With a career that has spanned more than two decades, Bret Michaels has proven he is a jack of many trades. The lead singer for Poison has starred in several reality television shows including “Rock of Love,” “Rock My RV” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” which he won in the first season he competed. Originally from southwestern Pennsylvania, he was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when he was 6 years old. At 50 he continues to perform, overcoming several serious health issues including a brain hemorrhage and stroke. An artist and philanthropist, he supports numerous charities. He is coming to Pittsburgh Nov. 10 for Knockout Cancer 2013 at the Galleria in Mt. Lebanon. Tickets are $25 and available through www.3wsradio.com
How did growing up in Western Pennsylvania influence your approach to life and work?
I was born in Butler and my dad worked at Armco Steel along with my grandpa. That was huge. We were right there on Route 8. Sports and music were my two big loves. I loved motor-cross and I loved dirt bikes.
Buddies I grew up with, I’m still friends with. There is a hard work ethic and an ability and a tenacity to be able to bounce back. When I grew up there, Pittsburgh was going through a rough spell. It bounced back to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I loved it then. I didn’t know the difference. You know, when you went to a Steelers game you had to leave about a day before [laughing] — especially if you were going to tailgate.
I gotta admit I am a “drealist” — I dream big but I’m also a realist. I think that’s what Pittsburgh has given me. A lot of people from my crew are from the Pittsburgh area. They are fantastic people. They are loyal and great and we know how to work hard and play harder [laughing].
Where did your philanthropic side come from?
My parents. Instead of being scared and thinking their son’s life was over at 6 from being diabetic … my parents dove in. My dad said, “Bret, the self-pity thing doesn’t work.” He was tough but fair. And my mom, when we moved to Harrisburg, she formed the first diabetic youth camp there. I remember her fighting to get like even one nurse to help volunteer. I still go back and help with the camp.
So it started young. I don’t go into anything thinking I’m going to save the world. I just go in and do what I can, where I can, when I can.
As far as fame, you have always seemed comfortable with the fans. Was that something you worked on or was it innate?
I’m going to say I feel that it’s just innate. This may be a comment I’ve never said before. I came from very modest beginnings. When I wanted to play music, there were no musicians who had made it. There was no L.A. kind of vibe. I didn’t know what paparazzi was. I just knew I liked playing my guitar.
Now, because of modern technology — and I love modern technology — you can get exposed much easier to the world. It’s also much easier to be disposed. What happens now is everyone wants instant fame. The best words ever taught to me is fame is fleeting and the serenity prayer. The serenity prayer was put into me by my grandmother, who was also diabetic. I feel close to the fans because I’m appreciative of every dream they’ve allowed me to live out.
Fame may be fleeting for some but in your case not so much.
[Laughing] Well, let me say this: If you just say I want to be famous, it doesn’t work. You have to know what people like you for. I want to go on stage and play. I want people to show up. I want them to have a great time. I want to be the best singer/host there can be on a stage. I want people to leave going, “I feel really good. Man, that concert rocked!”
I take it day by day, month by month, but all of a sudden you look back and you go, “Man, that’s 26 awesome years that I got to live out my dream.” I now have three generations of fans [laughing]. It’s a great feeling.
Was it hard for you to know who to trust in the beginning?
Absolutely. It is very confusing when your reality and your dreams collide. When we were trying to get a record deal and doing this, it is almost sometimes good to have a foe [laughing]. There is someone you are fighting against or something you are fighting for. All of a sudden you hit. One of the blessings we had was that when all the other bands around us got signed and were getting major deals, Poison and I never got any of that. We were an independent band and eventually got distributed through Capital Records. But, we kept all of our publishing [rights]. Thirty-two million records later, it wasn’t a horrible day. Back then I may have sold it all for a leather jacket and limo ride. It ended up being, financially, a humongous blessing.
If you step away from ego and greed for just a second and look at anything, nine times out of 10 you will make the right decision. I gotta tell you, we starved for three years. We lived behind the back half of a dry cleaners. All we had was our gear and a barely running Chevette and ourselves to make it [laughing]. Finally, “Talk Dirty to Me” hit.
Your stints on reality TV have shown you have other talents as well.
When they originally started talking about the idea for “Rock of Love” [a dating reality show], I said, “Look, you are trying to dress me up circa ’86 and it’s now 2006.” I love where I come from and I love paying it forward, but I don’t look or dress like that anymore. My life is in phases. They wanted me talking like a pimp.... If you would have seen it you would have laughed.
I said I want to be who I am and I don’t want to know the girls. Just make sure they are single and they want to have fun. I want to go in there an have no clue what I’m doing. That will be the closest to reality on reality TV you are going to get.
We started a whole football league, Lingerie Football, which came out of “Rock of Love.”
So much of your career and business opportunities evolved organically.
It’s tough for me to say that because I don’t want to be braggadocious. There has been a lot of stuff that was organically grown from ideas on these shows. Of all the shows I have done, “Rock My RV” was probably one of the most fun.
You want to be careful that you don’t completely pigeonhole yourself that you can never get out of it. In “Life As I Know It,” I showed I can be a good dad. “Apprentice” showed a business side. “Rock My RV” showed a mechanical side. It is just different things I do that keep the flame burning, if you know what I mean.
Did your recent health scares have an impact on the way you look at life?
It does. It added to it. This is a weird way to put it but you know when people say they’ve had a life-changing moment? I don’t want people to ever think ever that I was Ebenezer Scrooge and one day I all of a sudden became this.
The emergency appendectomy, the brain hemorrhage and then the [Transient Ischemic Attack] followed by heart surgery — this all happened after a night at American Airlines Arena in Dallas. I was having the best night of my life. I felt healthy. It was a big show, big party. I woke up the next morning and thought my stomach hurt. It all went downhill really quickly. I thought I had a bad flu and tried to do the show. That Pittsburgh tenacity almost killed me.
By the time they got me to the hospital, they were operating as I went in. Two weeks later, ... I had the brain hemorrhage. That was the closest moment — when a doctor says, “Bring your kids.” It makes you appreciate every moment on the good side of the dirt much better.
It sounds scary.
You would learn this if you were around me, but I’m not a person who gives up easy.
Once I had the brain hemorrhage and I started to recover, then all of a sudden I have a stroke and I’m back in the hospital. Then I go back on tour and I’m starting to feel good. I want people to see that I’m not a self-pity guy. I think, “OK, God, there is more for me to do.” So I go back on the road and started playing and next thing I know they find out there is a hole in my heart. It was what was letting the blood clots get through to the brain. I gotta tell you, there was a moment there where you hit rock bottom, absolute rock bottom. I’m like, can my body go through one more operation right now? Is this really it? I stared at the ceiling for probably about an hour then said, “Nah, we’ll get through this.”
It did all seem to happen at once.
It didn’t happen over the course of five years. It happened in the course of a year. When people ask me why? I said because I had a chance to [bounce back.] I cannot sit around and worry. That makes me sicker than being sick. Worry doesn’t work for me. It makes me ponder the impossible. It’s better for me to just get on the horse and ride. If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.