Willie Aames on 'Fit Club,'
Faith, and Fame
The former child star and his wife on that notorious 'Celebrity Fit Club' scene and their hope for the Christian community.
Actor Willie Aames, best known in his younger years as Buddy from "Charles in Charge" and Tommy on "Eight Is Enough," later as the Christian superhero "Bibleman," and most recently as the "biggest loser" on "VH1's Celebrity Fit Club: Bootcamp," has written a memoir about his journey as a Christian. "Grace Is Enough," which he co-wrote with his wife, actress Maylo Upton-Aames, reveals the couple's ups and downs and how faith helped them overcome drug addiction and other self-destructive behaviors. Beliefnet recently spoke with the couple about growing up around occult activities, Willie's "incident" on "Celebrity Fit Club," and Maylo's battle with lupus.
Interview with Willie Aames
The book describes what seemed to be your attempted suicide at three years old. Tell me a bit about that. What do you think might have led you to that point?
It really wasn't suicide as we know it. I wrote about the first time I tried to hang myself at three. The concept of suicide wasn't there. It's really the concept of what was death? What it was, when you boil it down, was just a matter of did I matter to anybody? Would anybody care if I was gone? What it would be like to die? I think that is just an indication of how lonely I was and how I felt about myself.
Would you say that, from a young age, you suffered from depression?
I suffered from what would later become depression, but I think [it was] just very low self-esteem. There's a personality trait involved that is no one else's fault. That's the way some people are born--you just don't have a proper view of yourself.
Is that something that you still grapple with as an adult?
Absolutely. I never thought I was handsome. I never thought I was particularly talented, and to be honest with you, I still don't. It's one of those things where you learn to understand that your view of you is skewed. It's not quite the way other people see you. Much like an anorexic looks in the mirror and thinks that they're fat when, in fact, they're actually quite thin.
Do you think being in the spotlight for so much of your life has had anything to do with that?
I really don't. I think that that is something that was part of me whether I was in the public or not. I started running away when I was five years old. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized what I really wanted was somebody to come after me when I was running away. I wanted somebody to tell me that I mattered. I wanted somebody to tell me that they cared. It really had nothing to do with being on television or anything else. As a matter of fact, being on television was just an attempt at trying to get the same attention.
You went from being a big TV star and then wound up working for minimum wage as a crew member on a boat. What led you to that point?
I got married at a very young age, and of course, for all the wrong reasons, and ended up divorced and lost everything. It was a very difficult time in my life. I'd just come off a hit series ("Eight Is Enough") and lost everything. I was in trouble with the IRS. I was trying to get sober. And to me, the best thing that I could do was to go up north and get on the dive boats, work for $30 a day, scrub all the toilets I could, and do all the diving I could. It was a great place to hide out and lick my wounds, really.
It wasn't so much working for minimum wage. What was interesting to me, or what was the difficult thing about it, was having been famous and having people laugh at what really was a very honorable job--manual labor--and understanding that, had it been anybody else, nobody would have been laughing.
How did you get through those low points in your life?
I've always been very resilient. I've always had a very good work ethic. I've always been pretty tough in that way, where if you tell me I can't do something, I will prove you wrong.
Up until recently, many people told me, "Why don't you just hang it up? You had a good ride, and you might as well give up." That's just not something that I do easily. No matter how I might feel about myself or my self-image, there is still a part of me that wants to fight to the end.
Later on in life, I recognized that as a strength that I would use to funnel into my faith and to use to encourage others. Being stubborn can be a good thing. Being stubborn can be a bad thing. It just depends on how you use it.
Tell me about your experience as Bibleman. How did you get the role? Why did you leave it behind?
Becoming Bibleman was not something that I really wanted to do. I had been a Christian for six, seven years and had spent most of that time just studying my Bible and different languages and that sort of thing. Children's ministry was the last thing on my mind. I wasn't really a big fan of hanging out with little children. [But] I had said I wanted to be obedient, and no matter how I tried to back away from that project, no matter how many times I said no, I kept coming back to the fact that perhaps this was something that God would want me to do because it was just being obedient and that maybe we could reach kids in a way that nobody else had—even though I didn't want to do it.
I agreed to take the part. My attitude about the whole thing remained the same for 10 years. [There were] many, many days I did not want to be a part of it--I did not want to do it. It was hard, and I was away from my family
for a long time. There were just many things about it that I had to just persevere through.
In the end, I'm glad I did because I was extremely blessed. I met 3,400,000 kids a year. We had a huge impact on hundreds of thousands of kids every year.
I ended up being hurt on the road moving equipment back and forth. I blew a couple of discs in my neck and had to have surgery. I never really made the decision to leave that role--the decision was made for me by the company that owned all of Bibleman and all of the products.
