From dancing with Lady Gaga to becoming a viral internet sensation, the story of Mark Kanemura is one of resilience and perseverance.
photography and story ANTONIO @estalocavida
second hand MARIO GARCIA @mariommg
stylist SEBASTIEN ALLEN @justcallmebastien
makeup STACY SALAZAR @makeup_bystacy
photographer’s assistant JOSE ALVES @itsjosealves
stylist’s assistant JAYCEE QUEEN @jayceequeen
View the full story in the Summer 2019 Issue of Desnudo Italia, available here.
IF YOU HAVE EVER HEARD OF MARK KANEMURA, you may associate him with Lady Gaga or Carly Rae Jepson. The artist has come to be an inspiration to many people across the globe from all walks of life. He brings happiness and joy to thousands of people who follow him on his various platforms. He continues to transform and reinvent himself, from his beginnings on So You Think You Can Dance, to his current status as a pop culture icon. I sat with the famed dancer and talked about his dance career and his more personal struggles.
When did you know you wanted to dance?
I have two older sisters, and in my household we just grew up with dance. They were always listening to music—Madonna, Prince, Janet Jackson... They were always just on in our house. So naturally, we were always dancing around, so movement has always been a part of my life. And then my parents would take us to go see shows when they were in town, like Phantom Of The Opera, and Cats, and as soon as I experienced what an actual show was, I lost my mind and knew I wanted to be a part of this world.
Were your parents always supportive?
Yes. They were always very very supportive. I think at first, they didn't know what to do with me. I had a lot... of... not bouncing off the wall energy, but creative energy. I think naturally what a lot of parents do is put their kids in sports, so that's what they did at first. As soon as I expressed that I was interested in other things, and not in sports, they were very open to it. I was very, very lucky.
Who were your role models/influences in dance?
I was always so fascinated by dancers that were in music videos. I was like, “Oh my God, that's what I wanna do, I wanna be in music videos.” The more I watched music videos and award shows, the more I was able to pick out dancers. There was this one dancer in particular, his name is Wade Robson, he moves like a freakin' alien... a freakin' beast. And I was always just so drawn to him, and to his movement. He’s always been a huge inspiration to me. Not only dance-wise, but also in choreography. And then after meeting him I'm like, “OMG, you're an amazing human being.” Even in that sense, just being human, he was very inspiring.
You're from Hawaii, what made you want to move to LA?
I actually wanted to move to LA right after high school. I was like, “I wanna get out here right now,” but financially, I wasn't able to do that. I always knew I wanted to come to LA because thats where all the work was.... music videos, touring, working with artists... So LA was always the place I wanted to be. So it was just a matter of getting here.
How’d you get started in So You Think You Can Dance?
So I was living in Hawaii at the time, I was teaching a lot... and I was just getting really comfortable, so I knew I needed something to get me out of my comfort zone. My mom and I would always watch that show. So, there was this random thought to come and audition for it. I knew it was something I was really scared of and something I was very intrigued by. I started to train for it. And then, I flew out to LA to audition for it. It took me several rounds... but, it happened.
"We went from rehearsing for a tour, into a tour, into going onto a promo tour for her next album, into rehearsals for her next tour."
How was this experience?
This was just before YouTube was coming up, so there wasn't a whole lot of exposure in terms of, like, “the dance world.” Where I feel as now, you can go to YouTube, you can go on Instagram, you can see so many dance videos, you can see so many dancers. Going into this, I was a little naive thinking, “Oh yeah, I’ll be fine, I'm like a dancer, so like, whatever.” I get there and I feel so out of place because there were so many talented dancers there that were so above me. In terms of their skill level, their talent, I was like, “This is insane, what the fuck was I thinking?” But I think the one thing that separated me was, I was very unique in terms of my style. So I think that kind of set me apart. I wasn't as strong in technique as the other dancers, but I did bring a lot of style and uniqueness.
What do you mean “uniqueness?”
Just, I was different. With like, the way that I moved, the style of dance that I brought. Yeah, I was just different.
Do you have a favorite performance, or memorable performance?
I think the first week will always be really memorable for me. Just because it was the first week of being in this gigantic national television show. I think the first and last week were my most memorable. They were both special in different ways. There was this one performance that was very, very well received and it went, like, viral and yada yada... It's called “Bleeding Love,” and I feel like that's one of the dances my partner and I are really known for.
In 2008 you were in SYTYCD, and in 2009 you started to dance with Lady Gaga?
Yeah, I finally moved to LA in late 2008 and then I started auditioning and it wasn't till later in 2009 when I got my first job with Gaga. It was for the MTV VMAs, it was her first major performance ["Paparazzi"] that I think really set her off. So that was really fun to be a part of. Then from that job, I got booked to go on tour with her, which was super sweet.
When did you stop dancing with her?
I danced with her till her Born This Way tour. Whenever that was. I can't remember. I know I'm in a few. Oh God, yeah, I can't remember.
Do you remember your last last show?
I actually don't because, we had... we were on tour doing our regular shows. And our tour was suppose to go on for another month, but, they called us into a room and they said they had an announcement. So she's like, “I injured my hip and I can't perform anymore.” We were not expecting to... we didn't know our last show was gonna be our last performance, if you know what I mean.
