How exactly did Bret Michaels become the center of the pop culture universe?
From his humble hair-metal beginnings in the '80s, Michaels has parlayed a fairly short career on top of the album charts into a celebrity career that seemingly expands by the day.
Late last month, weeks after reportedly being at death's door after an emergency appendectomy and brain hemorrhage, Michaels appeared on TV's Celebrity Apprentice, where he was crowned champion. On Wednesday, without clearance from his doctors, he performed live on American Idol's finale.
And over the weekend, rumors began circulating that Michaels could take over the Idol judge position left vacant by Simon Cowell. (More than two-thirds of respondents to a TVGuide.com online poll named Michaels as their favorite to take on the much-coveted job.)
All this from a guy whose biggest contribution to civilization was letting us know that Every Rose Has Its Thorn?
"The greatest thing Bret Michaels ever said to me was, 'Martha, I thought spandex tucked into cowboy boots was a style that would never go away,' " says Martha Quinn, one of the original "VJs" of MTV, where Poison's music videos were standard fare in the '80s. "This is so typical of our Mr. Michaels. Self-effacing yet cool to the edge of his bandana."
NOTHIN' BUT A GOOD TIME: Michaels' biggest claim to fame had been as frontman to the '80s rock act Poison. The band scored a handful of top 40 hits — Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Nothin' But a Good Time, Unskinny Bop — before running out of steam in the early '90s.
REALITY DATING: Michael's next big break was in 2007 when VH1 offered him a reality show where dozens of women would compete to become his girlfriend. Rock of Love With Bret Michaels would last three seasons. In April 2010, just days before Michaels health problems began, VH1 announced it was getting out of the "reality dating" business. Bret's time in the public spotlight was coming to an end … or so it seemed.
HEALTH PROBLEMS: Over the past 45 days, there have been a steady stream of daily reports of minor strokes and other maladies coming from doctors and publicists. But Michaels has had to keep a close eye on his health since he was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic when he was 6. "It's all about maintaining a balance," Michaels told Diabetes Health magazine in 2008. "That's the weirdest thing for a rock star to say: balance."
"No matter how much of a vital rocker you may claim to be, he's living, breathing proof that you can still get knocked out by a sudden, unexpected medical emergency," says Jen Chaney, who co-writes the Celebritology 2.0 blog for the Washington Post. "Perhaps [his fans] take inspiration from seeing him keep going."
IN THE SPOTLIGHT AGAIN: Still, Michaels hasn't slowed down. He has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about his health. And he resumed his touring schedule, including a performance Friday in Biloxi, Miss., where he hinted he could be the next full-time judge on Idol. "I can't say this is true yet, cause I don't know," he reportedly told fans. "Next year they asked me to possibly be the judge on American Idol."
Is that even a good fit?
"Let's face it: Poison was more about showmanship than musicianship, and, in my opinion, so is American Idol," Chaney says. "But I'd personally rather see Michaels do something that requires less effort, if only for his own health."
Still, it's his health — for better or worse — that keeps people tuned into his life these days.
"I wonder if the same thing would be happening to Gary Coleman if he'd survived those strokes," says Eric Spitznagel, whose celebrity interviews appear in Vanity Fair. "I mean seriously, a brain hemorrhage is the best thing to ever happen to Bret's career."
If nothing, Michaels has become a lovable survivor.
"Bret is a rock and roll superhero," Quinn says. "He's survived the changing music business, disparaging critics, and health issues that would topple any mere mortal. Not just Poison fans, but the world is rooting for Bret Michaels."
Steve Spears writes the Stuck in the '80s blog for the Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.