Ryan Lochte: I Want to Be the Next Kim Kardashian
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."