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Adam Rippon on new life, loves, memoir, ass and skating in the nude

Rippon says Ashley Wagner abuse allegations, Coughlin suicide rocked skating world

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Adam Rippon says the time was right for his new memoir, ‘Beautiful on the Outside.’ (Photo by Peter Yang; courtesy Grand Central Publishing)

 Adam Rippon

 

‘Beautiful on the

 

Outside’ book signing

 

Wednesday, Oct. 23

 

6 p.m.

 

Book Soup

 

8818 Sunset Blvd.

 

West Hollywood

 

booksoup.com

 

$28 (includes book)

We blitzed through a torrent of questions with Adam Rippon by phone last week. The bronze medal-winning gay breakout star (and self-proclaimed “America’s sweetheart”) releases his memoir “Beautiful on the Outside” Oct. 15. He and skier pal Gus Kenworthy each came out in 2015 and last year became the first openly gay male U.S. athletes to compete at the Winter Olympics. Rippon is in LA (at Book Soup) on Wednesday, Oct. 23 as part of a 13-city book tour. His comments have been slightly edited for syntax and length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How did the book come about?

ADAM RIPPON: Well, right after the Olympics, my team was saying that it might be a fun idea to write a book and I thought that this, like, really felt like a full chapter of my life sort of coming to an end and a new one was starting so I felt like it would be a really therapeutic almost experience. And I thought it would be a good thing for me to do, to kind of debrief and sort of be my moment to soak in everything that was like going on. So it was my team’s idea but then ultimately it was something that I did truly want to pursue.

BLADE: How long did it take to write?

RIPPON: About six-seven months. It wasn’t too long but it was a substantial amount of time.

BLADE: A lot of your appeal is the way you come across on camera. Were you concerned that that might not translate to the written page?

RIPPON: Totally. One thing that I really focused on was (making sure) the writing felt very in person, so that whatever you were reading felt like I could have been sitting right next to you like on a couch telling you this story and you were hearing my voice. So that was really important to me because I feel less like a writer and more like a storyteller. So I wanted to make sure, especially when I would be doing the audiobook, that it really felt like I wasn’t adding any words or saying any words that I wouldn’t say in a conversation.

BLADE: You share a lot of hard-won wisdom in the book. Were those convictions about life already in your head and bones or did the process of writing the book kind of help you distill and articulate some of that?

RIPPON: I think when I wrote the book, that was such an important thing for me to add into it because those are lessons and scenarios and things that I had learned and they were just so important to me, that was something really I wanted to add into the story. …  Sometimes I just laugh at myself and move along through life through different struggles and things of that nature, but I really did learn a lot about myself, it really prepared me for the bigger moments.

BLADE: A lot of the book is about how what was going on in your head affected your skating. Did you ever work with a sports psychologist when you were competing?

RIPPON: I did but … it’s funny now, post skating career, I see a therapist but when I was skating, I felt like, no that’s weak, I’m not going to go to a sports psychologist, I’m going to just suck it up. I wish I had, but it’s harder because when you’re a competitive athlete. One you don’t have a lot of means to go out and find someone on your own and they do offer someone but it’s like someone that everybody uses, like all of your competitors are going to use the same sports psychologist, so in a way I was like, “Am I really going to tell my deepest fears with somebody’s who’s then gonna work with all of my competitors too?” I was like, no, I’m gonna tell this bitch that yeah, everything’s fine and I’ve never felt better. So it’s hard but now as an adult, I can go out and find someone on my own who’s personally mine and that was just something I did not have access to when I was competing because it was really expensive.

BLADE: How often are you on the ice these days?

RIPPON: Maybe once or twice a month now. Just skating for myself. Sometimes if I have a day off, I’ll go work with one of the skaters I used to train with, Mariah Bell. Working with her some makes me feel connected to skating, but I don’t skate very much on my own anymore.

BLADE: Would you like to do more skating exhibition tours?

RIPPON: I would, but they take so much time and energy to prepare for and I would not ever want to do one and not feel like I was giving my best. … Right now I really do want to focus on pursuing these other endeavors that are available to me now and I do want to pursue them because I do think the time to do that is right now and if there is something comes up in skating, it’ll make sense. Right now, I think I’m really focused on writing this book and that kind of hustle.

BLADE: It looks like you’ve stayed in great shape. Do you feel pressure to have perfect abs? I mean the shape you were in for Olympics has to be impossible to maintain I imagine.

