Archive for the 'Celebrities' Category

Actors, Celebrities, Politicians, Theatre, Writers

David, Kimberly, Boris and Petsy: it’s showtime

THE TIMES – April 13, 2005
Ginny Dougary

The lyricist for David Blunkett: The Musical, reveals how the show was inspired and explains why the real-life characters are perfect for the stage.

THE life of the musical began, in a curious way, last summer before the news about any of the key players had even broken. I had gone to the Bloomsbury office of The Spectator to interview Boris Johnson, who was attempting to publicise his debut novel, Seventy-Two Virgins.

The date was Tuesday, August 10. On Sunday, August 15, the News of the World splashed with its story about the Home Secretary’s long-term affair with a married woman who was revealed in The Sun the following day to be Kimberly Fortier.

Boris was late for our interview and so I hung around the stairwell, as various women of a certain age walked past. One or two had the whiff of breeding and resigned melancholia that made me think of a heroine in an Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym novel. And then Kimberly appeared, bright-eyed and as bouncy as a puppy. We spoke for a few minutes, during which she managed to namedrop several times: “Have you met my husband?” “Do you know Lord and Lady . . . ”

When Boris appeared on his bicycle, soaked from a rainstorm, Kimberly hovered — encouraged by my interviewee — and her manner became even more hectic. Out of the blue, she mentioned Boris’s wife: “Yes! Yes! Yes! He’s got a terrific wife! She’s the best!” For his part, Boris sighed and mumbled and tugged his wet, yellow hair and complained that he was finding the whole experience of being interviewed “harrowing”.

The hero of his novel is a shambling, bumbling, bicycle-riding Tory MP who is worried that his extramarital affair is about to be exposed by a tabloid newspaper. “He’s not me, by the way,” Boris made clear, then added: “but you’ve got to use what you know, haven’t you?”

Speccie columnist Rod Liddle’s affair had already broken and his estranged wife, Rachel Royce, had referred (writing in the Daily Mail, with a swift retort from him in The Sunday Times) to the frisky atmosphere at The Spectator — soon to be dubbed, as the extramarital shenanigans mul- tiplied, The Sextator.

I had asked Boris if he felt that as editor, he was responsible for creating the ethos of his office. “You mean, am I presiding over a bordello? Certainly not!” he exclaimed, giggling hugely. The strangest part of the interview — spookily prescient, given that I had absolutely no idea what was unfolding behind the scenes — was this question: “Would you have any qualms about printing a story about a senior Labour politician’s liaison?” “Got a good one?” Boris asked. And “I tell you what. There’s only one way to settle this moral issue. Bring me the story and I’ll scour my conscience.”

As I said, I didn’t have that story to bring Boris (it turned out that he had one of his own). But in the months to come I found myself gripped by the Blunkett-Fortier saga — and, to a lesser extent, by the disclosures about Boris and his columnist, Petronella Wyatt.

All four characters are con- summate media operators and poli- tical players. Just as the Prince and Princess of Wales had manipulated their contacts to gain sympathy — who were, of course, only too happy to oblige — so did our newspapers seesaw between the various combatants.

The developments had all the makings of an epic drama. Commentators compared Blunkett’s downfall to a Greek tragedy; Shakespearean analogies proliferated. Here was a man who had overcome so many obstacles, driven by the steel of his will to succeed, toppled near the pinnacle of his world by that which makes him most human: love. But there was also something uniquely modern about it, too. A politician — or any man in high public office, for that matter — who risks his career by insisting that a child out of wedlock is his and he wants to see him? Unheard of. Yet it does seem strangely contemporary, chiming in with the protests of Fathers 4 Justice. And there’s something both ancient and modern about a woman who uses her own power and influence to destroy one of the most powerful men in the country.

It began to intrigue me that the publisher I had met at The Spectator — with her breathless voice and cheerleader manner — was being portrayed as a femme fatale. From the newspaper stories, as more and more lovers crowded into her boudoir, she became a fantastical creature from another era. I saw her as Violetta in the opening scene of La Traviata, a gorgeous salon courtesan in a scarlet ballgown, fluttering her fan, captivating all the male guests at the party, her come-hither manner promising them everything. Blunkett, who had never particularly interested me before, became Alceste — the anti-hero of Molière’s 17th-century play The Misanthropist. He rails against the shallowness and frippery of the age but the woman he is besotted by — the young, flirty, faithless Celimene — embodies everything he detests. As he tells his one loyal friend, Philinte: “La raison n’est pas ce qui r ègle l’amour” (it’s not reason which governs love).

Once Boris had been snapped jogging in that skull-and-crossbones beanie and long baggy camouflage shorts, it became obvious what to do with him. He had moaned in our interview about the straitjacket of his shambling, bumbling bicycle-riding persona. Clearly behind that P. G. Wodehouse façade there was an urban rapper bursting to break free. So in our musical there is the ultimate tribute to the man we call The Sultan of The Sextator — The Boris Rap. Yo!

As for Petronella . . . what a joy! The more I read about her, the more perfect she was for our musical. She has posed for the Tatler in satin babydolls and ostrich-feather mules. She loves to sing Cole Porter and her party trick, which she performed for Norman Lamont’s birthday, is singing Lili Marlene in the husky tones of Marlene Dietrich. She has apparently serenaded Boris with arias from La Bohème. She’s a daddy’s girl — her father was Woodrow, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford (doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?) — who lives at home with her mother, Verushka. And she’s obligingly indiscreet.

It is down to Petsy, as she is called by her friends, that we know about Kimberly’s “extraordinarily flirtatious banter” at the dinner where Blunkett and Fortier met, accompanied by Boris and Petronella. Ostensibly reviewing Stephen Pollard’s biography of Blunkett, she informed us that “Mr Blunkett and I ate Dover sole. Ms Fortier ate Mr Blunkett”. And this is where we learnt that Kimberly had informed the new Home Secretary that she had “ always wanted to know what it was like to sleep with a blind man”.

More outrageous lines followed, Blunkett’s gift to the headline writers, “The Socialist and the Socialite”, was one of the best, and it dawned on me that this dramatis personae were calling out for a stage of their own, to express themselves in song. More extraordinarily, I, never having written a song before in my life, would be the one to make it happen. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a composer friend by the stage-name of MJ (short for Mary Jo) started to bash out some lyrics and melodies. Our first number was Blunkett’s theme song. Handily, she had written the tune only a few weeks earlier, while on a songwriting master class in Yorkshire under the tutelage of Ray Davies of the Kinks fame. That was for Cinderella: The Panto but the robust, catchy opening, which moves into a poignant lament before its bracing return, worked brilliantly for Blunkett’s story.

Left to our own devices, who knows how long it would have taken us to write the whole musical? But on the evening before Christmas Eve, my 17-year-old son, Tom, read out a paragraph in The Week about a producer, Martin Witts, who was planning to put on a David Blunkett musical and this news galvanised me into action.

The slightly surreal atmosphere that has attached itself to much of the making of this musical began with my initial phone calls to track down Witts. I spoke to Nigel Reynolds, an old mate who had written the original diary item in The Daily Telegraph. He was sitting in a car park in the dark in Devon and was about to go canoeing. And so it went on, each phone call more bizarre than the last, until I fin- ally found Witts — driving down a country lane in Yorkshire — who agreed to meet MJ and me in the new year in Soho, where we would play him our songs.

Over Christmas, MJ — who was at home with her family in the US — and I e-mailed each other lyrics and ideas and the opening of Kimberly’s Song (Blunkett’s companion piece) was written on her laptop on the composer’s return flight to London.

Around the time of our first meeting, I picked up T2 to read Richard Morrison under the headline “Don’t just read this column . . . turn it into a musical”. Well! “Where are the new Lloyd Webbers?” he asked. “And who will give them the chance to show what they can do, when staging even a small West End musical can easily leave a producer sadder and wiser to the tune of several hundred thousand quid?” (I hoped Martin Witts was not a Times reader.)

Morrison was publicising a Greenwich Theatre initiative to encourage new composers and lyricists to submit works from newspaper stories . . . “The fact is that a huge number of masterpieces — musical, literary and cinematic — have started life as headlines ripped from the morning papers,” he wrote, and listed Porgy and Bess, Rebel Without a Cause, Blood Wedding and Anna Karenina, just for starters.

In the weeks to come, these illustrious antecedents proved a useful rebuttal to the accusation that there is something intrinsically suspect about basing an artistic endeavour on a news story.

Martin turned up for our first meeting almost an hour late — an inauspicious start (his train from York was delayed). It never happened again. The three of us hit it off immediately, but the promised piano was not available, and Leo Alexander of Kettners was persuaded to let us use his baby grand in the private rooms upstairs. Two good-looking boys — I assumed they were Leo’s nephews — asked if they could listen in. Martin whispered in my ear “That’s Simon Anstell from cd:UK.” Now I see his impish features on the televison all the time.

There were gratifying grins when MJ finished singing and, most importantly, Martin was persuaded by the two songs that we could pull it off. We were on! And, almost immediately, rather like the Blunkett story itself, the musical began to take on a life force of its own.

The so-called preview in The Grey Horse pub in Elvington, Yorkshire, was a case in point. The original thinking behind this was that it would be a good idea if the London writer and the American composer visited Sheffield to get a bit of a feel for Blunkett’s northern origins. We would drive around the estate where he grew up and his Brightside constituency and this would illuminate our script and songs. As part of the Yorkshire experience, we would stay in Martin’s friend Dave’s pub and try out some of our songs on his clientèle of ex-miners. A reporter from the Yorkshire Post might come along; possibly someone from the local radio station. Nothing we couldn’t handle.

At this point, I should say that Martin has impeccable showman credentials — he produced last year’s award-winning show Hurricane (about Alex “Hurricane” Higgins), and the musical of Prisoner: Cell Block H (with Lily Savage); he was the promoter for B. B. King and Nina Simone, and stage manager at Glyndebourne. But I think it is fair to say that he was unprepared for “the world’s media” — as The Guardian put it — arriving en masse in Elvington.

They started turning up shortly after breakfast. So many television crews; so much equipment. Press agencies. Newsnight. Ridiculous numbers of photographers with more equipment. The Sky presenter seems as bemused as us that her bosses insist that she keep on filming, when she clearly wants to wrap it up and go home. An independent crew film us being filmed by Sky. I cannot get the hang of someone talking in my ear and feel myself pulling unattractive faces in response to the rather haranguing tone of the interviewer. My eye-rolling and muttering and Martin’s bossy admonishments are all caught by the independent mob, as well as our phoney smiles when we go back on air.

I just want to hang with the guys from The Guardian and the Telegraph but keep having to pose for photographs — which is one of my least favourite activities. The locals are pretty bemused by all this activity, much to the delight of my fellow hacks. John, an old chap, complains about the loudness of MJ’s singing voice, and then threatens to show me his hernia scar but instead pulls out an enchanting sepia photograph of his wife when they were courting.

One of the photographers chalks up a blackboard with a Blunkett: The Musical preview sign and places it in front of the pub. All his colleagues are delighted t hat someone has had the wit to produce a bona fide photo opportunity.

By 8pm, I have completely had it. It is interesting seeing what my press confrères do with the material. They, like me, are as charming as they can be during the interview — but the finished article or television slot will often have a slightly different tone: a coolness and detachment which I recognise in the way I work, too, and which is only proper. But when you are the subject, I now discover, you can’t help feeling a tiny sliver of betrayal: Oh, I thought you were my friend. Which might be true, in some cases, but mostly it’s not.

I have to say that we were as thrilled by the splendid coverage as we were surprised by its extent. Suddenly there were hundreds of stories about the musical from all over the world; Google is full of Italian, Spanish, German and Dutch references to it. We are in the Hollywood Reporter. And Florida, and other rather surprising places. But then Kimberly, of course, is American.

Friends phone with regular updates on the key players — did you know Kimberly had been keeping diaries? Consternation at Condé Nast’s London office over US Vanity Fair’s investigation of l’affaire Blunkett (Mr Quinn being the publisher of Vogue UK); Did you catch Blunkett on the Today programme? My mortgage broker e-mails: “Have you got a tag-line yet? Every musical needs one. Something along the lines of ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind Man there is only one Woman: Quinn.’ Or maybe not.”

A few weeks on and a US production company wants to fly over to film us. MJ gets very excited. This is a big deal, apparently. Current Affair was a famous pioneering series and they want to film us in rehearsal for their relaunch (to be broadcast nationally on prime-time terrestial TV).

The crew from LA do their thing while we do ours in a practice room at the Pineapple Dance Studios. A couple of women from one of the Edinburgh Festival venues sit in. One completely gets the spirit of the thing; the other sits there as sour-faced as can be. Perhaps this is a good cop/bad cop routine. But it is quite lowering to meet such a blank response when we have had really positive feedback to date.

Martin has been approached by two record producers who are interested in producing a Boris hip-hop single. Four different independent television companies are pitching Blunkett: the Musical ideas to the Beeb, etc. Is this all hot air or is it real, I wonder?

Mostly, I find, people are responding to the idea of the show. The majority think it’s a “hoot”; one or two that it’s cruel and invasive. But when they hear all the songs, they are quite unprepared for the impact. Alvin Stardust — one of Martin’s clients — takes a break from being the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and describes the songs as: “A meeting of Stephen Sondheim and The Little Shop of Horrors”. (Thanks, Alvin; we love over-the-top compliments.) Mark Perry, who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers and will play him much straighter in our show, says: “The songs are lovely. Very accessible. I mean, they’re not Sondheim.” MJ and I exchange a private smile.

The writers India Knight and Andrew O’Hagan have been midwives of sorts to the show. India, who takes singing lessons with MJ, has not only opened up her house for auditions but has found us the two amazing women who are playing Kimberly and Petronella. Lynne Davies (Glyndebourne; ENO) has a nightingale-beautiful soprano voice. Watching her first attempt to inhabit Kimberly — in that Traviata-esque opening — was like some sort of alchemy. I hardly dare to look at India for fear of breaking the spell.

Zigi Ellison, who played opposite Steven Berkoff in the US tour of Salome, is as much an actress as a singer — and she is fantastic as Petronella. And such a fox . . . I can’t help but think that Petsy would be flattered by the portrayal.

Having been a bit snooty about actors in the past, I have now developed a slavish admiration for them. Believe me, when you have written a song or a script and the actor seems effortlessly to bring those words to life — and far more — you want to fling yourself at his feet and moan “I am not worthy”.

When Robert Bathurst came to check out the Boris songs, my jaw dropped as he transformed himself within minutes — can’t you just see him in the role? — into a sort of über-Boris. Watching him grin from ear to ear, like a schoolboy at the most thrilling birthday party, as he heard all the material and the darkening of his face in the sadder songs, was . . . well . . . it was a very good thing indeed.

Behind the tawdry versions of our characters that we have all read about in the papers, we had invested them with souls and an inner life, he said.

So now we have a man who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers playing Blunkett (he is filming the new series as we rehearse for our opening), and the man who plays a PM (in My Dad’s the Prime Minister — I’m looking forward to the third series) as Boris. We have all nine songs, the four actors, a nine-part choir for our Greek chorus, the script, the five-piece band, and the narrator . . . and, yes, I’m excited (and a bit terrified) as we embark on rehearsals for the real preview with an invited audience at the Soho Theatre.

Martin decided to go for a bigger venue in Edinburgh, not the one represented by the two women who had come to watch rehearsals. We have invited all the real-life characters to check out the musical for themselves, and have yet to hear from them. We think they would be pleasantly surprised.

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Me, Myself, I

THE TIMES – November 13, 2004
Ginny Dougary

Years of childhood misery, teenage trauma and adult excess have informed all of Tracey Emin’s work. But her masterpiece, says Ginny Dougary, is the triumph her life has become.

Can this be? Tracey Emin – legendary Bad Girl of Brit Art (who has, incidentally, been protesting she is not a girl but a woman ever since the title was first thrust on her ten years ago) – tucked up in bed by eleven, sipping cold white wine in an unhectic fashion, not falling over, not swearing, not smoking, and hardly showing off at all?

Yes, at 41, Margate’s most famous escapee is in danger of becoming – shock, horror! – sensible. In Istanbul, where we were holed up together for three days in an ancient palace of a hotel on the Bosphorus, the better to enjoy our sightseeing excursions and her show, Trace was at times alarmingly prefectorial. Watches would be checked in the foyer and the forthcoming timetable confirmed and reconfirmed – drinks at such and such an hour, followed by taxi to pre-opening rendezvous, onward to the opening, thence to dinner with British consulate, and so on.

She embraced her self-appointed role as host with enthusiasm, arranging for us to see a mesmerising display of dervishes whirling, a Turkish meal in an appealingly authentic restaurant, suggesting

various hikes incorporating tourist must-sees, and was clearly disappointed when we begged off for a bit of down-time.

Her inability to be punctual is well known and this is one of the habits she is trying to curb. Indeed, she was so very keen to fit as much as possible into the schedule that her little band of followers – Irene Bradbury, representing White Cube, old friend and curator Gregor Muir, representing the Tate, Kelly Piper, her personal assistant, the photographer Graham Wood and me – were often left scuttling in her wake as Tracey strode purposefully on ahead without a backward glance.

This, of course, could never be said of her art which is almost entirely made up of backward glances – an approach that has most definitely placed her ahead of her Brit-pack peers, who are unable to boast the sizable honour, as Emin now can, of an entire room devoted to their art, bought for the nation by the Tate.

