Cover photo by Josh Bishop
Gus Kenworthy is a skier. Yes, he’s an actor, presenter, celebrity, gay icon, model, and probably many more things, but after a couple of hours talking to Gus, you realize that he’s still very much a skier. He’s also one of the nicest people and a world-class talker, that’s why this interview has had to be split into two parts. This week, he talks about growing up on Newschoolers, his early influences, career, and his reasons for coming out when he did:
Hi Gus, we have a lot to talk about, so let’s start at the beginning; growing up, did you ever want to do anything other than ski?
As a kid, it was absolute infatuation. I was obsessed, I was the biggest fan of skiing. I was a full Newschoolers kid, I read and I basically got my start on the internet, on Newschoolers. I could tell you every trick from every person’s video part and tell you contest runs and results. I just was obsessed with it. I loved it so much.
Which skiers did you look up to in those early days?
The skiers that I really looked up to were those that did everything; Pipe, Slopestyle, and Big Air. People like Tanner Hall, Simon Dumont, Candide Thovex, Jossi Wells, and Jon Olsson. What really fired me up was that they did everything.
Did you always ski everything, to be like them?
Growing up, I didn’t ski Halfpipe. There wasn’t a halfpipe at my home resort. The first time I ever actually dropped into a halfpipe, was in Copper, for the US Open. Back in the day, you used to register for events, and they would fill up in like two seconds because there were only so many Open events. I remember my friends and me sitting in the computer lab— after asking our teachers if we could be excused to register for this event. It filled up so quickly that there wasn’t a slopestyle spot available, but there was this package available where you could do slopestyle and halfpipe. I signed up for that because I want to do slopestyle. I was like 13-14 and my dad was like; ‘If I’m paying your registration fee then you have to do the halfpipe event too.’ I’d never even skied halfpipe, but he just said I’d have to figure it out. And that’s how I started skiing pipe. I enjoyed it though, so from then on, I continued to compete at other events.
Gus way back in 2009... and it still holds up today
You already mentioned NS, but you’ve been a member since way back, do you think you’d have taken a different path without Newschoolers?
Newschoolers definitely helped instill my love for skiing. If I wasn’t actually skiing or setting up jumps in the empty lot next to my house, or doing PVC rails, I was on Newschoolers. I was watching edits and way back in the day, there wasn’t so much content, so I was watching DVDs and VHS movies over and over again too. Like I had old Poor Boyz movies where the tapes were worn thin. NS gave me my start, so I feel indebted to Newschoolers.
So, what was it like being selected for Team Newschoolers, with Matt Walker and LJ Strenio, for JOSS 2010?
It was a dream, it was really so much fun. It actually is a little bit of a ‘pinch me’ thing, because it was just an online contest to get the spots. I felt pretty honored to be voted to get to go. That whole week is just an insane party. It was really fun and one of my first exposures to that. It’s like the next level there, so it was fun. We set up urban rails, we got to hit the jumps. It was a really good, positive experience.
That was your big start and it was followed by medals in every major comp, but there’s something else that’s very important to you, I know it’s a long story, but do you want to talk us through you coming out from your perspective?
Our Olympic Slopestyle final was on February 13th 2014, the day before Valentine’s Day. It was the third US sweep and they made a huge fuss out of it because hadn’t happened often and we were sort of dubbed ‘heartthrobs of this Olympics.’ It was three cute American kids or whatever. Nick and Joss were both single and I actually had a boyfriend at the time, but I was deeply in the closet. I was way too ashamed of myself, and scared, to tell anybody. I hadn’t even told my family.
