The Modelo Model

How a barrio kid became the Latino Dick Clark

By The Editors

A Word with Mario Lopez
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30 October 2015

Introducing the Modelo Model presented by Modelo Especial, in which we sit down with a gent for whom a work-hard mentality has paid off. Success is a dish best served well-earned. Here's to the road that takes you there.

Mario Lopez is a busy guy. The erstwhile Albert Clifford “AC” Slater continues to man the mic for entertainment news program Extra, has his own nationally syndicated radio show, ON With Mario Lopez, and just joined the cast of Fox’s upcoming Grease Live! alongside Vanessa Hudgens and Julianne Hough. Not to mention a successful side hustle penning fitness tomes and two youngsters to wrangle at home. We caught up with him in between gigs to chat childhood, how he became the “Latino Dick Clark” and his fondness for getting punched in the face.

InsideHook: Tell us a bit about your childhood. You grew up in a pretty rough area, right?

Mario Lopez: I was born and raised in Chula Vista, California. My parents were immigrants from Mexico, and I could literally see Mexico from my backyard. I sort of had a foot in both worlds, and it was uh, not the most upscale community. Gang activity, cartels ... lots of things that if my energy was directed in different ways could have gone in different directions — but I was blessed with a great family.

IH: What were your parents like when you were that age? How were they able to guide you on the right path where a lot of other kids were starting to get into trouble?

ML: My parents were hard-working people. My dad worked for the city, and my mother worked for the phone company. They were strict disciplinarians — they didn’t believe in sparing the rod, if you will (laughs). And my mom kept me busy with activities every day after school. Busy enough that I didn’t have time to get into trouble.

IH: Do you feel like you got your work ethic from them?

ML: They always instilled in me [a desire] to work hard for everything. No one hands you anything. And it just says a lot about our people and our culture: we have a hard work ethic, we’re hustlers, passionate people.

IH: At the time you landed on Saved By the Bell, were you aware that the role was originally written for someone Caucasian?

ML: Fortunately the casting directors and producers casted blindly, and they just wanted to go for a “feel” for the character. He wasn’t so much supposed to be a jock — he was more supposed to be like a Vinnie Barbarino kinda guy from Welcome Back Kotter. But because I was a jock in real life, they sort of incorporated that into the character.

IH: Moving on from such an iconic character was no doubt hard work. Can you talk about the process of reinventing yourself after starting your career with such a successful role?

ML: Moving on from a character that millions of people were familiar with is very difficult for a lot of people. But because of that sort of “never want to quit” attitude, and all the different classes my mother put me in, I was very fortunate to want to pursue different things — and that always created more opportunities for me. That’s when I fell in love with hosting. When I had the opportunity to work with Dick Clark, and he took me under his wing, I said to myself, “I want to be the Latino Dick Clark.”

IH: Now that you’ve got kids of your own, what are the generational lessons you’d like to pass along to them?

ML: The main thing I want to instill is for them to be good people first — to treat people with respect. Be polite; it goes a long way. Work hard, stay focused and do the right thing, and the right things will usually happen for you.

IH: Obviously their upbringing is going to be completely different than yours. Do you struggle with wanting to give them some of the normalcy you had growing up but also shield them from some of the rougher stuff?

ML: It’s a tough balance. They’ll call you a celebrity — I don’t really like to use that word, it’s weird — but it’s important for me to give my kids a sense of normalcy. I want them to have a faith-based education and I want to expose them to all walks of life. (I’m able to do that) through charitable work, like my involvement with the Boys & Girls Clubs. There are a lot of kids there, and most of them are in inner cities or barrios like I was. I want my kids to be exposed to those situations so they can recognize and appreciate what they do have.

IH: A guy who works as hard and on as many things as you do has got to have at least a few things he likes to do and places he likes to go to reward himself. Tell us about that part of your life — how do you find balance?

ML: I truly love to be at home with those closest to me: my family and friends. And I love to host, whether it’s barbecues, carne asadas, game nights, bocce ball tournaments; I love to make sure people are having a good time. Eating, drinking, listening to good music, being with the kids in the pool ... I might indulge with a nice cigar and an adult beverage (laughs).

I love boxing — I’ll still get in there and mix it up. I think it keeps me young. I know a lot of guys who play golf, and I’m always asked why do I continue to put my face in jeopardy considering that’s how I make my money (laughs). But it’s an outlet that I need: I work out more for sanity than vanity.

And quick getaways to Vegas with my wife go a long way. It’s all about trying to maintain that balance.

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