En passant, I learnt that she is a stickler for a dress code – and has been mortified on the occasions when she has turned up in inappropriate wear (it is not unusual, these days, to see her in the social columns of magazines such as Tatler). And more arresting still, given her reputation – will she ever live down that Oliver Reed television performance the year her bed was shortlisted for the Turner Prize? – Emin now considers it bad manners and bad business to turn up pissed at her own openings, particularly since many of her existing or prospective collectors are likely to be present.

Why, La Trace has even taken to wearing sensible shoes (Gucci loafers), having done a Naomi in her platforms down some restaurant stairs in Rome, with the consequence that her summer was spent in a leg brace, convalescing in style with Ruth and Richard Rogers in Tuscany.

She has not, of course, turned into a complete goody-goody: her Pamela Anderson-ish love of her cleavage remains firmly intact – each day in Istanbul, there were visible signs of a new Agent Provocateur bra in some outlandish confectionery colour; she can be quite snappy with pushy waiters, and sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, with me; she spoke high-handedly to an obviously doting young journalist, upbraiding her for not sending over her copy to be checked for inaccuracies which – Emin made unambiguously clear – were plentiful.

During one of our walks from here to there, Emin suspected that she had been touched up by a gang of local men and pursued them yelling a torrent of Turkish and English expletives – which may have been understandable but was hardly sensible as she later admitted: “I mean, they could have had a knife.”

On another trot around town, talking about her teeth – an unsightly snaggle below, dentures above – without any warning, she suddenly disgorged the latter, revealing an arc of bare gums. This struck me as a most complicated gesture, daring you to be disgusted or perhaps challenging you to rise above your disgust. Some years ago, an old boyfriend sold a photograph of her taken in a similar vein to a newspaper – which was said, not surprisingly, to have upset her.

It was partly an odd thing to do because Tracey is quite defiantly proud of her beauty, having only fairly recently discovered that she is not, in fact, ugly. In a newspaper questionnaire asking her to rate her looks from 1 to 10, she awarded herself the top mark. A response which recalls the sort of playful arrogance Jeanette Winterson goes in for – the writer, like the artist, is either loathed or adored – who once nominated her own novel as best book of the year.

Emin’s reading of what is happening to her is that she’s “going through some middle-aged thing, definitely”: not sure of where she belongs and wants to live – is she Mediterranean, like Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot father, or seaside-resort England, like her mother? She still wants to have a child, and knows that she needs to modify her drinking drastically before that were ever to happen.

In 1999 she gave up spirits when her then boyfriend of six years – the artist Mat Collishaw – threatened to leave her if she didn’t, which, as it happens, he did anyway. (They remain the best, if not better, of friends.) Next on the hit list last December were cigarettes, and she hasn’t had a puff since. Smoking has always been forbidden in her gracious-sounding Huguenot home – which did surprise me, since that unbohemian attitude seems a bit uptight for any artist, let alone Emin. Sex was recently offlimits, including, she makes it emphatically clear, with herself: “It’s a human thing that you crave for or need, but I don’t want to mix it up with physical affection, which I’ve done a lot in my life. That’s why I started having sex when I was so young, you know.” And, now, even the white wine might have to go.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve got a drink problem, actually,” Tracey said. “Yeah, I do. I’m not trying to find another thing that’s wrong with me, but I really have because I’m such a nice person and I have a couple of drinks and I’m really good fun and then I’m really not fun.” This was clearly on her mind, because an hour or so later, she said: “I was thinking about this last night: how can I have spent so much of my life drunk? All the mistakes I’ve ever made in my life have been when I’ve been drunk. I haven’t made hardly any mistakes sober, ever, ever. Ever, ever, ever. All the mistakes have been made when I’ve been drunk.”

There can be something touching about the way Emin expresses herself, and this statement is a case in point. It is so very naked and guileless, unprotected by what most of us would consider normal worldly artifice. She and her art – the two, in her case, being inextricable – are often accused of childishness. But I would make the distinction that Emin is sometimes childlike in her simplicity and in her inability, most unusual in an adult, particularly one with her experiences, not to be trusting.

Since I also found the artist to be in the main both thoughtful and thought-provoking, I was disappointed on my return from Istanbul to find her regurgitating the same old piss-pot exhibitionist schtick on Paul Merton’s Room 101. Oh Tracey, I groaned, why are you letting yourself down? Why do you insist on making yourself into a cartoon figure, handing out a rod to make it easier for your critics to beat you?

She was fine and funny – sensible, even – explaining why cocaine should be banned purely on the grounds that it turns people into bores, but really not fine or funny, grinning like a demented teenager, as she spouted gruesome puke stories from her drunken past. (Including the quite hideous detail that she once vomited down the sleeve of her jacket in the back of a taxi.)

The thing about Tracey, however, is that it’s not just her art that is autobiographical but her life itself, which is led with a constant

eye on its documentation; each step that she takes is instantly observed and analysed while she is taking it, and placed in a wider perspective of her known history. Seen in that light, what could be more Traceyesque than inviting us to find her erstwhile exploits disgusting, acknowledging that she wants to turn her back on such behaviour; saying to Merton that giving up the drinking would make her feel free. There’s a way in which Tracey’s growing up is a work in progress in which we, as her public, are somehow obliged to participate.
She arrived for our interview by the pool only ten minutes late. A bikini under a canary-yellow flimsy kaftan – bought in India and a gift from the man she has been referring to for some time now as “my Roman husband”; a pair of clunky gold necklaces from one of her half-brothers (her handsome father sometimes gives the impression of having lost count of the number of children he has sired), a ring from her beloved late granny, May Dodge, and one she would give her daughter were that larger gift ever to be granted; slim, long-fingered, eyes hidden behind giant shades, sulky expression. Do you speak Turkish, I ask her. “Better than you,” she replies, without a smile.

When she does smile, it is never that weird lopsided grimace caught in almost every photograph of her ever taken. It’s a sort of nervous tic – as I discovered watching her switch it on for the camera – which not only distorts her attractiveness but also in some subliminal way conveys the impression that she is haphazard and out of control. And, these days, this picture could hardly be more inaccurate.

It is quite difficult, in fact, to know which of Emin’s many achievements and projects to focus on, so we decided it was best to focus on them all: the predictable uproar around her room in the Tate; her first feature film, Top Spot, also controversial; her line of appliqué luggage and handbags for Longchamps; her show in Turkey and, my favourite of them all, Emin’s Ovals, the artist’s dream (she’s at the discussion stage with Richard Rogers and Ken Livingstone) of creating half-a-dozen beautiful lidos along the banks of the Thames.

This level of concentrated activity is increasingly the norm for Emin as her reputation continues to build internationally. In 2004 alone, for instance, apart from Istanbul, she has had two shows in Italy, one in Sydney (following her previous year’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), one in Wellington, and a joint show with David Hockney coming up in Santiago, Chile. Even two years ago, she had a ten-year retrospective at the renowned Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, concertinaed between openings in London (White Cube and the Barbican), the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, as well as a show in New York.

The greater Emin’s success, of course, the louder her critics rail against her… the most bitchily clamorous of whom, it is impossible not to notice, are men. Since most art critics are male and the art establishment is still dominated by men, you could say that this helps to explain the lack of easy empathy towards Emin, whose fans tend to be women and gay men. But when I read the playground taunts that she is “very stupid” – the sheer unrestrained nastiness of the attacks – I find myself smarting on her behalf, regardless of what I think of her art. Tracey is, after all, such an easy target for those of a snobbish disposition: the absence of school qualifications (she has no O or A levels), her working-class accent, her lack of polish, her obvious enjoyment of her newfound wealth.

Back in 1999 when I saw her Turner-shortlisted work in the Tate, it wasn’t the bed or wall of drawings that flickered in my imagination but a video from 1995 called Why I Never Became A Dancer. I stood in the dark, in a tiny room packed with people, and watched Tracey in cut-off jeans dancing to Sylvester’s disco classic You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). She was staring straight at the camera and something about it, and her expression, reminded me quite forcibly of myself as a young teenager, dancing in front of a mirror, practising my moves, full of optimism about the future.

I can’t have watched for long enough, however, because I only got half the point

of it: the suggestion of hope and buoyant innocence, but not its shattering aftermath. I missed the dedication: “This one’s for you” and the string of boys’ names “Tony, Eddie, Shane, Richard…”, and it was only later that I read the explanation of the piece.

When Tracey was in her early teens, life was pretty crap at school and at home – she was raped at 13, and abused at a far younger age – but at least she was a demon dancer (still is, and she knows it). So she entered a local dancing competition in Margate, with high hopes and a new set of teeth (her twin brother having knocked out the original top row, aided by the siblings’ lousy diet and unfamiliarity with the toothbrush). There she is twirling and swirling, feeling every inch the dancing queen, lifted by the admiring boys’ chants spurring her on to win. Until suddenly she realises that the boys are not cheering but jeering, and what they are yelling at her is: “Slag, slag, slag, slag, slag.”

It was a long time ago, but despite the partial catharsis of transforming the humiliation into a name-and-shame art work, Emin is still stung by the memory. When I make a reference to her tormentors destroying her dancing, she is swift to retort: “It wasn’t so much destroying my dancing, it was destroying me, wasn’t it?”
Tony, one of the original jeering boys, recently wrote her a letter to apologise, saying that now his daughters are the same age that Tracey was at the dancing competition and he was mortified to think of the effect his taunts must have had on a developing young girl. Would Tracey forgive him, he asked – and she does. When the Daily Mail went in for one of its regular Emin-bashing routines after her embroidered tent was destroyed in the recent Momart warehouse fire – the artist received another contrite letter, this time from the woman whom the newspaper had paid to sew a cut-price replica of Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.

This new name-calling strikes me as displaying the same sort of cowardly tribalism as the Margate lads, but those boys at least had the excuse of being young and ignorant. Emin’s first response when I ask her what she makes of the grown-up men who call her “stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid” is measured: “I think a lot of them haven’t met me and a lot of them have just heard my accent and then they judge you from it.”

Pretty soon, however, she is rather less measured: “I think some of them w*** off about me. I think they go to bed and they see my face and they think about my tits and they toss off. And then they don’t have to shag their ugly wives and they feel really sick with themselves and they’ve got to get up and do the same thing again and again and again, and they look at someone like me and I just really get up their nose. I really wind them up.

“I’m a woman, I like my life, I’m lucky in what I do, and I’m very wealthy doing what I do. And no one gave me anything. I made this for me and that puts you in a far different situation. I’m independent, and I’ve got really lovely friends, I really love my home, I love my lifestyle, I travel around the world doing what I do, and I’m in a privileged, fantastic position which I got myself into. So I think it’s resentment,” she concludes.

The Spectator was obliged to publish an apology to Emin and pay her legal costs when, earlier this year, the writer Philip Hensher suggested that the artist was responsible for mounting a homophobic harassment campaign against him after he had abused her in print. (Hensher is gang leader of the We Hate Stupid Tracey Club.)

“The point is, apart from anything else, I’m hardly going to be accused of being homophobic,” she says. “I’m a gay icon.” You mean, you’re hardly going to bite the hand that feeds you? “It’s not even about that. I was really hurt by it and really angry. You know, ‘some of my best friends are gay’? Well, I have hardly any friends who aren’t gay. It was just so stupidly ridiculous. He hadn’t done his homework. He didn’t know about my work for the Terence Higgins Trust or seen whom I’m associating with,” she says. “But I did feel genuinely sorry for him because it’s a really horrible thing to happen to someone and it must be driving him mad, but it’s not me.”

She doesn’t want to expend the energy or time (or money, presumably), in mounting endless legal suits: “But there’s so much stuff said about me that’s not true, so now what I try to do if something is hurtful and wrong is send an e-mail or letter immediately, saying, ‘This is not true… at no time have I ever said this…’ I don’t ask for an apology because it’s only tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.”

As for the writers who assert that the Tate was somehow bamboozled into buying a roomful of Emins, they clearly have no clue how such things work: how long it takes to make such a decision (a minimum of three years), how many people are involved in approving that decision, and so on. As it happens, the Tate has been nominating her work for their permanent collection for some years now: “It’s happened time and time again, but the committee has always decided against it – because it said f*** in it too much, or the work was too conservative or didn’t fit within the budget; there are millions of different reasons,” Emin says. “The point is that the work can’t just be bought on whim. It is really discussed, it’s really thought about; it’s a whole committee of about 40 people that argue this out. And it has to be like that because otherwise you could end up with a load of crap for the rest of history.” Naturally, she thinks it’s “quite cool, actually” – that you can walk in to Tate Britain and say, “Can you tell me where the Tracey Emin room is?” And when the Tate Modern opened, she recalls, “My auntie’s friend said, ‘Can you tell me where Tracey Emin’s work is?’ (as opposed to, say, the Francis Bacon or John Constable room) and the attendant said, ‘If I had a penny for every time I was asked that, I wouldn’t be standing here now.’ Sweet, wasn’t it?”

The morning I asked to see the Tracey Emin room, the attendant told me that it is the question she, too, is most often asked. From her observations, people either take one look at the work and walk straight out or they stay for hours, poring over each individual piece. Of all the YBAs – Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk et al – the young British artists who made such an impact in the Nineties, it is Emin who has endured thus far as the real crowd-puller. Partly this is because in our celebrity-driven, confessional culture, Emin satisfies on both counts. She is far more likely to be featured in a fashionable glossy or a colour supplement, say, than in a serious art magazine – as the Tate’s own house journal has pointed out. Emin herself says, “Each week I get between 60 and 100 requests, whether it’s to appear on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! or Celebrity Weakest Link or my favourite one, Celebrity Mastermind. That was, ‘Really, I think you may have the wrong person.’ Tracey Emin talking about herself, yeah! ‘When was your first show in a London gallery?’ The point is, they don’t ask other artists but they do ask me – which is why when I got the phrase ‘media whore’ thrown in my face last year, I thought, ‘Oh my God, if you only knew.'”

She has done Room 101, as we know, and Question Time and Have I Got News For You, which she enjoyed and will be going on again soon. She’s particularly proud of having been nominated for the Dimbleby lecture: “I mean, I’m not going to get it, but if people know what that is they realise what an absolute honour it is just to be nominated. It’s pretty nice and special because it means that there’s a board of academics that think I’ve obviously got some insight into things.”

But what of the work itself? What I notice is that it’s much easier to intellectualise what one dislikes about her pieces than what one appreciates. So although it may not be exactly “crap”, I have no time for her pink neon loping scrawl: Is anal sex legal, and its retort: Is legal sex anal. To me, it’s shallow, glib, gimmicky, as babyishly sensational – and on about the same level – as the fcuk advertising campaign. There must be better ways of addressing gay rights, if that is what prompted her to make it. That aside, I’m intrigued, moved, unsettled, disconcerted, upset, disturbed, tickled by most of the rest of the work in the room. The way it connects is visceral, reaching into parts of the psyche, to borrow from advertising myself, that other art doesn’t reach. What the art is not, which is something her detractors are always accusing it of being, is an unmediated confessional splurge. Both the horridness and the sweetness of Emin’s life are very firmly and, indeed, artfully edited to create a certain impact. She is quite capable of withholding in both her art and beyond it; she hasn’t, for instance, disclosed the identity of the boy who raped her or the man who abused her. And, on a happier note, she won’t talk about her new boyfriend, or even say that she has one – although this is a bit irritating since she does insist on introducing the subject of her “Roman husband” quite often.

On one of the walls of her room in the Tate are the handwritten pages – all 4,000-odd words – of Emin’s short story called Exploration of the Soul. It was published in the Independent on Sunday, as well as in a limited-edition book, in 1999: the same year as the Turner Prize shortlisting. It’s all there: the unhealthily intense relationship with her twin brother, the sinister male presence, a very disturbing suggestion of anal rape, and after “the police woman was talking to me – but I kept kind of sleeping… Dear God I thought – every part of me is bleeding” … “And he was rubbing his hands across my chest – my tiny little chest – my bony little ribs – I WAS ONLY TEN FOR F***’S SAKE” – the stifling fear of the dark (something that still terrifies Emin) “left alone… saturated in my own piss – too scared to breathe”, the knocked-out teeth, the teenage rape, the confusion of love and neglect, “Daddy gone”, and then his hotel – and their childhood home – boarded up…

I remember reeling when I read that in between the fashion and the food on a Sunday morning. It was such a direct assault with no leavening banality to make it more bearable. And, after my initial scepticism – oh please! so now Tracey Emin thinks she’s a writer – came the shock that she could write. And that she was able to evoke a certain sort of childhood – I did presume her own – in a way that made me feel absolutely that I was there with her under the bedsheets, in the bath, scrabbling in the strawberry patch looking in vain for our pet rabbit.

This is the way Emin’s art can work at its most effective – taking you unawares, making you catch your breath, knocking you sideways. It can happen, in a more muted way, in the most unlikely places. In the British Airways business lounge at Istanbul airport, for instance, an inspired executive has hung two Emin drawings. They have such a peculiar impact in that sterile setting; as exciting as coming across an original masterpiece, but also charming and intimate. What must go through the heads of the busy business people, tapping away on their laptops, when they look up and see: a pool of white space and a scribble of a bird on a high-up branch with another rather forlorn-looking bird below – “That’s Mat up there and that’s me,” the artist explains; a woman’s body, a pool of something nasty between her legs, various implements. Does it put them off their stride? Do any of them stop what they’re doing and get up to have a closer look?

