Adam Rippon Wants to Stay Famous

But he doesn’t want to be known for figure skating anymore. Will America still be rooting for him? Will you?
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Photos by Marvin Joseph

I want this to be a great piece as badly as you do,” Adam Rippon is telling me. We’re talking for the first time — in early April, just over a month after his return from the PyeongChang Olympics — and discussing my plans to interview him every few weeks this spring and also visit him as often as his schedule allows. “I think it will be a way to process everything,” he says. “A way to look back at a transitional and crazy time in my life and be like, holy s—, that was a lot that happened.”

At that moment, the recorder on my iPhone stops working, and I have to ask him to wait while I try to fix it. It’s almost 9 p.m. and Rippon, 28, is in a hotel room in Fort Myers, Fla., after a long day of learning skating choreography for “Stars on Ice,” but he tells me to take as much time as I need: “I’m just putting on a face mask and not going anywhere.”

As I will learn over three months of spending time on and off with him, this is who Rippon is: a solicitous, kind, thoughtful person. And yet, it is also undeniable that he has his own reasons for wanting this piece to succeed. Since the Olympics, he’s turned appearing in the media into something resembling a full-time job. Before February, no one outside of figure skating had heard of him. Then, after he qualified for the Winter Games in January, a journalist asked him to comment on the choice of Vice President Pence to lead the U.S. Olympic delegation at the Opening Ceremonies. Rippon — one of only two out gay Americans competing in PyeongChang — answered with unscripted candor: “You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy? I’m not buying it.”

Rippon was greeted in South Korea by a sports media eager to milk his feud with Pence for all the traffic it was worth. Privately, some of his friends worried that the attention would distract him and that he would choke when it came time to compete. Instead, he delivered a series of faultless programs, starting with an elegiac free skate to Coldplay in the team event that helped clinch the bronze medal for Team USA. More important, he proved himself the rare athlete who could entertain off the ice as nimbly as on it. He summarized his mental state before his performance as: “Can I just have a Xanax and a quick drink?” In one interview, he dubbed himself “America’s sweetheart,” and it stuck. Despite not medaling in the solo event, he was the undisputed star of PyeongChang.

He came home to a month of back-to-back interviews — Ellen, Colbert, “The View,” Ellen again — and slowly stopped showing up in his Team USA gear and bronze medal, consciously trading them for his own Gucci and Louis Vuitton. People asked for his autograph in the street almost daily; Sally Field tried to set him up with her son. He showed up at the Oscars wearing a BDSM-inspired harness; he signed on for a season of “Dancing With the Stars.” His strategy was to say yes to everything (well, except Sally Field), treating fame like a five-course meal at which every dish merits a taste. “Sometimes it can feel like a lot,” he told me in late April, “but I think it’s important to remember that not everyone gets these opportunities, and if you have them you should try to experience them to the fullest.”

Of course, every Olympics has a few instant celebrities. Most, however, fade quickly from public view. “So many athletes, once they’re done, try to have media careers,” says Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports, which covers the intersection of sports and LGBTQ issues. “But what makes them special is their performance on the field, ice or court. Most times, once the sports stop, the public adoration stops.”

When I go into an interview now, I’m trying to lose the narrative of being an athlete and take on the narrative that Adam Rippon is a personality.
Adam Rippon

Rippon had set the stage for his fame by being better at skating than most people will ever be at anything — a status the sociologist Chris Rojek has called “achieved celebrity.” But the aftermath of Rippon’s comments about Pence was also his first taste of what Rojek has labeled “attributed celebrity” — media coverage conferred on a person not necessarily because he’s exceptional, but because he seems like a magnet for public attention. (“A traffic driver,” as we say in newsrooms.) With his skating career winding down, this is the genre of celebrity that increasingly defines Rippon’s days. He’s currently negotiating his own transformation from a person famed for his skill on the ice to one who is famous for being himself — or, to use the more common (and slightly pejorative) phrase, one who is famous for being famous.

