Breakout stars of 'Cheer' on fame, chosen family and beating the odds

Jerry Harris and La’Darius Marshall sit down with NBC Out to discuss their new celebrity status, their love of cheerleading and more.
By Alexander Kacala

Jerry Harris and La’Darius Marshall, the breakout stars of the new Netflix documentary series “Cheer,” have tumbled their way into the hearts of America.

“Cheer” follows the Navarro College cheerleading team from Corsicana, Texas, on their quest to defend their title at the junior college national championship in Daytona, Florida. The series — an unexpected sensation lauded by celebrities including Reese Witherspoon, Chrissy Teigen and Ellen DeGeneres — sheds light not only on the athleticism and commitment required to be a competitive cheerleader but also on the personal stories, some of them heartbreaking, of the young men and women on the mat.

The personal obstacles experienced by Harris and Marshal, both gay men, are among the most compelling elements of the six-part series.

Jerry Harris, 20, lost his mother at the age of 16, but despite that tragedy, he maintained a positive outlook on life. His personality, especially his ability to motivate his teammates during competition with his infectious energy, has captivated viewers of the show, making his “mat talk” the empowerment of 2020 everyone is turning to.

But there’s one question that’s been circulating on Twitter since the show’s premiere: Who is Jerry’s Jerry?

“My Jerry is definitely my mother that passed away. She taught me to always be positive and always look out for people and always do the right thing,” Harris told NBC News. “That's something I tried to emulate in her to make her proud each and every day.”

Harris, who started cheerleading long before Navarro College, said during his mother’s battle with lung cancer, it was his “cheer family” that helped him get through her illness and death.

“They helped me out through a lot growing up,” Harris said. “Cheer is my outlook on life, and I use that as my safe place to get away from all of my other problems … they just uplifted me, and made me feel better, and just made me feel like I had support and I wasn't alone.”

La’Darius Marshall, 21, is one of the Navarro Bulldogs’ star performers and a natural team leader. However, despite his tough-as-nails persona, he, too, revealed during the series that the trauma of his past had been weighing on him. Marshall shared that he had been sexually assaulted as a child and had been subjected to intense homophobia in his hometown in northwestern Florida, just south of the Alabama border.

“In the black community, the men try so hard to toughen up their sons, but it makes [them] shut off, and make like we don't have emotions,” Marshall said about feeling like he couldn’t be open about his trauma. “It's really hard growing up as a male, listening to, ‘Oh, you need to be more manly.’ I'm like, ‘What is more manly? Not having emotions? Not talking to people? Not telling people what you think in your mind?’”

“If you don't like us for who we are, that's on you boo,” he added. “You handle that on your own time, but do not bring that into our world.”

Marshall said one of the most gratifying experiences of participating in the “Cheers” docu-series is the sense that they’re changing hearts and minds.

“I feel like a lot of people have responded positively towards it,” Harris said of the show. “I haven't seen any hate comments or anything rude like that, because our generation is changing and our world is changing. Everybody is so open into accepting gay men like us, so we're happy with that.”

A powerful moment in the show comes during the finale, when Marshall’s brother, Antonio, is seen watching the Navarro Bulldogs compete in the nationals. Viewing on his mobile phone, Antonio’s tears up, showing the type of emotions that Marshall said his brother never did when they were growing up.

“I haven't seen him cry in about 11 years,” Marshall said. “To see that, I cried myself … It really made me feel a lot better between our relationship, because we never really spoke to each other because of our differences, but we actually have a conversation now with each other after the show because of it.”

Marshall and Harris said they are still coming to terms with their overnight celebrity status. After appearances on TODAY and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” their combined Instagram following has grown to more than 1 million.

“I feel like the validation that we get for what we're doing is just so empowering to us like, OK, we're doing something right for somebody, and those people have enough voice to talk to us as well, so it feels really good,” Marshall said of the responses they have received.

Harris said because he and Marshall were so open in the series, it’s inspiring fans of the show to open up to them in return.

“We're giving off so much, we're getting so much love and positivity in return, and we're having people share similar stories,” he explained. “This show is opening the doors for them to share something they probably didn't think they wanted to share, but they're sharing it with us, and we're happy that we relate on such a different level, and we're happy that they have enough confidence to even share that with us.”

When asked what they learned from being part of the series, Marshall said he has “learned that I’m more vulnerable than I thought I was.”

“I don't have to be so hard and so cut off from the world and have my walls up so thick that nobody can get through,” he said. “I learned that I can have feelings and not feel weak.”

For Harris, it’s a bit simpler: “I've learned that I can actually touch people's lives more than I thought I could.”

Marshall and Harris are now back at Navarro College after briefly leaving for other opportunities. They said they plan on finishing their associates degrees before making plans for the future.

However, when the charismatic duo was asked whether they’d ever consider hosting their own talk show, Harris quickly responded, “Absolutely. Let’s do this.”

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