In August 2002, as Larry King waited at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for his flight to Los Angeles, he was approached by an eager young American. “I’m a big fan of yours,” the guy gushed. “I worship you. I idolize you.”
After nearly two decades of hosting his CNN live-interview show, King was used to this type of adulation. “I heard that stuff all the time,” he says. “So I said, ‘Thanks, kid. You want an autograph?’ ”
King’s wife, Shawn, tried to clue him in. “That’s Ryan Seacrest,” she whispered.
“Who’s Ryan Seacrest?” King responded.
“He’s the host of American Idol.”
“What’s American Idol?”
Seacrest, meanwhile, pressed forward politely. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked King.
“Well, if you would be so kind, would you carry my bags?”
And so, he did. Tucking his own bag under his arm, Seacrest, fresh off his first season of Idol and not yet a household name, picked up King’s two carry-on suitcases and toted them first onto the bus that took them to their terminal and then onto the plane.
If Seacrest started as King’s valet, he didn’t stay in that role for long. The two became close friends. Seacrest was a frequent substitute host on Larry King Live and proved so winning at the job that King wanted him to become his successor when he gave up the show in 2010. Seacrest forged similarly close relationships with two other important mentors, Merv Griffin and Dick Clark.
“I’m a big advocate of being around the things that you want to do eventually and being around the people who are doing them,” Seacrest says. “If you can immerse yourself in that environment, no matter what your task is, that’s a good start.”
Seacrest, turning 39 this December, is arguably the most successful broadcaster working today. On Air with Ryan Seacrest, his nationally syndicated four-hour daily drive-time radio show, and the weekly American Top 40 draw 20 million listeners a week. Next month, he’ll return as host for Season 13 of American Idol on Fox—a gig that has earned him six Emmy nominations. That’s just two weeks after he takes another turn as executive producer and host of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest on ABC.
There’s more. Under a far-reaching deal with NBCUniversal, Seacrest hosted the groundbreaking Million Second Quiz in September, and also served as the show’s executive producer. During the show’s million seconds—11 days, 13 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds—contestants competed nonstop in head-to-head trivia bouts inside an hourglass-shaped structure in Manhattan. Viewers could follow all the action with the Million Second Quiz app, with Seacrest hosting an hour in primetime every night. Look for him to show up on NBC in February, reporting from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. A few weeks later he’ll be in his tux asking celebs what they’re wearing for the E! network’s Live from the Red Carpet Oscar show. Seacrest also has endorsement deals with Coca-Cola, Ford and Procter & Gamble.
Combined, those gigs earn Seacrest an annual paycheck in the neighborhood of $75 million. His radio shows alone pay $25 million a year; American Idol, another $15 million. In 2012, Forbes put Seacrest’s estimated net worth at $200 million; that same year, he traded in his $11 million mansion, which once belonged to Kevin Costner, for the $37 million, three-acre Beverly Hills compound previously owned by Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi.
Nice as those neighborhoods are, Seacrest has always aspired to more—amassing the kind of entertainment empires that Clark and Griffin built. Through Ryan Seacrest Productions, he produces a half-dozen reality shows for Bravo, Telemundo and the E! network. RSP is also moving into scripted series. Mixology, an ABC sitcom, will be showing up as a midseason replacement. Seacrest has partnered with Gwyneth Paltrow on The Restart Project, a web series for AOL, and he just sold the comedy Me and My Needs to NBC.
If you’re looking for what drives Ryan Seacrest, you won’t find it in a hardscrabble childhood. He and his younger sister, Meredith, had a solidly comfortable upbringing in Atlanta. Dad was a bankruptcy lawyer, and mom was “CEO of the household,” Meredith says.
But Seacrest did go through some growing pains. For starters, he was chubby and short as a kid (5 feet 8 inches today). “I used to buy husky Levi jeans. It wasn’t that big of a deal, but you do remember putting on clothes and not feeling the most comfortable or confident with yourself.” Although he liked the routine and discipline of sports and played football, soccer, basketball and baseball, Seacrest was a so-so athlete at best. If he wasn’t picked last for teams, he certainly wasn’t picked first. “I was kind of irrelevant,” Seacrest says. “I remember watching those kids who were really good athletes and thinking, I wish I was better at this. I wanted to be the best at something.”
He soon found his niche. When his high school held a contest for a student to do the morning announcements over the public address system, Seacrest won, turned the rundown into a pop-culture show and became known as “The Voice of Dunwoody High.” At 16, he earned an internship at the local radio station. When a disc jockey called in sick, Seacrest had his first on-air experience, and parlayed that into a regular gig on the weekend overnight shift. Three years later he snagged his first TV hosting job, on ESPN’s short-lived weekend sports game show Radical Outdoor Challenge.
At 19 he dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles. He hosted a radio show called Ryan Seacrest for the Ride Home, earning $15 an hour, and got a string of jobs hosting forgettable TV shows like Gladiators 2000 and Wild Animal Games. “They were fantastic first steps into the business, but they weren’t exactly what I envisioned myself doing in the long run. But with each of these steps, I felt I’d eventually walk a path closer to what I did want to do.”
