pair of commentators (Belinda Noonan and Chris Howarth) who you never see onscreen. For most viewers who will be watching during prime time, they will see the reliable—but not nearly as exciting—triad of Scott Hamilton, Tom Hammond, and Sandra Bezic.

While NBC is to be applauded for putting Weir on at all, their decision not to put him on during prime time feels a bit toothless. After all, Weir isn’t gay the way America likes its gays—not too swishy, All-American, and conforming. He’s a gay’s gay—so gay, he’s a gay superhero, I like to joke. Bright fuchsia jackets, enough glitter to make you go blind, and a makeup routine ripped from Pee-wee Herman—Johnny Weir is so gay, they should just put his face permanently on the rainbow flag. Indeed, Bethenny Frankel said teasingly that Weir is “the gayest person alive.”

And America should see him. Every night. Not just because he is queerer than a three-dollar bill, but because he and Lipinski (with Gannon) are really, really good.

As Willa Paskin at Slate wrote in a column titled, “Time For A Prime-Time Promotion:” “Lipinski and Weir have an easy, mischievous rapport. Talking about pairs skating, Lipinski admitted that she was always terrible at it because she hated not being in control. Johnny, smoothly picking up the sitcom beat, replied, “I enjoy being thrown.”

Indeed their dishy commentary is one of the main reasons to watch. It’s not flashy or bitchy, but informed, with low-key ripples of sarcasm and wit thrown in with their fashion commentary and sharp technical knowledge. They know enough about the inner world of figure skating to make Christopher Guest want to make a movie. Did you know, for instance, that there are lots of long-distance relationships in skating? “You’ve got friends all over the world and boyfriends and girlfriends all over the place. It’s always fun, the inner workings,” said Weir, who joked, “We have our own secret US Weekly that comes out so you know the gossip.”

Weir and Lipinski offer biting criticism of the old-fashioned, somewhat sexist (and heterosexist) judging standards. He noted that Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond, with her sexy and saucy dance, “was criticized for this program not being age appropriate and being too adult-themed, when really it’s great. I love it.” Weir’s message was clear: Figure skating is also composed of grown women with sex appeal, not just childlike virginal ice princesses.

They acknowledged the Mean Girls aspect of figure skating, too. During the last warm up of the Ladies Short Program featuring nearly all the big guns, Lipinski observed the rink was “aggressive. Everyone’s trying to outdo each other.” Weir picked up where she left off. “It’s like a mall in Paramus at Christmastime.”

The Weir-Lipinski show is catching on with the other NBC anchors. Daytime anchor Dan Patrick said on Wednesday: “Johnny can you do me a favor tomorrow night? Can you spice up Terry Gannon’s outfit? Just a little?” Weir assured him that they would add some sparkle. “We’re celebrating the anniversary of Tara Lipinski winning the Olympics, so we’ll do something special.”

In this era of same-sex marriage, when coverage of gays and lesbians in American press amounts to “Gays, they’re just like us”—with prime-time-friendly delegates like Neil Patrick Harris or Ellen Degeneres, Johnny Weir’s very presence seems practically rebellious, even if he says he’s not trying to be a rebel. He told Today.com, “I haven’t come to Russia to make a statement in any way,” he said. “I’ve come to Russia to do my job and to do it well. That’s the most important thing about being in Russia to me.”

But that’s just it. He’s the sort of gay man whose visibility makes him more vulnerable to homophobic slurs and violent assaults, the kind of gay man who used to be (and sometimes still is) referred to derisively as “twinkle toes” or “twink.” His outré style invites criticism from others in the gay community, as it did from Don Lemon, a gay CNN host who decried Weir’s “gay minstrel show.”

Though his Russian husband (who only came out two months before their wedding last year) has been mum on anti-gay issues, sticking to Twitter messages, in a way Weir’s flamboyant outfits speaks larger volumes than any vocal protest. It’s just too bad more people aren’t seeing him. No, Johnny Weir’s not just like us, not at all. Yes, he’s fabulous, but he’s also radical. 

It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.

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