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Leander Schaerlaeckens | April 14, 2016

The Johnny and Tara show is the main event

The Johnny and Tara show is the main event

by Leander Schaerlaeckens

Photo: John Berry/Getty Images

Johnny Weir has already spent 20 minutes in hair and makeup, getting foundation applied and strands of foreign hair woven into his own, when Tara Lipinski bursts into the room — late, of course, because her driver can somehow never find the NBC Sports studios.

She literally skips around the corner, sticks a dramatic landing and sings “HELLOOOOOOO,” at the highest reaches of her vocal range.

John Berry/Getty Images

Weir whips his head around, even though he tweaked the hell out of his neck during a recent show at Bryant Park in New York City, performing in a flimsy onesie in the cold.

“HELLOOOOOOO,” he crows back while convulsing into spasms of excitement, kicking his feet and waving his arms, immediately halting the hair and makeup works. Just as soon as he’s released from his chair, they rush to each other and their tiny bodies collide violently - at 5′9, the waifish Weir towers over the 5′1 Lipinski. They hug and hop and everything is glitter and sparkles.

The jaded makeup artists try to get their work done while co­-commentator Terry Gannon looks on bemused. Some PR people don’t quite know what to do with themselves. It’s a drizzly and grey December morning. But in here, a compound along the choked I­-95, it’s all fabulous — because Johnny and Tara are together again, and it had been a while.

Within minutes, Weir’s and Lipinski’s televised gay­/straight figure skating lovefest/­high fashion show proved authentic. That dynamic between the sport’s most fabulously attired and entertainingly honest duo has reinvigorated NBC’s broadcasts and hooked viewers during the Games. But can Weir and Lipinski make people care about figure skating, a sport that’s two decades past its peak, for those other 206 weeks out of the four-­year Olympic cycle?


­­­­­In Johnny and Tara’s telling, “Johnny and Tara” was Johnny and Tara’s idea.

They didn’t know each other very well before they began working the 2014 Olympic figure skating broadcast booth together in Sochi. Although aged 31 and 33, both were part of very different skating generations. Lipinski was a prodigy who, at 15, became the youngest champion ever at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. She’d come and gone by the time the late-blooming Weir, who didn’t even take up skating until he was 12, had arrived on the scene in 2001 at the World Junior Championships.

They quickly connected waiting outside a studio on their first day. “We both had Céline bags,” Lipinski recalled. NBC had committed to showing the entire Olympic figure skating competition live on its NBC Sports Network. That meant it needed a second broadcasting team to supplement the one that would be calling the prime time re­airings. But the initial plan was for Weir to do color commentary on the men’s side and Lipinski on the ladies’. They wondered if they should do both together in a three-person booth with Gannon. “We kind of mentioned it to our producers and they looked at us like we had two heads,” Lipinski said.

But NBC agreed, even though putting them together was risky. They were fairly green broadcasters and would be on air live for many hours. But then, it was a time for risks.

John Berry/Getty Images

Reluctant as those in the sport are to concede it, figure skating is in desperate need of saving. “It has kind of not been enjoying the popularity that it had in the 90s and the early 2000s,” Weir said. “And I attribute that a lot to the judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Olympics, the change in scoring systems and the fact that the US hasn’t had a really big standout female star since Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan. Figure skating’s success has a lot to do with the current woman that’s in charge of the world. And we just haven’t had it.”

Once there were Debi Thomas and Katarina Witt. And then Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, followed by Kwan and Lipinski. And then nobody. The sport has slowly slipped from relevance ever since it had its last mononymous female stars, caught in some bitter rivalry.

In Sochi, the Americans failed to medal in both the men’s and women’s singles for the first time since 1948. The men have won the annual World Championships just twice since Brian Boitano did in 1988 and have claimed no medals at all since 2009. Curiously, though, the United States Figure Skating Association has reported rising participation in the sport since the late-90s.

“The most recent household names are [ice dancer] Meryl Davis — because she was [an] Olympic champion and Dancing with the Stars champion — and myself,” Weir continued. “The amount of times that I get congratulated on winning the Olympic gold medal because people don’t remember that Evan Lysacek actually won [in Vancouver in 2010] and that I got sixth place, because I was more visible after the Olympics — I think that’s pretty sad.”

Harry How/Getty Images

Then there’s the judging. At the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the pairs event was stained by scandal. A judge admitted she had caved to political pressure and scored the Russian team above the Canadian one in an apparent vote­-trading scheme that swayed the gold medal. The upshot of this ugly episode was that figure skating got a new scoring system to root out the subjectivity that had marred the sport at all its levels.

But the new system has stifled the artistry in favor of arithmetic. If the old system was prone to corruption and favoritism, the new one produces nearly identical programs, choking off creativity as the skaters run through a checklist of mandatory jumps and moves at the expense of choreography.