When Rojek was writing in 2001, he could never have predicted our era of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and reality TV. Now, in the age of the selfie, attributed fame is available to more and more people — including, for the time being at least, Rippon. He documents his life for what may soon be 1 million followers on Instagram (860,000 at last count); racks up interviews, photo shoots and ad campaigns (you can catch him recapping “Legally Blonde” for Cosmopolitan and selling Nivea shaving products and DSW shoes); and lends his voice to irreproachable causes, such as GLAAD’s work with LGBTQ youth and Michelle Obama’s nonpartisan voter turnout campaign.

Americans view celebrity in contradictory ways, particularly when it’s the sort Rippon is cultivating. We follow the famous with a devotion we often don’t show our own families. But we also bemoan the deleterious effects of celebrity culture — worrying, to paraphrase celebrity addiction specialist “Dr. Drew” Pinsky, that celebrities are the ultimate narcissists, and that we’re making ourselves egotists in their image. The only stars exempt from this love-hate analysis are the ones who pursue excellence rather than prominence. The more explicitly a person seeks fame for its own sake, the more we seem to see them as both root and reflection of our own pathology.

And yet: Is there really anything wrong with just wanting to stay famous after America has anointed you? Suspended between one type of celebrity and another, Adam Rippon seems poised to find out. “When I go into an interview now, I’m trying to lose the narrative of being an athlete and take on the narrative that Adam Rippon is a personality,” he told me. “If we fast-forward, I hope someone would be like, ‘Adam Rippon is so funny. Did you know he was at the Olympics and got a medal?’ ”

Dolce & Gabbana coat, shirt, velvet jumper and bow tie; David Yurman rings. TOP: Dolce & Gabbana tagged tracksuit and sneakers; David Yurman gold rings; jeweled crown from Abracadabra NYC.

Ten days after we first talk, I meet Rippon in person at an ice rink in Providence, R.I. I expect to see him in his element but instead find him avoiding donning his skates. It’s a Saturday afternoon in early April, a week into the “Stars on Ice” tour, to which Rippon committed before he knew it would conflict with anything but his looming retirement. Now, he’s two-handing the tour with tapings for “Dancing” and the new demands of celebrity. This week, he flew to Los Angeles for GLAAD’s annual awards, where he presented early in the evening so he could dash to the airport for a redeye to New York and an 8 a.m. appearance on “Good Morning America.”

When I arrive at the rink, quadruple jump king Nathan Chen and Olympian Ashley Wagner are rehearsing what looks like a bar scene on skates, complete with stools and a low, circular table. Rippon, due to start warming up any minute, moseys out in gray sweatpants and a lilac Lululemon pullover to say hello to his publicist and me. Off his skates, he’s a physically unimposing 5-foot-7, with fawn-colored hair and strikingly regular features, like a more delicate version of Barbie’s Ken. He pulls up a sleeve to display the contrast between the inside and orange-tinted outside of his arm, which received a heavy spray-tan before a “Dancing” photo shoot yesterday. (Over the coming months, I will hear Rippon invoke his fake tan often for a laugh — a signature self-deprecating icebreaker.) He projects this treatment forward by four weeks. “It’s going to be murky,” he says.

We chat about how he’s doing (“dying, but alive, you know what I mean?”) and discover that we’re the same age, born two days apart in November 1989. “I could feel I was older,” Rippon says solemnly. He notices his publicist shivering in the eternal winter of the ice rink — she came dressed, understandably, for spring — and heads backstage to fetch her his parka, but is waylaid en route by the “Stars on Ice” press team, who drag him toward a clutch of people they need him to meet.

