At a CBS party last summer that heralded new and returning TV shows, Drew Carey stood in the center of the storm, calmly chatting with reporters about his gig as the host of The Price Is Right.
As the group dispersed and he and I were alone, he spotted my badge identifying me as a writer for SUCCESS. He said the magazine is one of his favorites and that he’s been reading it since long before he gained fame as a comedian and star of The Drew Carey Show.
A compliment paid to a writer by a celebrity isn’t so unusual—flattery begets flattery, or so it’s hoped. But Carey wasn’t looking for that.
“It’s my kind of publication,” says Carey, 57. “It’s all about how to improve yourself and your business.”
With his Midwest charm, trimmed-down physique and trademark appearance—crewcut, black-rimmed glasses, suit and tie—Carey appears confident and put-together. But that wasn’t the case throughout his early years as he struggled with poor self-esteem and depression, twice attempting suicide. He says self-improvement books helped him turn his life around.
Carey remains an insatiable consumer of such material and is outspoken in his praise for icons in the field, including Zig Ziglar and Og Mandino. “I have a dog-eared copy of Og Mandino’s University of Success at my house. I read it all the time,” Carey says about the 1983 classic. “I needed University of Success because it went right to believing in yourself, which I never did.”
Carey and the late Mandino share similar life experiences. Mandino lost his mother just after high school, joined the military, felt like a failure and battled alcoholism before turning his life around and going on to write The Greatest Salesman in the World.
Carey was 8 when his father died of a brain tumor. Afterward he asked his mother to take him to see a psychiatrist, but she couldn’t afford it and didn’t have the time to follow through. His mother held down two jobs to provide for her three sons in their working-class Cleveland neighborhood.
Carey told People that he was often alone after school, watching cartoons, memorizing joke books and listening to comedy albums. His brothers were older; Neal, who died of a heart attack in 2010, was 12 years Drew’s senior, and Roger is six years older.
Carey has described himself as a nerdy loner who spent his childhood feeling unworthy of happiness or success. That didn’t change when he went to Kent State University, where he was twice expelled for poor grades and spent five years attending classes without earning a degree.
As a freshman, Carey tried to kill himself. He continued fighting depression and, at 23 and waiting tables at a Denny’s restaurant in Las Vegas, tried to kill himself again. This time, his brother Roger bought him a ticket home to Cleveland. Carey immersed himself in self-empowerment books, including Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones and the writings of Ziglar and Mandino.
After a few years, Carey moved to San Diego, where his older brother Neal lived. In 1980 he signed up for the Marine Reserves, which he brushes off as “not really a Marine. Just the reserves. Not a big deal.” But he did gain more discipline as well as his signature hairstyle.
With aid from a disc jockey friend who asked him to help write on-air jokes, Carey discovered his talent for comedy. He began writing jokes for others, performed local comedy and went on the stand-up circuit.
While still plagued with self-doubts, he received a huge ego boost when he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1991 and became one of the few comics invited to sit next to Carson after his bit.
When he was “called to the couch,” Carey knew he had made it, he has told reporters. Raised Presbyterian, he likened the Tonight Show experience to joining the Pentecostal church when he was in junior high. “There was an altar call, and I went up, and I got saved. And I rolled around, talked in tongues, all that stuff you hear about. And being called over to the couch by Johnny was the closest thing I ever had to that.”
Carey’s career was taking off. After appearing on the short-lived 1994 NBC sitcom The Good Life, he pitched a sitcom about a good-natured working guy based loosely on his life. The Drew Carey Show was an instant hit that ran from 1995 to 2004.
Then in 2007, he took the reins of the long-running game show The Price Is Right, which had been helmed for decades by Bob Barker.
Mike Richards, executive producer of The Price Is Right, says Carey is constantly “regrounding” himself with perspectives on how to be better.
“When you achieve a tremendous amount of success in TV and movies, it is very easy to lose perspective. He could be unaware of how lucky he is or how much he has been compared to other people,” Richards says. “He’s a naturally empathetic person, and being focused on constant improvement, he doesn’t retreat into that world of fame and fortune.”
While he doesn’t foist his practices on others, Carey does try to incorporate what he learns into his work and share it with anyone who is interested. He often suggests books to his co-workers and has even paid for consultants to come to The Price Is Right studio for training sessions.
