Ryan Lochte knows exactly what he wants. He wants to be Kim Kardashian -- and isn't ashamed to admit it.
"Kim started from pretty much nothing, and now everyone everywhere knows who she is," he says. "That's what I want to do."
Lochte pulls a gray beanie down over his ears and collapses onto a sofa on the roof deck of the Thompson Beverly Hills. It's March 5, and the 28-year-old swimmer is in Los Angeles to promote his new E! series, What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, which premieres April 21. He has shed the designer Tom Ford duds he wore for his THR shoot (a polished look he's still getting used to, admitting he only learned how to tie a tie three weeks earlier while in Washington, D.C.) in exchange for a more casual look: a white button-down, khakis and sneakers.
As well known for his six-pack abs, "playa" reputation and oversize sneaker collection as he is for his three world records and 11 Olympic medals (including five golds), Lochte sees no reason why he can't follow Kardashian's trajectory. "I've seen what E! has done in the past with reality shows like hers," he says admiringly of his network co-star, whom he has not yet met. "Today, she's huge."
Lochte doesn't want to miss his moment, and he's sure this is it. "When I walk down the street, people recognize me, and that never happened before," says the athlete, who's known to stand outside his hotel to sign every last autograph and pose for countless iPhone photos -- even if that means being late to practice. "Now's my chance."
Lochte's show follows his daily life over the course of about five months as he trains for the 2016 Summer Games, parties at nightclubs throughout the country, gets dating advice from his mother and sisters and hits on women at local watering holes in Gainesville, Fla. (his training ground and home base). Despite a reputation for being a womanizer, Lochte maintains he's looking for love in his life and on his show (an important element for E!'s mostly female audience). "I'm at a point where I'm ready to settle down," he says. "Every girl I meet, though, something wrong happens, and I end up getting hurt." It might be difficult for viewers to sympathize, however, when trailers for the series show a tipsy Lochte mumbling halfhearted dinner invitations at pretty, young twentysomethings he meets on the Gainesville bar scene.
The swimmer unintentionally put his own "Lochte edge," as he calls it, on his eight-episode series by breaking the fourth wall, speaking directly to his producers and crew on camera (an uncommon practice in the genre). "During one scene, I looked at the camera out of the blue and said, 'Did you just see that?' I thought I made a big mistake," says Lochte. "It definitely wasn't a directive," says Suzanne Kolb, president of E! Entertainment, conceding that Lochte's innovation isn't necessarily a model the network will continue using. But for this project, she adds, it worked. "It felt natural, and from our perspective it answered the question: What would Ryan Lochte do with a reality show? He would talk to his producer."
One episode features rounds of "drunk golf" with his assistant and friend Gene. Slightly intoxicated, Lochte declares midswing, "Man, f--- Phelps!" -- he's goofing around, as usual, but he's also giving viewers a peek at the competitive edge that helped him swipe one of his teammate Michael Phelps' anticipated gold medals in London. Lochte will need every bit of that edge to pull off the delicate high-wire act of switching genres, crossing from a sport where his record is golden into a space that is littered with far more disasters than hits, especially for athletes. While NFL stars have made winning contestants on such shows as Dancing With the Stars and The Celebrity Apprentice, the jocks who've starred on their own diary-format shows have met with less success (save for MTV's Rob Dyrdek, a pro skateboarder who has seen two spinoffs from his original series Rob & Big, which bowed in 2006).
During and after the Olympics, Lochte already was living his own real-time reality show, with fans suddenly knowledgeable about his token "Jeah!" catchphrase (rhymes with "yeah," heavy emphasis on the "j"), his American-flag bedazzled grills (which he wore on the Olympic medal podium in 2008 and 2012), his jaw-dropping inarticulateness and his mother's inopportune declarations about his love life (during the London games she told Today that her son was more interested in "one-night stands" because "he's not able to give fully to a relationship").