“Skating has definitely become a lot more predictable,” Weir said, adding that the scoring readouts are now also incomprehensibly complicated. “They’re even hard for Tara and I to read at times.”

The National Championships don’t sell out anymore. Broadcasts revenues are a fraction of what they used to be. The major tours are dead or dying, and ratings are way down from their Super Bowl­-sized numbers in 1994, when Kerrigan and Harding finally met in Lillehammer.

Three-­time US champion Ashley Wagner has called her sport “a dinosaur.” Boitano once declared it “close to death.”

In a sport once known as much for its theatre as its triple loops, the skating has become fairly robotic. And so the personality now has to come from the booth.


It’s ironic for Johnny and Tara to have become the faces of American figure skating, since they were also some of its biggest rebels.

David Madison/Getty Images

Figure skating is a hierarchical sport. You await your turn. In Nagano, it wasn’t Lipinski’s turn. “She was not the person that was supposed to take it all at that time,” explained Gannon, who covered her career. “She crashed the party and took home all the goods and she wasn’t supposed to. It was supposed to be someone else.” Neither he nor Lipinski will utter Kwan’s name, which is so figure skating. Lipinski did things her way and on her own time, before walking away and denying US Figure Skating a star and a blossoming rivalry.

Weir, meanwhile, butted heads with the USFSA throughout his career. “In the years he was competing, some people — including some inside the organization — may have felt uncomfortable with his flamboyance,” conceded David Raith, US Figure Skating’s executive director, “But his talent and longevity in the sport could not be denied.”

Now, Weir, once treated as the sport’s Antichrist, is both its salvation and redemption. “I’m kind of laughing last,” he said.

Gannon remembers going out to dinner with Weir and Lipinski the night before their first broadcast from Sochi and telling them, “‘Hey, let’s not do TV. Let’s do Johnny and Tara with me as the guy who keeps it all together.’ We had no real structure. We had no plan. The only plan was not to have a plan.”

For their totally over­-the-­top wardrobe and all the posing for elaborately orchestrated selfies on social media, Weir’s and Lipinski’s witty repartee on TV is consciously unscripted. “I provide the ice,” Gannon said, “and they create art and entertainment on it.” The audience responded to a novel way of covering figure skating. They were fresh and off ­the cuff in a stodgy sport.

Jim Bell, NBC’s executive producer for the Olympics, used to work on The Today Show. He understands chemistry and how elusive it can be. “It’s a little bit like the old Supreme Court judge who said ‘I can’t define pornography but I know what it is when I see it,’” he said. “You see it even when you’re just in a room with Johnny and Tara. They’re kind of like brother and sister. They finish each other’s sentences. They’re the real deal.”

They filled hour after hour of television, learning their trade and then perfecting it, often covering for each other as one of them made a mad dash to the bathrooms on the opposite end of the arena during commercial breaks — “Because we were both in heels,” Weir said. “Obviously.”

John Barry/Getty Images

Slate called them “One of the Olympics’ truly transcendent pairings — not to mention its very best fashion show.” Soon enough, they were appearing on every NBC studio show from the Olympics, upstaging the prime time team of Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic. Since those Olympics, NBC has not only made them the top figure skating team but used them at the Oscars and the Super Bowl — when Weir wore a sequined, football-shaped yarmulke, sparkly eye black and sequined pad. NBC also used them at the National Dog Show and the Kentucky Derby, when Weir’s hat was a bouquet of roses with a mint julep in it.

Forming that partnership, however, took a leap of faith. Figure skaters, for all the doe-eyes made in the kiss­-and­-cry after their performances, fundamentally mistrust each other. Things seldom get so savage as when Harding’s henchmen clubbed Kerrigan in the knee, but theirs is a cutthroat sport. Only one person can win. “Skating is such a small world,” Weir said. “It’s very dog ­eat­ dog, it’s very behind­ the ­back. Anything you tell somebody can come back and bite you. It was really hard for me, and I’m sure hard for her, to really just let your walls come down and trust somebody with this sector of your work life.”

Yet, they built an organic relationship. “Well, I mean, I’m a gay dude and she’s a girl,” Weir said. “That is, through nature, the strongest bond that you’ll have aside from your mother. There’s no competition between us. It’s not two beautiful ice-­skating women. It’s not me Betta­-fishing with another gay guy.”

Betta­-fishing?

“We don’t have a rivalry,” Weir continued after explaining about Siamese fighting fish that puff up to intimidate each other. “We don’t have an inner competition. That’s very rare for our world.”

They’re likable in person, too. Lipinksi’s energy is uncontainable and her sweetness disarming. Weir has a healthy ego, but he’s also frightfully smart, funny and self-deprecating, poking fun at his receding hairline.

