Donny Osmond was in the back of a limo, on his way to a Donny Osmond show – or ‘work’, as he calls it. His face was smiling down from the promotional posters lining the road in Los Angeles. The driver who had collected him from the airport asked what he did in the show – was he a performer, director, stage manager?
‘I said, “Er, I’m Donny,” ‘ he recalls. ‘The driver stopped the car, turned right round and said: “You mean you are one of those lookalikes? Because you’re not the real Donny Osmond. That guy must be about 90 now.” ‘
The real Donny Osmond – actual age 65 – couldn’t decide whether to be insulted or flattered, so he opted for the latter. ‘I get it,’ he says. ‘It’s what happens when you start performing at the age of five. People think you’ve been around forever.’
How many showbiz troopers can boast 60 years in the industry? The grown-up Mr Puppy Love can, and the feat is all the more remarkable considering that this is a man who was deemed an industry has-been by the time he reached his 20s.
Showbiz had claimed his childhood. He found fame with four of his elder brothers as The Osmonds – standing on a Coca-Cola box to reach the microphone, bursting into the 1970 hit One Bad Apple with ‘Oooh, give it one more try’ – then went solo in his teens.
LOVING ME FOR A REASON: Donny Osmond (right) and Debbie (left) in Las Vegas
SO CLOSE: Donny and Debbie in 1982. They married in 1978
Who can forget 14-year-old Donny, all teeth and flares in 1972, making a generation of girls swoon with Puppy Love? Then it seemed to be over.
‘Everyone in the industry wrote me off. The guy responsible for getting my hits played on the radio told me, “You are a has-been. You had a great career but you are a former teeny-bopper and you won’t be able to turn this one around.” I was 21!’
Donny looks suddenly steely. ‘Don’t tell me I can’t do something,’ he says. ‘But yeah, it took a fight.’
Is this the sweetest victory, though? Later this year, with his 65th album under his belt, Donny Osmond, now a grandfather of 13, will bring one of his Vegas-style shows to Britain.
Girls (some maybe grandmothers themselves now) will swoon again. Their husbands might still snigger, but Donny doesn’t care.
‘My fans have been mainly female-based because it wasn’t cool to go to a Donny Osmond concert with your guy and, yeah, a certain generation still feels that way.
‘But now if you look out into the audience, you see thirty- and fortysomething men, who don’t have that prejudice. They know me from shows such as Dancing With The Stars or The Masked Singer [he has appeared in US versions of the shows].’
The British tour will cover every chapter of his career, though (even the ones that are quite painful). He will sing Puppy Love, with help from a young Donny soundalike. ‘He’s a British kid who can reach the notes, because I can’t any more!’ he laughs.
For years he would have liked to strangle that puppy. Now, though, he says: ‘I’ve made peace with it. I sing it with respect.’
Donny Osmond performs at the Manchester Are in 2017
A visual highlight will be a display of his outfits over the years.
‘I’ve kept many of them, from the red jacket I wore when I was five, to the jumpsuit – the Donny Osmond Elvis-looking jumpsuit I wore during the mania. I’ve got the peacock outfit I wore on The Masked Singer. And the Joseph coat from the musical.’
In another of his surprise career comebacks, Andrew Lloyd Webber offered him the starring role in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on stage, then in the film version.
Donny is famous for his clean living, but at this point he does confess to a touch of pilfering. ‘I stole the coat,’ he nods. ‘On the last day of filming with Joan Collins, when she’d been grappling with my loincloth, I told the dresser that there were two empty suitcases in my car and he should steal everything.’ He has no regrets(and how can a man who has had Joan grappling with his loincloth have life regrets?).
An audience with Donny is a blast. He keeps bursting into song (‘it was always just about the music, you know’), and you have to pinch yourself when conversation turns to those he has outlasted, and outlived.
This is a man who rubbed shoulders (and shoulder pads) with Elvis. He talks about how his mother was a ‘surrogate mom’ to The King. The Osmond family’s Mormon faith always fascinated Elvis; he regarded Donny’s mother as a sort of spiritual guru.
‘Elvis was always phoning up, speaking to her. I think he would have liked to be a preacher. Man, I wish I’d paid more attention to those conversations.’
Donny once wrote a song (for his wife Debbie) on Elvis’s piano, which was less grand than it sounds. ‘It was an old upright,’ he laughs. ‘And it was out of tune. All I can remember was thinking, “Get that piano tuned!” ‘
What did he make of the recent Elvis film biopic? ‘I put off watching it, to be honest. I knew that the rollercoaster of his career – the way he was written off and had to rebuild – would be hard to watch because I’ve been there, many times. But I did watch it quite recently, and it was great.’
They should make a biopic about Donny. A key scene would be the limo ride he took down Sunset Boulevard with Michael Jackson, once a great friend and showbiz ally. Their paths had striking similarities.
They found fame in family groups and were both the fifth child, going on to have solo careers. ‘Do you know what bound us most? The music,’ he says. ‘Always the music. I was one of the first people to hear Thriller, before it was released.’
After an Oscars bash in the 1980s – when Jackson was approaching the peak of his career, and when Donny says he himself was ‘almost at rock bottom’ – he drove Jackson in a convertible car for a meal. ‘We put the roof down and there were Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond sailing down Sunset Boulevard singing our heads off!’
He turned to Jackson when he couldn’t get his songs played on the radio. ‘He told me to change my name. He said the name Osmond was poison. He was right. When things did turn around and I had a hit again, it was only because people played it without mentioning who was singing it. That was a bittersweet moment.’
