Donny Osmond won't go away

He broke teen hearts in the '70s -- then became a punch line for years to come. Now he's a game-show host, and happy he didn't turn out like some of his child-star peers.

Published October 14, 2003 7:48PM (EDT)

We've seen Donny Osmond take on several different roles since his "Puppy Love" and "Deep Purple" reign in the 1970s. He tried to rock, appeared on Broadway, and co-hosted a daytime talk show with sister Marie. He also stepped into the boxing ring to face former "Partridge Family" star Danny Bonaduce before thousands screaming for child-star blood, and just a few years ago he let millipedes, superworms and jumbo scorpions crawl all over him in competition with David Hasselhoff, pro wrestler Chyna and rapper Coolio on "Celebrity Fear Factor."

Now, having survived screaming teeny-boppers, unstintingly cruel treatment in the press, a particularly grueling battle with social-anxiety disorder, and incessant references to being "a little bit rock 'n' roll," Osmond, now 45, seems to have finally found his groove. He's the host of "Pyramid," slipping into the loafers of the show's previous, preternaturally youthful-looking host, Dick Clark. He even earned an Emmy nomination for his work on the job, which brings his gee whiz, G-rated charms to brand new audiences.

Osmond spoke to Salon by phone from Minneapolis, where he was screening possible "Pyramid" contestants.

What attracted you about becoming a game-show host?

I love challenges ... I used to watch ["Pyramid"] avidly and play this game with my brothers on the road. So when they offered, I thought, well, let's try it, let's do a pilot and see what happens. And I really think that the reason why they were looking at me is that my career over the 40 years has spanned so many different generations, so many different demographics, and that's evident in what's happening with the viewers.

We've got everyone from little kids and teenagers to the older generation who remember the game from years past and know me from "The Andy Williams Show" [the Osmonds were regular guests in the 1960s]. And we're primarily popular with the women 25 to 49, who we call the puppy lovers.

Is it a hard job?

Well, at first it was very hard because it's a new genre. But then I figured out exactly what you're supposed to do, and that was the advice that Dick Clark gave me right from the beginning.

Which was?

Two words. He said, "Have fun." And I really tried hard, like, during the pilot and the first few shows. I look back and I think, Oh, just lighten up. Have fun. And yes, you've got to keep your mind on the game, and yes, you're basically a traffic cop, just to keep everything running smoothly and quickly, but I tell you, middle of last season, I figured it out and just started having fun. And I thought, Man, he was right. It's two words: Have fun.

And you tell yourself this?

Now it's just like second nature. The favorite part of the show for me is reading the categories because they're so misleading. We've got great writers.

Like what?

Oh, I don't know why this one comes to mind, but there was one that said, "I have attention deficit ... what was I saying?" [Laughs] Or "Victoria's secret revealed: She's really Victor." [Laughs again] Funny things that just crack you up.

So what has been the strangest moment on "Pyramid" so far?

Last week was music week and we had radio personalities or DJs from all over the country. This one particular person I've known for years, Bruce Goldberg, is a producer of WPLJ in New York. And just before I say, "Sixty seconds on the clock," he says, "Kiss me on the cheek for good luck." And when he says that, the whole audience is saying, "Go, go, go ..." You know, you gotta do it. So, I didn't really want to, but I gave him a kiss on the cheek for good luck. And he won the money. So when I came back to congratulate him, he kissed me on the lips. I thought, Oh, no, no, no, no. Don't start this tradition.

Do others now have the same request?

Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

That's going to be your signature.

No, no. I'm no Richard Dawson.

But he only kissed the pretty women. You could expand on the theme.

That's true.

You were nominated for a Daytime Emmy. What was that like?

I thought, Whoa, that sounds kind of cool, you know? Because, you know, you watch Bob Barker, Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek, they've been on for like 20 years or more. And now I'm in that category with them.

You have five kids, right?

Five boys. The youngest is 5 and then 12, 18, 22 and 24. The 22-year-old just got married last November.

So you could be a grandpa soon? How do you feel about that?

I think it's going to be great. But they don't want to start a family for a couple of years.

Do any of them have interest in going into show business?

They like it ... It's up to them. If they want to then I'll certainly support them, but I'm not going to push this business to them.

Do you feel like you were sort of pushed into it?

Well, at an early age, maybe. But there have certainly been a lot of opportunities over the years to bow out.

How do you account for your enduring career when so many other child stars burn out?

[Laughs] I have no idea. My family, my wife, my kids, they certainly keep my feet on the ground. I think I'd point to that more than anything. And my faith.

Was it hard to leave the child star/teen idol stuff behind?

Yes, it was. I still haven't left it behind. I've embraced it with a whole different perspective. Years ago, maybe in the early to mid '90s, I was doing the play "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and it got to the point where I figured, you know, stop fighting the image, because I'll be known as the guy who sang "Puppy Love" for the rest of my life, to a certain generation.

But there was a time that you were really fighting it.

Big time. End of the '80s. Actually, throughout the '80s. It was like, just let me go. Let me loose. Let me do something else. I mean, everybody else is allowed to grow up, and yet for some reason people in show business, they freeze you in their minds and if you're something other than that it's met with resistance. But you know what? It's OK.

Why do you think so many child stars end up dabbling in crime and drugs?

Well, they don't really have a family base to fall back on, do they?

Do you think that's it?

I think that's it.

There's an interesting thing that happened to me when I was a little kid. Elvis Presley used to come and wish us well when we performed at the Hilton in Vegas. He was having a conversation with my mom backstage and it really impressed me how a guy like that who's really adored onstage could just be a normal guy backstage, just be real, just be himself. It impressed me a lot. I was 13, 14 years old.

Do you feel like the public and press have been fair to you over the years?

