Harper Watters is running late to our first call and I am greeted with an energetic apology.
“It’s my mother’s birthday today,” he explains, then shouts, “and we literally just got back from brunch.” He goes on to describe the intricate details of his meal.
Known for his viral memes doing ballet and walking on treadmills in six-inch heels, Watters also has a self-produced series The Pre Show on his YouTube channel, alongside an impressive dance career as a soloist in the Houston Ballet. Not only have his expressive videos been featured on Elle, Marie Claire, Urban Outfitters, among various large-scale meme accounts, but Harper has spent much of his career working to integrate important conversations around dance and diversity into mainstream pop culture.
“One of my biggest missions is to make ballet more recognized and understood, and I believe that popularizing the ballet world through viral memes and social media is a way to achieve this. People know literally so much about theatre and broadway, but they don’t know that much about dance and I’m really trying to change that,” he explains.
Harper says he started dance because he had too much energy as a child, but that energy still seems to be ever-present as we converse over the phone. Here, for Out, we talk about memes, coming out of the closet, and Beyoncé.
How has your upbringing influenced the artist you are today?
I was adopted when I was two weeks old. My parents actually put me into dance because I was a constant mover and had too much energy as a child. I literally started dancing because I had too much energy as a child, not necessarily because of some potential my parents saw in me. That being said, dance really took to me. I loved the energy it gave me, and [dance] almost immediately felt like home.
In the summer before my sophomore year, I came out to my parents. I was watching America’s Next Top Model and I saw myself in Miss J, the runway coach. I walked downstairs, sort of impulsively honestly, and I said, “Mom Dad can I tell you something?” The feelings I felt after I told them could only be described as the part in Beyonce’s "Hold Up." Although I felt some relief and my parents were accepting, I also immediately became afraid to go back to school. As someone who watches a lot of TV, I assumed I’d get bullied in high school for being gay. This fear sort of drew me to apply and audition for a performing arts school in Massachusetts.
Do you think the ballet world has been a nurturing and flexible place for you to explore your identity?
I think most people don’t understand a lot about the dance world. I think people don’t understand how antiquated the ballet world is. Ballet is built off of tradition and a lot of the people who are in charge of setting and/or casting ballets come from a time when everything was way less sensitive, more intense, and traditional. Frankly, a lot of it is problematic when practiced today. I’d like to think that we’ve made a lot of progress, but a lot of the casting, training, and ways of getting what you want out of a dancer is still really old school.
I used to struggle a lot with being authentically myself in the studio, so the internet helped me a lot. I would use the internet to explore myself, then try to bring that into the studio. The internet has always been a healthy place for me to find confidence and attitude and ability to be vulnerable and take the risk of putting my own personality came from my social media. It’s not really about likes and views for me, but just feeling accepted and seen in general. If I’m posting a Beyoncé post, a political statement, or a video of being doing ballet, these are all assets and fragments of me. I try to embrace everything I am, and I have watched all of these different assets of myself inform my dancing in a very positive way.
Your internet presence is so authentic. Do you create all this content yourself?
I actually film and edit everything myself. I used to edit [all my content] based on … other YouTube personalities online and echoed what I liked and what I saw do well for them. But when my Pre Show videos started doing well, I realized that being myself was the best [strategy]. It doesn’t even require a lot of editing, honestly. It’s just me and my friends getting ready, and it gives people a window into the ballet world.
What is your favorite internet trend right now?
I love memes. I love taking [viral] memes and putting a ballet twist on them. One of my biggest missions is to make ballet more recognized and understood, and I believe that popularizing the ballet world through viral memes and social media is a way to achieve this. I’m also a huge fan of the YouTube beauty gurus. The makeup work on YouTube fascinates me, and I follow all the gossip and drama that follows these personalities. I love the drama and gossip. I love the meltdowns. There is so much darkness in the world — YouTube is a true escape for me, and a world that is fleeting and positive.
What is something you wish more people knew about you?
People always talk about how intense I am. I think I just want people to know that I’m more than [a] stereotypical very gay Beyoncé-obsessed ballerina. I want people to not let what catches their eyes about me be my only defining qualities. There is absolutely more to me that meets the eyes.
Photography by Jasper Soloff
Makeup by Meghan Nguy
Styled by Willyum Beck
Assisted by Nathaniel Chase
Jumpsuit by Patrick Church