The other skaters in Rippon’s time slot begin to warm up. Jason Brown, a lanky fan favorite, performs Russian split leaps so elastic that he looks like a firework going off in midair. Mirai Nagasu, Rippon’s friend and competitor on “Dancing,” is practicing spins until her teal leggings blur. Still, Rippon is nowhere to be seen. His publicist guesses he must be on a phone call. The other skaters have stripped to their T-shirts by the time he emerges, still in his sweatpants. He intercepts Nagasu, and, instead of jumping or spinning, they practice what looks like a waltz on ice, on their skates’ spiky toe-picks. They laugh as he dips her dramatically over his arm.

It’s evident that Rippon would rather be dancing than skating, and would prefer honing his repartee to doing either. “When I’m on the ice now for these rehearsals, I’m like, ‘Get me off, because I’m dying,’ ” he’d told me the previous week on the phone. “I don’t know how I spent so many years just working out all day.”

I feel way more comfortable being an entertainer than I do being in sports forever.
Adam Rippon

Rippon’s march to skating stardom — to achieved celebrity — began in Clarks Summit, Pa., a small town outside Scranton where he grew up with his mom, Kelly, and five younger siblings. He fell in love with skating at a classmate’s 10th birthday party, but his interest in the sport sometimes felt like a Catch-22. At his parochial school, kids teased him for loving something so girly, which they said made him gay; in the skating world, he internalized pressure to disprove that stereotype. “When there’s a straight guy who competes, he’s really pushed,” he said this year during ABC News’ Pride Month speaker series, because the officials want to prove “that skating can be for everybody.” He remembers feeling “embarrassed to be exactly the face of what would push people away from getting into skating.”

In his mother’s house, he received a countervailing regimen of self-esteem. His parents divorced when he was 14, and Kelly immersed herself in self-help literature. (She would also become a life coach and today owns a speaking business called Authentic Change.) When her kids got down on themselves, she would chide, “Careful what you say — your brain is listening!” She took her own advice. About a year after the divorce, she went out on the family’s deck and wrote across the banister: “In this home lives Adam, a champion, Tyler, a creator, Brady, a genius, Jordan, a master teacher, Dagny, a leader, Sawyer, a multitude of joy, and Kelly, who’s blessed with abundance.” Every morning, she brewed a cup of coffee and made herself reread the words while she drank it.

Money was tight, but Kelly sent Adam to the best skating coach she could find in Philadelphia, two hours away. Around when he started winning junior Grand Prix events in high school, he moved in with his teacher part time so that he could take daily lessons, and Kelly paid for it in part by refinancing her house.

Kelly was the first member of the family to whom Rippon came out as gay, in a parking lot between skating shows when he was 22. Not the setting he’d hoped for, but, as he told me, “My mom was leaving after the second show, and I didn’t want to do it and her have to run to the airport.” He remembers her response as: “You were inside me for nine months. I know.” His siblings were also unfazed, as were the friends in skating he chose to tell.

By then, skating was more or less Rippon’s whole world: He’d won a string of junior championships in his late teens, and almost made the Olympic team in 2010, securing an alternate spot. But four years later, he bombed at nationals and missed qualifying by a mile. Devastated, he considered quitting, knowing he might be too old when the next Games rolled around. “It felt like a rock-bottom place,” he told me. “I felt like my hard work didn’t pay off.” One of his coaches, Derrick Delmore, remembers Rippon showing up every day to practice, his brightness dimmed beneath a brave face: “There were tears, though he didn’t show a lot of them.”

But failure proved freeing. After years of trying to embody a classical, lyrical skater, he gave himself a makeover — from moptop all-American boy to “all-American with a twist,” as he says. He cut his hair short and dyed it ice-blue, then purple. He started skating more personal programs, ditching Tchaikovsky and Debussy for the Beatles and Ida Corr. And, in late 2015, in an interview with Skating Magazine, he defied the don’t-ask-don’t-tell culture of skating and came out publicly as gay.

U.S. Figure Skating had never sent an openly gay man to the Olympics, and Kelly had advised her son not to come out. She was afraid that, in the closed-door conferences where the team is chosen, they might find a way around selecting her son. She told him he could say something after he went to the Games — but Rippon had made up his mind. “I started applying these things my mom had been telling me over and over for years, and I just felt like I was living in this really good space,” he says. Hiding his sexuality no longer made sense to him. He told his mom, “If saying something is going to stop me from going to the Games, then I don’t want to go. It’s not worth it to me.”

