Actors of television and film, recording artists, sports figures, stars of reality television, all are thrust into the limelight. For some it is a fleeting 15 minutes, for others a lifetime. The ways they respond to the public’s attention are as varied as the performers themselves. It is no secret that America places a very high value on celebrity, and when such a person begins to speak we tend to listen. Invariably, all who have achieved high-profile status find the opportunity to use their voices, or their images, to make a difference. For some, the causes and organizations drawing them to dedicate their time relate to very personal experiences or deeply-held passions. Kevin Richardson, best known as the bass vocalist of the Backstreet Boys, has long been concerned about issues affecting the environment. Now he has also taken the opportunity to turn the very personal loss of his father into a chance to raise public awareness of colon cancer and the need for regular testing. ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper recently sat down with Richardson in his Los Angeles home. Together they discussed his career, his father, the importance of screening for colon cancer and the foundation he’s started to help save the environment.
Chet Cooper: Is it true you grew up in a log cabin?
Kevin Richardson: Yes. It was like one of those Lincoln Log homes that come in a kit for you to put together. In fact, our bedroom floor and a bar in the entertainment room were made from refurbished barn lumber. We had a barn that was falling down, so we tore it down the rest of the way and reused the wood. Once you plane it and put linseed oil on it, it comes right back. There is nothing like old-growth wood.
My father worked for the Diocese of Lexington, an Episcopal church—although we weren’t Episcopalians—and he ran a summer camp in Eastern Kentucky. The camp was in the Appalachian Mountains, in the Daniel Boone National Forest. I was a hike leader and camp counselor, and my brothers and I mowed the grass, cleaned the toilets, helped out in the mess hall and participated in the camps.
It was a church camp, but all types of groups would use the facilities—children’s community groups and different religious sects. A group from Iran of the Bahai faith came there one time. They all had to leave their country because Iran was systematically killing the Bahai. There was a huge sect of them here and they came up to the camp. We had the Boy Scouts. Anybody could rent the camp, so we hosted a lot of people from all over the world.
CC: Did you have running water in the cabin?
KR: Oh yeah, absolutely. It was from a natural spring, though. My grandparents still have it. It’s the best tasting water, so sweet and full of minerals.
CC: Do you ever go back?
KR: I haven’t been to the camp since my father passed away in 1991, but I go back to Kentucky all the time. I want to live there eventually. In fact, I was just there for my brother’s 40th surprise birthday party.
CC: He didn’t know he was 40?
CC: How did you make the transition from living in the woods to where you are today?
KR: I just moved to Florida to seek out opportunities.
CC: Why Florida?
KR: I figured it would be a good place to start instead of New York or Los Angeles, and I wanted to get my feet wet. Florida has tons of entertainment opportunities because Walt Disney World and Universal Studios are there. There is also a lot of production that goes on. Quite a few movies are starting to film in Florida.
CC: Before moving to Florida, had you been involved in high-school theater?
KR: I did theater. I also played in bands and played football.
CC: So you already knew you had some burgeoning talent?
KR: I had been singing all my life, but I started acting in high school. I wasn’t originally taking drama, but the drama teacher asked me to audition for Bye, Bye Birdie. I did and got the lead role. Initially I was kind of scared, but once I did it I got bitten by the bug and loved it. I did Chicago on Broadway the year before last. That was a great opportunity and I had a blast.
CC: You’ve been singing your entire life; do others in your family sing?
KR: My grandfather was in a barbershop quartet and my grandmother was in a gospel quartet with her sisters. My mom sang in high school choir and so did my father. I sang in church choir all my life, through elementary school, junior high and high school. I started playing in the band and learned to play piano by ear.
CC: By ear? Did that hurt?
KR: Yeah. Sometimes it did. (laughs) At Christmas our house is like a Donnie and Marie Christmas Special.
CC: Have you seen Donnie and Marie in concert?