Below the sequins there is substance. When the music starts and the skaters swoop and swing into their programs, it’s just about the skating. Johnny and Tara work hard, staying up until 3 a.m. to study up on the next day’s skaters. They try to provide insight into the rigors of a pitiless sport, which is physically demanding yet requires a beauty queen’s grace and composure. “It’s not all sparkly costumes,” Weir said. “It’s ice baths. It’s getting injured. It’s not eating. It’s having no personal life. It’s dedicating your entire life to six minutes under the bright lights.”

They don’t baby the skaters. “We do the same things that daughters and their moms do, sitting at home watching our broadcast, talking about the people that they see on TV,” Weir said. “We just have a bigger mouthpiece. If we don’t like something, you’ll know about it. Figure skating is subjective, so the joy in covering this sport is everyone can have their own opinion.”

John Barry/Getty Images

“We’re going to call it like we see it,” Lipinski echoed. “Someone watching who doesn’t know the ins and outs of our sport might find that funny. Our banter about it, or maybe they’re learning something they didn’t know before, or maybe there’s a little shade being thrown.

“There’s just a younger approach,” she continued. “We need to remind people how fun skating is, how quirky skating is. If we went on TV and overlooked the cold, hard truths and the quirkiness, I don’t think that’s bringing anything to the fans. “

“And sometimes,” Weir added, “we’re a little bit catty.”

But for all their appeal to the TV viewer, underscored by ratings that are sloping gently upwards with Johnny and Tara in the booth, the sport will still need to produce new stars on the ice. “Tara and I can only do so much with one minute on the air, on camera with our outfits, and the rest just talking through a poor performance,” Weir said. “We’ve brought attention to our sport. But the skaters themselves have to start winning international titles for the American public to be super interested again.”


­­­­If figure skating needs Johnny and Tara, they also need figure skating.

They retain an enduring love for a sport which gave them a lot but also devoured their childhoods. Like in any sport dominated by teenagers, figure skating throws family dynamics off their axis. But both of them feel that their careers weren’t all they could have been. They have unfinished business with figure skating.

Lipinski, like Weir, was an accidental star. Neither of their careers were the product of some grand design by their parents. Lipinski’s weren’t interested in her skating. She only tried it because a local rink gave out free Care Bears.

By 1998, she’d been a household name for several years, becoming the youngest woman — girl, really — ever to win Nationals and Worlds. And when she became the youngest gold medalist ever at the Winter Olympics, as well, she was probably also the youngest person ever to retire. From competitive skating anyway, moving on to the then-­thriving professional tour of shows and competitions.

Elsa/Getty Images

Her early retirement was, in many ways, analogous to Jordan quitting after his first NBA title, or Jeter after his first World Series ring. “If I was skating now, I can tell you, 110 percent, I would still be in it for four more Olympics,” she says. “I’d probably still be skating now.”

But it was a different time. She’d grown up idolizing Kristi Yamaguchi and Witt. She wanted to measure herself against them, having won everything there was to win in the amateur competitions, and they were on the pro circuit. “Those stars were not competing,” she said. “They were on Stars on Ice, on a 100-­city tour. They had so much money in these productions that you could actually feel like you were in a Broadway show. Once I’d won, I realized this is my time to tour for 10 years just like they did. Most people didn’t stay in. You won your medal and you went to Stars on Ice. There was a very different plan for skaters back then.” But soon enough, the limos and hotel suites went away and the pro tours dwindled.

Weir’s family was solidly middle class. They moved twice and worked several jobs to accommodate his passions. Riding horses at first, and then figure skating, which he’d discovered on second­hand skates atop a frozen cornfield behind his childhood home in Quarryville, Penn., deep in Amish country.

Before he’d even competed in his first Grand Prix, he’d run afoul of the USFSA. They were aghast at the blonde, red and brown dye job he’d applied to his hair and told him he was to turn it black or brown before leaving the country. He said he’d dye it red. They told him to “butch it up.” “It’s men’s figure skating,” Weir would respond. “How butch can you get?” There would be friction for the remainder of his 10 seasons on the senior circuit, in spite of his three national titles. And he only ever got flashier, to the chagrin of the officials.

“It’s been pretty widely documented that while I was skating, there were lots of political shenanigans, skeptical judging,” Weir said. He claims he overheard a US Figure Skating official tell his coach after Vancouver that if they’d known he would skate so well, they would have given him more backing. Weir is convinced that his endless strife with the federation cost him more titles.

When he reached the top, the golden age Lipinski had known was over and the sport, as he puts it, was “kind of in the tubes a bit.” The endorsements were largely gone, and there was no prospect of retiring into the lucrative tour circuit after you became a star.

