If you haven't heard the name Harper Watters yet, you will soon. On top of being a YouTube phenom with 157K followers on Instagram and counting, he's a star soloist at the Houston Ballet. His latest endeavor? Modelling in Ralph Lauren's limited edition Polo Pride campaign alongside Josie Totah, Gus Kenworthy, and more.
"I was ready to smize the house down," Watters told Refinery29 about his initial reaction to the Ralph Lauren call. "And I was secretly hoping that I could wear a pair of Ralph Lauren heels." Sadly, for everyone involved, the latter didn't come to fruition, but Harper did show off his killer arch in a stunning photo for the brand. Wearing a pair of white leggings and a hoodie with the iconic Polo emblem rendered in rainbow colours, Harper just emanates talent, poise, and most of all, pride.
Before the shoot, we chatted with the king of high heel dancing about his first major fashion campaign, his boundary-breaking career, and his experience growing up as a queer black male dancer in a small, predominantly white town.
Refinery29: First off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
Harper Watters: "Both on stage as a classical dancer and off-stage as a high-heeled Beyoncé-loving social media maven, I hope to empower by example. I dance for the African-American community, I dance for the LGBTQ community, and most importantly, I dance for myself on the biggest stage: my life."
I didn’t run out in Swan Lake in a pair of pumps, but I started to bring elements of Harper into my dancing and that’s when my career took off.
- Harper Watters
A soloist at the Houston Ballet is a huge accomplishment. What has your experience been like getting to where you are today?
"Becoming a soloist in a professional ballet company comes with a lot of sacrifice, a lot of hard work, but also a lot of personal growth. I moved away from home when I was 14 years old, and when I first joined the company, I really struggled with finding my identity as a dancer. I thought I had to look like the successful dancers in the company, act like them, dance like them and it didn’t get me anywhere because I was trying to be something that I wasn’t."
"Ironically, it wasn’t until I started posting videos of me running on a treadmill in pink heels and saw how people responded, that it clicked. I mean, I didn’t run out in Swan Lake in a pair of pumps, but I started to bring elements of Harper into my dancing and that’s when my career took off. At the end of the day, we are artists, and I’m telling a story that has to be authentic. The only way that can happen is if I am genuinely myself."
What challenges did you face growing up as a queer black man in America, particularly in Houston?
"Houston is an incredibly diverse city and it was very clear that there was a large community of African-Americans there; however, the struggle that I experienced as a queer African-American was that there weren’t any in the ballet. When you look around and you don’t see people like yourself, it’s very easy to fall into the mindset that you don’t belong, that you shouldn’t be there or that you’re not worthy."
"Growing up in New Hampshire and going to private school in Maine, both of which are predominantly white, I struggled with the exact same thing of 'I’m the only person who looks like this, should I be here?' However, it’s always been in my personality to make my own path and to take on the mentality of, 'Ok, well I stand out, which means you’re looking at me. Now that I have your attention, I’m going to show you my hard work and I’m going to show you everything that I’m worth. You’re welcome."
How do you juggle your career in the ballet, your YouTube channel, and modelling gigs like this one? What’s the best piece of advice you can give to our readers who also have big dreams and want practical tips on how to achieve them?
"I’m able to juggle everything because I enjoy doing it so much. I am obsessed with social media and pop culture. The Real Housewives, RuPaul's Drag Race — whose side are you on? Tati or James Charles? It is a guilty pleasure. So creating content isn’t a hassle for me — it’s actually quite rewarding."
"As a dancer, putting in work and then being able to see the end product on stage [creates the same feeling] I get when I make my YouTube videos. My best advice is that whatever it is that you are creating, trust your gut. A consistent voice that always comes from your heart is so powerful. Fight the urge to replicate and always think of the community you're building rather than the quantity."
I stand on the shoulders of those who danced through adversity before me and I carry with me their legacy every time I step on stage and that’s exactly how I think about the 50th anniversary of the stonewall riots.
It’s not every day that you get a call from Ralph Lauren asking you to participate in a campaign — especially one this big. What was your initial reaction?
"My first reaction was, 'I am Naomi Campbell', my second reaction was ‘What if this is an episode of Punk'd?’, and my third reaction was, 'I am so freaking excited!' I work 44 weeks out of the year in Houston, and in our little world, it’s not every day that you hear from a top fashion brand. So yeah, I was extremely humbled."
What about Ralph Lauren and his brand made you want to participate in this campaign?
"When I heard the concept that we as LGBTQ+ people would be each representing a colour on the Pride flag, I interpreted that as Ralph Lauren saying, 'You are a part of America, you are a part of our community, and everybody who is represented in the flag in the LGBTQ+ community deserves a place, a voice, and a path in America. Visibility is so important with our community. It’s vital that we are seen succeeding without sacrificing who we are, so it meant the world to me to be acknowledged by this iconic American brand."
"This isn’t a company slapping a rainbow on a product and saying, 'We support you.' Where the money is going, the organizations that it’s benefiting, and the people who are benefiting from it, that is what Pride is about, that is what Ralph Lauren is about, and that is why I am about this campaign."
You’re very open and proud on social media about your identity. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with being open about their sexuality and true to themselves?
"As a dancer, fear and nervousness mean that you’re out of your comfort zone, in a pivotal place, where Ciara says you 'level up'. Trusting that feeling of the unknown is petrifying, but it means you’re on your way to something great."
How do you use fashion to express your identity?
"I have to be smart with how I use fashion because where most people plan their outfits for the whole day, I wear mine simply for the 20 minutes to work and the 20 minutes back. I spend my entire day in tights, dancing my toosh off, so it can be tricky finding pieces that represent me and also that I can move in. I’ve been known for bold colours, lots of booty shorts (shocking, I know), and t-shirts that hold special meaning to me. Outside of dance, I like thinking of my outfits as a show. Gotta keep everyone entertained."
It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. What does this anniversary mean to you?
"I am a gay African-American classical ballet dancer and I know what a privilege it is to even be able to say that. I stand on the shoulders of those who danced through adversity before me and I carry with me their legacy every time I step on stage and that’s exactly how I think about the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Pride and this Ralph Lauren campaign are just as much about working towards a more inclusive and diverse future as they are about acknowledging the past and how far we’ve come."
"The Stonewall Inn was a dance club, it was a place where people were living their best lives, and as a dancer, that speaks volumes to me. The riots are where Pride started, so it’s important to know that, and to have that be the motivation behind everything we’re fighting for."
We have to ask — what’s your favourite brand of shoes to dance in?
"Honestly, my favourite brand of shoe is the one that makes a flesh colour for more than one skin tone. That would be Capezio and Bloch. It’s just like foundation in the beauty world, dancers have many different skin tones, especially those who are just starting out now. So the next generation needs to see that there are shoes for them, so that they can feel their best, and therefore, dance their best."