KR: It was the first concert I ever went to. At the time my cousin was the only one who could drive and he took me and my brothers. From where we were standing in the nosebleeds you could hardly see them on the stage. Actually, my first concert was Ike and Tina Turner when my mom was nine-months pregnant with me. I felt the vibrations! It’s been in my bones ever since.
CC: Did watching the Osmonds make you think, “That’s what I want to be doing?”
KR: I’ve always loved music, not necessarily just the Osmonds. I remember lying on the floor of the living room with headphones on when I was four or five years old, listening to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Chuck Barry, Fats Domino, Ike and Tina Turner, Donnie and Marie, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin…
CC: No kidding, Dean Martin?
KR: Yes, I loved Dean Martin. He was one of my father’s favorite singers. He was so smooth. I like him better than Frank Sinatra. But I would lie on the floor and analyze everything. I’d listen to all the strings and the background vocals on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and try to pick out the different instruments. I was fascinated. At night I would fall asleep with the radio on. Music was always a part of my life.
CC: Do you have a desire to pursue television or film?
KR: I would like to when the right opportunity presents itself. I have been taking classes and I’m familiar with stage, but I’m not as familiar with acting on camera. In musical theater you have to be very big and very animated, while film and television are more toned down. I have been reading scripts, going to auditions and looking for the right opportunities.
CC: Have there been offers?
KR: I’ve had offers, but I want to [choose a project] because I am passionate about the script or project, not for the money.
CC: What types of movies have you been pitched?
KR: They wanted to do a movie about the Backstreet Boys. I actually auditioned for Josie and the Pussycats, but I decided not to do it because I want my first film not to be connected with music, so people can see me in a different light. Eventually, I’d also like to produce. My wife Kristin and I are developing quite a few ideas. Kristin is an actor as well and has performed on Broadway.
CC: Where did you and Kristin meet?
KR: We met at Walt Disney World when we both worked there almost 13 years ago. We dated on-and-off for about eight years and we have been married for four.
CC: No children?
KR: No children.
CC: Couple of dogs?
KR: Couple of dogs. (laughs) We are going to start working on children soon, hopefully.
CC: You mentioned your father passed away in 1991.
KR: He died of colon cancer. Ten months after he was diagnosed he passed away. By the time they found the tumor it was huge, almost the size of a grapefruit, and already at stage four. They operated and he went through chemo, but it was too late.
CC: How old was he?
KR: He was 49.
CC: Did he not experience any symptoms?
KR: Once colon cancer becomes symptomatic, nine times out of ten it is too late. If you catch it early enough through a colonoscopy, while it’s still in the polyp form, you can treat it and essentially defeat it, with a 99 percent recovery rate. Both of my brothers just had colonoscopies and they found polyps.
It is recommended that if a person in your family has had colon cancer, you should begin getting checked ten years prior to the age he or she was diagnosed. Men and women should get checked as soon as they turn 40 anyway. This disease is nondiscriminatory.
CC: People typically associate colon cancer with men. Do you know what the male-female ratio is?
KR: Men and women are equally affected.
CC: What organization are you working with to promote awareness?
KR: The Colon Cancer Alliance—or CC Alliance—asked me if I would be interested in helping them, and I said, “Absolutely,” and I am honored. If my father had gotten screened he probably would not have died of cancer. The same holds true with breast cancer; if you get screened and they find it early enough you generally survive, you win. I want to help raise awareness because for most people it is an embarrassing topic; you don’t generally sit around the dinner table and discuss it with your family.
CC: Was your father the private type?
KR: Our father was old-school. He had a very high pain threshold, and he was a southern man who didn’t complain a lot. He was an outdoorsman, a construction worker, a fireman. His last job was as a manager of The Cathedral Domain a camp in eastern Kentucky. He was the kind of guy who would cut his hand to the point he should have stitches, but just get one of those butterfly band-aids and use Neosporin and alcohol to treat it himself. He rarely went to the doctor’s office. There are a lot of people out there like him.
CC: We often become experts on an illness when it affects a close family member. How educated have you become?
