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The first thing Michelle Kwan says to me is that she likes my shoes. I can tell she’s just being nice because the shoes in question are pretty hideous, and Michelle Kwan is an extraordinarily nice person. But when Michelle Kwan gives you a compliment, you take it, because Michelle Kwan is one of maybe 25 people in history that absolutely everyone in the world adores. Thirty, tops. She’s essentially the Tom Hanks of sports.
We’re at the Park Hyatt in Manhattan, celebrating the launch of P&G’s latest installment of its mascara-demolishing “Thank You, Mom” commercials. This year’s is centered around the theme “Love Over Bias,” which focuses on Winter Olympians who have overcome prejudice. In Michelle’s case, that means having grown up in an immigrant family of five with both parents working multiple jobs — all while pursuing one of the most expensive sports in existence.
It is also the sport I pursued for my entire life, but we’re not here to talk about skating. We’re here to talk about fashion, which Michelle Kwan thankfully also has a lot of thoughts on, because of course she does. Below, we discuss her moisturizing routine, the mind-blowing fact that she despises tights, and that one time she wore a bikini onstage next to Pamela Anderson.
I was a skater, so you’re, like, my hero. But I have to ask you fashion questions.
Well, skating is fashion. So we’re talking about the same thing.
Oh, good! So what does being part of this campaign mean to you?
It really is personal. This campaign hits home — being able to share my story and the obstacles that all Olympians face to get to the Olympic Games. And who do you have to thank? Mama. Mama Kwan. There were so many setbacks — financial setbacks, my mom and my dad having multiple jobs, putting a roof over our head, feeding three children, and then providing an opportunity to go ice skating. I made it to Nationals with used skates. I didn’t have a coach until, like, two weeks before the competition. I had costumes borrowed from other skaters. The days were from 5 in the morning when you’re barely awake, doing figures. You’re too young for figures. [Author’s note: Until 1997, figures were an aspect of competition in which skaters had to do exceptionally boring things extremely precisely.] I slept in my skating clothes! My mom drove me to the rink at 5 a.m., picked me up at school, had multiple jobs. I see her as, like, a superhero. Both of my parents are.
You slept in your skating clothes!
I totally did. This is completely off-topic, but my dad befriended the Zamboni driver who opened the ice rink. He would come in with doughnuts every morning and a cup of coffee for him. One day he was like, “Danny, if you wanna come in earlier, I open up the ice rink at 3:45 a.m. Karen and Michelle can go skating before anybody comes.” Talk about being asleep! So I rolled out of bed in tights.
That’s crazy! Speaking of Mama Kwan, how has she influenced your sense of style?
She is so stylish. I am not trendy. We’ll go shopping together, and that’s the time when I’ll end up buying a lot of stuff, because she will be the one picking everything out for me. I’ll be like, “Mom, those are too short,” and she’ll be like, “You’re this age for only a certain amount of time!” She knows all the latest trends and what looks good on my body. I’m petite, I’m only 5’2” — pushing 5’2” and a half. I’m not that stylish, but my mom is.
I think a lot of people would beg to differ that you aren’t stylish.
I like elegant, classic lines, and brands that are very streamlined and easy. I wear a lot of black. Today’s rare. See, I was very lucky because for six years, Vera Wang made my costumes, so I’m a huge fan of Vera’s. I like Helmut Lang, Costume National — I like simple.
How about how skating has influenced your style? I know that for me, I wear tights all the time because I grew up in them.
I don’t. At all. Never, ever. I will never wear tights. Actually, I was laughing with my sister before I left for New York because in the ’90s, everybody, like Nancy Kerrigan, wore tights and a leotard and a ballet skirt. It was such a look.
SUCH A LOOK.
If you look at videotapes, it’s always that. I wore it for a little while in the late ’90s. I remember going to some international competition and I wore black leggings for practice even though you were supposed to wear a skating skirt.
But now, everybody wears black leggings to practice in, and it’s weird if you wear a skirt.
Thank you! So I wanna say that I started that. I got in so much trouble for it! Because my coach, Frank Carroll — I think he’ll laugh if he knew I was telling this story — was like, “That is not appropriate.” And I was like, “But this is what I wear all the time!” It looks cooler!
What about when you skate now? What do you wear?
Leggings. It’s so cold. Whenever it’s cold out, people are like, “Haha! You must never get cold because you’re an ice skater!” I hate being cold. After an hour of being on the ice, my feet actually get frozen. So I layer very thin cashmere. Cashmere gets holes in it — I’ll wear the same three cashmere sweaters for, like, a year, and there’ll just be holes everywhere. But it’s like when you see a ballerina: If they don’t have holes and rips in their tights, then they’re not really a professional ballerina.
How about skincare? What do you do to moisturize?
I love products. I always love the newest, latest whatever. I usually tend to try lighter serums. As you get a certain age, you just have to try everything. The one thing my mom’s said ever since I was 15 was, “You need to wear eye cream! Eye cream, eye cream, eye cream!” So that’s a must. I have a lip balm in every pocket. Somewhere, there’s a lip balm.
Any on-ice makeup tips?
Waterproof eyeliner. I think that’s a faux pas: Don’t wear mascara that’s not waterproof. Plus, I have one watery eye. It’s my left eye, and because it’s so cold it tears up, and that’s the last thing you want.
Do you have a favorite skating dress you’ve ever worn?
The best was when I was teeny-tiny: It was my first costume, hand-sewn by Mama Kwan. I remember waking up and it was 2 a.m. and she was sewing every little bead. But I think my favorite was probably the purple one I competed in in 2002, one Vera made [pictured at top]. Or the “Fields of Gold” dress. It was so elegant and sparkly. And my friends laugh at me because when I go shopping I’m always like, “Oh my god, this dress is so pretty!” They’re like, “It looks like a skating dress.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, you’re right.”
How about your favorite non-skating outfit you’ve ever worn?
I took some risks. I won a Teen Choice Award and it was presented by Pamela Anderson. You know how you win the surfboard? I chose to wear a bathing suit with a sarong, and I was standing next to Pamela Anderson! O-M-G! I should have known. That’s when you need to ask the right questions, like, “Who’s presenting this award to me?”
When you started working for the State Department, and later the Hillary Clinton campaign, did you have to buy a whole new wardrobe?
At that point I only owned a few dress suits. After that, I had to change it up a little bit. That’s not really my style — I’m very comfortable in a dress suit, but I wanted to have some sort of personality besides just black and pearls. I wanted to wear something that was more fitted for me.
What’s the last thing you bought for yourself that you really love?
A pair of fancy shoes. Hermès. They’re still in the box. I can’t wear them yet. I’m too scared. They’re too nice! It was a treat for me.
Do you have any winter clothes that you’re psyched to wear?
I love long black coats. They’re a staple that’s just sleek and easy. My mom has one that she bought that fits me amazingly; it’s Rag & Bone. But I keep seeing biker jackets, so now I’m like, I need to get a biker jacket!
Okay, I have to ask this: What’s a piece of music that you’ve always wanted to skate to that you h—
Firebird. As a kid I was always like, [hums Stravinsky’s The Firebird].
I feel like there was a phase where everyone skated to that.
I know. In the ’80s. You weren’t born yet. I always wanted to skate to Firebird and wear red. But Phantom of the Opera is making a huge comeback. I love it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.