Johnny Weir knows how to enter a room.
Over a black long-sleeved shirt, he wears a gauzy white scarf emblazoned with red skulls trimmed in maple leafs. His black watch glitters with a jewel-trimmed face. He carries his 5-foot-9-inch frame with perfect posture, and he is poised and well-spoken. With perfectly curled eyelashes, he has a genuine way of looking you in the eye when he speaks. When Johnny Weir enters a room, everyone knows a celebrity has landed.
“It’s not my main goal to be famous or popular,” Weir said. “My goal is to be good at whatever I do.”
When it comes to figure skating, there is no doubt Weir is good. But is he good enough to win gold?
The Coatesville, Pa., native began his illustrious career on roller skates, attempting to replicate figure-skating jumps in his family’s basement. When the cornfield behind his house froze in winter, he switched to ice skates. That was at the age of 12. Now 25, he is a real medal contender at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Weir will face off against a menacing field of competitors, including 2006 Olympic gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko and reigning world champion Evan Lysacek also of Team USA. With the world watching his every move—on and off the ice—Weir is feeling good.
“I have a legitimate chance,” he said. “It’s not the biggest, but I have a chance. I’m going to put everything on the table.”
The last few years have been have been rocky for Weir. After winning three consecutive national championships from 2004 to 2006, he finished fifth at the 2006 Winter Olympics. He took the bronze medal at the 2008 World Championships, only to place fifth at the U.S. Championships the following year.
“After last season and not being named to the United States World Team, it was very depressing and a big hit to my ego,” Weir said.
He quit skating for a few months and turned his attention to eating—lots and lots of food, by his own account. “Chili con queso, cheesecake,” he said rattling off a list that went on and on.
But his mother inspired him to pull himself together and give it one more go.
“One day, my mom called and it was a really bad day,” he said. “My mom, she said, ‘You know Johnny, I don’t want you to be my age and have any regrets.’ So, just the fact that I would be 50 one day, and that I would regret the decisions that I’m making now, that’s something that really pushed me back onto the ice. I didn’t want to regret missing my last real opportunity at the Olympic Games.”
Going into the competition—which begins tonight with the short program and concludes on Thursday with the free program—Weir is feeling optimistic.
“Physically I feel strong. I feel great,” he said. “Training has been going really well. I feel like I’ll be able to deliver.”
To help him deliver on his dream, Weir has assembled an all-star coaching staff lead by Galina Zmievskaya, the former coach of Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul. Viktor Petrenko, another Olympic champion and Zmievskaya’s son-in-law, is his assistant coach.
“She puts an iron curtain down,” Weir said of Zmievskaya. “And we work. I wish reporters talked about how hard I work. That is something that is very underappreciated about me.”
Indeed, Weir’s career as a skater has often been eclipsed in the media by his personality. He’s the star of an eight-part television series called “Johnny Be Good Weir” currently airing on the Sundance Channel, as well as the documentary film, “Pop Star On Ice.”
And he made headlines earlier this year for incorporating fox fur into his costume at the 2010 U.S. National Championships in Spokane, Wash. PETA protests ensued, eventually leading to threats of violence against Weir.“I was definitely threatened and felt very threatened,” he said. “People are nuts.
“There was a lot of attention put on one tiny piece of fur,” said Weir, who has himself gotten behind many causes such as the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and UNICEF.
“While I do understand anti-fur activists’ views about fur and the fur industry, they aren’t part of my life. And one thing that’s horrible to me is when someone pushes a belief on you.
“I like fur,” he added. With hopes of becoming a permanent staple in the fashion world, Weir plans on attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City when he retires. “We all wear leather skates made from cow. I choose the way I live my life, just like they do.
“I’m not a huge politician that gets these threats all the time,” he said. “I mean I’m a figure skater. It’s not normal to receive a threat that really threatens your life. It’s a very scary thing.”
So Weir has decided not to wear the fur costume, but he won’t be replacing it with faux fur any time soon.
“I don’t like faux fur,” he said simply. “I didn’t change the costume. I’m just switching back to another costume.”
In the end, he shrugged off the whole ordeal.
“It was silly,” he said. “It didn’t change my life.”
Except that it did. After declaring he wouldn’t stay in the Olympic Village again, Weir changed his tune.
“All these crazy fur people definitely changed my mind,” Weir said. “Security- wise, staying in a hotel would be very difficult.”
To spruce up his home at the athletes’ village—which he shares with American ice dancer Tanith Belbin—he brought an accoutrement of his favorite things: an array of Pledge cleaning products (no they’re not a sponsor), his blankie and teddy bear, scented candles, and of course, a picture of Lady Gaga—his self-described icon and, some would say, muse. His exhibition routine this season is set to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and Weir said he listens to “lots of Lady Gaga” on his iPod before events.
“I’m a good nest builder,” he said. “I got this beautiful Audrey Hepburn picture somewhere, and it says something like, ‘I never meant to be an icon. I just do my own thing.’ So I hope it inspires me and Tanith for weeks to come,” he said.
And in turn, he hopes to inspire the world when he skates, doing his own thing.
“I want people to be taken away to another planet when watching me skate,” he said. “Like they’re at the theater. I want them to be transported.”
But if the anti-fur activists come picketing again?
“If all this happens again, I get a bodyguard,” he said with a laugh.
Spoken like a true celebrity. Johnny Weir has left the building.
This post first appeared on the Washington Times Communities on Feb. 16, 2010.