No, not really. Now they have. But during those '70s years -- and I can understand it because if I were a critic, I'd probably be saying the same thing -- teenybopper music, bubblegum music, was really not legitimate music. If you were part of Three Dog Night or Creedence Clearwater or the Stones or Jimi Hendrix, those kinds of bands, that was cool. But there were millions of people buying my music as well. And the irony of that was that yes, that was the kind of music I was recording and that's what was selling, but I was into so many different other styles of music.

In areas like France, for instance, the Osmonds were known as a heavy metal rock 'n' roll band.

Get out!

Oh yeah. "Crazy Horse" was our first release over there and it was a real, hard rock 'n' roll song. So sometimes people put the blinders on and pigeonhole you and they really don't see the full aspect of the career.

So do you feel like you became sort of a caricature of yourself?

Oh, most definitely. And over time people have come to realize that it was just a caricature that they have visualized in their minds.

I remember doing a record with Dweezil Zappa ["Confessions," in 1991]. We premiered it on Sunset Boulevard at the Whiskey. He was performing a lot of the songs from the record and the place was just going crazy. He says, "I now would like to bring out a guest singer from the new album." And everybody's thinking, who is it? Who is it? "Please welcome to the stage Donny Osmond!" You could hear a pin drop in the place, but I was eating it up. I loved every moment of it. And when we went into this rock 'n' roll song, it took about five or 10 seconds for people to pick their jaws up off the floor and then start having fun. I relish those kinds of moments.

Did you want to be famous in the first place?



It was that first performance, in Chicago. It was right after I made my debut on television, and I had no idea the impact of television and how many people were watching. When I did that live show and I heard the roar of the audience, I thought, OK, this is it.

Did you, like Michael Jackson, find yourself yearning for a normal family? Do you feel a kinship with him at all?

I do feel a kinship. But I certainly don't yearn for a normal lifestyle, because I live it. I think that's what separates the two of us, as far as our personal lives are concerned.

Are you and Michael friends?

Yeah. We've known each other since we were like 13.

Do you feel sympathy for him?

Most definitely. There's a misunderstood person. But there are a lot of personal issues there that need to be resolved too.

I remember reading about your problems with stage fright.

Yeah, I went through that in the '90s ... it was a horrible time in my career. When everything started to get back on track, and I couldn't even go onstage.

How do you account for that? You'd been onstage for years and all of a sudden you found you couldn't go on?

Well, I'm no clinician here, but I think it comes from a Type A personality, trying to be perfect in everything you do. Mine's a pretty interesting case when you consider the fact that a lot of these people who have social-anxiety disorder fear that people are talking about them and looking at them. Well, that was the case with me. And you know I worked really hard to get my career back on track and there I was selling out venues, standing room only, doing "Joseph," and I felt like, Boy, if I don't get this right and give them a great performance, I'll lose my career again. And that's what drove me down.

That was your "Behind the Music" crisis?

Yes. If I really want to analyze it, it started around when I was 11, but it really hit the pinnacle when I was around 35, 36.

And how did you get it under control?

Therapy. A lot of therapy. Medicine. I had to do whatever I could to save my career. It was a horrible time in my life, but through meeting with a lot of people, I got it back together.

And one of the best things that ever happened was the "Donny and Marie" talk show [in 1998-99], where I figured out it was OK to make a mistake. "Pyramid," I make mistakes all the time, but that's what makes it human. Makes it fun and real. "Pyramid's" one of the best things that ever happened to me.

How about your brief race-car career? How did that happen?

Fluke. I was invited to race in a pro-am, the Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Am. So I took a week's worth of lessons, as is required of everybody, and I ended up winning the race.

So I was invited to race the Denver Celebrity Grand Prix, ended up winning the race. So these representatives from Chevrolet called me up and said, "We'd like to fly you out here to Michigan, one of the tracks, put you in a car. We've been analyzing the tapes of your race and we'd like to see what you can do." You know, any guy would jump at that chance to get in a race car. So I flew back there and I got the second best time in that car of anybody, including professional drivers, on that course. And they offered me a contract. I had a couple of cars, I had a pit crew, and sponsorships coming in. Then "Joseph" came along and the insurance rates were better as a singer.

Do you drive fast normally?

No. But I guess I just had the natural ability.

Hey, do you still wear purple socks?


Does the whole purple sock thing bug you?

Not anymore. It used to, but you just have to embrace it and say, "Yes, I did do that."

People bring up the socks and the old albums and the Donny doll and it's fine. It's cool. I mean, anybody -- really, when you think about it -- would love to have their own doll after them, you know? I mean, I have a Donny Osmond Pez dispenser. It's one of my most prized possessions.

Do you have a whole room o' Donny?

No, all that stuff is in boxes. I don't really display any of it.

What about "Fear Factor"? What made you do that?

Oh, because it's fun. It was such a challenge, getting stung by scorpions. Though I did have second thoughts at that point.

I think of those reality shows, quite frankly, of smacking of desperation.

Well, I was on the very first celebrity "Fear Factor," and with some of the stuff they're doing now, I don't think I'd want to do that.

In terms of what?

Like eating the things. Fish guts and things like that. Did you see the last one?


Well, no thanks. And you know these celebrity boxing matches?


I started that.

With Danny ...

Yeah, with Danny Bonaduce. It was in Chicago, '93, maybe '94.

It was me against Danny because Danny was a disc jockey in the Chicago market, on the Loop. And people were placing bets on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange.

It was an event and a half. And they declared him the winner. But my assistant grabbed the score cards as everyone was leaving. She thought, Oh, this will be a keepsake one of these days. And you know, I'm not a sore loser. You declare him the winner? Fine. That's fine. But a week later, she gave me the score cards as a memento and I looked at them. I had more points! It was fixed.

By Amy Reiter

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