One thing that many people don't know is that even though I created, wrote, produced, and directed everything and wrote all of the books, I never owned a piece of it. I still don't own a piece of it. I was just kind of a hired gun and did things job by job. As soon as I was unable to do that, the job was given to somebody else.
Do you think we're lacking Christian role models for children?
That's a difficult question. I think that in the Christian community, we're lacking a lot of things, and I don't know that it's just children's role models.
What else do you think is lacking?
I think what we lack is a determination to be a community. I don't think that very often we know who we are as Christians. The Jews know who they are as a people. The Christians have not come together as a people yet. That's, in fact, one of the things that I would like to speak the most to, that we're so fractured, whether it's by denomination or by one belief or another.
We spend a lot of time fighting with one another over things that don't matter. We spend a lot of time judging each other over things that don't matter. Until we can get that together, until we can come together and really be a little bit more unified, I think we're going to lack a lot of role models.
Just through that whole experience as Bibleman and creating entertainment
for kids, I would get letters from parents who were outraged that the villains got the good songs, in their opinion, and swore never to support the ministry again. You look at something like that, and you think, "Did you even look at the message of the video
? Did you listen to it?" All they could think of was their child started humming a song that one of the villains sung.
Things of that nature need to be reexamined. They overlook the overall message and they hone in on one thing, and then, as a result of that, they don't support anything. I think we need to support one another. Otherwise, we won't have any role models, period.
You were recently the victim of a mugging, along with your son. Did you rely on your faith during that time? Did you feel confident that you'd come through it?
Maylo, my son, and his girlfriend and I were walking through L.A., just wrapping up a thing with VH1, and I heard a guy yelling. I turned around, and this guy had a .45 to my head.
I thought the whole thing was a bit overblown. I know it made the news all over the place. I guess they picked it up on the police scanners. I was never once afraid. My heart rate never went up. I was never nervous. I never shook. I had been through training to disarm the guy if I needed to. That's really what I was looking for at that point—to just defuse the situation. Every time he'd point the gun at my son, I'd step between the gun and him. Every time he'd point the gun at my wife or my son's girlfriend, I'd step between the gun and them.
What I wanted to do was remain calm and get myself into a situation where I could take the gun away from him. Every time I took a step toward him, he would take a step backwards. That eventually kind of freaked him out and made him turn and run.
I was never afraid, wasn't afraid afterwards, wasn't afraid during. Naturally, afterwards, you think about the fact that you could have died very quickly, especially when you look at the shootings in Chicago just a couple of days ago.
But I also have to say that, having faith, death is not something that I have to fear. My life didn't flash before my eyes. I wasn't praying, "Oh God, please help me." That's ingrained in me. I don't think that's ever a question.
Tell me about the incident on Celebrity Fit Club. What happened behind the scenes?
It takes a lot for me to get to a point where I get really angry. [On] Celebrity Fit Club we had guaranteed the network four days a month to work on that show. At the same time that I was doing Celebrity Fit, I was also writing the pilot for my daughter's new series, "The Public Life of Sissy Pike."
When Jani Lane [lead vocalist for Warrant], who was on Celebrity Fit Club, overdosed, they asked if I would take over his work as well. I said, "I'd be happy to, I'll help him out."
I had worked some five days or seven days in a row extra for them to get all of this work done. And in doing so, I put off my responsibilities to write the script. I was getting pressured heavily by Thomas Nelson to get that script in, or they would pull the plug on the show.
At the same time, my wife Maylo has lupus, and with all of the stress and going back and forth, she was in the middle of a pretty heavy flare-up and had a very high fever. Many times when that happens, she ends up in the hospital.
I had been home less than 24 hours, had spent that entire time writing. When [the TV crew] came to the door, you didn't see me asking them very politely three or four times to please go away. My wife was ill. I'd been up all night. It was an inappropriate time, and I needed to get some sleep and be left alone. I had just completed more than my obligation for them.
What you saw on television really was the last point of where I had finally just had enough of them ringing the doorbell over and over at 6:30 in the morning. I had a Rottweiler that was going absolutely crazy. Prior to my even answering the door, I had no idea who it was. As Bibleman, I had my life threatened 12 to 15 different times. When somebody comes to your front door and they're screaming obscenities at you and telling you to come outside and you've had your life threatened several times, you take it pretty seriously. It's the reason I have a Rottweiler.
When you discover that what it is a camera crew thinking that they're funny and your wife is almost [not] ambulatory at that point and they won't leave you alone, that's when I got angry. I acted the way I acted and it was not a pretty thing. I was frustrated. I was cornered. If I'd called the police, that would have looked even better for them.
Then what happened?
The backlash is what really threw me. It went on and continues to go on to this day—about what a disappointment as a Christian man I am, what a disappointment, as a celebrity I am, and what a disappointment as a role model I am.