The truer to himself Rippon was, the better he skated. “I’m like a witch, and you can’t kill me,” he proclaimed through tears upon winning the U.S. championship at age 26 in 2016. “I keep coming back every year, and every year I get better.” Two years later, he became the oldest first-time Olympian among U.S. figure skaters since 1936.

Long before the Winter Games, Rippon had a reputation among reporters who cover skating for being, as he put it in PyeongChang, not the best athlete “but the most fun.” His friend Jeffrey Buttle remembers that around the time Rippon came out in 2015, he started bringing his personality onto the ice. “When I was at his level competing, I kept my mouth shut, but he would sass the judges, and they would eat it up,” Buttle says. It was the same with the press: While other athletes offered canned answers, Rippon made them laugh or spoke his mind. “He’s always been a terrific quote,” says Christine Brennan, the USA Today reporter who unwittingly changed Rippon’s life when she asked him about Mike Pence. “Always incredibly smart, interesting, funny, self-deprecating. He was always a superstar waiting to happen, but there was a question of, ‘Would it happen for him?’ ”

If the spat with Pence drew attention to Rippon, it was his personality that held the spotlight in place. He seemed more comfortable on camera than even the professional sportscasters, a font of dewy smiles and quotable one-liners. He says he didn’t anticipate the onslaught of attention; up until the Olympics, he was so focused on training that there was no room to think about anything else. But if you’re willing to entertain more woo-woo ways of knowing (and yes, Rippon travels with healing crystals), he says he did sense that something big was in store for him. “I kind of felt that something like this would happen, but I never knew in what capacity,” he told me in an early conversation. When I ask if he means that he imagined himself being famous, he pauses to think. “In a way, yes,” he says slowly — though he never articulated the feeling to himself in those words. “I imagined I would go places and people would know who I was, but in a way that they thought I was their friend,” he says. “It was about human interaction, rather than just being a star.”

The media latched on to his status as a “first” for gay representation, and the public at large embraced him to an extent that felt revolutionary. He also inspired a spate of semiotic excavations: The writer Alexander Chee paid tribute to Rippon for being “unabashedly nelly, effeminate, bawdy, and obviously gay in a way we’ve been asked to cover up” and wrote that he “skates with a beauty born out of his embrace of the gestures so often trained out of queer boys all over the world”; the journalist Peter Moskowitz praised him, controversially, as “our first nationally recognized and respected f—-t.”

To hear Rippon talk, the endless interpretations of his sexuality have been the most surreal aspect of fame. Before “the Olympics, I never was told, ‘You are so gay,’ so many times,” he told HuffPost. It had never occurred to him to identify as the paragon of a reclaimed set of stereotypes. “I think a younger me would’ve been embarrassed,” he said. “Me now, that’s fine — I don’t really care because I like who I am. If to you that’s ‘so gay,’ that doesn’t really matter. … People’s opinions of you don’t matter.”

It does matter to him, however, that he isn’t pigeonholed. “I’m not a gay icon. I’m an icon,” he says, joking but not joking, whenever the topic comes up in interviews. “Being gay isn’t a talent,” he tells me in June. “It’s important to be successful and gay — you show that it doesn’t need to be a hindrance and it doesn’t need to put you in a box of what a gay person should be able to do or the audience they should be able to hit.” He’s proud to be an advocate for gay causes but sees himself more as “an advocate for people who don’t feel like they’re being heard, whether they’re LGBTQ identifying or not.”

“Yeah, I’m gay, but it’s not the reason that I worked so hard to go to the Olympics,” he says. “It’s not the reason that I get to do a few interviews, because I can be funny. Being gay has nothing to do with any of that.” Other LGBTQ athletes have made similar pleas to be seen for the incredible things they can do, not the mundane fact of whom they’re attracted to. But Rippon doesn’t want to be defined by sports, either, or funneled into the world of sports media, though this could be his best avenue into an entertainment career.

