How Adam Rippon won the Olympics, 'DWTS,' and everyone's hearts — his boyfriend's included
I am sitting with Adam Rippon just as the latest dish about him hits Page Six and then lands in my newsfeed: that his boyfriend is about to relocate from his native Finland to Rippon’s home of Los Angeles. It’s Wednesday and, fresh off his Dancing With the Stars win, Rippon has dropped by the New York City Build studios with his cha-cha partner Jenna Johnson to talk on camera about everything from their intense friendship to meeting Tonya Harding on set. Afterward I grab him for a little sit-down backstage and mention the cohabitation news, and it leads to a chat about instant fame.
“It’s a little weird,” Rippon admits about the boyfriend announcement. “But I think that because I’m 28, and I’ve lived — at least within the skating world — with people paying attention to what I was doing, that I’ve sort of been prepared for this moment my whole life.”
That moment crystallized for him — and the rest of the world — at the Olympics, when Rippon’s gorgeous figure skating, for him, sometimes took a back seat to more interactive endeavors.
“I think I had a sort of life-defining moment, and it was chatting and interacting with people and feeling like I was America’s best friend,” he recalls about his time in PyeongChang. “I realized why skating was so important to me — because it was an outlet for me to perform. It almost felt like, once I was there, I was an entertainer who also was an athlete. I had to really actively remind myself I was there to be an athlete first.” So while it was often difficult to have to sometimes turn down interview opportunities, Rippon says, “I needed to remember I had worked my whole life as an athlete … that people knew who I was now and hopefully that would stick. I’ve been really lucky that it has stuck, and it’s so much fun.”
But back to the boyfriend…
Rippon met Jussi-Pekka Kajaala at the start of skating season, in the fall, while he was in Finland for a competition. “I was single and on Tinder, just sort of swiping left and right, and I remember the first message he sent me was super cheeky and funny and we started chatting a little bit,” he says. “And I think because I knew we’re probably never going to meet that I really was talking to him pretty openly about a lot of things, and we got to know each other really well and were really honest with each other.”
Kajaala had lots of questions about California, because he had already planned to move there, but that geographic connection grew into something deeper. “It just felt like a great match,” Rippon says. “He’s still in the process of moving out here. If there was a plan for him to move out here and move in immediately then I would tell you, but there’s not. But when he moves out here, we’ll move in together. I wish we could go faster!”
Faster is pretty much how Rippon’s life has been moving since competing at the Winter Olympics and winning his bronze: He has done whirlwind press tours, performed across the country with Stars on Ice, competed in and won Dancing With the Stars: Athletes, and has been an outspoken activist, particularly for LGBT youth, through work with GLAAD’s Campus Ambassadors Program and by plans to host, along with fellow gay Olympian Gus Kenworthy, the Trevor Project’s TrevorLIVE New York Gala on June 11. In short, he has become a beloved queer role model. (“If somebody was like that in my life while I was young,” he said onstage at Build, “it would’ve made my whole world so completely different.”)
Still, while becoming a “professional gay” is something that has been largely foisted on Rippon by his fans, it’s a role he’s been able to embrace, without feeling boxed in, because he has reached a point of confident grace regarding his self-identity.
“I don’t think that being gay is a quality that defines who I am; I think it’s just part of who I am,” he says. “As a young kid I struggled with being gay, and I realized it was such an unimportant part of who I was — but it was important to share it. I think that the difference between who I was and who I am now is that I don’t ask for people to like me — I just assume that they do, and I assume that because I’m a good person, that I’m funny, that I try to be kind and giving, and also, like, I’m gay.”
It’s important to share that piece, Rippon believes, “because I know there are a lot of people who struggle with it. In my coming-out experience, I felt so liberated … but it simmers down. And then you can really be yourself [instead of] putting up this guard of trying to be something that other people are going to like, or rebelling against being your old self.” Before coming into his own, he tried on various personas, “like a hyper version of what I thought I wanted to be, or a hyper version of the opposite, and then it all kind of settles down and you’re like, OK, I’m learning more about who I am.'”
As we roll into June — Pride month across the country and in many cities around the world — Rippon reflects on the importance of celebrations that come with it. “Pride month is a great time for us to learn about our gay history — to learn about what others did before us that made our path a lot easier,” he says. “I think it’s an important time to just embrace who you are, embrace being queer. A lot of times we kind of feel less than, or different, and it’s a great time to remember that we’re awesome and we’re strong.”
While the gaymous Rippon is not exactly sure how he’ll personally celebrate Pride yet or where he’ll be making official appearances (though there will be some, to be sure), he is prepared for a good time — from possessing a new drag name to always being ready to hit a dance floor.
“I think one of my favorite things is to come up with drag names,” he says, explaining that his latest came courtesy of Kenworthy while they were doing a joint cover shoot for Out magazine recently. “We were way out in the Valley in this [part of L.A.] Tarzana, and he was like, ‘You know what a great drag name would be? Tarzana California’. Which I’m just like, that is so flawless. It’s so good! Tarzana? Are you kidding me?”
As for favorite music of the moment, Rippon has been a bit of a slave to the rhythms of his Stars on Ice and Dancing With the Stars routines. “I’m listening to Adele and Ida Corr and every song I danced to on Dancing With the Stars, because I was so afraid I was going to forget my choreography! I listened to ‘Scooby Doo Pa Pa’ like 10 million times,” he says. “And there’s nothing like a playlist that has ‘Scooby Doo Pa Pa’ and ‘Anything You Can Do’ on the same track list. Nothing like it, let me tell you.”
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