Believe it or not, Adam Rippon had never skated in a holiday exhibition before Wednesday night. His co-stars for the event were admittedly a bit unusual: a spritely skater masked by a giant cutout of Brett Kavanaugh, a hockey douche doubling as a federal agent deporting immigrants, and a precocious young girl dressed as an adorable angel shouting, “Fuck Trump!” Oh, and Samantha Bee.
The 29-year-old Olympian, the first openly gay U.S. athlete to win a medal and the breakout media star of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, was a special guest for a “holiday themed” episode of TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee called Christmas on I.C.E.
Satirizing the familiar, wholesome format of Christmas on Ice skating exhibitions, the Wednesday night telecast is, as Bee puts it, “a festive reminder that we’ve fucked over thousands of immigrants and we still haven’t fixed it yet.”
“One thing I’ve always admired about [Bee] is how she can bring comedy to issues that are hard to talk about,” Rippon tells me the morning after shooting his bit, in which he and Bee deliver cheeky color commentary during the deportation-from-ice sketch. “Not only does she bring comedy to them, but she stresses how important they are. She gets you to take action.”
To that end, Christmas on I.C.E. was produced to raise funds for KIND (Kids in Need of Defense) and its family separation response team working to reunite families separated under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policies.
If you watched Wednesday night, you saw that the special included segments in which Bee traveled to McAllen, Texas, where migrants risk their lives attempting to cross the Rio Grande to get to American soil, and another in which crucial information is revealed for those griping about a so-called War on Christmas: A massive number of Christmas tree farmers are immigrants and undocumented workers.
In typical Full Frontal fashion, it’s heavy, angering stuff. But, in the spirit of the charity ambitions of the event—not to mention the holiday season—Christmas on I.C.E. is also meant to be hopeful. Just, of course, in that special Samantha Bee kind of way. “The world is dark, but tonight we’re going to bukkake it with joy,” she exclaims at the top of the special. “And your hearts are going to swell with goodwill towards your fellow humans if it’s the last thing I do!”
Rippon felt that goodwill. He raves about his experience with Bee, with whom he said he found love at first sight when they began shooting promos for the special last week.
When we connect over the phone to talk about the experience, he’s a little breathless, both from braving the unforgiving wind as he hails a cab outside of Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers and from having hit the ice for a rare training opportunity during his busy schedule, 10 months after the 2018 Winter Olympics wrapped.
“I think at first, right after the Olympics, I wanted to take time away from the ice,” he says, apologizing as he gives the cab driver directions to the Chelsea lunch spot where he’s meeting a friend. Now that he’s had time away from the sport, he says getting back on his skates feels like therapy.
From what?, we ask, baiting a possibly headline-making, introspective, or emotional response from one of the world’s most visible athletes in 2018.
“I think I’m just trying not get to fat,” he says, doing that infectious thing he became famous for, laughing slightly through just a breath at the end of a punchline. We can practically see his arched (perfectly coiffed) eyebrow and mischievous grin through the phone.
He’s joking. But also he’s serious.
“I just don’t think I realized how much I worked out and how much I was doing,” he says. “I miss that a lot. Now my experience of going to the gym is totally different. Because now I go to get fit and build some muscle, and when I was skating it was all cardio and everything. It’s kind of like I’m learning how to walk again in a way.”
It’s an apt metaphor for a public personality beginning his next act.
When we began surveying the year in pop culture for various round-ups and lists that will publish over the holidays, it was jarring to remember that the Olympics happened this year.
The news cycle careened through 2018 with the speed of a gold medalist luger, and with all the dizzying loops of the ice cuts when Rippon himself lands a perfect triple axel. (That’s the last of our sports metaphors, we swear.)
“I’ve been really trying to soak in everything that’s been going on this year because it’s been a crazy year,” Rippon says. “It’s wild because it feels like it’s gone by in a flash. It also feels like it’s taken forever.”
Media stars like Rippon—who emerged like a supernova following his historic Olympics appearance, his impressive skating performance, and his witty TV appearances—tend to see their glow begin to dim as the clock approaches 15 minutes. But Rippon has worked fastidiously to dial its wattage, and his own longevity, only up.
Like many Olympic athletes before him, he competed on Dancing With the Stars once he returned home. Like only a handful, he won the whole thing. He then booked a gig as a judge on Dancing With the Stars: Juniors. He played a wise-cracking barista on an episode of Will & Grace. He tells me he’s working with the production company Portal A to start a YouTube channel and original content, and he’s also started writing a book about his life, which will publish next year.