“Look across the landscape of athletes who’ve landed in media,” says Outsports’ Zeigler. “What do they all have in common? They made a name for themselves in sports media.” He points out that this category includes Michael Strahan, arguably the most successful athlete-turned-media-personality. Strahan is now co-host of the “Good Morning America” afternoon show, but he got his start on “Fox NFL Sunday.” Rippon is trying to skip that step. “Does Adam have a future hosting an MTV show, or becoming the first male host of ‘The View’?” Zeigler muses. “I’m not sure it’s been done before as an athlete. That doesn’t mean he can’t do it. It just means it’s hard.”

Johnnie Lewter Designs lace top; gloves by Majestyblack.com; Versace men’s dress pants.

A few weeks after seeing Rippon in Providence, I’m in the back of a yellow cab with him and his mom, caught in New York traffic. He’s spent the morning learning the quickstep for “Dancing With the Stars” in a threadbare ballroom studio in Midtown, where Kelly and I crashed the end of rehearsal. A former dancer, she practiced steps in chunky suede heels with Adam’s partner, Jenna Johnson, while he and a film crew taped confessionals in a corner. Adam and Jenna have the instant affinity of two kids who become best friends on the first day of camp. He gave her a sarcastic thumbs-down when the crew asked about their chemistry, and they both started giggling. Then he shot a new take, because he’d swallowed his gum.

In the cab from the rehearsal to lunch, an ad for “Dancing With the Stars” plays on loop on the dusty TV screen. The first time, I don’t know which Adam to watch: the pixelated version who’s bent-double laughing at something unspecified in a black sequined shirt? Or the real one, who has a light growth of stubble and is looking exhausted, touching his mom’s shoulder to make her look up? The next time the ad appears, both Kelly and Adam pull out their iPhones and post videos to Instagram. For a moment, Adam turns the camera on his own open-mouthed expression, as if to say, Can you believe this is happening?

If the road to achieved celebrity is an old-fashioned climb, then attributed celebrity lies through a hall of infinity mirrors, in which the star’s every move recurs endless times. Exhibit A: Adam Rippon learns a routine to RuPaul’s “Sissy That Walk” — an LGBTQ anthem — on “Dancing With the Stars.” He posts a video of himself falling in rehearsal on Twitter (April 26: “Didn’t realized how talented of a dancer I really was until @DancingABC. Probably will be on troupe next season”), and the media picks up his tweet, along with the dance when it airs on ABC. Rippon’s fans go wild for the routine (fellow Olympian Gus Kenworthy: “Watching @Adaripp doing the Cha Cha on @DancingABC to @RuPaul’s ‘Sissy That Walk’ is everything my little gay heart has ever needed”), and the blogosphere responds to the responses, aggregating them into a spate of new stories (Billboard: “Adam Rippon’s ‘Sissy That Walk’ Performance: See The Reaction Tweets”). Weeks later, an interviewer from Mic is still asking Rippon for his reaction to the reaction to the dance: How does he feel about the outpouring of feelings over the song? (Rippon says ABC production picked it.) Eventually, the coverage becomes the event.

A similar cycle will play out this evening, when Adam and Kelly attend Time magazine’s annual gala for the 100 most influential people of the year. Not only is Rippon among them, he’s one of five scheduled to give a brief toast. (He’s kept this a surprise for his mom.) Over lunch in a bistro in Chelsea, Rippon pages through the new issue of Time and rereads his own citation, which was written by Cher. He’s mostly silent while his mom and his publicist make small talk, but he emerges from his reverie to say, “I still can’t believe Cher wrote mine.” The rest of us chatter for a minute about how interesting this is, and whose idea do you think it was to ask her? “They didn’t ask somebody in sports,” Rippon says, in a tone that suggests this is the whole point. “That’s what’s so cool about it.”