If you think Tracey is good at what she does – as I happen to, not always but mostly – it is because she does know what she’s doing. At the age of 23, she talked herself into a place at Maidstone Art College, emerged with a First and went on to the Royal College of Art where she graduated with an MA in painting – although she describes herself as “a crappy painter” who was a bit of a misfit there. Her contemporaries were into abstract art, while she was into exploring “Byzantine frescoes and Edvard Munch”. And, rather amusingly, for those who assume she was one of the groovy Goldsmiths’ gang: “When Damien and all that lot were doing Frieze in Building One, I was in Turkey doing watercolours.”

While we are engaged in our interview by the pool – I more or less have to persuade Tracey, a fanatical swimmer, that it would be impractical to conduct it actually in the pool – the silence is broken by the muezzins’ periodic wails beckoning the faithful to prayer in Istanbul’s many mosques; it’s a great stereophonic sound, rising and filling the air all around us.

In the evening, we meet up again for drinks at the Pera Palas hotel, where Mata Hari, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie used to stay. And, more recently, Julio Iglesias and our Tracey (not together) – although she hasn’t yet got a room named after her like the others. Emin did a performance here for the 1997 Istanbul Biennale. At that time, she recalls, you couldn’t have a Turkish man in your hotel room – and so she decided to open up her room to the public. At one point she had 80 people crammed in, listening to her stories, trying to work out what she meant by transforming the space into a love poem, looking at the photographs she had placed under the doilies on the antique furniture, touching the bedspread appliquéd with the words, International Woman. (An early forerunner of her Longchamps suitcases, she says, limited edition of 200, a rosette on each with a handsigned drawing of a place Trace has visited, cost: £2,000.)

This new exhibition – Tracey Istanbulda – is in Platform, a converted bank, right at the heart of Istanbul’s tourist centre. Emin went to a show there at last year’s Biennale – she much prefers Istanbul’s art fair to the famous one in Venice – and decided that it was just the place for her to show work, which had only been created in Turkey and Cyprus. It’s been partially sponsored by the British Council who have “always been really cool to me. They are brilliant: ‘If you have a chance,'” Tracey says, with an impeccable plummy accent, “‘meet our woman Jenny in Madrid, she’s awe-fully nice.'”

This is her fourth visit to Turkey this year, and she’s been spending some time in Cyprus, where her father lives, too. Enver has come over especially for his daughter’s show, but relations between them are apparently somewhat strained at the moment; something to do with complications over the building of a house. “The land’s really beautiful, it’s just that I can’t… what it is, it’s a bit of a macho society to say the least and it’s very difficult to get things done,” Tracey says. “When it really comes to it, you have to be hands-on, you have to be there and I don’t have time. So either I let my dad finish it – do it how he wants which is not what I want at all – or just come back to it later.” I suspect the tensions are because she chose to postpone the project.

Enver sits, in his high peaked leather hat (a present from his daughter and Mat), suit and tie, surrounded by the bright youngish things of the art world. He smiles from time to time – a beautiful sunbeam of a smile – and doesn’t say much. He’s 83, perhaps a little deaf, walks slowly with a stick, but has the smooth, caramel skin of a much younger man. Tracey calls him “Daddy” and gets cross when he’s not attentive enough to her or the wine waiter. She’s quite openly tough with him, having encouraged him to come – the whole show struck me as a kind of love letter to him and his country – but insisting he’s responsible for sorting out his own accommodation.

Everyone rushes off to Tracey’s opening, and I hang back for Enver, who hasn’t a hope of catching up. Pretty soon, the others are nowhere in sight and I’ve no idea where I am – nor, I suspect, does my new chum. Arm in arm, we walk down the main shopping street, thronging with people, looking for the gallery. He says there’s a big sign with his daughter’s name on it and suddenly, there it is – Emin – a rather small sign, actually, pointing to an alleyway. “Come on,” I say, “let’s go.” But, alas, it is only a bakery; Emin, it transpires, being the Turkish equivalent of Jones or Smith.

We retrace our steps into the night and finally, thank God, stumble on a socking great banner – TRACEY ISTANBULDA – with a crowd queueing to get in. All the video work has been shown before, there was no money for shipping larger pieces, and Tracey made two new neons: It doesn’t matter My Friend it does Not matter To Cry is Beautiful, and its Turkish translation Bosver Bosver Arkadasim Aglamak Guzel (Tracey can rattle that off, no problem), and what she calls her sexy one: I Kiss You. They’re quite pretty, but that’s about it.
The videos are another matter. Actually, I think she’s hot stuff in this department – which is certainly why Michael Winterbottom, the respected young director, suggested she make a film, Top Spot, under the auspices of his production company, Revolution. The one that most insinuates of the three on show is the gentlest and oddly elegiac: the seaside, Cyprus, 1996; her father, stronger then, in white trunks walking into the surf, turning and smiling at the camera, a man – is it him? – singing in Turkish; then Tracey in a bikini, plumper but still a perfect hour-glass figure, engulfed by the water, her words, a sort of poetic rhapsody to the enduring encirclement of life – the sea, the stars, the sun – end with “I love you Daddy.”

When Tracey and her twin were seven, their father left home. Tracey’s mother, Pam, became pregnant by Enver 40 years ago, on an alcohol-drenched night that was meant to signal the end of their affair. Pam decided not to abort and Enver – who tells me he gave up drinking on the day the twins were born and recites the date, in true AA fashion, or perhaps in the fashion of a proud parent – spent half the week in Margate with his new family, apparently with the blessing of his wife in London. Tracey remembers coming to Turkey for months at a stretch when she and her brother were tiny. Then, one day, Enver found Pam in bed with his driver and later attempted, unsuccessfully, to run them over. So that was the end of that relationship.

Tracey says that although her childhood must have had its good points, her mother has told her that she was never happy. On one of our walks, I notice that one of her feet turns slightly inwards, and

she tells me she was knock-kneed as a child and teased about it. She spent hours on her own practising how to walk properly and, for that matter, talk properly since she was also afflicted with an appalling lisp. Even now, just occasionally, certain words are accompanied by the suggestion of a clicking sound, as though her tongue is awkwardly hammering the roof of her mouth. When I ask her whether her forties are the best time of her life, she says: “Damn sight better than my thirties and nothing could be worse than my twenties, apart from my teens or my childhood. So there you go, it is getting a lot better.”

Growing up was difficult, she says, because she and her brother were left alone so much: “It wasn’t my parents’ fault – my mum had to work all the time and my dad wasn’t there. But there were no rules and I think that children actually need a certain amount of rules. They need to brush their teeth because otherwise their teeth fall out, right? It is a kind of known thing. And children need to do their homework because it’s part of their education. But saying all that,” she suddenly seems wary of how this may sound, “I am fiercely independent and I probably wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for the way in which I was brought up.”

If you did have children, you would bring them up differently? “You can say that again, yeah.” You would be very much into rules and structure? “Yeah.” When I say that I’ve never read her talking about the period when she was abused, she says: “Not in the newspapers, no. I’m going to wait until I’m really mega f****** famous and then I’ll make a big billboard.” Is it complicated; are you protecting the person? “No, I’m protecting myself.”

Top Spot is the name of a Margate nightclub where the local teenagers would go to make out; it is also, as Tracey the film’s narrator informs us, the neck of the womb which is hit by the penis during sex. It is, yes, autobiographical with all the writer-director’s childhood horror stories grafted on to the characters of six different girls – as though they would be too much for a single person to bear. One way out of the misery of Margate – which has prompted the censors’ 18 certificate, much to the film-maker’s dismay – is the suicide by the girl the boys call “slag”. Another, as the ending makes perfectly clear, is to leave and turn yourself into something splendid… Tracey, the original Margate girl, amply demonstrating the alternative route.

It is, in a way, another exploration of the soul; only this time, perhaps, more of an expiation of the soul. There’s the rape, the teeth, and the same hints of abuse. One of the girl’s lines first appeared in that story: “I’d watch him from the corner of my eye – his hands down his trousers – always fiddling with himself. Always looking at me-”

The film has its moments – the girl in her school uniform, an echo of that earlier video piece, turning and turning, the colours all darting and electric, to Shirley and Co screeching: “Shame shame shame, shame on you, if you can’t dance too”; and a certain sort of

Beryl Bainbridge hint of strange sexual games between an adult woman and the girls, the latter fantasising about burning her home down, lighting the paper that glows and leaps in a dance of its own in the dark. But, for the most part, it’s too messy and flat and amateurish to be convincing for me, and – worst of all – I’m afraid I found it boring.

I had mentioned Bainbridge to Emin because until relatively recently, the writer had drawn exclusively on her early life for her novels. Then ten years or more ago, almost as though there was nothing left in her own small past to explore, Bainbridge turned her back on herself and switched to making her fiction out of major historical characters. I wondered whether the artist, whose own collection of short stories is coming out next year, could ever imagine herself making a similar journey.

In the future, which may or may not have something to do with the “Roman husband”, Tracey said that she plans to return to painting, in the hope, presumably, that with time on her hands and experience on her side, she’ll be less “crap” at it. She’s going to buy a studio in Rome and work on a series of 20 oil paintings. Her subject? You’ve guessed it. But it will also be Emin in some sort of broader historical context than her own life. Nude? “Maybe… maybe not. But I can see them in front of my eyes and I want to spend the longest time… like just a week painting the gesso on to the canvas and I want to build up the oil paint really, really slowly… the smell of it, this massive beautiful room in Rome and these lovely windows, and just the smell of the oil painting. There’s just me – no telephone, no office – me with very little clothes on because it’s really hot, and I’ll be making these oil paintings which maybe no one will see for a long time. But that’s what I’d really like to do.”

On our last night in Istanbul, there was another party held in honour of Emin and her show. More than 800 people, we were told, had visited the gallery the previous day – and the numbers have held up, with the exhibition closing today. Everyone is dancing to disco and soon comes the unmistakable thudding beat of Sylvester. The crowd parts and Tracey is on her own, brown skin gleaming, grinning broadly and perfectly symmetrically… “make me fee-eel, mighty real, make me – ooooh, ooooohhh”, and as she cocks her ears, what she hears, this time round, is: “star, star, star, star, star.”

Celebrities, Comedians

Being Graham Norton

THE TIMES – June 1, 2004
Ginny Dougary

Britain’s naughtiest chat-show host has played his camp, cheekie-chappie card to the max. But now he’s showing worrying signs of growing up. Ginny Dougary watched him dip his toe into the US market – and asked a few rude questions of her own.

THE AFTERNOON REHEARSAL FOR GRAHAM NORTON’S New York television show had barely begun before I was thrown out, which was strange since I was sitting next to the entertainer’s business partner at So TV, Graham Stuart, who had invited me in as his guest.

The idea had been for me to get an impression of what the chat-show host was like behind the scenes. Norton was in his mufti, as opposed to one of his bad-taste TV suits, of low-slung jeans showing off his svelte new body, a sexy T-shirt and trainers. After having interviewed him, I’d say he is more insecure about his looks than any woman I’ve come across — which is a shame as he’s quite cute enough, a bit like a bouncy version of the Warhol star, Joe Dellesandro.

The script just needed a final dusting: an uncontroversial Iraq joke — “Dolphins? Isn’t that a little odd for a war in the desert?”; a news flash that Hugh Grant has announced that he’s giving up acting (“I thought he had already”) and an obligatory smutty joke about masturbation. Norton asked the floor manager whether an American audience would understand “wanking.” “I learnt it today for the first time,” she says. Quick as a flash, he replied: “Well, that’s a lifetime wasted.” “So naughty, so campy so saucy”, as the usually sober Wall Street Journal described So Graham Norton.

He had just got into running through his Oscars questions with the researcher who was “being” the actress Susan Sarandon, when a thunder-faced man from the front row bounded up the stairs to whisper something in my neighbour’s ear. I heard the words “Get rid of her”. Awkwardly, Graham Stuart, although creative producer, had been overruled by Jon Magnusson (son of Magnus), executive producer, who did not want a journalist observing the proceedings. And so we were forced to depart.

Poor Stuart began to bluster, to which I responded, “But didn’t he say ‘Get rid of her” and he collapsed in mortified laughter. He begged me not to write about the incident — obviously realising how at odds with the relaxed, apparent spontaneity of the show such high-handed behaviour would look. But, as I pointed out to him, that’s precisely what made it interesting. If part of Norton’s appeal is that what you see is what you get, then what could there conceivably be to hide from a journalist’s gaze? And, to be fair, as far as I know Norton himself had raised no objections to me being there anyway.

Of course, while control-freakery is not part of Channel 4’s remit, it is absolutely routine in Hollywood. Now that Norton is on our screens five nights a week, with his sights clearly set on the States, perhaps his burgeoning success means that he is increasingly less likely to be surrounded by cheery, down-to-earth individuals like himself.

There is definitely something sweet about Norton’s manner; that combination of mischief and innocence abroad in the world of foolish mortals is not merely his schtick for the stage. Although innuendo is hard to avoid when you are around him — my question “Do you go down well in Sydney?” is greeted by an inevitable titter — mercifully he doesn’t go in for endless wisecracks. He has often commented that he would find it alarming as well as draining, for himself as much as anyone else, were he as full-on off the screen as he is on it.

The idea that he may be irredeemably uncool does seem to exercise him a bit. He once said he hoped never to find himself described as the “class clown” by an old schoolmate, which suggests that he is sensitive to the suggestion that he might have been. Like other Norton fans — although less of him for me is definitely more — he first came to my attention as the hilariously gruesome happy-clappy priest in Father Ted, singing Pogues songs in the campervan long into the night. His reading of his youth-obsessed priest was that he was a touch on the pervy side, but that’s not the way his Channel 4 bosses wanted him to play it. I think he has become more circumspect as his profile has grown, while still managing to be offensive about the celebrities on his hitlist: Celine Dion being his current top dog.

Even in the old days, which were not all that long ago (just turned 40, Norton was still waiting on tables in his early thirties), he was reluctant to dish the dirt on his more difficult interviewees. But he did apologise to his interviewers for having to be so discreet, on the grounds that if he dissed one of the powerful agents’ clients he wouldn’t be able to get anyone else from their stable.

No with the exception of Raquel Welch whom he once called “a grumpy old bitch” on air — “I did, and in fairness no one’s come up to contradict me” he can’t remember any of his guests being tricky or even weird. I had been told by someone who worked on the programme that Bo Derek, for instance, didn’t get it at all. “I think she was all right, though, we’ve had her twice.” I read that Boy George got grumpy… “Did he? I don’t remember him getting grumpy” He says that some people “get quite silent and just wait for it to end because they don’t like it”, but he doesn’t elaborate further.

I am by no means a Celine Dion fan .— in fact, everything about her sets my teeth on edge but by the end of Norton’s sustained spiel against her in New York, “I read a headline in a British newspaper, Dog Has Facelift, and to my surprise it had nothing to do with Celine Dion… I expect she’s at home relaxing in front of the fire, licking her balls” and so on, I actually began to feel sorry for her. It was too cruel, like witnessing a schoolboy bully attack ing the playground misfit.

Norton says, most disingenuously, that “When I call her a dog, I’m not calling her ugly; I’m literally calling her a dog. She looks like a dog!” This discovery came about from one of his shows’ games, Stars in Your Pets’ Eyes, in which audience members brought in their pets who allegedly looked like famous people: “There was an Afghan hound and we put a sort of glittery snood on its head and it looked sooooo like Celine Dion it was uncanny.”

I’m sorry, Graham, but it’s just ridiculous for you to pretend that you’re not being incredibly rude about her. “I like dogs!” he says. Now come on, if you adored Celine Dion “Oh, I don’t adore Celine Dion.” What precisely do you find so ghastly about her? “Erm. Nothing really. I think what she’s done is quite clever, going to Las Vegas for three years. That’s a very good idea rather than trying to make albums and have hits and so on.”

Over the years he has mercilessly lampooned a number of female celebrities, although now that he tends to hobnob with them at parties, it’s probably quite convenient that he’s forgotten which ones were once his victims. “Minnie Driver? What have I said about Minnie Driver?” (“She’s just so ambitious and needy” to take one random comment.)

So does he have any male targets? “Erm, Michael Douglas is quite high up on our list. Basically our constant joke is that he’s dead. I’ll do jokes about Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas because, like, what the f*** do they care about what I think about them? You know what I mean? They’re in love, they’re rich, they’re happy, they’ve got babies, they’ve got Oscars, so what does it matter? Let’s have them.”

“What the television does is take the mirror and move it around…you live with constant self-loathing”

Since he’s hardly aiming to be Jeremy Paxman, it’s probably not surprising that Norton tends to have people he likes or admires on the show: Mo Mowlam (who is now a friend), Joan Collins, Dolly, Cher, Whoopi and Dustin. He wouldn’t want to ask them tough or controversial questions, partly because he’s relying on their goodwill to make fools of themselves on one of his daft games towards the end of the show. But he also has his own, not always immediately apparent, ethical sense of what is appropriate television.

I ask him whether he’s ever had anyone on the show whose views I imagine he finds obnoxious, like, say, gun enthusiast Charlton Heston, and I’m surprised by the force of his response: “I think Charlton Heston is a very, very old man and it’s sort of cruel to wheel him out as a spokesperson for anything. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think he could order a breakfast, so to ask him to justify why people should have the right to bear arms seems…”

Did you see Michael Moore’s film? (Bowling for Columbine, a passionate anti-gun documentary, featuring Charlton Heston,) “Yes, and I think Michael Moore’s a very bright man but he does a lot of shouting at receptionists. He seems to make his point with people who have no power; the people he’s supposed to be the friend of. He never gets to talk to the head of whatever company he’s attacking, and so he always rants at some receptionist or security guard, and you think, ‘What’s the point of that?’ He would supposedly want that receptionist to have better working conditions, and one of those improved conditions would be not to have a fat man with a beard shouting at you.”

