American Chopper's Alpha Male
American Chopper's Alpha Male
With his penchant for muscle t-shirts, sleeves of tattoos and walrus mustache, Paul Teutel Sr. hardly looks like a teetotaler. But the 63-year-old founder of Orange County Choppers, a New York-based custom and production motorcycle manufacturer, has been sober for over 27 years, when his drinking got so bad that he was coughing up blood. In addition to the success of his shop, Orange County Choppers has been the focus of two reality shows, American Chopper and American Chopper: Senior vs. Junior, that have aired over 165 episodes on the Discovery Channel and TLC since 2003. And Teutel recently showed off his business acumen on the latest series of Celebrity Apprentice, where he raised $494,000 (more than anyone else on the show) for the Make-A-Wish Foundation before being fired by The Donald in the 10th episode.
In our exclusive interview, Teutel Sr. talks about how sobriety has strengthened him as a businessman, his employees turning their back on him once he got sober, and how he’s now looking to move into the restaurant industry.
I have to say, after watching you on Celebrity Apprentice this season, that it seems like having to deal with Aubrey O’Day and Lisa Lampanelli would be a threat to anyone’s sobriety.
Paul Teutel: (Laughs) It was a much different experience than anything I’ve had before. If you watch the show though, there was no tension on my part with any of the cast members. But to be honest, I made it to the 10th episode and was ready to bow out at that point. I was taping a special for my other show at the same time and when you’re on Celebrity Apprentice, they tape six days a week with really grueling hours. And now that I’m watching the shows as they unfold, I’m glad I got out when I did because it’s starting to get really vicious and nasty.
Someone would say don’t drink for today and I’d go, “Bullshit. I’m thirsty.”
When did you start to use drugs and alcohol, and when did it feel like things started to get out of hand for you?
I began experimenting when I was 14, but it started getting worse when I was 16. In the earlier stages, I was like a garbage can and pretty much did everything but my primary drug of choice was always alcohol. I got sober at 35 but it had stopped being fun once I was around 26 because things got totally out of control. There were days when I’d wake up and have no idea how I got there or what happened the night before. I’ve wrecked about a dozen cars. I couldn’t even do any other drugs because everything was so centered around alcohol.
In your book, The Ride of a Lifetime, you mentioned telling your ex-wife that you either had to get sober or die but were choosing to die. Does that mean you were suicidal?
There was never an active thought of ending my own life but the drinking would have killed me. I was throwing up blood and really starting to deteriorate physically. It didn’t feel like there was much time left. At that point, you really do surrender to the disease because you come to the realization that you don’t have a way out. At one point it’s all fun, but when you don’t like it anymore and realize you can’t stop, that’s the battle right there.
Did you end up going into a treatment facility?
I went to AA meetings. Despite how bad my drinking had gotten, I had never missed a day of work, so I couldn’t imagine missing 30 and going into a facility. In the beginning, I hated the meetings but still didn’t drink. One day went by without drinking, which was something I hadn’t been able to do before. Then another day went by. And once I achieve something, I don’t like to let go of it. So once I started accumulating days, that was the motivation to hang in because it felt like I would ruin everything by drinking again.
Even though you never missed work because of your drinking, did your sobriety help strengthen you as a businessman?
Absolutely. I gained clarity in terms of my thinking. When you’re drinking like that, you don’t make the right choices. All the people working for me were drunks just like I was. The requirement on the job application to work for me was that you had to be a drinker (laughs). But once I get sober, I realized that I had choices and was able to make better decisions. I had people working for me who were more professional and committed to getting the job done. And I had more motivation. When I sat at a bar, I would talk about all the things I was going to do. Now they were getting accomplished.
You also mentioned in your book that once you instituted a no-drinking rule at the shop, a lot of your employees left. Was that something that you took personally or made you question the friendships?
I didn’t know that would happen off the top of my head, but it was inevitable looking back. As I started making rules, I just wasn’t going to allow that in my business. And I saw firsthand what the potential consequences were because my former partner in the shop died a year later from his alcoholism. We drank together for years and nobody believed I could ever get sober, so once he realized that this was serious, I just told him how it changed my life. And he was interested in trying to change and did go to AA meetings with me at one point. It just never got through to him.
What advice would you give to others who are trying to maintain their sobriety?
It sounds so stupid, but taking it a day at a time was really important to me. I couldn’t get that concept in the beginning. Someone would say don’t drink for today and I’d go, “Bullshit. I’m thirsty.” But there was one meeting when somebody said that you only have today and you may not be here tomorrow. That really hit home. I didn’t have to worry about not drinking the next day—only this one. And I learned to never say never. People said to me that I would never get sober and I believed them. If I got sober, that leads me to believe that anybody can no matter how bad off they might be.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
Orange County Choppers is doing a chain of restaurants now and we’re looking to eventually go international with it. We have one at our headquarters and one coming up in Miami. That was the one of the things I talked about doing when I was drinking, but now it’s becoming a reality.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.