If Phelps was once the swimmer everyone talked about, Lochte became the sport's second household name. Headlines such as Jezebel's "10 Reasons Why Ryan Lochte Is the World's Sexiest Douchebag" and Celebuzz's "Ryan Lochte Flaunts Rock Hard Body" lit the Internet on fire. He was even spoofed on the Sept. 15 season premiere of Saturday Night Live by host Seth MacFarlane (who depicted a semi-illiterate version of the swimmer). "They made fun of me on SNL," says Lochte with a laugh. "I guess I made it." But he turned down a seemingly golden opportunity to retaliate. "They invited me on to get back at him, but that's not me," notes Lochte. "The only way I can get back at him is in the pool. So if Seth MacFarlane wants to race me, let's do it. But he has to wear a Speedo."
And now, nine months after his Olympic moment, E! -- which jumped on the Lochte bandwagon early, having him swim in the fountain outside its Mid-Wilshire offices with Joan Rivers for the network's Fashion Police and trying him as an on-air correspondent during New York Fashion Week -- will be putting the athlete to the ultimate test: Was he just a flash in the pan, or is he a personality whose cultural relevance can endure over the three long years until the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro? The ever-confident Lochte has no doubts about his ability to succeed in the reality world. "Not to have a big head about it," he says with an earnest smile, "but people love me."
It was Lochte himself who, during the height of his post-Olympics hype, brought the idea of a reality series to his team (CAA agents Jonathan Swaden, alternative TV group, and Lowell Taub, head of sports endorsements). "I told them, 'Look, this is what I want to do. Is it possible?' " he says, adjusting himself to sit up just a bit straighter. Lochte wasn't interested in a gimmick series (the swimmer was being seriously considered by ABC as the next Bachelor and as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars but declined both opportunities) and charged his team with going out and selling the concept that he wanted: a diary show centered totally on him -- with the intention, he insists, of promoting the sport that made him a star. ("The swimming community is really small, but why can't it be as big as the NBA or the NFL?" he asks.) With E! already interested in him, it wasn't long before he struck a deal with the network to film a teaser.
"The only area of real consideration was finding the right vehicle to bring the audience all the things about Ryan we were enamored by," says Kolb. To help drive that vehicle, E! brought in Intuitive (the producers behind Bravo's The Millionaire Matchmaker, LA Shrinks and Animal Planet's Pit Boss) to meet with its new star -- a process some consider backward. "You go to a production company and come up with a concept that you're both comfortable with and think is sellable, and then you take that package to the network," says one reality insider. "The network will, of course, have their slant on it, but at least you're in the driver's seat."
While Lochte is the driving force behind the show, his team is committed to branding him and developing his post-retirement career, a unique challenge for Olympic athletes, who have trouble sustaining fame (and income) after they stop competing. But Kolb insists that her new star can beat those odds. "He's not a one-trick pony," she says. "With all due respect to many other Olympic athletes, if he had just had a moment of physical triumph and the personality wasn't there, his moment would have passed and we probably wouldn't have put his show on the air. Ultimately, we feel he's a personality that will transcend because Ryan lives his life the way the E! viewer would like to."
Lochte is well aware of the gamble he's making with his reputation, his career and his livelihood. "It is a risk, and it's a risk I knew going into this. But all my sponsors know me," he says of the partnerships that industry insiders say have brought him close to $10 million in earnings in the past year, ranging from Speedo and Nissan to AT&T and Mutual of Omaha (he recently parted ways with Wheaties and Procter & Gamble, closing out deals pegged directly to the 2012 London Games). "What you see is what you get, and I'm not going to try and be anybody else."
Whether the star's partners will stand by their man "depends on what tone the show takes," says APA partner and board member Brian Dow, the brain behind some of reality's top branded personalities. "If the show goes the way it looks to be going, brands will take a funny twist on him. It will be Snooki [from MTV's Jersey Shore] kind of stuff, where people are laughing at you and not with you, but some brands will leverage that because they want to get eyeballs." But, considering Lochte's Olympic-hero status, Dow adds, "It's not what I would have done."