I say that I would definitely want to ask Cher about her Botox habit: “Yes, and you can. Because your interview will be good whether she’s happy, sad or serious. She was genuinely upset when she said that she knows when people tell her she looks great, in brackets afterwards it’s understood they mean ‘for your age’. That she will never actually look great again.”

I roll my eyes and he says: “It’s the world’s revenge on pretty people, is what it is. ‘The plain shall inherit the earth.’ We’ll be in old people’s homes looking at old photographs saying, ‘Oh look, what happy days,’ and Cher will be sobbing.”

Hey, excuse me, I don’t think of myself as “plain” exactly, thank you very much — and I don’t think you are either. “We don’t trade on our beauty” he says, mock-primly. “We never have.”

But Dolly’s quite happy to talk about all her plastic surgery, isn’t she? “Yes, and she still looks fantastic, but she can’t keep looking like that. It’s the same as someone needing to be talked down off a building. They need to be talked down into age. The danger is that they’ve kept it at bay for so long, it’s like they need some kind of age counselling.”

Heat magazine apparently rang Norton’s agent and insisted they knew that he’d had a face-lift in America, and she phoned him in a panic to ask if it was true. “And I said, ‘Don’t you think I would have sued a plastic surgeon if this is how I looked after my plastic surgery!” Which is almost as horrible as anything he says about Celine Dion.

It was seeing himself on television that prompted him to lose weight. He says that producers and directors just tell insecure performers that telly puts on at least 7lb: “And it soooo doesn’t. When I had more weight on, I could tuck a shirt in, pull it so, look in the mirror and think, ‘Oh, I look all right.’ And all day long you’d have a certain level of confidence about that being the way you looked.

“But what television does is take the mirror and move it around, so that you suddenly see a bit of flab hanging here or there. So losing weight is to do with me not liking to look like that, but I only knew that I did because of television.”

He says that when he was younger he never felt particularly slim or attractive either: “See, that’s the tragedy You live with constant self-loathing, and the terrible thing is that as you get older, you look at old pictures of yourself and go, ‘God! I looked really good then. What was I thinking?”

He has said that it was a bit of a blow to him to discover not that he was gay but that he was camp. He also said something interesting about how most gay men would like to be taken as straight, explaining that that’s what being a gay man is about, liking men. On the surface of it, Norton does not appear to be riddled with neuroses but when he refers to his self-loathing — which, however casually presented, is a pretty strong statement — one wonders whether that uncomfortable accommodation with himself can be traced back to his early effeminacy; a sense of difference which was compounded by his family being Protestants in the Catholic stronghold of Bandon, County Cork.

We ponder what it is that makes certain homosexuals mince and flap their hands. Where do those giveaway mannerisms come from? He ummms and ahhhs and finally says, “I don’t know is the short answer. I mean, I don’t think I developed being camp, I think I was quite a camp child.” But I’ve never met a little boy who talks like Kenneth Williams. “Oh no, I think little boys do that,” he grins. “And the parents are obviously sitting there going, ‘Oh God.”

He continues: “It is an interesting idea where it comes from. It’s like how everyone who comes from a certain town has a particular demeanour or accent… it’s a unifying thing. It’s also self-protecting. You could be seen as emotionally vulnerable, and so if you have this very strong veneer you can say, ‘Actually this is me; I’ve created this’… and I suppose it’s also a kind of badge of belonging which can make you feel less isolated.”

What is odd, we agree, is that when a woman acts like a particularly poofy man it sounds totally unnatural. “Yes, it’s true that when women are arch or camp you suddenly realise, oh, those qualities that you thought in a gay man were feminine, actually aren’t. They are ‘other’; they are something else completely”

What is laudable, and certainly likeable, about Norton is the apparent ease with which he retains his links with the normal world. He is obviously jolly well-off, being in the position to turn down a £5-milJlion overture from the BBC to stay with Channel 4, and while he has property in New York and Cape Town, he continues to live in a three-bedroom house in the decidedly unstarry East End neighbourhood of Bow. He shared the house with his American boyfriend, Scott Michaels, but they separated in 2001 after being together for Graham Norton five years; Norton’s newfound celebritydom as the sing-along being a contributing factor to the break-up.

He is now on the guest list of A-list Hollywood hosts, but Norton’s real friends are still the ones he made years ago at the Central School of Art and Drama, waiting tables and dreaming up tasteless sketches about Mother Teresa and Karen Carpenter to take to the Edinburgh Fringe. If he wants to go to The Ivy, he’ll just book a table and pay for the pals who can’t afford it: “The way I look at it, I used to pay for Scott, so it was no skin off my nose to pay for other people. And my friends know it’s not costing me really. Something that would be a big chunk of their wages, just isn’t for me.”

He’s single at the moment, which suits him, he says, because he doesn’t really think he’s cut out for relationships, He considers it an achievement that he lived with Scott for as long as he did, and during their first few years together they only saw each other once a month in either LA or London. He spent a summer living in Soho but it was not a success: “It was too much for me; I’m too old.”

Is he worried that if he picks someone up in a bar, it’ll end up as a kiss’n’tell story? “What are they going to tell? I suppose they could sell one of those ‘He was crap in bed’ stories, but I don’t think the tabloids are that interested in how good or bad gay men are in bed.” What about a rent boy story? “Oh, rent boy would be good, but then you don’t have to be careful there, you just need not to do it. You don’t suddenly get a bill and think, ‘Oh, I’ve been with a rent boy’ you kind of know when that’s going on. How about if I stole a girl’s boyfriend? They’d like that. Or if I went out with a closeted celebrity, they’d love that.”

Indeed, as he knows from experience, the tabloids love the idea of that story so much they’re not above inventing it… which was what happened a couple of years back when Norton went to the Brits “on a date” as it was reported, with Ben Fogle, the handsome (and straight) former picture editor of Tatler and star of the BBC’s Castaway. The next morning both men were doorstepped at their separate homes, “and I think poor old Ben was a bit freaked out by it. He’d not had that sort of attention before and it was weird — like being gay is a sort of contagious disease. ‘Oh, he’s had contact with one of the gays.’ You know”

One thing I couldn’t help noticing when doing my research on Norton was that he had a slightly unreliable CV; not in a Jeffrey Archer-self-aggrandising way but more in terms of emphasis or contradictions. There is a question mark, for instance, over what almost every respectable journalist refers to as Norton’s “psychotic episode” (the words are always attributed to him), which he allegedly had while living in appalling digs in his first year at Cork University, featuring fornicating couples in the hallway, bounding rats and winter flies kept in a polystyrene dish on top of one of Norton’s speakers. But now when I ask him about the phrase, he says, ‘‘Psychotic episode’? I can’t believe I’d ever say that I’ve had a psychotic episode. I’ve never had a psychotic episode.”

The detail that is most muddling is how seriously he ever contemplated becoming a rent boy himself. The story has come up in various forms over the years; the general line being that the young Norton thought it was the only way he might be able to have gay sex. However, he now says dryly: “My prostitution career has, I think, been much exaggerated. The confusion is that there’s a story I told in a show I did called Charlie Angels go to Hell which is about me when I lived in a hippie commune in San Francisco when I was 18, and it’s about a friend of mine who did have a plan to become a prostitute… but in the show I told her story as though it happened to me.”

He then proceeds to tell me about his friend’s bizarre attempts at phone sex, naked in a glass box, and how she ended up giving oral sex to a pornographer because she was too unworldly to say no. But still, I’m sure I have read quite unequivocal accounts of him weighing up the pros and cons of going on the game himself So I ask him outright whether he ever did consider it? “No.” And that isn’t one of those lies you have said you sometimes tell journalists? “No.”

Yet this is what he told an Esquire journalist, David Quantick, in 1999: “Because I was from Ireland and I was so naive, it seemed that the only way to have sex, to broach the subject, was to turn it into a career. I didn’t know how to chat people up or go into bars. So I was doing it for all the wrong reasons — for the sex, not for the money.”

Quantick went on to explain the three reasons why Norton did not go through with it, two of which the comedian has given to various reporters over the years. One was that God saved him from such sinfulness just in the nick of time: “The night before, a pressure cooker exploded on me causing a large blistering on my chest, which I just took as a sign from God.” And, two that his would-be pimp wanted to have sex with him first to test him out: “He was annoyed that I went, ‘Actually, no.’ He said if you apply for a job as a secretary, you have to type a letter. And I thought, ‘You’ve said that before.’ It’s so callous and horrible.”

Reading these two versions of the rent-boy episode does make one wonder whether Norton may not be sanitising his past, per haps because no American network would be likely to touch an entertainer — Rupert Everett notwithstanding — who even flirted with the idea of being a male prostitute.

Whenever he talks about his year in the commune, however, he never pokes fun at any of his San Fran former housemates, which someone who was determined to reinvent himself might be tempted to do. They do sound vaguely cultish — or at the very least deeply stoned — renaming themselves by picking three letters out of a box. “Obo”, now in his sixties, is the man to whom Norton lost his virginity — “and now poor Obo is bothered by journalists every six months, when he’s just a nice man whom I don’t think is gay but felt duty bound because he was a hippie.”

I mention the group marriage (Obo apparently had 14 wives, or maybe not). “I don’t think it was 14, but he did elope from a group marriage with a girlfriend who had got pregnant and when the baby was born, it was black, so she had eloped with the wrong man.” God, I say, this must have been the Jerry Springer episode of your life. “But I was just the sweet, innocent Irish boy skipping through it, collecting stories,” he says.

Norton’s career took off in 1997, after he won Best Newcomer at the British Comedy Awards, vaulting over Jack Docherty whom he had stood in for over the summer. “He was lovely about it, very generous and nice,” is his recollection of what must have been a tricky evening. He shook my hand and said, ‘Well done.” Soon after, Channel 4 offered Norton his first series.

In those early interviews, he often spoke in a constrained, slightly dismissive way about his family. But not any more, particularly since the death in 2000 of his father, Billy, to whom Norton dedicated the first of his four Baftas a week later. (Wanting to avoid mawkishness, he simply said his gong was for “Billy Walker”; most people in the audience did not realise that the comedian’s original name was Walker changed to Norton because Equity already had a Graham Walker.)

He’s not religious, but the ritual of the funeral was important to him: “If you left the hospital and that was it, it wouldn’t be enough because it’s your dad — your dad’s dead — and you want all these people to come together and say that the life mattered. And it was lovely. It couldn’t have gone better. It was a beautiful day”

He always thought that he was more like his mother, Rhoda “in that classic gay man way, yada yada yada”, but now he’s finding out more and more about his father he’s not so sure. “Suddenly friends and relations and work colleagues are talking about him in a way they never talked about him before because why would they then – he was there.

“He was shyer than my mother but with a very sunny disposition, a very nice, gentle man. In the nursing room after they’d called us and said, ‘He’s gone’, the nurses were in tears and were so sweet and lovely. It was surprising because this was an old people’s home. I mean, nobody gets to go home.”

When he talks about his days in Sunday School, it is like listening to a Graham Norton sketch — with the horrid vision of his Father Noel lurking somewhere not so very far away “Was it called Scripture Union or The Sunshine Club? Or was it called Happy Hour? I think that was it. Oh, the irony of it all.

“I remember a lady giving this talk with an easel and lovely pictures, and there was one of a door and Jesus was outside knocking. And the door was covered in ivy because it hadn’t been opened for years. But someone did open the door and Jesus stepped in… and that was the door to your heart. [This getting almost unbearably kitsch] And I do remember trying very hard to open the door of my heart to Jesus arid I believe [look] the ivy is still there. No, nothing happened. But, actually, if there is a God I think he’s not a very nice person so it’s irrelevant to me whether he exists or not.”

It’s time to wrap up; Norton’s got a show to rehearse. He tells me he’s toying with the idea of writing a book, having been singularly unimpressed by other people’s efforts about his life. He’s a bright chap with more talent, I suspect, than is currently on display. I wonder whether he ever gets sick of the dirty knickers aspects of his show? He admits he does and thinks that this series is already quite different from its predecessors: “There’s a lot less audience stories. We rarely do big games. There are fewer props on the show [Bang & Olufsen phone, which still looks pretty preposterous, has replaced the doggy-blower] and the guests get to speak more. You know, it’s evolving.”

I interviewed Oprah Winfrey, some years ago, when she had decided that her show needed to evolve in a radically different direction. She turned her back on the freak-show confessionals and went up-market, introducing her now famous book club. It’s hard to imagine Norton going the same way but then it’s equally hard to imagine him doing the same campy trash in ten years’ time. If he continues to tone down his show, as he claims he is doing, we might eventually end up with something relatively mainstream.

An un-naughty Graham Norton? That’s sooooo scary!

Actors, Celebrities

Dennis Hopper

Times Online – March 12 2004
– Ginny Dougary

Hollywood rebel, self-confessed wife-beater and brilliant artist, Dennis Hopper is the most underrated actor of his generation. Now married for the fifth time and the adoring father of a baby girl, he’s swapped drink and drugs for golf and Republicanism

DENNIS HOPPER LIVES IN Venice, Los Angeles, 20 minutes from the beach next to beautiful Santa Monica, the Home of the Homeless. It’s an area of artists and writers and bums, rampaging gangs and violent deaths. It also has funky boutiques, designer shops and slick restaurants, palm trees and brightly-painted houses smothered in bougainvillea.

When you drive into the street where the actor has lived for the past two decades, the folksiness hardens into monochrome industrial chic, and Hopper’s Frank Gehry-designed house is the industrial-est and chic-est of them all.

It looks more like a bunker than a home, with its corrugated steel façade and numbers scorched on the front. The crazy paving seems to be ironic with a sort of metallic sheen; a pair of giant cactuses complete the atmosphere of spiky brutalism. Obviously there is nothing as straightforward as a doorbell; instead you punch in a code and wait to make contact with a human.

The human who opens the fortress door five minutes later is Braden, one of Hopper’s two laid-back assistants who are both freckle-faced and smiley and dressed down in tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts. Victoria, wife No 5, whom I meet at the end of my visit, also looks as though she may have just come from the gym. Hopper himself, when he appears half an hour later, is meticulously turned out in a dark brown corduroy suit, crisp white shirt and leather boots.

The rooms into which you step are cavernous and quite undomestic. I am reminded of Charles Saatchi’s old house in Chelsea, where I was once invited to inspect Damien Hirst’s sheep in the living room. Behind the elegant Georgian exterior the house was a homage to British art: the walls covered with Freuds and Regos, the floors with outré sculptures by the likes of Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin. You did rather wonder where the living got done.

The art work here is resolutely American: Andy Warhol (a Mao, and a screen-print portrait of Hopper as a young man), Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Salle, Ed Ruscha. In one room there is a skinny black leather sofa with a red heart-shaped cushion. In another there is a rouched cardboard armchair and chaise longue designed by Gehry.

There are a couple of works to which I’m particularly drawn: a sort of soft-focus Bridget Riley piece of shimmering stripes, and a decorative, slightly Aboriginal, number that reminds me of a length of fabric. As it turns out, they’re both photographs of street graffiti which have been transformed in some way — perhaps silk-screened? When I ask Braden who the artist is, she says they’re by Dennis.

I’m shepherded over a courtyard to one of three Gehry buildings that make up the Hopper residence, up a staircase into a very large white room with an off-white rubberised floor, a king-size bed at one end, a desk at the other and in between a fancy cream day-bed which could be described as lived-in.

In my bag I have a photocopy of a black-and-white photograph taken by Hopper in 1961. It’s called Double Standard — deadpan wit, as it refers to two Standard signs above a petrol station in an island abutted by main roads. It’s a most satisfying picture: the view of the cars behind in the driver’s car mirror, the lines of the telegraph poles — a slightly eerie David Lynch slice of Americana. I’m staring at the original Double Standard outside the bathroom when Hopper appears at the bottom of the stairs. He is wearing shades and holds an unlit cigar in his hand. There is nothing loose about him, but neither could one say that he is exactly coiled. What he has is the stiff strut of a boxer — he is small and compact — along with a sort of vigilant alertness. He walks over to one of the windows that make up a wall of light and opens it, rubbing his finger with mild displeasure over the dirty sill. Braden says she’ll get someone to fix it, leaves the boss with a bowl-sized cup of black tea on his desk, and departs.

It’s an odd way to interview someone. Hopper is so far away from me that I often have to bellow to make myself heard. But other than the two of us sitting on the edge of the bed, which would be equally odd, there is no seating in the room but the day-bed, which is at ballroom length from Hopper and his desk. This could be simply a hazard of minimalist living or it could be a distancing device in more ways than one.

Do you want to wear your dark glasses throughout the interview, I ask. “I can take them off,” he says. Well, I’d quite like to see your eyes (which turn out to be a clear, flinty blue). “Would you really? Can you see them from over there? Harharharharhar.” He breaks into a harsh staccato of laughter.

We are talking about one of his latest films, when he suddenly breaks off — “Oh my God!” — looking as though he’s seen a ghost, which in a way he has. I hike over to his desk and look at the photograph of Helmut Newton which has flashed on to the screen of Hopper’s computer. “It’s the photograph that I took of him the day before he died. I was talking to you and I haven’t been in this room, and I didn’t set this up . . . I swear to God . . . hello, Helmut . . . oh, man . . . that’s weird.”

