Olympian-activist on his Hollywood aspirations, a promising future for LGBTQ athletes and being a ‘bad gay’
Nobody reminds silver Olympic medalist Gus Kenworthy that he was in Sharknado 5, and it’s hard to tell how that makes him feel after I casually drop that nugget of info as you do if you’ve studied his IMDb page. “Global Swarming,” I say, naming the film’s subtitle. He laughs big. “Never before has anyone said that to me.”
It’s 9 a.m. when Kenworthy calls, and he’s either in serious-guy interview mode, a low-key (or sleepy?) version of his perky Instagram self — or he just rolled out of the air mattress he’s been snoozing on since recently moving to Los Angeles. If you’re an aspiring actor like Kenworthy, this is where you aspire.
It’s where Kenworthy will spend time writing his latest and greatest chapter, maybe host a game show or a talk show. (Whatever he does, let there be dogs because Kenworthy loves dogs.) And he’s in the right place with the right man, his actor-boyfriend of three years, Matthew Wilkas. So, why not?
Before pursuing acting, Kenworthy gained global notoriety after taking silver in men’s slopestyle at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. But after the 26-year-old British-born freestyle skier came out as gay the following year in an interview with ESPN, he was recognized as an LGBTQ trailblazer for being one of only a few athletes to do so.
This year, Wilkas and Kenworthy expressed their unabashed affection for each other during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, when their televised kiss before his qualifying run in the men’s slopestyle became, like his successful sports career itself, a notable moment of visibility for LGBTQ athletes.
I spotted you in Detroit recently during a Stars on Ice performance, when you shot your interview with fellow Olympian and your good friend Adam Rippon, for Nightline. At the end of the show, fans swarmed you. Are you used to being recognized in public?
Yes and no. It stills seems strange, but I’ve gotten used to it. I got a little bit of recognition before the Olympics four years ago from skiing. And then when I came out, I feel like my platform changed and grew, and it took a different shape regarding the people who would approach me. It’s been a slow growth, not completely overnight.
It must be much more insane for Adam because heading into this Games, he hadn’t been to another Games, and his platform wasn’t super huge, and now it’s insane. He had more growth than any other Olympian at the Games. That’s very much night and day.
How do the conversations you have with fans change depending on if you’re at, say, a ski shop versus a gay bar?
At a ski shop, it’s often like, “Oh, what’s up man? Where do you ski?” It’s pretty surface. Most people who come up to me are other gay guys, and usually, they’re really, really sweet, and they say something super nice. And they’ll want a photo; it’s kind of a short exchange. Sometimes it’s more earnest, but often it’s not. And it does happen a lot at gay bars.
What’s a not-earnest exchange like for you?
I think one type of interaction is like (models a fangirling vocal effect), “Oh my god! I love your Instagram! Can I take a photo?” And then like, “I saw you in the Olympics; can I have a photo?” Or another one: “Hey, just wanted to say thank you so much for coming out and for using your platform.” It’s just really, really, really sweet. It means a lot to me.
Adam told me he most identifies with Dorothy and Blanche. Which Golden Girl are you?
I mean, I’m Betty White.
You’re a Rose?
I don’t know. To be completely honest, I don’t watch Golden Girls, so I’m a bad gay. Honestly, it’s not a choice; it’s just, I never did. But I have an ongoing list of things that my boyfriend is like, “You’re a bad gay, you haven’t seen this.”
Where are you at now with your sexuality compared to when you first came out?
I’m in a way better place in my life. Right after I won the silver medal, I was not out. I was at a low point in my life too because it was a time where I wanted to be out; I didn’t think it was a reality.
Suddenly, I did have this elevated platform from the Olympics and the dogs (Kenworthy rescued a mother dog and her four puppies at the Winter Olympics in Sochi), and it made me feel uncomfortable because I wasn’t my true self. I felt fake and had a boyfriend in the closet at the time. I wasn’t sharing him with my world, and vice versa, and I think that took a toll. So, I wasn’t in the best place.
Now, at this moment in my life, another Olympics just ended, I didn’t get a medal at this Games, but I still feel like I had a good season at the qualifying events to get to the Olympics. I still got to be there and compete out loud and proud, and cheer on Adam and my other friends, and got to be who I am and represent myself and my country and my community and the things I believe. It was an excellent experience.
I don’t know what the next chapter of my life is, but I’m in LA right now, and I’m planning on spending more time here and auditioning and trying to get into acting and do TV hosting.
What are your acting aspirations?
I would love to be on Broadway. I would like to work on my voice, and maybe get it to a place where I feel confident with my singing so that I can do more theatrical-type stuff. It would be a dream to be on TV and in movies. Growing up, I did theater. My dream was to be an actor, not a skier.