We were doing all this press after the games and the next day was Valentine’s day. All of the interviews were asking stuff like: ‘Who’s your celebrity crush?’, ‘What’s your ideal date?’, ‘What’s your dream girl?’, ‘What’s your type?’ I actually felt pretty sick to my stomach, I had avoided talking about this for a long time. I had slept with girls at events and I felt like I had really jumped through hoops to try and be somebody that I wasn’t. Now it was on this national level and in these huge interviews that I was lying. I had a boyfriend, and I was just way too ashamed to be like; ‘yeah I have a boyfriend. He’s here.’ He was in the closet too, so it was eating away at me. I considered killing myself during the press tour, following the Olympics, because I was so depressed and so embarrassed about the fact that I was ashamed of who I was and couldn’t own it.
The following year, I had come off that Olympic medal and I’d had a bunch of other podiums that year. There used to be this ranking, your combined results for the year, and I’d won that. I should have been feeling great, but I wasn’t. That boyfriend and I had kind of ended. I just didn’t know how I was ever going to meet anybody and felt like a loser, embarrassed about who I was. I was just feeling really sh*tty. I skied terribly at X Games. I had a breakdown in my car, and I was crying. My agent was there, and he was one of the only people that I had ever told that I was gay.
I didn’t even tell him because I wanted to tell him, I told him because there was another skier, whose company I was riding for, that skier kept calling me a faggot and he’d be like ‘why are you late for practice? Were you sucking your boyfriend’s dick?’ Just like teasing me, but mercilessly. It was somebody I’d looked up to a lot growing up. I was literally riding for his company.
So I told my agent that I didn’t want to ski for them anymore. He said I had a contract, but I told him to get me out of it and he kept pushing me for a reason.
In the end, I explained the whole thing. My agent said he was just teasing me/giving me a hard time. I end it up crying and told him: ‘It’s not just teasing, cos it’s true! Like sort of true. I’m gay.’
So, he was the first person I told. Fast forward to 2015, I was basically having a breakdown in my car at X games, I just told him that I didn’t want to do this anymore. I love this sport, but I hate that I have to hide who I am, and I just want to actually live my life, be out and go on dates, have gay friends and not cover my tracks with everything I do and feel so nervous all the time.
He basically said; ‘Well you could just come out and keep skiing.’ It had honestly never occurred to me that that was a viable option. Not only had there never been an openly gay freeskier, but there had never been anyone in any action sport that I knew of, snowboard, mountain bike, surf, motocross, anything!
So that got the ball rolling on that. I decided that I’d come out when the season was over. He told me to focus on skiing, get through the rest of the year and then we’d figure it out. If I wanted to come out or quit, he would have my back either way.
Where it all began
Gus' crushed it for Team Newschoolers @JOSS
Do you think it was important for you to come out? For someone in action sports to do that?
I think if I look back on my legacy in skiing and my career, the single thing that I’m the proudest of, is coming out publicly, while I was still competing. Continuing as an out athlete and getting to be a visible representation for a community, in a sport where there was previously no representation.
That’s hands down my biggest thing and I have had so many people, in person and via messages, that have said that my coming out story was impactful on them and their own journey. When I did it in a public way, I basically said that if this helps one person then it’ll be worth it. It has helped way more than that, so yes, I think it was very important. Also for me, it was the most liberating thing I could have done.
How did it change your life-life and how did it change your ski life?
One of the reasons I hadn’t come out, was the language that was used. I heard people say ‘fag’ all the time and ‘skier fag’ either snowboarders calling us that or calling racers. People would compliment you and say ‘no homo’, anytime something was bad it was ‘gay’; ‘the weather’s gay’, ‘this course is gay’. It was always negative and I think that was something that was ingrained in me and that was part of the reason that I was in the closet and scared to come out.
I’ve noticed that since I came out, people have changed their language. I see an effort in that like, I’ll hear somebody at a course be like; ‘this course is so g…’ they’ll catch themselves before they say ‘gay’, they’ll say; ‘sh*tty’ and I’ll say thank you.
For me, it’s been all positive. In terms of my life; I just feel like I’m a more complete person now because I’m living my truth and I feel like my sense of humor and everything is elevated because I’m not worried about hiding something.
How did it affect you as an athlete, having that weight off your shoulders?
