By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Don't bother accusing Ryan Seacrest of ambitiousness, megalomania or delusions of grandeur. Don't charge him with furtively plotting to become the next Dick Clark, either, once Dick has turned in his dimples. Seacrest is plotting, all right, but there's nothing furtive about it.
"One reason I started doing New Year's Eve on Fox five years ago was because I wanted to create the perception that I could be the next Dick Clark," says the 33-year-old host of Fox's "American Idol," television's megahit. " 'American Idol' is my 'American Bandstand.' Dick and I are actually partners in that New Year's Eve show."
Ryan Seacrest's secret plan to take over the world? Nothing secret about it. "I had a total, 100 percent strategy to be the Dick Clark for our generation," he says, "to be the Merv Griffin for our generation, to be the Larry King for our generation."
Whoa. What about our next Oprah Winfrey? Seacrest already went through his Casey Kasem phase, when he was 8 and making audio tapes in his bedroom. Other kids were playing dodgeball and little Ryan was plotting his career. "It was a blessing for me that I knew exactly what my path was when I was 9 years old," he says. "Everything I did, every detail, every step I took I knew was a step closer to what I wanted.
"I knew there'd be about 3 million steps, but I also knew I had to get through them."
As long as he's being the next this and the next that, how about aiming really, really high -- the Next Regis? That might be blasphemy. Besides, the current Regis would say he's too young to need a "next." Might today's Regis, however, see something of the young Regis in Seacrest and his savvy maneuvers?
"Well, Regis wasn't that lucky," Philbin says from his office in New York. "It was a different time" back then.
"Now there must be a hundred guys like Ryan Seacrest running around trying to break in and make it big in the business," Philbin says. "And this is the one that broke through. He's a guy who has trained himself and made it happen -- the right guy at the right time." Luck might have had something to do with it, but Seacrest was, and is, nothing if not determined.
Seacrest has become a household name at the whoosh speed of winners in the "Idol" talent hunt, except that no matter what happens, Seacrest comes back next week and next year. "We've got contracts that go this season and then two more years," he says of himself and the show's three judges: the I'm-so-hip Randy "Pitchy Dawg" Jackson, the breathlessly and sometimes nonsensically enthused Paula Abdul and the top-drawer, top-draw judge, snide Brit Simon Cowell, whose spatting with Seacrest is one of the show's decorative gimmicks.
Although "Seacrest" might sound like a waterfront retirement village, there's nothing remotely sleepy about him. It's not that he's multi-talented; he's anti-talented, not a performer but a professional "personality," the latest variation on a type as old as broadcasting: the guy who stands there and introduces the acts. He's a low-key cheerleader who keeps the show moving and, with the judges as natural foils, allies himself with the audience and the contestants, never threatening to upstage the performers, even if he could.
For all that, he stops mercifully short of outright sycophancy, a la Ed McMahon. Never a "You are correct, sir," even to Jackson. Part of the Seacrest shtick is coming across as a little too cool for his role, yet a good enough sport to play along. Seacrest isn't lovable, nor foolish enough to try to be. He's just aiming for tolerable -- bull's-eye.
What makes Ryan reign? If he's just a coldly calculating career-boy socking away as much dough as he can, there's certainly plenty to sock. He's paid an estimated $12.5 million annually just for hosting "Idol," not counting all the ancillary gigs he's lined up. Among them: a three-year, $21 million deal with E! Entertainment Network to host its special-event programming and take command of virtually all of E!'s "red-carpet" coverage -- and these days every dry cleaner in Los Angeles has a red-carpet opening. Not that Seacrest will show up any time an old moth-eaten red carpet is unrolled. He can be picky about his rugs.
There is oh so much more. The young man who's been included in People magazine's "100 Most Beautiful People," in Forbes's "The Celebrity 100" and declared new King of All Media by Details magazine has investments in eight Southern California restaurants, runs a half-dozen media companies and recently launched "The 'R' Line" of fashionable fashions -- "the new design project from Ryan Seacrest," though designer be he not.
Regardless, Seacrest's "stylish and accessible line of fashion is now available in stores," says the propaganda. And if there is a line of clothing, can a fragrance be far behind? "Seacrest" sounds like a natural for some peachy, beachy scent -- maybe a line of sheets and pillowcases, too. "I don't know everything, but I certainly want to try everything," says the ultra-acquisitive hotshot. "I've lived that way all my life, and it's gotten me this far."
