The "Golden Voice" Cleans Up
Ted Williams was homeless when a viral video made him instantly famous. But the so-called Golden Voice had to get sober to keep his life from falling apart.
The splash Ted Williams made in early 2011 wasn’t your standard tale of Internet fame: one day, when he was begging off a highway in Columbus, Ohio, the now 54-year-old broke into a pitch perfect radio spot. A reporter from the Columbia Dispatch caught the atypical homeless man on video, uploaded it onto YouTube, and, 21 million views later, it seemed nearly the whole world had heard about the man who’d been appropriately nicknamed “The Golden Voice.” And then the world rewarded Williams the way it does every 15-minuter: he made the rounds on daytime and late night talk shows and received a slew of offers for voiceover work.
Yet Williams was still deep in a decades-long addiction to crack and alcohol, and the confluence of that with the attention he received for his insta-fame resulted in a domestic violence arrest. Because he was then a media story, a free rehab offer via Dr. Phil came along but Williams ended up leaving the facility after just eight days.
The saga might have ended there but Williams’ life then took a golden turn: now clean and sober for over a year, he has just released his autobiography, A Golden Voice: How Faith, Humility and Hard Work Brought Me From the Streets to Salvation. In our exclusive interview, Williams talks about overnight success, the lowest points of his drug addiction and how the sober life finally resonated with him.
One day the video is posted, three days later there’s 14 million hits. And I didn’t know anything about it.
Your book gives a pretty hardcore account of your upbringing and some of the worst moments in your addiction. What are you hoping to achieve in releasing this?
The book is about redemption, second chances, hope and spirituality. It covers the whole gamut of what has led to my turnaround. God embraced me in a way that I never thought was possible. Not to put myself in a Biblical context but there was definitely a spiritual walk that took place in all of this. I’ve had to overcome some of the resentment I had from my childhood and from growing up in the civil rights era. And I’m now in the process of tying up loose ends and starting to make amends to my family and other people I’ve hurt. There are still so many amends left to make.
In the late 80s and early 90s, you were a very successful DJ in Columbus, Ohio. Was your drug use in response to that success or did it take place before?
I had truly earned the seed of being an alcoholic back then but I was still going to work and never felt the need to go to AA meetings right away. I had abandoned my four girls in my previous marriage, started a new relationship and she got pregnant. A friend offered me crack as a congratulatory gift on my son’s first birthday in 1988. And crack medicated the pain of what I’d done a lot quicker than alcohol did. I enjoyed the euphoria and how it made me perky and horny. But oddly enough, crack saved me because at the rate that I was drinking, it was inevitable that I would have developed cirrhosis.
Crack took hold of me immediately though. Within a year, I had my first prison number and lost all my bank accounts. As those stints in prison indicated, I just didn’t care anymore. Eventually I was homeless and on the street.
You mention in the book how you prostituted your current girlfriend for drug money at one point. Would you say that was the lowest point?
I’ve had a lot of rock bottoms but that was certainly one of them. To have built up that callous of a mind towards someone I loved was a very moral bending situation. But we were both addicts and she’s been on a hell of a journey with me; she’s also in recovery. And ultimately, that experience wasn’t forced upon her.
But to me, standing on the corner is my definition of a low. Holding a sign, begging for benevolence and not feeding my children because I sold my food stamps and their clothes—those are all definitions of low to me.
How did the reporter at the Columbus Dispatch know about your story?
Honestly, I never got around to asking him that. I remember him driving by a previous time and he didn’t have a camera in his hand. But when he came by to shoot the video that went on YouTube, he said, “I’m going to make you work for your dollar.” I knew dollars were hard to come by. [Laughs]. And I was willing to do a radio spot, give an interview, or do whatever he wanted. I thought that he would give me more money if I told him that I had been clean for two years, but the truth was that I was still using at the time. Dr. Phil ripped me into me for that on his show.
What was it like to be homeless one day and then do media rounds and daytime talk shows just a few weeks later?
What made it even more overwhelming was that I had no access to YouTube or Facebook or anything like that during that time. I had an old pay-as-you-go phone and thought I was doing something by even having that. One day the video is posted, three days later there’s 14 million hits. And I didn’t know anything about it.
But I do regret a lot of the choices I made in the midst of all the publicity that first year. I relapsed and was still smoking crack while trying to do voiceover work, then got into an argument with my girlfriend and was arrested for domestic violence. And I had bad management around me who didn’t have my best intentions at heart so I was signing bad deals and not understanding what was being signed because I was often drunk when the contracts were in front of me. You look at the overnight sensations like Susan Boyle or the Octomom or the Tanning Mom, but a lot of those people fizzle out. And I was on track to do the same.
When you went on Dr. Phil’s show, he put you into a treatment facility and you checked out after eight days. What made you do that?
I simply wasn’t ready and tried to fool myself into thinking that I was. And even though he was sending me to a wonderful facility, it did feel somewhat exploitative and like I was being pushed to it. And to be honest, I’ve been in so many rehab facilities throughout my life. Sometimes I’d successfully complete a 30-45 day program, other times, I’d be back out on the street after the three day detox. But I was always going for the wrong reasons. I was trying to win back everyone’s approval and do it within a matter of days.
You went into rehab for the last time in May 2011 and have now been clean for over a year. What was the difference with this rehab stint?
Truthfully, I was given an ultimatum. My attorney, Bret Adams, doesn’t let anything get by him. My original plan was to stay in treatment for 30-45 days and then field some of the opportunities that were coming along. But Bret put me on hold and basically said that he wasn’t going to damage his reputation by working with me unless I was serious about changing. He wanted to follow the recommendations of Dr. Phil’s team, which was for a treatment stay of 90 days or more. But most importantly, he wanted to use me as an example to show people that redemption and second chances do exist. A year later, the story continues.
What advice would you give to people who are looking to maintain their sobriety?
Accept who you are rather than try to achieve perfection. Prayer has definitely helped me along the way as well. The Big Book says we are granted a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. But most importantly, taking things one day at a time has been key for me. A year later, it still isn’t easy. I still have dreams about using or have a bad day and desperately want to go out and use. But this time, I haven’t lost hope.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. 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.