Thousands of people know Harper Watters as a standout soloist in the Houston Ballet. Thousands more know him as the guy in the six-inch pink heels who does great videos on Instagram.
He’s both. And those two personas became one during the month of October in an Instagram video for National Bullying Prevention Month.
Watters, who is openly gay, has an Instagram following of more than 165,000—and he’ll be seen by millions more Instagram viewers as part of the #advocate series. We caught up with Watters and talked about his experiences with bullying, how he overcame it as a young man, and his continued efforts to break down stereotypes.
OutSmart: What’s the Instagram #advocate series about?
Harper Watters: Instagram runs a series featuring advocates for various causes. October is anti-bullying month, and the four #advocate episodes for October are on bullying. Each video is between five and seven minutes long and will be featured on IGTV, which is where Instagram has longer videos.
The previous episodes in the series have gotten between 8 and 12 million views each, so I was jumping at the opportunity to bring that much attention to this cause. I’m extremely excited to be part of this. Instagram is teaming up with Teen Vogue for the series. They have predominantly young women as their audience. The unique audience I’ve built for myself is an incredible fit for Teen Vogue.
What happens in the video?
They followed me and got my day-to-day life. My lovely dog will be making an appearance. We came to the Houston Ballet studio, and I danced around. What was really, really special was that we were able to incorporate two other dancers from the company, Chun Wai Chan (a principal dancer) and Sam Rodriguez (a member of the corps de ballet). We were able to sit down and chat about who we are, how we got into ballet, and the struggles that we’ve endured. This is going to be seen by millions of people—312 million people follow Instagram, so I wanted to get different faces in front of the camera.
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Bullying and ballet recently made headlines when Good Morning America host Lara Spencer made fun of Prince George, who is said to enjoy his ballet classes at school.
Lara Spencer sparked a major uproar. It was bullying. It was saying, “You can’t like that” and making fun of him because he did. Male dancers have to deal with that attitude throughout their career. But what was interesting was that it wasn’t just male dancers that were upset by her remark. She was mocking just Prince George, but bullying is a much larger issue and it affects everyone.
Were you ever bullied?
Of course! I was bullied for being a male dancer. When I came out of the closet, I was 14. I was petrified about going back to school after that summer, because I thought I was going to have to endure a lot of bullying.
How did you handle it?
I forced my parents to let me audition for a performing-arts high school. Because I got to go to a performing-arts school, I was immersed in a community where people were super-supportive and super-encouraging. I banded together with some other people, and we became like the gay ballet Power Rangers. If I experienced any negativity, because I had my friends it didn’t really matter.
But I’m hesitant when young people ask me, “How did you deal with this? What did you do?” I changed schools and it worked for me, but I’m really cautious to not say to young people, “You have to move away in order to succeed.” You don’t. It’s worth trying to figure it out where you are. I would encourage people to not drastically change their environment first. I think you can find supportive people no matter where you are, so changing your environment isn’t the only answer.
You don’t have to move away in order to succeed. You can find supportive people no matter where you are, so changing your environment isn’t the only answer.
Did you have other allies? Did you have role models?
Looking back, I did have a lot of support at my dance studio. I don’t know why I thought that those girls wouldn’t have been supportive, and I wish I had come out to them. I think they would have supported me, but I left to go to the performing-arts school and didn’t really give them a chance.
And through the power of social media, I’ve had examples. I don’t know what I would have been like without social media, because I wouldn’t have been able to find other openly gay, African-American male dancers like Albert Evans. I also find a lot of inspiration from drag queens, people like RuPaul. He says, “We’re all born naked. The rest is drag.” I believe that. I’ve had role models, but I’m also about doing things to the beat of my own drum. I want very much to put my own spin on things, and I really don’t like to be a follower. So when I see someone who’s doing the things in their life that I want to do, I think, “How do I make that Harper? How do I do that as me?”
What would you say to someone who is experiencing bullying today?
There will always be bullies. And bullies have a terrible way of making you second-guess everything about yourself. They make you question your thoughts, your attitudes, everything. You have to believe in yourself. I hope that people don’t think bullying is something that just happens when you’re a child. I still experience it today. I still experience the doubt and negativity. Navigating that is difficult. I have to stop and think, “Wait, am I the problem? Am I the issue?”
It’s a challenging thing to do something you love, and then have applause define the success of your efforts. At the same time, you can’t focus on the opinions of others. You have to do what you love because you love it, not just because you can get applause or approval.
You have had incredible success with social media, especially with your videos on Instagram where you appear wearing six-inch heels. People have come to know you for that. Why do you think those videos have been so successful?
The heels are quite shocking and kitschy. They’re fun and colorful, but really they quickly turned into a metaphorical superhero cape for me. When you put them on, you get a certain attitude; you have to walk a certain way. You have to hold yourself a certain way.
I encourage people through those videos—not literally or verbally—to go out and find your superhero cape. Not everybody needs to go out and put on a pair of six-inch pink heels, but find whatever is your passion. That’s what catapulted me to success on Instagram.
It’s been the same with ballet. When you get to the professional level, everyone is talented. Here [at Houston Ballet], everyone is an amazing dancer. When I understood that I was valid, that my dancing was good enough, that’s when my career took off.
And I’ve found a home here. I’m really, really grateful to be in a company with people who are like my chosen family. I have the backs of all my dancer friends, and I think they have mine.
You think of Texas and you think of homosexuality, and it doesn’t really go hand in hand, but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Here I am, flourishing in Houston. We’ve had a lesbian mayor, we have an African-American mayor. [The Houston Ballet’s] artistic director and executive director are gay. So to have that has been wonderful. But I don’t think everyone knows that about Houston. I go to New York and people ask me, “Isn’t that all just oil and gas?” And yes it is, but it’s also the fantastic arts and the fantastic people. There are stereotypes about Texas and about ballet, and it’s really important to me to end those.