Thus when asked whether there's anything about himself he'd like to change, he pauses longer than most of us would but finally says: "I'd like an eighth day of the week -- to go to the grocery store or take a walk on the beach, little things like that. Maybe go out and get some gas put in my cars since I don't have time." That's right, he's too busy to fill 'er up: "I have someone who fills my tank because my day is so crowded, I can't find 15 minutes to stop."
Seacrest does a daily five-hour radio show in Los Angeles. In April, he's taking three hours of that show national, via syndication, and as part of the deal -- a rather unprecedented part -- Seacrest's advertising company retains 10 minutes of the ad time on the show to sell on its own, so that the profit goes right back to Seacrest and not through any network or syndicator. Seacrest couldn't care less about rumors of his sexual relationships, because he keeps adding corporate relationships to his repertory. "Coca-Cola; that's a very good relationship. The strategy is to get them to spend dollars on our programs," he says cryptically.
"I have great relations with advertisers, so I started an advertising company to sell our own time in my shows and build that business up in the next couple of months. I have several of these little companies: Ryan Seacrest Productions, 'On Air With Ryan Seacrest,' which employs about 20 people; 'Top 40' radio has a staff of about 15; there's Sea Calm, which is the radio division; and Seacrest Sales, which is our sales division. I try to run it lean but efficient.
"The challenge for me is taking all these parts and figuring out how they can come together to make a big media company," he says. The next Rupert Murdoch? Combined with the next Walt Disney? Whatever it takes, he's ready to give it.
"A lot of people are complacent," Seacrest says. "They're happy with their jobs and can make a good living doing that. I'm not like that. I have 10 jobs. I never want to lose one. I also run my organization like a general. I'm involved in every contract, I read every word. I do like that -- I like the business."
It shouldn't be surprising, given all that, that Ryan Seacrest has now trademarked his own name. That's not part of an ego trip, he says: "The content of the shows and the platforms have 'Ryan Seacrest' as part of the title," hence making his name into a trademark.
* * *
When Seacrest says he wants to be the Dick Clark, Larry King and Merv Griffin for a new generation, he does seem to mean all of them at once -- and whomever else he can add to the list. He's guest-hosted for King on CNN and says Larry is quite comfortable with that: "If he ever goes, he's said that he'd like for me to take over," says Seacrest (Larry King -- go?). "I've hosted his show several times. He and I are very good friends. Very friendly. I know his whole story. I know Miami, Washington, Sinatra -- I've got all those stories. He is great. He's an American character.
"And he's been doing it so long."
Uh-oh. If you were Larry, would you take a sip from any glass that Ryan Seacrest handed you? But Seacrest says he and the aging, ailing Dick Clark are just as chummy: "When I do the Emmys, I always call Dick to talk about it," Seacrest says, and of course he and Clark have become a wholesome twosome hosting New Year's Eve from Times Square; the clock ticks away the hours until Seacrest handles the gig all by himself.
You'd be amiss if, based upon his omnipresence on the tube, you dismissed Ryan Seacrest as a ham, a camera hog, someone whose career path might seem to be leading straight toward acting, whether in TV or film. "No chance!" he shouts at that suggestion. "No chance! Performing is something that got me in the door. Building the company, acquiring assets, producing programs, creating them -- that is the most interesting stuff to me right now. I don't think a lot of people realize that about me. I front a lot of different programs; I front the E! News show because we have a production deal with that network and are producing shows for them and will share the ownership in those shows."
What a starry-eyed romantic!
He does have a sense of showmanship under all that palaver about profits and tie-ins and ratings, however. He confesses to having been too "robotic" when he started out as "Idol" host (actually co-host, with a partner since jettisoned from the show). "I did something in the second year that helped a lot," he says. "I took the IFB out of my ear." The IFB is a tiny earphone that pipes control-room chatter and guidance from the producer into his head. "I took it out so the control room could not speak to me during the show, at least when we were live, and that helped a lot.
"Then you're in the middle of it all, you can hear it all, and you can make decisions like a quarterback. If you want to go back to Paula, you go back to Paula. You're just constantly trying to stir the pot and make moments during that show so it's not always the same old thing."
Of course the pot that gets stirred the most, and results in the snottiest or sparkliest moments, is the one from which judge Simon Cowell gets his wisecracks and insults, the ones aimed at Seacrest as well as at the aspiring performers. "Those moments are pretty real," Seacrest says.
