Adam Rippon & Gus Kenworthy: American Idols
Adam Rippon & Gus Kenworthy: American Idols
We’d never seen anything in sports like Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy at the Winter Olympics. The fight with Mike Pence. The free skate that left America in tears. The kiss heard ’round the world. We watched as these two young gay men took South Korea by storm in February. Nothing has been the same since.
Truth is, they needed one another at the Games. Even as they lit up the world with sunshine and rainbows, the response from back home could take its toll. Yes, millions embraced them with love. Yet at the same time, strangers from California to the Carolinas sent daily messages hoping they’d fall, lose, or even kill themselves.
Related | Gallery: When Adam Met Gus
No other athlete at the Olympics — American or otherwise — had to find a way to cope with that. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, representing a flag as people claiming to wave that very flag try to destroy you. Some Americans, hidden behind their Twitter feeds, were not trying to make America great. And it wasn’t just coming from back home. When a team leader at the Olympics told Adam to keep his politics out of sports, he was supposed to back down.
Instead, he stood up.
Both of these men had played the role of obedient athlete before. Rippon skated most of his career with a secret. Four years ago, Kenworthy “felt like a fraud” winning an Olympic silver medal while hiding his boyfriend from sight. “I hated myself for it,” he says.
Sitting poolside in Los Angeles in March, the two men break into a singing competition and fanboy one another over glasses of sparkling rosé. They giggle constantly, their friendly flirtation infectious. They complete each other’s sentences. Like, literally.
Yet when the topic turns to human rights, the laughing stops, the rosé is placed carefully on the table, and Rippon and Kenworthy become gravely serious. They speak with conviction. In their few years as out gay men they have immersed themselves in understanding LGBTQ culture and the politics of privilege. They are not just two twinks looking for the next camera — they are role models taking aim at inequality.
Kenworthy and Rippon will now forever be “Gus and Adam” (or, as Rippon playfully points out, “Adam and Gus”). While the duo’s friendship started in an icy stadium thousands of miles from American shores, the legacy of their journey together–BFFs at first sight–has just begun.
The challenges ahead for them will not be easy: facing retirement and carving out a post-competition career, on top of taking on the vice president of the United States.
Thankfully these besties will get to face much of it together.
Adam Rippon: I started following Gus after he came out on the cover of ESPN. I always felt his story was so inspiring — to come out in an X-Games sport. And then I got a message from Gus a few months before our qualification, and we just went back and forth, cheering each other on.
Gus Kenworthy: It’s stressful because three months before the Games you have no idea if you’re going. I hadn’t even had any of the qualifying events until December. Everyone’s like, “Oh my God, when are the Olympics? You’re going, that’s so exciting.” I’m, like, “No, I don’t know.” You can’t be too confident. I signed a bunch of Olympic sponsors before the Games, which is amazing — going into Sochi in 2014, I didn’t have a single sponsor — but it also put pressure on me, because I was like, Fuck, it’s going to be embarrassing if I don’t make the team now.
AR: A year before the Olympics I broke my foot, and right before I broke it I had been thinking, I feel so ready. I wish the Olympics were right now. But I needed to recharge and refocus, and I needed to be really hungry again. I remember sitting down, watching my swollen ankles, and looking through a window and being like, I’m going to make it to the Olympics. This is my comeback story. I’m going to be 100 percent fine. And I had this crazy focus from that moment until my final skate at the Olympics.
GK: I was in the waiting area for the opening ceremony — you’re back there for hours — and I was looking for Adam everywhere. Everyone's wearing the same outfit — it's like a sea of red, white, and blue Ralph Lauren jackets, and I’m going around filming it with my phone, and saying, “Adam? Oh, you’re not Adam.” And then finally I saw him and it was like sparks flew.
Pants by Acne Studios
AR: You know, it was really important for me to find Gus. We joke around a lot, but being able to experience the opening ceremony with somebody that I know has felt a lot of those same feelings as me was important. I thought of everything I had been through as a young kid to get to that moment, and to feel confident, and to feel that I really liked who I was.
GK: The opening ceremony is obviously a very big deal — it’s ceremonial, and a rite of passage in a way. But I didn’t have the best Olympics experience the first time around, in Sochi. I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t being myself. I had a boyfriend at the time that I wasn’t telling anybody about — and I wasn’t out to my parents. And then post-Games every interviewer asked me, “Who’s your celebrity crush? What’s your type of girl? What’s your ideal date?” And I was just lying. And I hated myself for it. So to be in Pyeongchang, and get to walk into this huge stadium as myself, as an out gay man, and do it alongside Adam was the biggest, best moment of my entire life. And that was why it was so important for me to find him. Because I felt like we had the same story, and I wanted to share that moment with him. It was the highlight of the entire Games for me.
AR: It was mine too.
GK: It was like sparks flying. We met, and hugged, and vented about our accommodation, and talked about the people on our team, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, and then suddenly we were best friends.
Cyd Zeigler: Is your boyfriend, Matt [Wilkas], getting jealous?
GK: Who’s Matt? No, Matt adores Adam.
