Cover Star Nyle DiMarco Wants to Teach You Something
The model and Oscar-nominated producer is carving a path through Hollywood.
July 08 2022 5:00 AM EST
July 08 2022 1:38 AM EST
The model and Oscar-nominated producer is carving a path through Hollywood.
Nyle DiMarco is a teacher.
He is. It's something he's wanted to be for a long time. Yes, he did make history when he won America's Next Top Model cycle 22, and he did go on to win Dancing With the Stars season 22 after that. It's also true that he walked the Oscars red carpet this year as a nominated producer for his Netflix documentary Audible. But at his core, the 6-foot-2, steely blue-eyed beauty is a teacher. And he went to college to do just that.
"After America's Next Top Model, I actually was planning on going back to teaching math," he says in a phone call through an interpreter. And teach he has, though math has not been the subject.
In the span of a few years, the now-33-year-old has wielded the platform he's built through his competition show appearances as a chisel, carving out a foothold for himself in Hollywood's landscape. And instead of continually pushing himself, returning to his role as model, actor, and face, he's used that foothold as stability to give others a leg up and a path into the limelight. DiMarco has become a living portkey: a breathing and vocal touchpoint through which the world can access deaf culture and vice versa.
The star has made it his mission to support his culture in whatever way he can -- be it through creating jobs, becoming a role model within the community, or serving as a prism to shine light in all of its various shades. But, as demonstrated when he taught Tyra Banks a few words in American Sign Language during his Top Model introduction, the march toward that goal often starts with a lot of teaching.
"The world has just become a bigger classroom for me," he says. "Now I'm not working with students, I'm working with audiences."
Raised initially in New York City, DiMarco is the fourth generation of his Italian-American family to be born deaf -- the fifth generation has already started with the birth of his nephew earlier this year. Growing up, he had more than 25 family members who were deaf surrounding him -- 90 percent of deaf babies are born to hearing parents -- which made for a normalcy that the star dubbed a "deaf utopia" in his memoir.
This utopia was in part due to his mother, who not only ensured that he and his two brothers had access to language via ASL but advocated for changing the school system to better accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students.
"New York City in the '90s was not kind to deaf kids," DiMarco recalls. "The system was focused on oralism. Ironically, I was going to a deaf school with other deaf students and the hearing teachers couldn't sign as well as I could." As a result, his mother campaigned to empower deaf educators to be leaders.
Eventually, the family relocated, and DiMarco and his brothers attended the Maryland School for the Deaf. It's against this backdrop that DiMarco grew up, understanding the importance of language and seeing himself not as disabled but simply different. He found himself drawn to math as a result of a professor who became a close friend, as well as his love of problem solving. He would go on to enroll at Gallaudet University, the world's only deaf college, for a degree in mathematics. That led to a recruiting role where DiMarco helped to provide more exposure for the university. He also picked up a few acting gigs while modeling on the side. In 2015, he was scouted for Top Model from a growing portfolio of photos he was posting on Instagram. The rest, as they say, is history.
In his memoir, Deaf Utopia -- a title, as he cheekily noted on Twitter prior to the book's release, that can easily be mistaken for "Deaf Top" from the cover design -- DiMarco details coming to terms with his sexuality. He came out to the world a few months before winning Top Model in 2015. At the time, he simply responded to a fan asking if he's more into "boys or girls" with the word "fluid" and a link to an article about sexual fluidity. But in the memoir, he writes that it was in part a response to someone trying to out him within the deaf community.
It was on a backpacking trip through Europe during his senior year at Gallaudet that DiMarco had his first kiss with a man. He was fresh off a breakup with a girlfriend of seven years and, with encouragement from two lesbians he met in Colombia, kissed a Frenchman with square-rimmed glasses named Alphonse outside of a bakery in Reims. As he explains in a chapter titled "Exploration," prior to that he had kept any thoughts of men at bay because he didn't identify with the feminine gay stereotype ubiquitous in media at the time.
After the kiss, though, DiMarco let himself explore a little, slowly finding himself. And while he had initially been doing that at his own pace, his role on Top Model added fame and accompanying tabloid scrutiny to his name. While DiMarco was on the show, a gossip blogger within the deaf community published a story in an attempt to out the budding celebrity.
"In his post, he claimed that he discovered me on a gay dating app," DiMarco writes in a chapter titled "Fluid" from the memoir. "Someone had Photoshopped the picture of me in the biker hat onto a screenshot of a user profile on the gay dating app the vlogger referred to, making it look as if I'd created it."
Though the evidence was manufactured, DiMarco decided it was time to come out. He chatted with a friend who provided him with the term "fluid"; for DiMarco, it describes a sexuality in which he goes through periods of being more into men and others of being more into women. And then, in a tweet, he came out to the world. (Shortly thereafter, the admission prompted his aunt to come out to him in a funny exchange.)
"Access to language is really, truly what helps you to analyze, helps you to critique, it's what helps you to identify," he says. (Before the term "sexually fluid," he had trouble identifying, as he didn't quite see himself represented in his conception of bisexuality.) "Without access to language, it's impossible."
But sometimes it's more than the language; it's also access to representation. For DiMarco, that meant seeing a basketball player at Gallaudet who was gay, who challenged the version of queerness he had seen in media. DiMarco has now become that for others.
