Anyone who was young and hip in the 1970s remembers Donny Osmond. He was a sex symbol for teenage girls. Dark-haired, brown-eyed with a toothy grin and wholesome image, he drove pubescent girls insane. Donald Clark “Donny” Osmond today he is an American singer, actor, dancer, radio personality, and now a former teen idol. Osmond has also been a talk and game show host, record producer and author. Whew. That’s an exhausting list of credentials. In the 70s there wasn’t a teen girl around who wasn’t hopelessly in love. Including me. That pretty voice and sparkling smile melted me like the Witch in the Wizard of Oz, only hopefully that was a prettier sight.
However in private, Osmond suffered many setbacks even during his most successful years. At six-years-old, he performed in Sweden and became homesick. He wanted to go home. Instead, he was performing three shows a day for massive audiences. Every day he was in a different town and setting up sound and light shows with his brothers. He wrote a letter that summed up his feelings: “I wanted to go back to my sandbox, I wanted to go see my buddy Scott Bramwell. I wanted that life again.” His father found the letter and there were harsh repercussions. There would be no going home ever again, at least not as an innocent, sheltered child.
At only 5 years old, adorable little Donny, along with his young brothers, made a debut on the Andy Williams show. America fell in love. Seven years along, gorgeous sister Marie and youngest and least attractive, chubby brother, Jimmy, joined the act. The family had a television series and became one of the biggest families (along with the Jackson Five) in pop. The Osmonds, like the Jacksons, capitalized on their clean-cut image and impressive talent.
In 1972 The Osmonds danced and sang their way into Britain’s heart. Osmond-mania replaced Beatle-mania. Massive numbers of young girls stampeded their private airplane on the runway. They had to be carried out, unconscious, from concerts and hosed off. It was Donny and his hit Puppy Love however that the girls truly lusted after. Osmond was only 13 when he sang Puppy Love live for the first time. The girls screamed so loudly that “it was unbearable and I forgot the rest of the words,” Osmond admitted. Any teen magazine where Osmond appeared was sold out within days. At that time, Britain was plagued with unemployment and shortages, Osmond was a miraculous money-maker. He even had the power to boost entire countries’ financial recessions.
One can’t help but make comparisons to the wholesome, squeaky image that launched Justin Bieber’s career. Bieber’s coiffed hair, pretty face, hairdo and high-pitched vocals directly channel Osmond’s 1970s image and appeal. It’s no accident of course. Agents work with whatever charisma a celebrity has to offer and recognize former trends that have proved successful.
In spite of his incredible popularity, Osmond didn’t indulge in his groupies. His Mormon faith forbade pre-marital sex and Osmond honoured it. He took no one back to his hotel room. He was “a virgin when I married…I’m glad I withheld.” He finally wed his red-head, gorgeous 19-year-old student girlfriend, Debra Glenn. He made the right choice. Thirty-odd years later, they remain married and have five children.
Osmond claims his father was authoritative but he didn’t abuse his children in the manner of Joe Jackson with his sons and daughter, Janet. Like most children, Osmond had moments of resentment for his father. He didn’t like losing his childhood. He didn’t like following stringent orders, but then again, what teenager does?
In 1976, Marie and Donny got their own television show. “I’ve got some new for you. We’re going to have our own television show,” Marie told him on their apartment stairs. That was how he found out. The variety show was hugely popular, even though Osmond felt uncomfortable about leaving his brothers behind. Osmond also wasn’t permitted to sell any records. At the time he stated “Donny and Marie are doing all the work,” but later he appreciated how much work his brothers did behind the scenes. For his part, Osmond didn’t “receive a dime.” He didn’t know how he supported his family. If he needed food, it was there but the millions of dollars he and Marie pulled down went into the Osmond Partnership.
Eventually ratings dropped. They changed the format of the show. “And then everybody panicked.” Their silly cheese-ball act was right for the time. It included outlandish costumes and cartoonish show-time characters but over time, this appeal crashed and the show was canceled. One of the reasons was that the Osmond machine tried to keep Donny and Marie as teen idols and refused to allow them to grow up. It didn’t work.
After years of incredible success, suddenly Osmond was Over. He became an American joke. Girls became women. They didn’t shriek with adoration over him anymore. They shrieked with hilarity. He couldn’t even get a record deal. Even labels laughed at him. He was in an era when pristine behaviour was essential if one wishes to remain in the public eye. His reputation was solid: no sex scandals, no drugs, no rehab, none of the Lindsay Lohan pranks we expect in pathetic celebs today. In fact, Osmond’s agent suggested that spreading false rumors about drug arrest charges might recharge his career. Osmond refused. He felt he could not reconcile how lying to create a nefarious drug image could be explained to his children, nieces and nephews.
At 24, Osmond tried “to conquer” Broadway and failed miserably. He attempted to star in Little Johnny Jones and it opened and closed in the same night. “I still didn’t have an idea but everybody knew…everybody just kind of patronized me…I don’t think I’ve ever brought myself to read the reviews… They’re pretty bad.” Osmond responded by trying to not be Donny Osmond. Long-time friend Michael Jackson stated “your name is poison. You’ve got to change your name.” For a time, Osmond begged people to work with him. Just as bad, his money evaporated. Graciously, Osmond won’t go into details about that incident except to admit that people embezzled from them.
Osmond went into small-time venues, including university gigs. For years Osmond’s image haunted him. He couldn’t revive his career. In 1988 he made the attempt with a recording called Soldier of Love. In New York City it became the number one requested record. The radio station that played the song was too embarrassed to admit they were playing Donny Osmond’s single. They called him the Mystery Singer. When the station revealed who he was, the public went wild with enthusiasm. He was back.
At 31, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat was offered to Osmond to appear on Broadway. On opening night Osmond recalled “the World Press being there.” He was terrified about its reception. This time, critics loved him. He remained on top in a six-year run when he suddenly developed stage fright. He had worked so hard to resurrect his career. What if it all came crashing down again? Finally, he walked offstage and went back to Utah for a time.
“You know what rejection is all about…so having said that, I can’t look back with any regret.” His emotions belied his words as he wept during this part of his interview. Osmond actually stated that if he could have had an ordinary life without celebrity, he would have chosen it over fame. He believes everyone in his family would have done the same. His voice cracked when he stated he wanted “an easier life…an easier life.”
Isn’t that what everyone wants?