Despite what its name suggests, America’s Next Top Model is not a fame factory, and its participants often end up stuck on the lower rungs of the modeling industry. ANTM churns out cautionary tales more than success stories. Even its winners face the “America’s Next Top Model curse” — the idea that appearing on Tyra Banks’s televised amateur modeling gulag hexes your career and ruins your life. Appearing in a made-for-TV biopic about Whitney Houston is considered an ANTM alumnae triumph.
If anyone can beat the curse, though, it’s Nyle DiMarco, the show’s affable, charismatic 2015 champion and first deaf contestant. DiMarco is doing something unusual for a former ANTM star: He’s modeling for major players, and becoming a successful hyphenate. His victorious streak prompted tabloid rumors; Us Weekly asked if Nyle would be the next Bachelor Bachelor. (“That rumor’s been going around,” Nyle says, “and there’s been no offers as of yet.”)
It also landed the 27-year-old a spot on Dancing With the Stars, which he won in 2016, endearing him to moms with AOL email addresses all across America. While ANTM is known for squashing its contestants’ careers, DWTS is a home for a different sort of dashed dream. Its casts are populated by has-beens, the almost famous, and tangentially recognized celebrity offspring — Osbournes and boy-band survivors, Kirstie Alley and retired athletes. There are some notable exceptions, of course. In 2008, Kim Kardashian whiffed it hard in the seventh season of DWTS, hilariously and embarrassingly ass-first hard, but then Kris Jenner made her demon pact with Baʿal Zəbûb and Kim became the most famous woman in the world anyway. Zendaya’s profile has risen since her second-place finish in 2013. Master P sucked on DWTS — he sucked so much!! — but he’s so affable and eccentric that it just made him more endearing. And then there’s Nyle.
DiMarco walked for Armani at Milan Fashion Week this year. He had a recurring role on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, and this summer, he guest-starred as a romantic interest for Billy Eichner on Hulu’s Difficult People, with a slyly funny performance. Next up, he’s guest-hosting the throwback beefcake-kitsch Vegas variety show Chippendale’s for a month this fall. That’s definitely wading into Tyson Beckford territory, but hey — he has momentum.
Even though DiMarco can eke out a career being professionally good-looking — and he’s doing so now — he has a distinct mission. Catwalks and soundstages are his tools, not the end points of his dreams. His post-reality-TV career has a rudder, and even wacky side gigs like Chippendale’s are swerves with a purpose. DiMarco is unusual among his reality-show peers because for him, celebrity is a vehicle toward something else. He wants to use fame to make life better for other deaf people.
He tells me this in the cramped WeWork conference room where we decided to meet — even though we both live in New York and probably could’ve chosen literally anywhere else to have a cooler time. We picked a conference room for one reason: quiet. I was the one who needed a library-like environment. My clumsy signing isn’t good enough for conversations, so we brought in Nyle’s preferred interpreter, a man named Ramon, to have a conversation.
On the day we meet up, though, Ramon is in Los Angeles. The ad hoc solution: FaceTime, with Nyle signing to Ramon and Ramon speaking to me, and vice versa. Except Ramon freezes up and gets stuck on the screen with his mouth wide open, again and again. I sign to Nyle with the vocabulary of a 3-year-old in the moments when Ramon isn’t around to bail me out: You … water … coffee … want? I ask with my hands, fixing my facial expression into what I hope is a look of casual questioning but which is, inevitably, one of formal constipation.
(I don’t know what to say about DiMarco’s looks. Is there a way to talk about someone’s hotness without coming off as gross? Probably not, so: He looks like a Disney prince who got really into protein powder and CrossFit. He’s a commercial for eyebrows. He might be completely symmetrical, and I don’t think he has any butt hair.)
We switch to Skype, and our sweet Ramon comes back. This is not the ideal set-up for free-flowing conversation, but DiMarco is enormously patient with my addled-kindergartener sign language. His patience makes sense: He was planning a career as a teacher before he landed on America’s Next Top Model. He had studied at Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., the most prestigious university for deaf students. DiMarco told me that he wasn’t active in the thriving theater scene there; he hadn’t known that he wanted to be an actor or performer yet. He just wanted to help kids, and that goal hasn’t changed too much. “I’m most excited about my foundation right now,” DiMarco tells me.