Cher, it turns out, will not be in attendance at the gala tonight. But Nicole Kidman will be there, and Rippon will joke in his toast about meeting her: “She even let me smell her husband!” (In a later interview with “Access,” he will reveal that Keith Urban is redolent of pine.) “If it wasn’t for the words that my mom told me, ‘Never give up on your dreams,’ I would never have had that experience,” he will say. Around him, America’s most influential people laugh.

Moschino Couture jacket with tails and dress pants; gloves by Majestyblack.com.

I meet up with Rippon again in New York, six weeks later. It’s now June — Pride Month — and he’s in the city for 48 hours of wall-to-wall media about his coming-out story and his LGBTQ advocacy. His publicist has even scheduled phone interviews during the cab rides between interviews; I sit beside him in the car while he answers a GQ blogger’s questions about his exercise regimen and the Arizona Republic’s queries about “Dancing With the Stars,” which he has just won.

The day begins at the radio studio of Elvis Duran, where the tables are cluttered with microphone wires and the walls are crammed with decorative kitsch. To the left of Rippon’s head, there’s a lamp base composed of three glaring owls; to his right, the word “PRIDE” in rainbow balloon letters, of which the emerald “D” is slightly deflated. Duran, enamored of Rippon ever since he came on to discuss his “Dancing” victory, has invited him back on his Z100 morning show. When I arrive, Rippon is talking about his tan; a co-host has complimented his skin, and he gives up his secrets without further prompting. “There’s this self-tanner called St. Tropez that you put a mitt on and it’s like the mitt of shame and you just” — he mimes circles over his face — “at night rub it on. And you wake up in the morning, and you take a shower, and all your doubts, which are brown, just wash off of you — brown and orange.”

Later, Rippon and Duran empathize with a caller who’s afraid to come out to his family somewhere in the Bible Belt. “I feel like for the people who love you unconditionally, it’ll mean literally nothing to them, in the best way,” Rippon says kindly. He describes his own uncertainty, and how he came out to each brother and sister one by one — an effort to avoid a dramatic announcement that ended up feeling even more overwrought. After the caller hangs up, he tells Duran: “It’s really important to remember that being gay is such a small part of your story. It can be a big part of who you are, but you don’t want people to forget what you’re really about.

“Like me,” he says, suddenly saucy. “Money hungry. … I vary skin tones day-to-day. That’s what defines me. Gay? No, no. Beautiful.”

Duran chortles. “You’re an Olympian.”

“Yes. I forgot about this.”

“Shouldn’t that be number one on your list?” laughs a co-host.

“No, I have to think of the present,” Rippon says, sitting up straighter in his bulky headphones and blue Louis Vuitton sweatshirt. “The Olympics happened. I need to be beautiful now.”

Rippon is joking, but some truths are easier to access through humor. And there’s no way around it: If he wants to keep being not only beautiful but seen, his Olympic moment probably won’t carry him much farther. He likes to say that, over the course of the Olympics, he went from being referred to in headlines as “the ‘gay Olympian’ to ‘gay Olympian Adam Rippon’ to just ‘Adam Rippon.’ ” Real fame means needing no introduction. Ellen. Cher. Adam Rippon, sans clarification.

He’s tireless and fearless. ... He’s never said he doesn’t want to meet a new person, hear a new angle, hear a new idea.
Scott Henderson, agent

He describes Ellen DeGeneres as a personal hero and was reportedly in talks with her production company, though nothing ever materialized. But if he aspires to be Ellen, he might settle, at the moment, for being Elvis Duran. “Is he really looking for a co-host?” he asks his publicist as we pile into a cab after the show. (Rippon’s boyfriend, J.P. — an extremely tall Finn whose actual name is Jussi-Pekka Kajaala, which Rippon has decided is too hard to say — is here with him today, filling the role of stage spouse with aplomb. He scrunches into the middle seat.) “Every time I’ve gone on the air he always talks about how I should be the co-host. It must not be a bad job — they have a huge office.” Rippon muses about what something like that might pay. “We always have fun doing it,” he says.

