Normally, Ryan Seacrest avoids the time-suck that is the business lunch, but when the famously hardworking broadcaster, producer, and businessman does make an exception, it’s inevitably a bravura display of time management, economy of motion, thrift, dietary discipline, and brand synergy. On a Monday this spring, he was upstairs at Bouchon in Beverly Hills, one of several restaurants—distributed strategically around the city so he’s always near one—in which Seacrest owns a small stake. Bouchon is a minute’s walk from the adjacent hotel where Seacrest was temporarily living and where he’d meet his trainer after lunch, before returning to his mid-city offices. The natty gray suit he wore was a prototype from the forthcoming Ryan Seacrest Distinction line of menswear. The iPhone lying on the table had attached to it a Typo, the Seacrest-developed keyboard extension that BlackBerry-izes a smartphone’s touchscreen (so effectively that BlackBerry, days earlier, had won a preliminary injunction barring its manufacture). Seacrest ordered a Cobb salad, no bacon, dressing on the side, then raised his glass of iced tea and said, “Cheers, bro.”
This tableau notwithstanding, Seacrest, who will turn 40 in December, is beginning to gesture toward balance in his life. He said he wanted to get married and have children, and he has spoken of recognizing that he must commit “units of your week and units of your day” to cultivating a relationship. He was about to move into a new home, then under renovation, that he’d bought from his friend Ellen DeGeneres for $37 million. Shortly after he would get a dog, a black Lab named Georgia, as a self-conscious step toward domestication. He had joined something called the Napa Valley Reserve, which bottles private-label wine for him, and at Bouchon, Ann Colgin, a prominent Napa winemaker with whom Seacrest is friendly, stopped by the table.
Seacrest, who had been vibrant and focused and impeccably gracious throughout the meal, lamented that he hadn’t been able to make her birthday party the previous weekend and complimented her on turning 35. “I just love you,” drawled Colgin, who is in her 50s. She would be a guest at a dinner for Seacrest’s foundation in three days, and Seacrest would be her guest at a LACMA fund-raiser over the weekend. With walls to fill in his new home, Seacrest has begun dabbling in art (picking up an Ed Ruscha print, among other things), and recently joined the museum’s board of trustees. As we ate, he told me about a birthday dinner for “a buddy of mine” at the Sunset Tower Hotel scheduled for that evening. “Like, I’m not canceling that,” he said. “I said to them last week we’re all going, and there’s nothing that’s going to get in the way of that tonight.”
We continued talking—he told me he was looking forward to an upcoming vacation to Italy—and at one point I glanced at my notes. Seacrest saw an opening. “So,” he said, “can we wrap in ten? Five or ten? I just like to stay on track.”
Many are the competitors for Seacrest’s time units. Besides his daily drive-time L.A. radio show (syndicated by Clear Channel to around 200 stations), weekly “American Top 40” countdown, annual Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, and recurring American Idol host and E! red-carpet duties, he produces scripted and unscripted TV shows including the entire Kardashian franchise, is an enthusiastic tech investor (Pinterest, DigiTour Media, Tastemade) and entrepreneur (Typo), and such a formidable presence on social media that he is able, with a single tweet, to launch subjects to the top of Twitter’s list of trending topics. He is a part owner of the cable channel AXS, and he has a $300 million private-equity war chest for other large acquisitions. And this month, with the launch of the clothing line in 150 Macy’s stores across the country, he’ll directly leverage his brand for the first time.
Seacrest’s show-business sweet spot may be that, à la A. J. Liebling, he’s savvier than anyone more famous than he and more famous than anyone savvier. “I always kid Ryan that his favorite show is I Want to Be a Billionaire,” says Rich Bressler, president and CFO of Clear Channel. “Most people say his idol is Dick Clark, but I say it’s Merv Griffin—being at the intersection of everything. Merv was worth $2 billion to $3 billion.”
Having worked in radio for more than 20 years, and with a weekday wake-up time of five o’clock, Seacrest is allergic to dead air and practiced at removing the seams from his segues. But not every DJ transfers that worldview to the rest of his life. “It’s not a radio thing,” says his radio co-host, Ellen “Ellen K” Thoe. “It’s a Ryan thing. He’ll say, ‘I only have so many units.’ ” Jeffrey Katzenberg, Seacrest’s regular dinner companion, says, “we frequently find ourselves giving each other tips about how to be even more anal than we already are.”
