This season is a time of giving back, which is why New Kids on the Block member and Blue Bloods actor Donnie Wahlberg has teamed with Target’s Heroes & Helpers, a longstanding charitable initiative program that pairs police officers and firefighters with underserved youth to help buy holiday gifts for the children’s families. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment via phone from Target’s location in Edgewater, New Jersey, the conversation with Wahlberg eventually leads to a special child his own life — and the time when he surprised his future wife, Jenny McCarthy, with what she has called the “greatest Christmas present ever.”
“I'm not exactly sure what prompted it,” Wahlberg says of his decision, early in his courtship with McCarthy, to offer to entirely pay for her son Evan’s college education. “I just know one of the big things for me in my career has always been to just make sure that I can give back and provide opportunities — for other people, but also for my kids. It's a big thing for me to make sure my kids could have a chance to go to college, because I never had a chance to go to college. Fortunately, I became successful as a musician at an early age, but when people talked about college, it was like a joke to me. It was something that I never thought would be possible, because my parents could never afford it.
“So, when I got to know Jenny and got to build a relationship with Evan, it just became important to me to make sure that that he could have that. I knew her biggest thing is always, ‘Evan’s future, Evan’s future, Evan’s future,’ and I just wanted her to know that that was safe. I didn't do it for any other reason except I'm a parent to him now. She's my partner and she’s working her butt off, still traveling around the country, taking jobs, to protect her future. As a parent and as her partner, I was just in a position to do that, so I thought it was important to do it.”
Wahlberg says that Christmas milestone was one of “two of the most emotional moments” in his relationship with McCarthy, whom he married in 2014. The other big one was when he enlisted Evan, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, to propose to McCarthy. “I was going to do it in a romantic setting, but then I was sitting with Evan and he had just been drawing some pictures and I said, ‘You know what? You want to help me do something to surprise your mom?’” Wahlberg recalls. “So I had him write out different cards, and each card, he wrote out a word of the proposal, and he walked out and handed it to Jenny. He brought out a card that said ‘Will,’ then he brought out a card that said ‘You,’ then he brought out a card that said ‘Marry,’ and he misspelled it, but that's OK. He spelled ‘Mary.’ But she understood. Then he grabbed my hand and I had on a T-shirt, and on the T-shirt he wrote ‘Me,’ with a question mark. And that was it.”
Wahlberg, who has two sons of his own from a previous marriage, says, “I see Evan as my own child now,” but he stresses that he and McCarthy took their time blending their families. “I think it's always a delicate dance to introduce kids to a new partner when you're in a single-parent situation. The start of a new relationship, it's always delicate. But I think it's also important to show your children what love looks like. That’s the approach we took, so when they're in a situation like this in their adulthood, they'll put their relationship in a place of higher priority, and hopefully see us as an example of what love looks like, and what life can be like.”
All of this sweet talk of love, family, and giving back seems at odds with Wahlberg’s image from the ‘80s and ‘90s, when he was considered the token wild child of NKOTB. Wahlberg shrugs, “I understand why I might've been known as the ‘bad boy of New Kids, but I think I was probably just as charitable, and just as much about giving back then, as I am now. It's just that probably wasn't as important for people to pay attention to, for whatever reason. If I went into a community of people shopping for Christmas, or if I donated food to a bank, it probably wouldn't get as much attention back then. The press, quite frankly, didn't really pay attention to that; it was far less eventful to talk about something charitable that I did then it would be to talk about me getting into a fight. So I just think I've always been this way. I certainly have matured and grown up a lot, and I certainly can see why I might've had that reputation, but I definitely think I've always been a very generous person.”
Interestingly, Wahlberg theorizes that his rebellious reputation may have stemmed from his tendency to sass back to sexist music journalists who discredited NKTOB and other boy bands’ largely female fanbases. “Part of the reason I was always considered a ‘bad boy’ is because I would pose that question to people: ‘Why are boy bands being slighted because girls are their fans?’ It always puzzled me. What's wrong with girls? Why do people not appreciate the female opinion when it comes to music? Even if it's a younger opinion, why did people dismiss them because they were little girls? Didn't their opinion matter? Didn't their tastes matter? It always struck me as a weird thing that people would say: ‘Let's dismiss this boy band because their fans are just girls.’ Well, what's wrong with that? What's wrong? Since when did girls’ opinions not matter in the world? I think when we see how much we value women's opinions now, and how much the world is sort of coming around to it, you don't have to look any further than boy bands to see how wrong that thinking was.”
New Kids on the Block provided Wahlberg with opportunities and prosperity, and that continues to this day — after NKTOB reunited in 2008, their comeback album The Block went to No. 1, and just this year their Mixtape Tour with Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and Salt-N-Pepa earned more than $50 million (thanks, no doubt, to that loyal, above-mentioned female fanbase). But Wahlberg, who grew up in working-class Boston as the eighth of nine children, has never forgotten where he came from, and that’s why it’s so important for him to give back in ways large and small.
“We didn't have a lot when we were kids,” he says. “We grew up in a house where we had nothing. So the minute I became successful, I wanted to share that joy that everyone. There's nothing like seeing these kids [through Target’s Heroes & Helpers program] when they’re able to pick out any toy they want, something they could only dream of getting. That's a very rare feeling for so many people, for children especially, who are underserved. To be able to be a part of that is amazing. I've always felt that way since I became successful. I always want to give back, to see people smile and have the happiness that I feel doing what I love to do.”
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