Ross Mathews is talking to me from his own office in Hollywood and he can’t believe it. “It’s the dream,” he says, bubbling over with joy. “I’m getting to do exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.”
That dream began back in 2001 when the pop-culture fanatic landed a spot on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” as the host’s buoyant intern. It wasn’t long before Chelsea Handler took him under her wing and he became the comedian’s resident gay. Now, she’s letting him fly solo: Mathews launches his very own show, “Hello Ross,” with Handler co-producing, on Sept. 6 on the E! network.
Before the premiere, Mathews emcees Michigan Pride on Aug. 24, when he’ll spend the entire day in Lansing meeting the community and taking photos. “Come say hi to me,” he insists.
In our recent chat, Mathew talks about how over-the-top gay his new show will be, why he learned to embrace his high-pitched voice and the trick to keeping it together when meeting Madonna.
What kind of message do you plan on bringing to Michigan Pride?
It’s a wonderful time to be gay. You look at what the Supreme Court just did and what President Obama has said in terms of coming out in support of marriage equality, and it really is a new world. My book, “Man Up!,” is all about celebrating what makes you different and using it to make you stand out from the crowd. I think that message is more relevant and more welcome than ever, and that’s what I’ll be bringing to Pride.
When do you think you first felt like you could feel pride about being a gay man?
I felt it right away. The moment it became very clear to me, I was just full tilt. I was 100 percent. No matter what, you have to love yourself more than anybody else.
Your story of being this kid from a farm town who didn’t feel like he fit in, who was bullied and is now the star of his own show, must be really inspiring to young gay people. How do you hope your story inspires those who are going through what you went through as a young gay kid?
When I was growing up, I remember thinking, “What is my life gonna be like?” I didn’t know what it meant to be a successful, happy, grown-up gay person because I didn’t see that. I didn’t see that in my small town. I didn’t see that represented on television. Even when I started on television in 2001, it was really at the beginning, before “Queer Eye” and “Will & Grace,” before Ellen was out, before Rosie was out; it really wasn’t represented anywhere. I started appearing on national television as people like Rosie and Neil Patrick Harris came out and shows like those became relevant, and I was part of something.
From this point forward, whenever kids are realizing they’re gay, they know what it means to be a happy, successful, openly and unapologetically grown-up gay person, and what that looks like and what life can be for them. And I hope people can see me on “Chelsea Lately” and see me on my show and say, “Hey, look, he’s got a partner and a family and a dog and friends, and he never apologized for who he is and neither will I.”
Do you realize that you are like the modern-day Ellen and the modern-day Rosie? You are now that person that you once looked up to.
OK, now that freaks me out! I have a lot more to achieve to reach anything like that, but I will gladly fulfill that role for people, whomever needs it. I feel like I have a big ol’ wagon; everybody hop on it and let’s do this together.
Who’s the tougher boss: Jay Leno or Chelsea Handler?
(Laughs) Well, I would never categorize either one of them as tough in terms of tough on me. I will tell you, though: They’ve both given me incredible platforms, which is very rare for comics to do. I take it very seriously when they do that because they don’t do it lightly, and I know if they give me that opportunity, I gotta show up and be on point. That’s how you get the next opportunity. That’s how this town works. You get a shot, you deliver and you get another one.
And now look at you in your own office.
I know. Isn’t that nuts? And Chelsea is upstairs. You know, there’s been two pivots in my life when it comes to my career: one was meeting Jay Leno and the other was meeting Chelsea Handler, and both of them have been so instrumental and crucial and supportive and inspiring and have served as the most amazing mentors anybody in this town could ever have. I don’t know what I ever did to deserve them, but I will spend the rest of my life thanking them.
Don’t forget about Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who you interviewed recently when you guest hosted “Chelsea Lately.”
When I guest hosted and I said, “Please welcome Mark-Paul Gosselaar,” and he walked around the corner, it was like I needed a time machine to go back to myself at 12 years old in my bedroom and be like, “Oh my god, guess what he just said?” – because it was the most surreal thing in the world. (Laughs) All of a sudden he’s there and he had heard me on “Howard Stern” talking about how, maybe, I had fantasized about him as a young kid watching “Saved by the Bell,” and he said he heard that and told his wife and screamed, “Ross Mathews masturbated to me!” It really was like my head was going to explode.
