In Conversation with Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue
ANAHEIM, CA - Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are Olympians, two-time world medalists, back-to-back national champions, and holders of a whole lot of other impressive figure skating titles. But when I sat down to talk to these American ice dancers backstage at Stars on Ice last weekend, I was most impressed by their kindness, thoughtfulness, and genuine, down-to-earth personalities. Making our way across the corner of the ice to the tunnel that led backstage, Madi and Zach insisted on holding my hand to guide me across the ice for all of five seconds. Just like in ice dance, it's the little things that really matter and add up to the big picture.
Speaking candidly with these two about touring, their goals for next season, and the lessons they learned the hard way this past year, I got to know these champion skaters a bit better, and I can honestly say that they were two of the most delightful people I've ever had the pleasure of speaking with. Now I assume you didn't come here to listen to me wax poetic about #HubbellDonohue, so let's jump in!
Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Even if you don't feel like reading all of their wonderful, lengthy answers, I urge you to scroll down to the lightning round section to experience these guys' witty banter, playful partnership, and interesting opinions (including which vegetable they think the other is most like) firsthand. Thanks again to Madi, Zach, and Stars on Ice for taking time out of your busy show day!
Madi and Zach performing their Queen medley, posing in their 90s medley costumes, and performing their "Oats in the Water" program at Stars on Ice 2019
TOURING WITH STARS ON ICE
EDGES OF GLORY: This is your third tour with Stars on Ice - how are you guys feeling going into this year as compared to how you felt going into your first year?
MADISON HUBBELL: Well, certainly there were a little bit of nerves, going into our first season of Stars on Ice. It was our first time doing a big production tour and something as reputable as Stars on Ice - we certainly wanted to give the audience a good performance. You know, first I think we learned how to pace ourselves so that it was a little bit less tiring. I mean, for the first year, it was hard to do so many shows. Last year, with 22 stops, it was hard to manage that physically, but this year it's been really smooth sailing with recovery in our bodies. And mainly we've just been enjoying the company of our cast and crew members and meeting the audience members. The family here is so welcoming, and seeing these familiar faces year after year from the crew and production team really makes it fun. So year by year, it gets a little bit easier and more enjoyable.
EoG: Do you think you'd ever start your own tour at some point in the future, pull a Tessa and Scott?
ZACHARY DONOHUE: Oof, that's a lot of money that I don't know that I have in me. I want to be a choreographer for sure, but I don't see myself ever producing a tour - it's too impersonal for me. A lot gets lost in translation, so probably not.
MADI: I think, you know, I think it depends. I think if you probably asked Tessa (Virtue) and Scott (Moir) four years ago, do you think you're going to make your own tour? They would be like, I don't know! Sometimes those kinds of opportunities just really present themselves, and you find the right people that inspire you to do something like that. I think that what Tessa and Scott have done with their tour in just one season was incredible - we went and saw it in Quebec. And we can only hope that there is an increasing market for the show industry in skating. It's so often that we meet people at the meet and greets, and they say, I've never been to a skating show, I've watched it on TV, but it's so much better in person. So I don't know if it would be us producing it or just getting involved with other people, but we would like to keep bringing entertainment into the world of figure skating.
2018 Olympic short dance - go #TeamUSA!
right photo by Aris Messinis/AFP)
EoG: So regarding meet and greets, what has been the coolest fan experience you've had so far?
MADI: Well, I think there were a few really big moments last year that kind of coincided with Stars on Ice, one of which was my engagement (to Spanish ice dancer Adrian Diaz, who ironically is skating partners with Zach's girlfriend, Olivia Smart). And you know, we meet so many amazing fans and to be honest, like the idea that I would inspire a little girl to do the same thing (skating) is really touching. Because I remember even last year, seeing Kristi Yamaguchi at the show, she was such a huge inspiration for why I started skating, and like I still get nervous to talk with Kristi, even though I know her, because she's that idol for me. There were a few moments last year where fans went out of their way before the show, and a few brought me bridal magazines and things like that. And to think that somebody is just out and about in their day and thinks about me off the ice is a little bit shocking to me and really humbling.
ZACH: It's a bit mind-blowing to know that you're having some kind of an impact on a person's life, that they're going to take that time to prioritize something you're going through or something you're doing or something you're experiencing or creating and feel some sort of passion towards that. To be able to have the opportunity to share that with them is also pretty cool. You get a really cool energy from people, or they hand you that gift they really wanted to give you for awhile, or a photo they drew. We've gotten some really great artists who have brought us pictures and stuff and we posted them and like to see the joy on their faces - it's really cool to be part of that moment.
EoG: I feel like Stars on Ice, besides the Olympics, is one of the biggest kind of skating outreach events. Do you think the US market is as interested in skating shows as the Canadian one is?
