Flamboyant, yet with a steely resolve forged by adversity, Adam Rippon proves it takes balls to be a queen – and the world loves him for it. Profile by Andrew M Potts.
How he became America’s sweatheart.
Things could have worked out very differently for Adam Rippon. Raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he was born with a severe hearing impairment. Luckily, his parents noticed that he wasn’t developing like the other kids and took him to a specialist. After undergoing corrective surgery at Yale University before he turned one, Adam was soon able to hear normally but more health woes were to come. He developed a severe respiratory condition and, aged just five, suffered a burst appendix. That’s not the start in life that you’d expect for someone who goes on to become a world-famous athlete.
But Adam remembers, from an early age, getting the message that there was something else wrong with him – being gay.
“I really brought that with me: that people think gay people are disgusting,” Adam recalled in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year. “I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I might be gay. But I won’t tell anybody. Nobody will ever know’.”
Adam and his siblings were raised to be open-minded, but he was sent to Catholic school where he was made to feel that there was something not-quite-right about him. He remembers making an effort to speak more deeply and censored his mannerisms to be more like the other boys. He tried to be good at ball sports but it wasn’t to be. Then he lucked into ice skating.
Each winter, a baseball field in nearby Montage Mountain was allowed to flood and freeze over so people could skate on it, and Adam would skate there for the first time. Figure skating was his mother’s passion and she took Adam with her when she went to practice. “I didn’t really like it at first but grew to love it,” he said in a 2007 interview.
At age ten he began figure skating in his own right. Within three years he had landed his first triple jump. Then, aged just 16, he won his first silver medal in the Novice category at the US Figure Skating Championships in Oregon. Adam was soon travelling the world to compete in Junior league events, winning gold in Slovenia later that year and then placing sixth in the International Skating Union Junior Grand Prix in Croatia. By 2007 he was ranked sixth place in the Junior category at the US Figure Skating Championships.
Returning to the International Junior Grand Prix he won gold at the Harghita Cup in Romania, then silver at the Sofia Cup. That qualified him for the finals of the Grand Prix where he won gold and became the first male figure skater to break 200 points in a Junior competition. When he made his debut in the Senior division at the 2009 US Championships he placed seventh. The following year he was fifth overall.
His first chance at Olympic glory came when he was chosen as a second alternate for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, but no one dropped out so he didn’t get to compete.
In September that year LifeSkate declared Adam was “poised to be the next big star” of international figure skating and he already had his eyes on the Sochi Winter Olympics.
But the next few years were dogged by injuries and accidents. Adam and Canadian skater Patrick Chan collided, both crashing onto the ice, while practicing
for the Skate Canada International in Ontario, leaving Adam with a large welt on his face. Two years later he had another on-ice collision with China’s Song Nan, who received a concussion and had to withdraw from the 2012 Cup Of China just minutes into the event.
In 2013 he was forced to withdraw from the Four Continents competition due to an ankle injury but was back on his skates in time for the Hilton HHonors Skate America competition in Detroit where he won silver, setting personal bests in both the long and short categories. Despite that he failed to qualify for the Sochi team, leaving him to briefly think about retiring from the sport.
“I gave myself another chance and stopped putting so much pressure on getting to the Olympics or being national champion,” he told Time magazine. “I just focused on being a better athlete, and it took so much pressure off. My goals became personal.”
The start of Adam’s 2014-2015 skating season was plagued with equipment issues until he adjusted his blade brand and mount, resulting in renewed consistency at US championships, and was assigned to the US teams for both the Four Continents and World championships.
Adam had thought about coming out publicly as gay in the lead up to Sochi but deferred the decision to the following year. He spilled the news in the October 2015 issue of Skating magazine, telling his interviewer, “I’d just like to be a good role model. When athletes come out and say that they’re gay, it makes it a little more normal and less of a big deal, especially in the athletic community. You have a lot of respect for your fellow athletes for working hard toward a goal. Their sexual orientation takes a backseat to that.”
In 2016 he won gold at the US Championships and came sixth at the World Championships in Boston where his Beatles-themed routines earned him a standing ovation from spectators. Picking up a slew of bronze medals later that year allowed him to compete in the finals of the world Grand Prix of figure skating where he came sixth. However, in early 2017 Adam sprained his ankle and fractured a bone in his foot during a warm up session and had to withdraw from that year’s US Championships.
Despite that he still managed to qualify for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics where he was one of 15 openly gay athletes competing in the Games and only one of two openly gay men on the American team – the other being Gus Kenworthy, who he walked with during the opening ceremonies.
However, Adam was making headlines before the Games even began when he refused to meet with US Vice President Mike Pence who he had been calling out over the Trump Administration’s treatment of trans people in the military and his record of opposition to LGBTIQ rights while governor of Indiana and in Congress.
In 2000 Pence had made a statement as part of his congressional campaign that called for “an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviours that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus… Resources should be directed toward those institutions [which] provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behaviour.”
In recent years Pence has repeatedly denied that this was an endorsement of so-called “ex-gay” programs or “conversion therapies” aimed at “curing” people of their sexual orientations. Adam has said he would be willing to sit down with Pence to talk through the issue after the Olympics.
When Adam’s figure skating team won the bronze in the group event, he became the first American to win an Olympic medal while openly gay. His achievement became one of the highlights for the US in what was its worst Olympic performance in 20 years – with the entire team taking home only 23 medals.
The combination of his athletic strength and flamboyant, elegant performances made Adam extremely watchable. By the time he returned to the US, he was a star and being described as “America’s sweetheart”. While happy to be a role model, he doesn’t feel the need to fit a heteronormative stereotype, and his public persona is unashamedly, proudly camp.
Adam’s natural ability to slip into his new role as a celebrity was demonstrated on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert when he met one of his idols, actress Reece Witherspoon. When he was invited to the Academy Awards, he wore a leather harness as part of his outfit, again turning heads.
He’s also not afraid to acknowledge that he has a great ass. Even before Pyeongchang he addressed the issue, tweeting, “There’s been a lot questions to whether I compete with butt pads on and I’d like to set the record straight and let it be known that no, it’s just my real butt. Thank you for your interest, comments, and concern. Love you.”
And when a fellow guest on Watch What Happens Live asked him if he needed a “rough top” he playfully responded, “Why not?”
Not everyone is happy with Adam’s flamboyance and he has attracted his share of haters online. However, he had a message for them in the days after winning bronze, tweeting, “To all those who tweet at me saying that they ‘hope I fail’, I have failed many times in my life. But more importantly, I’ve learned from every setback, proudly own up to my mistakes, grown from disappointments, and now I’m a glamazon bitch ready for the runway.”
It’s not clear what’s next for Adam Rippon. Something like Dancing With The Stars would be an obvious showbiz fit. In the meantime, he’s been working with GLAAD on a youth engagement campaign.
“When I was young, to have somebody out there that I could’ve looked up to, it would’ve made a world of difference, and it would’ve changed my life,” he said recently of the project.
Accepting the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award. (ABOVE) With fellow gay Olympian Gus Kenworthy at the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang.