The Olympian

A celebrity pastry chef made me donuts. A future cookie-empire entrepreneur baked me Oatmeal Scotchies in his apartment kitchen. I harmonized with Broadway starlets in a makeup room and had drinks with an Emmy and Tony winner. Gloria Gaynor—Grammy winning singer of “I Will Survive” Gloria Gaynor—called me “baby.” All of this happened to me, a dude from Texas who’d never even visited New York until he was 22-years-old, and it happened over the course of my years running BLEEP Magazine, an online creative culture magazine I started. I’m aware none of this is normal so I remind myself of these moments often to ensure I never lose grip on the fact that life is unexpected and wondrous.

There is, of course, the flip side of “unexpected”—when the moment doesn’t turn out quite as wondrous. Beside the laborious journalistic moments of pulling something, anything, from interviewees who only gave one word answers to questions that warranted far more description, some interviews are just unsalvageable. I’ve been lucky in that those frustrating moments have been few and far between, but they have happened. I actually remind myself of these moments as well, never wanting to lose grip on the fact that I am not God and everything in life will not always go my way.

When I was still relatively new to the rhythm of the city, Kevin took me under his wing. He bartended at the bar that became my weekend stomping ground; a place where I could both find and be myself. At that time, it was a dive bar short in pretention—a television-less place to meet friends and make new ones while mingling with the Broadway stars who popped in after their curtain calls. Early one Friday night while sitting at the bar waiting for my two girlfriends to arrive, Kevin looked at me and barked, “Hey. You have a magazine?” Yes I do. “Why am I not taking pictures for it?” I, uh, don’t know? You should be.

That jumpstarted our working relationship and since then, Kevin has photographed more features for the magazine than any other photographer. Along the way, he’s taught me many things, perhaps the most important of which is that being myself was far more important than trying to act like the idea of a journalist I thought I had to be. Together, we’ve worked with dozens of New York actors and shared their stories on the digital pages of my online magazine. He was there for the some of my best interview experiences and he was also there for the worst.

I’ve been an Olympics junkie for as long as I can remember. There’s something about the visual unity that plays out on our TV and computer screens that fills me with hope for humanity. Couple that with the fact I’ve never been a stellar athlete and that these people are certified super-humans and it’s an awe-inspiring few weeks. These athletes are doing things with their bodies mere mortals couldn’t dream of. They’re fast, they’re strong, they’re nimble, they’re bendy—it’s super-human. So, with the winter games approaching, I decided it would be a unique challenge to try to interview an Olympian.

One of the perks of having your own digital magazine is that you get to write your own rules and create your own opportunities. Most of the interesting interviews I’ve done have materialized solely because I asked. It’s not that I’m so well connected or that I have a trust fund to throw at people—I just asked if they wanted to be featured and get some free press. If you never ask, it can never happen. So I began reaching out to my favorite Olympians in the figure skating and gymnastics worlds—people I had only ever dreamt of having a conversation with. Most of my requests went unanswered and one was a no-go because they were too busy with Dancing with the Stars, but in the span of three days, I got the go-ahead to interview three different medalists! Three Olympic medalists agreed to talk to me! I was over the moon.

The first was Evan Lysacek, the gold medal-winning figure skater who had taken the winter Olympics by storm and who I was low-key obsessed with. He was the guy no one expected to win and then he flat out did. And he beat the Russian favorite to do so. That’s some Cold War American poetry right there. The second was Elvis Stoyko, a silver medal-winning skater who I thought was as cool as Elvis Presley when I was a kid. During his completion days, he was the guy my family and I were excited to see on our TV screen. The third was a blonde gymnast who, a few Olympics before, won a gold medal. She and I had a few mutual acquaintances who raved about how wonderful she was so when I got the confirmation from her, I was very excited.

Of all the types of artists I’d ever interviewed, I’d never talked to an Olympian before, so that meant this entire experience was a win from the jump. Both of the interviews with the men were relegated to phoners because of their locations outside of New York, but it was a thrill to have a few minutes on the phone with them. They were both kind and gracious, both told great stories and both spoke in complete sentences. You don’t recognize what a big deal that is until you interview person-after-person who only speaks in sentence fragments or abbreviations. But what really made those two interviews worth remembering was at the end of each interview, when I casually switched personas from a professional journalist to an unmitigated super-fan, both of those men were gracious as I showered them with thanks for inspiring someone like me—someone who can barely skate but is super great at watching it on TV. After both conversations, I hung up the phone feeling full of Olympic pride and gratitude for a moment I never imagined could take place.

The gymnast, however, lived in New York, so I was able to secure a photoshoot and in-person interview with her that would become the cover feature for the magazine. Kevin agreed to photograph the shoot and after the hairstylist we’d booked dropped out hours before the shoot, I brought along my friend Sarah to serve as pinch-hit-hairstylist, reflector-holder and water-fetcher. We’re an all-hands-on-deck sort of group anyway.

The gymnast arrived with her publicist, a tiny blonde woman who hovered like an Upper East Side helicopter mom. I introduced myself and then introduced them to the other people in the room. I was a bit thrown off by the fact the gymnast didn’t really look me in the eyes but I figured since it was a studio full of strangers, maybe it was just a lot of energy coming at her at once. She found a familiar face in her makeup artist who’d arrived a few minutes earlier so she quickly disappeared into the side room with him. While her publicist asked question after question about the shoot setups and her desire for final photo approval (something that’s never been on the table for as long as I’ve been doing this), the gymnast and her makeup artist friend existed in their own world of gossip and platitudes. They laughed and giggled and talked about their friends while the rest of us stood in the other room waiting.