A turning point came at 22, when Merv Griffin hired Seacrest to host Click, a frenetic computer-inspired kids’ quiz show. The show lasted only two seasons, but Griffin became an important mentor.
“When I first met Merv, he asked me what I wanted to do,” Seacrest says. “I said I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I loved opportunity. I wanted to do as many different things as I could, and I wanted to work hard.”
Griffin invited Seacrest to sit in on business meetings he held poolside at The Beverly Hilton Hotel. “I really got a chance to see how he maximized his opportunities within the entertainment industry ecosystem,” Seacrest says. “He didn’t just want to be on the air, he wanted to have longevity and security in owning a lot of different things, including real estate and the shows that he was on.” Griffin’s properties included The Beverly Hilton as well as game shows such as Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
For Seacrest, this was a revelation and a comfort. He was frightened by the specter of stars whom he’d watched as a kid on shows like Diff'rent Strokes , Facts of Life and Love Boat—actors who had fallen out of sight, resurfacing only as cautionary tales on an E! True Hollywood Story. “I’d always thought that you don’t want to have it one minute and then not have it for the rest of your life. How can you build something that will give you security?”
Griffin revealed the answer: equity.
In 2001, when he was 26, Seacrest was offered the hosting job of the hugely popular Family Feud game show. But he’d heard there was another program in the pipeline that might be a more organic fit for him. “I didn’t know what it was, and there was no guarantee that I’d get it,” he recalls. He had the weekend to decide whether to accept the Feud job.
“I can still see myself pacing back and forth in my living room as I talked to my parents about what to do. I remember thinking that because I had a day job on the radio, I could take a calculated risk in passing on something that was pretty good but maybe not perfect for me.” Monday came and “I was still going back and forth, and the seesaw ended on ‘pass’ before it seesawed back to ‘don’t pass.’ It really wasn’t any more strategic than that.”
The new show was American Idol. Seacrest was originally offered a spot as a judge but persuaded the producers to give him a shot as co-host alongside Brian Dunkleman. When Dunkleman dropped out after the first season, Seacrest went solo. Judges have come and gone, but Seacrest has remained the reliable glue throughout 12 seasons.
Explaining Seacrest’s success, Simon Cowell, his sometimes-nemesis, told People, “Ryan has the appeal of a dog that has been rescued from the pound. That is his secret. He’s grateful. He’s happy. Always, always. If he had a tail, he’d wag it.”
After the first season of Idol, Seacrest reached out to Clark, another broadcaster who had turned affability into an empire. “I decided to give him a call and introduce myself and ask him for 30 minutes of his time,” Seacrest says. “What I was doing on Idol was a bit like what he did on American Bandstand, so he was willing to spend a half-hour with me.”
That meeting began another important alliance for Seacrest, who co-hosted New Year’s Eve With Dick Clark for the last seven years of Clark’s life, from 2005 to 2012. Seacrest continues to host the show. Clark was indefatigable, says Seacrest, using an adjective that also applies to himself. “Dick was about the work ethic. He was never going to be out-hustled, and he was never going to miss a great opportunity for his business. He could out-work anyone, and that was a valuable lesson.”
Clark also taught Seacrest the power of silence. “When I did the New Year’s Eve show for the first time, I asked Dick if he had any advice, and he said, ‘Just know when to shut up, know when to get out and let the pictures take the story to the next place.’ To this day, right before midnight when it’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, I can hear Dick saying to me, ‘Shut up and let the action of Times Square tell the story.’ ”
Larry King says Seacrest has learned the lesson well. “Ryan is a wonderful interviewer,” King says. “He knows how to listen. He doesn’t interject himself; he knows that the show and the guest are more important than him, which a lot of talk show hosts don’t know. He doesn’t use the word ‘I’ a lot, and that’s part of what makes him so good.”
Adam Sher, Seacrest’s former agent who is now CEO of Ryan Seacrest Productions, says Seacrest’s listening skills are a great asset off the air, too. “Ryan listens to what people are saying and has an uncanny ability to understand where they’re coming from and what they really want,” Sher says. “In meetings, he spends much more time listening and taking notes than he does talking.”
If Seacrest has a well-trained ear, he also has—as Sher puts it—“a tremendous gut,” which has been equally key to his success. “Every day of his life, Ryan sits across from talent—motion picture, television, music,” Sher says. “He sees these people that have made it and captivated the world, and he’s been able to develop a touch for what people respond to.”
For instance, in 2006 Seacrest had footage shot at a backyard barbecue of a colorful family he knew socially and whose boisterous interactions amused him. “Ryan took a look at the footage and felt it was television gold,” Sher says. Seacrest pitched a reality show built around the family to E!, where he was an on-air host and had a development deal. Execs there saw the same magic that Seacrest had seen in that noisy, bickering Kardashian clan and an improbable franchise was launched. Keeping Up with the Kardashians hit airwaves in 2007, becoming the highest-rated show on the network. It went on to spawn the spinoffs Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami , Khloe & Lamar, Kourtney & Kim Take New York and Kourtney & Kim Take Miami.
