About three and a half years ago Gus Kenworthy, was the best freeskier in the world. And he was worried his career was cooked.
He was going to come out as gay. Nobody in his sport — one in which athletes depend on endorsements to make a living — had come out before. But he decided he couldn’t go on hiding his truth, especially after the increased limelight that followed his 2014 Olympic silver medal win.
Kenworthy expected to be a pariah. The exact opposite happened: He became more popular than ever.
“I really thought when I came out it was going to have the opposite effect, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose all my followers. My sponsors aren’t going to want to sponsor the gay guy,’” he told Front Office Sports in a recent interview.
Instead, endorsers jumped at the chance to work with him.
“Brands heading into the 2018 Olympics, were like, ‘We want to tell a story of authenticity. We also want to tell a story of diversity and in the Winter Olympics there’s just not a lot of diversity.” he said. “So being openly gay actually really opened me up to a ton of endorsement opportunities and more media attention.”
Kenworthy has been sponsored by traditional skiing brands like Smith for his goggles and Atomic for his skis but also has done work with Monster Energy Drink, Ralph Lauren, Samsung and Toyota, among others. Perhaps his most noteworthy spot was a Head & Shoulders ad that made history by featuring a pride flag, which had never been done before in a national TV spot.
So, what’s next? Kenworthy is already about as decorated a skier as possible, having won five X Games medals, an Olympic medal and eight world championships. But he’s got goals outside the sport, too, and has become a leading advocate for LGBT+ causes and has jumped into the world of entertainment and acting.
This week he appeared on a panel at a New York summit for Out Leadership, a group that works to promote LGBT+ inclusion and leadership in the business and political world. The summit featured corporate executives and high-powered politicians. It also debuted a new business climate index ranking states on its treatment and inclusion of LGBT+ folks.
It was the sort of event and sorts of people to which Kenworthy is now granted access as a famous advocate. It’s a role he takes seriously.
“When I decided to come out publicly, I knew that I was going to be stepping into that [leadership] position, whether I wanted it or not,” he said. “There was a lot of people watching me. And I did want it. I wanted to be a positive influence. The thing I always say and I continually go back to is: I want to be, and hope to be, the version of myself that I needed when I was like 14.”
In that way, Kenworthy stands apart. He is the rare winter Olympian with a presence in front of sports fans and non-sports fans alike, whether that’s through his prowess on the slopes, his prolific Instagram presence or his work for the LGBT+ community.
“In the winter athlete space he has a unique stature because he came out,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert and creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. “In a sport that has a once-every-four-years appeal, it’s difficult to maintain your popularity in between Olympics, especially because he didn’t win a gold medal… [He’s] not a top, top, top performer, let’s say. But what he did outside of the slope probably made him much more significant and brave and important than your average freestyle skier.”
Will Ober, the director of sports marketing at the firm Platinum Rye Entertainment, similarly called Kenworthy unique. Ober, who acquired talent for Procter & Gamble for the 2018 Olympics, landed the skier his Head & Shoulders ad by virtue of Kenworthy being relevant and having a unique story.
“And for Head & Shoulders, having great hair is obviously a key component,” he added, laughing.
The classic good looks and charisma have helped Kenworthy expand outside skiing. His hopes are to qualify for one last Olympics — he’ll be 30 in 2020, old for his sport — while also keeping his acting chops sharp.
“I hope by that point I’ll have gotten enough experience acting and playing these different roles that it’ll be able to be a seamless transition,” he said. “Kind of hang up my skis and know I have something in the works.”
So far, so good. He’s appeared as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race and will act in the next season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story.
Baker Street’s Dorfman did say there can be a career drawback to being a prominent LGBT+ figure. “[There] is a significant percentage of people out there, particularly in this Trumpian era, that will never give him the respect he deserves,” he said.
But if Kenworthy’s million-plus social followers are any indication, there are plenty of people who are drawn to him. It’s a busy life from the slopes, to a video shoot, to an audition, to a set, to back to the slopes–he has accomplished about everything one could hope for in athletics and is actively working to make a go of it in entertainment. It’s one longshot dream to the next. But the way his entire world shifted in 2015 is the throughline of it all.
“My dream acting role is honestly a superhero role. I know that it’s kind of cliché,” he said. “I know a lot of actors, the reason that they do superhero roles is because it’s an insane paycheck and it’s a huge audience.”
“But for me growing up, I really felt a sense of connection to superheroes because they had to hide their identity from everyone. They were one person in their real life — whether it was Clark Kent or whatever — then they had their alter ego as Superman or Spiderman or Batman and no one could know the two.”
But now, years removed from his decision to come out, everyone can know all sides of Gus Kenworthy. No alter ego necessary.