MADI: I think that skating, in general, in the US is less popularized because we don't grow up with skating in the same way that Canadians do - all Canadians are on the ice, playing hockey or skating, so it's definitely a large cultural difference in that way. I think that media in America is so astronomical, like every country in the world is watching our media. There are so many options for entertainment, and I think that makes it challenging to sell a show. But as I said, we're continually looking for new ways to reach audiences, and I think that if we could market a little bit more extensively, then that would help. We rely a lot on word-of-mouth at this point, and we come to cities and sometimes people don't really know that we're around. We really want to continue promoting this show because it's a huge legacy in the world of figure skating, and hopefully it's around for many more generations of young talented skaters.
EoG: Maybe the kids you're meeting at the meet and greets will be the ones skating in Stars on Ice in 10 years or so!
ZACH: That's something to look forward to.
Caution: slippery when wet! Backstage shenanigans by Madi and Zach.
PREPARING FOR THE 2019-20 SEASON
EoG: So right now you're in the middle of show season, but have you started putting together your programs for next year? ZACH: We've chosen our music, but we kind of want to take a bit of time to make sure it's really set before we choreograph. In the past, we've taken the time to throw an idea together, and then it's evolved a lot over the season, and it's been hard to really find something concrete in that performance. So we're really taking the time right now to solidify everything and still figuring out cuts and which music to choose from. We did a quick release about our A Star is Born free dance, and we're very excited about that. It's something a little bit different for us, but still kind of in our wheelhouse - it's an awesome chance to grow with that.
MADI: I mean there are so many incredible songs from that soundtrack. I was just watching the movie again on the plane - there are so many nuances within those characters, so certainly we're going to be trying to take as much time and attention as we can during this off-season. We will never be able to tell the same story as Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, we have to make it our own. To create our own story with that soundtrack is something we're very excited about. We're hoping that the public really enjoys it, obviously as one of those songs that even though I've heard it a thousand times in the past year, every time it comes on the radio, I find myself singing along. So it's going to be a fun journey.
Madi and Zach's free dances from 2017, 2016, and 2015
right photo by Streeter Lecka)
EoG: It will definitely be a welcome change from all the La La Land and Greatest Showman, although l do love Broadway.
MADI: I know, I do too!
ZACH: And that's the short (dance) this year, Broadway musicals.
EoG: Have you chosen your music for it yet?
MADI: We have, but we haven't released it yet. But Broadway, I think it's something that I was excited about right away when they started leaking that out to some of the skaters. Zach I think was a little bit more skeptical - a little bit more choosy, rather - about what kind of thing he likes, and for me it was almost too many choices. I kept watching videos and dances and listening to the music...
EoG: What are some of your favorites?
MADI: Oh, I'm a huge, huge Bob Fosse fan. Bob Fosse has been an inspiration to me since I was young when I went and saw Fosse on Broadway and I just - the way that the women dance with his choreography was so enticing to me. So I really like that, and I would say that I'm probably more into like jazz Broadway, I'm more intrigued by that. Whereas along our career, even for free dances and stuff, Zach brought in more musicals that were the classics: Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, etc. Those were less interesting to me. It's been fun, and we've never danced at all in that style (jazz/Fosse/musical theatre), so it's something really new, a new project. But we did some classes - we have a Broadway teacher in our ice rink since last season, she's extremely talented. She was just teaching us some vocabulary and moves and simple combinations, and there's so much joy in it.
Madi and Zach performing their Finnstep short dance
Skate America during the 2013-14 season
(Photo by Harry How)
EoG: I feel like musical theatre is very similar to ice dance with the music, dance, acting, storytelling, so I think it'll fit really well. Are you looking forward to the Finnstep (the pattern dance for next season), since you already did it in 2014 with your Big Bad VooDoo Daddy short dance?
MADI: Yeah, we are, I think it's entirely different skating it now, only because, you know, with different coaches, and I feel like we have a much more refined style than we used to. But it is, I think, an advantage to have done it, right away we were relatively comfortable. Even though it's kind of a "hoppy" dance, if you compare it with another hoppy dance, like the Yankee Polka, I find that the Finnstep fits our style a lot better - that kind of old Hollywood glamour, quickstep... there's still a lot of power in it, whereas the Polka is a little bit more...
MADI: Yeah, and like for tall, long-legged people, I feel like the Polka is not my jam. I was really happy to see the Finnstep, and I think it's going to be a fun dance.
(The interview pauses while Zach asks fellow cast member Mirai Nagasu, who is backstage, to throw him a water bottle from the nearby table. He misses it.)
EoG: So then reflecting back on this past season - five gold medals plus team gold at World Team Trophy (which Madi was team captain at) last month - what do you think was the biggest lesson you learned this year?
