How Johnny and Tara Made It to the Summer Olympics
How did a pair of former figure skaters wind up going down to Rio to cover the Summer Olympics, of all things, for NBC? For Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, it seems, no sports event is beyond their fashionable reach.
Photo by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Johnny and Tara in Rio!—the exciting, insightful, and fantastically fun cultural commentary; an alternative to all the troubling questions plaguing the 2016 Olympics, from the societal to the sludge! It's "a city whose color and energy are a pretty good match for their own," as NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell put it in a media conference call in early May, when the perhaps previously unlikely proposition of sending two former figure skaters to cover the Summer Games was announced.
All of that is still an entire season and half a world away from a spring morning in Boston, however. Next to the ice of the TD Garden Center, before a smattering of people, beneath far too many ugly yellow Boston Bruins banners, Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski—seats settled into, PA-provided cups of ice water sweating before them—are ready. They have an interview with me this morning, after which the NBC publicist and PA attachment will escort them downstairs for a little media availability, then a mysterious trip into the forbidden-to-me mixed zone, capped off with a special appearance at Frost Ice Loft, which seems like a pretty full day considering Johnny and Tara aren't even going to be in the booth.
First things first, though, let's talk about Weir's clothes, because you know you fucking care. I cared, breaking out my PAAS-pink, vintage circa-1980s Dior and best pret-a-porter suit for the occasion, like Miranda July meeting Rihanna. Weir is wearing distressed regular-washed blue jeans, a set of platformed black-and-cream shoes—which he shows me immediately after coming to the table, excited since he got them for a steal, before some Insta star (a Jenner, maybe? I don't recall and don't have it in my notes) was spotted flossing them, and demand spiked like gold prices in a downturn—a long, ribbed, bone-white sweater whose yawning wounds echo his jeans, and a fur coat of brilliant, rich green that causes his eyes to pop like inset emeralds. Combined with his panther-like mien, jet-black towering sweep of hair, and effortless rakishness, Weir brings to mind Tom Hiddleston's Loki, the main difference being that Weir, of course, does not for a second seem to be playing a part.
Weir and Lipinski have come to be known just as much for their wardrobes as their skills as commentators and analysts, if not more so in some corridors. I wondered if the sartorial focus ever becomes a burden. Doesn't that ever bother them? Are they being taken seriously?
"It doesn't to me, because I think it's always fun," Lipinski said. "The extra added to the Tara and Johnny. Especially when we are at an event like Worlds, or a figure skating event, that really is our wheelhouse, and we know we are bringing knowledgeable analysis to the event. So I feel like all those other questions are actually what I think we really enjoy ... that it's not just strictly skating, and people can really get into the entertainment factor, as well."
That "entertainment factor" is what led NBC to promote Weir and Lipinski to the top broadcasting slot for figure skating in the run up to PyeongChang 2018, and propelled them to be the delightfully different voices at such venerable sporting institutions as the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby and, now, the Summer Olympics. It is what keeps their social media feeds humming with roughly half a million followers, and also what caused my non-sports-fan friends to gush pronouncements of love for the pair when I told them about my assignment, and that is what makes them so important. In a sports-media landscape choked with old white guys offering hot takes, where antiquated notions of toughness and "honor" are conflated with masculinity and used to obfuscate or excuse violence and misogyny, Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski bring something beyond entertainment and knowledge. They bring inclusiveness.
"I think that's a key thing for them," Rebecca Chatman, coordinating producer of NBC's Olympic coverage, said over the phone about the duo's broad-spectrum appeal, especially amongst people who usually wouldn't watch sports.
Weir, in particular, possesses a delightful disdain for labels, authority, and critics—don't mind PETA, drape him in fur!—although it made for a rather rocky official coming out a few years ago (done primarily, according to Weir, to help give strength to those not as comfortable being themselves as he is). Together, he and Lipinski offer not only analysis but amusement, brilliant color in an often drably cream-colored field, a lure for those who find the general mien of sports distasteful, as well as proof, as Jim Buzinski of Outsports noted, that sexuality and being different need not be career hindrances.
While announcing may seem simple enough—show up, sit in the booth, watch a sport, tell us what's happening—the broadcast itself is only one part of what the job entails.
"For Johnny and Tara, it's not just that day [of a figure-skating event]," Chatman said. "They come three or four days earlier, they watch all the practices, they talk to coaches, they talk to the skaters, they meet with our research team and our production team and they go through story lines ... it really never stops for them." The skating season runs roughly from October to April, and the Kentucky Derby comes up right after that.
