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Charismatic Rippon shines on grandest of stages

Contagious personality gains American international celebrity status
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Adam Rippon received the Visibility Award at the Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles dinner in March for his work in the LGBTQ community. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2017-18 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Sarah Brannen.

Upon arriving in PyeongChang, Team USA's Adam Rippon became a major hit with all those following the Olympic Winter Games. Sure, the bronze medal he received was for the Olympic team event, and he finished tenth in the individual competition, but when we look back at this Olympic season years from now, it's Rippon who will be remembered. 

Even before the Winter Games began, Rippon was dominating the news cycle. As soon as he was named to Team USA, the 28-year-old was hailed as the first openly gay winter Olympian from the United States. His name and face were hard to miss as he became a mainstay in mainstream media.

On January 17, Rippon told USA Today that he disapproved of Vice President Mike Pence being chosen to head the U.S. delegation in PyeongChang and that he would prefer not to meet with him before the Games. 

In short order, a full-fledged controversy burst into life, making news across the country, with the skater improbably embroiled in a back-and-forth with the vice president on Twitter. USA Today reported that Pence had requested a meeting with Rippon, which the V.P.'s office denied. Pence then tweeted his support of Rippon, but the story just wouldn't go away, and it kept bubbling to the surface throughout the Games.

But that was only the beginning. For one thing, people newly aware of Rippon found the skater on Twitter and realized that he has a major comedic side. From the moment he arrived in PyeongChang, Rippon was a highly-sought interview. He and skier Gus Kenworthy, the only other openly gay member of Team USA, were in constant demand by the media, and both athletes obliged as much as their competitive schedules would allow.

At the Olympic skating team event, Rippon performed well and became the first openly gay U.S. male athlete to win a medal at the winter Olympics. This led to more interviews, where a wider audience was exposed to his quirky humor and quick wit. He flirted with every interviewer. He called himself "America's Sweetheart."

Among those watching were Hollywood movie stars. Reese Witherspoon even began tweeting messages of support at Rippon before the Games began.

"Reason #1 to Watch #WinterOlympics2018: ADAM RIPPON @Adaripp," the actress posted Feb. 7.  

"WHEN YOURE RIGHT, YOURE RIGHT," Rippon tweeted back. "Also!! Quick movie idea for you: You (played by you) tweet me in the middle of the night at the Olympics and I (played by me) die immediately. Thoughts?"

The continuing back-and-forth was reported in Time magazine, but now it was time for competition.

Rippon skated out for his short program with numerous eyes on him, and performed the "Let Me Think About It" program that has been delighting audiences for two seasons. It was a perfect combination of a moment and a program: sassy, in-your-face and proudly gay. To tell the truth, the program was slightly reigned in from its earlier version, which had included a naughty whip-crack to coincide with the music and a sleeveless top with a sheer back. Rippon performed carefully, maybe without the wild freedom he has sometimes shown. But it was enough.

In the men's free skate, Rippon skated beautifully and about as well as he possibly could in his lovely "Flock of Birds" program. More celebrities watched -- and Tweeted -- as Rippon remained a massive hit.

The spotlight shines even brighter

Upon his return to the United States, Rippon attended the Oscars, where he sported a Moschino tux by Jeremy Scott with cut-out shoulders and a black leather harness underneath. He didn't just end up on best-dressed lists everywhere -- he was the first person many of them showed, the poster boy for fashion at the poster event for fashion worldwide. Some people thought the harness was too risqué, but Rippon had a bon mot to parry any criticism.

"I'm buckled in, safety first!" Rippon said on Access Hollywood.

In addition to attending the Oscars, Rippon made appearances on The Ellen Degeneres Show, The Late Show with Steven Colbert, The View, The Today Show and Access Hollywood…and that was just in the first two weeks after the Olympics!

What was happening? Due to the powerful presence social media plays today, Rippon was receiving unprecedented attention for a figure skater. One may have to reach back to Dorothy Hamill in 1976 to recall a skater reaching such celebrity heights outside of the immediate two-week period of the Games. And keep in mind, Rippon was doing this without having won an individual Olympic medal, a clear indication that his personality was infectious.

