What It's Like to Perform ASL Alongside Taylor Swift During the Eras Tour

Stacey Gray Ginevra Deianni
Photo Illustration: Michelle Alfonso
Stacey Gray Ginevra Deianni
Photo Illustration: Michelle Alfonso

You might Jillian Deaton from TikTok, where she recently went viral for her performance interpreting American Sign Language during Taylor Swift's Eras Tour. She's known as Jillian Valentine on the social media platform; Valentine is her alter ego (á la Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce), which allows her to create a more outgoing, onstage persona. "While Jillian Deaton is sensitive and wants so badly to please everyone, Jill Valentine is confident and tough. I like that I can be both," she says.

Originally from Mesa, AZ, the 30-year-old is now based in New York City. She's been interpreting ASL professionally since 2014, and got her interpreting education at Phoenix College in Phoenix, AZ. After her Eras Tour performance went viral, Deaton reflected on her career as an ASL interpreter, the best moments from Swift's performance in Seattle, and more. Read it all, in her own words, below.

I was first introduced to Taylor Swift when I was 13. One of my friend's brothers took a picture with her at a meet-and-greet — I remember thinking she was so beautiful and so cool for taking a picture with a fan. When I first listened to her debut album, I fell in love with the way she could so beautifully express the very feelings I was experiencing. I have vivid memories of sitting at the family computer, listening to "Teardrops On My Guitar" and shedding my own tears on my teenage diary while writing about my secret crush. (Haha.) And when I was 16, I lived in Denmark for a summer with a host family — my first time away from home. I missed my parents, especially my mom, so much. I listened to "The Best Day" on repeat and still get choked up when Taylor sings of her mom, "And you're the prettiest lady in the whole wide world."

It's been amazing to watch Taylor evolve into different versions of herself — all equally incredible — and dominate the music industry in the way she has. Now that I'm a mother myself, I love listening to her music with my two children — rocking out in the car and dancing in the living room.

I was thrilled when Taylor announced she was going on tour again. I already had a working relationship with the accessibility team at Lumen Field from previous concerts (huge shout-out to Nick Cates and his team at Lumen; they are rockstars and such a treat to work with). I regularly team shows with my colleague, Ginevra Deianni, who is an amazing interpreter and also assists with interpreter assignment for the big venues in Seattle, including Lumen Field. I knew the two of us would be a dream team, and I think we were, if I may say so myself!

"It was such a treat to jam to Taylor nonstop."

But before the Taylor Swift concert, I'd done other major shows. I began interpreting in K-12 classrooms before becoming a freelance interpreter, then a corporate staff interpreter. I started with smaller scale shows in Phoenix — various concerts, plays, and festival performances. After living in Seattle for some time, I was asked to interpret larger acts, including Paul McCartney and "Hamilton." For some context, I grew up dancing competitively (ballet, pointe, jazz, contemporary, hip hop, tap, the whole gamut), was a musician and even a child pageant queen (I was the International Cinderella Miss as a 10-year-old; the scholarship monies I won paid for my interpreting education, which I'm so grateful for). Suffice it to say that I have always connected well with music, movement, artistry, and being on a stage. I never wanted to become a professional dancer or musician, but I love that I am able to harness my previous experience and put it to use in my performance interpreting career.

Interpreting for the Eras Tour, though, was a blast. My team and I thoroughly enjoyed the hours we spent workshopping our songs together. It was such a treat to jam to Taylor nonstop and play with concepts, make them look visually appealing, match the tone of the song, analyze the lyrics, discuss the meaning of certain phrases, etc. We had put so much heart into our prep and we hoped it would all be well-received and enjoyed by Taylor's Deaf and Hard of Hearing fans in our assigned section.

"It was so exciting to view their live feedback as I was interpreting."

One aspect of the performance that I loved so much was how I could see the faces of the fans during the show. It was so exciting to view their live feedback as I was interpreting, using their beautiful language to make Taylor's beautiful show accessible. I enjoyed witnessing their delight as an interpreted concept or phrase seemed to hit just right. In general, it was a privilege to share that space with them and be entrusted with such an important and even sacred role as their interpreter those nights.

Also, I was extremely lucky and excited to have had two brief encounters with Scott Swift, Taylor's dad, on night two. He gifted me a guitar pick with the "Midnights" album cover on it as he entered the stadium, and also thanked me as he and Andrea, Taylor's mom, left the stadium. I definitely shed a few happy tears! Both exchanges were luckily caught on video and I cherish the memories.

I've been so pleasantly surprised by folks' reactions on social media — the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. I am absolutely thrilled that those in my section enjoyed the concert, and that even more online have been exposed to a snapshot of my work. But being an interpreter can be tricky and, yes, delicate. Although it is flattering and fun to receive accolades, it isn't the end goal of my job. My role is to be a conduit for communication between D/HoH parties and hearing parties. Further, my role is not to teach ASL — it is best to learn from a Deaf or Hard of Hearing educator whose native language is ASL. With this brief moment in the spotlight, I feel responsible to redirect the positive attention I've received and use my hearing privilege to continually advocate for accessibility. Deaf and Hard of Hearing fans should have every opportunity as their hearing peers to have access to their favorite artists and shows, with highly skilled interpreters and proximal seating within the line of sight, among other accommodations.

I truly cherish the population I serve. Deaf and Hard of Hearing culture is so rich and unique, and I feel honored to be a guest in their community as an interpreter. This population has faced, and still faces, oppression in hearing-dominated society. Despite that, they are a resilient community with the most beautiful language, and I am so fortunate to work alongside them in this capacity.

— As told to Lena Felton