Gus Kenworthy’s feet have barely touched the ground since his global headline-grabbing cover profile with ESPN magazine last month, in which the world champion free skier revealed to the world what he’d known for most of his life: that he was gay. Going from being closeted to almost everyone in his life to one of the world’s most prominent gay sportsmen is quite the step, but the 24-year-old British-born Coloradan has quickly skipped straight into our hearts with his Mean Girls-inspired Halloween outfits and smart, straight-talking responses to idiots still asking whether he’s the ‘man or the woman’ in a relationship.
While his frankly understandable aversion to shirts may have polarised the community, speaking to Gus makes it clear that away from all the media hubbub, he’s keen to be the kind of athletic role-model that’s still sadly lacking in modern sport. Gay sportsmen might finally be finding the collective courage to be honest about their sexuality with fans, family and sponsors, but as a five-time World Champion and Olympic medalist, most didn’t do it with as much at stake. Here’s our exclusive interview…
So, the last few weeks must have been pretty crazy for you! How are you finding it all?
It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind! But it’s been nice to finally be opening up. I guess it’s just been a little strange because it’s been something that I didn’t talk about, didn’t tell anyone about, and made such a conscious effort to keep quiet about, and now suddenly it’s the polar opposite and I’m doing interviews about it. So it’s just been quite the change I guess! It feels like a lot at times, but it’s something I wanted to open up about for so long I’m happy to finally do that and be myself, and not have to walk on eggshells. It’s definitely liberating and I’ve made so many new friends already.
Including the likes of Elton John, by the look of it. We saw you met him at an Elton John AIDS foundation event – did he have any words of advice for you?
Well just meeting him was really incredible. I don’t actually get star-struck easily but I was completely star-struck. He’s such a legend. I’ve talked a fair bit with Anderson Cooper and was sitting with him, and he brought me over to meet him, so I was just sheepishly following him along! Elton was just really sweet – he gave me a big hug and congratulated me, which was ridiculous! But it was really sweet because it was a night all about him and his charity so for him to take a few minutes to talk to me was really nice.
Take us back to the days and hours before the ESPN article went live. What were you feeling at that point?
It wasn’t so much the morning of, but the days before I was feeling excited and was talking to my friends about it, like ‘two more days!’, but then I would also have moments when I alone with my thoughts where I’d think ‘what am I doing, is this what I want, am I ready for this?’ But I just had to remind myself that there was a reason I was ready. I was definitely anxious. As soon as it came out I saw it on TV, it was very emotional. I was crying. It was kind of surreal to see myself like that: I’d never been in that position before, not for something so personal. It was a bit of a rollercoaster. I knew there were people that would be supportive and I have some really good friends, so even for people that didn’t know I knew they’d be there for me.
So were there people close to you that still didn’t know until it came out?
Yeah, when it went public it was kind of everybody! I mean, I’d told my mom and dad and a handful of friends – there were two skiers that knew – but it was very much on the down-low. Part of the reason for doing it with ESPN was because I wanted to do it in my words and once and for all – and hopefully help kids that are in the same position I was.
Is there a moment that stands out in your mind when you came to terms with your sexuality – when you thought ‘Okay, this might be a secret, but this is who I am’?
Yeah, I mean I definitely knew something from an early age, and I didn’t necessarily know that that’s what it was and that I was gay, but I knew that I was different to the other boys and that I had this attraction. I remember going with my family to these hot springs when I was a kid and there was a lifeguard there who was probably in his 20s, who was really fit and had, like, big arms and shoulders, which I hadn’t really seen beofre I guess – not in a swimsuit! And I was just like ‘Oh my god, what is happening!’ [chuckles] But I didn’t know whether I was so drawn to it because I wanted to look like that or to have that to myself, but I knew I had this pull, and obviously that got more frequent and stronger as I got older. If I would watch a movie and there was a love interest I’d always be drawn to the male lead, and I knew it was something I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to be feeling so I kept quiet about it. I think it was 16 that I really realise ‘this is what I am’, but that’s also the age I went pro and started travelling a lot, so it was a hard time to accept it.
But I remember almost being ready to come out at that time. I used to drive to hockey games with my dad, just the two of us, and we always had a good dynamic between us, and I remember wanting to say something, but just not having the words, or the courage. Also remember feeling that I didn’t want to come out because I hadn’t been with a guy in any form, and I didn’t want to tell people and have them go ‘Oh you’re sleeping with guys?’ because I hadn’t; I’d never even kissed a boy.
It’s easy to keep second-guessing yourself when it’s all still just ‘in your mind’.
The thoughts had crossed my mind but that didn’t seem enough to tell people, like maybe it was just a weird fantasy thing. And because of that I started feeling insecure, and especially at that age you want to be accepted. In skiing there’s this emphasis on who’s going to sleep with the most girls this weekend, and I panicked and I ended up doing so many things I didn’t want to do. I know if a straight guy tried to picture sleeping with another guy just to try and fit in, they’d be like ‘I’d never do that’, but it’s so difficult.
