Exclusive: Mark & Donnie Wahlberg On How Reality TV Healed Grief & Rebuilt Their Family

As they switch off the cameras after more than five years in the spotlight, the Wahlbergs are reflecting on how reality television healed years of grief and “reconnected” their family.

Brothers Mark, Donnie, and Paul, and their mom Alma have kept fans laughing, crying, and entertained on “Wahlberg Wednesdays” throughout 10 seasons of A&E’s “Wahlburgers”, yet it’s their lives that have benefited most from the cameras.

As well as renewing their brotherly bond, the stars explain to ET Canada how the series helped Alma find new purpose after losing her identity and grappling with ongoing grief following the 2003 death of daughter Debbie. Debbie died at 43 after suffering a heart attack and septic shock while she was in hospital to get kidney stones removed.

“My mom really went into a big, deep depression after my sister passed away,” Mark tells ET Canada over dinner at the family’s West Hollywood, California, branch of their Wahlburgers chain, which is the focus of the series. “It was the same day my daughter [Ella] was born and she’ll be 16 on September 2 so it was a long time ago, but no parent should have to lose a child.”

Donnie, 49, explains how leading up to Debbie’s death, Alma had started to lose her identity on the back of his success with New Kids on the Block and Mark’s Hollywood acting career.

“My mother was getting to an age where her kids were taking care of her and she didn’t really need to work anymore — I retired her in like 1990 when the New Kids became successful,” he says. “She had lost her way and her identity a bit. She wasn’t Alma anymore; she was Donnie and Mark’s mom. Then when our sister passed away, it was a real jolt to her. It was completely devastating. She lost her first-born daughter and was so crushed, so that set her back more. She became more lost.

“When the restaurant came along,” he continues, “she worked there and started to get the feeling of being herself again. She’s a real people person and retreated a little after my sister passed away, but being at the restaurants — shaking hands, connecting with people — and then being on the show, she found her voice again.”

Paul, 55, and Mark, 48, agree that one of the benefits of the series has been the new life it has granted Alma.

“The show’s been really good for her,” says Paul, the restaurant chain’s executive chef. “She fell in love with all the people who worked on it — she would have them over for dinner and she still keeps in touch with them.”

“This show, the restaurants, and all of those things gave her new purpose and it was great that that helped her,” Mark adds. “She loved doing the show. Well, she actually complained about it the whole time, but she was so upset when I told her it was ending!”

Indeed, both Alma and Paul had no interest in doing the series when cameras started rolling in 2013, giving fans a fun glimpse behind the scenes of the famous family’s lives and careers but primarily focused on their rapidly expanding Wahlburgers restaurants. Mark estimates more than 40 Wahlburgers are expected to be in operation by the end of the year (including the recent London opening and planned restaurants in Australian hotspots like Bondi Beach, Sydney) but it all started with their original eatery in Hingham, Massachusetts, the family’s home state. That first burger spot is just across the road from Paul’s other restaurant, Alma Nove, which he named after his mom.

While Donnie had confidence in Mark’s idea for the series, he was aware of his mom and brother’s apprehensions and came on-board hoping to help them “discover how much they could like it.”

Ten seasons later, he says the entire family “came away from it for the better.” In addition to mom-of-nine Alma finding new purpose, Donnie, Paul, and Mark reconnected, thanks to spending quality time together, which they wouldn’t have managed otherwise.

In ET Canada‘s exclusive video, Donnie even tears up reflecting on how the series has strengthened the famous family. “Of the many, many things that have come out of this crazy journey for us as brothers, as business partners, the best part is that it’s rebuilt our family,” says the “Blue Bloods” star, wiping away tears. “It really meant a lot to me.

“When the restaurant came about, we started to connect more regularly because of the business, but it didn’t require us to be in the same place. We could do conference calls and get our jobs done without being in the same room more than one or two times a year, but the show changed that. Not that there were any rifts or anything, but we were off doing our own things and the further you are physically, the easier it is to lose track of the years. Time drifts you apart and when you have wives and kids you tend to be around your mom and siblings less because you need to be with your own family.

“The show reconnected us by putting us in the same room together more often and that’s changed the culture of how we run the restaurant,” he continues. “We make the effort to be together more and it has reconnected us in the way that the business alone wouldn’t have.”