KR: Working with the CC Alliance I have learned a lot of interesting facts about colon cancer. For example, colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Every four minutes someone is diagnosed, and every nine minutes someone dies. Cancer is just a horrible disease.
Seeing my father, a big, strong, burly man of 6’2” and 215 lbs., just deteriorate in a hospital bed—it was sad and unfortunate, and I don’t want anybody to have to go through that. So if people will pay attention to what I say because of our success as a group, I am going to use that.
CC: I understand you are also passionate about the environment.
KR: Definitely. I was in a press conference when we were asked, “If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?” Because of where I was brought up, I feel I have a close connection with nature and the outdoors. I believe as human beings we are out of balance, out of synch with the earth. We can have technology, prosperity, nice homes and cars, but at the same time we must be conscious of what we are dumping into the water, the air and our food. I truly believe the reason cancer rates and stress levels are rising is all the toxins we are absorbing through our food, air and water. We need to change soon. We need to make it a priority to just be more aware. I am not a tree-hugger and I don’t think mine is an extreme point of view. I feel it is logical. If you take care of your home and you take care of your car, why wouldn’t you take care of the planet? The ocean is in bad shape. I wanted to help raise awareness, so I created an environmental foundation called Just Within Reach.
CC: What is the focus of the foundation?
KR: We have been concentrating on educating the young. If we can get kids talking about conservation and doing it, they can have a great influence on their parents by lecturing them and pointing the finger. If a kid says, “Well, Mom, why aren’t we recycling?” that will have a positive effect.
We also give out scholarships and have been doing small fund raisers. It’s been a tough year because of where the economy has been since 9/11, and the current administration is not very focused on the environment.
CC: Have you been working with the schools?
KR: I did an educational video with National Geographic a year and a half ago, and it will be distributed to a few thousand schools around the country. Prior to that I testified before the Senate subcommittee addressing mountaintop removal.
CC: Mountaintop removal?
KR: In Michigan, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia and Pennsylvania, instead of digging tunnels and mining coal through the mountains, they get about 15 heavy-machine operators and some demolitions experts, and they take down the top of the mountain and dump it into a valley. It’s called mountaintopping. All the rubble goes directly into the streams, rivers and natural springs from which thousands of people get their water. The only way to stop some of this from happening is to use the Clean Water Act, which says you can’t put pollutants into a river or stream. The current Bush administration was trying to circumvent the Clean Water Act by having the Army Corp of Engineers change the definition of valley fill.
CC: How widespread is this practice of mountaintopping?
KR: They’re ripping down the Appalachian mountain range, destroying thousands and thousands of acres. I took Bobby Kennedy Jr.—he is the head legal council for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)—on a flight over Eastern Kentucky, and when he saw it he said, “If the American people knew about this, there would be an outrage.”
I am working with a few local groups in Kentucky—Commonwealth, NRDC and the Riverkeepers—and we are trying to raise awareness about what is going on, because it’s devastating.
CC: I’m surprised we haven’t heard more about it.
KR: Coal companies have a lot of power in the media, and unfortunately a lot of information doesn’t get out. After they remove the coal, they wash off arsenic, ammonia and tons of toxins into a huge pond, which they call a slurry pond. It is actually not a pond, but rather a 20-acre lake of this sludge. One slurry pond was located over an abandoned mine, and the bottom burst and it flooded an entire community, ruining a few hundred miles of river and streams. It was twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, nearly 250 million gallons of sludge and slurry. People came out of their front doors and it was waist deep! That never got to major news media outlets because the energy companies shut it down. They were standing in front of the road with trucks and not letting the media in to investigate. The energy companies are very powerful.
The coal mining industry is very destructive and it doesn’t have to be. Of course we need coal right now, and although there are plenty of alternative fuel methods to investigate, we haven’t come up with one yet. We’re not saying that you don’t need coal, but when you do mine the coal there are responsibilities to it. It may cost a little more, but it is the right thing to do...
by Chet Cooper