I’m a bit worried that he’s not qoing to be able to take his eyes off the screen. But he explains that a few friends, including Anjelica Huston and her husband Robert Graham, had spent five or six hours together over a long lunch looking at each other’s photographs, and then the next morning Newton keeled over with a heart attack — “which is just horrendous and it was only two weeks ago. But anyway that’s why I jumped.”

The new film in question, Leo (after Leopold Bloom), is most definitely an art-house movie. It stars Joseph Fiennes in the leading role of a released murderer with a mysterious past and a mission for the future. Hopper plays Horace, one of his nastier psychosexual nutters, who has a hold over the employees of the diner in which Fiennes lands a job on leaving prison. Sam Shepard also has a cameo role as the troubled Christian manager of the diner, and there’s a certain relish both in the script and the playing of it, when Shepard sprinkles Tabasco over Hopper’s food saying, “I know you like a little sin (which stretches out into a great southern drawl of seee-y-uh-nnn) on your shepherd’s pie.” There’s also a horrid little scene when Horace (Hopper) has the abused waitress’s legs splayed apart and he’s stuffing dollars between them, as well as anything else that comes to hand, such as a smashed egg.

“Oh, man!” Hopper gives one of his clenched laughs, remembering his speech: “. . . and whose egg is this?” Horace is not a million roles away from Frank, the asthmatic psychosexual nutter who wheezes into his plastic mask while subjecting his lover (Isabella Rossellini) to unspeakable acts of humiliation. That film was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in 1986 — Hopper’s comeback year, and first year of sobriety from narcotics and booze, in which he made three films back to back: the other two were River’s Edge and Hoosiers, for which he won an Oscar nomination.

I wonder whether he minds being typecast, since I can’t think of a role in which Hopper hasn’t played some crazy, from Easy Rider to Apocalypse Now to Speed to Blue Velvet and beyond. And then I apologise since I imagine he gets asked that all the time. “No, I haven’t been asked it a lot,” he says equably. “The point is that unfortunately I’ve been trapped inside a system that I’ve been able to eke out a living from for almost 50 years. I’ll be 68 in May and I went into contract for Warner Brothers when I was 18.

“So in over 150 movies, I’ve done just about everything.” As a teenager he was in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean, whose acting tip was “Do it, don’t show it”.

“But mostly I get to play heavies, that’s basically what I’ve fallen into. I mean I rarely get offered the other roles.” Does he get bored? “No, because heavies are always interesting . . . usually more interesting than the guy on the other side going ‘What are you doing to him?’ But I would like to be able to play much better roles than I get.” This is said without rancour but is a refrain to which we return on several occasions, with a mounting sense (mutual, incidentally) that it’s curious how much better regarded Hopper is in almost any country other than his own (add to that list Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Brian Wilson and you’ve got the beginnings of some sort of thesis.)

I’d read somewhere that he’d have loved to have been a “serious” actor: “Well, you know, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen now but I would love to have played King Lear and I would love to have played Hamlet,” he says. “I came out of playing Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego when I was 13 years old. From 13 to 18, all I did was play Shakespeare.” Somewhat unusual, I ask, for an alfalfa farmer’s son from Kansas, but I find the cuttings have led me astray.

“Well, no,” he smiles tightly. “My mother’s father was a wheat farmer and I was raised on their farm. But my father was not a farmer.” Hopper’s father managed a grocery store in Dodge City before joining the Office of Strategic Services, aka the CIA, during the war. He was posted to China, Burma and India “and was one of the 100 guys that liberated General Wainwright out of prison in Korea,” his son says now with a measure of pride. Your father was a bit of a hero, then? “Well, he was a working person in intelligence.” He was also a lay minister in the Methodist church.

After the war Hopper Sr carried a gun and guarded the mail on trains from Kansas City to Denver. Then, when the family moved to San Diego, he was mananger of the city’s post office while his wife worked for the Red Cross.

It’s always tricky for an English person to know what an American means when he says his background is middle class. I point this out when he tells me that he was first exposed to great art when he was nine or ten and was enrolled in a programme for under-privileged children: “You know we weren’t rich, OK?” Along with other kids from his neighbourhood in Kansas City, Hopper was bussed to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where he saw Gainsborough ’s Blue Boy, which made a strong impression.

On Saturdays he went to art classes and was taught by a painter who specialised in Rocky Mountain water colours. “And I was doing this little rock with the river going by and a mountain and a tree, and he looked at it and said: ‘You’re not gonna understand what I’m saying right now, but some day you’re gonna have to git tight and paint loose.’ And have you learnt to paint loose? “I have learnt to paint loose. And I’ve learnt how to git tight, too . . . ” he grins.

Hopper was ousted by Warner Bros in 1957, two years after Rebel Without a Cause, when the 21-year-old actor had a well-documented falling-out with the director Henry Hathaway on the John Wayne film From Hell to Texas.

Rejected by Hollywood, Hopper turned his back in turn on Tinseltown and decamped to New York, where he became a devotee of the method-acting guru Lee Strasberg (whose methods Hopper still extols) and developed a successful secondary career as a photographer, doing fashion shoots for Harpers & Queen and Vogue (his most recent fashion commission was for French Vogue last autumn). It was in the early sixties that Hopper began collecting art. He is now on his third collection: the first two — which included a major Lichtenstein of a sunrise, worth millions of dollars now, he says, but bought for $780 — went towards alimony costs. He says he’s always traded or bartered for his collections rather than had vast sums to plough into art. He describes himself as a third-generation abstract expressionist, and was one of the first to spot the importance of the much-heralded “return to reality” when a dealer showed him a cartoon by Roy Lichtenstein and an Andy Warhol Campbell’s soup can. He immediately visited the artists’ studios and started to build up one of the first major pop art collections.

man loves a bargain. He was thrilled to buy Warhol’s very first soup can for $75, mainly because it was 25 bucks less than a later version he’d been first offered by another dealer. He’s clearly quite pleased with himself for buying his first Gehry building for as little as $90,000; the Gehrys had apparently been sitting empty for five years because the area was so bad.

Now he’s (pleasantly?) shocked to discover that his English neighbour is selling his house next door for $1.2 million: “For that little . . . I mean, it’s not even one bedroom!” And he’s very happy that he gets his clothes for free (Hugo Boss today) as well as his cars, including his beloved Jag-u-wahh.

I can’t help wondering how his artsiness went down with his parents and start by saying, cheesily, that I suppose he loved his Mom. “No,” he says.

“No,” his voice going up. This slightly takes my breath away (I mean, doesn’t every boy love his mum?) — which is a pity, as I had been going to ask him about oedipal complexes, having read an interview in which Hopper said he had been sexually attracted to his mother. “I didn’t love either one of them, very honestly,” he says.

“They weren’t bad — like, this isn’t a monster story — but I just felt out of place. They thought I should be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and that being an actor was a life of becoming a bum — and this was not an acceptable occupation. So we start there, and you can get the rest.”

Well, yes and no, actually. It’s slightly surprising that after his drug-crazed wilderness years in New Mexico, when he really went off the boil after making his hippy-biker-cult classic Easy Rider in 1969, he still had no contact with his parents — even after producing four grandchildren for them (the latest addition is a baby daughter, Galen, who is almost one. Her father is besotted: “She’s the most remarkable baby, all she does is smile and relate and she’s the most wonderful child . . . I’ve never experienced anything like this”). Hopper’s father is now dead: “He was really a decent guy, I just didn’t know him.” His mother is in a nursing home in Los Angeles and he does visit her.

Hopper is similarly unconstrained on the subject of wife-bashing. I ask him about wife No 2, Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas. She called it a day after just over a week, allegedly on account of Hopper’s “unnatural sexual demands”. Ah, the kinky handcuff story, I say. “Yeah, first of all, what handcuffs? This is Michelle . . . where did the handcuffs come from? I didn’t handcuff her, I just punched her out! Harharharharharhar.” What did you just say? “I didn’t handcuff her,” he says pleasantly. “I just punched her out.”

Do you regret all that? Beating women up? “I didn’t beat any women up. I mean, I’ve done nothing beyond anything that they did to me.” I suppose that you must have been out of your head on drink or drugs at the time? You wouldn ’t make a habit out of behaving that way? “The point is that no one was ever truly hurt by me. And if there’s any physical abuse by me, believe me it was after days of abuse by them (rueful laugh) so it doesn’t really . . . I have no . . . kind of feeling of any kind of guilt about that. I wasn’t handcuffing them and beating them to death or anything.”

We move on to golf and politics. He’s a Republican who has been voting that way since Reagan: “I liked Clinton but I voted for Bush then and I voted for Bush Sr and I’m definitely voting for Bush again.” All his life, from his childhood on, he’s been surrounded by Democrats and was very much to the left himself in the Sixties, marching with Martin Luther King and protesting against the Vietnam War.

The reasons he gives for swinging to the right are the usual conservative complaints about soft-bellied government and sponging welfare cheats. He was even moved to write a herogram to Newt Gingrich, the rabble-rouser of the far Right, on his withdrawl from politics: “Your resignation saddens me. When you want to run for president, I will be there. You have done so much more than anyone in a long time for our country. Make some money, have a life, come back, kick ass.”

His wife, Victoria, meanwhile, is a passionate Democrat who has diverted her energies from her equine activities — stadium jumping, three-day eventing, and so on — to raise funds for the party, including hosting several parties in the Gehry bunker, with John Edwards and John Kerry as guests of honour.

“How does that work, you want to know,” Hopper asks, unprompted. “Well, I support Bush and I support my wife, and I support what my wife’s involved in. That’s all. We don’t talk politics. I respect her things and, you know, whether she respects mine doesn’t really matter to me. Harharharhar.”

All these exchanges are markedly good-natured. Hopper is never edgy or tense; there are no twitches or ticks or menacing looks. Although some of his takes on life are disconcerting, shall we say, there is nothing rabid about his manner. Those characteristics belong to Hopper’s characters, not the man playing them. He says that when he’s not acting, he’s introverted and shy. “When I get up to make a speech, I am so nervous I really have problems. I have to be Dennis Hopper. Who is Dennis Hopper? I mean, Dennis Hopper doesn’t have an identity.”

The only time he does give me that familar evil eye from his movies is when I’m rude about golf — and he roars with laughter when I point it out. His father used to coax him to play as a boy; Dennis tried it once and thought it was “cissy”. But years later, when he came out of rehab in Texas, his friend the country singer Willie Nelson told him to play on his private golf course to take his mind off going to bars, and now he’s hooked: “What I find really interesting about it is that nobody’s doing anything to you. There’s no interaction between you and another person. It’s really just you and that little ball. And when you start thinking that you’re only playing against yourself, that becomes interesting to me.” According to Hopper, American golf courses are full of former wild men: “Most of the guys who were heavy on drugs and stuff — the rockers, and all that — we’re all out playing golf and we’re all sober. It is weird.” It’s probably not quite what Steppenwolf had in mind.

He was photographed at the Vanity Fair party for the Oscars but all that starry smiling and schmoozing, which is an integral part of playing Hollywood, is clearly a trial for him. “You know, I’ve had a very strange relationship with this town. I’ve always hated Los Angeles and I’m really making a major effort to like the city, and the people. I mean, it’s my home and it’s hard to hate where you live — but I’ve had such a bad relationship with it on a work level that it’s not been fun for me.” He rattles off his last year of filming, two movies in Romania, one on Vancouver Island, a film shot in Australia in which he plays Frank Sinatra: “You see, I’m not here. I don’t work here; I live here. Now that’s weird, man.

“I’d love to be in a Coen Brothers film, or something by Curtis Hanson — did you see 8 Mile? a terrific little movie — but I’ve never worked for Lucas or Spielberg. You could name most of the directors in Hollywood I’ve never worked for. I am not offered any of the roles that Jack Nicholson gets or Warren Beatty gets, or any of these people get, and never have been and never will. So when you ask me about playing villains and would I like to play other things, I think, God, I’m just lucky if I get a villain part every once in a while.”

Finally, I ask him what has made him proudest in his life, and he says his work. And then he qualifies that by saying: “The high points have not been that many, but I’m a compulsive creator so I don’t think of the children first, I think of the work. Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of and yet they ’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.”

We finish our interview with a tour around the house, after which Hopper goes off to be photographed and Victora returns to her computer to contuinue her good fight for the Democrats. While Dennis was talking about the paintings, Victoria gently warned him that their baby was sleeping, and he immediately dropped his voice to a whisper. Despite how disappointed his words sound, he didn’t really strike me as a disappointed man. He lives in a great house, in an area surrounded by his artist buddies, with a new baby daughter as well as a first grandaughter of the same age, and a marriage that seems both happy and robust. Perhaps this time he’ll be able to hang on to the art collection.

Celebrities, Music, Women

Ginny meets Dolly

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – November 2 2002
Ginny Dougary

Dolly Parton’s bosom goes before her. It is impossible to think of her voice and her songs without conjuring a mental picture of that famous cantilevered shelf which juts so implausibly over her minuscule waist. Her top-heavy form even enlivened debate in the House of Commons when some years ago Kenneth Clarke chastised Gordon Brown for relying on the “Dolly Parton school of economics — an unbelievable figure blown out of all proportion with no visible means of support.”

If it seems unseemly to linger on a person’s poitrine in this way then it must be said that no man or woman has more boldly gone into this territory than Parton herself. Reading past encounters with journalists — mostly male — it is she rather than her interviewers who nudges the subject back to her breasts again and again. Dolly’s bust, she makes it clear, is up for grabs. There has been much speculation in the press over the decades as to the secret of her bosom’s buoyancy: exactly how much silicone has been pumped into those mamas? She has never denied that she is partially plastic but she won’t be drawn on the detail. When one persistent fellow pressed her for specifics, she said: “Look, I’m in show-business. I look at my boobs like they’re showhorses or showdogs. You’ve got to keep ’em groomed.”

Emboldened by Parton’s own approach to her body, I had convinced myself that it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty not to ask her if I could briefly touch her, ahem, breasts. The readers of The Times surely had a right to know what such significant assets in the Parton empire felt like. But, alas, when it came to it I chickened out…partly because in the flesh, despite appearances to the contrary, there is nothing remotely fluffy about Dolly.

A big heart may be beating under her big chest but Parton is also a tough cookie and steely in her determination to run the show precisely to her specifications. If you attempt to steer her into uncharted waters, she makes her disapproval very plain. The version of herself that she is prepared to offer has been carefully honed over the years — the teasing paradox of the God-loving “toilet-mouthed” sinner; the woman who has been apparently happily married to her teenage sweetheart, Carl, for 36 years (they met outside the Wishy-Washy Laundromat in Nashville) who has neither confirmed or denied rumours of her affairs with men and women over the years; the simple country girl who is an extremely shrewd businesswoman, an owner of five houses as well as various enterprises including a radio station, a brand of cosmetics, a lucrative theme park in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Dollywood, and a Hollywood film and television production company.

One of Parton’s much-quoted lines is that she looks like a woman but thinks like a man. “You know, there are many women who think good,” she tells me. “I just mean that you would be foolish as a man to underestimate me.” Plenty of men have been fooled by her appearance which has doubtless been good news for the Dolly dollar: “It’s worked for me because I’ve got the deal done and gone before a lot of people have got past looking at the boobs or the hair.”

She makes no bones about the importance of being in control of her business affairs, and I wonder whether Parton would go so far as to say she was a control freak. “No, I’m not a control freak but I’m very alert and very aware of my things. I have to take care of my things my way,” she says, sounding very southern indeed, with her mah’s (for my’s) and ah’m (for I’m) and swooping high-speed delivery. “I’m a very professional Dolly Parton. I don’t try to run other people’s lives but I know what I want, what I don’t want, what I will do, what I won’t do and I think it’s important for people to take care of that part of things themselves. And I don’t care if I’d been born a man or a woman or both.”

When I visited Dollywood two years ago (of which more later), I was told by one of Parton’s assistants there that her boss’s days often started as early as six in the morning and ended late at night, with every minute in between accounted for. Like presidents and Hollywood stars, Parton keeps her interviews short and to the point, treating herself as a rare commodity to be sampled at arm’s length by outsiders, and only with limited access. The briefer the encounter, of course, the easier it is for her to keep the conversation within the boundaries which suit her. She is happy projecting a contained provocativeness (four-letter words, a relish for sex) — which may be bold and shocking in her hometown of Pigeon Forge, dominated by hellfire Baptists obsessed with sin — but she is not prepared to be controversial in a broader context.

I come close to offending her, for instance, when I broach the subject of politics. “I’ll talk about sex and God but I ain’t talkin’ about politics,” Parton says firmly. So I can’t talk to you about America and Iraq? “No, you cannot.” She says that she definitely has her opinions — which I don’t doubt for a minute — but she doesn’t even care to discuss politics or religion with her friends because those discussions can very soon turn into arguments. And being in the limelight herself: “I don’t voice my opinions about those things because people take it out of context. Especially journalists. You say one thing, next thing you know it’s plastered all over the page and taken out of context: ‘Dolly said this’. I just wish we all got along. I wish the world was perfect, but it is not.”

Dolly’s world-view is this: “If we were more God-loving, God-like, Christ-like people, we wouldn’t be having the problems we do. But we’re having them because nobody will forgive, nobody will love, we’re all so selfish and just get into our own little place of what is right and what is wrong and so we’re all just screwing up big time.” These sentiments are echoed in several of the songs — Hello God, Raven Dove — on her new record Halos & Horns, the fourth back-to-bluegrass album Parton has released in the past four years. This return to the unadorned acoustic music of Parton’s mountain roots — fiddle, banjo, snare-drum, washboard, tambourine and goosebump-inducing harmonies — has given her career a new lease of life, happily coinciding with the post-O Brother Where Art Thou hipness of bluegrass (her first album in this vein, as she points out, came out before the film), and prompting her to form a new band, the Blueniques, made up largely of Pigeon Forge recruits, and go back to touring. For die-hard Dolly fans like myself, it is incredible to think that she hasn’t performed a concert in this country for 20 years.