RIPPON: Well, you know what? I’m gonna be super honest. After the Olympics, I went to the gym and I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve gone here every day of my life for 20 years and I just don’t have the motivation,” and that was OK. But I didn’t go to the gym for maybe a year.

BLADE: Oh wow.

RIPPON: Yeah, I know. It was a lot.

BLADE: But you didn’t gain 300 pounds or anything. I haven’t seen you lately but you look like you were in great shape on “Dancing With the Stars.”

RIPPON: I’m not 300 pounds yet, but no. … I realized I just needed to find new goals at the gym because it’s something I really enjoy. So I’ve been going for like the past month and have been working out pretty regularly with my old trainer again and, of course, the workouts are totally different, because it’s no longer about trying to be as good a skater as possible. But I really love the rush you get from finishing a workout.

Adam Rippon (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

BLADE: You make a joke in the book about your hook-ups not believing you had an office job because nobody with a desk job would have an ass like yours. What kind of currency has having that kind of butt given you in your personal life? Is it something your boyfriends have gone on and on about or it something that maybe seems more exaggerated from afar? Tell me about your ass, Adam.

RIPPON: Well, here we go. How much time do you have? (laughs) No, I’m kidding. Um, the one thing I’ve noticed, now surrounding myself with people who are not athletes by profession is that everybody who works out and goes to the gym, the hardest thing for them is legs. I’ve noticed going back to the gym, that’s always been my upper hand because I’ve done only legs for so long. With my boyfriend, he’s mostly envious that I have these bigger legs and, like, a butt that really fills out my pants. Mostly he’s jealous but he does like it, which is good because I can’t really get rid of it.

BLADE: At one point in the book you say you were having trouble with quad toe so you had to switch to quad lutz. Why not quad sal?

RIPPON: It’s a little different with the quads. That’s why you see these Russian junior girls and some of them won’t do triple axels but their only two quads are toe and lutz. The lutz may be the hardest because that entrance is so hard but when you have the torque just right, it really snaps the quickest into rotation. I think when you’re learning triples, the skill of how you should learn them is correct, but with quads, it’s more like which do you feel and I think difficulty sort of comes in second.

BLADE: Did you ever play around with quad loops or flips?

RIPPON: Yeah. I think in my life, I’ve landed a (quad) flip, a salchow. It was just one day and it’s going really well, then the next day I’m just doing like cheated triples and I’m like, “Oh, OK, here we go.”

BLADE: Have we hit the ceiling on quads? Is it realistic to think somebody might land a quad axel someday?

RIPPON: I think so. I never thought I’d see a day where somebody has a program like Nathan Chen’s planned programs and it’s something he actually does and it’s not, like, a joke. And it’s the way he does it really effortlessly and you don’t really actually notice he’s doing all these quads ‘cause they’re so well done, which is the scariest part of his skating.

BLADE: Have you stayed in touch with him?

RIPPON: I’ve stayed in touch with pretty much everyone I competed with and with Nathan, we had the same coach for a while. I have such a soft spot for him and the things that he does. I’m always cheering for him. He’s just a really, really good kid and, you know, works super hard and is so well rounded. I love catching up and seeing how he’s doing.

BLADE: I know it’s probably hard to put into words, but how much harder is the triple loop than the triple toe as the second jump in a combination?

RIPPON: Adding the triple loop onto something is much harder because the room for error and correction on landing the first jump is so small. When you’re doing a triple loop in a combination, the biggest thing is you cannot readjust or fix the landing position of that first jump because it happens so quickly and it immediately needs to come together. With the toe loop, you can readjust the tap into the ice, you can tap a little further, tap quicker, you can jump a little more from the assistance of the free leg, so it’s still incredibly difficult but a triple loop combination is by far much harder than a triple toe loop combination.

BLADE: Were you more team Zagitova or Medvedeva in the ladies’ event last Olympics?

RIPPON: You know, I think that I was really impressed with Zagitova, I thought she skated very well, but I do have to say the way that Medvedeva handled herself as like a two-time world champion, and then to go out and skate two clean programs, I just felt she had a lot of substance to her skating maybe her style wasn’t the I don’t know, wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. She performed, she had everything that an Olympic champion should have and I really felt that she kind of earned it. Zagitova skated a little bit like a really excellent junior lady in her first year senior. It wasn’t as refined and Medvedeva was a two-time world champion heading into that event, she was very refined and in that moment and was incredibly young, but yet had some womanly flair to her, which I really admired. I completely see why Medvedeva was the silver medalist and Zagitova was the gold medalist, I understand, but if I were judging I would have had Medvedeva first.

