When Nyle DiMarco got his start in reality television competing on America's Next Top Model in 2015, he quickly understood the identity producers were creating for him.
DiMarco is stunningly handsome, with piercing eyes and a penchant for acting. He's also deaf — a fact that, in the eyes of television producers, seemed to override everything else.
"I always felt that the image that was kind of made of me onscreen was very one-dimensional," he says. "I was always asked specifically about my deafness, about my identities, but never about the things that I liked or disliked or, really, anything that would have offered more to who I was."
DiMarco would become the first deaf contestant to win the competition, before going on to Dancing With The Stars and winning that, too.
Now, it's DiMarco's turn as a series creator. His new Netflix reality show, Deaf U, follows a group of friends at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world's only liberal arts college for the deaf.
It's a show about college: hookups, activism, awkward dates and late nights in clubs. It's also a show about friends forging identities and navigating a world not always designed for them.
A Gallaudet graduate himself, DiMarco wanted to show the panoply of experiences on campus — from the "Deaf Elite" descendants of well-known deaf families on campus, to those teetering between a hearing world and a deaf one.
Some students rely on hearing aids or cochlear implants. Others shun the idea of talking in anything but American Sign Language.
DiMarco spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about the new show, which debuted Friday on Netflix. "There is no one right way to be deaf," he told host Michel Martin, through an ASL translator.
Instead, he says Deaf U presents a chance to reframe the world's understanding of what it means to be deaf. It offers "an entrance into our world, which is so rich in culture and so layered and diverse," DiMarco says.
"This was a perfect opportunity, and a great entrance point, to bring the hearing world in."
On the divide at Gallaudet between the capital-D "Deaf Elite" and the lowercase-d "deaf"
So often we would refer to people as "elites" who had come from these deaf families, and we're often forgetting about those other students who had a different perspective. You know, myself, as somebody who views elites as a group, I see it can be a positive thing in preserving sign language, our culture. It's about passing down those legacies and those traditions that make our culture so rich.
There certainly are "lowercase-d" people who might see elites as someone who's had an unfair advantage, whether it's their educational background, their confidence, their identity, their language fluency. Coming into Gallaudet for them, they often face a challenge that they have to not only focus on getting a degree, but also focus on learning a new language and a new culture.
There are so many layers, I believe, to that divide between elites and, perhaps, "lowercase-d" deaf. It's something that's really key for our community. It's very complicated, but it's a discussion we're starting to have.
On hiring a largely deaf crew to make the show
As someone who is deaf, I know that if you really want an authentic story, it has to happen behind the camera.
Deaf eyes really capture the culture best, and we actually made it a requirement that we had to hire deaf people. We wanted to ensure that, at minimum, we had 30% of a deaf crew behind the scenes working. We ended up with 50%, which was incredible. And it's the first time it's been done in history.
Never in Hollywood history have deaf people had an opportunity to be able to get into these rooms and build power within the community in order to tell our stories in an authentic way. We're working so later we have a little Hollywood empire, where we're able to develop our own TV shows and our movies and our content that really reflects deaf culture and an authentic experience. This, essentially, was the start.
On where he hopes to take the series
Obviously, my first hope is for season two. But I really would love to take a deeper dive into some of the layers that make our community so rich. I don't want to get too serious with the topic, but we're seeing peoples' real lives outside of the deaf world, and I would love to highlight that.
I do have a few other projects outside of this. I have another project with Netflix as well, called Audible, which follows a deaf boy at my alma mater high school in Maryland. It's a really interesting opportunity to see what it's like for a deaf kid to go to a deaf school and play football with all of his buddies, then go home and not have access to language. His parents don't sign. And that truly is the authentic story of the deaf community in America.
Will Jarvis and William Troop produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Will Jarvis adapted it for the Web.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's go back to pre-COVID times for a minute. You're a college student, and you want to take a break from the grind by going out for a few drinks or maybe getting a mani-pedi with your BFFs. But the seats only allow you to sit next to each other rather than face each other. No big deal, right? Well, it kind of is if you are deaf or hard of hearing and if you use American Sign Language, or ASL to communicate, where you use your hands, and facial expressions are important.
And those are just a few of the subtleties revealed to those outside of the deaf community in the new Netflix reality series "Deaf U." It follows a group of students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which is known as the only university in the world where students can live and learn in American Sign Language and English. But students still have to navigate a world that isn't necessarily built for them.
