At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on January 17, Evan Lysacek, wearing a futuristic ruched gray mock-turtleneck top with fingerlike black shoulder decorations, tried to clinch the win by launching his six-foot-two frame into a quadruple toe loop—not something normally part of his routine. He fell on his ass. Though a woman in the front row covered her face in horror, Lysacek got up with a smile, unshaken. Even with the fall, his performance was good enough to take second place overall, behind Jeremy Abbott (who skated flawlessly, successfully landing a quad) and ahead of his more flamboyant nemesis, Johnny Weir, who downgraded the difficulty of one jump and stepped out of another in the midst of performing.
Afterward, Lysacek remained in good spirits, sticking out his tongue and blowing kisses to his fans. “What happened here is absolutely not a reflection of what I’m going to be like at the Olympics,” he promised. He is the world champion. “Even with Weir’s popularity and Abbott’s success, you still look at Evan as being the lead horse,” says Scott Hamilton, who won the gold medal in 1984, the year before Lysacek was born. Though Abbott’s now the two-time national title holder, he suffers from inconsistency—after winning the 2009 national title, he went on to place eleventh in the world championship that Lysacek won.
Lysacek is hoping be the first mainstream male figure-skating star since Hamilton. Weir, a three-time national champion who is a clever performer, always shrewdly in on the joke, was parodied in the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory. But he was never considered “mainstream,” at least not to the figure-skating powers that be, who want to play up its speed and daring, not its shimmer and mannered style. They’d like to see a little less Nutcracker, a lot more Tony Hawk.
Figure skating has a history of feuds—Brian Orser and Brian Boitano’s “Battle of the Brians,” Michelle Kwan versus Tara Lipinski, not to mention Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. But Weir and Lysacek represent the two directions the sport can go in. If Weir is pushing gender boundaries, posing for BlackBook magazine in a sarong and high heels and celebrating the “magical world” of the sport, Lysacek, who as a kid did his routine to the Top Gun theme, emphasizes technical feats to the point of being criticized as robotic. It’s athletics versus aesthetics, among other things, and it’s also good copy, a story line to keep the fans interested and taking sides. Weir once scoffed to the New York Times that if Lysacek “doesn’t want to skate to music that’s pretty and wear a pretty costume, then go Rollerblade or skateboard or do one of those extreme sports.”
Mainstream success would bring highly paid endorsement deals, if male figure skating can sufficiently butch itself up. “Think of American Idol—you have Adam Lambert and Kris Allen,” says Michelle Kwan, whose former coach now works with Lysacek. “Weir is Lambert, he’s out there, and Evan is Kris, with a wider appeal.”
This is, of course, all relative. When I meet up with Lysacek at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side near the home of his costume designer and friend Vera Wang, with whom he was staying, he’s wearing gooey ChapStick, his eyebrows are waxed to perfect slashes, and he’s dressed in a Yohji Yamamoto gray knit cap, oversize black puffy jacket, and bright-silver high-top sneakers. Right off the bat, he’s willing to admit that figure skating “is not a supermacho sport. But I love that it’s so competitive; it’s one man versus the other man, there’s no one behind you, and there’s no one around you.”
Lysacek isn’t exactly a beer-swillin’ guy’s guy. When we meet, he’s wearing two rings, one from his fans and one from his ex-girlfriend, ice dancer Tanith Belbin (“I know I should take it off, I know I should let go”). His spidery masculinity is actorish and metrosexual. Back home in L.A., he says, his friends are all in “the biz.”
Lysacek grew up outside Chicago. His grandmother, who dreamed of joining the Ice Capades in her youth, gave both him and his sister skates for Christmas when he was 8 years old. His mother, Tanya, signed them up for a lesson. “Initially, Evan wanted to do hockey,” says Tanya. “He’s not flamboyant. His goal has always been to have dads watch him skate and then see that it’s okay for their sons to do this, too. Evan’s always wanted people to see it doesn’t have to be a feminine sport,” she says. Ultimately, she recalls, he liked the sport because of “the tricks, the speed, and the fact that you could leave the ground on your skates and then land.”