BLADE: Did it bother you that Zagitova back-stacked all her jumps? (Jumps completed in the second half of the long program are weighted in scoring.)

RIPPON: No. I mean, of course I want to be like, yes, it doesn’t make for a nice program, but then at the end of the day, we have rules and we have points and you know I think if Eteri’s goal, their coach, is that she has a student who wins, and that they compete and there’s no pecking order of who should win and who shouldn’t win, you’re gonna go and you’re gonna do the most that you can do. So, I mean she played the game within the rules and she knew that Medvedeva had better style, so the way to make Zagitova more competitive against Medvedeva would be to just technically you know, put everything at the end. So is it annoying, like a little bit, but is she cheating? No. Everybody had that option and everybody knew that, so it doesn’t bother me. I kind of look at it like I don’t like it, but you’re smart.

BLADE: Why are they wrapping everybody up in those goddamn jackets now the second you step off the ice? They never used to do that.

RIPPON: It’s a sponsor thing. While you’re just sitting there in kiss and cry, they want the sponsor logo to be visible on TV. Obviously you couldn’t skate with a logo, but when you’re just sitting there waiting for scores, you can see what it says on the label.

BLADE: I wasn’t a big fan when they changed the rules to allow vocal music. You took advantage of it. What was your opinion?

RIPPON: I didn’t like it at first, but then I really enjoyed it as a skater. I just thought it opened the door for a lot of really cool ideas.

BLADE: How was Tonya Harding on “Dancing With the Stars?” Did you develop any camaraderie with her?

RIPPON: I wouldn’t say camaraderie, but she was super nice and she’s fun. She’s super funny, really personable. You know, I doubt Nancy (Kerrigan) would think that, but she’s super personable. I had no problem with her. She was nice.

BLADE: Did you admire her skating back in the day?

RIPPON: The first competition I ever watched was ’98, so I never grew up with her, but once I went back and started watching things, I’ll always remember that opening at 1991 nationals with the “Batman” theme and that mint green dress.

BLADE: Did you like the movie “I, Tonya”?

RIPPON: I mean Margot Robbie when she does press for the movie, she says it’s Tonya’s side of the story and I think she did a really good job of that. But I think even Margot would tell you that the truth probably lies in the middle.

BLADE: So many skaters — Brian Boitano, Jeffrey Buttle, Johnny Weir — came out after they stopped competing. I’m not asking for names, but are there still closeted skaters that you know of or is that era finally over?

RIPPON: I think we’re becoming past it and I really feel that like I hope that I had something to do with it, where people felt like it didn’t really matter and you could still be successful. But I do think that the pressures of someone like me and someone like Brian Boitano or Jeffrey Buttle are so different. I was never a favorite for a world title, there was no pressure like that. I was just trying to kind of make my world team and see if I, if someone’s having a bad day, could swoop in for a world medal. Or like at the Olympics, know that I could be a really good asset to the team event. So I knew that like the pressures for me were totally different, they were not the same as somebody trying to win a world title, I wasn’t going to be as scrutinized. I mean especially compared to somebody like Brian Boitano in the ‘80s. So it’s a totally different time but I do think that because a lot of the attention, I did get at the Olympics, I think it broke down a lot of stigma. Because yes, there was a gay athlete but everything else wasn’t about that, which I think was great. I think it was a really good thing.

Adam Rippon at the 2018 Human Rights Campaign National Dinner. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

BLADE: Why are there so many more medal opportunities in the summer games? Can you imagine if figure skaters had the number of medal opportunities as Michael Phelps?

RIPPON: I think when you get into subjective sports where it’s all based on human judging, it’s really hard to break those into different categories. And it’s part of the drama of skating that there aren’t all these opportunities. That’s one reason I love the idea of a team event, not only because I’m a medalist from it, but I love that it’s brought different stars from the Olympics forward. I mean look at Yulia Lipnitskaya from Sochi. In the team event, she was the star of the whole competition and when we think about the individual, I even forget that she competed in it. So it gives other people the chance to be Olympic stars in a different capacity. The whole point of the Olympics is to inspire people to get into sports. That really is truly what it is. And I think the team event really does that.

BLADE: You obviously came up long after compulsories were eliminated. When you go back and watch old performances, do you think skaters in the ‘70s and ‘80s had better form, better edges, because of having to learn the school figures or not so much?