AR: I was really excited to see Matt when he came to Korea. And I messaged with him after he commented on some pictures of me and Gus. I was like, I’m going to write back so he doesn’t think I’m trash.
GK: You are trash, though.
AR: I just didn’t want him to think it right away. I wanted him to get there on his own.
GK: It’s a journey of discovery.
CZ: The Olympics essentially validated each of you in different ways. Adam, your personality was already out there. People were talking about it — there was the Mike Pence thing, and dancing with Elmo on Sesame Street. But because your athletic accomplishments on the ice matched your personality, everything was validated, and that launched you into stardom.
AR: I knew what I was going to say before I left for the Olympics. I knew that I was opening my big mouth, and that if I wanted to be taken seriously I needed to back it up with solid performances or it would just be, “There’s that homosexual with the big mouth.”
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CZ: Gus, the moment for you was when you kissed Matt. You already had an Olympic medal, but that moment validated you as a hero in a different way.
GK: It was the biggest moment of the Games for me, and at the same time it was the most insignificant moment ever. I’ve kissed my boyfriend good luck before I’ve gone out for my run at every competition that he’s come to watch, and never thought about it, but I had no idea that the cameras were right there filming at that moment. I went into all the interviews afterward, and they were like, “So talk about the kiss.” And I was like, “What kiss?” Now that I’ve had a little bit of time to let it marinate — I think I understand that it was a huge deal because all I’ve ever wanted to be since I came out is the person that I needed as a kid to look up to. And I think that if I had seen two guys kissing at the Olympics and being celebrated, and not having it be the kiss of death, it would have changed the entire course of my life. I think I would have come out earlier. I would have accepted myself earlier. It would have saved so many years of heartache and anguish.
My only regret is that I didn't know the cameras were rolling, or I would have full-on made out with him. Because, dude, it’s the Olympics — it’s beamed into television sets across the world, in countries where homosexuality is completely illegal, punishable by jail, or by death. And to force those people to see this gay kiss is the most amazing representation and visibility that we wouldn’t get to have otherwise. In a weird way, maybe it was the reason that I was at the Games. I didn’t do that well, but I left with my head held so high.
CZ: As you guys were being your true selves, people were flipping out, furious about it. One of the things they would say was that you guys are no good at your sport.
GK: I got so many messages, like, “Why are you even there? You got last place.” Well, first of all, I didn’t get last place, I made it to the final. But also, I was at the fucking Olympics. I didn’t get here because I’m a gay athlete — it wasn’t handed to me. I qualified the same way that everyone else did. It took a lot of fucking grit and gumption and hard work to get to this position. Anyone that discredits it is truly just a troll. But also, it does suck. Being out was such a fucking cool experience, but no straight athletes were checking their messages or comments the day before their event and seeing death threats and super-hurtful shit from internet bullies. The day before my event I read messages that were like, “I hope you fall, I hope you break your legs, you’re a piece of shit.” I had a message that was like, “I want to curb stomp you, you faggot.” I’m like, OK, cool, there’s someone out there that wants to put my teeth on a curb and stomp on my neck. It takes a lot to read that about yourself and know that there are people out there that don’t want you to succeed.
AR: And then you go and represent those people. I’m an American representing the United States of America, and I would get a pit in my stomach every time there was somebody on social media with an American flag in their name. The most consistent message I got was, “I hope you fail, I hope you fall. I’ve never cheered against someone in my entire life.” That was really consistent — it was pretty much across the board. That somebody could go out of their way to say they’re proud of their country and that they love it, and they’re a patriot, and then turn around and taunt their athletes is incredibly disrespectful. They’re the opposite of a patriot. You don’t represent America. You represent you and your family and your small-minded whatever. That’s not American.
CZ: Adam, you criticized the choice of Mike Pence to lead the U.S. delegation at the Olympics and then declined an invitation to talk with him.
AR: I did an interview with Christine Brennan for USA Today, and she asked for my thoughts on Mike Pence leading the delegation. I said that I didn’t agree with it, that he’s had very anti-LGBTQ views. I think someone who says he’s a devout Christian and stands behind Donald Trump is a hypocrite, and [having him lead the delegation is] a poor choice, a misinformed choice, and a thoughtless choice. Four years ago, when Barack Obama put together a delegation of out Olympic athletes to go to Sochi, it was so poignant. Pence has been on record saying that he thinks that gay marriage is going to be the societal collapse of America. OK. He doesn’t represent me. I think the fact that he tweeted at me that he’s for all Americans just before the opening ceremony is out of touch. Are you for me when I get back home? Are you for that gay couple that wants to get married? Are you for that trans person that wants to join the military? You’re not.
After I did this interview, his office reached out to the United States Olympic Committee, which reached out to U.S. Figure Skating to say that he would like to set up a private phone call. I said, “OK, I need to think about this. This might be a chance for me to make change. You can’t make change if you just say ‘no.’” But then I thought about it, and Mike Pence didn’t know who I was an hour before that USA Today article came out. He only heard that there was some 28-year-old gay Olympian badmouthing him, and he wanted to shut the story down. If he wants to talk to me, he should be able to listen to all of these people whose lives have been affected by the legislation that he’s pushed. I don’t need a conversation with the vice president to tell me that I’m wrong about what I said and, “Thank you,” and “I’m supporting you.” I couldn’t give a shit less. That’s a photo-op, not an opportunity.
