Teen finds fame has drawbacks, turns down million-dollar gig as host of national TV show

Joseph Luginbill outside of his childhood home in Eau Claire on Wednesday, August 14, 2013.

It seemed almost too good to be true.

And it all happened so fast.

In early June 2012, Joe Luginbill was a new Eau Claire North High School graduate, an optimistic 18-year-old with a multitude of interests and his future before him. He had been accepted at UW-Stout in Menomonie, where he would study business.

During summertime breaks from his job as a barista at an Eau Claire Starbucks, Luginbill, prompted by friends, decided to create videos and post them on YouTube.

The videos were intended to be humorous. The first one featured him reading rap music as if it were poetry.

“It was just goofy, funny stuff,” Luginbill said. “That’s all it was meant to be.”

On Aug. 14, in the kitchen of his parents’ west side Eau Claire home, Luginbill created a second video, titled “A French Feast,” that depicted him making boeuf bourguignon in honor of what would have been famed chef Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Later, he posted the video before going to bed.

The next day, unbeknownst to Luginbill, representatives of the Julia Child brand noticed the video and posted it on her website and Facebook site. Like a super-fueled rocket, the video took off, racking up hundreds of views by the minute.

Early the following morning, Luginbill’s father, Dennis Luginbill, awoke and checked out his son’s cooking video on YouTube and realized it had amassed more than 500,000 views. Amazed, Dennis headed to Eau Claire Memorial High School, where he was teaching marching band camp with his colleague Eric Dasher. Shortly after 8 a.m., Dennis told Dasher about the video’s burgeoning popularity and turned on a computer to learn that the cooking video now totaled 1.3 million hits.

“The number of hits was growing by leaps and bounds,” Dennis said of the popularity of his son’s video post. “I couldn’t believe it.”

After a couple of days, the video tallied more than 3 million hits.

Luginbill’s life was about to change. The next year would a whirlwind with more national exposure and a $1 million contract waiting for his signature. But was that what he really wanted out of life?

In the days after he posted his cooking video, Luginbill’s cellphone seemed to ring nonstop. He fielded calls from well-wishers, agents and entertainment representatives requesting that he pitch this product or make a public appearance to represent that agency. Media outlets from around the U.S. wanted to interview him about his video. How did he make it and why? Was he a good cook? Where did he learn to cook? The questions seemed endless, and Luginbill’s phone kept ringing.

“It was crazy,” Luginbill said. “I went from being this regular 18-year-old to someone who seemingly everyone wanted to talk to. It just came out of nowhere. It was hard to make sense of it all.”

Deluged by job offers, Luginbill decided to withdraw from UW-Stout. Dennis Luginbill and his wife, Teresa, balked initially at the idea of their son not attending college. But they followed his lead, banking on him returning to school one day.

“The way his phone was ringing, he wouldn’t have been able to go to school anyway,” Dennis said.

Luginbill signed on to represent local companies Mega Foods and Silver Springs, pitching their products. Advertisements of a smiling Luginbill stared back at shoppers meandering through Mega Foods stores. He created more food-making videos, continuing to attract viewers. He also pitched products for food- and nutrition-related products, such as a new app titled Grocerize to help people shop online, and the national nutrition and pharmaceutical company Alli.

Although his new jobs were entirely unexpected, Luginbill was enjoying the ride. The bright, personable young man his classmates joked would one day become president of the United States seemed like the perfect fit for someone being paid to talk.

“I figured something like this was only going to happen once, so I was going to go with it. It was something I wanted,” Luginbill said.

Improbable as it often seemed to him, Luginbill’s star rose even higher. His cooking videos continued to attract YouTube viewers, although none nearly as much as the Julia Child clip. Luginbill’s propensity to draw people to their computers to view his lighthearted-yet-straightforward culinary skills attracted the attention of a regionally syndicated radio network on the East Coast.

They offered Luginbill his own show, the aptly titled “The Joe Luginbill Show,” which initially featured Luginbill discussing nutrition and lifestyles and evolved into a talk show in which Luginbill interviewed a wide range of people about many topics.

In late September, Luginbill took part in a Sirius Satellite Radio program with business magnate and television personality Martha Stewart. The duo hit it off, with Stewart telling Luginbill he had good taste in choosing the name of his promotional company, Luginbill Omnimedia. (Her company, encompassing a variety of business ventures, is named Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.) They discussed business and entertainment before taking calls from listeners.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, Luginbill took part in the show from his car, and Stewart participated from a remote location. But the fact that his conversation with the home and gardening icon was being broadcast to millions of listeners across the U.S. wasn’t lost on Luginbill.

“I couldn’t believe I was partnered with someone of her stature,” he said.

Stewart wasn’t the only big-name celebrity Luginbill was paired with. As his brand spread, he continued to receive interview requests from radio programs and congratulatory messages from well-known icons ranging from Donald Trump to former Wisconsin Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, for whom he had worked as an intern.

“I have no idea how some of these people heard about me,” Luginbill said. “The whole thing was surreal. It always will be.”

Luginbill sometimes interviewed celebrities. His favorite interview was with Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, one of the cardinals on the short list to be named pope before Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was chosen to replace outgoing Pope Benedict XVI, becoming Pope Francis.

“As I interviewed him, I thought, ‘Wow, I really have an inside look at history here,’ ” Luginbill said. “He is a very thoughtful man. I gained a lot of insight from him.”

As Luginbill’s brand unexpectedly soared, he and his family faced an exciting-yet-sometimes-challenging adjustment.

Luginbill’s phone seemed to be in near-constant ring mode. His Facebook and Twitter sites were flooded with messages. He was making money. It seemed like a great ride, especially for someone just out of high school.