"Simon and I are very much alike -- very, very competitive, competing to get the last word in, and that's pretty genuine," Seacrest says. "However, after the show, we don't take anything with us; we can go and have a pizza and laugh about it. So we don't take anything personally. We have pretty thick skins. And I think our relationship, because we're so comfortable with each other, allows us to go there."
Frequently, Cowell's insults to Seacrest include sexual innuendo. "I just think he's got his well of clever statements, and that's probably the only well he can dip into right now," Seacrest says. Cowell sometimes intimates, with a smarmy grin, that Seacrest is sexually attracted to him. "You have to understand," Seacrest says. "Everything in Simon's life revolves around him, and he thinks everybody -- anybody, a plant, a tree, a woman, a man -- everybody wants to have an intimate relationship with Simon, because he is Simon. That's how his mind works."
It is suggested that with all his dough -- Cowell makes $42 million a year, Forbes magazine estimates, from "Idol" and other sources -- Cowell could afford to wear something classier than an undershirt and crummy old jeans. "He's a creature of habit," Seacrest says. "He eats the same food every day, he wears the same clothes every day, he spends his money on cars. I don't know that he's necessarily a fashionista, no. That box-cut haircut from 1982 has been out for quite a while now."
For all the gibes and jabs, Seacrest does have things in common with Cowell. Seacrest likes cars, too; he has a supercool Aston Martin ("the James Bond car," he notes); and he seems to thrive on, rather than resent, jokes about his sexual ambiguity. During the Super Bowl pregame show, one of the three color commentators described Seacrest (who hosted a vapid "red carpet" show as part of the festivities) as "one of those metrosexuals." Craig Ferguson, host of CBS's "Late Late Show," recently included in his monologue a joke about Seacrest that went like this: "Ryan admitted that he cried at Eva Longoria Parker's wedding," Ferguson said with a lubricious leer. "Hang in there, Ryan. Someday you'll find someone just like Tony."
"Tony" is Tony Parker, guard for the San Antonio Spurs. Get it? Seacrest insists he's not irritated by this kind of thing.
As the celebrity guest on "Larry King Live," Seacrest was asked about rumors that he's gay. "Doesn't bother me," he said. "I mean, whether it be that I'm 5-foot-9 and people call me 'short' or, 'Hey, I don't like the color of your eyes.' "
He says now: "It doesn't bother me at all. I love it, I laugh at it, if somebody makes a joke -- fantastic, that's funny. 'Saturday Night Live'? Doesn't bother me. If you are me, or you are you, you know who you are. If you didn't know, the jokes might bother you, but I do know, and most of the things are so far from the truth, they don't bother me at all."
* * *
The more jokes there are, the more inescapable the name "Ryan Seacrest" becomes. It's good for business.
The face is profitably inescapable, too; Seacrest popped up the other day in a toothpaste commercial, yet another source of income feeding into the Ryan Empire. "I choose the products very, very strategically," he says. "That toothpaste is a Procter & Gamble product, and I want to have a relationship with Procter & Gamble because they have so many different products. We have inventory in this new syndicated radio show that I'm going to launch and I'd like to sell some of that back to P&G directly."
For his part, Cowell has compared Seacrest to a yappy little Chihuahua. Every now and then, Cowell told an interviewer, you have to shout or shriek at the dog and swat it off your lap. The analogy might be cute, but it's lopsided. Ryan Seacrest is the one with the world in his lap, and if anyone does the swatting, it will likely be he.
Before our conversation ends, Seacrest is told that there's new evidence he's truly making an impact on popular culture: He was featured in not one but two separate feature articles in the latest issues of the National Enquirer. "Is that how we measure success now?" he asks. One article dealt with his proclivity for face peels at every opportunity. "I've never had any work done," Seacrest says. "I've had a facial or two because I've got to get that makeup out of my pores. Otherwise, I'll look like Pizza Face."
As for his career and what he declines to call his fabulous success, Seacrest says self-effacingly: "I can't complain. I put in a few hours, but I get a nice return. I have the time to stay home." Naturally, it's a pretty nice little home -- a huge villa in the Hollywood Hills that was named by a previous owner: "Casa di Pace," house of peace. Maybe he's working so feverishly and ferociously now so that he can retire at 50 and do nothing from then on; that would make sense.
"I am not that guy," Seacrest says emphatically. "I sleep with my BlackBerry. When I'm on holiday, I bring it along and check it frequently." People magazine says 2008 is the year that Ryan Seacrest ought to involve himself in a big hot romance. They haven't been paying attention; he's already got one.