Justin Osmond is from one of the most famous singing dynasties and yet has never heard any of his family play. Now he is head of a charity for the deaf set up by his grandmother. Catherine Scott meets him.
Imagine growing up in one of the most successful musical families in the world and not being able to hear?
That’s exactly what happened to Justin Osmond, second son of lead singer Merrill Osmond.
“I was diagnosed with 90 per cent hearing loss when I was two years old,” explains Justin.
“It was hard going along to my dad and uncles’ concerts and not being able to hear a word they were singing. I’d go home and print off the lyrics and learn them so that I could join in, but it was tough.”
Justin is in Leeds organising a charity gala in September which will feature the Osmonds and Friends to raise money for the Olive Osmond Perpetual Hearing Fund, established by his grandmother, the matriarch of the Osmond family.
“If it hadn’t been for her and for the deafness gene inherited by some members of our family, there wouldn’t have been the Osmonds,” says Justin.
The Osmonds’ hearing problem became apparent when Justin’s two eldest uncles, Virl and Tom, were diagnosed with severe hearing loss as children.
“The doctors told Olive that it was genetic and that she should have any more children because they would all be deaf, ” explains Justin
But “Mother Osmond” was not a woman to be told not to do something. In fact she went on to have seven more children and not one of them had the gene which afflicted their elder siblings.
And Olive was determined that her two eldest sons would get all the help they needed to survive in a hearing world.
“They were very poor back then,” explains Justin. “But the one thing they could do was sing. So the four singing ‘Osmond Brothers’ began their musical careers to help the family raise funds for the best hearing device available.”
The brothers Alan, Wayne, Merrill and Jay formed a barbershop quartet and they would play at venues across the area. Singer Andy Williams’ father saw their act at Disneyland, and from 1962 to 1971, the Osmond Brothers appeared on The Andy Williams Show. Donny made his first appearance at the age of six, followed by his sister Marie and then “little Jimmy”.
The discovery of her sons’ hearing loss led Olive to establish the Osmond Foundation, an organisation focused on supporting new research and innovation but providing more access to education and resources and improving the quality of life for those with hearing loss.
Justin – one of Olive and George Osmond’s 55 grandchildren – is the only second-generation Osmond to have inherited the hearing loss gene.
Thanks to the latest digital hearing aids, however, he is able to hear everything I say,
“I struggle with high frequencies,” he explains. “And if I take out my hearing aids I can’t hear a thing.”
Thanks to 12 years of speech and language therapy it is difficult to tell that there is anything wrong with his hearing at all. Although he says he does lip read and can also sign.
His hearing loss made him particularly close to his grandmother who died in 2004 shortly after her 79th birthday.
“She took me under her wing and we became best friends,” he says with clear affection. “She was an amazing woman who was not prepared to sit back and do nothing. She wanted to help as many people as possible and I want to continue her work.”
Although Justin inherited the deafness gene, he also inherited the Osmonds’ musical gene and despite not being able to hear, became an accomplished musician in his own right.
“I come from a family that tells you anything is possible if you work hard enough for it.”
Justin took up the violin and became adept at a number of instruments.
“I didn’t learn to play by hearing it I played it by feeling the vibrations – similar to how Beethoven played the piano.”
He received numerous awards such as the prestigious Sterling scholarship in music, academic scholarships, honorary achievements, and many athletic titles in soccer and football.
But he admits that he did find it tough, and he has written a moving book about his deafness, Hearing With My Heart.
“To be born into a family like the Osmonds where music is everything and not to be able to hear or understand any of my dad’s music was very frustrating.”
He went on to gain a Masters in Business Administration but decided to dedicate his life to carrying on his grandmother’s legacy.
He is particularly proud of the work the Fund does in the Third World.
“I have been to over 75 countries helping kids with hearing loss. To see their faces light up when they hear sound for the first time is amazing. Their moms always cry.” He shows me a DVD of a recent trip to Mexico and the sheer joy on both the children’s and parents’ faces is clear for all to see.
“We give them access to latest technology and also support – whatever they need.”
Justin is conscious that it can be a very sensitive area.
“We do not force anything on anybody. Some people want their children to live in a deaf word and we can help them to sign and lip read, others want their children to live in a hearing world and we can do our best to make that happen.
“I am in a pretty unique situation where I can live in either world and that gives me insights into people’s needs. What I really want is to be a bridge between the two worlds. Sometimes the deaf world can be very sceptical of the hearing world, I really want to break down those barriers.”
Justin is very reminiscent of his famous uncles. He has the tell-tale broad white smile and the clean cut image and of course the unerring faith.
The Osmonds are members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“We don’t take drugs and we don’t drink – although we do get high on sugar and we still know how to have a good time,” that smile again. “After 55 years in show business the Osmonds are still together. Our family and our faith keeps us grounded.”
His faith has also helped him come to terms with his hearing loss, which is gradually worsening as he gets older. And he lives by a strong mantra: “I have a hearing loss but that hearing loss doesn’t have me,” he says with conviction. And he is driven by a desire to instil that in others.
Osmonds in Leeds for charity event
The Osmonds are hosting a charity run and gala (featuring Merrill Osmond and friends) on September 1 in Leeds to raise money for the Olive Osmond Perpetual Hearing Fund.
It is the first of a number of galas being held to raise money to help hard of hearing children through the Olive Osmond Perpetual Hearing Fund.
The Bringing Music to Your Ears gala takes place on September 1.
During the day there will be a fund-raising run in Leeds.
For more information visit www.oliveosmond.org or www.justinosmond.com