This is manifest in Seacrest’s diet (most of each day he is fueled by a green juice blend he brings to work in a cooler pack). It’s present in the way he maximizes even the interstitial moments in his schedule. “You’ll be talking to him on the phone,” his friend Ben Silverman, the producer, says, “and he’ll say, ‘Just give me one minute, I have to go back on the air.’ He’s in the middle of American Idol. Who does that?” It’s in the discipline he brings to his sleep habits. When Silverman first met Seacrest more than a decade ago, “he requested a 6 p.m. dinner,” Silverman recalls. “I tried to explain that I was still at the office rolling conference calls.” They finally settled on a 6:30 seating, with the understanding that Silverman would be a half-hour late. “Which is kind of how our relationship goes,” Silverman says. “Lots of mini-negotiations.”
There’s an elusive, déjà vu–like familiarity about Seacrest: You know his face, and you may know his facts, but he’s still something of a cipher. There are none of the rough patches that give a person dimension. He has a boy bander’s hair; a former Crest-Scope spokesman’s teeth; a politician’s eye contact, handshake, and social graces. He’s limbically jacked into the relatable glamour and unintimidating aspiration of the E! channel. Seacrest conceives of himself not as the celebrity that he is but as the person next to the celebrity, a conduit for the real stars, and this ability to stand deferentially to one side while engaging with the superfamous in a playful, nonthreatening way may be the key to his popularity: “He’s like O-type blood,” says a longtime Hollywood observer. “He could talk to anybody.”
Seacrest’s neuroses are a regular topic of on-air banter with Thoe. She recently bought him a T-shirt that reads MORE ISSUES THAN VOGUE, which she enumerates: “The overthinking. The way he sleeps. The three-item rule in the car. Being afraid of noises on the roof.” The three-item rule? “If you want your purse, a bottle of water, and some other item, everything else has to go in the trunk.” The overthinking? “Even getting the dog—that took a long time to get where we are today. He’s probably been talking about it for a few years.” The way he sleeps? “He has to sleep a certain way … I went online and got him every pillow. A body pillow. A wedge pillow. He’s tried every one, it didn’t work, so I have them all at my house.”
Seacrest’s broad palatability provokes people to want to disprove it. He has had no scandals, to the point where the bar for Seacrest news is incredibly low: A video clip suggesting he’d been booed at a stadium went viral. His sentimentality pulls no punches: He recently introduced “Summer Bucket List,” in which he makes kids’ wishes come true (“We’re sending you to karate camp!”), then broadcasts their tearful reactions. Even the one dissonant note in his uplifting radio show—a discomfiting feature called “Ryan’s Roses,” in which adulterers are tricked into confessing and then shamed—offers the safely populist red meat of tabloid moralizing. He has lapsed into none of the public assholery that afflicts most celebrities at one point or another. He makes no demonstrable effort to appear to be something he’s not; if he doesn’t want to answer something, he’ll politely cite his privacy. His bachelordom, generally nonpublic dating life, and transparency about getting manicures have made him the regular target of late-show gay jokes, but even these seem driven at least partly by an ambient hunger for there to be something, anything, please, about Seacrest that is not as it seems. “How come everybody thinks you’re gay?” a video paparazzo asked Seacrest as he arrived at LAX last month with his 23-year-old girlfriend, Shayna Taylor, before adding, “And you’re not gay.” “Who thinks that?” Seacrest responded amiably.
Seacrest disarms critiques of his middle-of-the-roadness by embracing them. “The first time I met him in L.A.,” says David Katz, CMO of Randa Accessories, the company helping to bring Ryan Seacrest Distinction to market, “an article had come out that said: Is he too plain vanilla? Ryan said, ‘That’s interesting, ’cause 20 years ago, the favorite flavor was vanilla, and it will be 20 years from now.’ ”
If Seacrest seemed, with American Idol, to come out of nowhere, and if his subsequent moguldom appears equally unlikely, it’s only because no one was watching. Growing up in Dunwoody, Georgia, the son of a corporate lawyer and homemaker, he had a precocious interest in being on-air: spending his lawn-mowing money on a mixer, making lip-synched Bon Jovi videos, DJ-ing countdowns and doing fake TV news broadcasts in his bedroom, serving as his high school’s announcer (the Voice of Dunwoody), going to Six Flags to watch DJs perform, calling a Star 94 DJ for tips and ultimately scoring an internship and then the overnight show while still in high school. “I was just fascinated picturing what was happening while listening to a disc jockey,” he told me. “He’d say, ‘I want to be the next Casey Kasem,’ ” Connie Seacrest, his mother, says, “and I’d say, ‘Okay, fine.’ ” He’d record her answering-machine message, and her friends would call just to listen to the message, she says, “ ’cause he did such a good job.”
