He’s a former Navy spy, a medicinal marijuana smoker, and a tattoo enthusiast. Meet the other side of the daytime television king.
Take one look at the half-sleeves blanketing both of his upper arms and it’s clear Montel Williams lives up to his talk show’s slogan, “There’s More to Montel.” Who would have ever guessed that underneath those neatly pressed shirts, this fixture of daytime jibber jabber is hiding intricate ink murals by the likes of the legendary Zulu from Zulu Tattoo? The “moreness” of Williams extends way beyond his surprising love of tattooing. He’s an avid snowboarder, a skilled poker player, and an ex-military spy who speaks Russian and served in the invasion of Grenada. There’s also more to a man who, despite suffering from multiple sclerosis, travels the country as the spokesman for the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, an organization committed to getting drugs into the hands of those who can’t afford them. He’s also a proponent for legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. There’s just one problem: There is no more. The Montel Williams Show’s 17-year run is up, the grand finale has already aired, and the surplus of unaired episodes runs dry after September. Has the man of more finally given the public all he has to offer? “Forget that noise,” he quips. “I’m not even close to being done.” We’re inclined to believe him.
INKED: Montel Williams has tattoos?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think most people are surprised by that. It’s an odd one.What got you started?
I spent 22 years in the Navy and Marines, both enlisted
and as an officer. I came off active duty in 1989 and back then the military
really frowned down on tattoos, especially amongst the officers. I always
wanted one but never pulled the trigger. Then in 2001, I just said, “You know
what? I’m getting one.” My first was the snowboarder guy on my left arm. But
like many of us, I couldn’t just have one. It grew.
You have several tattoos of a human-bobcat creature. Where is it from?
That’s a half-human, half-panther alter ego of myself. He looks like Tony the Tiger on crack. When I was a kid, that was the doodle on all of my notebooks,and when I made the football team, I drew it on my helmet. One day, I was looking through a package of my old stuff and I found an old doodle. I thought, “This ought to be a tattoo.”
Your right arm has an insane amount of detail. What is it all?
The whole right arm was done by Zulu in Los Angeles. In the middle is a trio of half-human,half-animal people, and if you look at the half-man half-panther he’s got all sorts of things on him that are important to me. Going up his leg are all the ranks I achieved as a Marine. His belt buckle is the eagle, globe, and anchor emblem from the Marine Corps, while the thing on his chest is the Meritorious Service Medal I got in the Navy. Each of the half-cat women has a sword on her leg—one is the Marine Corps sword, one is the Navy sword.
What’s the stuff all around them?
Those are things I had to do in the military. I was airlifted in and out of Grenada during the invasion, so there’s a Huey [helicopter]. I rappelled and did some parachuting, so there’s a parachute. The two round circles, that’s really an “80” for my Naval Academy class. Below that there’s a spyglass because when I was in the military I was a spy. Underneath that is a pair of headphones because, as a spy, I spoke Russian and I used to have to listen in on conversations. At the bottom are two submarines. One is the USS Seahorse, which was the submarine I was on when it chased down the other submarine there, a Soviet Typhoon.
You were on a sub that chased down a Russian sub?
Oh yeah. We were the only submarine to do something called an “underhull” of a Typhoon, which was the most powerful sub they had at the time. That’s when one sub is underneath another one taking pictures of it while they’re both moving through the water.
They had no idea you were there?
Nope. If they knew they would have killed us. At the closest spot we were about 15 feet apart. If the other guy decided to dive, we’d have been dead.
Do you have any tattoos that aren’t visible?
On the front side of my hip right over that pelvic bone I have a panther head about six inches in diameter. It went right across that bone and … oh my God … worse than under your arm, worse than your collarbone. My God that took me off the table. That was one of those five minutes, stop, five minutes, stop, for about three hours.
Is it important for you to be able to cover them?
Well, I don’t want someone to immediately have an opinion about me based on a first view. But I’ll tell you something strange: I’ve been on television for the last 17 years talking about some of the most important issues facing our nation. For the last eight of them, I’ve been doing so with earrings in my ear. No one has ever said a word. I don’t think you’ll find another news anchor or TV host with three earrings. Howie Mandel copied me. He asked me once how I get away with them and I said, “Dude, no one has ever said a thing.” The next week he has one earring. The week after that he has two! I shouldn’t be so worried about the tattoos, but I let you see them when I want you to see them.
Why was snowboarding the subject of your first tattoo?
It’s a huge part of my life. It’s unbelievably therapeutic for me because snowboarding is all in the ankles and knees, and that’s where I’ve had the most difficulty with my MS. For the last few years I’ve snowboarded over 100 days a year, but my schedule is off this year and I haven’t gone. I’ve tried to replicate the movements on machines at the gym, but it hasn’t really worked. This has been my worst walking year in a long time.
