I’ve always been fascinated by ice skaters. They’re beautiful, they’re athletic, and they’re talented. There aren’t many olympic sports that combine aesthetics and athleticism, but sometimes that fusion can be a recipe for disaster.
The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan debacle of the early 1990s exposed the many dangers of competitive ice skating to the world and the 2017 release of the feature film I, Tonya introduced the fiasco to a new generation.
But how much of that is true? Is the ice skating world really that intense, or is it all sensationalized?
Mirai Nagasu is a Japanese-American figure skater and Olympic bronze medalist. In 2018, she became the first American ladies’ singles skater to land a triple Axel at the Olympics, and the third woman from any country to do so.
I was able to talk to Mirai about beauty standards, mental health, and more in the world of professional ice skating.
*CONTENT WARNING: this interview contains mentions of disordered eating behaviors and body dysmorphia.
In Conversation With Mirai Nagasu
When and how did you start ice skating?
I started skating on a rainy day in SoCal because I was unable to go with my parents to the golfing range. Like many parents, my parents wanted to help me find something that I could be passionate about, and though my dad says that I would have been able to get more scholarships through golf (skating does not have many school scholarships), I chose to become a figure skater at five years old.
Who were your role models growing up?
In my childhood, I loved following Michelle Kwan’s career. Since both of my parents worked all the shifts at their restaurant, I spent a lot of time there, and unfortunately, we did not have a tv there. A family friend would record everything skating related that was happening onto VHS tapes because he knew that I wanted to make it as a skater. What little time I had at home was when I consumed Michelle Kwan’s competitions. I loved Michelle Kwan because she was so relatable. She is also a child of immigrants, and her parents also owned a restaurant, and because I had role models like Michelle paving the way for me, I never second guessed my ability to qualify for the Olympic Games.
Completely separate from skating, I am in love with the Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin friendship. I love that they’ve had such a long working relationship from 9 to 5 that has carried over into Grace and Frankie, and on top of that, they are both unafraid to speak their minds and are unafraid of getting arrested for causes that they believe in. I come from an industry where all of my female friends were also my competitors, so these are both attributes that I very much admire, along with my appreciation for their public support towards feminism and the LGBTQ community.
What was your most memorable moment on ice?
In 2014, I was left off the Olympic team despite finishing third at the national championships, which subsequently resulted in what felt like a very public heartbreak. That feeling left me wondering if that moment defined my legacy, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to be remembered as the comeback kid who defied all odds, so I decided I was going to acquire the triple axel. I wanted to become a candidate for the team that they could not deny, and so landing the triple axel at the Olympic Games will forever be one of the most empowering moments in my life.
When you first started skating as a child, who did your hair & makeup? Did you eventually learn how to do it yourself?
I think my mom did my makeup for one or two competitions, but she decided that I would be responsible for my own hair and makeup because I had complained about her skillset. She handed me her 90s blue eyeshadow palette and told me “good luck!”
Before long, YouTube became a thing, and I remember watching Michelle Phan in order to get the courage to experiment with makeup. The majority of figure skaters do their own hair and makeup.
What was your favorite performance look?
I have a positive bias towards programs that I skated well, so I loved the high slicked back bun that I wore skating to Miss Saigon.
As a non-figure skater myself, I’ve read a bunch of stories (and seen a bunch of movies) that depicted the ice skating world as very image conscious since it’s considered an aesthetic sport. Is there any truth to these beauty & body standard stereotypes?
Body dysmorphia is prevalent in skating because our sport is the deadly combination of an aesthetic performance and technical prowess. We are raised to believe that our look is everything because at the end of the day, we participate in a subjectively judged sport. Our judging system is broken up into two segments: the technical side and the component side. The component portion is completely based on the aesthetic side as it includes segments like skating skill, performance, and composition. Not only is our judging aesthetic, it is common practice for our coaches to tell skaters to lose weight. Many coaches will tell skaters that they have sustained injury because their bones could not handle the weight of their bodies when landing jumps. This in turn will encourage fast weight loss, which includes tactics like extreme restraint towards food or taking laxatives. This in turn causes even more injury, oftentimes career ending, but I hope to continue to help advocate to break the one size fits all stigma.
Have you ever experienced pressure to look a certain way for a performance or competition?