You started to dance with her in 2009, and you're quoted saying she's “one of the people you've always wanted to work with.” How did you hear about her prior to working with her if she wasn't as known in 2009?
Oh my gosh, okay. During SYTYCD, I knew of her. I think she had one or two songs out, and that was it. but I was so fascinated by her, I was like, “Who is this chick?, I love her, I think she's amazing.” And then I started reading her interviews and seeing her photoshoots and I was like, “Holy shit, this woman is so special in her creativity and what she brings to the industry.” Then I was like, “I need to work with her,” like I need to be a part of this world. Kind of like that moment I had when I was watching my first show, in the same sense like knowing you had to be a part of it. I set her on my radar and I was like, "This is gonna happen.”
Were you her most known dancer in 2009 since you were in SYTYCD?
No, I mean... I was just... I feel like a lot of the fans of the show actually saw my dreams coming true. Which, I think is such a cool thing to be a part of, and... Yeah, because of being known from SYTYCD there was that. I was always partnered with her a lot, and then I was blocked next to her. There was just the visibility in that sense. I don't know if I was the most known dancer, I was just by her.
In 2016 you stopped dancing with her, is there a reason you didn't go back to dancing with her?
I thought it was earlier when I stopped dancing for her, I'm so curious now... I was with her for a long time. I just got really burnt out. This was when, you know, she was just coming up. So, there was a lot of like... like, we went from rehearsing for a tour, into a tour, into going onto a promo tour for her next album, into rehearsals for her next tour. On top of that, there are random music videos, or appearances, or TV shows we would do.... It was all really incredible, but also very exhausting. I think I just got burnt out, so I was like, “Okay, you need to take a break.” So that's what I did.
What do you think about when you hear about [Carly Rae Jepsen's] "Cut To The Feeling"?
Happiness. Freedom. Joy. Pride. I feel liberated. I feel all those things. Yeah, my heart lights up till this day.
After being associated with Lady Gaga, you are synonymous with “Cut To The Feeling”, how did that happen?
Um.... To be honest I was in a very dark place, I was very depressed. I had just gotten out of a 7-year relationship, and moved out of the place we shared. So I was feeling very low, and I was really sad and very confused and very... lonely. And I had randomly heard this song, and it just made me so happy. There was something about it that just lit me up. I started to listen to it on repeat, and any time I start doing that, I'm like “Oh, I'm like in." I found that it got me moving again. It got me singing again, it got me... it kind of got me going again, putting one foot in front of the other. I felt a lot of happiness with it, so it was like my anthem. Whenever I'm feeling down, it just puts me in a happy place, even to this day.
In 2011 you're quoted in an interview saying, “You don't have to go around announcing to the world your sexuality.” Based on your social media content, do you think it's different now? Do you feel like you have a more sense of liberation that you didn't have before?
I guess when they were asking me that question, I think it was in regards to being in SYTYCD. I'm trying to remember, I think it was in regards to that, being open on the show. I was just saying, it's not that I wasn't open, it just... nobody had asked that question I guess. I don't know, it had never come up. I felt like I had to say anything. It wasn't that I was hiding anything, it was just who I am. I don't know. I felt like I didn't have to say anything it was just who I was then, I guess. Even now, with all the videos that I do, it's not necessary like, me announcing to the world I'm gay. It’s just who I am. If anything, I'm just expressing myself... and I just happen to be a gay man who does that.
Did you have a coming out?
I did, I had multiple coming outs. With my friends, I never really had to come out because we were all dancing theatre geeks. I don't feel like it was ever a thing. Again, it was just one of those things where you were allowed to be who you wanted, where it was never an issue. I came out to my mom when I think I was 15 or 16.
How was coming out to your mom?
It was very emotional, I was so scared of telling her, I was crying. I walked into her bedroom... and yeah, I was very emotional. And she was just like, “Mark, I know... It's fine,” in a very loving and supportive way. But, she knew, and I feel like most parents know... She knew. I feel like it was pretty hard to miss with me, just because of the things I was doing as a kid. I was very, very expressive and flamboyant. I would save up my allowance to buy broadway soundtracks and... you know, I was dancing around the house to Janet Jackson and Madonna, you know.
Do you feel like you have an obligation to inspire young gay/queer people?
I don't feel obligated to, I enjoy what it inspires in people. I think that's what keeps me going. I love that it inspires creativity, and freedom and pride and that people feel like... I don't know, I love that people feel inspired to be who they really are, and to express themselves in the way they want to express themselves. That's a really big inspiration to me. So, I don't feel obligated. The fact that I can do this for people is a big plus.
Some days ago, you posted a very personal video of you about your personal struggles. Do you feel like you have to keep up this persona you portray on social media?
That was the reason I posted that video. I felt like people, what people were starting to see, was this side of me, a very small side of me. But this side of me that was alway very silly and happy and dancing around. And while that's true, and I do have this side, there are many other sides to me. I feel just as any other human, I experience sadness, confusion and loneliness sometimes... and I just wanted to share that, and express that with people so they are aware that we are just all in this together. The purpose of that video was to make sure no one felt alone in whatever they might be feeling or going through. I do know that a lot of people come to my page as a source of inspiration and joy... which I love. But I also wanted to keep it real, and I think vulnerability is a great strength. I just wanted to share that.