Life in the old puppy

Donny Osmond has experienced a controlling father, the death of close ones and career slumps. But he’s still attracting the fans, says Antonia Charlesworth

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As Donny Osmond leaves Salford’s Media City he is greeted by a mass of purple hair. Middle-aged women from up and down the country have congregated there and donned their shiniest wigs, in the former teen idol’s signature colour. “He’s the third person in my marriage,” one of them admits. Despite coming from different towns and cities, the women are firm friends, united through their fandom and following him around the world. They’re about to trail him to London and hope they’re on the same train.

Their loyalty pays off. When Osmond emerges he spends a few minutes with them, taking selfies and enquiring about their lives before he’s ushered into a blacked-out car and whisked away.

“I love it,” he says of the attention. “They turn into 13-year-olds again. It’s great that I can give them that experience.”

Osmond has been on BBC Breakfast to talk about his new album, his sixtieth, and before he leaves he sits down for a chat with The Big Issue in the North. Soundtrack of my Life, mainly a covers album, traces Osmond’s story, and allowed him too to regress. It opens with the first record he ever bought, at age 11 – Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour. “Music has a very powerful way of invoking those memories,” he says.

By the time he bought that record Osmond had been working for six years with his four older siblings as The Osmonds. The all-American family act sang on variety shows before signing with MGM in 1971 and topping the charts with the likes of One Bad Apple and Crazy Horses.

Osmondmania hit, now with youngest sibling Jimmy on board. Various solo careers took off, but none more so than Osmond’s. From 1971 to 1976 he had 12 top 40 hits. In 1976 he and his sister Marie hosted the Donny and Marie variety show and today the double act perform five shows a week in Las Vegas, where they’ve won awards for the best stage show three years consecutively. In between he has enjoyed touring as the lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, stints as a TV host and his recording career.

Now, after celebrating 50 years in the business he wanted to put out an album that was a retrospective of his life, and not just his hits.

“I’m just about to turn 57 and I was born in ’57. There’s definitely some kind of celebratory thing this year,” he reflects.

“You don’t have a normal life and you feel like a fish in a fish bowl or a monkey in a cage.”

The second track on the album honours another child star, Osmond’s friend Michael Jackson. Ben was released in 1972 by a then 13-year- old Jackson, but was originally intended for Osmond who was away on tour and unable to record it. Instead Osmond released, and made infamous, a cover of Paul Anka’s 1960 hit Puppy Love. From those early days Osmond and Jackson’s lives and careers followed a strange parallel.

“We were born nine months apart. We started our careers at the same age. We are both seventh of nine children. Our mothers share a birthday,” points out Osmond, and the similarities don’t end there. Both family acts were managed by controlling fathers and while Joe Jackson’s abusive nature is well documented, little is known of George Osmond.

Jimmy Osmond has spoken openly about the military-style bunkroom the boys were forced to sleep in. Every morning at 5.45 their father would sound a bugle and the family would line up and shout their allocated numbers for a head count, before beginning work on their song and dance routines. In her 2012 autobiography, Marie revealed she was mentally and physically abused by a family friend in her teens, although she refused to say who. The Osmonds remain respectful to their father, who died in 2007, his only daughter caring for him until the end.

But while Jackson’s child stardom and strict upbringing contributed to his demise and death in 2009, Osmond has gone on to live a relatively normal life. He has been married to his wife Debbie for 37 years and that dominant Y chromosome has produced five sons and five–soon to be six– grandchildren, only one of which is a girl. None of them are in show business, with Osmond admitting he didn’t encourage it.

But he admits his unusual childhood did take its toll. “You don’t have a normal
life and you feel like a fish in a fish bowl or a monkey in a cage. You wonder why your friends are your friends.”

This was a contributing factor to him marrying so young. His wife was dating his brother Jay when they met and a cover of Elton John’s Your Song on the album is dedicated to that time.

“I found the love of my life at 16 and she didn’t want anything to do with me. I was a pretty popular teen idol at the time and that’s why she was intriguing – I fell in love immediately. It’s a universal story, but Mike [Michael Jackson] didn’t have that.

“It’s very sad. I tried to bring a little normalcy into his life but it was beyond repair.”

In the early eighties when Jackson released the best-selling album of all time, Thriller, Osmond had faded into obscurity, unable to make the transition from bubble-gum pop idol to credible artist. One publicist suggested faking a drug problem while Jackson suggested he changed his name.

In the late eighties Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel took Osmond under his wing and helped him launch a successful comeback with hits such as Soldier of Love, credited to a mystery artist, in a bid to overcome any preconceptions. Don’t Give Up, Gabriel’s song with Kate Bush, is presented on Osmond’s new album as a dedication to a period he initially recalls as “terrible”, before backtracking and settling on “difficult”. But he admits he is understating what he actually went through. Osmond battled with his mental health.

“I developed social anxiety disorder and panic attacks. You’d think it was because I wasn’t any good anymore but it was just the opposite. It was when I realised ‘I’m back and I have to be the best.’”

Osmond says the pressure for perfection was self-inflicted but, as a devout Mormon, his need to live an exemplary life is underpinned by his faith. He’d have liked to have served a full-time mission for the church but it wasn’t possible. “It was my choice. Well, my family’s choice.”

The initial marketing of The Osmonds by their father was an attempt to raise money to send the brothers on missions. But Osmond’s parents and church leaders then felt he could do good by continuing a career in the public eye and sharing his beliefs. Today he has a portion of his website where he responds to fans’ faith related questions and he tithes to the church, while his sons all serve missions. Despite his obligations, he believes his faith is what has kept him grounded.

“Nowadays it’s quite controversial to say that but I strongly believe that’s what’s saved me in many situations.”

He is able to keep everything in perspective – competing to be at the top of the charts, he admits, is over. This album could be his last. “I just thought: ‘This one’s for me.’ It’s not trying to set the world on fire. It’s already successful because it’s done.

“I’ve weathered the storm. I’ve got a few scars from it. But I’m proud of the scars ‘cos I survived the storm.”


Donny and Marie
It’s a pretty strong brand. We’ve tried to analyse the chemistry and we just can’t, and don’t want to because it’s just organic and real.

His nephew’s suicide in 2010, aged 18
That was so unfortunate. Marie has had a hard life but she’s a strong woman and she’s survived it. Life can really throw us curveballs but it’s how you deal with them. Family really helps. Family and faith.

Sex sells
I think sexy is great. But I think it goes too far. It’s a catch 22 because there’s a lot of noise out there and how do you make yourself heard? You have to keep reinventing yourself. Look at what Taylor [Swift] is doing with 1989. She’s trying everything she can to keep up there without going down that road.

Family reunions
My brothers Jimmy and Jay live close but the others not so much. Marie has her family and I have mine – we really just see each other on stage. Once in a while we have a big family reunion but we don’t have a big Osmond Christmas. This year my wife and I are spending it in New York with our two youngest sons.

*This article was amended from its original which stated that Marie Osmond was abused by a family member in her teens, rather than a family friend.

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