Next it’s off to CBS News, where he and Kenworthy — the only other out 2018 U.S. Olympian, and his instant best friend in the PyeongChang delegation — will do a brief hit on their work with the Trevor Project, a venerable LGBTQ youth suicide prevention group. They converge in a green room, along with their publicists, where they fill time by chatting about “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the reboot of “Queer Eye” and Rippon’s recent stint as a paid “ambassador” aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Pride Party at Sea.

From CBS, Rippon will rush to a New York Post photo shoot, and then to Topman — the men’s line of Topshop — which has invited him to try on free suits. After that, Rippon and Kenworthy will rehearse for tonight’s TrevorLIVE gala, which they’ve signed on to co-host. I leave them honing their banter but return in the evening to watch them take the stage. The ballroom is low-lit in Trevor’s signature orange, winking with sequined evening wear and hundreds of wineglasses. Rippon and Kenworthy have an easy, affectionate rapport as they describe walking together at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in PyeongChang. They address us, the audience, as “beautiful people,” though we can all see that they’re the ones who are beautiful: Kenworthy slightly sheepish about asking for the crowd’s money, Rippon neat as a pin in a black brocade blazer. They have the self-assurance of two people who have represented our country in a rare remaining arena of public consensus. Tonight, their badinage is being live-streamed on Facebook, where any struggling, gender-nonconforming kid who wants to can watch. Rippon once told me that he hopes to provide his fans with “an opportunity to see someone live their truest life and be celebrated for it.” At the time, I struggled to picture what that could mean — but here the power of Adam Rippon performing Adam Rippon is plain to see.

Rippon skates in the men's single free program at the 2018 Winter Olympics in February. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Rippon at a rally against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh in Boston in October. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
LEFT: Rippon skates in the men's single free program at the 2018 Winter Olympics in February. (Harry How/Getty Images) RIGHT: Rippon at a rally against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh in Boston in October. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

“Even as an athlete, I always felt like more of an entertainer, more of a performer,” he tells me on the phone in late June, when I ask what he envisions doing next. “I feel way more comfortable being an entertainer than I do being in sports forever.” To him, saying yes to every sit-down meeting and TV spot is a way of testing himself “to see if I have the chops. Which I feel like I do.” This reflexive positivity accompanies every admission that the future is uncertain. But I don’t get the sense that he’s intentionally spinning; rather, he’s being careful how he talks to himself, especially about something as serious as whether he’ll succeed or fail. As his mom would say, his brain is listening.

“He’s been overwhelmed,” says Ashley Wagner. (She tells me that he’s been sleeping four hours a night and has become “a shell of a person.”) “He’s trying to come back to his center and sense of self. He’s just got to the point where he has the time to wrap his head around his future — I would say he has no idea what he wants just yet.” Rippon agrees. He tells me he views these past months as a process of “me giving myself a chance to see what I like and explore that. I’ve been so focused on doing one thing my entire life that I can’t just say, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do next.’ I don’t really know what that thing is.”

For now, he’s treating fame as a job he can work at — which, it turns out, maybe it is. “At the height of his schedule — ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ the skating show at night, getting on a plane and coming back — I would say, ‘Adam, we have all these things lined up, but are you tired now? Do you want a few days off?’ ” his agent, Scott Henderson, told me. “He would say, ‘I want to take every opportunity I have right now.’ He’s tireless and fearless. … He’s never said he doesn’t want to meet a new person, hear a new angle, hear a new idea.”

Whatever comes next, Rippon knows one thing. “I don’t want to just be someone who says stupid things and is funny,” he told me on the phone the last time we talked. He was back in Los Angeles, in a cab on his way to a taping, and I could hear his publicist’s voice in the background, telling him he needed to get off the phone. “I want to be someone who’s a professional at what they do. I was a professional at what I did.”

