December 24, 1974 • Atlanta, Georgia
Ryan Seacrest's career did not begin on American Idol, but the popularity of the televised talent search contest on Fox helped make him a household name by 2003. Before taking the American Idol job, Seacrest hosted a highly rated radio show in Los Angeles that dominated the afternoon drive-time slot. His career began to flourish in 2004 with the debut of his daily daytime television show, On-Air with Ryan Seacrest.
Born in 1974, Seacrest grew up in Dunwoody, Georgia, where his father, Gary, was a lawyer. He was an overweight child, teased by others, and preferred to stay indoors listening to the radio. His fascination with the medium evolved into making his own radio show tapes, and he would give the cassettes to his parents to play in their cars. "I thought it was a hobby," his homemaker mother, Connie, told Allison Glock in a New York Times Magazine profile. "But people would call my answering machine just to listen to his voice. They thought I had a professional doing it. That's when I thought, This might be bigger than I think it is."
At age fourteen Seacrest became the "Voice of Dunwoody High School," as his school's regular morning public-address system announcer. He was still anything but a star there, he told another New York Times writer, Hilary De Vries. "I wore braces and glasses and was fat and got teased about it," Seacrest said, "but I was always very ambitious." He eventually lost weight by cutting out nearly everything in his school lunch except for the oranges his mother had packed for him. In 1991, the year he became a junior at Dunwoody High, he landed a hard-to-get internship at Atlanta pop music station WSTR-FM.
One night the regular DJ called in sick and asked Seacrest to take his shift. Both thought the station owner was out of town, but he wasn't, and Seacrest received a surprise telephone call on the studio hotline during his live debut. Assuming he would be fired, he went to see his boss the next day in order to apologize. Instead, the station owner told Seacrest that, though he was not a professional, his stint of the night before hadn't been too bad. The boss offered to start training him, and soon Seacrest was given the weekend overnight shift at WSTR.
"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."
Simon Cowell, New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004.
After graduating from Dunwoody High in 1993, Seacrest stayed at the station and began taking journalism classes at the University of Georgia.
Ryan Seacrest has hosted American Idol since its debut in 2002, but the show is a remake of a British hit that premiered in the fall of 2001. The ITV Network's Pop Idol also featured Simon Cowell as a judge, but it was hosted by a pair of English comedians named Ant and Dec. Unlike Seacrest, they were already widely known in their country, thanks to their popular Saturday morning children's show.
Ant and Dec are Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly. Both were born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1975. They met when cast in a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) soap opera for teens called Byker Grove in 1990. Their characters, PJ and Duncan, were popular, but McPartlin lost his part when the show's writers had him maimed in a freak paintball accident. The two went on to release a series of pop music albums, and in 1995 became hosts of their own short-lived BBC series, The Ant and Dec Show. It was followed by Ant and Dec Unzipped in 1997, but the two boyish, energetic personalities only hit their stride with SM:tv Live, a Saturday morning show aimed at young viewers on ITV. Their antics made them popular with their target audience, but older viewers began tuning in as well. On their show, Ant and Den spoofed the Byker Grove paintball episode, gave away their pop records to guests—joking they still had boxes of them left—and mercilessly teased youngsters who called in to the show.
Ant and Dec hosted SM:tv until Pop Idol came calling. Like Seacrest, their easy banter and likable personalities provided relief from Cowell's cutting remarks. Once they even played one of their well-planned pranks on Cowell, after the show became a success in the United States as American Idol : they donned wigs, fake beards, and prosthetic makeup and auditioned as two of the thousands of hopefuls who tried out.
Ant and Dec are often referred to as Britain's favorite "Geordies," a nickname for those from the north of England, who have a distinct accent. In 2002 they became hosts of Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, which was set to make its American TV debut in late 2004 on the Fox Network. There were no plans to air the prank they played on Cowell, in which they sang a Paula Abdul song with American accents. "Thank god the American audiences didn't see that," Donnelly told Sam Wonfor and Alison Dargie in the Journal of Newcastle, England. "I don't think it would be the best way for us to introduce ourselves to them. Maybe we'll show them one day."
He also made his television debut as host of an ESPN show for kids called Radical Outdoor Challenge. When he was nineteen, he quit the Atlanta radio station and moved to Los Angeles, enrolling at Santa Monica College. He had a hard time finding work in the highly competitive radio market in southern California, but he did land some television jobs. He was a weekend anchor on the entertainment-news show Extra, and hosted series like Gladiators, Sci-Fi Channel's The New Edge, and The Click, a teen quiz show. He also worked as an overnight radio DJ and eventually took over the drive-time slot on
By 1999 Seacrest's show had become the top-rated Los Angeles-area radio program in its time slot. He continued to take the occasional television job, and in 2002 came under consideration for a seat on the judging panel of a new reality-TV series, American Idol. The Fox Network show was based on a hit British series of the previous year called Pop Idol. In both shows unknown hopefuls competed for a chance at a record contract, and viewers could phone a special number and cast their votes for their favorite performer that week. One by one, the singers would be eliminated. Simon Cowell (1959–), a British record executive who made the Spice Girls a success, brought the show across the Atlantic. Cowell and others felt that the likable Seacrest might be better suited for the job of host. "They asked if I thought I could handle live TV," he recalled in the interview with Glock, and "I said, 'Of course,' even though I had no idea."