According to his mother, Rippon's humor and performance sense go back to his childhood as the oldest of six children.

"When he was little, he was very serious, because he was my helper," Kelly Rippon said. "He always had a very pleasant personality. He was playing with the baby when I was trying to feed two others. He was an entertainer; playing with puppets, reading a book to them. Being the oldest, he always wanted to be part of the entertainment. He was very comfortable in front of people."

At his first Junior Grand Prix event, in Croatia in 2005, a fellow competitor remembers a 15-year-old Rippon entering the dining room and announcing his arrival to those in attendance: "Hello, I'm Adam!" he proclaimed, before launching into a 20-minute monologue about the fish on his plate.

This writer first interviewed Rippon ten years ago when he was 18. By that time, all the characteristics that would charm the media in PyeongChang were on full display: he was relaxed, friendly and comfortable, and his answers to questions would have worked in a stand-up comedy routine.

"How do you like Boston, Adam?"

Replied Rippon, "Everyone runs here! In New Jersey, people only run if there's a fire. Or a sale."

Former competitor Douglas Razzano, now a coach, has been close friends with Rippon for over a dozen years.

"He has not changed," Razzano said. "He was funny then, he's funny now -- he's extremely quick-witted. He's extremely likeable. What you see is what you get."

As well as entertaining the world, Rippon now has an opportunity to be a highly visible and outspoken advocate for LGBT issues. He came out publicly, in Skating Magazine, in 2015, and he has been very out -- and very proud -- since. At the Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles dinner March 10, Rippon was presented with the HRC Visibility Award.

"Adam is bringing LGBTQ visibility to a whole new level while capturing the hearts of millions around the world with his incredible talent and personality," HRC president Chad Griffin said in a statement.

In his serious and heartfelt speech accepting the award, Rippon spoke about what it would have meant to him as a young boy to have openly gay icons to emulate.

"No matter where you have come from or where you are going to, there is someone who looks up to you, and they will find inspiration in your strength of just being yourself," he said.

In March, Rippon began a fundraiser for GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to support their LGBTQ youth programming, and announced it on The Ellen DeGeneres show; DeGeneres presented him with a $10,000 check to start the campaign. One month later, Rippon appeared at the GLAAD Media Awards, where Britney Spears posted a photo of herself with the skater and fellow out Olympian Gus Kenworthy.

What's next for Rippon?

He has become an A-list (at the very least, B-plus) celebrity, a person that other A-listers want to meet. The popular media is still all over him: when he recently announced that he had a new boyfriend (Jussi-Pekka Kajaala), it was national news. He is doing double duty at the moment, skating in Stars on Ice and preparing to compete on Dancing With the Stars.

Performing on the ice will definitely continue -- for that matter, Rippon hasn't officially retired from competition, although it's hard to see why he wouldn't at this point. Skating choreography also appears likely, if he has time.

When asked in interviews what his dream job is, Rippon says he's still trying to figure it out. Asked if he's interested in commentary, he said, "Not really," and that does seem an unlikely trajectory. He is funny enough to be a comedian, but his mother thinks he might pursue a more serious path.

"He's trying to be good and honest and 100 percent engaged with whatever is offered to him at the time," Kelly Rippon said. "His next step will be revealed to him. He's stepping into a few different roles to see how they feel. You don't want to do something easy. I think he's an awesome speaker but I would hate for him to pigeonhole himself."

"Because he's so interested in politics and he has such a big platform, I think he should ride that," Razzano added. "He doesn't necessarily need to be a politician but he could be a huge advocate for human rights and LGBT issues nationwide. He's likeable and he won't back down, clearly. He won't be in your face but he won't be shy about it either. It's what he believes in and he's really passionate about it."

Next up is Dancing with the Stars, where Rippon will doubtlessly charm an ever-widening audience. Razzano, who will be attending the premiere, said fans will love Adam's dedication to his latest role.

"People are going to love him, he's going to be the personality of the show," Razzano said. "He's going to work so hard. He's one of the most hard-working people I've ever met, which is why he's successful."