I have a favorite conversation starter I like to employ at parties. I ask, “Who would I be shocked to find out you admire?” No, I don’t want to hear about how you like Eleanor Roosevelt’s pluck. I’m looking for a Left Wing former hippie to tell me he secretly thinks Sarah Palin rocks. Or a staunch Republican to say he’d love to do beers and shoot hoops with Obama. Well, you don’t even have to show me yours, I’ll show you mine. The people you’d be shocked to find I admire? Richard Simmons and Donny Osmond. Richard is the subject for another day. Today, I’m talking Donny. Donny of Puppy Love and Tiger Beat Fame.

I haven’t exactly come out of the closet on my Donny Osmond fandom until now. But I’ve always thought he was vastly underrated as a performer. I mean, ballads, Pop, Broadway, comedy, variety show host. Donny can do it all.

It’s been interesting during this week of Michael Jackson Mania to hear how many people are citing One Bad Apple as a favorite Jackson Five song. Sorry, kids. It was offered to the Jacksons. They passed. The group that did it? The Osmonds. And that great voice in the lead? Not the future gloved King of Pop Superstar of All Time Beloved Of Millions If You Can Believe the Hype. Nope, Donny Osmond.

Donny's having the last laugh. His show with Marie is the hottest ticket in Vegas.

Donny’s having the last laugh. His show with Marie is the hottest ticket in Vegas.

Okay, those Elvis suits the Osmonds used to sport didn’t do them any favors for their legacy. And it always bugged me when they tried to bring in Little Jimmy as the “new star” (as if Donny needed to be replaced). But Donny has proven, against all odds and the snickering of snarky critics that he has the chops to be a major talent. It’s just too bad that George Michael style pop stars or Tony Bennett like ballad singers or Broadway belters or loose and comfortable variety show hosts have gone slightly out of style. ‘Cause Donny Osmond is a master of all these genres.

It was a surprising way in which I found I wasn’t alone in my Donny Osmond fandom. I had a throwaway line about Donny Osmond being underrated in this Michael Jackson post. Surprisingly, it generated more comments on Donny than it did on Michael. Although most commenters were afraid to post publicly and responded by Twitter direct message, email or direct Facebook message. (People, talk to the Blog!)

One of the few bold enough to come out proud with his Donny Fandom was Cousin John, who is not my cousin but the cousin of my eccentric friend Julian. Equally eccentric John was unabashed in his appreciation of Donny. But then Cousin John is the Indiana Jones of California, so he’s pretty secure in his own image.

“The Osmonds were bigger than Jesus in the UK. Also, it’s uncool if you think he’s uncool. He’s had ironic retro caché since the 90s amongst the hipsters cognoscenti.”

Cousin John goes on to remind me that Osmondmania was as big in the UK in the 70s as Beatlemania was in the US in the Sixties. He also forwards this interview that shows Donny kept an ironic, cool sense of humor about his whole rise and fall and rise. Remember, this is a guy who had no problem appearing in Weird Al Yankovich’s video White and Nerdy.

Donny & Marie are the hottest ticket in Vegas. Catch them at the Flamingo.

Donny & Marie are the hottest ticket in Vegas. Catch them at the Flamingo.

Which brings me to Donny Osmond the man. I know, especially in the wake of this whole Michael Jackson Sobfest, that we are being asked to separate the man from his musical genius. But let’s give Donny some credit for facing the same pressures of early fame as Michael and not resorting to carving up his nose or molesting little boys.

Donny did develop social anxiety disorder which he admits had to be treated by drugs. What did he do? He became a spokesman for the condition trying to draw attention, understanding and funding to the condition.

And okay, I have a lot of issues with the Mormon Church, especially since they recently spent millions in California trying to influence (successfully it turns out) who can get married in our state. Donny issued this statement:

“We all determine for ourselves what is right and what is not right for our own lives. I am not a judge and I will never judge anyone for the decisions they make unless they are causing harm to another individual. I love my friends, including my gay friends. We are all God’s children. It is their choice, not mine on how they conduct their lives and choose to live the commandments according to the dictates of their own conscience.”

Nice thought, although he goes on to say Gays should only be allowed in the Mormon Church as celibates. But you know what? Donny’s never been caught in a motel room with hookers, underage male hustlers, cocaine or heroin. He was a 20 year old virgin bridegroom and has remained married to the same woman for decades. He walks the walk while he’s talking the talk. You have to respect that. He’s also been nothing but gracious in his memories of Michael Jackson, even though the interviewers have been trying to draw the same comparisons I just did.

Cousin John, the only guy secure enough in his manhood to admit he thinks Donny Osmond is cool.

Cousin John, the only guy secure enough in his manhood to admit he thinks Donny Osmond is cool.

Oh, and about that Donny comeback in the 90s? Turns out his record Soldier of Love, which was first released only in the UK, was sent to some NYC DJs. They played it while billing the singer as a Mystery Artist. It reached hit status before it was revealed to be by the Singer Formerly Known as Donny Osmond.

Last year, when we were in Vegas for my comical running (walking) of the Las Vegas Marathon, we noticed a big billboard advertising that Donny and Marie were appearing at the Flamingo. Andy started snickering. Our cabbie turned around and gave us a sharp verbal slap-down. He said Donny was one of the biggest draws in Vegas and he was immensely talented. Trust me, you don’t argue with cabbies.

Donny and Marie’s show has been extended until 2010. And I’m signed up for this year’s Las Vegas Marathon. Guess what tickets I’ll be buying.

By the way, Biography did a really good Donny & Marie profile that will change your view of this duo. This clip covers the fall of Donny’s career and how Soldier of Love kick-started it again. Did I mention Marie? Don’t even get me started. Also underrated.

NERD Update: Someone at Donny.com, Donny’s official site, just linked to me and now I’m following Donny on Twitter @donnyosmond