RESTRICTED: Broken Heartthrob
Donny Osmond first wanted to call his autobiography Surviving Donny Osmond. After all, being a former teen sensation is not all lipstick and bubblegum. But on second thought, the veteran entertainer—still dimpled at 41—decided to take a brighter tack. “By and large, I’ve had an amazingly exciting life,” he says. “And hey, you make your own bed, and you’ve got to sleep in it.”
Still, as Osmond reveals in Life Is Just What You Make It: My Life So Far, getting to sleep hasn’t always been so easy. An overachiever from the day he made his debut with his brothers on the Andy Williams Show in 1963 at age 6, Osmond has spent nearly four decades in the spotlight. After his stint as lead singer of the squeaky-clean Osmond Brothers in the ’60s, the teen heartthrob enjoyed a string of early ’70s solo hits. Later in the decade he was cohost, with younger sister Marie, now 39, of the hit show Donny and Marie. “I was always under a microscope,” he says today. When his career hit a rocky patch in the ’80s—he came close to bankruptcy—Osmond wondered if he even had a future in show business.
But in 1989, Osmond scored a comeback hit with “Soldier of Love,” which hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts. In the ’90s he spent five years touring as the lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Last September he teamed again with Marie on a syndicated daily talk show, Donny & Marie, which airs weekdays on stations all around the nation. Married to wife Debbie since 1978 (their five sons, Donald Jr., Jeremy, Brandon, Christopher and Joshua, range from 19 years old to 16 months), Osmond—a committed Mormon who devotes a page of his Web site to his beliefs—is happy to be working again. “I’ve been up and down,” he says. “And let me tell you: Up is better.” In the excerpt that follows, Osmond reveals the paralyzing anxiety attacks that almost forced him out of his role as Joseph.
I’d been a little nervous about every one of my performances all my life, but for as long as I can remember—whether I was onstage or in a business meeting—I knew that if I just got that applause at the end of the first song, a laugh when I made a joke, my nervousness would diminish, though never go away. Sometime around 1994, I began feeling a kind of anxiousness unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I was more emotionally battered and scarred than I realized. No matter where I was, I felt subordinate to others and uncertain, especially in business situations.
Opening night in Chicago, during “Any Dream Will Do”—the second number in the show and the first in which I appear—I stopped singing, hoping the children’s chorus would be loud enough to carry the note I couldn’t sing. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I couldn’t control my voice. So I stopped singing altogether and just mouthed the words.
An even worse episode occurred also in Chicago. One of the show-stopping numbers, “Song of the King,” featured my good friend the fantastic Elvis impersonator Johnny Seaton, portraying the King of Egypt as the King of Rock and Roll. In his black pompadour and blue suede shoes, Pharaoh begged Joseph to interpret his troubled dreams. I was kneeling before Johnny with my back to the audience, getting ready to start singing “Pharaoh’s Dream Explained,” when the room started spinning around me and I was sure I would black out. The night before, I had blown the lyrics to the song that was coming up, and the fear that it might happen again loomed larger and larger as the music played and my cue got closer.
Once the fear of embarrassing myself grabbed me, I couldn’t get loose. It was as if a bizarre and terrifying unreality had replaced everything that was familiar and safe. In the grip of my wildest fears, I was paralyzed, certain that if I made one wrong move, I would literally die. Even more terrifying, I’d have felt relieved to die. The harder I tried to remember the words, the more elusive they became. The best I could do was not black out, and I got through the show, barely, by telling myself repeatedly, Stay conscious, stay conscious.
And these attacks of nerves weren’t only about performing onstage. I remember being so wound up at the prospect of cohosting Live with Regis and Kathie Lee that I didn’t sleep at all the night before and got nauseous before I went on. Another time, my anxiety was so overwhelming during my audition to play the voice of Hercules in the Disney animated feature, my performance was embarrassing. I started to wonder if I could continue a singing career at all.
Something was definitely wrong, and at first I clung to a “reasonable explanation”: the schedule, the commuting, my responsibility to a successful show. But deep inside, I knew that none of it made sense. I’d carried a good deal of responsibility since I was a child. Why couldn’t I do it now? Everything was beginning to annoy me. I would be short-tempered with people and sometimes even suspicious of them—What did they want from me? Why couldn’t they leave me alone?—which is not my style.
One night I was sitting at my makeup table when I heard our stage manager announce, “Fifteen minutes to curtain!” By then my routine was down pat—the makeup, the wig, the costume. Every night it went off without a hitch. This night, though, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything. I felt sick and clammy with sweat. I looked down at my hands; they were shaking. When the woman who did my hair came in to put on my wig, I was sweating so much that the glue wouldn’t even stick to my forehead.
