Walking up the carpeted stairs from a cavernous level of the Four Seasons where he was holding court for press interviews, J.R. Martinez turned to his publicist, Monique Moss, and remarked, “I didn’t like that last interview.”
Moss replied, “The Army Times?”
Martinez: “No, this one,” he said, shrugging his shoulder in in my direction.
I CAN HEAR YOU, I want to tell him.
Moss explained, “I forgot about his sense of humor.”
Martinez, a motivational speaker and former Army corporal who won season 13’s Dancing With The Stars and appeared on Army Wives, likes to joke around. He even has no problem jesting about the dark reality that 34 percent of his face and body was burned in 2003 when a Humvee he was driving in Iraq hit a roadside bomb. It’s not the accident he makes fun of per say. Rather, it’s all the reaction he gets and the stares he wishes didn’t happen as much as they do.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself — which he admits still happens — at restaurants he cracks jokes about the candle the server lights or when they sit him by the fire.
In from LA for a few days, on Wednesday night Martinez will speak and present honors at The Lincoln Awards: A Concert for Veterans & the Military Family at The Kennedy Center. The event will broadcast on PBS and will include NBC’s Brian Williams, online talk show host Larry King and comedian Jerry Lewis, and performers such as Bruce Springsteen and Arthuro Sandoval.
No doubt he’ll keep it clean.
But in our interview, reclined comfortably on a couch with his feet up on a coffee table, he dots his sentences with the word “shit.” There was only one “fucking” in the entire interview. He says he cleans up his language when speaking to corporate groups. Lucky me, I don’t fall into that category.
Martinez marvels at his fame and still doesn’t quite get it. Oprah interviewed him when he was 20. “I was confused as to why she wanted to talk to me,” he says. “I was just a 19-year-old kid. Some shit happened to me, but I’m not the only one.” As for Oprah, “She’s Oprah,” he says. “She could show up in slippers and a robe and you wouldn’t give a damn — it’s Oprah.”
He’s gone on Ellen three times. And yes, he danced. “She’s great,” he says. “She’s super sweet. Super down-to-earth.”
That diamond stud in his right ear is real. Drenched in black — black jeans, Ben Sherman black boots and a black sweater with a contrasting white button-down, he’s something of a fashionisto and blames that on being raised by a single mother. “I went shopping,” he says. He describes his style as, “act like you care a little bit.”
He’s not terribly enamored with the news media. But he likes to watch CNN and “enjoys” Wolf Blitzer. “To an extent, being in television, I know that there’s always a motive, an angle,” he says. “The media — it can be your best friend or your worst enemy.” He wishes the news was more positive. Instead, he says, it’s “I’d rather look at your shitty life so I don’t have to look at my own shitty life. You lose hope the more you listen, read and watch.”
Speaking of hope, Martinez was born in Louisiana but moved to Hope, Ark. when he was 3. [Insert obvious question about President Bill Clinton here.] “We’ve met a few times,” he says. “It was kind of surreal. I passed the house he grew up in on the way to school.” As a motivational speaker, he says he’s long admired the way Clinton gets his message across.
Martinez says he still occasionally gets nervous when speaking before a large audience. Tricks he uses to combat his nerves include breathing and “pretty loud exhales.” He also focuses on a few people and eventually allows his eyes expand into the rest of the crowd. There’s also prayer. Before he’d perform on Dancing With The Stars, for instance, he and his partner would go into a corner to pray. “Let us do the best that we can,” they’d say.
I know I have to be sensitive as I ask about the moment he awoke from his badly burned body. But I’m also aware that he’s been asked these questions countless times before and semi-apologize for making him rehash the worst moment of his life. “You are the millionth person to ask me this,” he says. Twice for emphasis.
I ask anyhow. We’re both laughing as he’s about to discuss the burn question.
“Obviously I fell into a place of depression, anger, regret,” he says, losing his smile. “I had a horrible time. I fell into this deep, dark place.” Thoughts went through his mind: “Are you ever going to date again? Are you ever going to be intimate? Is she going to call? Will there be a second date? Will I have kids?”
Part of Martinez’ life work involves speaking to burn victims. “It’s just more that you can understand,” he says, explaining that people sometimes make the grave mistake of telling someone they can understand a person’s tragedy when they can’t at all. (He cites a friend who recently lost his daughter, and the idiot who approached and Someone approached and said, “Oh, I understand. I had to put my dog down the other day.”)
Martinez says he’s careful to just listen when he senses that is what is needed. “I’m able to understand what I don’t need to say,” he says. “They’ll tell me when they’re ready for me to speak. They’ll ask me questions. You want to say the right thing, but the reality is you might not be able to.”
Among the toughest things he’s had to face is all the strangers who stare at the scars on his face. “I was always called handsome,” he says. “I was used to girls staring at me. Now I was being stared at for a different reason.” He couldn’t help but believe people found him “disgusting.”
Martinez says he often wanted to curse people out.
Instead, he took a different approach. “If you’re going to stare at me I’m damn well going to stare at you,” he says.
One day at the gym — where he was used to people staring at him “all the fucking time,” a man approached and wanted to know what had happened. This time, he took the time to explain, knowing it’s his job to educate people.
“There are still insecurities that I battle everyday,” he says. He doesn’t think they’ll ever completely disappear, but knows they can lessen and be “numbed” along the way.
Martinez speaks candidly about his dating life and how tough it initially was. “A lot of it was my own demons,” he says. At some point in the conversation he mentions his 2-year-old daughter.
Asked if he ever went to therapy, he says yes — once — in 2011. He had one session, but the therapist was so disconcertingly attractive he couldn’t focus and never returned. And besides, he was busy with Dancing With The Stars.
He says he wants therapy and plans to resume. “Everyone over 30 should have a session,” he says. “To think you don’t need to talk to somebody is bullshit.”
I want to ask about the otherworldly moment in the Humvee when he saw his dead sister, Anabel, whom he never met. She was 3 when she died. As the story goes, she helped him survive by telling him he was going to be OK because his mother needed him. I know he’s been asked about this a zillion times, too. But I press on. And this time, there is no laughing.
“It is clear my sister is my guardian angel,” he says.
Anabel was born in El Salvador. At 8, when he visited her tombstone, he become really, inexplicably emotional about it and still doesn’t know why. He has no recollection of her whatsoever, except a picture he saw. “It was so confusing to me,” he says.
Nowadays, burns and all, he has the most interesting way of describing his current psyche. “I’m very comfortable within my own skin,” he says, “aside from the fact that my ass has gained a lot of weight.”