No pun intended?
Tell me about the “interactive” element of your new show.
It’s a big party. This show is what I wish existed when I was a little kid, when I could reach out and be a part of pop culture. The audience is joining the conversation, and I’ll literally be in the audience with a microphone asking people’s opinions. When I have a guest, the people in the audience can ask the guest questions. We’re Skype-ing people in from all over the country so they can ask questions as well. Everybody’s welcome.
There’s never been a show like this on TV then, has there?
No, there hasn’t. I looked at all these shows that sort of talk about pop culture and the majority of them, if not all of them, were kind of saying, “Isn’t she a dumb bitch?” “Isn’t that stupid?” “He’s so lame.” There wasn’t a show that was doing what I’m doing, which is saying, “I love this stuff, you guys love this stuff, let’s talk it out.”
How gay and fabulous is your set?
Oh my god, it’s pretty great. It’s a little Palm Springs chic-y, but very comfortable as well. We’re trying to mix the two things. And it’s all a little elevated because I am super gay, so it has to be; people would be disappointed if it wasn’t.
Ellen has her dancing. Rosie had her Koosh balls. What will be your signature thing on this show?
I don’t know! I think that kind of thing just evolves, so I’ll figure that out. My thing is sort of interacting with the audience; this show is really for the fans, so if that’s the legacy of this show, I’m thrilled with that.
How did you decide on “Hello Ross” as the name?
There was a lot of debate from a lot of people about the name, but there was never a debate on my end about the show. To me, it was always “Hello Ross.” That’s my Twitter, that’s my website, that’s the spirit of the show.
Chelsea is a producer on the show. How involved will she be?
She’s been involved every step of the way. She sees the whole process and she’s invested a lot in this. Not financially or anything like that, but to say, “I pick Ross, I think the audience wants to hear from Ross, I get behind Ross” means more to me than she’ll ever know.
What have you learned from Chelsea about having your own show?
That there’s a power in saying “I am what I am.” Never second-guessing that thing that only you own and only you know, which is your point of view and your perception of things and your truth. I know that sounds really hippy-dippy, but if you look at her, how many times do you think she’s probably heard, “You can’t say that”? And I’ve heard, “You can’t be that gay, you can’t be that high-pitched, you’ll never host a show with that voice.” But what I’ve learned from her is to use what makes you different to stand out. I could’ve come to this town and taken hosting classes and done this and that and tried to lower my voice, but I would’ve looked like every other rock on the beach. The ones that work are those weird-looking rocks. Those are the ones you notice.
When did you start to really love and embrace your voice?
There was a point in my teenhood when I realized that the voice wasn’t changing. I was this gay cartoon of a person and it was a crossroad for me: I could either hate myself or I could love myself, and it’s just not in my nature to hate, so I said, “Fine, I accept myself fully. Go 100 percent. Be you. Do you.”
You talk about your Madonna encounter in your book. What’s the trick to keeping it together when meeting Madge?
Clench your legs. Don’t just, like, lose it. And if you’re a huge fan, perhaps bring a diaper, because I have to tell you, that was so surreal. All I was thinking was, “Don’t say something that makes her kick you out.” I’ve shot pieces at zoos with animal keepers where they hand you a snake and you think, “This is exotic, this could bite me and this could kill me at any second.” It felt the same way when I met Madonna.
There’s already talk of a follow-up to your first book. Where might you take the second one?
The first book was about this person who loves pop culture and got plopped in the middle of it and tried to paddle and survive. I wanted to sort of establish who I was growing up, how I got plopped in pop culture and why that was such a big deal.
The next book is about what happens now. You achieved this dream; what’s it like? I have a partner, we’re starting a family, I’m trying to see the world and travel. Every day I live this crazy life and I think to myself, “You’ve gotta write this down.” I mean, the fact that I’m sitting where I’m sitting and I walk by celebrities every day on this lot and amazing things happen, and I go to these celebrity houses and I just can’t believe it. I am this superfan, but I get to be on the inside. I think that’s a story people want to hear.