I was extremely blown away that anybody would care, in the first place. I was completely taken by surprise at the reaction—primarily from my Christian brothers and sisters in the community—where after 10 years of solid service as Bibleman and [my] family sacrificing, it was suddenly all thrown away over two minutes worth of edited footage.
It's funny because that whole Celebrity Fit Club experience had so much impact and there were so many complaints from people that, although we did one episode and one pilot, it was never picked up.
In fact, "Grace Is Enough," two years after the [incident], was almost scrapped. They heard the rumors that I acted poorly on television, and they were going to scrap the entire book deal. That's how drastic the judgment and reaction can be in the Christian community, and that is something that I really hope to change.
As more projects come up, I hope to get people to think about what it is that they say and do before they do it based on a few seconds of edited footage. That's why we wrote "Grace is Enough." We really need to extend more grace to one another.
While you were growing up, your family participated in a lot of occult activities—tarot card readings, séances, etc. Back then, did you feel comfortable with those activities? Or was it something that you didn't want to be involved in?
My family had a lot to do with occult activities. My grandmother liked to contact spirits and do what's called spirit writing—have people ask questions and let the spirit take over and write for her and answer those. We went to a lot of psychics and tarot card readers. We had Ouija boards and played with them. I felt completely comfortable with all of it.
What I found that is so bothering about that is that later on, as you begin to understand who God really is and you begin to look to Him, the seeds that were planted in your mind by these different psychics and things don't go away. Instead of looking to God to take care of things, you're reminded of a tarot card reader who said, "One day you'll do this or that." It's very bothersome because it gets in the way of your faith and in the way of following exactly what Scripture says you should follow.
It really never bothered me as a kid because it was more just kind of a way of life. It was instead of any kind of religious faith. We were atheists, primarily, in terms of who was God and what was God or what we consider a traditional faith. But, as an adult, and still to this day, as a mature Christian--I've been a Christian over 20 years now—when something comes up in life, that little voice in the back of your head says, "That one tarot card reader said this or this would happen." You have to learn to put that away and go right back to Scripture, back to prayer and wait on God. I think that's one of the reasons why Scripture says we shouldn't go to [the occult] because it truly does get in the way of you trusting in God.
Interview with Maylo Upton-Aames
In the book you write that you believe your mom was in a religious cult when you were a child. Were there any scary moments for you?
She was involved in a small sect of people that met every weekend in a different warehouse in Los Angeles. It was all scary. She had visions all the time in the living room. She had séances and tarot readings and there were a lot of drugs.
There was a belief system—everything we did in that house was connected to these working apostles within that sect. [My mom] was an apostle and there was a man who was an apostle that lived with us at the time and he began sexually abusing me at the age of 11 until I was about 15. There was a lot of violence. We moved as a result. My mother was always trying to kind of hide us from the rest of them.
As an adult, did you find out what the name of that cult was?
I do. In the book I didn't say any names because the people are very dangerous.
How did witnessing your mother's involvement in this cult affect your view of religion?
Back then, I had a couple of people—my grandma was a Christian, and invariably, my mom would drop my brother, sister, and I off at her house for the weekend. She had a picture of Jesus in her room, or she would play hymns on the piano. It seemed different than what my mom was involved with, but I really didn't want to have any kind of religion. It just all seemed crazy to me.
What was the turning point?
I left home right before my 16th birthday. I lived on the streets for a year and a half. I self-medicated with every drug I could get my hands on. By the time I met Willie he was six months sober and he helped me into sobriety through AA. It was the first time that I really had to examine a higher power.
It was Willie who said, "A higher power would be a God of your own understanding and if I'm a drug addict, then aren't I worshiping a drug addict's God?" We needed a God that was so much bigger than us that we couldn't understand Him. That was really the first time I had thought that I needed a God. Then, once Willie and I got sober, I really started crying. Everything that I had held in came out, and I cried for three straight years. I had night terrors. [Willie] held me for three years and did the very best that he could.
He came to me at one point in our relationship and said, "Maylo, I really wanted to be your knight in shining armor. I really wanted my love to be enough to make you whole and well and I'm loving you as hard as I can and you're not getting any better. You're getting worse. You need something bigger than me. I can't fix you."
I was kind of gut-smacked, like "What am I supposed to do now? Who is possibly going to love me more than you and more completely than you?" I just let that set in, and one day I was driving around in the car and heard a guy speaking on the radio who turned out to be a pastor. We went to the church and checked it out, a little bit begrudgingly. But, once we walked in, there was just a truth there. Hope was presented to us in a way that it had never been presented before.