“I’m trying to do as much as I can to parlay this into something where I’d be able to make people laugh, engage with them, be witty with them, which I love to do,” he says. “I feel like I can be quick with people. It’s my hidden talent. I’m trying to really find that next step.”
He’s at ease trading one-liners with Bee when we watch the filming of the Christmas on I.C.E. special, toeing the line between bitchy cuttingness and winking sarcasm with as much skill as he manages his edges in a free skate. (Seriously, last sports metaphor.) Of course, that’s precisely the natural charisma he showed off in Korea, whether as an NBC correspondent once his competition wrapped, or fresh off the ice for a post-skate interview.
There’s one moment in particular we keep thinking about. Following his near-flawless short program during the team event at the Olympics, he was asked by NBC’s Andrea Joyce if his score reflected what he had expected. He gave a labored, histrionic, and haughty sigh. Channeling Miranda Priestly by way of Jack McFarland, he purred a dramatic “Andrea…”
At the time, we dubbed it the gayest moment in U.S. sports history.
That’s important. It’s inextricable from the circumstances that made Rippon a media star, and it’s also crucial to his future in the spotlight.
His quips and irresistible demeanor showed a preternatural poise, but the fact that he was also, frankly, super gay through it all mattered. Take that “Andrea…” moment, for example. It was unabashed, fun, and sassy. It was a little flaming, and it came after a badass display of undeniable athleticism and strength. More, people loved it. Adam Rippon was a hit.
Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote beautifully about this, saying, “Watching Rippon have his triumphant moment on Sunday night—and give a funny, frank interview afterward—I felt the kind of yearning for a celebrity that I haven’t felt since I was 17, half my life ago. How strange to experience that while watching sports, an area of culture I’m usually pretty alienated from unless it’s Olympics time.”
We bring the point Rippon made about Samantha Bee back to him, how she is so good at what she does because she finds a way to be entertaining and indisputably funny while still telegraphing the gravity of the issues she is discussing. The same could be said about his presence at the Olympics, where he managed to crack everyone up while still taking very strong stands in support of the LGBTQ community and against policies Mike Pence had enacted against the gay community—among them support of gay conversion therapy.
“I think to a lot of people who may not know any gay person, I feel like when they saw me, they saw somebody funny and who they wanted to be friends with first, before they saw somebody who was gay,” he says. “I think sometimes when you’re a gay person you’re supposed to be a best friend or a supporting cast role. I didn’t feel like that at the Olympics. I felt like the star of the show.”
Spend any time talking to Adam Rippon and it’s indisputable that he’s the star of any show, which brings us back to what we consider one of the greater pop culture missteps of 2018. Why in the world wasn’t he booked to host an episode of Saturday Night Live?
We were among those who campaigned the skater for the gig, in a piece that caught Rippon’s eye, too. He actively wanted the job, but tells me that NBC never officially approached him to do it. At one point there were talks about him going on “Weekend Update,” but he wasn’t in New York at the time and wouldn’t have been able to make the taping. Still, he says, “I hope that I’m able to continue working really hard and I’m hoping that I’m able to do something that will be a good reason to go on SNL.”
Of course, the year in Adam Rippon had plenty of other highlights. There was the time none other than Cher wrote his tribute when he was chosen to be in this year’s TIME 100. He finally got to meet her earlier this month at opening night of The Cher Show on Broadway. He thanked her for words in TIME, and she told him, “You know, people like us, the world just needs to accept us for who we are.” Dumbstruck, he responded, “Did you just say ‘people like us?’ Because if you did I’m going to have to go die.”
Still alive to see the last days of his big year, he’s had some time to reflect on the ways he has and hasn’t changed. “I’m still the same person who’s a little too flashy sometimes, who’s late to things, who forgets to text their friend back.” But the world and, on a more micro level, the daily routine surrounding that person is more different than ever. Funnily enough, nothing drives that home more than when, like he did the morning we speak, he gets back on the ice to train.
Asked how his body’s changed, he gets in one last joke: “If you saw the weight that I used to have on my driver’s license compared to what I have now. If I ever got into a car accident they’d be like, ‘Oh that’s not him.’” As if Rippon could ever be mistaken for anything but himself.