Netflix’s feel-good docuseries Cheer was a hit for myriad reasons: Aside from introducing the uninitiated to the world of competitive cheerleading, it gave us friendship, drama, commitment, broken bones, and real connections. Come for the mind-blowing tumbling and risky floor routines, but stay for 20-year-old Jeremiah Harris, aka Jerry, the greatest gift of all. It’s no wonder that the whole world has fallen for this human teddy bear. Harris is considered the king of “mat talk” — a way of motivating his teammates by yelling words of affirmation at them while they do their routine. Who doesn’t need that right now?
Since his television début in January, Harris has been on The Today Show, at the Oscars, and onstage with Oprah Winfrey. He’s so in demand that he even has an agent now. InStyle traveled to his Navarro College campus in Corsicana, Texas, to shoot this legend-in-the-making at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday (the only time he could fit us into his packed schedule, which also includes homework and rigorous practice sessions). When he gets downtime, Harris will take it. “I’m an extrovert with introvert qualities,” he says. With his final cheer competition, the NCA Collegiate National Championship in Daytona Beach, Fla., canceled due to coronavirus concerns, Harris won’t get to participate in his final act as a stunter. But to say this is the end would be a lie. The show launched his career, but his character will keep him in the limelight.
How are you and your teammates feeling? I’m so sorry about Daytona.
My teammates and I are heartbroken that our one and only competition was canceled. We spent our whole year preparing for this event, so we are devastated. We wish we could have had the chance to show the world what we have been working on.
That’s so tough. Where does that leave Mat-Talk Jerry?
Mat-Talk Jerry and regular Jerry are different. They have different energies. When I do take time to relax, I’m very quiet and keep to myself. A lot of people have a hard time understanding that. When I’m with my friends and meet new people, they’re like, “You’re very quiet,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m relaxing, thank you.” I’m not going to be yelling in your face.
You’ve had a crazy year. Are you tired?
Umm...yes! I’m not even going to put on a front: I am tired. But, you know, I’ve been working hard. I can do it. That’s the biggest thing about being here [at Navarro]. [Our coach] Monica [Aldama] always says, “OK, if you’re tired, let’s keep pushing.”
What happens when you don’t want to do that?
I really just try to lean on my teammates and make it through. I always knew this experience wasn’t going to last forever, and I’m not always going to be tired. This was the final push. There’s really nothing I would change.
This is our Beauty issue. What does beauty mean to you?
Beauty is someone who is kind and shows a lot of gratitude. It’s a personality that can love anyone. I feel like makeup doesn’t make beauty. Natural beauty is where it’s at.
Natural beat! People don’t need that much; a slight beat is good enough.
That feels like the opposite of what the cheer world typically requires. Your team members do the lashes, the face, etc. Is it just part of the deal?
That’s what we do in our sport. It’s a way to make the girl pop a little more onstage. The judges are probably 200 to 300 feet away. They can’t even see [our faces]. The makeup makes them visible.
When do you feel most beautiful?
When I’m sitting in a [makeup] chair and having someone doll up my face. But I am usually at practice or winding down. I don’t use makeup, so I don’t have a beauty routine. I just wash my face. When I’m in the chair, I feel beautiful.
When you were younger, who were the people who exemplified beauty to you?
My mother [Lizzie Bowman, who died of lung cancer in 2016]. She had a good heart. She was very sweet, very genuine, and had a great sense of humor. She always looked to compliment the next person, and she wasn’t focused on necessarily getting a compliment back.
I see that in you. You give a lot. Do you get that back?
Yeah, I love receiving compliments! I always say, “Thank you.” If I receive it, I’m gonna give it right back to you. A lot of people don’t do that, but more of them should. It doesn’t have to be the same. It could be from, like, “I love your hair!” to “I love your outfit!”
Were there celebs who have inspired you?
Raven-Symoné because I watched That’s So Raven a lot. Gabrielle Union in Bring It On. She held that up. Beyoncé, of course. Just a lot of Black queens. My draw has always been to the girls who were empowered, who demanded attention.
Were there any Black men you identified with?
I don’t think I was really able to see myself in other places or see someone who exemplified me.
How does it feel living here on campus? Being Black in the South is a thing to acknowledge.
Monica created a very safe space for all of us. Everybody in the community respects the cheerleaders. It’s an open environment for anyone to be who they want to be as long as they are able to get the job done. There haven’t been any bad times from the outside community or even from the other cheerleaders. Everyone respects everyone. It has been a space where you can be yourself. We also give back to the community. We go to the elementary schools; we do High-Five Fridays where we wake up early and high-five the kids as they’re going into school.
That’s so cute and so necessary right now. So much has happened to you. What have been the highs and lows?
Everything has been happening so quick, I almost get lost in the moment at times. I am just trying to sit back and enjoy what’s going on. The highlight would have to be the Oscars [where he served as a red-carpet correspondent for The Ellen DeGeneres Show]. That was awesome.
Cheer really focused on your personal story as well as the stories of your teammates. How did it feel to watch some of those narratives unfold on television? Did you know ahead of time?
I had a little bit of prior knowledge, but I didn’t know the details of it. No one really wants to talk about what they’ve been through. They try to tuck it away and keep it hidden. I didn’t know the details of everyone’s story, and they didn’t know the details of mine. We were all learning about each other.
Was it easy for you to open up like that?
I wouldn’t say it was easy, no. My intention wasn’t to just put it out there for the sake of doing so. My intention was to put it out there to, hopefully, inspire others. I wanted to let people know that if they’re going through something similar, they can overcome it and be the best person they can be and do anything they want to. That was my intention — to inspire the next person.
Were there scenes that were cut out that you wish had been included?
I wish they would have showed the really good performances we had, like the one in Dallas at Southern Methodist University. It looked [on the show] like people got hurt from the pyramids a lot, but we had plenty of good ones where everyone was hitting. We weren’t just throwing someone around. We want to show the good, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t build up the story the way everyone wants to see it.
After this? I don’t know. Luckily, the show has already brought me a lot of opportunities. I’m just going to seize the ones that come my way. I really don’t have an interest in anything other than cheer.
Photography: Martin Schoeller. Styling: Stephanie Pérez-Gurri. Grooming: Heidi Bowles. Location: Navarro College, Corsicana, Texas. Teammate: Allie Ross.
For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download April 17.