American Idol debuted in the summer of 2002 and was a phenomenal success almost from the start. Seacrest's on-screen enthusiasm made him an overnight sensation, and the show was seen by some twenty-six million viewers weekly. As American Idol grew in popularity, Seacrest, Cowell, fellow judges Paula Abdul (1962–) and Randy Jackson (1956–), as well as the final contestants, all became household names. Seacrest was sometimes described as the antidote to Cowell, who often judged the contestants' talents harshly. "I think we're showing that there is more than one way to launch a star," Seacrest said, when De Vries asked him about why American Idol had captured the nation's attention. "It could have been a great TV show, but not have any validity in the record-buying world. But we've proven to be very successful that way."
Sometimes Seacrest and Cowell traded insults on the air. Cowell later penned a book on the American Idol phenomenon in which he claimed that Seacrest, known for his perfectly coiffed hair, sometimes spent three hours in the hair and makeup room before a taping. "That's a bit of an exaggeration," Seacrest said, when Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Rodney Ho asked him about it. "My hair, makeup and wardrobe takes about 14 minutes. I don't have three hours in my life to do anything."
Seacrest's schedule became even busier in early 2004, when he began hosting On-Air with Ryan Seacrest, a syndicated daytime television talk show. He described its core audience to one interviewer as young adults who had spent their teen years watching MTV's Total Request Live and were now ready for more grown-up fare. The show was a mix of entertainment news, in-studio performances by guests like Missy Elliott (1972–), and live performances outside its studio at the Hollywood & Highland complex in Los Angeles, a tourist mecca. The host also bantered with guests like Donald Trump (1946–), and segued to reports from the show's remote correspondents. Fox Television built Seacrest a new studio for the television and radio show of the same name, a facility that cost a reported $10 million. By then, Seacrest was thought to make about that same amount of money yearly.
Around the same time his new television show debuted, Seacrest also began hosting the weekly radio staple American Top 40. He replaced longtime host Casey Kasem (1932–), who had retired from the top-rated chart hits countdown show heard on hundreds of radio stations across the United States each week. Kasem had been one of Seacrest's radio idols when he was growing up, along with Dick Clark (1929–), host of the weekly music show American Bandstand from 1956 to 1987. Seacrest once asked Clark for some career advice, and Clark told him the business had changed dramatically over the decades. A stake in ownership was important to have, Clark believed, and so Seacrest negotiated a piece of the ownership pie for the televised On-Air. He hoped that it might become "a brand name that could live forever," he explained to De Vries. "So maybe in 20 years it will still be called 'On Air,' with someone else hosting the show, but I can still produce it. Because, let's be honest, you don't know how long people are going to let you into their homes."
Seacrest's own home is a three-story Italianate villa in the Hollywood Hills. He began dating actress and singer Shana Wall in 2003, which seemed to put an end to persistent rumors about his sexual orientation. In interviews, he readily admitted he had "metrosexual" tendencies, using the catchphrase of 2003 for straight guys who exhibited some of the stylishness commonly associated with gay men. Well before the metrosexual term came into common usage, Seacrest used to talk on his L.A. radio show about getting his eyebrows waxed. He once confessed to celebutante Paris Hilton that his flatiron was also a cherished possession in his household. "What can I do about it?" he asked Entertainment Weekly journalist Nicholas Fonseca, about his love of hairstyling products and well-tailored shirts. "I could lie and pretend that I hunt and camp, but that wouldn't be me. Clothes? Shopping? That's stuff I like!"
"£10m Bid for Ant 'n' Dec.' Birmingham Evening Mail (Birmingham, England) (May 12, 2004): p. 6.
Curtis, Nick. "What Makes These Two the Hottest Stars on TV?" Evening Standard (London, England) (October 26, 2001): p. 31.
De Vries, Hilary. "His Feet in 'American Idol,' and Reaching to Be a Star." New York Times (January 11, 2004): p. AR30.
Fonseca, Nicholas. "The Music Man: American Idol Host Ryan Seacrest's Blond Ambition Has Earned Him a New Talk Show and Makes Him Hair, We Mean Heir, Apparent to Dick Clark." Entertainment Weekly (January 9, 2004): p. 46.
Glock, Allison. "Bland Ambition." New York Times (May 23, 2004): p. 20.
Ho, Rodney. "Life of Ryan: Atlanta-Born Ryan Seacrest Hopes His New TV Talk Show, Starting Today, Is the Springboard to a Media Empire." Atlanta Journal-Constitution (January 12, 2004): p. B1.
Lipton, Michael A. "Fast Forward: American Idol's Hyper Host Ryan Seacrest Makes Room for Talk TV, a Radio Gig—And Romance." People (January 19,2004): p. 69.
Moir, Jan. "'Yes, We Are Rather Middle-Aged.'" Daily Telegraph (London, England) (December 6, 2001): p. 22.
"Movie for Ant and Dec." Evening Chronicle (April 2, 2004): p. 2.
Poniewozik, James. "Shallow like a Fox: Ryan Seacrest of American Idol and On-Air Hopes to Turn Pop Fluff into an Empire. Go Ahead and Laugh." Time (January 26, 2004): p. 62.
Singh, Anita. "Ant and Dec's Audition Fools Pop Idol's Mr Nasty." Europe Intelligence Wire (January 9, 2003).
Wonfor, Sam, and Alison Dargie. "Ant and Dec Bid to Be Idols in US." Journal (Newcastle, England) (November 3, 2003): p. 7.