Johnny Weir performs in the Gala Exhibition at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating NHK Trophy on Nov. 8, 2009 in Nagano, Japan.
Two-time Olympic singles figure skater Johnny Weir has some big dancing shoes to fill. As the 34th U.S. Olympian to join the cast of “Dancing with the Stars,” he is not in unchartered territory but he feels like his body is.
Despite skating since the age of 12, the 36-year-old — who said he’s “in the worst shape of my life” — admitted that “my body is killing me” after only one week of dance rehearsals with pro partner, Britt Stewart. Hoping to become the fourth winner from Team USA figure skating to take home the mirror ball trophy, he was relieving sore muscles with a foam roller when TeamUSA.org talked to him a couple days after the premiere of Season 29.
Weir shared why he thinks it’s unfair that the other contestants have pegged him as the one to beat, and the advice he got from fellow Olympian — and Season 18 winner — Meryl Davis.
Judge Carrie Ann Inaba said what everyone was thinking on the premiere: “you should have been on the show years ago.” How did you get selected?
“Dancing with the Stars” actually reached out to me a few times over the last 10 years, but it never worked out with my schedule. About four days before they wanted to announce the cast publicly, they called me and I had a really short time to decide. And then I had to pack for two months, which most people know based on the way I pack for the Olympics, I am not a spontaneous or easy packer. But I immediately said yes because I think it’s so important for people who are entertainers to get out there and entertain. It’s the best thing I can do to help people get their mind off things — even for a short time every week.
In the midst of a pandemic, what is it like having somewhere to go and someone to see?
I love working and I’m kind of like a shark in that way. If I stop swimming, I die. So if I stop working, I die. So I am just excited to have something physical to do. This might sound crazy, but I’m in the worst shape of my life. I went for the longest period of time off the ice since I was a child — and pushing yourself at home can be a really hard thing to do.
What has been your favorite part about being on the show?
I’m just so excited to be pretty again, wear an outfit and have my hair done. Just to get away from banana bread and stretch pants has been wonderful.
What has been the hardest thing about being on the show?
I’ve never had formal dance training. Growing up it was common for young skaters to take ballet, or jazz or ballroom dancing, but my family didn’t have the resources to do that. So everything that was artistic about my skating came from within. And there are so many things that I know that are natural for skating that translate into bad habits in the ballroom world, so I’m definitely at a very steep learning curve.
So you don’t agree with popular opinion that figure skaters have an unfair advantage on the show?
Certainly not! Yes, we are predisposed to musicality and there are certain aspects of skating and figure skaters that translates well into the ballroom world. But the way I am equating it is kind of like having a football player have to go out and play a major league baseball game eight days after starting to play baseball.
What has being on the show taught you about yourself?
I really like being told what to do. [Laughs.] It’s been a while since anyone has coached me and I feel that my brain is so used to being coached and told how to do things, and why to do things that I really like being coached. I love being taught how to do something by a professional.
Did you get advice from other Team USA athletes who have competed on the show?
[Three time Olympic medal ice dancer and “DWTS” season 18 winner] Meryl Davis actually wrote me immediately after the cast was announced. She told me to enjoy the process and not focus on being such a perfectionist. I think that perfectionism is something that runs deep in figure skating. We have one chance every four years to be in front of the world and it has to be perfect. So we’ve all sort of engrained that mentality into what we do, and I feel that in every aspect of my life. Everything has to be perfect — whether it’s how my tchotchkes are arranged on my bookshelf to now with “Dancing With the Stars”.
How does the training compare to training for an Olympic Games?
There is no comparison. The Olympics are what I dedicated my entire life to and sacrificed so much — whether it was living away from my family, financially, sacrificing having a normal childhood or early adulthood — to make my Olympic dream a reality. I wouldn’t change that for anything. The training has been hard because I am learning a new skill. But I want to show up and be the best, and be what the figure skating dynasty on “Dancing with the Stars” has been, which is successful. I don’t want to let my little world down by not being prepared.
How do you think night one went?
The first night there was all these expectations on me to do well. The other competitors have pegged me as the one to beat, but I think it’s kind of unfair. Everyone thinks I’m going to win just because I’m a figure skater, but they have never seen me dance. So I had a lot to prove on night one. Our performance wasn’t as good as some of the ones we did in rehearsals, but I felt good. As far as judging goes, I can’t control them. I learned that very early on in figure skating.
Who do you think is your biggest competition?
I actually didn’t know how to do DVR until the day of the show, so I had to have someone come and help me so I could watch the whole show. It was the first time I got to see the dances of the other competitors because we’re so separated. We have to wait to go into our rehearsal studio until it has been completely sanitized. And then we leave immediately when it’s time to leave so they can sanitize it for the next couple. So I have not met anyone. I’ve seen people in passing but I’d never seen the dances. But when I was playing the show back, everyone looked so great. I was blown away. I didn’t see anyone who couldn’t be a favorite in the competition.
What other precautions are they taking due to COVID-19?
We’re tested for CoVID every single day, our temperatures are taken constantly, and the only person I’m ever in the same room with is my partner, Britt; and she is held at the same standard as I am. You want to be in there hugging the other contestants and the pro dancers, who to me are celebrities in their own right. Even though they’re dancing with the stars, I feel like I’m dancing with the stars. But it’s a very quiet set — aside from us cheering for one another there isn’t a whole lot of connection between all the contestants, which is different.
How has it been performing with no live audience?
The way that I perform in skating you learn to project to the last row in a building, and not just focus on the judges in the first row. So I’m used to feeling very intimate about my performances, and I think that sort of mentality helped me a lot with no live audience.
When it comes to the music you dance to, do you get a say?
Definitely. Before we were even announced, one of the first emails that came through was a questionnaire about what kind of music we like. They try their best to clear music that we love and then it’s just a matter of not repeating a dance. For example, I’ve already done a cha-cha, so I can’t do a cha-cha for the rest of the season now. So if one of my favorite songs is in the rhythm of a cha-cha, I can’t dance to it. And then it’s just a matter of whether Britt can choreograph to it quickly or if she likes it.
One of the first things I told Britt was that I want her to feel comfortable. If she doesn’t like the direction the costume is going, or if she doesn’t like the message of a certain song than I am happy to scrap it so that she feels happy and like a queen. Like all women should when they’re out there working in front of millions of people. I’m really sensitive to how people that I work with feel because with [NBC Sports broadcast partner — and fellow Olympian] Tara [Lipinski] it was eye opening to me. When you open yourself up to a partnership ¬— especially in entertainment — a woman is judged so much harsher than I would be.
Can you give an example?
The amount of pressure and the double standard between men and women in entertainment is so stark — and it’s so hurtful at times to see that not everyone is treated equally. I obviously am gay and a part of a certain community, but at the same time I am a white man. In some cases things that I wear, for example, aren’t criticized as harshly as Tara wearing a simple dress. If anybody needed to be told, Oh Johnny, don’t wear that padded trash bag coat on television, it should have been me. Not Tara for wearing red. There really is no excuse to question people differently or criticize more harshly just because of who they are.