Around 9:30 this morning, I received a call from Juan Carlos, the Montrose Rollerblade Dancer. He was calling to confirm our meeting later in the morning at his New York City hotel. “Should I wear my skates?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I said. He asked how we would find each other in the hotel lobby, given that we’ve never met. Don’t worry, I assured him: "I’ll recognize you."
Nearly every Houstonian who regularly drives on Montrose Boulevard could recognize Juan Carlos. And now, thanks to his appearances on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, so can much of the country—AGT has been one of the most-watched shows of the summer. I met JC in the crowded lobby of the Midtown Hilton, on the corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue, a few blocks north of Radio City Music Hall, where JC will perform live tonight in the AGT quarterfinals, to a sell-out audience, and where he’s been rehearsing since last Monday.
It’s hard to miss a guy wearing a dress shirt with gym shorts and black rollerblades bedazzled with fake rubies, and many of the hotel guests did double-takes as they walked by. As I walked up, JC was taking a photo with a fan near the hotel’s revolving door. As soon as he’d finished with that fan, two women in matching t-shirts walked by. “Good luck tonight!” they told him. In reply, JC did a pirouette on his skates. He later informed me that the two women were among the 48 remaining contestants on AGT—in other words, his competition. But even his competitors have been won over by JC’s charm. “All the contestants love me—I’m their favorite,” he told me as he skated through the lobby, ducking into a gift shop to take a selfie with the cashier.
We eventually made our way to the hotel lounge, where we sat down with Tina Zulu, the president of Houston-based Zulu Creative, who has been serving as JC’s unofficial publicist. When asked about his live performance tonight, JC momentarily dropped his trademark self-confidence. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” he admitted. One reason for his nerves is that this performance will be very different from his first two. For his initial auditions, JC designed his own costume, chose his own music, and improvised his own dance routine. But for the live show at Radio City, the NBC producers insisted on choreographing a 90-second routine for him. JC will make his entrance by flying through the air on a harness and fly line, wearing an all-gold costume with his rollerblades shooting flames from the heels. After landing on the stage, he’ll be joined by three female backup dancers.
The show’s producers asked JC to submit his own costume idea, so he drew a sketch of a black-and-red leotard with matching rollerblades. The wardrobe department then made a few modifications. “I look like the golden calf,” said JC. It takes him two hours to get into the costume. Not that he’s complaining. “They did a lot of changes, but it’s all great. It’s basically my idea. I’m usually freestyle, but I like the choreography—I learned a lot of stuff, new things."
JC gets recognized everywhere he goes in Manhattan. Recently, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, he found himself surrounded by tough-looking men, one with a teardrop tattoo [“In Latin America, that means that you killed someone,” JC said] and another with a razorblade between his teeth. It turns out that they were fans who just wanted a picture. One day JC was skating down the street when he was recognized by a group of around 30 teenage schoolgirls, who started screaming; JC obligingly took a photo with them as well. “You’re bigger than the Beatles,” Tina Zulu observed after JC told the story.
Zulu has seen JC’s popularity first-hand. One day while they were in the Hilton lobby, a wealthy-looking mother and her daughter approached JC and, saying that they were visiting from Florida and were big fans, offered to take JC and Tina out to dinner at an upscale restaurant. When JC politely declined, they hopped in a limousine and took off.
JC knows that his biggest challenge tonight will be impressing Howard Stern, the only one of the show’s four judges who has proved subbornly immune to the Montrose Rollerblader’s charms. During the first audition, Stern pushed the “X” button midway into JC’s dance routine to indicate his displeasure. “I’m a very positive person,” JC told me. “Howard’s X just allowed me to show my personality. It got people to boo him. They cut a lot from the show. Howard told me, ‘I don’t see talent there.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t see talent on you.’ If one person doesn’t like me and three people [the other three judges: Mel B, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandel] like me, that’s okay.”
Fame inevitably bring detractors, and JC has encountered a few, especially on the AGT website’s message boards, where people have complained about him making the quarter-finals while other, allegedly more talented contestants were cut. JC suspects one of those unlucky contestants is behind the posts, because many of them mention backstage antics that nobody else knew about. “There are haters, but I don’t care. I give love, and I’ve received so much love from everyone, it’s amazing.”
As for the talent question, JC has a ready retort. “I know I’m not the best roller-skater in the world, but I have something that people like. It’s like Mel B said: ‘You have a lot of charisma.’ People say I’m not talented, that I’m just a funny person. But being funny is a talent. Charlie Chaplin was funny—he was a big talent.”
I asked JC what he would do if he won the show’s million-dollar prize. He said he would donate money to Texas Children’s Hospital, his Houston church, and an animal welfare organization, and buy Tina Zulu a new car. As for himself, he said he wanted to see his family in his home country of Colombia, which he hasn’t visited for 27 years because he can’t afford the plane ticket. His 21-year-old niece is dying of cancer, and he’s never even met her. But no matter what happens, JC feels fortunate to have made it this far. After all, when someone from AGT first invited him to audition, he hung up the phone. It took his best friend and his boss to convince him to give it a shot.
“I’m glad I did, because even if I don’t win, I’ve already won,” he told me before skating off toward Rockefeller Center to get ready for the afternoon dress rehearsal. “There are many, many people in the world who would love to perform at Radio City, so this is a beautiful opportunity. I’m going to be big, big, big famous. Even if I don’t get the million dollars, I’ll be famous—I know I will.”