Was he jealous of Jackson’s success at this point? ‘Very much so. I thought, ‘Why can Michael be cool and I can’t?’ I wanted all that, the Thriller album.’
And yet, ultimately…
He nods. There is no mention of the child-abuse allegations that now haunt Jackson’s reputation, but Donny looks pained. It is clear he lost a friend long before Jackson died. He says he tried to save Jackson, as much as he could be saved.
‘We were supposed to do a duet, but he called and said, “Donny, I’m having some trouble with the press. Can we put this off?” ‘
A few years later, a distressed Jackson called him, saying he had taken off in a tour bus with his children, to get away from everything. ‘I said come here, the kids can hang out with my kids, go swimming. I said he needed proper family time. He said ‘I would like that’, but he didn’t come. He made some bad choices.’
Is the secret to Donny’s longevity – in all senses – that he never made the ‘bad’ choices?
He laughs about the wilderness years when he was advised by record industry bosses that it would be helpful if he could be embroiled in a drugs scandal. Such was his ambition that the deeply religious Donny, who had never even had a spliff, considered it.
‘But, ultimately, I knew I’d have to explain this to my children one day. I did it the hard way,’ he concludes. ‘By staying true to everything I believe in.’
One thing that always amazes people in the industry is Donny Osmond’s attitude to sex. He was famously a virgin when he married Debbie in 1978. He was 20, she was 19. They were teens from the same town, and she’d dated one of his older brothers.
I ask if it’s true he had never been with another woman. He nods. Tempted, ever? Surely the fans must have tried even harder when they learned this? ‘I didn’t let them in!’ he whoops, miming holding the door shut with a shoulder.
He references the actor Paul Newman, who was also always quizzed about his one-woman status, (though a recent documentary revealed that Newman had at least one affair).
‘I remember someone asking Newman, ‘Why don’t you fool around?’ And he said, ‘Why settle for hamburger when you’ve got steak at home?’ That’s how I feel.’
Besides, Debbie would kill him. ‘It would all fall off a cliff. And, you know, I love my wife and it’s going to stay that way.’
The Osmonds are famously prolific. ‘Like rabbits,’ he says. He and Debbie have five sons. Discussing if they ever wanted a daughter, he says: ‘Do you have hope chests in the UK? It’s a chest you get when you first marry that you put all the things you wish for your future children. Debbie filled it with little dresses. After five boys, we started to call it the “no hope” chest, and she eventually gave the dresses away. But we have two granddaughters now so it has all worked out!’
His sons have 13 children between them, with another on the way.
A lot of big stars avoid talking about their family life. Not Donny. He says his philosophy, from early on, ‘was to never get in a situation where my children thought my career came before them. I have seen others make that mistake, and you can’t come back from it. Even now, if one of my children phoned, I would take the call. I try to make my grandchildren’s concerts. Family first, always’.
It sounds a bit saccharine, but only to a point. Keeping a family life afloat sounds like keeping a showbiz career afloat – you have to ride the rollercoaster and work hard, he says. With marriage, too?
‘We work very hard. A successful marriage doesn’t just happen. I don’t want to paint the picture that we are just Pollyanna-ish, or very lucky. We’ve had challenges and arguments over the years.
‘But at some point you have to ask is it really worth falling out over, or is my ego getting in the way, of having to be right?
‘I like to joke that when we argue, Debbie is always right – but I’m only half-joking.’
He says that when they had been married for 35 years, she told him she wanted to go to marriage guidance classes. Interestingly, he didn’t freak. ‘I did ask why. She said our marriage was good but she wanted it to be better.’
Donny the teenybopper pictured in London in 1974 when he performed with his siblings as part of pop group The Osmonds
Some men (and women, for that matter) would have taken umbrage. ‘Yes, but that would be the ego talking again, wouldn’t it?’
Did he go to the marriage classes, too? ‘No, but only because I was away on tour.’
He muses what might have been. ‘It would have looked a bit odd, wouldn’t it? The rumours would have been flying.’
Is his deep faith – he’s still very involved in his church, ‘although I’m not a zealot and I don’t push it down anyone’s throat’ – a factor here? He shakes his head. ‘Four of my siblings have been divorced so I don’t think so. It’s Debbie. She’s the sweetest girl. Always was. And she believed in me when the rest of the world didn’t.’
He doesn’t seem to have a bad word for anyone, but this doesn’t mean he hasn’t had un-Christian thoughts, especially when it comes to the doldrum years.
‘I have a list in my mind of the people who didn’t help me. There is a part of me that would love to release that list, but I won’t. Let’s say you remember who your friends were.
‘I wouldn’t say it was as severe as vitriol, but there was anger. I was like, “Why? Why can’t I? Why can’t the music speak for itself?”
‘But this is the thing about the music industry – it’s never just about music. It’s about attitude, perception. It’s about the cool factor because there is a lot of a crappy music out there.’
How low did he go? Financially, to the bottom. ‘I lost everything – twice. It’s made me very careful but now I avoid the sharks and I’ve encountered some of them.’
He says he has considered legal action against some former associates. ‘Boy, there was a lawsuit, potentially, but it wasn’t worth the bad blood in the industry,’ he adds.
And now, Mr Puppy Love is rather loving having the last laugh.
His secret of survival?
‘It’s about rebuilding the house of cards that fell down. You start putting the cards back up again – with glue this time.’
Donny Osmond tours the UK from November. Tickets via www.myticket.co.uk