RIPPON: I think the quality of skating is going up because the demands of what you have to do now technically are so high. You have to do so many transitions into jumps and so many turns and steps into all of your elements so you get a nice transition score and I think that’s pushing people to learn these turns and steps in the proper way and faster than if they’d started with figures. This way you jump right into it and the learning curve is a lot quicker. You know you have to do it this way because that’s how it’s judged so it’s the only way to be competitive.

BLADE: Were you really fully nude except for your boots for the ESPN shoot or did you have some kind of little loincloth on or something?

RIPPON: I was 100 percent naked and it was actually at the rink I trained at. There are three rinks and one is all the way at the end in the corner and they blocked it off and had security and everything but yeah, it was fully nude, and for the first two minutes it was like, “Isn’t it weird that I can see my dick and I’m skating,” but then you get going and you’re like it doesn’t really become a thing anymore and nobody’s really fazed by it because they’ve shot like a million naked athletes before so it’s a very cool experience.

BLADE: Isn’t it hard to skate with your dick flopping around?

RIPPON: No, because at that point, everything gets so small it’s like, “OK, this is what we’re dealing with.” It’s nothing to write home about. (laughs)

ESPN’s 2018 ‘Body Issue’ cover

BLADE: What did you think of Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski’s commentary of your Olympic performances?

RIPPON: They bring such excitement to skating. People tune in to watch the skating, but also to hear their opinions. They’re like Dick Button and Peggy Fleming for this generation, where you wanted to hear if Dick Button thought you were a good skater or not. They aren’t mean, they’re honest and now, being able to be more subjective, I see that. I remember there was one performance where Johnny said he thought I wasn’t interpreting the music well and I was like, “What? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” But as I watch it back now, I’m like, “No, he’s totally right.” He was just giving an honest opinion and it’s his job do to that. … They add flair to the whole competition.

BLADE: Did you ever hear from Mike Pence after the Olympics or was that just a big dog-and-pony show?

RIPPON: Well I knew that I never would, so I haven’t.

BLADE: Do you keep the Mirror Ball Trophy (from “Dancing With the Stars”) with all your skating medals? Or they displayed?

RIPPON: All my skating medals are in a container from the Container Store. The Mirror Ball Trophy is in a guest bedroom on the night stand. I have it out if somebody wants to see it, but it’s not something I’m looking at all the time. I want to focus on getting more things and — I know this is just in my own head — but not feel complicit in what I’ve achieved so far.

BLADE: You don’t even keep your Olympic medal out?

RIPPON: They came in beautiful boxes so I have it in the box on a side table with the medal inside. So it’s there if somebody wants to see it but it’s not like, “Oh wow, it’s hanging on the wall.”

BLADE: Any hint of sexual tension between you and (out Olympic skier) Gus Kenworthy or is that just totally a gay bromance?

RIPPON: It’s very much a brotherly sort of relationship. I adore him. We don’t talk all the time, but he’s just somebody I think I’ll always be kind of close to.

BLADE: You say in the book you and (figure skater) Ashley Wagner were close friends. Do you have any comment on her decision in August to say she was sexually assaulted (11 years prior by pairs skater John Coughlin, who committed suicide in January under similar allegations)?

RIPPON: I think it was brave. I’m sure it was really hard for her to do it. I think it’s going to hopefully create some good conversations with people within the sport.

BLADE: You say in the book you two were super close. Did she tell you about this shortly after it happened? Did you know John Coughlin?

RIPPON: I did know John, I thought, pretty well. But I had no idea any of this was going on and it’s been pretty tough ‘cause I wish I could have said something to someone or said something to him, but I didn’t have that opportunity. It’s something I think a lot of skaters are struggling with because we don’t agree with it. It’s not good. So many athletes aren’t equipped to deal with the suicide of someone that they knew. So it was really something challenging for a lot of people to get through and it was just something that was still, you know, pretty raw I think for a lot of people.

BLADE: What did you think of Yuzuru Hanyu’s (gold-winning) performances in PyeongChang?

RIPPON: I thought he was amazing. He’s incredible. Such a legend.

BLADE: Is he approachable or kind of in his own world? What’s it like being around such a great skater?

RIPPON: There’s a level of respect for everybody like that that all the competitors have regardless of who they are or what they’ve achieved. He’s always been super nice and I would say that I enjoyed competing with him as both gold older. One thing that helped is since he moved to Canada, his English got better so we could actually chat. As an adult, I enjoyed seeing him and getting to cheer for him and watch him compete.

BLADE: How do you feel about turning 30 (in November)?

