As the band digs into the dance funk groove of "My Secret Touch," the singer tomcats his way across the stage. Macho and menacing in tight black jeans, white muscle T-shirt and black leather jacket, he drops his rich tenor to a low-down growl for the song's climactic refrain—which brings screams of pleasure from the overwhelmingly female audience in Columbus, Ohio. "Tell no...body...' bout our secret" he urges. "Tell no...body...'bout our love."
No, this is not George Michael doing his Barry White impression. This libidinous creature with the secret touch is the hot new model Donny Osmond. Yes, that Donny Osmond, the clean teen crooner of such '70s bubble-gum confections as "One Bad Apple" and "Puppy Love." Donny, now 32, has emerged from a decade of oblivion with a comeback album, Donny Osmond, a 34-city concert swing that ended last month (he dubbed it his Credibility Tour) and a grown-up, lusty new image that has set his fans' hearts throbbing. "I've been a fan since the sweet and innocent days," says autograph seeker Lisa Leonard, 27. "Donny is still the man of my dreams."
Still, there are some cynics out there who find the notion of Donny-the-stud a bit much. Isn't this the guy, they ask, who used to pose for photos reading Scripture in bed with a stuffed animal peering over his shoulder? And in the heyday of treacly Donny and Marie TV show wouldn't he routinely sanitize song by turning "wine and whiskey" into "milk"? Yes, Donny has heard the snickers of disbelief. And it makes him angry "When I first came out unshaven in my jeans," says Donny, "people were saying all kinds of things, such as, 'He's trying to be like George Michael. He's all fake. He's not really that mean of a guy.' Do you have to be mean to wear jeans and not shave? That's what really pisses me off about this whole image thing."
Donny's tour bus is hurtling down I-71. Next stop, Cleveland. Snow swirls against the vehicle's giant picture windows as Donny holds forth on his comeback-cum-image transplant "It hasn't been quick," he says. "It's taken 10 years. And it's been difficult" Even choosing the title for his hit album turned into an ordeal. "You wouldn't believe how much resistance I had to calling it Donny Osmond," he says. "People told me, 'Your name's poison, man. Give yourself half a chance.' " Donny shakes his head, laughs, stares out into the driven snow he used to be as pure as. "You know," he says, "real people grow up and go on to other things. But real people feel that celebrities should always stay the same. That's what happened to me."
Perhaps what happened to Donny was too much stardom too soon. One of nine children born to George and Olive Osmond—devout Mormons from Ogden, Utah—Donny first caught the public eye at age 6 when he joined his brothers' singing group on The Andy Williams Show. "At age 13, I was pushed out front as a solo artist" he says. With that "Donnymania" had been loosed on the land. Over the next nine years, Osmond, incredibly toothy and unbelievably wholesome, recorded 23 Top 40 hits (with and without his siblings). His gleaming grin shone out from pillowcases, lunch boxes, socks and posters. "It was a money machine," he says. The machine kicked into overdrive when Donny turned 18 and the Donny and Marie show hit the ABC schedule. Long on goofy, cornball humor, the weekly variety program was, at first a great success. And Donny found his sudden power both heady and disconcerting. "I had to direct some big-name stars," he says. "I really didn't understand or appreciate what was going on. I remember telling Lucille Ball how to sing and what to do."
When the show was canceled in 1979 after four seasons, Donny found himself a has-been at 21. He did Vegas a couple of times, appeared on Love Boat
and toured sporadically with sister Marie. He did a Broadway show, Little Johnny Jones
, that closed after one performance. Demoralized, Donny grew a beard. "I wanted to hide myself," he said slowly, it had begun to dawn on him that the otherworldly innocence he had made his trademark was beginning to wear a bit thin. "You know those Vegas performers who have fake personalities?" he asks. "That's where I was headed." He credits his wife, Debbie—they were married when he was 20 and she was 19—with bringing him back to earth. "She gave me a sense of reality and shut off the show-bizziness," he says. "I started realizing I just had to be myself." So Donny moved from the entertainment wasteland of Provo, Utah, to sinful, mainstream L.A. He was photographed around town with the likes of Joan Jett and Billy Idol. He hung out with other musicians such as Michael Jackson and Boy George. "At times my family disagreed with what I was doing," says Donny. "But they did a good job of letting go." He made a number of demo tapes but couldn't get a record deal. "Nobody wanted to touch me," says Donny, who was was still bedeviled by his Goody Two-shoes past.
The resuscitation of Donny's career started with a cameo role in a Jeff Beck music video in 1985. Osmond played himself auditioning as a vocalist and confided to Beck, "I used to work with a chick named Marie." Showing a sense of humor about his predicament, he says, "started breaking the music-industry ice more than anything." In 1987 he met British rocker Peter Gabriel, who had long been intrigued by Donny as a singer. He invited Donny to his studio in England, got him a producer and, finally, helped him get a record deal. "Peter gave him a kick in the butt," says Rory Kaplan, a music-industry heavy and Donny's music director on tour. "He convinced him it was time [to make his move]."
As a first step toward getting his name back on a marquee, Donny began to surround himself with superior musicians. On his current tour, in fact, his band is a musical all-star team including guitarist Jon Clarke (veteran of the Michael Jackson tour), drummer Jeffrey Suttles (toured with Paula Abdul
) and Jenny Douglas (backup singer for Mick Jagger). His lighting is by Thay MacMahon, whose credentials (Def Leppard, Metallica) such a clean-living fellow would have once found anathema. "In my opinion," says Donny, "the secret to happiness is change. If you get stale, life gets boring."
"Hel-lo, Cleveland!" shouts Donny as he bounds into the spotlight at the city's Palace Theater. The crowd roars—and Donny's ultrahip band howls with laughter. "Hel-lo, Cleveland!" is a line from This Is Spinal Tap
, the devastating 1984 film satire of the rock-and-roll experience. Donny hasn't seen the movie yet, but his band has told him all about it; he plans to catch it soon. Suddenly, the D-man breaks into "My Secret Touch," and the audience is headed for ecstasy. "Ooooo," squeals a 16-year-old in the floor seats. "He's sooo hot."
Perhaps not as hot as he might appear. Donny remains happily married to Debbie and is a devoted father to their three boys, Donald Jr., 10, Jeremy, 8, and Brandon, 4. And he is still an observant Mormon; even on the road, he tries to go to church every Sunday. Sister Marie, who has a thriving country music career of her own, says that despite his new image, "He's the same Donny I've always known." Indeed, he refuses to unbutton his shirt for a photo shoot. "Too sex idol," he says.
But isn't Donny Osmond using sex to sell himself and his music? The question makes him cringe. "Why is it," he wants to know, "that you've got to dig up dirt to make somebody real? Is it that bad to be nice?"
Some guys never learn.