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Utahn is icon in Japan but regular guy at home

As a child growing up in Salt Lake, Kent Derricott remembers the other kids teasing him mercilessly because of his Coke-bottle-thick eye glasses.

On one occasion after coming home ruffled and in tears, his mother held him and wisely offered three gems of advice. "She said that no matter what happened to me outside, in our home I was always loved; that I was a person of value; and that no matter how horrid I found those glasses, that someday those glasses would be of value to me," Derricott said.As hard as the latter piece of advice was to believe at the time, through a fortuitous twist of events those glasses helped make Derricott one of the biggest stars on Japanese television. In fact, Derricott cannot walk the streets of Nagano - or anywhere else in Japan - without being mobbed by scores of autograph seekers and shutterbugs.

"I won't lie," he said. "Just to be on television and be a celebrity is fun. You get to go to cool places, meet cool people and eat delicious food. On top of that, you get paid well."

Now a resident of Bountiful, Derricott is in Nagano this week lending his celebrity status to the Utah Travel Council and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

The evolution from a visually impaired butt of cruel jokes into a Japanese icon can be traced to a little trick Derricott learned in school. He thought if he could make the other kids laugh maybe they wouldn't tease him. And the way to make them laugh was to pull his thick glasses away from his face in just the right way so his eyeballs were grotesquely magnified.

Years later, Derricott was explaining his childhood during an interview on Japanese television, and he demonstrated the trick with his glasses. The entire studio broke up laughing. The cameraman was laughing so hard the camera was bobbing and weaving.

Derricott already had a budding comedic reputation, but that interview created the trademark that propelled him and his glasses into superstardom. He is arguably one of most recognizable celebrities in Japan, something that prompted former Gov. Norm Bangerter to name him as honorary ambassador to Japan from Utah.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Derricott, 42, fluently speaks Japanese, which he learned while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1974 to 1976.

He fell in love with the Japanese people and culture. After studying international relations, he started a small trading company to capitalize on his knowledge of Japan.

Derricott returned to Japan in 1982 to open his office, and while those preparations were under way he met a Japanese scriptwriter who was looking for foreign talent to audition for a highly rated "Saturday Night Live" kind of program.

Derricott jumped at the chance and became a regular cast member. He also worked on other programs and was a popular guest on talk shows. He later had his own television show for six years; he describes it as "sort of like the `David Letterman Show.' "

He has used his celebrity profile to promote Utah and to correct misperceptions about the state and its people. In so doing, he came to the attention of the Utah Travel Council, which latched onto a fortuitous marketing opportunity that now results in tens of thousands of Japanese tourists coming to the state every year, said Dean Reeder, director of the Travel Council.

"I do not consider myself to be the answer-all, the end-all to Japan and its mysteries," said Derricott. "There are many things I don't understand. But I have been here long enough to understand a little bit, so what I do know I am happy to share with others."

One way Derricott helps Utah is to lend his name to and make appearances on behalf of the Utah Travel Council. In fact, Derricott and Reeder are using the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano as a marketing opportunity to host Japanese tourism executives and promote the 2002 Winter Games. Derricott is also working with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to promote the 2002 Winter Games to a wider Japanese audience.

"These are things I really enjoy doing," he said. "I really love Utah. It is such a marvelous place. It's why we moved back. I can live in Bountiful with my back to the mountains, and in 15 minutes I can be at the airport going anywhere in the world I need to be. It is the epitome of the best of both worlds."

Derricott moved back to Utah because the fame eventually became oppressive. He could not take his children to the park without being mobbed by autograph seekers. If he took his kids to Tokyo Disneyland, he had to have two or three Disney security along to keep the throngs back.

"I found it was increasingly difficult to just be a dad outside the home like I wanted to be," he said. "My kids were feeling the sense of having to share their dad all the time."

So five years ago, they returned to Utah. With his wife, Barbara, and their five children, he now lives quietly on the east bench of Bountiful, where few people know of Derricott's immense popularity in Japan. "I am just a regular guy here, and nobody cares who I am," he said.

Every couple of months, he returns to Japan for two weeks of television programming and the requisite hobnobbing.

"Tokyo is a great city. It is the easiest large city to live in," he said.

Utah is a more pleasant place, he said. "You have shopping, the mountains, Lake Powell. And I can have all that and keep what I do (in Japan) and still enjoy something akin to total anonymity."