Chloe Kim’s Newest Trick: Breaking The Role Model Myth
For the two-time Olympic champion snowboarder, the pressure to be the best comes with the task of being a role model for an entire AAPI generation.
It’s the Monday afternoon after Coachella, and like thousands returning from the annual pilgrimage, Chloe Kim is finally back home, exhausted after spending three days dancing in the desert and five hours in traffic back to Los Angeles. But instead of lying around doing nothing in typical post-festival fashion, she’s immediately in work mode, sitting on her bed with her laptop open and with me on Zoom. She apologizes for being a few minutes late, but I’m just amazed she has the energy to sit down for an interview — while still sporting perfect beach waves and lashes.
Then again, Kim has been showing up and coming through all her life. In 2014, the snowboarding phenom won silver at the Winter X Games at just 13 years old. The following year, she won gold. Dubbed the future of U.S. women’s snowboarding, the then-17-year-old clinched her first Olympic gold medal in halfpipe at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, hosted by her parents’ home country, and topped it with a near-perfect victory run that included her trademark back-to-back 1080s. This past February, she defended her title of Olympic champion in Beijing, a history-making win that cemented her as a GOAT. (Although she qualified to compete in Sochi in 2014, she was two years shy of her event’s age requirement, which does make you wonder whether the two-peat could have been a three-peat.)
Kim, now 22, has become more than just the darling of the U.S. Winter Olympic team; with a photo-perfect grin, she’s its face, fronting NBC’s promotions for the Games and scoring deals with the likes of Nike, Roxy, and Oakley. Her love of churros to calm nerves pre-competition and humble requests for snacks from reporters post-win have created an aura of relatability that makes for the best kind of social media star. Most recently, she attended the Met Gala wearing a Giambattista Valli Couture ball gown and got her own custom Fortnite skin with a snowboard to boot. “I'm always reflecting on how fortunate I am to be able to be in this position, where I literally love my job so fucking much,” Kim says.
The biggest pressure in my life is being this perfect role model.
At our Refinery29 shoot, her hair is slicked back in a high pony as she stands among the crew of nearly all Asian descent and wears fits from local AAPI designers. It’s a coronation that never ended. Since before she could legally vote, Kim has been propped up as an icon for young Asian Americans in what’s become a familiar narrative that they, too, can choose the road less traveled and, like her, do what they love. But with that pedestal comes meteoric expectations. Because when you are The First or The Few, there's an unspoken, implicit belief that you must take on the mantle of representing your community. Whether you want that role or not.
“The biggest pressure in my life is being this perfect role model,” Kim says. “I'm scared to post pictures on social media because I'm like, ‘Oh is this the wrong thing to post? Is this gonna make people think that I'm crazy or that I’m not a good role model to kids? That I'm not PG?”
Claudia Li shirt, Dong Hyun Oh pants, Joey Baby Gloria gloves, $45, available at joeybabynyc.com, Joey Baby chain belt (worn as a necklace), $85, available at available at joeybabynyc.com, Notte Heart To Heart ring, $116, available at nottejewelry.com, Bonbonwhims rings, Notte Fiori Mani earrings, $42, available at nottejewelry.com.
PyeongChang, which Kim says with the correct short “a” Korean pronunciation, was a lifelong dream realized. “That was a very emotional moment. ‘Oh we did it. We did it. All our hard work has paid off.’ Even right now, my skin has goosebumps,” her mother Boran, grazing her arms, later tells me over Zoom.
Athletes spend their lives working towards these moments, training day in and out for years to be the best and one day stand above the rest on the top of the podium. But what happens when you achieve that? Or worse, sometimes don’t. What Kim remembers from Beijing is not winning her second gold medal; what she remembers is not having her family there and not landing the 1260 on her victory run, a trick that would have made history.
At home, the buzz from becoming famous soon fizzled, not because the Olympic hype died, but because it never did. “I was just getting told, ‘Strike while the iron was hot,’ because no one’s gonna care after three months, but I felt for me that just never happened,” Kim says. Gone was the carefree teen who, after winning in PyeongChang, said, “I don’t really think about it as pressure.” Pressure is a byproduct of expectations, she told the New York Times at the time, and expectations mean people believe in you. That rosy-eyed view changed.
Two weeks before Beijing, she revealed in Time magazine that she threw her first Olympic medal into the trash because she “hated life.” Subjected to racist remarks since she was a teen competing in a predominantly white sport, the attacks on social media only increased with her public profile, even though she won Olympic gold twice for her country. Needing a break, she took a year off to attend Princeton in 2019, but was accused of being a bitch for declining to pose for photos on campus. Even something as simple as eating at her fave restaurant, Corner Bakery, became a source of stress. “That was genuinely my safe space. I quickly stopped going because people figured out my spot. And it’s like, I just want to eat my carbonara in peace.”
Sandy Liang dress, Private Policy top, Claudia Li coat, Notte Florentina pearl earrings, $98, available at nottejewelry.com.
Like for the rest of us, the pandemic has also been challenging for Kim. As a professional athlete, she couldn’t afford to get COVID, and being unable to see family and friends only exacerbated the toll on her mental health. It also led her to reflect hard on her identity. “I felt like I was taking things for granted. Or maybe I wasn't using my platform well enough, and I wasn't representing the Korean American community well.”
For Kim, the Time profile was the opportunity to peel back the shiny curtain and reveal the hard truth that comes with becoming a household name, especially when you see yourself as an athlete and not a celebrity. “It's not all good here. I struggle a lot. There's a lot of pressure. There's a lot of things going on in my life,” she says. “I don't want people to think I am this person who says, ‘Oh everything sucks.’ But it does sometimes, and that’s okay.”
I don't want people to think I am this person who says, ‘Oh everything sucks.’ But it does sometimes, and that’s okay.
Her family tried to help. As her mother, Boran sat next to Kim and offered ideas to help her mind relax. But as a professional athlete, Kim realized she needed professional help. In 2020, she started going to therapy. “It's nice to just have a safe space to speak about anything and not get judged,” she says. “It just feels more accepting in a way because I'm not the one person in the world that needs therapy, right?”
Young Asian Americans aren’t just straddling two cultures; they’re navigating generational differences that sometimes pit their POVs against their immigrant parents, who come from a time when you don’t talk about your feelings, not with your family, let alone a stranger. Learning that Kim, the cheery two-time Olympic gold medalist, sought therapy wasn’t just revelatory for Asian Americans; it was revolutionary. At first, it was hard for Jong Jin, Kim’s dad, whom she describes as “traditional,” to fully grasp why she needed to go. “Even when I told him I wanted therapy, he's like, ‘Therapy for what?’ And I'm like, ‘For my brain.’ And he's like, ‘Oh, do you need to get surgery or something?’” But Boran helped mediate to where now both parents see its value. “Therapy filled in the gaps where the stress and hardship couldn’t be consoled by parents and family alone,” Boran says, switching to Korean. (Translation fact-checked by my own umma.)
Claudia Li set, Leeann Huang hat, Bonbonwhims necklaces, rings, and beaded bracelet, Joey Baby Chili bracelet, $35, available at joeybabynyc.com, Chloe’s own earrings.
At one point in our 90-minute Zoom call, I ask Kim what message she has for young Asian Americans who look up to her, and I immediately regret it. It’s these kinds of questions that task others to become role models without their consent and feed the myth that our appointed idols are infallible, that achieving some impossible standard of pristine perfection is required to be admired. Kim delivers a flawless response. Clearly, this isn’t her first run. “It's really hard to find the perfect words that will encourage people,” Kim concludes. “The only way I can do that is through my story. Hopefully everybody can resonate with that.”
Despite the pressure and the expectations, Kim wouldn’t have it any other way. “I have to see this opportunity as something I should take advantage of,” she says. “I should be a good role model. I should be the best version of myself for other young up-and-coming Asian American athletes to look up to. I want to be that person.”
I should be the best version of myself for other young up-and-coming Asian American athletes to look up to. I want to be that person.
Boran does see her daughter as that person — as her mother, it’s to be expected — but she doesn’t gauge her Kim’s success by what records she’s broken or the number of medals she’s won. What makes Kim a role model is that she found something that she loved and worked hard to achieve, Boran says. “It’s hard to believe she is my child. I’m so proud of her and happy for her for achieving her dreams. I am also very happy that she represents the many Korean Americans who have worked hard to fulfill their dreams.”
And the next gen of Olympic stars, which includes women like American-born skier Eileen Gu, whose first bout in Beijing was heavily marred by headlines debating the 18-year-old’s decision to represent China, the home country of her mother, rather than the U.S. Kim is hesitant to wade into the complexities of Gu’s situation, largely because she’s protective of her friend who she affectionately calls her “little sister.” But perhaps Kim is also acutely conscious that chiming in on a sensitive issue can be both scrutinized and misconstrued.
The Chloe Kim of today no longer relegates her feelings to the sidelines though. “I hope everybody can be more understanding and more compassionate towards [Eileen] because she's actually doing incredible things,” Kim says. “Let’s not forget that she's 18, and she's young, and no young girl should be feeling like the whole world hates her because she made a decision that was right for her. But I love her to death. If she reads this, Eileen, I love you. I miss you.”
Kim does have her eye on the 2026 Winter Games in Italy, and she definitely wants to compete if she qualifies, she tells me. As if there’s any doubt she will, but this time I catch myself from pushing more on her potential pursuit of a three-peat. After all, she, and others in her position, deserve a break. She’s also given herself permission to step back from competing this season to explore other passions — acting is at the top of the list — and continue to take care of her mental health. Her other plans include having no plans. “I love doing nothing,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean Kim is fully on pause. The morning after our chat, she’s in work mode again, co-hosting a sunny beach brunch in Santa Monica with her miniature Australian shepherd and Purina Pro Plan. Kim swears she’s just there to chaperone Reese, the true star of the pet food’s Million Mile Challenge, in the furry friend’s first deal.
I ask Kim if she finally got some rest after our call, and she says no. But maybe tonight will be the night. “After this, I’m going home and doing nothing,” Kim says, with the same smile she sported at the top of the Olympic podium. She’s earned it and then some, including a Corner Bakery carbonara.