“Are you sick?” she asked.
I couldn’t answer.
When I heard “Five minutes to curtain,” the panic rose until I didn’t know what I was doing. I picked up every jar, bottle, can, brush, mirror—whatever I found on my dressing table—and threw it all at the wall, screaming. Then I dropped back into my seat, put my head down on the table and started bawling. My friend and dresser Steve MacMulkin found Diane Woodrow, the stage manager, and told her, “Something’s wrong with Donny.”
My mind raced back and forth: Yes, I can do this. No, I can’t. I just couldn’t get a grip, and even as I said, “I’m going on,” I knew I wouldn’t. I was relieved to hear Diane say, “No, you’re not going on.” The funny thing about it was, once I knew I didn’t have to go onstage, the panic evaporated. I felt fine, like I could do anything in the world—except, of course, walk on that stage.
Some experts believe that as many as one in eight Americans have experienced an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. In the grip of it, they become afraid to do anything in public—walking down a street, eating in a restaurant—because they fear they will be ridiculed. Treatment for social phobia involves learning to identify the conditions that result in an attack and then discovering the techniques you can use to bring the anxiety to a manageable level.
You learn to manage anxiety by facing it head-on, which is exactly the last thing you believe you ever could do. One of the first therapeutic things my doctor and I did was to walk on the stage during the pre-show setup opening night, before the audience was admitted. The theater was empty, except for about 20 ushers getting instructions from the head usher. I stood with my back to the seats for about ten minutes. As I told my doctor, I just knew the ushers were looking at me and laughing or criticizing me.
After about ten minutes of talking to me, she said, “Donny, turn around.”
“I can’t turn around,” I said softly.
I did. I turned around. No one was there. The ushers had all left while we were talking. I was nearly paralyzed with fear over something that wasn’t even happening, which aptly describes all social phobia. The fear was in my mind.
After three days of treatment, Osmond regained his onstage composure. He recorded a new album, Four, released in 1998, and served as the singing voice for Captain Li Shang in Disney’s animated feature Mulan. But he wasn’t beyond making mistakes, and when Osmond appeared on the Rosie O’Donnell Show in 1996, he joked, badly, that a helicopter she offered to fly in as his stunt double couldn’t “handle that much weight.”
Afterward, I apologized to Rosie, and she accepted it. But publicly, it was impossible for her to ignore the groundswell against me, and Rosie made a point of reminding everyone how badly I’d mistreated her. Before long, she couldn’t utter the words “Donny Osmond” without her audience erupting in a chorus of boos. Over the next few weeks, she told her other guests what “that mean Donny Osmond” had done to her.
The longer Rosie kept the gag running, the more I found myself explaining to people that I didn’t really call her a fat pig, or even fat. But no matter what I said, my protestations and apologies were no match for Rosie’s almost-daily recounting of the emotional trauma she’d suffered. I would do anything, I told Rosie, to show the world how sorry I was. How could Rosie refuse?
Ready and willing to eat crow, Osmond arranged to pay a visit to O’Donnell while she interviewed his sister Marie.
As I walked onstage, my arms full of flowers for her, the band struck up “One Bad Apple” and the audience booed. A few even threw things at me. When I offered Rosie the bouquet, she said, “I guess it’s okay for fat people to get flowers.” She then reminded me, “I’m the Queen of Nice, and you, on the other hand…”
Then came my moment of truth. I knew I’d have to sing my old hit “Puppy Love,” which I’d rehearsed with the band. But I didn’t expect the dog costume, complete with bouncy tail and big floppy ears, that Rosie brought out for me to get into. As I did so, I said, “This is humiliating!”
“That’s right. That’s what I’m going for,” Rosie quipped.
Standing by the piano, adjusting my ‘paws,’ I said, “And this is what my career has come to.” I didn’t sing more than a few words before Marie stopped me: “No, no! On the knee,” she said, pointing to the floor. There’s nothing like having your family behind you. Obediently, I knelt and started to sing.
Going into the bridge, I stood up and took Rosie in my arms for a slow dance. As I sang “Someone help me,” and began to dip Rosie, I pretended to lose my grip. Rosie and I both ended up on the floor, and all I could do was lie there and struggle through as Rosie playfully pummeled me, shouting, “I forgive you!” The show was such a ratings hit that she later said on the air: “I’m now requiring all my guests to call me fat and come back and apologize.”