Richards remembers Carey being so impressed by the work of David Allen—best-selling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity—that he brought in a consultant to help teach people how to organize their workdays. Allen writes that it’s difficult for people to focus on big-picture goals if they can’t free up mental space by controlling their day-to-day tasks.
“Drew reads everything, trying to make himself better, and it really is what defines him,” Richards says. “But he’s also funny about it. He told me to read The 4-Hour Workweek [by Tim Ferriss] and then told me that he didn’t want me to really follow it because he said it won’t work for you to do the show, and he laughed.”
Richards remembers dinner parties Carey has hosted with carefully crafted guest lists designed for learning. One included comedians, some unknown musicians, “one of the biggest bands of the ’70s” and British physicist Brian Cox.
“And they were all there to talk to the physicist,” Richards says. “Drew is constantly reading and surrounding himself with smart people. He doesn’t sit around and waste time basking in his success.”
Carey’s path to self-improvement hasn’t been without detours. “I’ve been super-happy lately,” he says. “I’m eating better, taking better care of myself. When I was doing [The Drew Carey Show], I was eating a lot of garbage, I was drinking a lot, so I had a lot of mood swings. I had diabetes.”
What changed for him was the realization that he wasn’t being the person he wanted to be for Connor, the son of his former fiancée, Nicole Jaracz. The couple broke up in 2012, but Carey has remained close to Connor, now 9, and considers him his son.
“My kid made the difference,” Carey says. “I wanted to stay alive long enough to see him graduate from high school, and I was doing some math in my head, and I thought, If I don’t stop what I’m doing, I’m not going to live long enough for that.”
Carey, who underwent coronary angioplasty in 2001, began a strict diet and exercise plan in 2010. He lost almost 100 pounds and was able to control his diabetes without medication.
“I had to change my whole belief system. It wasn’t like, Eat this for 90 days and lose 20 pounds,” Carey says. “It was: Eat like this for the rest of your life. I mean, I was at a wedding on Saturday, and I ate cake. I’m not a maniac about it. But 95 percent of the time, I’m right on the money.”
His regimen restricts his beverages almost exclusively to water. No diet drinks, coffee or sports drinks. And no alcohol.
“I’m not an alcoholic, but I used to drink a lot. So I decided to go to a beer hall in Berlin and get drunk for the first time in almost five years,” Carey says. “And I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being drunk, didn’t like the after-effects because I can’t think. I didn’t enjoy it, so I probably won’t ever do it again.”
And it’s the same for eating food that isn’t healthy. “I couldn’t play with Connor for more than about 10 minutes before I’d be exhausted,” he says of his heavyweight days. “I’d get really tired at work. I’d finish The Price Is Right, and my feet would just be killing me,” Carey says.
During breaks, he would run backstage and chug a Pepsi for energy. When the show was over, he would go to a diner and have a big plate of pasta. At home, he’d grab a bag of chips.
“I had no energy to even get up the stairs to go to bed,” Carey says. “I would take an Ambien to get to sleep and have coffee in the morning to wake up. I thought that was normal. I wasn’t eating food. I was just consuming calories.”
As he began eating better and exercising more, Carey found he could run marathons, play with his son and still get his work done. “I went to Africa and hiked around and never got tired,” he says. He also had plenty of energy for the show, which he calls his “dream job.”
Earlier in the day of last summer’s CBS party, Carey had spoken to a college class. He says it still amazes him to realize how few young people plan for successful careers.
“People spend more time planning their vacations than planning their lives,” Carey says. “They will go on the Internet to get the best prices and go at the best times, but if you ask why they are in college, most will say, ‘I don’t know. My parents wanted me to go.’ They do minimal research, and most don’t even know what the career they are choosing is going to be like in the future.”
Because professional fulfillment came to him later in life, Carey tries to persuade young people not to procrastinate in setting and pursuing their goals. But first, he says: “You have to believe in yourself, because you won’t do anything if you don’t believe in you because, why bother? Why would I go to college? Why would anyone want me? That kind of thinking stops you from doing anything. You have to tell yourself that you are worth it, and you go on from there.”
This article appears in the January 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.