Are you still using medical marijuana to relieve your symptoms?
Without a doubt, and I will until the day I die. I’m a proponent. I’ve testified around the country in every state that has legislation pending.
Why is smoking a joint preferable to popping a Percocet?
I’m just asking for my doctor to have the right to prescribe it just like he has the right to prescribe morphine or cocaine. Under Bill Clinton there was a study funded by taxpayers that attempted to refute marijuana’s medical efficacy. The study came back the opposite. It said that it was the most egregious offense that marijuana was not being prescribed by doctors. People have to understand that the pharmaceutical industry makes about 190 different pain medications. That’s because not one medication will work for more than 28 percent of the population. So, I might take a pill and it might not work. And the next pill might not work and the next pill might not work. Marijuana won’t work for everyone either. But give my doctor the right to make that choice, not some bunch of bean heads wearing bad ties and bad suits down on Capitol Hill.
Will it ever be legalized?
No question. Right now there are 13 states that have already passed medicinal marijuana
laws that allow doctors to prescribe. In another two years we’ll be up to 19 states. When we hit 25, the federal government can’t stop it. And the presidential candidates are 100 percent for changing the way marijuana is persecuted,
prosecuted, or processed. So, the tide is changing.
Do you have political ambitions yourself?
Politics will be in my future whether it’s from an elected position or from a lobbying position. I believe very strongly that if
you complain about the ills of our society and do nothing about it, you should keep your damn mouth shut.
You’re referring to yourself?
I do a lot of complaining about the ills of society, so it’s time for me to step up to the plate and do something about it in a leadership role.
Do you think we’ll see our first African-American president elected this year?
I have no idea about this election and I don’t think most of America does either. We’re not informed enough. We follow the media with a hook in our mouths like lemmings being pulled over a cliff.
But you’re part of the media.
I am part of it, and I’m glad I’ve quit for right now. It’s offensive to watch supposed news pundits swill on their individual opinions in an attempt to sway people to vote the way they do. Most people voting this year don’t have the slightest idea who they’re voting for. They only have the media’s impression of who the person is. Some might say this happens every
election, but it doesn’t. This election is definitely worse.
Was there a watershed moment that created this climate or has it been a gradual shift?
The watershed would have to be the entire Clinton abomination with Monica Lewinsky. All bets are off when we start dragging dresses out of closets to test them for the president’s DNA. That’s a talk show. We turn it into Jerry Springer
and that’s what we’ve turned this election into.
Since you mention Jerry, how would you say you distinguished yourself from the other guys you shared
the dial with?
One: I respect the living rooms I’m brought into. You can watch my show and not have to worry about
taking a shower at the end to wash the garbage off. Two: The show doesn’t just belabor an issue. If I address an issue like date rape, I’m going to talk about the situation that lead to what happened and discuss solutions. Three: I’m the only show in the history of television to have an aftercare program—and I’m not talking about three minutes in the green room. We’ve sent about 3,500 guests into aftercare, which has included full-blown medical surgeries and treatment centers for everything from drug addiction to anorexia. Over the last 17 years, I did 3,150 shows and there’s not one I had my name on that I wasn’t proud of.
In 17 years, there’s not a single show you wish you hadn’t done?
There was only one I wanted to pull back. I’m sorry I did it, but I was proud of the way I handled the topic.
What was the topic?
Back in my first year we did a show on infantilism—those freaks that dress up in diapers and run
around the house sucking on bottles playing baby. [Phil] Donahue and Sally [Jessy Raphael] had done it before me and I had this group of producers who convinced me it would pull great numbers. So, I tried it. After the show aired I said, “That’s it. Now, I approve every topic and every guest.” From then on I maintained 100 percent creative control.
And now it’s all wrapping up, huh?
People have asked me what’s it going to be like to be retired. Right now, I’ve got four projects that are close to being greenlit, including a reality show I’m producing with the NFL and the next version of The Montel Williams Show. Plus I just signed my eighth book deal. So, I had my finale, but I’m not going anywhere. I’m like Jay-Z: “This is my last tour… This is my last tour….”
One last question. Truth or Internet rumor: Were you a Swiss rodeo clown before getting on TV?
That’s so crazy! Do you know that you’re the fifth person who’s asked me that? Someone else told me that on Wikipedia there’s a whole thing about Connie Chung, Maury Povich, and Montel Williams leading some Internet relationship. Ever heard that one? One day my wife jokingly asked, “Honey, you’ve been cheating on me with Connie Chung and Maury Povich?” But, no, I was not a rodeo clown. That’s funny.