Michelle Kwan on her rule-breaking figure skating style: 'I was the first person to wear jewels on the ice'

Devon Kelley
Assistant Beauty Editor
Michelle Kwan is an elegant powerhouse on and off the ice. (Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

The first thing Michelle Kwan says to me when we first meet is that she likes my leather jacket. “Cool people wear these in L.A.,” she adds. “So who makes that? Let’s get that out of the way.”

Known for her elegant costumes on the ice, this five-time figure-skating world champion and two-time Olympic medalist also favors simple silhouettes in real life. Leaving me completely charmed, she reassures me about the (possibly reckless) investment I’d made in my Acne jacket.

Still, Kwan reflects on her competition style as a way to get out of her comfort zone. “I portray different characters on the ice. I skated to Salomé and I had black eyeliner, the winged look, and I was the first person to wear jewels on the ice. It was fun, it was playtime, and I really got myself into that character,” she says. “And the following years, I did simple, au naturel looks. In my first Olympic Games in ’98, even my costumes were very simple. I skated to ‘Lyra Angelica,’ so I wanted it to be timeless.”

Decorative jewelry like the gold dragon pendant necklace Kwan wore (a gift from her grandmother) during her early competitions isn’t permitted, according to figure-skating guidelines. However, she and many other athletes went on to break rules and records in style.

Michelle Kwan skates to “Lyra Angelica” during the 1998 Winter Olympics. (Photo: David Madison/Getty Images)

Kwan’s mother made her costumes early in her career, and she is endlessly grateful. “I started dreaming of going to the Olympics at age seven, and [my parents] did everything possible to make that dream come true,” she says.

Over the past seven years, Kwan has been off the ice in pursuit of her other passions, working on the board of the Special Olympics and serving as a senior adviser to the State Department during the Obama administration, then as an outreach coordinator with Hillary Clinton‘s presidential campaign. Recently, she’s made her unofficial return to skating on Instagram in several videos showing off her unfaltering skills, inspired by the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics.

Kwan also announced her partnership with Procter & Gamble, collaborating to produce a new short film, Love Over Bias, as an extension of the brand’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign, which is inspired by a new roster of past and present Olympians, including Kwan, who overcame prejudice on their journeys to the Olympic Games.

For Kwan, that meant growing up in an immigrant family of five with parents who struggled financially, each working multiple jobs. “My parents immigrated to the United States in their early 20s, and they sacrificed a lot putting a roof over our heads, feeding us, putting food in our bellies, and providing us with this opportunity to participate in sports,” she explains. “And I think that’s why [the ad] is such a tearjerker for me, because it’s my story. It’s my story of my parents sacrificing and the obstacles that athletes face getting to the Olympic Games, and the people along the way that help you. That’s the moms, the parents, the coaches. But this campaign, ‘Thank You, Mom,’ Love Over Bias, really hits home.”

She thanks her parents for raising her in such a way that compels her to choose love over bias. Kwan says, “In a society that’s so currently divisive, always, [I choose] love over hate, and find common ground versus fighting and hate.”

Michelle Kwan skates in the World Figure Skating Championships in 1996. (Photo: Carlo Allegri/AFP/Getty Images)

On her journey to the Olympics, there were times that Kwan felt lonely at the top. “I think, of this particular campaign, about the times when I was isolated, and young girls were perhaps jealous that I was succeeding and doing well. My parents always protected me, especially my mom, giving me those words of advice and encouragement and always believing in me.” She continues, “Just keep your head up high.”

Now, her advice to up-and-coming young athletes is to do the same and to lean on the people they know they can trust for support. In wake of Olympian McKayla Maroney’s allegations of sexual abuse against the then U.S. team doctor Larry Nassar, Kwan says, “I would say, surround yourself with good people. I have never been in that situation and I can only imagine the situation that they’re in. I think it’s important to lean on your parents, lean on the people that you trust, and the federation, and the people that can be there to protect you.”

Michelle Kwan skates during the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Kwan believes that it was her parents’ support that helped her secure her impressive position as a longstanding world champion. “The things that come to mind aren’t the times when I was standing on top of a podium. It’s easy to win, it’s always easy to be happy and bask in the glory of winning,” she says.

“But the setbacks, the toughest moments, and the intimate moments with my parents or my mom, where she reminded me to keep my head up high, saying she was still so proud of me, I think those are the times when you see that no matter what, love is deeper than this. I am so much, I’m not defined by a triple lutz, I’m not defined by one fall.”

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