“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap” is one of Dolly’s favourite Dollyisms, along with, “If I hadn’t been a woman I’d have been a drag queen.” She based her look, she has said, on a local prostitute who stood out from the rest of the drably dressed, careworn women in the community with her yellow hair, red nails and lipstick. For our interview, however, Parton looks comparatively sober, almost tasteful, in a little charcoal grey skirt and matching monochrome sweater, a V-neck revealing only a glimpse of pale cleavage, flesh-coloured nylons and high-heels. Most of the time, she tucks her pointed feet underneath her bottom on the sofa.

There’s the same wig of teased hair but close-up — obviously, really, since she’s a 56-year-old woman — her face does not have the dewy, youthful glow of her photographs in which even recently she looks like a gorgeous tarnished angel. The Annie Leibovitz snaps on the sleeve of the new album are a case in point and among the best of Parton I’ve ever seen: tatty, faded denim shirt, blue jeans, and the sort of understated make-up which takes at least three hours to apply.

The singer’s husband, Carl Dean, has always come across as a mystery man in the press, principally because he has rarely been sighted in public. They met the day Dolly arrived in Nashville; she was 18, he was 21, and they married two years later. I must say that I do like the detail of the Wishy-Washy Laundromat: “Well, I was doing my dirty laundry that I’d brought from home — you know having graduated the night before — because I was in such a hurry to get to Nashville and be a star.

“Carl had just finished work — he and his father owned an asphalt paving company — and he had gone home and cleaned up and he was just driving around…looking for me, he said. And he must have.” Her voice does a fabulous loop-the-loop — he-yyyyyy-uhv. “He was very shy and bashful and that’s not like him. So that’s another way I believe God has purpose for people.

“Of course, I was tiny and I was blonde, for sure, had that hair all hiked up and I had on a red rib-tickler halter top and my little hip-hugger red pants and I guess he just looked and thought, ‘I’m gonna say something to her.'”

Do you remember what he said? “Well, yeah, I know exactly what he said. He just pulled up to the sidewalk and said, ‘You’re gonna get sunburnt out here, little lady.’ And I said, ‘Oh, you think?’ And so we just started talking and that was that.”

She says that her husband loves music and is forever whistling and singing around the house and the barn “in a kind of pop sounding voice”. He has a large record collection and is a great Led Zeppelin fan, which was one of the reasons why she did her own version of Stairway to Heaven on Halos & Horns “because I’d heard that song in the house a million times”. I think it’s by far the most exciting track on the CD, and really beautiful — full-blown and delicate at the same time, building up to a great choral swell of celestial female voices at the end.

And what was Carl’s reaction? “‘Only you’d have the nerve to do that damn song that way!’ You know, he doesn’t say it’s good or bad. He just says, ‘Well, it’s different, I’ll give you that.’ Yeah, that’s about all he says.”

Is he a loner? “Very much a loner. But he’s friendly. He’s funny. He does have a handful of very good friends but they’re mostly people that he went to school with.”

I had gone to Dollywood in the summer of 2000 in the hope of talking to Parton, who was scheduled to be there. The interview had been agreed — after questions had been asked about The Times (“Was it a tabloid?” “Was it a new paper?” “What was its circulation?”) — but after a great deal of shilly-shallying about how many minutes I would be given, Dolly’s people cancelled. I decided to go anyway, and thought that if I approached Parton after her press conference to launch her new water park — Dolly’s Splash Country — she might relent. Not a bit of it. There was no hobnobbing with the locals at the reception, no pressing of flesh, or bestowing of gracious smiles. This was a glimpse of the “very professional Dolly Parton”. She came, she went, she vanished and although you can be sure I pestered her manager, Ted Miller, for at least an introduction having come so far, none was forthcoming. Dolly had a toothache, it was explained. And, besides, she was only interested in local journalists for this story.

Still my time there was not without its diversions. Her appearance was sensational, to say the least. The local press and dignitories were sealed off behind a cord waiting for Dolly to say the word so that the bulldozer could start the ground-breaking ceremony. We had watched her blonde head approach us, poking out of the top of an army tank as it made its stately progress up an interminable dirt track while Islands in the Stream crackled in and out of the loudspeaker system.

She was helped out of the vehicle by a half-a-dozen butch lifesavers, and there was an appreciative murmur as she asked coquettishly: “So howdy’all like mah wet suit?” Lady Penelope meets dominatrix scuba diver, I wrote down on my notepad. I was amazed by how filthy she was, which possibly explains why she and Graham Norton hit it off so well. (Norton went to Dollywood to film a Christmas special last year.) All the attractions, she explained, were based on places that were important to her as a child: “Like the Suck Hole but I don’t think with mah reputation we should call it that!” She screamed with laughter. She brought up a story which had appeared in the National Enquirer about her alleged dalliance with a 15-year-old boy: “It’s not true, unfortunately. I wish it was,” she said mock-wistfully. “Sounds fun!” And then she was gone.

I was impressed by Dollywood itself. Having expected to enjoy it in an ironic “Isn’t it kitsch?” way, it was far better than that, with none of the plastic unpleasantness of mainstream theme parks. In Craftsman’s Valley, blacksmiths, soap-makers, woodcarvers and coopers were hard at work. The food all smelt delicious: wholesome, authentic home-cooked ham and beans and grits. The children’s area was a splendidly inventive Professor Branestawm interactive paradise. There’s a replica of the two-room newspaper-lined log cabin Dolly and her 11 brothers and sisters grew up in, and many spangly frocks in the Rags to Riches Museum. And, naturally, you can hear every sort of music from country to gospel to Fifties rock’n’roll…although one of Dolly’s brothers, Randy, who does a sort of gospel meets Blues Brothers gig would probably not be drawing crowds where it not for his sister’s patronage.

I went on the Imagination Express, a brightly painted vehicle designed to look like a train, for a storytelling session at a local infant school down a long, winding road. This was part of Parton’s literacy programme — the Dollywood Foundation — through which every child in Sevier County, where the singer was born, receives a new book every month from birth to the age of five. I was given Madeleine in Paris to read to the children by Parton’s jolly assistants, Karen and Doreen, since my suggestion of Harry Potter had been rejected. (The book had recently been banned in a couple of southern states on the grounds that J. K. Rowling was promoting sorcery.) That evening, I went to The Dixie Belle Saloon and drank nasty sweet non-alcoholic cocktails out of a plastic drinking vessel in the shape of a boot. The county is dry, and being America there was no smoking. And although the cocktail waitresses were trussed up to look like old-fashioned whores (frilly knickers, plunging necklines), it would — of course — be a sin for gentlemen to harbour impure thoughts about them, even if those thoughts only did remain in the mind.

What is intriguing is how Parton reconciles her robust appetites with her Godliness, particularly given her severe Baptist upbringing. For a true Holy-Roller doesn’t just believe that sex is sinful — it’s also a sin to dance or drink or have any kind of fun. As her fire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather used to tell her: “A dancing foot and a praying knee don’t fit on the same leg.” And she used to think: “‘Well, why not?’ Because I believed in making a joyful noise and rejoicin’.”

Even as a child, the young Dolly was a determinedly free spirit so she simply remoulded her God into a more accommodating form: “I didn’t want to worship a God that I felt was vengeful and scary. I mean those preachers — and not just my grandpa — they would scream at you, and threaten you, and yell at you, ‘If you go out of this church unprepared and get killed on the way home, you’re gonna go straight to hell’…that used to scare me to death.”

So she would take off on her own and have her own conversations with God in an abandoned church and “try to reason with him a little bit find him in a softer way”. One morning, when she was nine years old, she had such a feeling of profound light-heartedness as the empty room flooded with sunshine that she believed herself to be “saved”. She skipped down the street telling everyone she met that she was on her way to paradise and insisted on being baptised there and then…”So I made my communication with God in my way and he’s always dealt with me according to how I can accept him in my own heart and in my own emotions and in my own mind.”

On Halos & Horns there’s a jaunty-sounding song called Shattered Image which Parton wrote and recorded in 1976 in response to one of the first tabloid stories about her love life. It uses the image from her childhood of her throwing stones into the river to shatter her watery reflection, and then fast-forwards to the present: “I’m far from perfect, but I ain’t all bad/It hurts me more than it makes me mad/You gather your stones by stooping so low/Then shatter my image with the stones you throw.”

She says she dragged the song out again because of more stories in the press about her alleged 19-year affair with an improbably named singer-songwriter called Blaise Tosti. He claims that Parton seduced him when he was 13 years old: “That’s bullshit. I know the people. We used to go to the house and feed the family because they were poor and the boy’s mother was an alcoholic. He was a kid then, I was young also and I had just gotten married and brought down my own brothers and sisters to raise them. (One of the reasons she has cited for never having had children of her own.) And he was a great singer and a great writer and I worked with him. But, you know, people turn on you and are desperate for money so they do stuff and it does hurt.”

There has always been speculation about the precise nature of Parton’s relationships with her leading men — from the man she first sang with, Porter Wagoner, through to co-stars in various movies, such as Burt Lancaster. She’s an open book on this, just as long as you don’t attempt to turn the page yourself. So she will spin an impression to me of herself as a free agent: “Even if I was having an affair with someone, you don’t like to hear people talking about it…all people are capable of anything and I’m no angel…I’ve not done all the stuff that I’ve been accused of, but I have done a lot of stuff that nobody’s found out yet…” But if she suspects that you are angling for more information, she will slap you down: “I’m not here to tell you everything about myself. You have no right to know that any more than somebody else. But I’ll tell you all I can. I’ll tell you all I will [weee-youl],” her voice goes up. “And you can guess the rest.”

My question had been, simply, whether she thought her God was an unjudgmental one, particularly as regards sex. “Well, how can sex be wrong?” she says, after subjecting me to her mild knuckle-rapping. “I have no problem with sex. I have no hang-ups about sex. I enjoy sex. And if that’s a sin, well, then somebody else will have to punish me and if God decides to…and, you know, I’m not saying that I’m right, I may be the first person he punishes, I may be burning in hell tomorrow…but if it’s wrong, as much faith as I have in God, I would just ask him to take the whole desire from me. You can make anything a sin. It’s all in how you deal with it. If you believe it’s a sin, if you feel it’s a sin, then it is a sin.”

Parton has not always felt this unmuddled and forthright. In her forties, she suffered from a serious depression for 18 months. She was 50lb heavier than her ideal weight, which ballooned over three or four years, she had mood swings, gynaecological and personal problems: “Never between me and Carl…that was always fine, thank God.” She hated herself and felt despairing enough to think about suicide. You didn’t! I say, shocked that such an indomitable force could have been so derailed. “I didn’t do anything, let me finish telling you,” Parton says, crossly.

“I’m just saying that when you get into those places, you really realise how people get on drugs and how they would commit suicide because you really don’t want to live and it’s like you’re waking up dead every day. And one night, I was thinking: ‘Do you know what? I’m just lying here wallowing in my fat, wallowing in my misery, and it’s either do something about it — git off your fat ass and git on a diet — or shut the hell up.’ And I said to God, ‘You either get my ass out of this mood, show me a way, help me, or I’m ending it. Even if committing suicide is a sin, I’ll just burn in hell.'”

Fortunately for us, God came up trumps, Dolly went on a diet, sorted out her hormones, and went though a whole emotional, spiritual and professional rejuvenation. When I point out how unexpected is this glimpse of a darker Dolly, even though a fair number of her songs — and she has, incredibly, written more than 3,000 — deal with heartbreak and despair, she says: “I am cheerful and optimistic but people also forget that people like me are not mannequins, we’re not plastic dolls; even if we’ve got plastic parts, the heart ain’t plastic, the mind ain’t plastic. People think that just because you’re a star and because you’ve got a big smile that you never suffer, you never hurt. But people like me are the ones that hurt most because we’re the ones that leave ourselves wide open in order to be able to write. To be sensitive enough to pick up on everybody’s sorrow as well as your own, you have to leave yourself wide open. And I don’t know how to do anything just a little. Same with food. If I want to eat, I want to eat the whole thing. If I’m gonna love you, I’m gonna love you to death. If my heart gets broken it’s gonna shatter. And you know, it’s just the whole thing. That’s the kind of person I am.”

Actors, Celebrities, Comedians

Of make-up, men and fantasies

THE TIMES – February 17 2000
Ginny Dougary

Eddie Izzard is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being an outstanding comedian. Despite his penchant for high heels, lipstick and dresses, women not only love him, they find him sexy, too.

“And ladies, if you are wearing high heels you will be asked to remove them.” The safety instructions on the plane coming back from Paris sounded weirder than usual. Hang on a minute, I thought, there’s something missing here. Shouldn’t that be ladies and gentlemen? This is what comes of spending 24 hours in the company of Eddie Izzard. You may not end up thinking like him – how could you? – but you do begin to see the world a little more through his eyes. Our marathon together had been scheduled to start on the Wednesday morning when Eddie, a member of the Labour Party since 1995, was to join Keith Vaz, the Minister for Europe, at the Gare du Nord. The comedian is passionately pro-Europe and has lent his services to the Labour Party’s “Your Britain . . . Your Europe” roadshow.
The idea is to meet and greet the press, travel by Eurostar to Waterloo – canvassing the views of passengers en route – before heading straight back again for the third night of his show in a sometime striptease joint in La Pigalle. As it was, we had been up the previous evening talking in the hotel bar – switching from French to English to Franglais – until three in the morning. He was still on a post-performance high, although there was nothing feverish or giddy about his demeanour. In fact, he seemed impassive, even expressionless, compared with the electric ooomph of his stage persona. But then his face was so stiff with make-up that it might have been hard for him to move his features. Still, his manner was cordial, if not exactly friendly, and he was relaxed enough to pass time in idle chit-chat.

What was most startling was his Look. I had seen him on television years ago when he made a grumpy appearance on one of Ruby Wax’s shows, and more recently on Have I Got News For You?; watched one of his videos with friends; witnessed him in the flesh playing a serious role opposite Lindsay Duncan in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram; and doing his one-man show in a small off-Broadway theatre in New York, where the audience sat on cushions on the floor, and the fans backstage included Helen Mirren and her American film producer husband. Each time I saw him I thought: Wow! Isn’t he sexy! A sentiment, incidentally, that is shared by every woman I know. Straight men have a right to be puzzled by this phenomenon, since Eddie is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being funny. What he calls himself is a male lesbian; so I suppose that makes all us women gay.

For anyone who was reared on the androgynous rock of the 1970s – Bowie and Jagger et al in their make-up and girly blouses; the Transsexual Transylvania of the Rocky Horror Show – there’s nothing all that traumatic about the sight of a bloke in eyeshadow and a spot of nail polish. And there is something quite rock ‘n’ roll about Eddie, from the pounding techno that builds up the atmosphere before he careers on to the stage, to his PVC trousers and spiky peroxide hair. The style he favours – the one that suits him best, he says – is “the boy/girl-type thing.” With the vogue for perfume ads featuring crop-haired boyish-girls and girlish-boys, Eddie’s image – admittedly with a bit more slap than the norm – has a distinctively contemporary feel. This must be why, at first, I don’t recognise the slim figure who appears in the foyer of the hotel.

Odd really, because unless the hotel was hosting a transvestites’ convention, the likelihood of there being two trannies – or TVs as Eddie prefers to call them – staying at the same time was rather remote. The point was that this was Eddie as I had never seen him before: in a skirt, albeit a rather smart black Gaultier kilt, stockings, perilously high spike-heeled, knee-length boots and dated drag-queen make-up. When I told him that this, for me, was A Look Too Far, he seemed genuinely interested.

Although he has been “out” for a long time, he hasn’t had as long as the rest of us to fine-tune what works for him and what doesn’t, and so he chooses to value what people have to say rather than to take offence.

The next morning, at the Gare du Nord, Eddie is the closest he gets to looking straight. Which is still pretty out-there for most people. His maquillage is minimal: tinted moisturiser, powder and mascara. Helen, who is doing his make-up on this tour, says he has got the best skin-care routine of anyone she knows.

Inevitably, the Paris correspondents, mostly middle-aged men, confronted with the sight of sober-suited Vaz and high-heeled Izzard, go for the Odd Couple angle. Reading the reports later, I am struck by how inaccurate men are when writing about clothes and make-up. For the record, Eddie was wearing bronze nail polish on his long nails, a jaunty red and black plaid jacket, slim-cut black tuxedo pants and a black T-shirt.

Later, on the radio, when Keith Vaz is being quizzed on the complexities not of the euro, but of Eddie’s wardrobe, I am amused to hear him describe his fellow traveller’s get-up as “the kind of outfit I often see in the House of Commons”. He was, of course, being non-gender specific.

Everyone wants to hear what Eddie has to say, and poor Keith has to battle to get any attention. Eddie deals in sweeping generalities – “I like the idea of us all working together. . . if we can do it, it might mean the end of war . . . a blueprint for the rest of the world . . .” – the big vision-type thing, as he might say, leaving the Minister to cope with the boring detail which, predictably, no one is interested in.

The Minister says that Tony (Blackadder) Robinson and the chief executive of Monarch Airlines have joined Eddie Izzard as unofficial champions of Labour’s push on Europe – “the kind of people that ordinary British people relate to” – and presents the people’s transvestite with a plaque.

On the Eurostar a miked-up Eddie and Keith are accompanied by two TV crews, one from the BBC, as well as an assortment of young men from the Foreign Office – policy wonks and chaps from the press office – and me. Despite our previous night’s conversation into the early hours, Eddie has yet to show me the slightest flicker of recognition.

As we make our way down the carriages, I lob a few comments his way but he barely acknowledges them. Although I can see that he is both exhausted and focusing all his energy on the job at hand, this blanking or blocking off – a phrase he uses a lot about his survival technique when we finally get down to the interview at midnight – is rather unnerving. On one level it makes sense if one considers this interaction with the public as another performance and that he is suffering from pre-show nerves. On another, I wonder if his transvestism – and the aggro that he still gets from wearing women’s clothes – has trained him not to respond to people on the periphery of his vision. Or maybe he just doesn’t do small talk.

It’s a funny old day. When Keith Vaz asks me what I’m doing on the train, I say I’m going to interview Eddie and he says: “Eddie who?” Er, Eddie Izzard, you know, who you’re doing the roadshow with. “Ohhh,” he says, “I thought you meant Eddie George.” How new Labour to have the Governor of the Bank of England at the forefront of your mind. Eddie (Izzard) is definitely the euro star. English and French businessmen and students ask him for his autograph.

While Keith has the politician’s knack of saying a few words and moving on, Eddie can’t tear himself away. When possible, he launches into French. Since he is doing his entire Paris show en français – remarkably, since he has never got beyond O-Level standard – he probably needs all the practice he can get.

By the time we draw into Waterloo, Eddie’s face has taken on a ghastly veal-coloured pallor. We are greeted by a pesky press agency journalist who is going for the provocative angle: “Some might say that having a comedian on the roadshow speaks for itself.”

Eddie, who is a lifetime member of the European Movement, bridles: “I am a comedian, as you say, but I’m also someone who can speak my mind.”

In the sanctuary of the Eurostar press lounge, we are joined by Angela Billingham, a former Labour MEP, who says she is still spitting blood and stone after losing her seat at the recent European election. “I’m sure you’ll find it again,” Eddie says like an arrested eight-year-old. Angela chides, “You’re not too old to be smacked,” and then wonders whether she is the token woman in the room.

Angela compares her finger-nails (frosted pink) to Eddie’s muddy talons, and pronounces: “Oooo, I don’t like yours at all.” An exceedingly dapper Foreign Office man asks Eddie to sign a programme from Lenny, apologising for doing such a creepy thing. “It’s the first time I’ve ever asked for an autograph,” he confides to me. “I’m a huge fan. I’ve been to see him live four times.” Eddie does another radio interview: “I know that Europe is not a very sexy subject . . . but the things you can do in Europe are sexy . . . like travel and having sex. In fact, More Sex For Europe is the government line, I think.” We all laugh hugely.

But not everyone loves Eddie. Passing through security before re-embarkation, I am frisked by a jolly black woman who chortles at my Diana Ross joke, although she has heard that one a lot recently. Eddie totters on ahead and she turns to her male colleague and says: “Disgusting that is, and a man of that size.” There is a look of real revulsion on their faces, and as I watch them watching Eddie’s retreating form – a man in make-up and high heels who they have no idea is a star – I catch a glimpse of just how plucky he has had to be to be the way he is.

In the back room of La Boule Noire, behind a velvet curtain, Eddie is having a last-minute French lesson with his young teacher. It is hard to imagine anyone shining with the handicap of a foreign language – and after such a punishing day. He was up at 6.45 after hardly any sleep, had breakfast with various British Embassy bods, an interview on the Today programme, a rendezvous at the Senate for the 40th anniversary meeting of the Council of Europe, and that was all before we met at the Gare du Nord. But he does shine – mostly anyway, and with the help of a forgiving audience.

He wisely decides to address his transvestism straight away – saying, since we are in a notorious red-light area, that he is not “un travesti pute”, ( prostitute) but “un travesti exécutif” (puffing out his chest) and, indeed, “un travesti action”. It may not be widely known that Eddie’s alternative career possibilities were civil engineering – although the word “civil” worried him – or joining the Army.

The audience seems slightly bemused but willing to fall for him. One of the reasons why his humour travels well is that his subjects are both epic and mundane enough to cross most boundaries: supermarkets, the Royal Family, the merits of Vanessa Paradis versus those of Johnny Depp, Aristotle and Socrates, dinosaurs, the Renaissance, the fall of the British Empire, Stonehenge, and a great riff on why whales are the DJs of the ocean, all woven together in a characteristically ingenious Eddie loop. Actually, his French is pretty good and getting better every night after the day’s swotting. Nevertheless, when I ask the three women behind me what they thought of the show, they said that although it was “extraordinaire”, there were just too many mistakes to carry off the big ideas.

Back at the hotel Eddie is sitting in my room, smoking for Europe and wearing my bathrobe because I have insisted on having the window open. He is clearly running on empty and still rather down about his performance, disappointed with himself for losing it on a couple of occasions (trying to master a Welsh accent in French proved particularly troublesome). When I remind him that he said the same thing about his New York show, he says that here the fear is much greater than usual, “even though you might have ideas that are nice to play with – ‘the universe is, er, ugh, vairy beeg’ – you are talking with the command of an eight-year-old and you’re just not getting the curves on it.”

At first he mutters away, very fast and very low, with a slightly sullen expression on his face. But the more up-front I am with him, the more engaged and engaging he becomes.

I wonder whether before Eddie came out in his true fantastic colours he might have come across as a bland, rather inspid character. I have interviewed a number of transsexuals and transvestites, and when they showed me old photographs of their pre-operative or blokey selves they always looked supremely dull fellows – almost as though their public selves were an exaggeratedly toned-down counterpoint to the flamboyance of their private compulsions. What would I have made of Eddie, for instance, if I had come across him when he was studying accountancy at Sheffield University?

He says he was a slob in a camel coat who didn’t give a flying monkey’s about his appearance. “I didn’t really bother buying clothes because I felt that everything somehow looked wrong on me.” But did you always have this surreal way of thinking? “In the sense of working out what I wanted to do type-thing?” No, the way you talk. “This way now or the way I am on stage?” Well, you’re a bit like you are on stage off stage as well.

I try another tack. Would I have thought you were just an ordinary, boring boy if I had met you when you were a 17-year-old doing maths, physics and chemistry A levels?” “No,” he says. “I would have attempted to make you laugh because this comedy has developed as a social tool.”

Ah, the classic scenario then: lonely, isolated boy who finds popularity through becoming the class clown. But Eddie says it wasn’t like that at all. It was not until he went to a school where, bizarrely, they didn’t play football – a sport at which he had excelled at his previous school, where he played in the first team – that he showed any interest in becoming funny. He was never bullied, he says, because he was such a ferocious arguer: “I would do that small dog, bigger dog thing – ruffruffruffruffruff [he barks like a terrier] – and make a helluvalotta noise and the bigger dog would go ‘Well, I won’t bother with this one’,” he says in his Sean Connery accent.

By the time he got to Sheffield – choosing a northern university to escape from the South – the only thing he wanted to do was to become a comedian, but he was dismayed to discover the student union would not support him taking an act to the Edinburgh Festival. He went anyway, writing and funding the gig himself. “It was a huge psychological thing and it was a crap piece of work, but we did it.”

He dropped out of university and had a miserable 1980s, living in a “bungalow thingy” near Streatham Common with a bunch of fellow street performers, waiting to be discovered. At his second school he had begged the headmaster each year to give him a role in the Easter musical, but it was thought his talents were better employed playing the clarinet in the orchestra, and so there he remained.

Although he is still perplexed by the headmaster’s obduracy – and told him so when he revisited the school – he reckons it was useful training learning how to endure setbacks. “I got to 18, 19, 20 and said ‘OK, let’s go, I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh. I’ve been writing sketches . . . someone’s bound to discover me’ – but it just kept on not happening.”

And when it finally did happen – after he graduated from the streets, to the Comedy Store, to his own sell-out show – that was the moment Eddie chose to come out.

Some commentators have erroneously linked Eddie’s transvestism with the death of his mother when he was six, at which age he was dispatched to boarding school with his older brother. Eddie believes that his sexuality was genetically pre-ordained, and his earliest memories – as far back as the age of four – were of him wanting to wear girls’ clothes.

But his mother’s early death has certainly affected him in other ways. He describes himself as “emotionally compressed” and says he does not get too high or too low: “It’s kind of a survival thing.” The stand-up gives him the opportunity to get a lot of the highs out of his system, and he uses his serious roles (most recently as the late American comedian Lenny Bruce) to explore his anger and his lows. He has always needed his own space, physically and emotionally – long before he was famous – and lets people come to him rather than risk approaching them.

There is something so essentially detached about his presence – despite him having warmed up considerably by now – that I imagine he probably finds any kind of intimacy difficult. He says he inherited his reserve from his father, but the effect of his mother dying when he was so young was to make him emotionally stunted.

“In the scheme of things people lose entire families in concentration camps and so on but . . . I cried a lot and was caned a lot and just lost it at school, and then I got into this boy thing and couldn’t kiss my Dad anymore.”

The tears stopped abruptly at the age of 11, when he thought he had lost a fight because he cried. “So I blocked all that up and remained blocked until I was 19.”

The turning point for him was in Sheffield when he tried unsuccessfully to stop a feral cat running into the road and saw it being run over. “It had broken its back; I picked it up and it struggled to breathe and then it just died, and I felt nothing.

“So I thought ‘My God I am dead, I feel nothing. This is not good.’ I took it to the vet’s because I didn’t know what else to do, and I forced myself to cry.”

Do you still block stuff off? “Yes. There’s still a natural compressed emotional state which isn’t a great place to be, but then again I can be like this [he gestures to his appearance] and when people say negative things I’m not that bothered. It’s a good survival technique.”

In his show, while musing on the ghastliness of adolescence, Eddie had told us that he managed to lose his virginity only at 21. “Ce n’est pas cool,” he said, before affecting to change his mind. “C’est cool, mais dans un style très sad-f***er.” He has always been attracted to women and has had several long-term relationships. He used to turn up to Have I Got News for You with a girlfriend, and he is with someone now – though she does not wish to be discussed with journalists for obvious reasons.

I ask him if he is able to express himself and have rows and so on. “Oh yeah.” And are you able to say weedy things? “Weedy things?” You know, be soppy. “Oh yeah. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the kid who had been to public school – because they wouldn’t ever let themselves cry or get in touch with their emotions. So I am in touch with my emotions, although I will steel over them.

“I mean, the whole thing of coming out as transvestite is a big key to how I work. Because the – arrrgh – amount of guts it takes to come out, and what I or any person who does come out has to go through – it’s tough. And it’s so visual as a TV and you get so much flak and you look such a mess initially in the frumpy transvestite phase when you’re not out enough to say ‘I wonder what this would look like?’, which is what a normal boy or girl or man or woman would do.”

Before we get into the grittiest of the nitty-gritty about what makes a TV tick – or, at any rate this TV – I feel that something must be cleared up. At which point, may I suggest that readers of a delicate disposition STOP READING NOW – after which warning if you do cancel your subscription to The Times we will know that you have been unable to resist temptation.

Right. Now if all of us women fancy Eddie, it is likely that somewhere down the line some of us must have imagined what it would be like to be physically entwined with him. And once one goes down that route, inevitably what enters one’s mind is the penis-type thing. And so Eddie, I ask, do you use your penis penetratively? A question, incidentally, that I do not recollect ever having asked a man before, interviewee or otherwise. Perhaps being with someone who has to be brave every day of his life has an emboldening effect. And mercifully, he doesn’t bat a (smokey grey and kohl-lined) eyelid.

Yes, he says, he does, “if the other woman is into the penis but if not, fine.” I had always understood that transvestites were heterosexual men who simply had a fetish – a word Eddie dislikes, as I am to discover – for women’s clothing. Transsexuals, on the other hand, were men who felt they were a woman trapped inside the wrong body, men who loathed their maleness and saw their penis as a constant physical rebuke.

But Eddie says TVs and TSs are on exactly the same path, it is just that the latter are farther down it. Until recently he described himself as a heterosexual, but got fed up with journalists writing that he insists on calling himself hetero, as though it were a mask for his gayness (he has never attempted to go to bed with a man) and drag queens accusing him of being a liar. Male lesbian, he thinks, fits the bill and avoids any suggestion that he is distancing himself from other sexual minorities.

But does he, like transsexuals, hate his penis? “The penis is immaterial,” he says, which certainly sets him apart from the way most men view their equipment. “I don’t think it’s at all an aesthecically pleasing thing. I don’t think, ‘Heyyy, this penis, Gahhd, I’d like to put it on the mantelpiece. Isn’t it hard, I venture, to use the penis in a feminine way? “Er, yes,” he says. “So that’s probably why we don’t want penises. I’ve got breast envy.”

You’d like a bosom? “Oh yeah. Just like teenage girls or some women think ‘Oh, I wish I was bigger’. That’s exactly what’s going on with me.” Have you ever tried putting a false bosom in? “I have and I did and I do,” he says. So would you rather have a bosom than a penis? “Um. I’ve never done the either/or choice but, yeah.” I don’t understand, I say.

As Eddie is the only famous “out” transvestite in the world (he thinks, though he has heard that there might be a New Zealand politician who is also a TV) he does believe he has a mission to explain the way he is in order to promote a better understanding of less fortunate, more shamefully closeted men than himself. That is why he is always game to try out new theories and also, I sense, because he himself is still trying to grapple with the mystifying psychology of transvestism. So here, unveiled for the first time, is his new theory:

“Men – and disagree with me whenever you want – are stimulated visually. If women do the black dress, the high heels and the lippy, men go, ‘Hey! Wow!’ And it could be the same woman they haven’t paid any attention to. The woman could be a complete bimbo and have no conversation and the man could be very articulate but still – Bam! – would wish to shag. Women? Not so much. They’re stimultated more by . . .” Touch? “Touch and also personality. By a bloke who might be a curious-looking bloke. So the key points are the triggers. OK?” OK thus far.

“Now let me stay on the point because I think this is a bit of a breakthrough in explaining things. So TVs have an urge to be a woman. They’re at home and they get the clothes and the make-up right and maybe they’ll turn the lights down low so that the look is good, and they’ll say ‘Hey right, I look like a woman.’ But then this two-step effect happens. Because they get visually stimulated – like clockwork – just like all men do. They have created this sexy image that they are then attracted to.”

So it’s masturbatory? “Yes, absolutely.” So it’s “I love . . . me”? “No. It’s ‘I love that image’. What they’d prefer to do is to make love to another woman and have lesbian sex. They’d like to be a woman and make love to another woman.” Right, still with him, just about.

What I still find quite hard to understand is the clothing. In the past you have said that your desire sometimes to wear a provocative skirt rather than boring old trousers is no different from the way a woman dresses to please herself. But isn’t the relationship of the transvestite with the actual gear eroticised? And if so, this is not the way most women relate to their wardrobe. He says he has watched women, something he does a lot, and has noticed the way that they will stroke a new pair of boots and though they are obviously not getting wildly turned on, they will say ‘I love the feel of this. It makes me feel sexy.’

But it’s not the same thing, is it Eddie? He says there are no sexy men’s clothes apart from, say, a leather thong. Men’s satin dressing gowns? “You find those wildly erotic?” he says, with disbelief. “There’s nothing sensual or sexy for men. Male lingerie does not exist. Stockings do not exist. Socks are not going to get you going, ‘Hey maaan, great socks, let’s go!’

“Women have this vast variety of lingerie, stockings and tights and different patterns, and shoes, with different-sized heels, in red and black, and skirts – short, long, with slits – push-the-boob things . . . there’s so much around in women’s things that is erotic.

While men have: shirt shirt shirt jumper shirt jumper jacket jumper shirt jacket trousers trousers short trousers trousers flat shoes.”

He says that while women wearing men’s clothes confers on them a certain sort of power – and cites Marlene Dietrich as an example – men attack other men for wearing women’s clothes because it is seen as a weakness: “And it’s seen as being weak because they equate the clothing with being female, and female equals weak – which is wrong, because women have strong and weak characters, and so do men.”

I say that part of the problem with transvestism is that there is an image of shame and humiliation and solitariness, and husbands ejaculating over their wives’ clothing, and it’s not a very attractive image. “Mmm. Absolutely.” And then you come along and mix it and match it and have this very male way of being and it’s no longer seen as something pathetic. “It’s because it’s out and knitted into society,” he says thoughtfully.

I ask whether he’s aware of how many women find him attractive. “Yes, it’s off the scale,” he says. “And very sexy women, too.” He’s attracted to all sorts of women, from boyish girls to those with Marilyn Monroe curves. He thinks a lot more women would be attracted to TVs if the men were as out and calm and relaxed about themselves as he is. Also women are turned on by the fact that it takes balls – so to speak – to go out there and be himself and not give a damn. And if he’s given stick, he gives it right back – as a group of thugs discovered when they set upon him, and he not only fought them off but took them to court and won.

But he has noticed that a lot of the female fans who write him letters seem to feel compelled to explain why they are attracted to him. He compares it to women who sleep with women but insist they are not lesbians. (The same applies to men, presumably.) “So there’s denial and we’re not at the end of explaining things,” he says. “But getting the truth out of people is difficult. They’ve got so many blocks in their heads that they can’t tell themselves the truth. It’s something right at the back of the quiet mind.”