The creator of the series is Nyle DiMarco, the model, actor and activist who won both "America's Next Top Model" and "Dancing With The Stars" - the first deaf contestant to do so. And he is here with us now to tell us more. And through the miracle of technology, he and I are talking to each other, and you're going to hear the voice of his interpreter, Grey Van Pelt.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
NYLE DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) Of course. It's my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me today.
MARTIN: As I just noted, you've been on reality television - kind of a star. You're a model, a dancer, clearly an activist. How did the idea of making a show about your alma mater come to you?
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) It's pretty interesting. It goes back to my own experience being on reality television. I always felt that the image that was kind of made of me on screen was very one-dimensional. I was always asked specifically about my deafness, about my identity sorts of struggles but never about the things that I liked or disliked or really anything that would have offered more to who I was.
There was nothing really about the culture, right? And the idea for the show really came with the realization that we could use this to reframe the deaf community and offer an entrance into our world, which is so rich in culture and so layered and diverse.
MARTIN: Well, one of the things that I noticed - like, I've you seen any show about college life, then you're going to, you know, recognize the types - the athletes, the influencers, you know...
MARTIN: ...Activists. But you also introduce us to another divide at Gallaudet between the so-called elite capital-D Deaf from well-known deaf families and then, as you've described elsewhere, lowercase-d deaf - those who don't come from these well-known deaf families. Why did you feel it was important to kind of highlight this other divide?
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) You know, myself as somebody who views elites as a group, I see it can be a positive thing in the preserving of sign language, our culture. You know, it's about passing down those legacies and those traditions that make our culture so rich. There certainly are lowercase-d people who might see elites as someone who's had an unfair advantage, right, whether it's their educational background, their confidence, their identity, their language fluency.
Coming into Gallaudet for them, often, you know, they face a challenge - that they have to not only focus on and getting a degree but also focus on learning a new language and a new culture. But there are so many layers to that divide between elites and perhaps lowercase-d deaf, and it's something that's really key for our community. It's very complicated, but it's a discussion that we're starting to have.
MARTIN: One of the characters, a football player named Rodney - he likes to think of himself as somewhere in the middle of this divide. He has cochlear implants so he can hear, and he also signs. And I just want to play a clip. This is Rodney's father.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAF U")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Do you feel like you're in between or, like, caught in the middle?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Rodney) How I want to put this? I adapt, so I'm in the Rodney community.
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) In essence, what he is saying to some degree is that he gives himself a license to be [expletive] (laughter). Yeah, Rodney's family is so incredible. He's one of my absolute favorite on the show.
And one thing that I really love about him is that he really, you know, showcases and embodies that there is no one right way to be deaf, right? He's already fluent in American Sign Language, and so he has access to both. He's able to function in a hearing world and in a deaf world with ASL and English, versus a lot of other students who come into Gallaudet without sign language.
You know, they're facing a struggle of looking to find a place to fit in. Rodney's already got it figured out, and so you can see through the show he's, like, I'm good. It's one of the things I love about him.
MARTIN: Well, I'll tell you that one of the things that I really liked about this exchange, though - it mirrors some conversations that I think we have about race in this country, too. Rodney is also African American, and he also exists in this space of trying to figure out, like, what does it mean to be that right now? What do I want to be the truth of me, and who gets to decide that?
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) I think at the core of it, it - you know, it comes from growing up specifically in a culture and having access to the language. You know, I do think that Rodney is incredibly confident, and, you know, he knows exactly where his intersectionality lies.
MARTIN: I do want I mention that you've been a forward-facing deaf advocate. Part of your work in this area meant hiring deaf crew members and creatives. I want to highlight that because that's not something that one would necessarily know watching the series. But why was that important?
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) As someone who is deaf, you know, I know that if you really want an authentic story, it has to happen behind the camera. You know, deaf eyes really capture the culture best, and we actually made it a requirement that we had to hire deaf people. We wanted to ensure that at minimum, we had 30% of a deaf crew behind the scenes working, and we ended up with 50%, which was incredible. And it's the first time it's ever been done in history.
You know, we're working so that later, we have a little Hollywood empire where we're able to develop our own TV shows and our movies and our content that really reflect deaf culture and an authentic experience. And this, essentially, was the start. I'm so thrilled about it.
MARTIN: That was Nyle DiMarco, creator of the new Netflix series "Deaf U." It is available now. And I just want to mention that we've been hearing him through the voice of his interpreter.
Nyle DiMarco, thanks so much for talking to us.
DIMARCO: (Through interpreter) Of course. This was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.