Describing Ross Mathews as having a personality big enough to fill a room is fitting. Heads turn as the 32-year-old television personality enters the airy lobby of the stylish W Hotel in Hollywood, and even the seen-it-all servers smile and nod in his direction. Mathews smiles and nods back at them. Is Mathews always so effusive? “I try to create special moments with people,” Mathews admits.
Mathews has parlayed a recurring bit on NBC’s The Tonight Show With Jay Leno as the effervescent on-air celebrity-interviewing intern with the helium voice into an admirable career. Besides appearing frequently as a panelist on E!’s Chelsea Lately, for which he is also an occasional guest host, Mathews has guest-hosted ABC’s female-driven talk show The View, competed on Celebrity Fit Club, had a recurring role on Days of Our Lives, and spoken on college campuses around the country. It’s probably his spontaneous red carpet interviews (he says he never does research), where he’s had “moments” with everyone ranging from royalty to Oprah, that have made the biggest impression on fans.
Mathews says he owes some of his success to daytime host Kathie Lee Gifford. Earlier this year, when Mathews secured a deal with cable channel E! to develop his own talk show, he immediately thought back to one certain summer as a 9-year-old watching TV with his mother in Mount Vernon, Wash.
“I remember watching Regis and Kathie Lee interview celebrities, and my mom looked so happy,” he says. “I just did the math. I wanted to make my mom happy, and I wanted to talk to celebrities. Basically, I wanted Kathie Lee’s job!”
Mathews grew up in a small town as a self-described “flamboyant, chubby kid with a Care Bear voice,” but interestingly says he never felt like the object of ridicule. It’s even more unexpected to hear that he’s been a lifelong sports buff. “I played football in eighth grade, and even though I had a passion for it, it turned out I’m no good at playing it,” Mathews recalls. He was also disarmingly gregarious, which he says helped him escape the wrath of school-yard bullies. “I felt like in every group of friends I had, someone had my back,” Mathews says. “So I was really lucky that [although] I was this high-pitched then, this flamboyant then, and this unapologetic then, I never really got shit for it.”
After high school Mathews fled his hometown to study communications at the University of La Verne, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and had what he describes as “a freak-out session” during his senior year there.
“I realized I had no real skills at all,” he says. “Unless you count making a bong out of a Diet Dr. Pepper can or quoting every line to Pretty Woman.” Then a friend told him she had landed an intern job at The Tonight Show the previous summer through a family friend.
“I was like, ‘Hook a brother up,’” he says. “So I got the number of the lady who hires interns, cold-called her, and went in for an interview. She could tell I was obsessed with Hollywood. She told me this is not a glamorous job, this is hard work, and you do it for free.”
Mathews, bowled over by the proximity to his dream job, was unfazed. “I told her I had worked at McDonald’s scraping dried secret sauce out of the garbage can holders for $4.25 an hour,” he remembers. “I would do that here for free just to be a part of the show.”
On the last day of his internship in 2001, Mathews was summoned into the office of Leno’s head writers. “I thought they found out I was stealing food from the commissary, which I totally was,” Mathews says. Instead he was packed into a van with a camera crew to follow guest George Clooney to the premiere of Ocean’s Eleven and interview celebrities on the red carpet.
On the way to the premiere he began to wonder if they were making fun of him. “And I just decided, Who the fuck cares,” he says. “You have to have a little faith in yourself—you know they’re going to laugh at you first, but just make them laugh with you by the end of it.”
Mathews isn’t bothered by what’s often perceived as homophobic humor in the comedy industry, including some controversy surrounding his two mentors. In 2008, Leno infamously asked actor Ryan Phillippe to demonstrate his “gayest look.” Mathews sees it as merely a harmless gaffe. “I’ve only known Jay to be kind and accepting,” he says. “My sexuality has never been an issue. I know he has gay friends, and there are gay people working on the staff. He is the nicest, most inclusive guy that you can imagine.”
Then there’s the always unbridled Chelsea Handler, host of one of the most LGBT-inclusive programs on TV. Still, her on-air jokes about Chaz Bono in August had the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation demanding an apology (a far cry from 2009, when Handler hosted the GLAAD Media Awards). Mathews shrugs off the complaint. “Everyone is fair game to Chelsea,” he says. “You’re in front of an audience and thinking off the top of your head, you’re going to say things that offend people sometimes. Sometimes I’ll be driving home and I’ll be like, Oh, crap, I shouldn’t have said that.”
Mathews also swears he’s never encountered a homophobic situation at any of his speaking engagements, which include such far-from-metropolitan destinations as Laramie, Wyo. “It might be because they know who I am, so they’re not going to come to the show if they hate me,” he reasons, before mentioning that he can sense rural America’s attitude toward gay people changing. “This new generation coming up just feels so different. The feeling I get in these conservative, isolated places is that these kids don’t care that I’m gay.”
In an industry rife with tears-of-a-clown stories, can this guy really be this upbeat, this positive all the time? Mathews swears he doesn’t have a dark side. “This is my baseline,” he says, pointing to the broad smile on his face. “It’s just the luck of the draw. I have a really good life.” His good life includes sharing a house in the Los Angeles suburbs with Salvador, his partner of three years, and their two dogs.
The Human Rights Campaign has also recognized the goodwill being spread by Mathews and in September presented him with the organization’s Visibility Award. “It was the cherry on the top of right now,” he says. “When I was growing up I didn’t know what it meant to be a happy, successful grown-up gay person, and now I do. I feel like I’m setting an example for people everywhere.”
This example will undoubtedly extend to the pilot for his own talk show, which he’ll produce with Handler’s team. “It’s going to be a half hour of laughs and smiles,” he says, revealing hints about what he has in store for his audiences. “It’s a crappy world out there, employment’s down, their homes are being foreclosed, so I want them to look like my mom did when I was watching TV with her and I decided this is what I want to do with my life.”
While Mathews’s visibility is increasing, his waistline has noticeably diminished since his Leno days. Mathews credits his slimmer appearance to Jenny Craig. Despite dropping 40 pounds on Celebrity Fit Club in 2007, Mathews says he gained all of it back — and more. He blames bad eating habits from childhood. “Nutrition wasn’t a priority when I was growing up,” he recalls. “My parents were just trying to pay the bills, and my dad was a hunter, so we ate whatever he killed.” Mathews noticed that a close friend, actress Sara Rue, who was a Jenny Craig spokeswoman, had developed a svelte figure, and through her introduction he was offered a free program. After mentioning it on Handler’s show, he was invited to be a spokesman, making him the first gay spokesman for any national weight-loss company. “I love it,” Mathews says. “I even got my mom on it.”
Mathews smiles and waves at another fan who’s caught his attention in the lobby. Even with his punishing schedule, Mathews finds time for his fans. He undoubtedly remembers the chubby young boy in Mount Vernon watching talk shows with his mother, a reason he makes himself as accessible as possible on social networking sites, including his blog, HelloRoss.
“If I could have had contact with Kathie Lee Gifford that easily, it would have blown my mind,” he says. “I try to do that to people on a daily basis. I feel like it’s part of my job.” For Mathews, it’s all about creating a moment.