To Johnny Weir, Russia seems to be almost a second homeland, and Russian language itself, a second skin – so spending the winter holidays in Moscow, in between two performances of the show “Snow King 2”, didn’t look too much of a sacrifice for the three-time U.S. national champion (2004-2006). Quite the opposite, we might say, and, on January 4, before entering once again the role of Kai in Plushenko’s fairy tale on ice, he agreed to sit with us for a chat.
An open, easy-going conversation that was, with Johnny talking about “Snezhny Korol 2” and the “family reunion” around the show; about competing in Medal Winners Open in Japan and the continuous progress of figure skating; about him working with Yuzuru Hanyu in the Olympic season, when he designed his costume for the free skate; about his job as a figure skating analyst for NBC, with the tools, the insight of his former competitive years: “I know how hard figure skating is, how difficult it is to put your life in front of thousands of people and judges, and maybe they’ll like it and maybe they don’t. I can understand completely what that means”.
…and a very recent memory, red cheeks included, bringing out his modesty: “At the Grand Prix Final this year, when Yuzuru said that when he was young he wanted to skate like Zhenya or me – I turned bright red and I was so happy…”
Interview by Nadia Vasilyeva
Nadia Vasilyeva: It’s your third time in Russia for the “Snow King” show, does it feel like a family reunion already?
Johnny Weir: Yes, it definitely feels like a family reunion. And it’s so nice, we all built this project a year ago and it was a hit. Everyone loves it, and everyone asks for it to come to their country, and it feels so nice to come back, because we have these nostalgic memories of what we did a year ago.
Does this year feel any different from the previous one?
For sure, we all have more experience with the show, we all have less mishaps and we can play a little bit more with the characters. Of course, it’s “Snezhny Korol 2” [Johnny pronounces the name of the show in Russian] and feelings are a little bit different.
It’s also the second time you had to spend Christmas and New Year in Moscow. How did you celebrate?
On Christmas day we were on the ice, we did rehearsals, so there was no real Christmas… [Moreover, Russians celebrate Christmas on January 7, according to the old Julian calendar – Ed.] And then for New Year we went as a big group… Zhenya [Plushenko] was with his family, of course, and some of the skaters went to Saint Petersburg, but the rest of us stayed in a country house, in a dacha outside the city, and it was so nice, and really just wonderful to spend time together.
Is it difficult for you to spend the winter holidays away from home, from your family?
No. Because of my job and what I do with my life, whether it’s sports, skating, entertainment or whatever, I’ve learnt not to really care too much about the holidays. It’s okay, I like New Year a lot, but New Year is a party wherever you go.
There are a lot of shows in your life now, there have been many prior to “Snow King” and will be more in the future. Before Moscow, you were a part of a show in Romania, “Kings on Ice”, in Cluj-Napoca. Was it your first time in Romania, how did you like it?
Romania was interesting. Honestly, I flew and arrived from Romania the same day that the show was happening. In the evening we did the show, and then very late at night I left. So I didn’t get to see Romania, just my hotel and the ice rink. But the public was very nice.
And later in January you’re going to Japan, for Medal Winners Open and New Year on Ice. Medal Winners Open is a competition – does it feel any different from the ones you had before in your competitive career?
Yeah, last year I went for the same competition and I was so terrified on the 6-minute warm-up. Because it’s a long time, and you have to warm up and prepare in front of an audience, and I haven’t done it really since I tried to compete again, so I was definitely in shock. But this year I know what to expect and hopefully my nerves will be a little better.
So the stress isn’t the same…
The stress isn’t the same as before, because you know after this competition you won’t compete again, maybe for a long time. So for me the stress isn’t like: “This is the end of my life if I don’t win this competition”, but still you have to show your level. I try to show everyone on Instagram all the time that I’m still in a good form.
And we really appreciate those little videos you post… We miss seeing you on the ice, that’s for sure.
I miss being on the ice too. But at some point you have to realize that you’re older, you can’t do as much as you could before. It’s just age and your body sort of saying: “Okay, you gotta calm down”.
Which program are you going to perform in Japan?
For the competition I’m going to skate “Masquerade Waltz”, and then for the shows I’ll skate “Creep” and “Masquerade Waltz”.
You also have been doing a great job as a figure skating analyst for NBC. The viewers seem to enjoy your commentaries a lot, do you enjoy doing it?
