On February 13, 2017, Matt Iseman, the host of “American Ninja Warrior,” won NBC’s “The New Celebrity Apprentice,” which Arnold Schwarzenegger hosted. (They’re pictured above.) The 45-year-old Iseman raised $978,000 for the Arthritis Foundation, including $573,000 in the show’s final challenge, surpassing music star Boy George. Iseman, who is also a comedian and a physician, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2002. We interviewed him a few days after his win.
PFL: Congrats on your big win.
MI: Thank you very much. I’m very elated. It’s been a great week.
PFL: How long did you have to keep the secret between taping and airing?
MI: I didn’t know. They shot alternate endings, so I didn’t know until Monday night when it aired. So I knew I was in the final two, but I didn’t know who won until America found out. It was kind of fun to have that suspense. There aren’t many times in life when you get to be surprised. And fortunately it was a pleasant surprise for me. It was great. Some of my best friends were over here [watching], and it was a really fun night to celebrate.
PFL: Were you confident heading into the last day?
MI: I felt like I did everything I could. Looking at the finale, there wasn’t anything, if I had to do it all over again, I would have changed. But the thing you learn with “Celebrity Apprentice” is you never know what’s going to happen. You never know what they’re looking for. It’s one of those things where you feel like, “I did the best I could,” so at that point, if the governor had given it to Boy George, I would have tipped my cap and been happy for him. And certainly, I felt like we still raised a lot of money for the Arthritis Foundation, but getting that bonus quarter million dollars was really nice.
PFL: So what does the Celebrity Apprentice do now that you’ve won? Are there any responsibilities?
MI: Well, I was expecting Schwarzenegger to show up in, you know, a monster truck or something and pick me up for work the next morning. Or a spaceship would show up, or robots, or something. I don’t know. All I know at this point is, I’ve really had a lot of fun. It has been great on social media, having a lot of people reach out, particularly people who are living with arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis like me, to say that they appreciated me sharing my story and raising awareness for it. So I’m not sure what the next step is. I will say John Rich, who won one of the previous seasons, said “Welcome to the club.” And I replied, “Well, where’s the clubhouse, John?”
It was a great opportunity for me to get to meet some amazing people: Vince Neil, Boy George, whom I consider a friend. And obviously to have an unbelievable platform to tell my story about living with rheumatoid arthritis and to raise money. Not just the million dollars almost that we got from the show, but because I think there’s going to be so much more awareness. We were encouraging people to go to the Arthritis Foundation website throughout the time the show was airing as well. We’re hoping there’s going to be a lot more money and a lot more awareness and a lot of good will come out of this.
PFL: You obviously got a big response from the arthritis community. What did it mean to you to have that throughout the show?
MI: I remember when I was diagnosed. And again, I’m a doctor. I had access to everything. But when I was diagnosed, as I looked at rheumatoid arthritis, the thing I realized is when you look up a disease, you tend to see the worst-case scenario. You tend to see people who are textbook examples of it. And that’s scary. What I wanted to do was when people thought about living with arthritis, particularly rheumatoid arthritis, they could also see someone like me. I think by all accounts, people wouldn’t know I have a chronic disease. And I’m on “Celebrity Apprentice,” I’m hosting “American Ninja Warrior,” I’m working five, six days a week, and I’m living a full life. And it’s not slowing me down. So I think it was an opportunity to try to show a role model in a different way with this disease. And I know how much the Arthritis Foundation does.
I’m on one of the biologics that came out just a few years before I was diagnosed. And for me, it’s been a silver bullet. It gave me my life back. And I couldn’t imagine what life would be like if people hadn’t done the research, if the funding hadn’t been there to create the medication that helped me. I know that I’m fortunate because of the work of those who came before me, so I’m hoping some day, the work I’m doing now will make other people’s lives better.
The ideal case is, some day, that arthritis is a thing of the past. But until then, we’re going to keep working.
PFL: Can you take me back to when you were diagnosed? What was that like? What symptoms were you having?
MI: I first started having symptoms back around 2000. It started with pain in my right index finger. And then over the coming weeks and months, I went to see doctors, but they couldn’t find anything concrete. And the pain kind of waxed and waned. It left the hands, and I started having pain in my feet. And then I started having stiffness in my back, and my neck got so bad with stiffness that I was sleeping wearing a whiplash collar to try to relax the muscles. I got to where I could barely turn my head. I joked that I looked like Frankenstein with this stiff bolted neck. And I was unable to work out because of the pain in my feet and hands.
I was a lifelong athlete, living in Venice Beach. I was working out at Gold’s Gym, where we actually filmed “Celebrity Apprentice” because that’s where Schwarzenegger used to work out. That was my gym, but I had to stop going because of the pain and the fatigue. We talk about the physical symptoms, but mentally, I felt like I had no energy. I was sleeping 10 to 12 hours a day. I gained about 55 pounds. And I was going to the doctor, but the bloodwork wasn’t positive. It wasn’t until a year and a half of these symptoms, and worsening pain, and my body falling apart that I finally got the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.
I always say that when I was diagnosed, people think it’s got to be crushing to find out you have a chronic illness for which there is no cure. But it’s actually the opposite. Honestly, I was relieved because for a year and a half, my body had been ravaged, and I didn’t have any idea why. And when they told me I had RA, it was an answer. It validated me, too. Like, I wasn’t crazy. Because when you can’t find anything wrong, people just think you’re being lazy or you’re just complaining. And to find out I did have a disease and knew what I was facing, it was a relief to find out what lay ahead for me.
PFL: Is that experience common for other folks?
MI: As I talk to people, everyone has a unique different reaction. I think one of the great things about the Arthritis Foundation is not just the awareness, but also the community that’s formed. And what’s great is while I was on the show, one of the people who worked on the crew heard me tell my story. She came up to me and said the day before she was told she had RA. She was completely panicked. You know, she was talking to friends, talking to family, talking to doctors. She wanted to talk to me because she said, “The one person that I haven’t talked to was someone who had the disease.” And it was great for me to be able to share my story and to tell her that there’s hope and to connect her to an entire new community of people I’ve met online, bloggers, and advocates, and people who’ve all been through different areas, who can share stories, and offer support, and tell her things to expect, and offer solutions, and give her hope. You know, you’re surrounded by people who want to help you, but sometimes it’s great to hear from people who’ve walked that path that you’re about to.
That’s one of the great things about raising awareness, and that’s why I always share my story. And it’s why I love when people reach out to me to tell me their story. That has been one of the most amazing things about this. Since that [“Celebrity Apprentice”] episode aired, I’ve been getting tons of e-mail from people who are sharing their stories with me and saying thanks for sharing it and then also for helping us know that we’re in this fight together.
PFL: Why did you choose the Arthritis Foundation to support? Were you involved with them before the show?
MI: Early on, after I was diagnosed, I was doing research, and I found the Arthritis Foundation. I started going to events and saw all the good work that they were doing. I remember I went to one of their events and I bid on an auction item where I got an autographed guitar from the band Journey, which is my favorite band. And then I got tickets to go see them in concert. And I thought, what a great way to be able to donate money and get tickets back, and then the message of their song, “Don’t Stop Believing,” I thought was an appropriate one.
In a selfish way, I think the Arthritis Foundation has made a big difference for me. And it has approached the platform of awareness and advocacy in the same way that I’ve tried to do it. So I thought it was a good fit, and again to have a chance to try to give back to a group that’s really helping me and giving me a better future, made a lot of sense.
A version of this article appears in the April/May 2017 issue of Pain-Free Living. Subscribe.