While Donnie worked with Mark during his Funky Bunch days, the two hadn’t collaborated since, drifting apart while busy with work and families — Mark with wife Rhea and their four children (Ella, Brendan, Grace and Michael) and Donnie with wife Jenny McCarthy, stepson Evan and his two sons from a previous marriage (Xavier and Elijah.) Jenny’s ratings-boosting cameos in early episodes of “Wahlburgers” is what led to the couple’s spinoff series, “Donnie Loves Jenny”, and while Mark’s absence at the couple’s wedding during the first episode sparked headlines, Donnie insists it wasn’t a big deal.

“Mark not going to my wedding was a big story … but it wasn’t really a story that I didn’t go to his wedding!” Donnie laughs. “I was really busy working. And I would have told Mark, ‘Don’t miss your daughter’s birthday for my wedding,’ anyway. We’re not the kind of family that begrudge each other for things like that. It really was of no consequence. Besides, if there were any problems with Mark and I, we probably would have filmed it to make better television!”

“Mark and I hadn’t worked together since the Marky Mark days when I was his music producer and essentially his boss, and this really gave us a chance to spend time together both on camera and off,” Donnie adds. “I think it reminded Mark of my experience creatively. He started depending on me as a producer to be creative on the show and oversee editing while working with me on other restaurant stuff. It was a game-changer for us.”

Donnie adds that the cameras also showcased Paul’s personality and how he’s an extremely talented chef with high standards, not just “a famous brother cooking hamburgers at Mark’s house.” And although the cameras often felt obstructive in the kitchen, Paul cherished the extra time he got with Mark and Donnie, who were joined by brothers Jim, Bob, and Arthur and nephew Brandon, throughout the series.

“It was a blast to be able to spend time with them because we don’t see as much of each other as we used to,” Paul reflects. “Donnie’s either in New York or St. Charles, and even when Mark’s filming in Massachusetts, I hardly see him because he’s working every day. It’s hard to spend time with them, and the show gave us that.

“Mark and Donnie got to pay me back for all of the things I did for them when they were little!” Paul continues. “They got to see more of me in my world and I got to see more of them in their world. That gives you more of an understanding of each other.”

As much of a bonding experience as Wahlburgers has been, anyone who has ever watched the series knows how much Mark and Donnie thrived on riling up Paul every chance they got.

So, what are Paul’s tricks for pushing Mark and Donnie’s buttons in return?

“Telling Mark ‘No!’” he laughs. “Because he’s really used to hearing ‘Yes.’ People are like, ‘Whatever you need.’ I’m more like, ‘No, no, no!’ and he’ll be like, ‘What do you mean, no?’”

“Donnie’s harder because he’s very deep with his approach to everything,” Paul adds. “If you try to play games, all of a sudden he gets very deep with it, then you’re like, ‘Yeah, this no fun.’ So, I still haven’t quite figured out how to push Donnie’s buttons.”

As for life beyond “Wahlburgers”, Mark has several film projects on the go, including “Six Billion Dollar Man” and “The Roman”. Donnie meanwhile is back at work on “Blue Bloods”, talking to ET Canada straight after wrapping filming on the CBS series’ 200th episode. Fresh from New Kids on the Block’s “Mixtape” tour, he confirms the boy band are currently discussing details of their next fan cruise but teases they may also “break out of our typical cycle and do something really outrageous.”

Paul, meanwhile, is back focusing on the restaurants — as well as cooking for his own family, admitting that his children, Ethan and Madison, are unlikely to follow in his culinary footsteps.

“My kids have no interest in cooking,” he chuckles. “My daughter turned vegetarian two years ago but she still likes fish and tries different things and is very adventurous. My wife cooks a lot of Hello Fresh, which she and my son love. I just like to make what they want — whatever they want, I’m in!”

As for Alma, perhaps the brothers can create a spinoff show for their lovable and hilarious matriarch.

“Oh, she’d love that!” Mark says.

“She’s a very relatable person,” Donnie adds. “She’s been through a lot and it’s great for her to share those stories and show the world that she’s not just some mom who lives off her children. She’s a woman who’s had a very intense journey and struggled through a lot of hardships but come out the other side just through her sheer force of will. It connected her to so many people around the world. I have women my mom’s age come to New Kids on the Block concerts just to tell me they’re fans of my mom and to give her their love! That’s quite an impact that she’s had on people.”

The series finale of “Wahlburgers” airs Wednesday, July 31 on A&E.

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