“Celebrity activist” is often a neat two-word joke — set-up, punch line — but what DiMarco is doing is specific, personal, and urgent. This isn’t hobbyist charity work; DiMarco’s activism is part of his identity.
DiMarco comes from a multigenerational deaf family, so he grew up in an ASL house, and learned English as well. But, of course, the deaf experience is far from homogenous. Some deaf people are taught only English or another verbal language. DiMarco’s foundation stresses the importance of teaching deaf children sign language specifically because many deaf people are deprived of its benefits. Like many deaf educators, DiMarco believes that deaf children have an advantage if they sign from an early age. This might sound extremely obvious, but it’s a contentious issue. There are schools of thought that believe that deaf children should focus exclusively on learning English, and that learning ASL will make them worse at English and thus harder to bring into mainstream society.
Even though there’s research that shows that bilingual education is helpful, many hearing families raising deaf children face overwhelming and contradictory advice about how to teach language to their kids. DiMarco founded the nonprofit Nyle DiMarco Foundation with this in mind, and right now it focuses on helping families with deaf and hard-of-hearing children get access to resources about the benefits of early sign language learning, and how critical it is to access language as early as possible.
Prior to starting his own foundation, DiMarco was a spokesperson for Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K), which focuses on getting deaf and hard-of-hearing children ready for kindergarten. Now his foundation is formally partnered with LEAD-K.
In addition to his focused nonprofit work, DiMarco recently began creating weekly ASL lessons using Instagram Stories, and he collaborates with a language-learning program called the ASL App. “We’re almost at 1 million downloads, so that’s good. We’re making ASL more mainstream,” he says. DiMarco, who has appeared with YouTuber Tyler Oakley, is casting as wide a net as he can to get people interested in his language. As a rare mainstream deaf celebrity, and especially as a mainstream deaf celebrity who aggressively champions ASL, DiMarco is already a superstar in many deaf communities.
Still, DiMarco is not giving up his acting career. His creative goals are intertwined with his activism, and he isn’t waiting around for someone else to write the first great deaf show. He’s trying to do it himself. “Right now I’m working with one great deaf writer, and we’re developing a TV series together and hopefully it’ll have a majority of a deaf cast,” he says. DiMarco, along with many others in the community, believes that Hollywood should create more roles for deaf actors. “A lot of times, we keep complaining that Hollywood keeps on casting hearing people in [deaf] roles, so we decided to develop our own series, working together. I think that sometimes people look at it like a deer-in-headlights, like, ‘How do we actually incorporate a deaf person in this show?’ And it’s very possible.”
I ask if he auditioned for the role on Difficult People, and if the producers specifically put out a casting call for a deaf character. “Difficult People developed the role for me,” he says. “They wrote me into the show.”
Difficult People creator, star, and writer Julie Klausner explains that one of the writers had a story idea in which Billy Eichner’s character would go out with a super-hot deaf guy and get cockblocked by his interpreter. “As far as super-hot deaf guys were concerned, everybody said that we should go to Nyle from Top Model,” Klausner says. So she wrote the part for him.
Klausner had deaf people on set making sure that all the signing in the script was done correctly, to ensure that Difficult People was representing ASL respectfully. One thing that she didn’t care about was writing a goody-two-shoes character for Nyle.
“One of the important things on our show is: Whether or not you’re deaf or otherwise differently abled, everyone is kind of an asshole,” she says. “There’s roles for differently abled actors where they’re sanctified or objectified in a benevolent way. But the world of our show is one in which our characters are cranky and awful, but it’s only because the people around us are even worse.”
Klausner wrote a funny character who happened to be deaf without sacrificing her show’s sharp edges, and DiMarco is hopeful that his own projects will be able to do the same thing — to humanize deaf people instead of confine them to the trope of the saintly, treacly Other. His caddish turn on Difficult People might’ve surprised people who expected him to keep up the G-rated network prime-time schtick, but DiMarco has no interest in doing what people expect him to do, and no interest in playing beatific innocents. He doesn’t want to make something that concentrates on identity politics above plot. Just as he infiltrated and conquered the most mainstream of reality TV shows, he wants to show that deaf people can do scripted just as well (if not better!) than hearing people.
“Our main focus isn’t to tell the world what it means to be deaf — we’re going to be showing the world what it means to be deaf,” he says. “Just as if we were any other character on any other show.”