Nyle DiMarco talks about his deeply personal new memoir Deaf Utopia
When Nyle DiMarco walks into a room, all eyes are on him. His chiseled features, inviting smile and striking blue eyes may have something to do with it. But his hands are the real center of attention, parlaying words and sentences visually through the beautiful and complex language that is American Sign Language. DiMarco, 32, is an activist, model, actor, producer and icon in the Deaf community, one that he represents with pride. So it's fitting that the back cover of DiMarco's new memoir Deaf Utopia, out now, has him proudly displaying the Deaf Power pose. As for the front cover, "Funny enough, the [blue] background color, we didn't pick," DiMarco recalls during a conversation at the EW offices in Los Angeles in late April. "[William Morrow] just thought it looked really good. And I said, well, do you know that turquoise is actually the color of the deaf flag?"
Serendipitous events like this have followed DiMarco his whole life. He grew up fourth generation deaf in his large Italian American family. Yes, you read that correctly, fourth generation. Only 10% of deaf children have deaf parents, let alone siblings, grandparents and great grandparents like DiMarco does. "I consider myself incredibly fortunate because from the first day of my existence I had access to language, communication, to love," DiMarco says of his upbringing. "I was born to a family that was entirely deaf, just like I was. So I chose to name my book Deaf Utopia because I've always described my childhood as perfect."
For deaf readers, his memoir is a hand crafted thank you note to the community who helped raise him and a celebration of the storied culture of Deaf communities around the world. For hearing readers, it's a helpful guide to understanding a world they most likely know little about. DiMarco describes the day he and his twin brother Nico were born and they "failed" their hearing test. The doctor somberly told his parents that their twin boys were born deaf but the news was received with joy from the DiMarco family. "I definitely think a lot of hearing people don't realize that we have a culture and that we have a very rich community," DiMarco says. "The doctor imagined that I would have a hard life, that I would be met with only struggle, and was very surprised by my parents' celebration. It's a cultural thing. That's exactly what our normal is."
After attending the world's only deaf university, Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., DiMarco planned on pursuing a career as a math teacher. Instead he shifted from calculators to catwalks, going on to be a winner of not one but two major reality TV show competitions, coincidentally in season 22 of both shows: America's Next Top Model in 2015 and Dancing with the Stars in 2016. He says his twin brother Nico's love of music (Nico is a DJ) inspired him to face his fear of dancing on national television. "I thought this is an incredible opportunity to raise awareness about deafness, our culture, and our community from a lot of different angles. But I was also really scared because I thought if I screw this up the first week and I get tossed out, 18 million people are going to say, 'well, of course deaf people can't dance.' I was not going to let that happen."
In his memoir he also describes a harrowing experience from his time on America's Next Top Model. The sign language interpreter the show had previously provided to DiMarco needed a break, and DiMarco was devoid of communication with everyone around him for hours on a photo shoot set. The situation left DiMarco in tears, and was shown in the episode out of context. "Producers should just ask people what they need," he says. "At ANTM, I was never asked what I needed, it was just other people's assumptions. And there were a lot of mistakes made in the process that were easily preventable." (Reps for ANTM did not respond to a request for comment.)
And there's still more work to be done. "I have never seen an accurate fiction [in films or TV] of something that really reflects my own experience," he says. "Oftentimes misrepresentation happens because they don't have deaf people involved in the project behind the camera." His groundbreaking 2020 Netflix reality show Deaf U followed deaf students attending his alma mater Gallaudet and gave an unfiltered look at the culture and issues they face. "I take great pride in Deaf U because we brought in 50% deaf people for the crew," says DiMarco, who says there isn't a season 2 planned yet. "Netflix needs to call!"
DiMarco was also an executive producer on the 2021 Oscar-nominated documentary short Audible, an inspiring story about high school football players overcoming loss at his alma mater, the Maryland School for the Deaf. He attended the 2022 Oscars and says it was an honor to experience the ceremony alongside the Best Picture winner CODA. "Most of the time when we're pitching ideas, the big question is can we sell a story with deaf people in it? But now CODA has removed all doubt, there's no excuse anymore."
And DiMarco has a list of future endeavors to show it: He's set to lead and produce the upcoming drama series Deaf Punk, the story of the late 70's San Francisco music venue The Deaf Club. He's pitching a script that explores the historical 1988 Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet. And he'll be in one very "juicy" episode of the upcoming Peacock reboot of the iconic 2000's drama series Queer As Folk. Still, he admits he hasn't yet seen the original show. "In high school I was closeted, I didn't want to watch," DiMarco says. "I thought this is going to unlock something for me. But I ended up on the show — talk about a full circle moment. I'm very, very excited about it. It's now reimagined with a more diverse and more all-encompassing inclusive cast."
He says it's about time all these stories are told. "It's very telling that we have more deaf stories coming, which is thrilling. Hearing audiences out there are ready, they're curious about our community, and they're hungry for more."