I really enjoy doing it, because it gives me the opportunity to make skating a little bit more accessible and more normal for American fans, because we have to spend every weekend with them and explain to them what they’re watching. Still, it’s a very difficult balance because sometimes you have to be mean to people that you really like and respect, and sometimes you just have to say the truth. And if you aren’t truthful with your audience then the audience won’t respect what you have to say.
In general I try not to be mean, but if something is ridiculous, like a piece of choreography or a costume that’s terrible – I’ll say it, because I can. Sometimes you have to be truthful about what you see and also you have to remember it’s a TV show, and you have to entertain people who are sitting in their house so they don’t change the channel. So my outfits and the language that I use – hopefully, it’s entertaining for people. And Tara’s also [Tara Lipinski]. But, honestly, it’s the best time, we have so much fun. And I think American fans especially are learning a lot about the sport, because it suffered for so many years with popularity, and still suffers.
But is it getting better now, with you commentating and everything…?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, we have a lot of people that will tune in for the first ten minutes of a program because they know Tara and I will be on camera. And then they’ll change. But definitely more people will tune in to watch skating now because Tara and I are helping to bring people to our world.
Has this kind of job changed your perspective on skating in any way?
No. I know how hard figure skating is, how difficult it is to put your life in front of thousands of people and judges, and maybe they’ll like it and maybe they don’t. I can understand completely what that means, so it makes my job as a commentator much easier. Because I can be more sympathetic to the skaters and how hard they have to work to achieve even a spot in a Grand Prix.
What do you think about the advancing technical level of figure skating?
It’s very stressful… I think it’s natural for the sport to progress and that we have so many difficult elements in the programs. Of course, I worry about the health of people’s bodies, but in any profession when the level is raised so high, whether it’s nuclear power and doing a shutdown at your plant faster than anybody else in the world, or winning the Olympic title, you have to do more, try harder than anyone else. And if Yuzuru Hanyu is winning by a hundred points and doing three quads – then you also should try to do three quads. I’ve always said that this system is not beautiful, it’s not figure skating, but it’s what we have to work with.
Speaking of Yuzuru, you worked with him, you designed his Olympic winning costume. How was he, how was this experience?
He is wonderful. Japanese culture and people are very different from what I’m used to, and for every rhinestone, for every color, he needed people to sign off, and everyone had to be sure that it was perfect, it was good and it was lucky. In general he is such a nice guy and I’m very honoured that he remembers me.
How could he not?
I don’t know, I mean everyone skates and competes, and, of course, you have people that you love, like I love Zhenya [Plushenko], and you respect them and you can never forget them. But I never think of myself like that. And at the Grand Prix Final this year, when he said that when he was young he wanted to skate like Zhenya or me – I turned bright red and I was so happy. He is a very good guy and definitely his head is very level.
Are you planning to work with him more in the future?
It’s up to him. I don’t have a plan right now, but anyone who wants to work with me can call me. But also right now it’s kind of a conflict because I have a work on TV, I talk about skaters on television, and if I work with them, of course, I’ll feel better to talk about my students versus somebody else. And it’s just not how I want to commentate. I want to be without prejudice.
Do you have any favorite skaters among current skaters?
Right now I, of course, love Yuzuru. He raises the level of men’s skating, which I think is wonderful. Evgenia Medvedeva in the ladies. There have been so many great Russian ladies, and she, I think, is very special. In pairs – Stolbova/Klimov, and in dance I still love Cappellini/Lanotte.
So what else is going on in your life besides skating now? Do you have any projects in some other areas?
There’s a lot, for sure, I’m busy every day. And when things are ready to talk about I’ll talk about them.
So you can’t give us any hints on what to expect?
No. Because most of what I do in America it’s entertainment, and it has to be secret. But it’s happening. I wish I could tell more, there’s a lot of exciting things. My first big movie that I was in comes out in February, that was fun. Otherwise, I’m preparing now for the National Championship, World Championships, Four Continents and European Championships.
Are you going to attend Nationals and Worlds in Boston or do it remotely as well?
The way we work right now is that for the events that happen in the United States Tara and I will travel to. This year, World Championships and National Championships we go, but it makes more economic sense for us to watch other events happen live from a studio in America, rather than to take all of our equipment and all the people that it takes for the Grand Prix.
Maybe in the future?
We’re hoping. Maybe if skating gets more popular again then we’ll travel. You know, the American skaters need to start winning [laughs].
[Interview by Nadia Vasilyeva, Moscow/intro and editing by Florentina Tone]
Photos from “Snow King 2” in Moscow (December 2015)