Acting doesn’t always promise overnight success. Does that scare you?
No. I feel like I’ve had success in my sport and acting is something I’m really into and passionate about and would love to pursue. I wanted it as a kid, and then something else presented itself, and I spent my life skiing, and I’m not done with it either completely, but this is a new thing. It’d be great and fun, and if it doesn’t (work out), it’s not the end of the world.
Will you compete in the next Olympics?
Maybe. I haven’t decided.
You’ve been a brand ambassador for H&M, for their recent Pride collection, and Head & Shoulders, for their “Shoulders of Greatness” campaign.
Actually, (the Header & Shoulders campaign) was a cool experience because it was the first time that there was ever a Pride flag in a TV commercial — a national ad. So, it was cool, and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s never happened.”
As an out gay man, what it’s like to partner with these LGBTQ-inclusive brands?
It’s amazing. It’s important brands that align themselves with the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ people should be represented in every part of life, and so that’s also in the arts and commercials and on billboards. Things should be catered to more than straight people and white people and men. So, it’s cool to do a campaign that highlights that and highlights me as a gay man.
You were recently the Pride grand marshal in Montreal and Miami Beach. What was your Pride message to the community?
I think that Pride is so important. It’s a moment for us as a community to celebrate who we are but also to look back on where we started. It’s important to remember the people who put their lives and their careers and their necks on the line to try and really, really fight for equality.
And then also to reflect on each of our journeys, because every single LGBTQ person has struggled at some point in their life coming to terms with themselves and identifying themselves and embracing it and living their truth. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s a scary thing to do. But once you start doing it, there’s no other way to live.
What was the experience like at your first Pride?
A whole new world. I was with my first boyfriend years and years ago, and we happened to be in San Francisco because we were driving up to Vancouver from where he’s from, Colorado, and we woke up in San Francisco, and it was Pride. We walked outside, and there were naked people and painted people and Pride flags, and I was like, “What the fuck?” I didn’t even know what it was. I was entirely in the closet with him, and I remember being nervous to watch it, but so excited.
That was kind of my first Pride. But I wasn’t embracing myself and proud of myself and enjoying Pride in its real sense. New York Pride was the first time I was out and excited and wearing rainbow shit and cheering and screaming and dancing.
You recently attended Life Ball, the most significant charity event in Europe supporting people with HIV or AIDS. I heard people lose their shirts in-flight en route to Vienna. Is it a thing?
Yeah. Basically, there are no rules at all. Like Kelly Osbourne made our in-flight announcement and as soon as the flight took off everyone was out of their seats, everyone was switching seats, walking around, and drinking straight out of the bottle in the aisles.
Who wasn’t wearing a shirt? Or who was?
I think most people. I didn’t know everyone on the flight. It was packed with people. But there was a whole congregation of people at the back of the plane, in the back galley. And they were flipping the lights on and off and playing music and drinking. Some shirts came off. And people were making out. I think some people might have maybe gone into the bathroom together. It was wild.
And what were you doing the whole time?
I was part of the process! I was in the back with people! And I don’t know, just chatting with people, drinking, hanging out. Witnessing all that was going on around me.
Which famous person that you’ve met has left the biggest impression on you?
I met Miley Cyrus after the last Olympics, and we’ve become friends, in a way. We don’t hang out all the time, but she’s had a significant impact on me. I think she’s amazing. I think she does a lot for the LGBTQ community, a lot for animals, and she’s just a nice, kind person.
You work with her charity, the Happy Hippie Foundation, which serves homeless youth and the LGBTQ community.
Yeah, I do. And I think that’s another way that she’s inspired me. I feel like I’ve tried to do a lot for charity because I believe in it.
Tell me about your part in the new documentary Alone in the Game, about the lack of out LGBTQ athletes. And what do you think the future holds for LGBTQ athletes?
I talk about the importance of representation in sports. Sports are a scary place for LGBTQ people, but sports are meant to be about inclusion in their own right and putting aside differences to come together and play on a team.
I think it’s important to have representation, and the reason we haven’t had more gay people in sports isn’t because we haven’t had more gay people in sports, it’s because we haven’t had more gay people in sports willing to put their life on the line and be open and honest about themselves. But there are going to be more of us in the future. Whether it’s because more and more people who are currently competing are going to come out, or it’s the next generation.
I feel like there are so many kids who are out in high school, and it’s crazy because I’m not that much older and I don’t feel like that was an option for me. So, that’s great to see, and I think that will change things. But the only way to change perceptions is through visibility. The more we can show that we’re here and we’re queer and we’re just as capable as anyone else, it will be better for everyone and more people will feel safe to come out.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi). Photo by Caleb Young.