Ross Mathews found success after he found himself.
September 24, 2014
Ross Mathews ’02 never anticipated the last day of his internship becoming the first day of the rest of his life. From becoming the longest-running correspondent in Tonight Show history to hosting his own talk show, Hollywood dreams have been coming true for La Verne’s most vivacious alumni celebrity.
Ross Mathews made sure nobody on staff of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno knew of his big secret. It was routine: take lunch orders for the producers and writers and deliver the food– a task that was easier said than done for the starving intern.
As a college student, money was tight; and Ross could not resist the temptation of regularly ordering an extra “daily special” for himself and sneaking it past his bosses at the NBC late-night talk show. It was risky. It was clever. His “cafeteria heist” would last the duration of his internship.
It was not until his last day that the fear of getting caught actually caught up with him. Ross received a message instructing him to “go see Joe” – one of the big bosses. Fearing that there was surveillance footage against him, Ross was prepared to learn a valuable lesson: “how to be fired in show business” – as he so remorsefully states in his national best-selling memoir, “Man Up!”
But just as unpredictable as Ross himself, the question that was asked of him in that room caught him by surprise.
That’s what you have to do in show business. You got to run 1,000 miles an hour and not even care that you might hit a wall.
“What would you think about coming out on stage during tonight’s taping, meeting George Clooney, and leaving with him to be our correspondent at the red carpet premiere of Ocean’s Eleven?”
In a single moment, he had stepped into the gateway of everything he had dreamed about and worked for since he was a child.
“I just remember thinking ‘Wow here is my door, so I’m going to have to kick it down and not look back behind me and run as fast as I can because I probably shouldn’t be here,’” Ross recalls of the day that changed his life.
He graciously accepted the opportunity and the next thing he knew, he was being prepped to go on air for the first time in his young life. What some might call a nerve-racking experience was nothing short of exhilarating for the eager intern. There was no time for nerves.
“When I think about it 13 years later, if I had stopped to imagine the gravity and weight of what I was doing, I probably would have never done it,” Ross said.
Ross knew his actions had to be intentional and strategic that night. His goal was to make a funny and memorable moment with each celebrity he met. His tactic? Be himself – only an amped up version.
In what seemed like minutes, Ross was on the red carpet at the Ocean’s Eleven premiere with George Clooney, mingling with and charming celebrities such as David Duchovny, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.
It made so much sense to me. I never questioned it. I knew I loved pop culture and being the ring-leader in conversations. It was my nature and my heart beat. That was my guiding force.
By saying the first thing that popped in his head, he ignited a spark. He was a natural, all he had to do was just go with it.
“That’s what you have to do in show business. You got to run 1,000 miles an hour and not even care that you might hit a wall,” Ross says.
For Ross and his career, walls have never really been a problem. After producers saw the hilarious footage from his first red carpet experience, he was immediately assigned to cover more high-profile events such as the Vanilla Sky premier, 2002 Winter Olympics, and even the Academy Awards.
For more than a decade, Ross’ career flourished almost as fast as his fan base has grown. He has been a regular panelist on Chelsea Handler’s talk show, Chelsea Lately, a recurring guest and co-host on The View, a contributing correspondent on The Insider, a cast member on Celebrity Fit Club (Season 5), a recurring guest role on the Days of Our Lives and has co-hosted and guest appeared on several other national television shows.
Today, Ross is following in the footsteps of his mentors Jay Leno and Chelsea Handler. He has hosted his own late-night talk show, Hello Ross, on the E! Network and this fall became a panelist for E!’s new prime time roundtable show, Live from E!
Being on TV is a fulfillment of a lifelong childhood dream for Ross, a dream that began when he was a little kid growing up in Mount Vernon, Washington.
Growing Up Ross
Ross discovered his passion at an early age. Television was a big part of his life, especially when he got his very own at the age of 10.
From Saved by the Bell to Beverly Hills, 90210 to The Oprah Winfrey Show, Ross was enamored with the capabilities of his TV. He loved how it could bring him intimately close to celebrities and take him around the world.
It was during one particular summer month, while watching Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee with his mom, Gaye, that he had an epiphany.
“I remember watching that show with my mom and seeing how Regis and Kathie would make her laugh and thinking to myself, ‘OMG! I want to make my mom happy too!’” Ross said.