Before any artist even arrives at a photoshoot, I try my best to outline exactly what is going to happen so there won’t be any surprises and it can be as comfortable as possible. I know it can be odd entering a photo studio where you don’t know anyone and having strangers ask personal questions while they boss you around and take your photo. So, per usual, I’d explained over email that while she was getting the final touches on her makeup done, I’d come in and do the interview. Doing these things in tandem would move things along and return her to her real life much faster so when I saw the makeup process was winding down, I asked if she was ready to answer a few questions.

The chatty giggling I’d heard coming from the room for the previous twenty minutes stopped as I was invited in. Whatever, I had a job to do. I asked my generic get-to-know-you questions first before moving into some that were far more researched and while she wasn’t unkind as she answered them, she never looked me in the eye. She only looked at herself in the mirror as she gave me rather canned “I went through Olympic interview training” sorts of answers. It was a far cry from the warm interviews I’d experienced with the two figure skaters, and to be frank, it was the coldest reception I’d ever encountered among any of the actors, singers and artists I’d interviewed.

Her answers were cordial yet succinct and it became abundantly clear she was uninterested in divulging anything she hadn’t said in a hundred other interviews. I work hard to come up with questions that aren’t the low-hanging fruits, meaning I try to ask about the artist’s life in a way that allows me to uncover moments of meaning buried beneath their list of accomplishments or accolades. But she wouldn’t bite. I kept trying but to no avail. When I felt I’d hit the wall one too many times, I thanked her for her time—something I genuinely meant because I still knew most people never get to have the sort of one-on-one experience with an Olympic medalist that I was having that day—and I told her they were ready for her in the other room to take the photos.

That’s when the complaints started.

First, she didn’t like her hair. Then, she didn’t like Sarah touching her hair. She decided, “I’ll just do it myself. It’s fine.” So we waited for her to redo her own hair. Then she didn’t like the clothes. After her publicist finally stepped in and told her she looked great, she came into the studio and stood in the middle of the room awaiting instruction. Kevin had multiple setups for her, the lighting was ready, the angles had been thought through—all she had to do was stand there and smile. And that’s all she did. Sitting rigidly on a stool, her face froze with the same Olympic-headshot-approved smile for every single click of the camera. It was statuesque…because it never changed. As I stood in the corner and watched, it felt like I was watching school portraits being taken because she never changed her body or her facial expression.

Most people who have at least a passing-understanding of being in front of a camera know to change things up, to shift your weight, to move around. We are the America’s Next Top Model generation after all, Tyra’s been training us to smize and pose for years. Even as Kevin tried to get her to change it up, as he moved her around the studio to switch up how she stood or leaned or sat, she never really cooperated. Her publicist, who’d had something to say about everything up to that point, stood in the corner next to me, scrolling through her emails and never looking up. The gymnast also didn’t speak. She didn’t feign playfulness or look as if she remotely enjoyed herself—she never allowed the camera to see past the porcelain veneer of her stoic attitude. As such, the photography went quickly. There was nothing any of us could do to make her act like a person.

So with that, our shoot was over and I ordered her a car to take her back to her apartment. I paid the makeup artist and he, the gymnast and her publicist left after giving cordial handshakes to each of us while, again, not looking any of us in the eyes. As the door closed and we heard their footsteps fade down the hallway, we breathed a sigh of relief. It was over. What began as a thrilling opportunity to interview someone who’d reached the pinnacle of her sport ended up being a frustrating and exhausting way to spend a morning.

In the week that followed, Kevin chose the photos he liked the best and the one shot where she appeared more Mona Lisa than Miss America—the shot I used for the cover—wound up being the shot she hated the most. I explained to her publicist that her pleasant smile would look great on the cover and that we had some other more smiley options for inside the issue. The gymnast didn’t like that and as such, she refused to promote herself in my little magazine when it released.

For a smaller indie publication like mine that’s gasping for any zeitgeist airspace in an overly-crowded and increasingly desperate pool, the promise of being promoted to someone’s thousands of followers is paramount. In most cases, it’s why people are chosen as cover artists in the first place. So, to be ghosted despite all of the work we put into it felt shitty. Later, I relayed the story of our disappointing photoshoot and even more disappointing readership due to not being promoted by our cover artist to one of my friends. I went on and on about how I’d worked so hard to paint her in a positive light, how I’d spent money to make it happen, and how frustrated I was with the entire experience. After I was done complaining, she said, “Yeah, but you got to spend a morning with an Olympic gold medalist. And you have a great story to tell about it. It’s not the story you were expecting, but an unexpected story is still a story.”

When I was young, my parents went out for a date night and my siblings and I were left at home with a babysitter. Usually, this meant TV and movies and games but that night, for some reason, we spent the entire evening cleaning the house. On our own volition, we scrubbed the counters, vacuumed the floor and swept the kitchen in an attempt to surprise our parents with something nice. For one night, we were the type of model children that would’ve made Wally and the Beav look like Sid from Toy Story. When our parents got home, we were already in bed but we lay awake waiting for what we imagined would be unmitigated joy at coming home to a clean house. Instead, we got no response at all. I cried in bed because the work we’d done had gone unnoticed. When they poked their heads into our rooms, I told them we cleaned the entire house and they then went on to thank us for doing so.

This might say a lot about our cleaning skills but it also says a lot about my expectation for recognition. I was looking for the joy in the recognition and not in the act of being helpful. It was enough that we’d cleaned the house, but crying about not being noticed made me a whiny baby. The same was true as I complained about the gymnast. I was more focused on the things I didn’t get out of my botched morning with this super-human that I missed out on what I did get. I’d done something many people would never get to do: I hung out with an Olympic gold medalist. That’s pretty wondrous. She may have been a pill and she may have given us a sub-par photoshoot, but she also gave me a pretty good story to tell. And that’s as good as gold.

 

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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