When I made that decision, things just changed. I did not ski well at the beginning of that season and then I didn’t miss a podium for the rest of that year. I went out to LA for the Air&Style Big Air and won. I won a Grand Prix in Pipe at Park City. Then, I got 2nd in slopestyle at another Grand Prix in Mammoth, I just had a really awesome end to my 2015.
At the last event of the season, an SFR in Tignes, I landed low in the pipe and I blew my knee, I broke the cartilage off of my femur and tore some ligaments. I flew home and the season was over anyway, but I had surgery and was going to have this big recovery. It was actually, kind of, perfect timing. It really made me stop and made me be still with my thoughts. So I was recovering and rehabbing my body, but I was also rehabbing my mind. Getting around it and centered. That was really when I started my coming out process. I told a few friends and told my mom and brothers.
I hadn’t told anybody, friends or family, only my boyfriend, who was also in the closet. So after that season, that was when I started to tell people. I told my best friend; Bobby Brown, and I told other close friends, I told my family and that was when I reached out to ESPN and said: ‘Hey, I’m gay. I’d like to tell my story. ESPN and XGames have such a big platform, I would love to be able to reach other people and hopefully have a positive impact on other people.'
They had Alyssa Roenigk write the story and she did an amazing job. I love her, she’s so great. That was kind of it, and then I remember being really, really nervous the following year, that I was going to tank. I had just had all this press, I did the cover of ESPN, then I was on talk shows and there was definitely some pushback from the ski industry. Some people weren’t supportive and other people were supportive, but there was also a lot of: ‘Yeah, we get it, who cares? You’re gay. No one cares.’
That’s a difficult statement because that kind of belittles the person’s experience. I struggled with it, so many people out there struggle with it. It's wonderful if you don’t care and it doesn’t bother you, but it actually does bother a lot of people and I got a lot of flack for it. I was just nervous that I wasn’t going to ski well, because I had all this press, I was coming off an injury and I just thought it’d be so embarrassing if I just flopped.
Gus at the beginning of his pipe career in NZ(circa 2010, P: Chris O'Connell) and going huge at X Games (P: Josh Bishop)
And did you flop?
Thankfully not! 2015-16 was my best season, to date, I didn’t miss a podium. I won Dew Tour, I got X Games medals in every discipline, I got a Slope medal in Aspen and Big Air in Norway. I won a European Open and a Grand Prix. It was an insane season and I actually just completely attribute it to me coming out. Nothing had changed with me, I wasn’t skiing or training differently —in fact in was training less, because I was coming off an injury— just having that weight off my shoulders, allowing me to compartmentalize my life. That really opened me up to just focus on skiing and be in the moment. I skied really well.
Have you made a conscious effort to compete less recently?
Last year there were so few contests, with COVID. Two seasons ago I did compete quite a bit. I had a 2nd at Dew Tour and then I won a World Cup for pipe. Right after that World Cup, the world got shut down with COVID. Last season, I did a few events, but I had a bad crash on a right dub 12 in the pipe, at Woodward, Park City. I had all of this swelling in my abs, groin, and hip. It ended up draining into my dick and balls. It was all bruised and black, with my stomach. That was right before the world cup and world championships went back to back in Aspen.
I was in so much pain but I competed in those, but I didn’t do any of the training. I did a really safe run, just to put down a run and get some points, but it was not a good performance. There were almost no other events, because of COVID.
People might think that you’re maybe skiing less because of acting and stuff, but is that not true?
I don’t think I am skiing less, I just don’t post that much, because - as I said - most of my audience doesn’t feel like it’s that ski-focused. They’re following me on my journey. If I was on a podium they would be excited, but if I’m training and doing both side 12s in the pipe, they don’t really know what that is or care. I don’t feel like a lot of the ski fans are following me and I think that because of that I’ve disengaged a little bit. But I have been skiing a lot, definitely this last year-and-a-half or two.
Next week Gus talks about the Olympics, his switch to GB, and what he’ll do when he stops competing.