"I actually have one friend who I grew up with whose parents pretty much disowned her because she was queer, because she came out," he reveals. According to DiMarco, the friend, who is deaf, tried to explain that she was figuring out her own sexuality, and the family couldn't make sense of it and didn't want to. "It was actually the visibility that I had when I came out that really changed their minds. That if I, as this aspirational figure, also identified as queer, maybe it wasn't such a terrible thing. We might laugh about it for a moment now, but her family actually reached out to her and made amends because I was able to use my platform to help them get a bit more understanding, a little bit more insight into what it is.
"I hope I'm having that impact with other families, and I hope kids are having a better experience coming out."
All of this has led DiMarco to this moment. Over the past five years, after fashioning himself into a public-facing force, he's stepped behind the camera as a producer, where his love for problem solving comes into play daily. First was on Broadway with the 2018 revival of Children of a Lesser God, which nabbed a Tony nomination for Lauren Ridloff, the deaf actress who portrayed Sarah Norman, a young deaf woman who works at a New England school for the deaf. And then he headed to television with projects like Deaf U and Audible for Netflix, all in an effort to bring cultural awareness and nuance to deaf stories that he didn't see before.
"Deaf U was a fantastic place to really open up a discussion about the different types of deaf people that belong to this community, and also show there's an incredibly diverse array of people who come from all different backgrounds, all different genders, races, and abilities," he says. That project followed a crush of students at Gallaudet doing the things college kids do: dating, partying, hooking up, and trying to find their place in the world while navigating the hierarchies of school. As seen in the production, those hierarchies sometimes pertain to a family's legacy of deafness as opposed to income. "I wanted to show that we are not a monolith," DiMarco says.
Relying on his experiences on the sets of earlier shows, the changemaker, now in the producer chair, has insisted on hiring more deaf and hard of hearing people behind the camera. Many of them have been queer. On Deaf U, members of the deaf community made up 30 percent of the crew, 50 percent of the story department producers, and 30 percent of the edit team.
And this isn't happening in a vacuum. Chella Man, the deaf, Jewish, and Asian-American trans man who made history when he was signed as a model to the prestigious management company IMG, starred as the superhero Jericho on the DC Universe's Titans. Ridloff has gone on to star in Marvel's Eternals and more. In fact, when DiMarco went to the Oscars red carpet earlier this year for his project Audible, it was one of a few productions featuring deaf talent nominated in five categories.
"I never really saw myself represented on-screen growing up," he reflects on the importance of Audible, his short documentary about the football program at the Maryland School for the Deaf, and projects like it. "We had Marlee Matlin [the first deaf actor to win an Oscar, for 1986's Children of a Lesser God] but she was the only spot of representation for a spectrum that represents millions and millions of people globally right now. If you look at the most recent Oscars season, 35 years was too long to wait." (Matlin, who stars in the Best Picture-winning CODA, campaigned for deaf actors in deaf roles on the project, which led to the casting of Troy Kotsur, who won the 2022 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.)
And he doesn't plan to wait. In 2020, DiMarco quietly launched Clerc Studios, which is named after Laurent Clerc, a French deaf man who was a founder of the first school for the deaf in America and is considered by many to be the "father of deaf culture." Through that company -- billed as "a production house committed to amplify the stories of disabled people, which make up the world's largest minority" -- he's working on multiple projects. There's Look at Me, a drama featuring a multigenerational deaf family living under one roof and inspired in part by his life. There's also the effort to turn Deaf President Now! The 1988 Revolution at Gallaudet University, a book that chronicles a week of protests at the school that resulted in the university's first deaf president, into a feature film. He's also set to return to the screen in a half-hour comedy currently in development about being a deaf man in America.
"And then there's Deaf Punk, which I think is the most exciting," he says, referring to another planned drama series. "We're really trying to break the tropes that we see in Hollywood movies where the deaf person can't hear music and it's this sad sob story because they want to. Deaf Punk is a story about how deaf people have essentially reclaimed music and how they really became a part of the punk scene."
Yet another lesson from Professor DiMarco.
NYLE and CHELLA MAN are both wearing PRADA Pants and BERNARD JAMES Jewelry
Creative Direction MIKELLE STREET mikelledstreet.com @mikellestreet
Assistant MILAN GARCON @milangarcon
Photographer MYLES LOFTIN mylesloftinphotography.com @mylesloftin
Photo Assistant Light Tech EVADNE GONZALEZ @evadnegonzalez
Photo Assistant ANDREW ESPINAL @andrewespinal and JIN JIN
Digitech MERLIN VIETHEN and JOSH ROBINSON
Production Director TIM SNOW @snowmgz
Production Manager STEVIE WILLIAMS x2production.com@beingstevie of X2 Production Production
Assistant TOBY TEITEL @toby_teitel
Video AUSTIN NUNES austinunes.com @austinunes
Creative Conception STUART BROCKINGTON, ANNA CARIAS, MIKELLE STREET
Hair CHARLIE LE MINDU charlielemindu.com@charlielemindu
Hair Assistant JET KEEFE @jetkeefebeauty
Makeup LARAMIE laramiemakeup.com@laramiemakeup
Makeup Assistant ARPITA BRAHMBHATT
Stylist RASAAN WYZARD @monsieur_wyzard
Stylist Assistant MELINDA GRIFFITH
Related | Nyle DiMarco and Chella Man Are the New American Idols
This article is part of Out's July/August 2022 issue, appearing on newsstands July 12. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.