ZACH: Not to get comfortable. We're always constantly pushing ourselves, but I think there's a point for everyone - whether you're a recreational runner or weightlifter or performer or dancer or whatever - when you rely on a comfort zone, and when things go south or training is harder, you use that as a crutch. I think we got a little bit too comfortable throughout the season. What happened at Four Continents (when a base level stationary lift in the free dance cost them a spot on the podium) was a bit of a result of not double-checking everything. So for us, I think... just don't stay comfortable.
Not sure sliding into the splits on the ice is what
Zach meant by "don't get comfortable" but...
right photo by Rich Lam/ISU)
EoG: Okay, let's do some rapid-fire questions. So Madi, what is the funniest thing that Zach has ever done?
MADI: (laughs) Oh my God. For some reason, the thing that comes to my mind is face-planting.
EoG: On or off the ice?
MADI: On! He's not very clumsy off the ice, but on the ice, he really pushes himself. Especially if we're just fooling around with choreography or new ideas, and he'll (imitates face-planting), you know, tumble every once in a while. It's not often, but he takes some hard tumbles 'cause he's way up there, he's six-foot-whatever! It's a lot of body coming down!
EoG: So Zach, what's the funniest thing Madi's ever done?
ZACH: (pauses, thinking deeply)
MADI: Rapid-fire! What comes to your mind right now. (snaps in his face)
ZACH: I don't find you funny.
MADI: Oh! (laughs loudly and pretends to be offended)
ZACH: Not in that way! Like for the most part you're very well-composed on the ice, and the only time you've ever made a silly mistake, you've gotten hurt. So I can't say that those were funny. There's plenty of times of me imagining you going into the air, massively, hilariously, and then coming down dangerously, and injured-ly.
ZACH: I'll get back to you on that one.
Having a fun time in Japan during Worlds 2019
EoG: (laughs) Okay. And side note, did you wear that (his Yale sweatshirt) because of Nathan (Chen, who attends Yale)?
ZACH: No! Okay, so everyone's thinking that. Nathan did bring it to me, but my mom actually works at Yale. Connecticut has two teams: you can either support Yale sports, or you support UConn. And Yale is where my mom works, so it's my claim to Connecticut.
EoG: And then for both of you guys, out of all of your costumes over the years, which one do you think describes your personality the best?
ZACH: Jeans and a tank top.
MADI: 2018 free dance (Caught Out in the Rain).
ZACH: Looking back, I wish I'd had the jacket (from the 2018 FD) remade for the Games. I hate the way it fit then, but I do like that style, it's very classy and sophisticated.
Sharing a moment after performing their free dance at the 2018 Olympics
Side note: did you know that Madi's mom makes all of her costumes?
(Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP)
EoG: Okay, If you could choose the location for the next Winter Olympics, where would it be?
MADI: Ooh! Um...
ZACH: Somewhere with sun that isn't supposed to host the Winter Olymp-
MADI: I mean, we would have to obliterate a whole island in order to build it there but... I would like a European one, to be honest, because we already did South Korea - not to say that South Korea and China are the same, because they're not, but it has a very foreign feeling for us. The feeling I had at PyeongChang was that we were very isolated, and we weren't really able to go and enjoy Korea, because it was like the (Olympic) Village and then nothing. And so it would be nice to do a European games, just for another experience. Somewhere with a warm beach... I should switch to the Summer Olympics!
EoG: What sport would you do?
ZACH: Really? Not volleyball?
EoG: You guys could play doubles!
ZACH: No, we don't...
MADI: No! (laughs)
ZACH: We'll just say that tennis and our relationship are not two compatible things...
MADI: (whispers to me) 'Cause I'm good and he's not.
ZACH: No, I am GOOD, it's just...
EoG: She's better than you?
MADI: Yes. He doesn't take it well. (laughs)
ZACH: Let's see, what would I do... it's weird, but like soccer is the only sport outside of skating I really, really enjoy, but it's not what I'd want to compete in Olympic level-wise. I like the old-school Greco-Roman things - I'm not much of a runner, but like javelin, hammer, shot put -
MADI: Shot put! Shot put!
ZACH: I'm pretty good at that one, I mean not at Olympic level. Weights?
MADI: You could gain 100 extra pounds.
ZACH: Yeah I could do that easily, that's not my problem!
Or maybe Madi will be the one doing all the heavy lifting?
(Photo by Joosep Martinson/ISU)
EoG: And so this one is a little bit weird - if Madi was a vegetable, which one would she be and why?
ZACH: (pauses) I'm trying to think of like, the most aesthetically pleasing vegetable.
EoG: Are any vegetables aesthetically pleasing?
MADI: All of them are aesthetically pleasing.
ZACH: (still thinking about vegetables) You got some curvy ones...
ZACH: You've got some long and slender ones... It's getting weird.
MADI: What vegetable would I be? What's your favorite vegetable? It's pretty easy to choose.