GK: It’s a way for Pence to act like he’s super supportive, to be like, “No, I’m cool, I talked to Adam, we’re good.” He can sort of clear the air, but actually do nothing. If you want to say that you support us —
AR: Show us!
Adam's pants by Ermenegildo Zegna Couture. Gus's tank top and pants by Berluti.
GK: At the Olympics everyone kept saying, “Oh, Adam, he’s a jerk, he keeps on bringing up the vice president — ”
AR: Then don’t ask me! I had a team leader who told me to tone down the politics. She said, “I might not know what you’re going through,” and I said, “You don’t.” And she said, “With everything going on, politics are everywhere, and sometimes people just want to watch sports to escape it, and we just can’t escape it.” I said, “You know what? My whole life is political. People look at me and think I’m making a choice to live the life I live.” She said, “Maybe I just don’t understand,” and I said, “You don’t understand at all.” That’s how I left it. She’s a nice lady, but she’s off-base.
GK: I got online comments like that, too: “We don’t care what choice you make in the bedroom, but don’t put it in our faces.” One, I’m not making a choice. Two, I actually will fucking put it in your face because my entire life, every commercial, every movie, everything I’ve ever seen has been straight, heterosexual, “normal” love. Two guys kissing is not putting it in your face. It’s just us existing in the same space.
CZ: What about the ice skaters who came before you, who didn’t have that space to be out in the world?
AR: I’m lucky I live in this time, and grateful for those people who made it much easier for me. At the same time, it’s been so taboo in skating. Not everybody is gay in skating, but there are a few gay skaters. You get teased for it — “Ugh, another gay skater” — so often in school or in your life that you’re like, No, it can’t be me, too. I can’t be another gay skater. It’s not fair.
GK: We used to get called the “skier fags” at school. It was hard growing up because I was like, Fuck, I don’t want to actually fulfill that destiny. I don’t want to be the thing they’re saying I am, even though I am. It’s almost worse when you take part in something and you feel like you get made fun of for being gay, and then you are gay.
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AR: It’s worse.
GK: Because you feel like you’re doing something wrong just by living up to what you are because you’ve been so stigmatized by other people’s insults.
CZ: What’s next? Are you going to keep competing?
AR: I competed in my last Olympic Games. I left the Olympics feeling like a hero and a champion. It’s all I ever wanted from my sport. I remember skating around doing the warm-up for the individual free-skate, and I was like, “This could be one of the last competitions I ever do.” And I was like, “Yeah, fuck it.”
GK: I was at the top of my game in Sochi four years ago when I got a medal, and eight years of competing at the highest level is very difficult. I don’t know if I’ll make it to Beijing. I’m planning on competing next winter, seeing how it goes, taking things as they come, and rolling with the punches.
AR: I want to never say never — but never. You know what I mean? Not going to happen. I feel like I was almost on expired time when I got to the Olympics. This was my third Olympics trials. It wasn’t my first rodeo, and I feel so lucky that I was able to hang in there. I was the oldest first-time figure-skating Olympian since 1936, and I stuck around ’til the very bitter end and milked it for all it was worth. And I’m going to do that the rest of my life.
GK: I was just thinking about the Brian Boitanos and the Johnny Weirs and the people that are out now but weren’t when they competed, and I feel like we are just a product of the generation that we grew up in. It’s amazing that we got to be the first two out American guys to compete at the Winter Olympics. There wasn’t that opportunity for people to do that prior to us, really. I wanted to do that in Sochi. I wanted to come out, but I was too scared. I think that fear is real and palpable, and I think it was even more real for people in previous generations. It’s not like we’re the first gay Olympians. We’re just the first from the U.S. that have been able to speak our truths. I don’t think that you’re going to see fewer of us in the future — you’re going to see more of us.
AR: Before the Olympics I was doing a bunch of interviews, and it was just like, “gay Olympian,” and then it was “gay Olympian Adam Rippon,” and when I left it was just “Adam Rippon.” And maybe Gus and I are the face of gay Olympians, but the next gay Olympians will be featured for the incredible stories they have to offer first, not because they’re gay. Being gay will just be a fact about them, like their hometown, or the number of siblings they have, or the high school they went to. It will just be a fact.
GK: Like a super-fun fact.
AR: Maybe the best fact. Like, the one that’s in bold.
GK: The one in italics.
AR: Underlined. Italics and bold. But they’ll just be Olympians, and that’s what’s important.
For more from our May cover story with Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy, check out their childhood photos, see their poolside convo, and click through their cover shoot.
Photography by Carter Smith
Styling by Grant Woolhead
Market Editor: Michael Cook
Groomer: David Cox at Art Department
Prop Stylist: Carl Hopgood at Opus Beauty