Nyle DiMarco has spent a lot of time on reality television. But while starring on “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing With the Stars,” he noticed that the questions posed to him almost always revolved around the fact that he’s deaf — not about who he is as a person.
Enter his own reality docuseries, “Deaf U,” out Friday on Netflix, which follows a tight-knit community of young students at Washington D.C.’s Gallaudet University for the deaf and hard of hearing.
DiMarco, who executive produces the series, hopes it will convince viewers of something he feels has often been doubted in the past: deaf culture exists.
“One of my biggest struggles in the last five years in the industry is that people don’t believe me when I tell them deaf culture exists,” DiMarco told TheWrap in a video interview with Greyson Van Pelt serving as his American Sign Language interpreter. “But now I can tell them, watch the show.”
DiMarco, who attended Gallaudet back in 2007, also hopes that the show will help hearing people relate to deaf people in new ways.
“Anytime I would try to explain deaf culture or Gallaudet University, it seems that was a really new concept for people,” he said. “I realized that Gallaudet was a perfect entry point.”
In the interview above, DiMarco explains more about the casting process, what he hopes hearing audiences will learn from the show, and how the deaf community has been impacted by COVID-19.
What motivated you to make “Deaf U”?
The reason I wanted to make the show was I had gone through several runs on reality TV myself — I had done “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing With the Stars” — and the questions were always quite limited. It was always limited to my deaf experience and it was never specifically about my personality or who I am. It really made me realize that anytime I would try to explain deaf culture or Gallaudet university, it seems that that was a really new concept for these people, so I realized that Gallaudet was a perfect entry point.
What do you hope “Deaf U” will teach American and international audiences about the deaf community?
This is the first time in Hollywood history that this has ever been done. We’re providing a deep dive into deaf culture. It’s really the first of its kind, and I’m so thrilled to have partnered with Netflix in order to do it. I really hope the takeaway is that deaf culture and the deaf community really exists. One of my biggest struggles in the last five years in the industry is that people don’t believe me when I tell them deaf culture exists. But now I can tell them, watch the show.
How has COVID-19 impacted the deaf community in terms of mask-wearing and not being able to read lips?
To be honest with you, I didn’t realize how stressful an experience this would be. Luckily, I’m a pretty good lip-reader and I get by with it, but with masks, obviously, it really limits my ability to communicate. Everyone is really exhausted from being at home, they’re tired of it, and working with hearing people who are screaming through their masks at the store — it’s like, “Ugh, I’m deaf!” I, obviously, can’t tell they’re talking to me. I think it’s more about awareness and it’s key that everyone understands that we’re all going to be approaching those situations differently. I think what does make it worse a little bit is deaf children are really experiencing the worst impact. Often, deaf children go to school, where they find their only access to sign language. Now, being in quarantine or isolation with their hearing families who typically do not know sign [language], their access to language and their ability to progress is really limited, and I feel very concerned for them.
Do you know of any ways these difficulties are being combated? I’ve heard that clear masks are being used in hospitals, for a start. How has the pandemic impacted students at Gallaudet in terms of online learning?
The clear masks honestly are a little bit helpful. We’re very lucky that the school system was able to switch over to Zoom and offer a little more access. Now we can be in a visual environment where we can sign, which is great. But, unfortunately, not every deaf individual out there has access to wifi or a laptop required to connect. Deaf people essentially are on our own to figure out the best system. Shoshannah Stern, for example, started an incredible project called #OperationASLStorytime, which films deaf creators reading storybooks to kids in American Sign Language to keep them interested, keep them learning, and keep them taken care of. Unfortunately, we’re in a really tough situation with this pandemic.
How did you select the stars of the show during the casting process?
“The overall process was pretty interesting. We had open applications, of course. Some students we actually discovered through Instagram. Others were recommended to me through friends in the deaf community. It’s a tight-knit group, so I had a couple of degrees of separation. Throughout the process, I was really, really impressed by the level of diversity and layers we were able to find within the deaf experience, whether that was from race, sexual preference, orientation or gender. And their backgrounds — their language fluency and experience, whether it was going to a deaf school or maybe a small deaf school — some of our cast came from a hearing program where they were the only deaf kid in school. Some of our cast had great degrees of language fluency, variation. Some were coming in completely fluent and others were discovering that and I really wanted to showcase that.”
Do you keep in touch with the students from the show, and have you become a mentor to them?
Of course! I keep in touch with a few of them. I always, always am here with an open door for any of them. Whether it’s something they’re curious about reframing or just their general representation in the media, of course, I’m here to help. I do get a few questions here and there specifically about articles and how to respond to the newfound attention. I know that journey very well, specifically my experience with “ANTM” where I was thrust into the spotlight. It’s not an easy journey, so I’m always here to support them.
Would you want to make more seasons of the show if it gets renewed?
Fingers crossed. That truly is the goal. There is so much more to the deaf experience that we haven’t even touched. This show explores a lot but this is the tip of the iceberg and I am so thrilled and looking forward to future seasons.