Louis Vuitton men's monogram athletic top and leggings; skates, Rippon's own. Fashion editor: STYLEOBJECTIVE at kenbarboza.com. Fashion assistants: Johnnie Lewter and Cherie Scurry-Burns. Grooming: Frank Guyton for kenbarboza.com.

The next time I saw Rippon, he was on my TV screen, reporting from the ESPYs, the annual sports awards. It had been yet another busy day for him: Earlier, he’d run an obstacle course on the Nickelodeon game show “Double Dare” and then gotten deluged with green goo. “I was in a red jumpsuit, head-to-toe covered in slime,” he told “Access” on the ESPYs red carpet. “We do clean up nice,” the interviewer laughed.

It was July, and Rippon was still in demand, judging by the emails his publicist kept sending me. He would soon film a cameo on “Will & Grace” and begin serving as a judge on the next season of “Dancing With the Stars: Juniors.” He would lend his voice to a get-out-the-vote video on MTV and a benefit in Laramie, Wyo., to honor hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard. His agent confirmed a book is in the offing.

He had attended the ESPYs both in his old capacity as an athlete — presenting an award to the U.S. women’s hockey team — and in his new role as an all-around famous person. “Instagram’s Adam Rippon is here,” host Danica Patrick quipped at one point. “I’m told he also won a medal.” “Good Morning America” had named Rippon a “special contributor” for the evening, and he prowled the red carpet, microphone in hand, asking his fellow Olympians who they were wearing, or pausing to answer the same question himself. (“Yeah, I would wear this to the grocery store, one hundred percent,” he told “Access,” adjusting the silver-beaded, ivory silk jacket that hung from his shoulders like a cape.)

As Rippon related the evening’s highlights from the deserted red carpet in the wee hours of the California morning (“I got to meet Ciara and she told me she would adopt me”), I found myself wondering why he would choose to spend the night churning out sound bites when he could have gone as an Olympian and left it at that. It’s disorienting, after all, to watch someone who was once famous for athleticism and artistry turn around and chase stardom for its own sake.

Rojek, the sociologist, writes that celebrity makes a person less real, and I thought about this over months of hearing Rippon give interviews, telling and retelling his stories. Take the one about coming out to his mom in a parking lot, which he repeated for my recorder in June after sharing it in two other interviews that day. The story did not grow less true, but the exchange felt less genuine, an echo of a conversation he’d already had. Then again, Rippon told it a third time because I asked him to. Whatever I think of his bid to stay famous, I have been part of it all along. By reading this article, you are now too.

The truth is, I find myself not only rooting for Rippon, but feeling that not all quests for fame-for-its-own-sake are created equal. In the right hands, even the belief that one’s own personality might constitute a hot product can become a form of idealism — in Rippon’s case, a platform for the gospel of liking who you are. “I used to be that really young kid in a small town in Pennsylvania who didn’t have anybody to look up to,” he has said, a sentiment I heard him repeat many times. “I want to be a role model to my younger self, so if there’s another young kid in another small town, they have somebody they can see themselves in.” If we weren’t living through a golden age of self-made celebrity, Adam Rippon would have long since left the public eye — and that would have been a loss. It’s not that getting slimed is a great public service. But that small-town kid is out there, and maybe he watches “Double Dare.”

On “Good Morning America,” Rippon, as usual, was testing his chops. The future was unknown, but he was working on it. “We can’t wait to send you on another assignment, Adam Rippon,” said anchor Robin Roberts at the end of the segment.

“You just assign me, Robin,” Rippon said wryly. “From your lips to God’s ears.”

Nora Caplan-Bricker is a writer in Boston.

Correction: This article originally identified Nathan Chen as the quadruple axel king. It should have identified him as the quadruple jump king.

 

Credits: Story by Nora Caplan-Bricker. Photos by Marvin Joseph. Designed by Suzette Moyer.