It was settled. His purpose in life, he decided, was to become a talk-show host and entertain audiences on television.
“It made so much sense to me. I never questioned it. I knew I loved pop culture and being the ring-leader in conversations. It was my nature and my heart beat. That was my guiding force,” he said.
By the time Ross entered his pre-teen years, he had already figured out who he wanted to be professionally. But he was just beginning to discover who he was as a person.
It’s like a beach. When the waves run over the rocks and sand, most of the rocks look the same. It’s the ones that look a little weird that end up being picked up.
Despite growing up a fairly confident child, Ross was aware, and a little insecure, that he sounded different from other boys his age. He patiently waited for the day when he would “outgrow” his unique high-pitched voice. It did not happen.
The name-calling did not exactly help with his complex either, especially when he was called a “faggot,” by an older kid while working in a spinach field during one summer.
“It was the first time in my 12 young years that I really felt the force field of my parents’ love being shattered by the real hatred and bigotry that exists in the world,” Ross said.
It was painful, but Ross overcame. He had love from his parents and a lot of love from the ladies. A self-proclaimed ladies man, Ross had quite a few girlfriends in his youth. But it was when he reached his teens and after his most serious relationship that he came to terms with who he was. Ross was gay. And that was OK.
“The truth is, there are some things we can’t change about ourselves, even if we wanted to. And, really, why would you want to? You are not the problem. You are not defective. You are just right,” he said.
Ross’ decision to be his authentic self has not only made him a pioneer for current and future openly gay television personalities, but also positioned him as a national advocate for human rights.
In 2011, Ross was the recipient of the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award and in early 2014 he received the Celebrity Icon Award from the Long Beach LGBTQ Center.
La Verne Bound
Deciding to go to college was a no-brainer. Ross was intent on expanding his passion for television by mastering how it all worked. With that in mind, he searched for a program that would give him the hands-on experience he needed.
Among the many pamphlets that he received in the mail was one from the University of La Verne.
“I loved the communications program offered and that it was close to Hollywood,” Ross said.
“When I came to visit and saw how gorgeous the campus was, I said ‘OK, I’m home.’”
After graduating from high school, he made the trek from Mount Vernon to La Verne in his blue Ford Escort and never looked back.
“I wanted to learn every aspect of television — editing analog, editing digital, radio, media ethics, public relations — I learned all of that at La Verne and I use all of that on a daily basis. Thank you [Professor of Communications] Mike Laponis,” Ross said.
“He knew what he wanted to do and he always spoke it out loud,” Professor of Communications Mike Laponis said, recalling one of his most memorable students. “I remember Ross going on one of my class industry field trips – we went to a taping of a TV show. The moment we got on the bus, and especially once we got onto the studio lot, Ross came alive! It was like we had stepped into Disneyland.”
Ross thrived at La Verne, inside and outside the classroom. And he developed many lifelong relationships with faculty and friends. One of those friends was journalism major Ryan MacDonald ’02.
“Ross and I were best friends at La Verne, so it was no question that our friendship would continue once we graduated,” MacDonald said. “What I admire about Ross is his ability to fearlessly go after his dreams. His belief in himself and his dreams is what has taken him to where he is today.”
MacDonald has worked on producing many projects with Ross, including the web talk show Inside Dish With Ross Mathews and most recently Hello Ross.
“La Verne is a special place where there are special people. Of course it’s always about learning and education but it’s also about the people. I loved every second there,” Ross said. He graduated from La Verne in 2002.
“Even though he was a celebrity by night, he was still our student during the day,” said Dr. George Keeler of the Communications Department. “He was fairly low key around the other students and only showed the entertainment side of himself when the NBC cameras were on. Ross remains a loyal friend of mine and the Communications Department to this day.”
Although Ross’ status as a celebrity places him in high-profile Hollywood social circles, he remains true to himself and loyal to his family and friends who have been with him since the beginning. People close to Ross know that his success did not come by conforming his way to the top; just the exact opposite.
“It’s like a beach. When the waves run over the rocks and sand, most of the rocks look the same. It’s the ones that look a little weird that end up being picked up,” Ross said. “To make a difference, you have to be different.”
Ross, indeed, has made all the difference.