The pair's work outside of figure skating, where they're commentators as opposed to analysts, entails a slightly smaller research load, "but they're still out shooting," Chatman said. "We have calls with them, we talk about what they are wearing, where they are going to be, what they have to get done each day. They definitely do research also; they have to have questions when they're one these. They do things with some of the horses at the Derby, or at Media Day they want to ask Tom Brady a question, so they need to know what's going on."
Even something so seemingly fluffy as a piece on the Derby hats only looks so breezy because Johnny and Tara make it so; having to know a Christine A. Moore from a Maggie Mae makes the segments some of the most difficult to shoot, according to Chatman.
Even if Weir and Lipinski's accumulated knowledge of the figure skating world allowed them to coast in the research department—which, from what I could gather, they most definitely do not—it would do little for them once they entered the booth. There, a brain can easily be pulled apart like taffy as screens and voices compete with the action and audience for their attention.
"We have all the screens in front of us," Weir said. "One with the live performance, one with the scores, one with the current rankings, the one with the previous skater's scores—"
"The one with the replays," Lipinski interjected.
"We have all of our books and pens and papers, two researchers, plus Tara, Terry [Gannon, NBC's play-by-play announcer], and I in the middle," Weir continued. "People in the truck that have a very strong opinion, that have been doing this for years, will pop in while you're almost going to say something, and then completely ruin what you are going to say. Or they tell you something that you don't want to do, but then you're afraid not to say what they've asked you to say, because you think they really want it, they think you think it would make a better show, blah blah blah. What we actually do is exceedingly difficult."
And they take the job seriously. Thanks to their previous careers (Weir went to the Olympics twice, Lipinski won gold when she was 15), they understand the countless hours and sacrifices made by the skaters, as well as the particular cruelties of a sport that demands so much but gives so little, particularly when it isn't an Olympic year, that quadrennial occasion when we get drunk enough on jingoism to resume our torrid love affair with sports usually shunted aside for the Big Four. Weir and Lipinksi feel like a huge part of that job is to help make the sacrifices worth it, by being both informative and entertaining to the hardcore figure-skating fanatic, the Olympic Patriot, and the person flipping to an event for the very first time—perhaps because they already love Johnny and Tara, and will then love their sport, too.
But Weir and Lipinksi also care enough about the sport that they aren't afraid to tell some truths the skating world—a world as conservative and rigid as Glenn Beck's chalkboard—may not like. In a subjective sport where the outcome is in the hands of judges, personal and political scores can create a miasmic atmosphere, and feathers can be more easily ruffled off the ice than on.
"Skating has this image, and we are not that image," Lipinski said. "I think we're very honest and truthful, and we try to stick to that.... We know what they would like us to say—you have those pressures—but I think we never really succumb to them, because we are going to give our opinion."
At times like those, Weir and Lipinski can lean on each other.
"At nationals, we had very strong opinions," Lipinski said, pertaining to the question of athletics versus aesthetics, then being personified by the third-place performance of Nathan Chen. "And I remember being just about to go there, I looked at you, and I was like, 'We're going to do it.' And I felt like I was just jumping off a cliff. It was like, what is going to happen right now when I say this?"
In Rio, where they will focus on "covering fashion, food, and the more fun side of the games," as People perfectly put it, they could face a myriad of challenges, not least how to deliver to viewers a view of Brazil, a very big place, in such little time. In addition to brushing up on food, they will most likely also need to familiarize themselves with numerous athletes in sports far removed from their specialties. In a May conference call, Lipinski expressed her love for gymnastics, the Summer Game's spiritual sibling to figure skating. Most importantly, they will have to bring their patented Johnny and Tara vibe to perhaps the most important sporting event in the world.
"Obviously, Johnny and I like to bring a lot of fun to our events and to figure skating," Lipinski told the media members listening in, "but we also know how serious an event these Olympics are for these athletes. But I feel like maybe in this new role we have this same opportunity to sort of balance that seriousness with the humor and hopefully that Tara and Johnny perspective that we hope people like."
The impression that Johnny and Tara—sorry, it's just really hard not refer to them by their first names—are really, truly Johnny and Tara defies any skepticism or cynicism. It was apparent as soon as they walked into our interview, and to anywhere else I saw them, really, looking like red carpet royalty during media availability outside the mixed zone, or holding court at Frost Ice Loft, where an ice-sculpture bust of the duo was unveiled. The rapport is as sharp off-camera as on; they bolster each other's thoughts, take different but complementary approaches when answering questions, and do not seem to take themselves too seriously (beyond, of course, the usual TV-requisite vanity—a small portion of our interview occurred while they powdered themselves, without ever missing a beat, in preparation for general media availability and some promo and interview filming—and their wardrobes).