To become the most industrious man in the entertainment industry, Seacrest needed a few insecurities to take root. Home life was stable. His parents have been married for 44 years, and when he was growing up, family dinner was emphasized. “One of the things he’d say,” Connie says, “was, ‘I’m never going to be an attorney and work as hard as my dad.’ I say to him now, ‘You’re kind of eating those words.’ ” But there were a few years as a chubby kid who wore husky jeans and wouldn’t take his T-shirt off at the pool; he’d trade the healthy lunches his mother packed for him for “a Hostess Twinkie or some kind of Swiss chocolate cake that was not on the program,” he says. “I knew he’d grow out of it, but he didn’t know that,” his mother says. Young Ryan also had a social eagerness that it’s hard to imagine wasn’t annoying to peers. “I always wanted to know what everyone was doing,” he says. “So at the end of school, Fridays in junior high: ‘Where are you hanging out? What are you guys doing?’ ” His teachers, on his report cards, noted it as an area to improve. “They said, ‘It’s not a bad thing,’ ” his mother recalls, “ ‘but it’s sometimes disruptive.’ ”
Even as he found himself juggling school and football and his radio job, a powerful drive was coming into focus. He watched Dick Clark ring in the New Year on TV and projected himself through the screen. “I wanted to feel that scale of celebration,” he told me. “I wanted to be a part of that kind of action.” When Star 94 asked him to run a local road race and report on it, he flew home early from a class trip to Europe. When weather threatened to keep him from meeting another radio obligation, his family cut short a vacation to Florida, and back in Atlanta Ryan spent the night at a hotel near the station to ensure he’d be able to make it there in the morning.
Seacrest broke into TV his freshman year at the University of Georgia, when a connected roommate helped him land an audition for a new kids’ game show on ESPN called Radical Outdoor Challenge. If you watch a clip preserved on the internet, you see an overcaffeinated teenage shock jock with a red beanie. You don’t necessarily think: That kid’s going places. But CNN profiled the 18-year-old, and he did a good-enough job on the ESPN show to be offered a job hosting another kids’ game show, called Gladiators 2000, which would shoot in California.
In the CNN profile, Seacrest had said, “I have always put my education as my, you know, my first main priority, and I don’t think that any of these jobs or any of these opportunities should change that.” When he got the Gladiators 2000 offer, he presented a formal case to his parents for why they should support a decision to drop out of college. “Part of his pitch,” his mother recalls, “was ‘People say I’m good.’ ” He drove to Hollywood in his Honda Prelude, with $2,000 in saved Christmas cash, and spent the next eight years bouncing around radio stations and TV shows featuring children and animals. One was produced by Merv Griffin, who let Seacrest audit some of his meetings.
Thoe, who knew Seacrest before they started working together, says that in those pre-Idol days, he was “a hustler. Even at the gym, he was taking phone calls.” Seacrest interviewed on both coasts for MTV gigs and was passed over both times. He remembers living in the Valley, driving to Glendale to shoot five animal game shows a day, and coming home exhausted to the Melrose Place–like complex where he lived. When Friends was on, he’d get together with the other young residents (actor Mario Lopez and future Dateline reporter Andrea Canning among them) to watch on a black leather sofa surrounded by black lacquer furniture. “I really wanted to be successful on TV and radio,” Seacrest says, “but I remember thinking to myself, I can’t even fathom what it would be like to be on a show on a network, in prime time, and it was No. 1. Fast forward to the machine that was Idol, and I was living that fantasy.”
Seacrest had already been offered Family Feud, but he’d turned it down after being told there was something else in the works that he’d be right for and that could be big. American Idol launched in 2002, when Seacrest was 27, and within two years was the No. 1 show on television, a perch it held for the next six years. Jeff Zucker, now the president of CNN, has called it “the most impactful show in the history of television.”