Lochte reveals that because of existing partnerships, certain brand labels and insignia will be blurred out during postproduction editing (translation: Not all of his cars are Nissans); however, the athlete's infamous neon pink Speedo will appear on the series, as will a meeting he takes with his longtime swimwear sponsor.
The swimmer insists that "leaving everything on the table" at the 2016 Summer Games is his primary focus -- and diligently maintains his 35-hour-a-week training schedule, which prohibits him from watching much TV on his own time. His program includes seven-hour days of swimming and honing stroke techniques along with a unique weight training regimen -- dragging a 500-pound boat chain 400 yards down a residential street, flipping tractor tires and throwing beer kegs into the air -- followed by a full hour dedicated to those famous abs.
Lochte's decision to do the show now, however, has some close to him concerned. (His swimming coach declined to be interviewed for this story.) "Of course my parents were worried about it," concedes Lochte, his brow furrowing. "But swimming is my baby, and I'm not going to let anything affect that." With confidence bordering on hubris, he explains, "I have such a strong background that I can do other things and still be a world-class athlete."
Born in Rochester, N.Y., the third of five children, Lochte moved in 1989 with his family to Florida, where he turned his focus to competitive swimming. "My dad was my swim coach growing up, and I tried to get kicked out of practice every day," says the self-proclaimed troublemaker. "I was a little devil kid. If they let me stay in the pool, that's great, I love being in the water. I'm home in the water. If they kick me out, I'm going to eat candy, clog all the drains in the shower and make a big old slip-and-slide. It was a win-win." After a devastating loss at the Junior Olympics, the then-12-year-old Lochte switched gears and began taking the sport -- and his training -- seriously. He attended the University of Florida (graduating in 2007 with a degree in sports management) and was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year twice during his collegiate career, in between training for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens (where he took home two medals) and the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing (there, he scored four).
"Swimming doesn't define who I am," says the athlete, whose favorite spectator sport is basketball (he's a devoted Orlando Magic fan). "Swimming is a sport that I'm OK at." It's an uncharacteristic moment of modesty -- and perhaps a bit forced. Just OK? He smiles and rolls those blue eyes: "Fine, a sport I'm good at."
Is there anything else he's good at? Like his reality TV role model Kardashian, Lochte has an eye for fashion and even hints that he's in the preliminary stages of developing his own clothing line. "I love shoes," he confesses. He has roughly 165 pairs of sneakers in a dedicated room in his Florida home -- many of them his own custom models. "I design my own high-tops. They have green rhinestones covering the whole shoe. Instead of shoelaces, there's green ribbon. On the very bottom of one shoe -- which is the coolest thing, I don't know how I came up with it -- it says 'Ryan' and on the bottom of the other it says 'Lochte,' so when you get your shoes wet, it shows up on the ground as 'Ryan Lochte.' It's the coolest thing I've ever done."
Although he declined that invitation to appear on SNL, Lochte has shown interest in the scripted landscape. In the fall, he appeared on an episode of NBC's 30 Rock, an experience that introduced him to the man he considers his Hollywood mentor: Alec Baldwin. "He's the funniest guy I've ever met," says Lochte, clapping his hands and laughing -- at what, it's not exactly clear. "I didn't know how to act. I never took a class. I just showed up to set with my shirt off because they wanted my shirt off," says Lochte (who nonetheless refused to remove his shirt for his shoot with THR). "They gave me my lines, but I didn't know what to do, and Alec was like, 'Follow my lead, I got you on this,' and we just rolled with it."
Despite the chill in the air this March evening, which has him warming his hands before the outdoor fireplace, Lochte says he'd like to uproot his Florida life and head to Los Angeles -- especially if there's a second season of his series. "L.A. has everything," says the swimmer, who explains he could take up his training here with the group of 30-plus Olympians who work out at USC's athletic center. "It's a perfect environment. During the days, its so sunny and I can go to the beach, and night it gets cold so I can bundle up in those covers," he says, wrapping his arms around himself. "And I'm not going to lie, I like the nightlife. I like to party and dance. I like having a good time."
Because that's what Ryan Lochte would do.
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