The chemistry, they maintain, came easily. They never skated together—Lipinski was touring while Weir was competing, then retired by the time he hit the tours—and had limited contact before the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
"After the Vancouver Olympics, I sat out of the World Championships and we both worked together at Universal Sports," Weir said. "Tara was commentating, and I was still eligible, so I couldn't commentate ... but I was on for color commentary. After the fact we bonded right away, and then life went it's way, and we were separated, and I tried to come back to skating."
"But even then," Lipinski said, "I posted a picture of 2010 and we're snuggled up together on the couch."
"We were on national TV and snuggling on a couch," Weir said.
"Like the first time we actually spent time together," Lipinski beamed. "The chemistry must have been there from the start."
They call each other by pet names, have special superstitions for the booth—forever the athletes—and slip easily into their favored spots, with Weir always on the left, whether sitting, walking, or standing. When they stand on carpets or before scrums, Lipinski tucks in close, and he places his hand just atop the small of her back. The motions are small, but if you see them it's hard not to find it endearing.
The bond was evident to NBC before the Sochi Games, a contributing factor to their breakout performance in Russia.
"We had the conversations prior to Sochi, and I sort of made a decision to put them together and bring them to the Olympics," said Chatman, whose duties for Olympics coverage include the hiring and arranging of talent. During their time as NBCSN's B team for the Grand Prix series, she noticed that "they'd be hanging out together before and after and we thought, 'Why not try it? Why not see what it would be like if they were together?' And it worked wonderfully from day one because they were so close."
Weir and Lipinski's popularity prompted NBC to move them up to the No. 1 broadcasting team spot later that year. The news broke as late summer turned to fall, making headlines in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Post, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, and even Vanity Fair, where Richard Lawson sniffed that "we'll be stuck with these pop stars, the focus being on them, not the skating." The minor miracle that anyone was talking figure skating at all while the Four Major American Sports were grinding away seemed lost on him.
That Weir and Lipinski were "pop stars" in the booth was not the only factor in NBC's decision to call them up. "I think it's a combination of their chemistry together, they said a lot of really smart things—they have really smart analysis—and they bring a sense of fun," Chatman said. "You know, their sense of fashion and their enjoyment. I think it's fun for viewers at home to see people enjoying themselves at these events."
Fun, something sorely lacking from great swaths of the sport media world, is what Johnny and Tara truly traffic in; they provide smart analysis, sure, and do their homework, but so does any analyst in their statusphere.
What all those other talking heads are not, however, are Johnny and Tara. Which is why Johnny and Tara speak to different people.
"I think there are some fans that are looking at the game differently, and wanting to see a different side, and having their own commentary in their head," Lipinski said. "Johnny and I sort of bring that perspective to life. And that's where I think that maybe we fit into an event like the Super Bowl, that is so serious."
Figure skating is their world and the Kentucky Derby, with its mint juleps and glorious hats, has long been decadent and depraved, but the Super Bowl? Despite the carnival atmosphere, this is still the pinnacle of the NFL, the most hyper-masculine, alpha-male, dick-swinging example of American athletics there is.
But the Super Bowl is nothing if not pageantry and entertainment, and while the bloviators in the booths slather on the myth and gravitas, Johnny and Tara can provide the sorely needed fun. They do have their detractors, however, and Weir's sexual orientation—in 2016!—is still a target.
"The Super Bowl, I got a lot of people hating on my sparkly shoulder pads and everything, a lot of tweets and stuff, real anti-gay things," Weir said. "But that's to be expected. If you're going to be in the public eye, not everyone is going to like you; if you think they are, you're dumb and you shouldn't be in it."
Away from the internet, however, they found an atmosphere that accepted their unique take on the proceedings.
"We went to Media Day at the Super Bowl," Weir said. "The other reporters—and you know how macho that world is, the Super Bowl reporters that get sent from their media outlet and they're the one that was able to get in to that Media Day—people, like, parted the way so we could get to the front of that line to talk to Gronk."
When the Rio Olympics roll around, it is a foregone conclusion that Johnny and Tara will sweep in like Admiral Cochrane, all flash and epaulets and brilliance brut. It seems there is no sporting event NBC believes beyond their reach; in fact, it kind of feels like a sports event isn't really an event at all if Johnny and Tara aren't there.
As Weir likes to say, Johnny and Tara are like a fabulous handbag: they can accent any contest or carry it.
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