I started having counseling sessions with the pastor there, and he led me to Christ less than a year later. It was just the right time. I realized I did need a God and that I did need a love that was bigger than what any man could give me to fix and fill the hole that was blasted out of me when I was a kid.
What advice do you have for people who are addicted to drugs or have been sexually abused?
If you have a drug addiction, you need help. You need to get into a program where somebody's going to hold you accountable, and you need to get sober and clean. You need to take a moral inventory of how you got there. And you do need God. You need to know that there is something out there that is bigger than you and that you weren't created for that. That's not what you were made to be.
Also, you don't have to remain a victim of your past. You don't have to let that define you. You don't have to let even the bad decisions that you've made in your life define who you are today. Through Jesus Christ, you can have a new life. You are a new creature through Christ. That doesn't mean that all of your memories go away and all of your problems go away. It just gives you peace and grace and a prayer, and a way to lay everything at the foot of someone bigger than you and trust that He's going to take care of it.
Did you or do you ever lose faith in God? Was there a time where it just wasn't enough to help you through your problems?
Yeah. There was a time in the middle of "Bibleman." My husband went church to church, and we saw the underbelly. We had given up an awful lot, and there was other pressures happening.
I had about a year where all of my disciplines were in order. I was on my knees every day. I was in study. I was serving at the church. I was involved in women's ministry. And I could not feel God. I couldn't feel his presence. It felt like my words in prayer were just floating up to heaven like alphabet soup. I got weary of praying and not hearing an answer, weary of hypocrisy that I saw within the church. I finally just had it out in my bedroom with him and said, "You said you would never leave me or forsake me, and I need you, and I'm praying and I'm calling out to you, and I can't feel you. I don't want to do this anymore. It's too hard. "
As soon as I was done praying, something in my heart stopped me and said, "But where are you going to go? Where are you going to go now that you've known me?" It was the first time that I felt the presence of God in probably over a year. For whatever reason, that dry season just pushed me right up to the wall.
Scripture says, "I will never leave you or forsake you, and there's nothing that can snatch you out of my hand." I realized that even my own will, my own flesh, would not be able to snatch me out of his hand. Once I gave my life to him, I'm his. And even in my lowest, most stupid moment where I wanted to cash it in and say forget it, he would not let me go.
That was a great turning point in my faith where I felt so secure. I am His. That's it. Even in my weakest moment, when I don't think I can go on anymore as a Christian or I don't think I can believe anymore, he is there.
Willie spoke earlier about how, more than anything, Christians lack a community. How do you feel about that?
I think that it's a different experience for women than it is for men. We have a lot of women's ministries, we have a lot of women's retreats, we've got Women of Faith, we've got women's Bible studies. There's a lot of fellowship there.
I do think that [the Christian community] is fractured by denomination. I think even within the city that we live in, there are churches that badmouth other churches. I think that is despicable because it really makes it difficult—as Willie says over and over--to witness to somebody and try to convince them to become a Christian when all they see are people arguing.
I think for men, it's a little bit different. But I can't really speak about Willie's experience.
For me, it was growing up without a family. When I became a Christian there was a Christian-ease, a Christian-speak that led me to believe there was this family—brothers and sisters in Christ, the family of God, this big, wonderful, functional family that I could fall into the fold of and finally have the home that I was aching for as a child. And what I found was a bunch of human beings, surprisingly enough, that are just as dysfunctional and broken as anyone that isn't in the church.
We're all doing the best that we can, but, we do need to have more grace. We do need to not use prayer circles as a place to gossip in the name of prayer. We do need to be a little bit more forgiving
and not as quick to judge another brother's.
You suffer from lupus. How does dealing with a chronic illness affect your faith?
Dealing with a chronic illness actually was a blessing in disguise for me. I thank God for my lupus. I thank God for everything that comes into my life.
As the oldest of three children in an extremely violent home, I grew up taking care of and trying to patch a family back together. I always felt like it was my responsibility. As a result of that, as a grown woman, I had a tendency to say yes to everything, to take on everybody else's problems, to try to help every single person that came into my life. I didn't know when to say no. Well, once you reach a fever of about 104 degrees, and you have to lay in bed for three days with frozen peas all over your head [and] you realize this is a disease that you can die from, it suddenly became very easy for me to say, "I'm so sorry, I can't do that for you right now. I can pray for you, but I can't get up and actually do that work for you."
The lupus really forced me to put boundaries on my life. I could see that God had been trying to teach me how to do that and to grow up in that area all along. So it's a blessing. And when I am ill, one of the things that it affects are my joints, and I can't walk very well. And it's just a time of quiet. It's also a time to learn to receive from my family, which is difficult. It's like a woman learning how to receive a compliment. It's really difficult for us. We are the caretakers.
God made me lay down. And He made me have physical needs. I had no choice but to allow my family to love on me and to say "Thank you."