Brad Barket/Getty Images

Whereas Lipinski had gotten so much attention that she sought to contain the publicity, and gave away very little of her private life — it wasn’t until after she stopped competing that she made a series of TV cameos, in an attempt to launch an acting career - Weir badly needed to scoop up whatever attention might be paid to him. He embraced celebrity, flaunting his boldness and brashness.

If he was going to avoid living a regular life, Weir had no choice but to put himself out there. “Towards the end of my skating career I really understood that I probably wouldn’t become the Olympic champion for political reasons, no matter how good I was,” Weir said. “So I went, ‘Okay, what else can I do?’”

He made himself three-­dimensional, taking every interview, agreeing to all appearances and accepting just about any opportunity outside the rink, like walking in New York Fashion Week. He was public and very candid. He once told New York magazine that he didn’t “need anyone for anything. I can have sex with myself, I can love myself, I can do all those things myself.”

Weir took an offer for a reality show — “It was me, butt­ ass naked, mounting a leg massager” — and he recorded a song, Dirty Love, which went No. 1 in Japan. He turned down an offer to star in a porno.

“When Tara won, Friends was probably the number one show on television,” Weir explains. “When I was doing very well, shows like The Kardashians were starting to really become popular. It’s just different eras. Every sport is affected by what’s currently hot and hip in the country. Tara won when the country was a bit more wholesome.”

But all that publicity came with a downside. He filed for divorce from Victor Voronov in Feb. 2014, after less than 2 1⁄2 years of marriage. Their ugly separation — the lawsuits and the accusations of rape, violence, the wrangling over a Fabergé egg, expensive furs, bags and the dog — was splayed all over the tabloids. But he has no regrets. He sees himself as a performer. “As long as people will have me and care what’s going on in my world and my life, I’m happy to share,” Weir said. “I’ll probably be Instagramming until I’m old and decrepit and laying in a golden, filigree coffin.”

Yet for both Weir and Lipinski, their second life in skating is also an exercise in personal rebranding. Lipinski previously didn’t have much of a public identity. She never lived as large a life as Weir did. She didn’t drink until she was 23 and has never touched a cigarette or tried drugs. Searching her name turns up almost nothing that’s personal — although she divulges on diet, decorating and yoga routines. Until her recent engagement to Todd Kapostasy, a sports TV producer, a Google search for Lipinski’s “boyfriend” or “husband” only turned up pictures of Weir. (When this was pointed out to them, Weir and Lipinski both laughed uproariously.)

Weir had the opposite problem. “There was just a lot that was going on around me that made me look like a swirl of divadom,” he said. “Even now, people that don’t really know me think I’m an asshole. That I’m this diva bitch that is so self­-interested and so vain. I’m not actually this crazy gay guy that cares only about fur coats and handbags. I’m a lot deeper. I like to Windex things, too.” He chuckles at this, as he often does when he cracks a joke.


It’s now been two hours. They’re almost ready to record their segment. A producer comes in to talk through the content of their hit, a brief introduction to the highlights of the Grand Prix of Barcelona. Weir has hoisted himself into what can most easily be described as a black bullfighter suit. His boots have heels that look like ice cubes. “It’s conservative for me,” he says, before doing a little Flamenco step and asking someone to snap a picture for his Instagram.

Lipinski wears a white knit dress and tall boots. They’re both in black and white. “Amish,” Weir figured. This, naturally, is no coincidence.

“At Nationals we’ll have like 17 suitcases,” Weir told me. “That’s where you can do the real sports journalism.”

When, at length, they’re finally ready to shoot, they march down the dimly lit hallways holding hands. On set, they stand on their marks and Weir notes that the camera angle makes them look like “mini people” next to Terry, whom he always calls Terrence.

Everybody ready? Weir puckers his face, puts his arm on his hip and lifts a heel off the ground. Lipinski flashes her widest smile. Terry begins the segment. They record two crisp 90-­second breakdowns of the action that will follow their talk. The wardrobe people fuss over them between takes, as they tap dance a few steps and put their arms around each other.

They’re polished, yet loose and chatty. Profound but fluffy. Everybody’s happy, but Lipinski feels she can do better and they do another take, in which Weir does a little Flamenco dance. Done. The whole thing takes less than 10 minutes. This will air and maybe people will watch it. And then perhaps they’ll switch on their TVs the next time figure skating is on.

Back in the corridors, on their way to record some voiceovers, Johnny and Tara hold hands again. And then, with nobody else around, he gracefully spins her.

Credits

Editors: Elena Bergeron, Spencer Hall

Design & Development: Graham MacAree

About the Author

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for FoxSoccer.com. He has previously contributed to the New York Times, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, the Guardian and others. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderOnFOX.

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