It came as a relief to us both that we could meet without masks, which are no friend to the hard-of-hearing. DiMarco’s native language, and the one he feels most comfortable using, is American Sign Language, whose grammatical structure is often communicated with one’s eyes and mouth. And when he noticed me fiddling with my hearing aids, or craning my neck to more easily see his interpreter’s lips, we made light of how exhausting it would have been for either of us to conduct an interview with synthetic cloth over our faces.
DiMarco has appeared in ads for everything from jeans and swim suits to holiday sweaters. Magazines often shoot him in profile; his striking, leonine features call to mind the dreamboats of Old Hollywood, like Cary Grant by way of Versace. But good looks have been limiting in their own way. “After the show,” he says, referring to “America’s Next Top Model,” “I think people only saw me for face value. I don’t think people assumed there was any depth to me.”
But in the last two years, the most prolific stretch of his career, DiMarco could mostly be found behind the camera, producing two Netflix projects: “Audible,” which follows a high school football player at the Maryland School for the Deaf, and the campus docu-soap “Deaf U,” set at his alma mater, Gallaudet University. He also began developing two other television series based on decisive moments in Deaf history, like the 1988 student protests at Gallaudet, which successfully forced the installation of the school’s first Deaf president. Along the way, he found time to write his memoir, a cheerful but sobering account of his life so far, peppered throughout with a broad-strokes history of Deaf persecution and advancement.
Genuinely informative, and rather ambitious as far as celebrity memoirs go, the book’s hybrid structure came naturally to DiMarco. He does not see himself not as some kind of unicorn, that rare Deaf celebrity to gain a foothold in the hearing world, but as part of an intergenerational struggle. In “Deaf Utopia,” he recalls his mother’s ongoing disputes with his elementary schoolteachers, who rejected sign language in favor of oral instruction — a tradition with a particularly harmful lineage in Deaf education. His grandfather would later file suit against a hospital that made insufficient efforts to provide him with an interpreter during a stay in the ICU. And his uncle was denied employment with New York’s Department of Sanitation on account of his hearing loss, though they relented and offered him a job after he sued. DiMarco’s own resolve was tested throughout his childhood and then again on “America’s Next Top Model,” an experience he describes as “four months of pure probation.”
In the book, DiMarco recounts his time on the show’s 22nd season, beginning with an audition where an assistant assured him the show was prepared — excited, even — to accommodate a Deaf contestant. On it, though, he found himself disoriented by the cutthroat circus of reality TV production, where narrative designs for DiMarco often superseded his reality. Producers, assuming he was straight, made attempts to contrive romantic story lines for him (he identifies as fluid). And, in one competition, the show failed on its promise to provide a sign language interpreter, leaving DiMarco to wing it during a challenge that awkwardly required the models to pose with war veterans who had been injured in combat.