ZACH: This is not an easy rapid-fire question! I've got to like pull into my mind the shapes and -
MADI: No, but, rapid-fire is just like what pops into your mind.
ZACH: Uh... squash. A golden squash.
MADI: Literally, he HATES squash.
ZACH: But it's golden! Like you!
MADI: It's okay, I love squash.
(At this point, Madi asked the tour manager Cristi, who was nearby, what vegetable she would be, and thus began a long discussion with several of the crew members - but what do you guys think? What vegetable would Madi be? It's the question of the century, obviously.)
ZACH: So what vegetable would I be? And don't you dare say cucumber.
MADI: You would be a carrot because you're good on the eyes.
ZACH: WOW. (laughs)
EoG: I wanted to ask you guys some questions you probably don't get in normal interviews, because you always get the same questions about your skating, your partnership, your edges... your v-edge-tables...
ZACH: I can't handle these dad jokes.
Laughter is always the best medicine
(Photo by Atsushi Tomura)
EoG: Okay, this question is not food-related, I promise you. What is one thing you wish your fans knew about you? ZACH: I usually want them to know as little about me as possible! Not against them, I'm just pretty private, like everything I share on social media is very tailored and thought-out, for the most part, before I post it.
MADI: I would say that in general, people sometimes get the wrong impression of me, because I really like dressing up or fashion and makeup and all of those things. Especially at competitions, I have that professional exterior on, and so people see me and think that I'm very put-together and - I don't want to say that I'm rude 'cause I don't think that's the impression, but like very business-like and I have like a barrier. Usually my problem is the opposite, like I'm the person in the airport who is in my pajamas, and I end up talking to the person next to me because I'm too shy to (put my headphones in and) be like, "I'm listening to my music, bye!"
ZACH: Did you sit and talk with that girl next to you for the entire flight here?
MADI: I did, because she wasn't feeling well and got sick, so it seemed like she would stop throwing up if I was talking to her... She got motion sickness and excused herself right away and was like, "I'm so sorry, do you have a plastic bag in your seat back? I know that's not what you want to hear right now." But she was really nice! I was telling Adrian (her fiancé) that it was one of my better flights, even though somebody was barfing next to me. I don't know, I'm a people person, I'm genuinely curious about the people around me, and I like interacting and meeting new people.
Don't let Madi's sometimes intense exterior fool you - she's all smiles!
(Photo by Rich Lam)
EoG: Do you still blog? I know you used to blog a bit in the past.
MADI: I did, here and there. The funny thing with social media and blogging is that I always have the best intentions to do it more often, and then it's more my self-doubt that keeps me from doing it. And like with videos, I watch so many vlogs (on YouTube), and I feel like everybody's very good at it.
ZACH: Do you go back and watch their first 50 (vlogs) ? 'Cause those are not so good!
MADI: I made a few videos so far - I made two in like a year - and it took me probably 10 hours to edit like a 20-minute video. Because I think it's not good enough. On Instagram, I always doubt that people really wanna see like every meal I'm eating or what I'm doing. Usually if people ask for something, I'll do it, same with blogs. I like writing...
ZACH: She's good at writing.
MADI: I write a lot of things that I don't publish because I just like to write. But it's nerve-wracking, man! I admire the people that put themselves out there. It's not for my own privacy, really, it's more that I doubt that people would think I'm interesting enough to read about it! I love watching those videos, I love reading (those blogs), and essentially people are just doing the same things week to week, they're just living their life, and I'm so interested. It's hard not to doubt yourself when it's you doing it, though.
EoG: How about you, Zach?
ZACH: A few people know this already, 'cause Madi keeps trying to push it out as much as possible. I love music more than anything in the world, I write music in my spare time, I've played many, many instruments over the years. I kind of wish I could go back 10 years and live the same life, just so I could have longer to do music. If the right opportunity presented itself right now, skating would have a dangerous shelf life.
EoG: You guys could do music and lyrics, A Star is Born-style!
Zach serenading Madi (and the camera) with a song
KEEP UP WITH MADI & ZACH
Madi's Instagram: @splashmadison
Madi's Dog Nova's Instagram: @supernovadh
Madi's Twitter: @MadiHubbell
Madi's YouTube: Madison Hubbell
Zach's Instagram: @zachtdonohue
Zach's Twitter: @ZachTDonohue
Team Facebook: Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue
Team Website: hubbell-donohue.com
Team YouTube: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue
You have one more chance to catch Madi and Zach (and their amazing "Oats in the Water" and Queen medley programs) in Stars on Ice this year - their last show is tonight in Portland, Oregon, at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Tickets and info can be found here. And make sure to follow Stars on Ice on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook for fun content and for info about the pre-sale for next year's show!
All other photos courtesy of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.