Growing up in Baltimore, Montel Williams didn't think there was anything unusual about his dad's multiple occupations. "My father had a lot of jobs," recalls the successful TV host. "I knew him as a fireman, carpenter and musician. I thought everybody's parent had three jobs."
His multitasking dad and his mom, a factory worker, impressed on young Montel and his three siblings the importance of hard work, self-motivation and education. Those strong values kicked Williams into high gear when a third-grade teacher told him that he would "never be nothing" in his life. He vowed then that he would grow up to prove her wrong.
"I've worked very hard to counter that, not for anybody else but me," he says. "It's really almost a driving force. I'm still dealing with that, and that's the reason why I'm such an overachiever in some ways."
Today, Williams, 50, has found success beyond anything he could have imagined while growing up in Baltimore's public housing. The decorated U.S. Navy officer and Emmy-winning host of TV's popular The Montel Williams Show, which recently began its 16th season, also is an author, actor and entrepreneur.
He's writing a diet and exercise book, a follow-up to three previous bestsellers, including 2004's Climbing Higher. He recently became a partner in The Click, a snowboarding and skateboarding retailer, and heads an investment team operating five Fatburger franchises in Colorado, with plans to open five more. "I'm overly passionate about everything," he says. "I am almost like the Energizer Bunny."
Because of this fierce resolve, he has been able to stand up to his greatest challenge yet: multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed with the incurable, progressive neurological disease in 1999, yet his schedule is busier than ever. Fit and muscular, he is the picture of health as he sits in a dressing room near the New York studio where he tapes his shows. But looks are deceiving.
He is in pain every day, especially from the shins down, and often has problems with balance. He says he often feels like he's being hit on the bottom of his foot with a sharp or burning hammer. He's had blurred vision, digestive problems, chest spasms and swallowing difficulties. He's grappled with the depression that can accompany MS, which led to some dark moments in the early days of his diagnosis when he even contemplated suicide.
Williams says those dark days are now behind him, but he remains convinced that he can alter the outcome of his situation. He is dealing with MS just like he's dealt with every other obstacle in his life.
"Rather than sit back and just wait to see what happens, I've taken a very proactive stand against this illness, and I'm going to take that proactive stand until the day I die. I've been this way my whole life, and circumstances and other things may be a part of the reasons why I'm so driven."
He takes 70 pills each day and works out rigorously. A healthy eating regime has vastly improved the way he feels. He discovered that snowboarding relieves his leg pain, so he spends about 110 days annually on the slopes.
"I have MS, but MS does not have me, and I'm not going to let it," he says. "That's the difference. I may be ill, but I am not weak, and I'm not going to let myself be weak. If my body plays tricks on me, then I'll be as strong as I can be in whatever body I have. "I work very hard at making sure I stay on top of my medications, my diet, everything I need to stay on top of to counterbalance the negative effects of this illness. To answer the question of how I'm doing, I'm doing incredibly well for a person with MS, but I stay at it every day."
He's also committed to using his celebrity to find a cure. He established the Montel Williams MS Foundation, which has raised more than $1 million to date, to further scientific study of the disease. "Every single penny that the public has given me has gone back out and been put in the hands of research," he says. He's increased national awareness of the disease by devoting numerous episodes of his TV show to the topic, delivering public speeches and pressing drug companies to find a cure.
"I'm so impressed personally with Montel because it took a lot of courage for him to go public," says Joyce Nelson, president and CEO of the National MS Society. "He has put a real face on MS and he has been willing to commit to very publicly speaking about the disease. Now, more and more, when I say I work with MS, people say, ‘Isn't that what Montel Williams has?' That has made a tremendous difference. The people who have MS know that there is someone who is really fighting for them and is willing to use his platform and influence to bring more awareness to the disease."
Williams doesn't view his MS as a tragedy because it's brought him a greater understanding of himself and others, and now he's less judgmental and more aware of the needs of those around him. "It's made me live every day to the fullest," he says. "I don't put stoppers on it. Also, the longer I stay on this journey with this illness, the more open and honest it makes me."
He's intent on fostering a positive attitude and instilling that sense of honesty in his own four children, who range in age from 12 to 23, so they'll be equipped to conquer whatever roadblocks that come along, whether it's a negative comment or a debilitating disease. "I truthfully try my best to make sure they understand that no one else can define who they are," he says. "Not me, not their mother, not their teacher, no one. They have to figure out who they are."
He's optimistic about the future, especially since the twice-divorced Williams became engaged to flight attendant Tara Fowler in July. Forget the cliché about stopping to smell the roses: His schedule remains overwhelming, and if anything, he has a heightened awareness of how short life is and how much there is to accomplish.
"I don't fear death at all," he says. "If it happens, it happens. But between now and that time, I'm living 1 million percent. Beyond that, I look for every opportunity to just do something different today, something good today. As I end every single day, I will never close my eyes without asking myself, ‘What did I do today that's worth talking about tomorrow?'"