“I never expected it to happen, but, when it did, it was a lot of fun,” Luginbill said of his rapid ascension as a young social media personality. “People across the country wanted me for me. I had never thought of myself as valuable in that way. I still don’t. But I liked it.”

Dennis and Teresa Luginbill were as surprised as their son at his unexpected and sudden attention.

“It was a wild ride,” Dennis said. “We were amazed by what was happening and tried to help Joe as best we could. But that was tough, because we’d never been through anything like this before.”

Technology provided Luginbill with a degree of fame, but it increasingly sucked up more of his time. And he felt his new entertainment-based life begin to alter how he acted.

Typically, Luginbill made friends and family a priority and focused on others. But as his Facebook and Twitter accounts lit up and his opportunities as a young media personality piled up, his notoriety went to his head. He noticed himself focusing more and more on money.

“It was overwhelming. I didn’t always realize it at the time, but my new life as this entertainment personality was changing me as a person,” Luginbill said. “I didn’t take as much time for other people. I didn’t focus on other people. It became too much about me.”

Dennis and Teresa watched their son deal with the pressure of fame. They offered advice and support but weren’t afraid to voice worries when they noticed behavior they questioned.

“There were definitely some times when we were concerned,” Dennis said. “There were a lot of long talks to get him to focus on who he was and what was important. We saw all of the demands on Joe and worried about him getting lost in the entertainment world.”

Luginbill’s continued airtime via his radio show led to an even bigger opportunity. In February, he received a phone call from an agent, whom he declined to name, saying he had a big deal in the works. A national TV cable outlet was offering Luginbill his own nationally syndicated talk show that would feature Luginbill interviewing young entertainers, philanthropists and others looking to leave their mark on the world.

The show would target the under-30 audience, and producers thought Luginbill’s engaging, bright personality made him the perfect host.

“It would have been kind of like the ‘Steve Harvey’ show, but aimed at a younger crowd,” Luginbill said.

A short time later, Luginbill received a one-year contract for the program that would bear his name. The show’s executives had planned material for 56 half-hour episodes and six one-hour programs. The payoff? Including his housing in Hollywood, salary, endorsements and royalties, TV show executives were willing to pay Luginbill more than $1 million for one year, with the opportunity to make more in the future.

As he read through the contract wording, an awed Luginbill thought, “Is this for real?”

As enticing as the offer sounded, Luginbill wasn’t ready to sign on the dotted line just yet. He and his agent haggled with the show’s producers, mainly about the fact Luginbill wanted more say about the show’s content.

“I didn’t have any control of what the show was going to be about, and that was a problem for me,” Luginbill said. “I needed to know the show was going to have integrity. I kept hearing I had to do this to pay my dues. But I wasn’t willing to be in front of a national audience and have no say over what the show was about.”

Eau Claire Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle, a close friend of Luginbill’s, said the contract decision took a toll on him.

“Joe wrestled with the thought of taking his talent to television, reaching people all over America,” Emmanuelle said.

As negotiations dragged on, Luginbill reflected on the eight months since his initial cooking video had accidentally hit it big. He thought about his many opportunities since then and what it all meant. He dreamed of what he would do with his money.

Then, in early April, Luginbill made his decision.

There would be no move to Los Angeles. He didn’t want to be a celebrity host. It wasn’t for him.

“He sat down with me and showed me the contract and said, ‘It does nothing for me. This isn’t what I want to do with my life,’ ” Dennis Luginbill said.

Bye-bye $1 million-plus. Hello sanity.

“It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Luginbill said. “It took that TV show offer to get me to where I realized I didn’t want the kind of life I was headed for. It just wasn’t me.”

Four months have passed since the decision, and Luginbill sometimes second-guesses whether he made the right choice. His decision caused an ugly split with his agent. It angered the TV executives who had planned his show. (As part of his separation agreement with those entities, Luginbill signed a nondisclosure agreement stipulating that he not release details about the deal he was offered or which broadcast company made the offer.)

“It is a lot of money to turn down, a whole lot of money,” Luginbill said. “I can’t tell you how many times I have questioned myself about whether I did the right thing. Turning down that offer was the hardest thing I have ever done.”

Luginbill also ended his radio show, deciding he had to make a clean break from his skyrocketing fame.

It didn’t take Luginbill long to realize he made the right choice. He said he’s extremely grateful for his ride on the celebrity train because of the lessons he learned.

“I decided life is about more than money. My life in entertainment entailed all of this stress, all of this pressure, so many calls from media outlets and agents and others all wanting a piece of my time. The entertainment world can be an ugly business, where people view you simply as a way to make them money.”

Dennis and Teresa back their son’s decision and said his experiences of the past year have prompted his personal growth.

“At times it was difficult to watch him go through some of the struggles that he did,” Teresa said. “But now, being able to look back on the experiences of this past year, I realize it has only deepened the heart he has for service.”

Emmanuelle praised Luginbill for turning down the money.

“I admire the heck out of Joe for his courage to follow his heart,” she said.

Luginbill said his choice also was about a desire to do something meaningful with his life. He said he is committed to the Eau Claire area and wants to help improve people’s lives in whatever ways he can.

To that end, he recently became involved with Eau Claire County business expansion efforts and said he plans to take part in similar ventures. In a couple of weeks, he will begin attending Chippewa Valley Technical College, where he plans to major in business. He ponders a future in politics.

“I don’t know exactly what it will look like, but I do know that I want to serve this community,” Luginbill said. “I want my life to be about doing something rather than being something, and I want to do whatever that is right here in Eau Claire.”

Emerson can be reached at 715-830-5911, 800-236-7077 or julian.emerson@ecpc.com.