It was a role Seacrest grew into. After one year, his co-host, a comedian named Brian Dunkleman, left Idol and Seacrest removed his earpiece, trading producers’ instructions for his own spontaneous reactions. “It really is a show you have to listen to more than speak to,” he says. In the wake of the show’s explosive ratings success, he didn’t go out and buy a Bentley and Aston Martin right away (those would come later). “I thought this could go away at any time,” he says. “I think midway through season two, the life didn’t get bigger, but the feeling was different; we knew we were onto something that was resonating in popular culture.” After every show, he’d go home and review the tape right away. “I couldn’t even speak to my mom until after I’d watched the show. And I’d either feel fine or beat myself up if it didn’t feel right. I had to learn to manage it.”
The speed of his ascent brought new opportunities: high-profile commercial work, other TV gigs (including subbing for Larry King), and marquee radio jobs, replacing legendary L.A. drive-time DJ Rick Dees and Casey Kasem. At times, his ambition exceeded his reach. A daytime talk show on Fox, On Air With Ryan Seacrest, was canceled after six months. A licensing deal to put out a clothing line called the R Line was short-lived. But Seacrest was playing a longer game.
Soon after Idol’s start, he had cold-called Dick Clark and gotten a meeting with him. “I said, ‘How do you do what you’ve done in the universe of today?’ ” Clark had amassed a fortune by owning large chunks of his TV shows, including American Bandstand. “He said, ‘You can’t do it exactly how I did it anymore.’ ” The world had become more diversified, and leverage once possessed by producers and talent had shifted to the networks. Since the pieces of the pie had shrunk, to be Dick Clark now meant having many more pieces—digital, TV, cable, technology, clothes. “I walked out of that meeting,” Seacrest says, “and I wanted to be in Times Square.”
Soon after Idol rehearsal ended on a Wednesday afternoon toward the end of this past season, Seacrest was in his frigidly air-conditioned trailer behind Stage 36 on the CBS Television City lot. Similar in size to those of judges Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban but a paltry shack compared to Jennifer Lopez’s double-decker next door, Seacrest’s trailer was modestly appointed—a vase of orange roses and orchids, a scented candle, a blender (for green juices on the fly). He joked about how its décor was appropriate to that night’s ’80s-themed Idol, when he was looking forward to using various props including a Chia Pet, Rubik’s Cube, and brick phone.
Seacrest’s British stylist Miles arrived with a few shirts on hangers. Seacrest’s dressing room, a separate chamber in the trailer, was full of suits grouped into ready-to-wear color clusters—black suits with compatible shirt-and-tie-and-pocket-square pairings (and so on for brown, gray, and blue suits)—that let him streamline his dressing process. Ryan Seacrest Distinction will translate this idea for the masses via a Garanimals-like system in which each item will have a color code or two to ease coordination.
Randa first approached Seacrest a year ago, after observing that there hadn’t been a successful launch of a new mainstream menswear brand in 15 years and concluding that Seacrest would be an ideal vehicle: He had a high Q score, a stable and diversified sort of fame, and an un-fickle, dressed-up sense of style (he’s been wearing Burberry suits for years, mixing in everything from Saint Laurent to J.Crew). “In our industry, we say traditional black and contemporary blue,” Katz says. “Ryan’s midnight navy, right in between. When we started talking to our trend people, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve had Ryan on our concept boards for years.’ When we started talking to stores, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve had Ryan on our trend boards for years.’ ”
For Seacrest, it was a chance to monetize an extracurricular enthusiasm. One of the perks of Idol had been wearing (and keeping) elegant suits, and he had become friendly with Burberry’s designer and now CEO Christopher Bailey. “I really like getting dressed up,” Seacrest told me. “I like to put on a suit. I like to go to work in what I call my uniform. I like to dress nicely for dinner.”
The line, which arrives in stores this month (exclusively at Macy’s), is priced to let a million Seacrests bloom ($550 for a suit, $69.50 for a shirt). “Ryan shared a story with me that when he first moved to Hollywood from Atlanta and met with Merv Griffin, he didn’t have a lot of money but he knew he had to look good,” Katz says. “It’s important to him that men who didn’t have a lot of money, particularly when they’re starting out, could still look really sharp.” Seacrest, for his part, sees his customer as “all ends of the spectrum: a guy interviewing for his first job, working a full day and stopping for a bite on the way home … and a guy my age wearing a suit every day.”