Sher points out another example of Seacrest’s intuitive gut: He noticed that whenever food issues came up on his radio show, the phone lines would light up. Many of the callers were young moms. That led Seacrest to work with British chef Jamie Oliver on developing an American version of his successful U.K. series, Jamie’s School Dinners, which followed his efforts to make school lunches healthier. The American show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program. RSP is currently developing a feature film called Food Fight, loosely based on the series.
The segue into cuisine is a natural for a devoted foodie like Seacrest. He has invested in some top L.A. restaurants and indulges a serious wine hobby. He admits that “cheating on my diet is something I live for,” and says cronuts—the croissant-doughnut hybrids—are “one of my top three cheat foods.”
But the trim Seacrest clearly doesn’t cheat all that much. To maintain his kinetic energy with his frenzied start-at-5 a.m. schedule, he makes sure to “eat as properly as possible.” Every morning begins with blending a kale, celery, cucumber, lemon and ginger vegetable beverage. “I didn’t like them at first, but I have learned to like them because they are apparently good for me. And when you’re on the run, they’ll hold you over until you get to the next meal.” Seacrest carts the juices around in an orange-and-gray cooler on wheels. “It’s a very unattractive look and completely ridiculous, but I take it everywhere.”
In another nod to health, he schedules an hourlong workout every day. The time floats from day to day, as does the place (he has a home gym, stashes a gym bag at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and sometimes runs in a park near his office) but “once it’s on my schedule, it’s there—like a pitch meeting or another business appointment.”
His schedule is jam-packed by design. “I don’t like downtime between things,” says Seacrest, “or what we call ‘pad’ in the radio business.” (Pad is, say, adding a five-second comment about the weather if a 30-second commercial spot ends in 25 seconds.) “I like going from one thing immediately into the next.”
Seacrest has structured the geography of his life to eliminate lag time. He does his radio show in the same building that houses RSP, which is just a few blocks from where American Idol tapes. “Consolidation helps with time management,” he says. A talented multitasker, Seacrest fires off emails or makes calls during breaks in his radio show; he uses his laptop to view rough cuts of the shows he produces on airplanes, or—when someone else drives him—in the back seat of the car.
Still, Seacrest says, “I couldn’t do what I do without incredible teammates who run each division of my business so well.” His hiring philosophy is “look for creative, talented people who are good people and good at what they do, bring them in and find the right role for them.” Along with recruiting his former agent as CEO of RSP, he has hired his one-time money manager Jeff Refold (“He managed my money back when I really didn’t have much money to manage”) as chief financial officer. To help Seacrest stay on top of everything the team is doing, Sher has implemented the 15Five system: Every week, each department head prepares a report that takes no more than 15 minutes to write and five minutes to read.
As busy as he is, Seacrest carves out time for a cause he’s passionate about—his Ryan Seacrest Foundation, which has created state-of-the-art broadcast facilities inside the lobbies of pediatric hospitals. He had often visited young patients during his trips around the country and wanted to do more. He was moved by something he frequently heard from both the kids and their parents: Stuck in a hospital for days, weeks or months, the kids soon ran out of things to do. “I don’t know medicine, and I didn’t really know how to talk to the kids about what they were going through,” Seacrest says. “But I could certainly come up with something to distract them and to maybe teach them some things.”
With his parents, Gary and Connie, and his sister, Meredith, installed as the executive team, the Ryan Seacrest Foundation has launched five Seacrest Studios across the country since 2010, with plans to open five more within the next few months. The kids learn how to use the equipment and enjoy in-person interactions with stars such as Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Usher and Justin Bieber; patients also can be disc jockeys and on-air guests. Kids unable to leave their rooms can participate by calling in their questions and requests. The multimedia broadcasts (radio, TV/video and new media) are aired on closed-circuit TV throughout the hospital.
Meredith says she’s awed by her brother’s focus in the foundation studios. “He might have done an Idol show the night before, been on the radio for four hours and then flown across the country,” she says, “but he’ll walk into a Seacrest Studio and notice right away that the angle of the microphones needs to be changed so they don’t hide the kids’ faces. And when the kids come in, he’s totally present for them.”
Seacrest, who is single but hopes to have kids one day, says the effort is well-worth it. “When you walk out of one of these studios and a father looks like he’s tearing up, saying he hadn’t heard his little girl laugh in the weeks that they’ve been there until that morning, that’s our mission. That’s our purpose right there—that’s just what we’re trying to do.”
But now Lady Gaga is waiting. When a single from her new album ARTPOP leaked online ahead of schedule, she tweeted “there’s a pop emergency Ryan.” Seacrest’s team scrambled to pull together an exclusive one-hour interview on his morning radio show. “So that’s what’s happening in my world today,” Seacrest says with a chuckle.
Next up is editing the Gaga interview. Then there will be the Kardashians to deal with, prepping on Olympic athletes, a round of early auditions with Idol contenders, and more.
Seacrest thrives on what he calls this “back-to-back, show-to-show” work schedule. “I say yes to a lot of things, and then later I try to figure out how to do them all.”