Jimmy Osmond: ‘I think I’d be good in prison – I really keep myself entertained’
The singer, who had his first hit when he was nine, talks showbiz, ‘Grease’ and Michael Jackson’s pets
The artist previously known for Long Haired Lover from Liverpool, soon to be performing in Dublin, is on stage in Cardiff. He’s in a silver suit so dazzlingly bright it rivals the strobe lights panning the excitable audience. There is a full house, and the audience has gone crackers; roaring, shouting, whistling. The woman in front of me is hopping up and down. So too are the young girls in the same row.
We’re watching the evergreen musical Grease, but it’s not the main characters Danny or Sandy the crowd are going wild for. By far the loudest roars of the night are going to the middle-aged man playing the famed cameo of Teen Angel, wielding a guitar as impossibly white as his teeth.
The man in the silver suit is Jimmy Osmond, who is marking his 50th year in showbiz: a career that began with his siblings, the Osmonds, when he was all of four. He was a positively ancient nine years old when he had his number one hit, Long Haired Lover from Liverpool.
I can only imagine the crowd reaction when Osmond sings that song in Liverpool. In Cardiff this week, my eardrums feel as if molten pokers are being shoved into them, and Osmond isn’t even singing that song. He’s singing the marvellously bitchy lyrics of Beauty School Dropout, to dropout student Frenchy.
Jimmy Osmond, who probably has more stage hours logged than the collective tally of everyone else in the show, is The One That The Audience Want. “Beauty school dropout!” they roar back at him, while Osmond performs with the confidence of a man who knows that when the audience goes home, what they’ll remember most about this production of Grease are these six or seven classic minutes of glorious kitsch. The run is until December, but Osmond is appearing in the role of Teen Angel only in Cardiff and Dublin.
The following afternoon, Jimmy Osmond and I sit in the corner of a room in the vast Wales Millennium Centre. I am afraid of my life I will address him as “Donny”, his older brother who, as a young boy, also had a hit song with an unlikely title, Puppy Love. I wonder briefly if journalists who interview Donny fret about calling him Jimmy. He has a very big mop of very shiny brown hair that I just about refrain from pulling, like Santa’s beard, to see if it is real. He has a great big smile, and he says he likes my red hair. We’re friends already.
“Have a candy,” Osmond says, proffering a wrapped sweet, which I squirrel away in my bag at once, with the intention of doing something with it. Auctioning it. Giving it to someone for Christmas. Eating it.
For a man who must be sick to the back of his gleaming teeth of being asked the same questions over and over for literally decades, Osmond is remarkably good-natured. He doesn’t even mind when I nosily ask him for a look at his flashy gold watch, framed with a circle of rather sizable diamonds.
“It’s a Rolex,” he says, taking it off, so I can see. His wife, Michelle, and he gave each other one for the millennium, so it’s a long-lasting performer, like himself.
Where to begin? Did he have any idea what a lover was, when he was singing about being one, aged nine?
I’ll be your long-haired lover from
Liverpool, And I’ll do anything you say. I’ll be your clown or your puppet or your
April Fool, If you’ll be my sunshine daisy from LA
He roars laughing. “I had no idea even where Liverpool was at that stage. I’m embarrassed to say that it was probably my teenage years before I thought about what the words meant. Then I realised the song was actually about The Beatles. I had had no idea before. The song was kind of like Bob the Builder of the day; one of those songs you love to hate, because it was played so much, but to this day, people still know it and love it.” He still sings it live. “I left it out of the set once when we were playing the O2 and people started doing this [he stamps his feet]. It taught me that you don’t mess with people’s memories; you are just grateful to be a part of them.”
As for the role of Teen Angel, “What’s fun is that I have such a small part in the show, but it’s right at the sweet spot, and the reaction is always fun. I love playing it. It’s just one number, but I always want to do my best. I wouldn’t be here unless I loved it and it was something I wanted to do. I could be doing a lot of other things if it was just about the money.
“What’s quite funny about this role is that I own [the Andy Williams Moon River Theatre in Missouri] and Frankie Avalon is playing in my theatre this fall.” Avalon played the original Teen Angel in the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John movie. “So I’m telling Frankie, hey, I’m playing you.”
The Osmonds and the Jacksons were contemporaries, and knew each other. “The older bothers used to hate the fact that Joe, their dad, used to make them watch us on The Andy Williams Show.” Michael Jackson was a friend of his, “but I wasn’t his closest friend”, as he puts it.
The last time he saw Jackson was in Jackson’s mother’s house.
“He had Muscles with him, and I was like, put off, because it was a bit weird.” “Muscles?” I ask. “His snake. He had a snake called Muscles.”
Later, I google this snake. Muscles was a boa constrictor the size of a sleeping bag. I can totally see why Osmond was put off during his last meeting with Jackson.
“Michael Jackson was quite odd, but I think a lot of it was calculated to get media attention,” he says. Osmond worked for Jackson for a time. A peculiar time. “I was there when they bought the Elephant Bones [John Merrick’s bones, about whom the film The Elephant Man was made]. I was there when they closed on Paul McCartney’s catalogue. Yeah. Weird times.”
How does he think the wholesome Osmonds in their matching white trouser suits and wholesome family entertainment would fare today on the reality talent TV shows? I am trying to imagine Simon Cowell watching the Osmonds in 2017, and what interesting things he might say.
“What we did wouldn’t go today. It probably wouldn’t have lasted as long for us today if we were performing now as we were then. We really grew up on TV and it gave us a lasting career.”
Osmond has only one number in the show. What does he do backstage? “I think I’d be good in prison, because I really keep myself entertained,” he says. “I’m still running my theatre back home, so I’m on the phone a l ot. I’m also a cartoonist. I draw . . . caricatures of people I work with; I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
What was his last cartoon of? “My two sheep,” Osmond says. “My two rare sheep.” Yes, he said sheep. A couple of weeks ago, Osmond bought two New Forest Valais Blacknose sheep, at the urging of his daughter, Bella. They’re more like a kind of poodle dog; with fluffy black faces and legs, but sheep they are. Osmond hopes to bring them back to Utah, where he lives; that is, of course, if President Donald Trump will let them in.
I learned that you don’t mess with people’s memories; you are just grateful to be a part of them
Grease runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from August 1st-12th, starring Jimmy Osmond as Teen Angel, Tom Parker as Danny, and Danielle Hope as Sandy. bordgaisenergytheatre.ie
Jimmy Osmond: ‘We really grew up on TV and it gave us a lasting career.’ PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID BECKER/GETTY IMAGES