Having whiffed with his earlier stab at fashion, Seacrest is taking this launch seriously. He has approved every item, fabric, and fit, offering extensive notes for the designers at the various companies making the different parts of the line, weighing in on everything from armhole height to lapel width to pocket-flap style to inseam cut: “things I’d learned by wearing suits for a living for a decade on the air.” The resulting lineup strikes an urbane, young-man-on-the-make, Rat Pack note, with tie bars, pocket squares, and jackets with high-gorge notch lapels. There’s also a lot more ambition. Where the R line was what Seacrest calls “a fun T-shirt project,” Ryan Seacrest Distinction will be “a true lifestyle brand” that, if all goes as hoped, will eventually grow to include everything from sweaters to shoes to watches to bags. As the face of the line, Seacrest will model the clothes himself in men’s-magazine ads and a Macy’s TV commercial, is committed to wearing them on every American Idol broadcast, and during Fashion Week next month will host the resurrected fashion-music fund-raiser Fashion Rocks on CBS.
At the Hotel Bel-Air, as swans and heavy security milled about, 100 guests arrived for the debut fund-raiser for the Ryan Seacrest Foundation, which launched four years ago. Seacrest’s sister, Meredith, who runs the foundation, and his parents, who also work for it, mingled with many of his friends and business partners, including Randy Jackson, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom, three Kardashians, and one Selena Gomez, her hair tied up to one side. Napa Valley Reserve wines were poured.
Seacrest arrived straight from Idol, in a dark suit, no tie, and introduced Harry Connick Jr., who would sing a few songs. Connick, sitting at a piano, said that it was only tonight, after meeting Seacrest’s parents and sister, that he understood who Seacrest was. “We’re here in the center of smoke and mirrors,” he said, “and he’s real.”
After everyone had taken seats for dinner, Seacrest thanked the Kardashians for coming, playing up his red-carpet persona by asking: “Who are you wearing?” (Kim was wearing Kardashian Kollection.) “I had to ask,” Seacrest said. Then his sister introduced a video explaining the foundation’s work, which consists of building radio and TV broadcast studios in pediatric hospitals, where sick kids learn the ropes and visiting stars come and meet them: Seacrest wants to create what would be the first major pediatric-hospital entertainment network. Gomez, the foundation’s ambassador, stood and said: “The food is bomb, right?”
After dinner, Seacrest’s mother circulated, schmoozing and deflecting compliments (“There’s no school for parents, you do the best you can”) and half-joking, “I feel sorry for the dog. He’s never home.” The foundation and its embrace of his family are at once another of Seacrest’s efficiencies and one of the ways in which he’s trying to slow down, or at least have a more integrated life.
Seacrest knows that Idol, now taping season 14, won’t be around forever. The show has been in a ratings slump the past few years, which analysts blame on everything from format fatigue to the inevitable entropy of a once-hot show that has already had a pretty long run. “If I knew the real answer to that, I’d be able to keep it from going down,” he says, citing complex factors including contestants’ stories and chemistry among the judges. “But when I watch these shows back, even in the decline, they’re very good television shows, and I hope the show has a life of a few more seasons.”
Even if Idol were canceled tomorrow, Seacrest still thinks he’d look for a comparable TV role, and he has no plans to shrink his radio presence, both because it feeds everything else and because it still excites him. That’s been his routine since he was a teenager: Wake up early, brush his teeth, go to work. As his life sprawls in a million directions at the very moment he’s looking for something deeper, he’s still figuring out exactly what deeper looks like.
Earlier, Seacrest had spoken about his struggle with priorities over the past two decades. “Amazing things you have access to, places you get to go, and people you get to meet that are … so interesting. But I also had to cancel things a lot. And I think in the last couple years I realized, Wait a minute, I could never truly make solid plans for things that were outside of work. And I would cancel them to do work. But I wouldn’t cancel work to do them. And I think now I feel like I have a better perspective of balance and priority. And I want to be able to be there for things I wasn’t always there for. And I certainly know that, after seeing my parents, you have to be available to compromise and deliver on your commitment. I think that I was so committed to one aspect of my life, and now I want to even out that commitment more.”
And then, at 10 p.m., Seacrest, with a 5 a.m. wake-up for tomorrow’s radio show, said, “I’ve gotta go,” and left.
*This article appears in the August 11, 2014, issue of New York Magazine.
Photo: Seacrest wearing Ryan Seacrest Distinction. Photograph by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine.
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