During the 70 days he spent locked inside the “Big Brother” house by CBS this past summer, Albemarle’s Donny Thompson was suspected by his fellow competitors of hiding a secret identity.
One thought he might be a Special Forces operative, another guessed that he was actually a Harvard professor.
But here are the realities behind the newly minted reality-show star, who finished eighth out of 16 on “Big Brother” but was awarded $25,000 on the Sept. 24 finale for being voted “America’s Favorite Houseguest”:
• Thompson, 42, did indeed quit his job as a groundskeeper for Cabarrus County Schools after being cast on the series, which premiered on June 25.
• His casting visit to Los Angeles marked his first time on an airplane (previously, the furthest he’d been away from Stanly County was Ohio); and, he said, “I had never been away from my parents for more than four days in my life. Never.”
• He graduated from North Stanly High but has never been to college, much less taught at an Ivy League school. The Tar Heels shirt he was often seen wearing on the show? A gift. The N.C. State shirt? Plucked it from the Lost & Found box back when he was a custodian at Albemarle High School. The Harvard tee? Bought it for $8 at the mall. (“If I was a Harvard professor and trying to hide it,” he said, “why would I wear the shirt?”)
Thompson was an outsider from the day he signed onto “Big Brother,” a long-running reality series that throws strangers into a confined space and completely cuts them off from the outside world as they vote each other out one by one.
The cast this season included 12 20-somethings; three people in their early thirties (including eventual $500,000 winner Derrick Levasseur of Providence, R.I.); and Thompson. Common attire is no shirts for the buffed-up guys, bikinis for the glammed-up women. Thompson – with his long, bristly beard and Southern drawl – looked like he had just teleported over from the “Duck Dynasty” set.
And despite his mild manners and quiet geniality, he was routinely a target for “eviction” (show-speak for what happens when a contestant is eliminated), often because others in the house were paranoid about his identity.
In the end, though, Thompson was being straight-up with us about pretty much everything. Everything, except – and this may surprise the 5 million viewers who voted for him to win the finale’s popularity contest – that beard of his.
He explained his whiskers by phone while sitting on new fiancee Kristine Bartley’s front porch in Concord on Wednesday, his first full day back in North Carolina since spring:
“Since I work outside, I always have a little goatee in the summertime. In the wintertime, I grow a beard, but I keep it a half an inch, just enough to block the wind. So last year I started a beard the third week in October, and we made this casting video the first week in November, so you really couldn’t see it. But I just kind of let it go, just for the heck of it. When the casting people called me (via Skype), I said, ‘When it gets warmer, I’ll shave this off.’ They said, ‘No, don’t do it yet. We like that beard ...’ Then when they got back with me, they said, ‘Could you keep it a little longer, until we find out if you’re gonna be on the show?’ Once I found out I was on there, there was no shaving it off.”
Thompson may keep the facial hair awhile longer, since it makes him recognizable (and he doesn’t dislike the recognition). But he isn’t looking for long-term fame. In fact, he’s already inquired about getting his old job back.
“I’m gonna stay in Albemarle,” he said. “I’m not planning on moving to Los Angeles or nothing. They had a show like that one time. It was ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ ”