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'Cheer' Star Jerry Harris on Becoming a Gay Icon: 'I Want to Be Someone That’s Fearless'

Variety logo Variety 6/4/2020 Marc Malkin
a group of people posing for the camera © NBC

Jerry Harris, the fan favorite of Netflix’s “Cheer,” can’t help thinking that his late mom is watching over him as he has become one of this year’s most beloved pop culture phenomenons.

“I feel like she’s very, very happy and excited for everything that’s been going on, and she’s really loving it,” Harris, whose mother died of lung cancer when he was 16, says on this week’s episode of the Variety and iHeart podcast “The Big Ticket.” “I know she’s telling me to always stay humble, because she doesn’t want to see me get a big head.”

“Cheer,” a six-episode docuseries that follows the Navarro College Cheer Team of Corsicana, Texas, a city of just 23,000 and 60 miles from Dallas, highlighted Harris’ signature overzealous mat-talking while also showing his struggle to make it onto the floor to compete.

Since the show premiered in January, Harris, who is 20, has covered the Oscars red carpet for Ellen DeGeneres, struck endorsement deals with Schmidt’s deodorant, Panera Bread and American Eagle and racked up 1.2 million followers on Instagram. Personalized recorded video messages from Harris booked through Cameo go for $150 a pop.

“It’s funny to me because people just want to see me mat-talk,” he says. “It’s just so surreal, and it makes me very happy that people just want to hear my voice.”

Variety caught up with Harris from his family’s home in Chicago.

Do you ever wake up in the morning going, “What has become of my life?” 

I feel like I had a lot of that when it first happened, and it honestly would probably happen a lot more even today, but in quarantine it doesn’t really feel like anything. I used to have it so much when I was back in school, just doing my thing. It would happen like almost every time I would wake up.

When did you first realize you were becoming famous?

Probably when I first started traveling, like when we went to go be on “Ellen,” and we got off the airplane and people came up to us and were just talking to us and saying, “We love you. Can we get a picture?”

What was the most surreal, crazy experience on the Oscars carpet? 

I would have to say Brad Pitt and Billie Eilish, and just pretty much almost everyone there, because they treated me like I was a celebrity. They knew my name. They really treated me like I was one of them.

I’m going to read something that BET wrote about you: “Jerry Harris is the gay black icon we need in 2020.” What goes through your head when you hear that? 

Just hearing that from them makes me so happy because I love BET. I definitely feel like it is a lot of pressure to live up to, but I want to be that person that everyone knows that can handle it and doesn’t let it get the best of me or take me from who I am.

What kind of role model do you want to be to other young kids who might be struggling with their sexuality?

I want to be someone that’s fearless, that’s confident to others, and that’s confident to themselves and believes in themselves, and just to tell them you can be who you want to be, and you can be who you are, because you are perfect and you are enough for anyone.

It was wonderful how your coach, Monica Aldama, talked about reaching out to church leaders in support of the LGBTQ community. 

It felt good. I love hearing her talk about that on the show. And just hearing her beliefs about it, it was really nice to see, and just knowing that she doesn’t care who people are or their sexuality. She doesn’t let that go into her judging people.

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