I think that when you come from an aesthetically inclined sport, there’s an unspoken understanding that putting effort into your personal beauty is a given. We are all packaged well because our look is part of what is judged in our sport. Not only that, as an Asian American, I was raised with an understanding that it was highly likely that the expectation for me was higher than others because there is a level of model minority stereotyping that goes on. I was expected to be the best and was expected to have a willowy thin body type because I was Asian, and as an Asian American trying to make it onto team USA, the bar was high.
How do negative comments about appearance from coaches, judges, or peers affect a skater’s mental health?
Unhealthy eating habits are unfortunately the norm, and this clearly leads to intense stress on our mental health. It was especially hard for me, as an Asian American, because mental health is still a generally taboo subject in Asian cultures. It just doesn’t exist, so I remember trying to seek help when I was younger but not really knowing who and what to trust. I worked with a sports psychologist whose job was to help me become a stronger competitor, but I believe that if our athletes were given proper tools to navigate through their day to day lives, our athletes would compete better, based on the theory that they’d be in a better mental state.
I hadn’t even entertained the idea of talking to a therapist until after the 2018 Olympics when I didn’t know how to deal with the fact that I wasn’t sure where I stood with my entire skating career. I also didn’t know how to handle some of the quotes that I had said that didn’t feel like they fully represented me, so my friends encouraged me to consult with a therapist, and until the Olympics were over, I had limited access to the right resources due to my financial situation. Overall, I hope that the USOPC continues to work to make more resources accessible to all of our Team USA athletes.
What aspects of ice skating culture would you like to see changed, if any?
I always felt like I needed to make myself fit the right mold, so that the nominating committee, the federation, media, and fans would like me, and subsequently, I always felt this undying need to be perfect. I was always conscious of trying to say the right thing, and it was very obviously exhausting, but for a little girl whose family had put their entire life savings into their daughter’s dream of going to the Olympics, trying to fit the mold was an expectation. I want to encourage athletes to speak their minds, use their platforms to advocate for causes if they wish to, but if there are other athletes who just want to enjoy their sport, I think that should be accepted as well. There’s so much pressure for athletes to be more than who they are, and that’s something I wish would change.
Figure skating is one of the most expensive sports, especially in the United States where our sport programs are not government funded. I also feel that in the United States, social media is heavily used as a business tool for companies who are looking to sponsor athletes, and a lot of the time, because the resources are so limited, the athletes who are really competitive are focused on their training and that training takes up the entirety of their budget. They don’t have the finances to hire social media marketers to help create content. Skaters in the United States are captains of their own team, so it’s unlike other sports like F1 racing and the NBA who have people who specifically help each athlete with their marketing. Therefore, I feel like many of the sponsorships are misguided and there are too few that are willing to sponsor our figure skaters.
Finally, in our sport, I feel like the coverage is more favorable towards the female competitors, which is different from most sports that are male dominated. However, there’s a stigma in the United States that all males figure skaters are gay, which is untrue, and I wish that skating would be more accepted and inclusive for all of us.
How do ice skaters get their buns so sleek without moving? I mean, you guys are literally spinning and twirling and flying and by the end of the performance, it’s like not a single strand of hair is out of place!
Because every venue is different and the travel accommodations vary as well, I’ve always felt like helmet hair is reliable. No matter how many hours pass between when I leave the hotel to the arena, I like a heavily hair-sprayed bun that keeps the hair out of my eyes and mouth. I like to be in control of as many factors as possible when I know I’m going to be nervous, so having control of my hair always helped me feel like I was ready to face the competition.
What are your go-to beauty products? (On and off the ice!)
I like to think of myself as a good balance between classy and not, so I find that my makeup is a good mix of drugstore products, brand name goods, and a frequent Japanese product as well.
My favorite mascara is Maybelline’s Colossal and I’m currently using Jill Stuart’s Airy tint CC cream, which I love. It’s a Japanese brand, and the color options are limited but I find that the ingredients match my skin. I’m also obsessed with Glossier’s After Baume because the micro algae are great for soothing the redness I get from skating. Finally, bae and I share Jo Malone’s English Pear and Freesia cologne. I love that Jo Malone is unisex, so you’re not limited in what you choose.