As far as standard photo op images go — the kind where one has ten seconds to hit a mark, smile and pose — this one is definitely memorable.
The Rhode Island teacher, Nikos Giannopoulos, is holding a delicate black lace fan while wearing a rainbow LGBTQ pin on a blue print jacket, a silver and gold statement necklace and a nose ring as he stands beside the president and the first lady in the Oval Office.
You’ve probably got questions. And NPR got some answers after speaking directly with Giannopoulos by phone Friday evening. But know this: Everything you’re seeing was meticulously chosen.
So here it is — all you need to know about the “sassy” teacher, his fabulous fan and that amazing White House photo.
Let’s get the basics down.
I’m Nikos Giannopoulos , 29 years old, and I am a special education teacher at the Beacon Charter High School for the Arts. I was named Rhode Island’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, which is why I got to go to the White House, with all of the other teachers of the year.
What’s the story behind the fan? Where did it come from? What does it mean?
The fan was actually my partner’s. He bought it as a souvenir on a trip to Venice, but I found it about five years ago. Since then I’ve integrated in into my day-to-day life. I’m extremely campy and it’s a popular prop of mine. I’ve taken it with me all over the country whenever I go on vacation, so that’s why I had it.
But ultimately, I have been visibly gay my entire life; I was more feminine than a lot of boys and I carried myself in a non-traditional gender expression. And I got a lot of flak for it. As a boy, I think I internalized that and didn’t embrace that part of me. Now, as an adult, I adjusted to my queer identity. So the fan represents self-acceptance and being unabashedly myself in a society that’s not always ready to accept that.
What was President Trump’s reaction to the fan? Did he say anything?
Oh, he loved it! I popped it open when I walked into the office because I’m a very sassy person. And [President] Trump complimented it right away. He said, “I love the fan!” And he told me I had great style. Then, when I was ushered in for my private photo with the president and Melania [Trump] I was told I should put it away. So I just folded it up and held it at my side. But when it came time for the photo, I just asked the president, “Do you mind if I use the fan for the photo?” He said, “Absolutely go for it.” So I popped my fan and did my pose.
The necklace is pretty amazing, too. It looks like it has an anchor on it.
Yes. That’s an image of Rhode Island that’s prevalent throughout the state. It’s on the state motto, which is based on a bible verse — that hope is the anchor of the soul. It’s a beautiful verse that is relevant for people of all faiths and is especially meaningful for minority groups. For anyone in a marginalized group, hope is the last thing you give up.
The photo is becoming quite an Internet sensation. What kind of response are you getting to it?
It’s been really overwhelming because I am a really socially anxious person. I don’t ever really go on social media that much. The only reason I’m on Facebook as much as I am this year is because it’s the primary way I communicate with the other teachers of the year.
But overall, I’ve gotten a really positive response through the whole thing. From younger people I get a lot of, “You’re my hero!” And a lot of, “Werk Kween!” which makes my day.
Your Facebook page is open. Are you afraid of a backlash or trolling flooding your space online?
I’m not. I haven’t really noticed any negative comments on there so far. And I guess I’m used to that kind of negative response to my outward expression because I’ve always been this way.
Congratulations on being named a teacher of the year.
Thank you. I just want to say that the teaching profession has been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Every single day I go to the classroom energized and thrilled to be there and to have been elevated to represent all of the teachers in my state. I’m not the best teacher in my state. I’m not the most thoughtful planner. But I do care a lot about my students and they mean a whole lot to me.