When Olympic bronze-medal figure skater Adam Rippon comes to speak Thursday at the Free Library, it will be something of a homecoming.
“I was born in Scranton. And then I grew up in South Abington Township” in Lackawanna County, Rippon said. “And then I actually spent the first few years of my skating career in the suburbs of Philadelphia, like Elkins Park and Willow Grove.” He also trained at Wissahickon Skating Club in Chestnut Hill.
“I would skate there all throughout the week and lived with one of my coaches there,” he said. “So anytime anybody asked me where I was from, I always claimed Philly as home. My mom was like, ‘You’re from Scranton!’ [But] Philadelphia is so much cooler than Scranton."
On the phone, he is funny but not the over-the-top outrageous personality he portrays on TV, or in his new memoir, Beautiful on the Outside. Rippon was a breakout star in 2018, the first openly gay man to medal at the Olympics. He also won Season 26 of Dancing with the Stars.
He will be in Philly this week to talk at the Free Library with local broadcaster Tracey Matisak about the book, billed by its publisher (Grand Central Publishing) as being “an entertaining memoir in the vein of Andy Cohen.”
Rippon was proud to be an openly gay Olympian, he said, but that’s not the only way he stood out. The typical skating star is "this beautiful girl from the middle of nowhere, like the girl next door or whatever. And I’m, like, here’s me — this loudmouth, 30-year-old guy from Scranton.”
In his book, Rippon details the first time he put blade to ice. “I took one step with the confidence of someone who had been touring with the Ice Capades for 30 years and immediately fell over.”
But the next time he tried, at age 10, he was hooked. He wound up training in Pennsylvania until he was 17. He bounced around, living with his coach, some relatives, and a host family — and was gone so much that the youngest of his five siblings once thought Rippon was the babysitter.
“I would take the bus from Scranton every Monday morning,” Rippon writes in the book, “stay with my aunt and uncle all week, and then take the bus back to Scranton after my session on Friday.
"Let me tell you something about the Scranton-to-Willow Grove route on the Greyhound bus: It was no luxury liner.”
His parents divorced when he was 13. He found out it was happening during his first international competition, as he recounts in Beautiful on the Outside. “Without even knowing it, I was on the Eat, Pray, Divorce European tour.”
Waiting for the big win
Rippon didn’t regularly place high enough in world-championship competitions to attract big money from U.S. Figure Skating, and he and his mother struggled to afford his skating expenses, he writes. When he decided to try to make it on his own, she took it personally and closed his bank accounts.
He gave a few skating lessons to support himself and sometimes ate apples he stole from the gym. He was the United States champion in 2016. But he also missed the Olympic team twice.
Along the way, he had a skating move named after him. “I was the first person to do a triple jump with [both] my arms over my head — and I created a monster,” he said. Now, “if you’re 12 years old and from Russia, you have to” do the Rippon variation.
Rippon finally made it to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games in South Korea, where he won a bronze medal in the team event and also made political waves for refusing to meet Vice President Mike Pence there. The furor passed, and Rippon’s banter with reporters became as much a part of his Olympic moment as his performances.
“It was fun, and I made people laugh,” Rippon writes in the book. "One reporter asked me, ‘What’s the difference between a gay athlete and a straight athlete?'
“There isn’t any difference,” I said. “Except I have better eyebrows.”
Post-Olympics, along with competing on Dancing With the Stars, Rippon attended the Oscars, where he made both best- and worst-dressed lists by wearing a harness under his tuxedo.
Now he lives in Las Vegas and commutes frequently to New York and Los Angeles. He still laces up his skates sometimes, and is a coach and choreographer to international competitor Mariah Bell, but he’s been positioning himself more as a commentator, “like the solo act, one-man band” version of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. He also makes YouTube videos.
“It’s not like, you know, ‘Oh, Adam’s going to try to be Meryl Streep.’ Not yet. Like, give me a moment. And then maybe.”
Adam Rippon, Beautiful on the Outside
Rippon appears in a conversation with broadcaster Tracey Matisak 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library, 1901 Vine St.
Tickets: $15 ($34 with book).
Information: 215-567-4341 or libraryphila.tix.com.