RIPPON: I can’t wait. I’m really excited.

BLADE: Why?

RIPPON: I just feel like it’s perfect timing. I’m retiring from skating and starting this new phase of my life and career so the time feels really good. And I don’t know, I felt like I was 30 for a few years already anyway, so it’s all good timing.

BLADE: Does (boyfriend) JP (Jussi-Pekka Kajaala) live with you now in L.A.? How are things there?

RIPPON: JP goes back and forth between L.A. and Finland. I’m actually going there Friday.

BLADE: How often do you get to see each other on average?

RIPPON: We probably spend about five months out of the year together.

BLADE: Are you and (“Dancing With the Stars” dancing partner) Jenna (Johnson) still BFFs?

RIPPON: Um, yeah. I love her. We talk, like, very often.

BLADE: Are you a morning person by nature or did you kind of just force yourself to be one all those years getting up to train?

RIPPON: I’m not, but if I don’t force myself to be a morning person, I could stay in bed for like years.

BLADE: What do you have coming up? What do the next six months look like for you?

RIPPON: I’m on the book tour for two weeks, then right after that I have a few stops and I’m working on a few other things that will be announced soon, which is cool. I also just filmed another series of Breaking the Ice, the little videos on YouTube. Yeah, just stuff like that. It’s all good, nothing super busy.

BLADE: What would you like to be doing in 10 years?

RIPPON: I would love to still be working in entertainment, in comedy, and be successful. Let’s see, I don’t know, I just would like to be really successful, have more awards, right? I’m an athlete, I love a good trophy. So I think I really enjoy the kind of stuff I’m doing now and just continue to be a performer but like in a different way. I’d love to still be doing all this in 10 years.

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LA Blade Exclusive: L Morgan Lee, Broadway’s newest icon sings her truth

She is the first ever trans actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination & the first trans performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer

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L Morgan Lee exclusively photographed by Andrey Strekoza for the Los Angeles Blade June, 2022

NEW YORK CITY – “I am just a girl,” L Morgan Lee tells me. That simple statement is her self-definition, a girl taking life one step at a time.

To the rest of us, L Morgan Lee is so much more. She is the award-winning actress starring on Broadway in the hit show of the season, A Strange Loop. Her singing talent matches that of any legendary diva, she is creating landmark theatrical projects on womanhood and New York Times articles are being written about her. She is the “girl” in the spotlight now.

She is also, the first ever transgender actor or actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination.

While she is not the first trans performer to be seen on a Broadway stage, she seems to have broken the glass (or some might say, cement) ceiling of being recognized in the upper echelon of talent. She is the first transgender performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer. While the Pulitzer recognizes the author, whom she was not, certainly her creative input was weaved into the final book of the play.

L Morgan has journeyed a complex path to self-awareness. “For me, even in terms of being trans, the idea of being anything outside of what I was assigned at birth was just laughable and crazy to me as a child,” she says. “It just, it made no sense. It was not something that I was comfortable saying out loud to anyone or voicing. How would I be looked at by my parents, by anyone else? So, I would sit and dream. The dreaming is, I think, what forms, much of so many queer people’s lives and experiences.   Those dreams become our lifelines. I would dream and dream. I have a memory of when I was maybe six years old, in the middle of the night, looking up at my ceiling in my bedroom. Waking up soaked with tears. Saying, if I could wake up and be a girl, a girl, everything would be okay.” She adds. “That is why I am so excited to have gotten my first opportunity to be on Broadway, excited to have gotten a Tony nomination. Because I know that there is some kid somewhere, who is also looking up at the ceiling saying that same thing.”

L Morgan’s first adventure into performing was as a kid and ironically projected her future identity fluidity: she costumed up and performed “Karma Chameleon” in nursery school. She allowed herself to explore her true identity under the guise of a Halloween costume quite a few years later. She went in fully fashion glammed drag, and it changed her world forever. “The minute I did it, I felt a jolt of energy I had never felt before. I finally felt free in so many ways. It’s as if like it’s as if I finally got to breathe.”

When she started work on A Strange Loop, she had been cast under the assumption that she was a cisgender man playing female parts. As the years of work into the play went on, L Morgan’s transgender journey escalated, and she attempted to resign from the play as she realized she was no longer the person they thought they had hired. Not only were they aware, as many close loved ones can be, of her journey, but they embraced her and assured her that she belonged more than ever.