So that happened for a few years and then I met my first boyfriend. I had no idea he was gay or interested at all, we just became friends, and one night we’d been out to the bars and had a few drinks, and we staying at a friend’s and sharing a pull-out couch, and I kinda just thought I’m gonna kiss him, and if he punches me in the face I can play it off as having one too many to drinks or just being an idiot. But it ended up being reciprocated and it started a five-year relationship.
You said when you came out what you couldn’t really enjoy your medal win at the Sochi Olympics while you were harbouring this secret, and with all the controversy surrounding Russia’s LGBT laws during the games, that must have added a lot of pressure for an athlete there who was in the closet?
Yeah, I felt sick to my stomach with the anti-LGBT legislation that was in place, and it made me want to make a stand. I talked to my ex about kissing him at the bottom of the [ski] run, as my big ‘fuck you’ to the Russian legislature. I thought about it a lot and it just didn’t happen. I’m glad it didn’t now, because I hadn’t told anyone at the time – my parents didn’t even know – but the fact I hadn’t made me feel guilty. And afterwards I had all these interviews, and even though I’ve done interviews since I was 16 I’d never been asked about girlfriends or anything like that, and then to suddenly be thrown into the spotlight and be called a heartthrob, it wasn’t a mantle I was that excited to be carrying. When I was asked what kind of girls I was attracted to I just wanted to say ‘I’m not attracted to any of them!’ So it became a bit of a low point despite just winning a medal.
It’s interesting you mention the focus on your personal life, because since coming out that focus has increased again, there are already reports about who you might or might not be seeing – is it something you feel comfortable talking about?
I think there’s a happy medium, where I want to be open and honest and share things with people that support me, but there are also certain things I do want to keep private. This last week there was a lot of speculation about someone I was seeing and that was hard for me. I do understand why people want to know; I get stuck into pop culture and want to know things about other people! I have been seeing someone, but it’s really new and it’s not something I feel ready to have be a public thing. I think having a public relationship automatically puts a lot of pressure on the relationship immediately, and when you’re first seeing someone it’s just about getting to know the person, so you don’t want to introduce someone as your boyfriend before it’s had time to develop.
Obviously fans have been very taken with you Instagram feed and Halloween costumes recently – is it really true you’ve been told to cover up?
[laughs] I just think the worry is that I’ll type-cast myself or people will come to expect it. I’m not being controlled though, [my publicist] just thinks it’s important to remain a skier and not have all the emphasis on my body. And I agree. It feels good to have a bit of validation but it’s very vain! I know it’s vain, so I don’t wanna be that guy all the time. There’s a lot more to me.
There have been so guys fawning over you, sending you marriage proposals and all the rest. What’s that been like on top of everything else?
Oh my god I’ve had some crazy things! But I’ve tried to ignore them, not because I don’t want to connect with people, but I’ve had a lot of kids saying that they’re in the closet or are having similar feelings, so I’ve tried to kind of search through my inbox for those, because I feel like those are the people that need to be responded to and need some attention. But in that process I’ve definitely opened up messages that are just of peoples’ dicks! I’m like ‘Why are you sending me this! This is ridiculous!’ So it’s been a mix! But I’ve tried to find the people who’ve told me something personal.
I did see that one of your fellow skiers [Alex Schlopy] had a bit of a public dig this week, saying that you were using coming out to boost your own profile. How did that feel from someone you know so well?
You know, I get a lot of message from people saying ‘This is ridiculous, I don’t have a magazine cover for being straight’, and I’m like ‘No shit!’ It’s expected that if you’re in sports; you’re straight. And [his comments] really bummed me out because that’s someone I’ve known for a number of years, and someone I compete against, and if he did feel these things, I felt like voicing it on a public forum like Instagram is just a little bit rude. I’d rather he’d just reached out to me.
The original caption [on his post] said ‘I’ve got friends that are gay and friends that are drug addicts, and they don’t have magazine covers,’ and I was really upset by the fact he compared being gay to being a drug addict. And of course doing the [ESPN] cover was for me in a lot of ways, but it was also for all the kids who’ve reached out to me since with their story, who’ve messaged me and said ‘because of the article I came out to my mom’, and I feel like if my article helps one kid or saves one kid’s life, that’s a win. If certain people don’t see that then that’s fine with me.
Now we also wanted to get to bottom of your British roots. You’re half British and were born here, so have you spent much time in the UK?
Yeah I love the UK! I was born in Chelmsford but we actually moved to the States after a year. But I’ve been back a lot, I come back for family weddings and used to do the Freeze Big Air competition at Battersea Power Station – I would always came to that event just because I loved being in London. A couple of summers ago I lived in London for four months with friends actually in Battersea and travelling to competitions. But I love the UK, it has such a spot in my heart – and I love a British accent! [laughs]