Ross Mathews may not have won the grand prize on “Big Brother: Celebrity Edition” but he walked out of that house with quite a few other accomplishments under his belt — including the self-proclaimed title of house “reporter” for the way he grilled fellow houseguest Omarosa Manigault Newman about her time working for Donald Trump.
The reality personality, who could also be seen on the judge’s panel of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars” at the same time as his stint in the “Big Brother” house, came in runner-up to Marissa Jaret Winokur in the first-ever celebrity edition of CBS’ reality show. Second place got him a $50,000 cash prize — unlike other special celeb editions of reality shows, this one did not specify the talent had to play for charity — and he also won America’s Vote, which gave him another $25,000.
“I feel like everything worked out the way it was supposed to,” Mathews says. “Marissa won the game, and I feel like I won the popular vote. I feel like I’m the Hillary Clinton.”
During his time in the house, Mathews discussed openly how important it was for him to show young gay kids how far he made it so that they would feel they could do anything, too.
“It was exhausting, but I’m so glad I did it,” Mathews says of the experience. “I really like the person I became.”
After his exit from the “Big Brother” house, Mathews spoke with Variety about how the experience measured up to expectations, what he would do differently if given the chance, and if his opinion of Omarosa and her politics have changed since getting to know the person behind the headlines.
You were a self-professed “Big Brother” fan. What did you most want out of the experience?
I had watched every season — I love the show — and I would always sit in my living room and think, “I could do that. I know I could do that. I know exactly how to play it.” When they announced the celebrity version [last year], I thought to myself, “They’re totally going to ask me to do it!” And then they did, and there was just no way I could say no. I couldn’t talk all that game for all those years and then not say yes. So I just thought I would go in and do it. And I knew it would be a little different but I didn’t care — I played this game for me and for every super fan who ever dreamed of playing the game. It wasn’t about winning for me, it was about making it to the final episode.
Was there an aspect of the show that turned out very different from what you expected?
I wanted every aspect — I wanted to win HOH, I wanted to win the POV, I wanted to be on slop, I wanted to win an athletic challenge and a puzzle challenge, I wanted a strong social game. Even the stuff that sucked, I was thrilled about. What surprised me really was the tedious nature of the production and the schedule. Of course you’re cut off from the outside world and on-camera 24/7, that part didn’t bother me. But when we would do challenges where we’d compete one at a time, they don’t want us to know the other houseguests’ times, so you’re sequestered in a bedroom or a room, by yourself, for six and a half hours. So I would just sit and stare at the wall.
How did you get through that?
There were no tricks, it was just awful. It was discombobulating. You just thought of everything that you were trying not to think of your entire life. That one thing you said to your mom when you were 13 and so mean, you feel bad about that. There’s nothing to do but think. I mean, I usually have the Food Network on 24/7 because I don’t want to think about my childhood!
On finale night you said that lying was just a part of the game, but not everyone seemed to get that. Did it surprise you just how polite so many of the houseguests were to each other, and did you believe people when they were being nice?
We were nice to each other [and] I believed a lot of them. But it was different from any other season because usually there’s a variety of different types of people — there are wallflowers, there are introverts, there are extroverts. The people in this house were all celebrities — all successful people — there were no wallflowers! And the fact of the matter is, nobody blended into the background. We all made sure we got to know each other, and I think that really helped. Also, we had an idea of who they were outside the house, so it was like we came in with baggage — good or bad. Even someone like Omarosa, did I trust her? No. Did I like her before the house? No. But did I grow a large appreciation for what she is able to do? Absolutely. This may sound a little kumbaya, but we got out of the house on Sunday, and Monday at 3 p.m., Omarosa, Ari, Brandi and I were all at Marissa’s house.
This might be the first reality show where people were there to make friends.
I guess so, but they also didn’t know how to play the game. I was so disappointed in and shocked [by] “Big Brother” fans like Shannon, who voted the way they did in the finale. It doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I am disappointed in those super fans.
It sounded like some of them voted for Marissa because she has a family — so for personal reasons, not because they thought her strategy was best.
That happens in “Big Brother.” And feelings get hurt, especially with celebrities — egos are fragile with celebrities. So I’m just used to that they’re not used to hearing “No,” and I think they were a little bummed out that they lost. It didn’t surprise me that people who had never watched the show maybe had feelings hurt, but super fans of the show getting their feelings hurt? I don’t get that. If Shannon had done to me what I did to her, I would have said, “Best move you could have made. I was the biggest threat in the house. Congratulations, now go win the whole thing.”
Would you have taken Marissa to the end if the choice had been yours?
I still don’t know. I really knew the smart gameplay would have been to take Mark to the end because Mark hadn’t won a lot of competitions or been a big threat in the game. And so I knew I would win, going against Mark. The women in the house really wanted a woman to win. But I don’t know, if I had won that final HOH, if I could have looked Marissa in the eye and not taken her.
Let’s talk about Omarosa. You were in each other’s radars as targets, but you spent a lot of time with her, too. How much strategy went into you interviewing her about politics?
I was working for everybody in that house, pulling double duty trying to win the game but also get the scoopiest scoop. I’m no idiot. I’ve been working on television now for almost 20 years — I know exactly what’s up. And when I saw Omarosa in the house, I thought a few things: I was scared out of my mind because she’s really good at this reality stuff and I’m new to it; this show is going to be huge because she’s in it; get her out, but not right away because we need good ratings; and get her to tell you everything she can because it’s going to be headlines everywhere.
Do you feel she was genuine with you or saying things she thought would make better headlines and get some goodwill from the public?
I don’t know what was true and what wasn’t, but I do know this for a fact: she told me more than any other, I do know that.
Has getting to know Omarosa as a person changed the way you think about her or her politics?
I’m fascinated by her. When I’m with her it’s like I’m doing a character study because there are moments he turns it on and turns it off. She is a cool chick — really down — and has seen some stuff and has some fascinating stories. But then she can become something else, and you have to question if anything she told you is true. But both of those people, to me, feel 100% authentic.
Will you read the book she’s clearly trying to sell?
We talked a lot about this book, but she has to be careful because Donald Trump is ready to sue anybody. If she were to get a multi-million dollar advance, she would get a multi-million dollar lawsuit. I told her she needs to write a fictional novel about a fake presidency and just make it all characters — like what Star Jones did with the book about the daytime talk show that wasn’t “The View.” That’s what she needs to do.
You have a reality TV background but was there anything you learned from “Big Brother” that you didn’t expect to, given your extensive knowledge going in?
I’m a judge on a reality show, which is very different from being on a reality show, and I always had empathy for the contestants on “Drag Race” but now my empathy is on super overdrive for them. The platform a show like “Drag Race” or “Big Brother” gives you is incredible, and what you can do with it afterwards — it opens so many doors. But the hoops you must jump through as a contestant on a reality show are exhausting, and they really challenge you to your core — your character, your humanity and, quite honestly, your strength.
What did you learn about yourself personally from the experience?
I remembered how resilient I am. You know when you’re younger and you just try things like, “Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?” But then you get a little bit of success and you have something to lose — “Oh my reputation” or “I don’t want to lose a dollar.” Just doing this and saying, “F— it man, be all in and compete as hard as you can and surprise the hell out of yourself,” I never thought I would win an athletic challenge, but there I was in the finale, swinging through the sky in a harness, beating everybody in the house. To me, it’s a great reminder of the balls and courage I had when I was younger to try something new. I really feel like I had been defined, and this show really tore that all up for me. I feel like I could do anything next.