“The characters I played allowed me to, in some ways hide until I was able to be more public about who I am. And once I did that, it certainly brought another layer of depth to what I was doing. I have been that much more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve grown. Transition has settled in more. So, both my viewpoints about the show, the people I’m playing, and my lens of life in general, has evolved through the process. So, certainly the woman I am today, views the show and the script, and the characters I play in a very different way than I did when I first sat down to do it in 2015.” 

Her growth within the show, and the growth of the show itself are intertwined. Certainly, some of the magic of the show is that it is not “performed” as much as it is lived out of the souls of the actors in it. L Morgan describes, “The experience of A Strange Loop has been beautiful, complex, layered and ever evolving, for me in particular.  Every time I’ve come back to the rehearsal room with this project, my own lens has been slightly evolved or has moved forward in some ways.”

“The piece is as strong as it is because the lens itself, the lens through which the story is told, is very specific and very honest. Inside of that specificity, there are lots of complications and layers and messy stuff. There are things that you don’t ‘talk about out loud’ taboo to discuss. There are things that people see as problematic. There are so many things inside of all of that, but it’s honest and it’s human. It is a 25-year-old, who’s about to turn 26, sort of raging through life, feeling oppressed and unseen and shouting out to find how he fits into the world. It is how he can find his truest voice in a world that doesn’t really allow him to feel like he’s enough. Because it is so specific about those things the show touches so many different people.”

L Morgan demonstrated coming out as a confident transgender actress, with her vulnerabilities unhidden, on the opening night of the play and decisions she made as she stepped into the public spotlight. “I feel a responsibility. It feels like a dream, it feels wonderful. It feels exciting. It’s like everything I’ve ever asked for but the, the most poignant feeling for me is the responsibility. How could I show up for that person that needs to find me.”

“On my opening night on Broadway, we were trying to figure out what I was going to do with dress and hair and all these things. You only get a first time once. You get your debut one time. So how do I make the most of this moment? I felt raw and excited. I needed to show like the most honest and clear-cut version of me I could. I needed to show my shaved head because that’s something that’s important to me. It’s something, I almost never show. I stepped out revealed, exposed and vulnerable on the very public red carpet, speaking to cameras with my buzzed head. Our relationship with hair runs very deep, especially for trans people, and there was something about it, that just felt like, I needed to do it. That kid somewhere under the covers needs to see this trans woman who is in her Broadway debut and she’s in a pretty dress and she has a shaved head, and she seems like she’s comfortable. Then when you hear her talking about it, you hear about her vulnerability and hear that she felt nervous, and you hear that she was dealing with dysphoria and she was dealing with confidence and she was dealing with all these things that we attached to our hair and she reveals those things. Not only because they’re true but because when we reveal Our Truth, our humanness, there is universality there. There is connection inside of our vulnerability.”

While the Tony nomination escalates her Broadway experience, L Morgan does not lose sight of her mortal existence. “On the day that the Tony nominations happened, I fell apart, completely losing it in my bedroom. Then I realized, I still needed to get a couch, and clean up the apartment. I still feel regular. It’s been a wild dream and at the same time, your real life just keeps on going. I am just trying to put one foot in front of the other.”

On the night of the Tonys. L Morgan will be up against some heavy hitters. Not the least of these is Broadway Legend Patty LuPone. L Morgan is ok with that. Her dream has been to see her face in one of the camera boxes on television of the nominee hopefuls.  

“The biggest reason I do, what I do is one because I love storytelling. My experience is black, my experience is trans, but I’m just, I’m just a woman. I am a woman who had a trans experience. That’s my story. I know that somewhere there’s s a kid, as I have said, who is just like I was. It is extremely important for me to make that kid proud and make that kid feel seen and make that kid know that it’s possible.” 

“I want that kid to be able to know that most importantly, they already are who they are dreaming to be. The world is telling you something different, but you know who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you, there is nothing wrong with us. The world has never told us that we were an option.”  

“That kid needs to find my story. They need to know that we exist. It is the reason it took me so long to be public about things and to start speaking, because I wasn’t seeing enough examples. There’s a quote, ‘she needed a hero, so that’s what she became.’ I really live by that.”

She needed to see a transwoman Tony Nominee. So that’s what she became.

When they call the winner on Tony Night, it will be between a Broadway legend and Broadway’s newest icon.

However it goes, another ceiling has been broken forever, and somewhere a trans girl in hiding will realize her dream too can come true.

*********************

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For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

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Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.

******************

Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

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a&e features

First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' courtesy of Amblin Entertainment & 20th Century Studios

HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.

The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.

DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

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