Just how over-the-top is Olympic figure-skater Johnny Weir? As a world-class competitor in a sport where emoting, tight clothes and sequins are the norm, Weir, the star of Sundance's Be Good Johnny Weir, takes the stereotypes of figure skating to an even sparklier new place. With his face paint, fluttering costumes, and fondness for furs, the man is the epitome of what would happen if a Fourth of July parade somehow gave birth to a gay pride parade. On ice.
For a fairly straightforward documentary-style show, there are a handful of unique elements that make Be Good Johnny Weir compelling. For one, there aren't many reality shows about professional athletes, let alone shows that focus on them as they train. Here's Johnny jetsetting around the world to participate in various competitions and shows. Here's Johnny getting fitted for skates. Here's Johnny drinking the fresh pomegranate juice his Soviet coach made just for him. There also aren't many shows featuring a gay man, let alone one as, uh, extravagant, on television. (For the record, the show rarely focuses on Weir's personal life, and he doesn't discuss his sexuality in public, but there's little doubt as to which way his pompadour points.)
The ladies at GoFugYourself dubbed the 24-year-old skater "The Lady Gaga of figure-skating"—due, in part, to his over-the-top costumes—but he's got an over-the-top personality as well. Weir is a flamboyant showoff, not afraid to waggle his nearly-bare bum for the camera or strut around in costume after costume, even off the ice. This colorfulness, paired with his sharp tongue ("You smell like brisket," he said to his agent in one episode) and disarmingly boyish face (he's reminds me, at times, of Rufus Wainwright, Pee-Wee Herman and Disney's Pinocchio), make him fun to watch. He's brazen and comfortable in his own skin. Weir himself, analyzing his style as a figure skater, articulated that he aims to combine the best of masculinity and femininity, which is probably why I love him. He's a kooky thing of beauty.
The combination of Johnny's personality and chosen profession is what makes the show so watchable. Sure, he gets to dance to "Poker Face" on ice and designs his own costumes and explores the artistry of the sport. But to be an Olympic athlete (which he is), he must also be a disciplined professional. He needs to get up early, jump on swollen feet, watch his weight, and fall on his butt again and again and again. I like seeing that a person so frivolous and Rococo can also be deadly serious about a punishing chosen field. Plus, Weir isn't afraid to let us see him fall down, cry, and sulk when he performs badly—it makes me root for him more, knowing he's human in addition to being Johnny.
The show definitely isn't for everyone. I know otherwise open-minded people who prefer that the flamboyant subtext of ice skating remain just that—a subtext. But Weir, of course, is an in-your-face personality. In one promo for the show he wears the following things: stiletto heels, glittery leggings, opera gloves, a full-length fur coat, and a shiny gold lamé jumpsuit. The man is a peacock. A preening, mascara-wearing, sparkly peacock. Who just might win a gold medal at the Olympics.
That's the final ingenious twist on Be Good Johnny Weir, that the show could help bring in a new audience to the Games. Because the Olympic Games are many things—inspiring, dramatic, controversial, tense—but "cool" is not one of them. Why the Olympics are hard to pitch as a hip brand is difficult to say; maybe it's the fact that they're so sporadic, and hence the heroes fade from memory quickly. Maybe it's the diplomacy; teamwork is encouraged and individual showboating frowned upon. Or perhaps it's because patriotism, like grandmas and healthy diets, is a nice—but not exactly sexy—thing. But now that I've gotten to know Johnny Weir, I'll be a lot more into men's figure skating this year than I would have been otherwise. I want to see just how good Johnny Weir can be.
Episodes 1-4 are currently airing on the Sundance website; the remaining four episodes will air after the Olympics.