It is only towards the end of our conversation, and almost by chance, that I finally find an image for transvestism that works for me. I ask Eddie whether the erotic nature of transvestism isn’t essentially narcissistic, and he reminds me that when Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water he didn’t know that the face staring back at him was his own. And there’s the key, I think. The transvestite at his most private, most sexually engaged, is actually disengaged from himself. He looks at his femaleness from the outside, rather than feeling it from within. And if that splitting of oneself is fundamental to your make-up, it might explain why there are other areas of detachment as well.

For most of our time together, despite the emphasis on sex, there is nothing charged or erotic about the atmosphere. Quite the opposite, if anything: it is more clinical, scientific and oddly impersonal. But very occasionally, when one becomes aware of holding a gaze for a fraction longer than is necessary or when Eddie turns an intimate question back to me, it feels for a moment as though something else is going on. Perhaps it’s the dreamy lateness of the hour, the man sitting in your dressing gown, the shadow of his false eyelashes on his cheek.

At the end of the interview, Eddie says that what you need to do is to look at everybody’s fantasies and line them all up and only then can you see what is normal and what is not. “Who doesn’t have fantasies?” he asks. I don’t think I do. “Actually, I’ve heard other women say that.” Don’t have time to…

“So you don’t really have fantasies?” he asks softly. Not really. “You should get some,” he breathes. Because they’re fun? “Yeaaaahhh.”

Like I said, he’s sexy.

Celebrities, Women

Duchess of York: Why she is now re-writing the rules

SUNDAY MIRROR – Oct 17, 1999
Ginny Dougary

THE Duchess of York and I first met this time last year when she was appearing as her unregal, untitled self in Sarah…Surviving Life, her 10-week chat show on Sky.

Her mother had died in a car crash only three weeks before our meeting, and so it was hardly surprising that Ferguson was feeling the strain.

She was quite abrupt when we were introduced, but her mood softened as she realised from my questions that I was prepared to take her seriously; from her reaction this was something of a novel experience for her.

While the make-up and hair stylists fussed around her, Ferguson was reasonably circumspect, but as soon as they left the room, at her request, she let rip – at The Grey Men, her nickname for the courtiers, and at The System which rules the court dictating who is deemed to be in favour and who is not.

Most striking of all was her comment about women who have left the Royal Family: “If you look at history, every woman who’s left the Royal Family has lost her head. They’re not going to cut my head off; they can’t because they haven’t got a guillotine set up.”

At our second meeting, a few weeks ago, she repeated this startling comment adding “and I’ve still got my head, and it’s more planted on my shoulders than ever before”.

There must be those who are wondering why she has chosen the occasion of her 40th birthday to come out and lob a grenade, as it were, at the Palace. Has she gone stark raving mad? Is this unprecedented outspokenness some sort of mid-life crisis? After all, people who move in royal circles tend to couch their grievances through a mandarin-like screen of “a close friend of” or “an unnamed source”. It is very rare indeed for them to front up and simply tell the truth.

So what has prompted her to tell us all what it feels like to be shunned by members of the world’s most famous family? To make it clear how upset she was not to be one of the guests at Edward and Sophie’s wedding, and how “particularly childish” it was of them not to invite her?

TO share her anguish about the way she has been left out in the cold by Charles, one of her late mother’s friends, and Camilla, who she has known all her life: “I just don’t understand why – why now – they have to be so cruel?”

This was the only time in our interview when Ferguson threatened to lose command of her emotions. “And I don’t understand, Ginny, because I adored Charles.” Her voice went wobbly. “Still do.” The sense of confusion and betrayal shone through – particularly about missing William and Harry, who she has been prevented from seeing.

In telling us that by spurning her, Prince Charles and the Duke of Edinburgh are neglecting their duties as uncle and grandfather to her girls, Beatrice and Eugenie, she is sending a stark message to her former in-laws.

And by repeating comments that have been made to Prince Andrew about his decision to continue living with her – “Why is she still there?” “Get rid of that ghastly woman” – Ferguson is thumbing her nose at those who would like to see her cut out of the picture.

Last autumn, when we met, Ferguson was feeling tearful and emotional. A year later, she is strong, independent and fearless. I think the frankness she displayed has something to do with her sense of coming of age. At 40, she has paid off all her debts, proven that she can carve out a career for herself in the United States – where she is respected as a single working mother rather than lampooned as a giddy royal – and generally made a good fist of things.

A key factor in her new self-confidence is her decision, earlier this year, to drop the law suit intended to secure a more generous divorce settlement from the Royal Family. (She was awarded pounds 2million compared with Princess Diana’s pounds 17million.)

I GOT the impression that it was a relief for her to speak her mind, regardless of the consequences. Indeed, my feeling is that she had simply had enough of the snide remarks and this was her way of fighting back.

The day before we met Camilla had reportedly told “a friend”, who just happened to tell a newspaper, that she hoped people wouldn’t think “I am like Fergie” for taking an expensive flight by Concorde to New York. This latest swipe may have been the catalyst for her to speak out.

I hadn’t known about Ferguson’s long association with Camilla Parker Bowles; that they had first met when Camilla, then Camilla Shand, stayed with the Fergusons with Charles as his girlfriend. Ferguson was 12. When I asked her whether she knew Camilla, there was a long pause before she said, in the bleakest tones: “Yes.” How shabby, one might think, of Camilla to cover her embarrassment at flying Concorde by having a gratuitous go at Fergie.

So what will be the consequences of her outburst?

Since her relations with the Duke of Edinburgh and Charles and Camilla appear to have hit rock bottom, Ferguson hasn’t got a lot to lose. They may be even more disinclined to talk to her now, but perhaps they will think twice before sniping about her to the press. It is hard to imagine that the fall-out will not put more pressure on Prince Andrew to “get rid of the ghastly woman”.

It was striking that it was Ferguson who floated the idea that she and Andrew might re-marry, without prompting. I had asked why she still wore his ring, and she said: “If I get married again, to him or to anyone else, that’s the time I will take it off.”

The biggest danger is the impact this story will have on her friendship with the Queen and the Queen Mother. It is not difficult to guess, when the chips are down, whose side they are likely to take.

Perhaps the saddest aspect is that, denied access to the people to whom they should be addressed, she poured out her feelings to a journalist. What a family.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Elizabeth the first

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – October 10 1999
Ginny Dougary

There’s never been a film star quite like Elizabeth Taylor: the eyes, the diamonds, the men, the myth. And at 67 she still reigns supreme in despite her self-imposed celluloid exile. Ginny Dougary of The Times (London) is granted a rare audience.

The Russian taxi driver is the first to see her. “Look, there she is. OmiGod. I cannot believe it. Elizabeth Taylor! Today is my birthday. I will never forget this.” We had left behind the Great Gatsby mansions, gleaming white against the lime-green lawns, the pseudo-gothic and baronial mishmash of architectural styles favoured by the millionaires of Bel Air, and driven up a vertiginous road, all lush undergrowth and garlands of bougainvillaea, to reach Miss Taylor’s residence.

The gates open silently and almost immediately we are in a courtyard, with half a dozen cars, and an L-shaped complex of buildings which consists of a long low bungalow and a garage. My initial thought is that these are the servants’ quarters and the star must be in some whopping great palace beyond our view. But no, there she is in the doorway, a tiny figure in black, that famous face with the dark eyebrows, framed by its halo of spun white hair, white pooch at her heels, smiling and walking towards us. “Hello,” she breathes, “I’m Elizabeth.”

As if we didn’t know. This interview was the culmination of three years of letters, phone calls and faxes, during which time she had suffered numerous health set-backs, including an operation to remove a brain tumour the size of a golf ball, her hair had turned from black to white and for a while an elfin crop replaced the trademark bouffe; her long-term New York agents and management had been replaced by a firm in Los Angeles, so we had to embark on the process all over again; she had come out of a period of reclusiveness; she had won a BAFTA award for lifetime achievement; I had written an essay about her which seemed to me to be, in part, an acknowledgement that I was never going to get to meet her. And yet, here, finally, we are. Was it worth the wait? Oh, yes.

Firstly, she is still astonishingly beautiful. She fixes you with those dazzling eyes of hers and it can be quite hard to concentrate on what she is saying. She hates being called a legend or an icon – since, as she rightly says, they are labels which are usually reserved for the dead. “And I’m not dead,” she pouts. “I’m very full of life.”

But part of the undoubted frisson of sitting face to face with her is that there are very few actors of either sex who have become so shrouded with mystique as she has in their own lifetime. Unlike Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, age has withered her acting career. She hasn’t had a major film role in years, and because we have not grown accustomed to seeing her grow old in Technicolor, there is a sense in which we can still think of her as a screen goddess, frozen in the past.

We are constantly reminded that she is alive, if only because of her frequent brushes with death. But the woman who was Malcolm Forbes’s best friend, who has worked so hard at raising funds for and the profile of Aids charities, who once said that Michael Jackson was the least-weird man she knew, who bottles her allure in a top-selling scent, is someone quite separate from her youthful screen persona. And this is the curious excitement of being with her; that you are, at once, abruptly in the present with one of this century’s most celebrated women, but also, intermittently in your own past, as a child and an adolescent, watching the peachy Elizabeth Taylor, on the small TV screen with your parents, playing opposite Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, all of them dead. It is dreamlike, listening to her satiny voice telling stories of Bogey and Coop and Monty and Marilyn and JFK – one’s mental screen flickering with Hollywood’s ghosts.

She is a beguiling mixture of kittenish femininity and bar-room broad, with her salty language and a thrillingly vulgar laugh. She is flirtatious, conspiratorial, funny, down-to-earth with occasional, slightly worrying lapses into la la land – when she closes her eyes or looks up to the heavens, circles the air with her hands, and talks in a frankly batty way about some experience or another. Occasionally she freezes – when she doesn’t like the line of inquiry – and one is left in no doubt that the charm is underpinned by steel.

Most striking of all is her willingness to talk openly about all sorts of subjects that one might have thought were taboo. On plastic surgery: “It is an impertinent question, but I will answer it. I have had a chin tuck.” On sex: “I think it’s very important… and it’s such F-U-U-N!” delivered with a great gleeful whoop. On drinking: “Loved it. Loved it. And I loved drinking the boys (including epic topers Burton and O’Toole) under the table.” On taking recreational drugs: “I did it for a bit… oh, I had a ball being bad!” On up-keep: “I think beauty products are a bunch of… I use hand cream on my face, and always have!” Her weight: “Everybody tells me I’m fat, but I don’t care. I’m 67 years old! I have the right to do what I want to do.” On the joys of the elasticated waistband: “Baby… it’s here!” thwacking her trousers to demonstrate.

The modest facade of the bungalow masks an opulent interior. We walk through the hall past a huge portrait, circa 1951, of Liz – or Bessie, as she prefers to be known. Monty’s name for her was Bessie-Mae which she particularly liked: “I think it’s sweet and country.” Actually, she says, she cannot stand Liz. When she was a little girl, her brother used to tease the living daylights out of her, chasing her around the garden, dangling lizards in her face and calling her Lizzie the Lizard. Lizzie became Liz and it was all associated with stuff way back then and, as it happens, she doesn’t think it’s a very pretty abbreviation anyway.

Into the living room, white carpet and chairs, a wall of important Impressionist paintings, french windows opening on to a pretty terrace, which leads down to the swimming pool. The tables are laden with great rocks of amethyst and pyramids of crystal and luminous amber obelisks – a collection so vast and impressive it would not look out of place in a museum of natural history. We look at a piece of shimmering violet on the table between us, which both contains and sheds a rainbow of colour. “Michael gave that to me,” she says. “It’s a major piece of crystal. That’s what a pure diamond does. Reflects all the colours.”

Ah, Elizabeth, and her diamonds. When did you first start liking jewellery? I ask. “When I first started opening my eyes,” she says. Later Tim, who has been Taylor’s personal assistant for the past seven or eight years, takes me on a tour of the house and standing in the loo, in front of an etching of a pair of lips (To Elizabeth – a big kiss Andy Warhol) he opens a box and shows me a ring on which is mounted the biggest, purest diamond I have ever seen. Shall I try it on? I ask. “Go ahead,” he says – so I do. Fortunately, it does nothing for me.

The star’s new management had warned me that on no account should I ask Miss Taylor about her jewels, but the first thing she says when we sit down is “Do you like my earrings?” She designed them herself and is inordinately proud of her efforts, drawing attention to them several times during the interview. They are very Liz – or Bessie, as I must now think of her, which sounds plain wrong somehow (Bessie Bunter? Bessie Smith? Queen Bessie?) – dangly, large and far from understated. They look like a string of daisies weighted down by a bell, and they do most definitely suit her. I think we can safely say that the diamonds and pearls are the real thing, I jest. “My dear. Who do you think you are talking to?” she breaks into her crazy laugh. “This is white coral (pointing to the flowers). These are white diamonds (the anthers), yellow sapphires and little pearls. I love the way they swing. They feel like they’re in the breeze.”

In her speech at the BAFTA awards earlier this year, Taylor said that she had never really considered herself as an actress. Even at the height of her acting fame, when she had received Oscars for Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (her favourite performance), she always maintained that she felt more like a movie star than a serious thespian. “I know I am an actress, and that I’ve been paid as an actress,” she says, “but when I listen to actors who are so taken away by the whole thing, I look at them and I think, get a life!” This is music to my ears. “Now I don’t mean to be rude,” she joins in the laughter, “but there are other things… and maybe living in Washington DC helped my perspective on that.”

After the BAFTA hoopla, there had been numerous reports that Taylor was so thrilled by the tributes that she had decided to relaunch her acting career. Her name had been linked, as they say, with Rod Steiger and various projects he supposedly had in mind for her. He’s a boy and a friend is how she describes him, and no, she squawks, she is not going to get hitched to him. In fact, after seven husbands, she is through with marriage altogether. “I am not going to marry anybody who is on the face of this earth or any other planet!” she says robustly.

As for the comeback, she seems decidedly half-hearted about it. I ask her about her rumoured role as Lady Bracknell. “The Importance of Being Earnest?” she asks. “That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it.” Do you want to act again or do you think you should because everyone else thinks you ought to? I ask – I can’t make it out. “I can’t quite either,” she says, truthfully. “It’ll happen when it happens. I’ll just let it flow.” The reason she gives for not making a major film for the past 20 years is that most of the scripts she has been sent have been dreck – “a good Jewish word. Let the reader figure it out”. She continues: “If I go back, I want to go back in something worthwhile – not just because it’s something to do. And the most important thing in my life is Aids.”

It is Elizabeth Taylor, more than any other celebrity, politician, activist or world leader, who was responsible for turning around public opinion towards Aids, certainly in the United States and probably beyond. Her involvement came at a time when little was known about the virus and any association with it was the social kiss of death. She wheedled, coaxed and badgered her powerful, wealthy friends to support her first big fundraising event – drawing in the likes of Sammy Davis Jnr and Frank Sinatra, and making front-page news. “Here they all were attending this dinner for Aids? What’s Aids?” she recalls. “Let’s turn on to the inside pages to find out. So it was an enormous coup and a way of letting people know what this thing was.” Since then she has raised millions of dollars for research and medical care, through her own self-funded Aids foundation as well as helping others, and she has stuck with the cause despite receiving a number of death threats. She acknowledges her position as a leader in the Aids fight, saying, “I am very proud of it, and I’ll take any flak they want to give me.”

In the early days, before anyone in the film community – including Elizabeth Taylor – knew that Rock Hudson had contracted the virus, she would be incensed by the kind of attitudes she encountered over the dinner table. “Well, it serves them bloody well right,” she affects a pompous swagger. “They should be wiped off the face of the earth and this is God’s way of doing it.”

When the news got out about Hudson, Hollywood was suddenly convulsed by the implications. “My God. It’s hit one of our own. It’s one of the family,” Taylor recalls. “And everybody loved Rock. He was one of the most enchanting, funny – ach, just so adorable. He was so cuddly and he loved to cuddle back.”

For all Taylor’s emotionalism on the subject, which is perfectly understandable to me, what impresses is her ruthless pragmatism about keeping the organisation lean and cost-efficient, so that every cent raised goes directly tothe Aids patients, whether in Nairobi or New York. Acting is only interpreting other people’s words and work, she says, but what she wants to do is make some contribution of her own. “This is not mimicking something else. It’s real tragedy. There’s no Greek chorus. We’re living it.”

It is not the first time in her life that Taylor has drawn flak from America’s Moral Majority. When she and Richard Burton became a couple, while they were both still married, there were more death threats and even attempts, she tells me, to run them off the road. “Oh yeah,” she says, “we had been evil and broken commandments. All the religious zealots came out and wanted to hang us. The Pope – who is not a religious zealot but, er,” she giggles and adopts a hokey accent, “He mighty big up there. He one of the big boys. He wrote a letter in the Vatican newspaper saying that my children should be taken away from me. Those were not easy times. I was sickened, maddened, saddened and heartbroken that those kinds of thoughts would be in people’s minds to such a degree of vehemence. Isn’t the Pope supposed to be like a descendant of Jesus? And didn’t Jesus forgive Mary Magdalene? Where is the love in that?”

I ask her whether she had a favourite husband, and her response is so theatrical I am tempted to see if the cameras are rolling. “I have had two great loves in my life. I have been doubly blessed. And I consider myself soohh lucky. Some people never find that kind of love that I’m talking of… I had it twice,” this delivered in a stage whisper. I do hope one of them was Richard Burton. “Of course… and Michael Wilding. I loved him with my life. We had 13 months together and our daughter, Eliza, was six months old when he was killed in a plane crash over the mountains of Albuquerque.” Taylor was left a widow at 26, a mother of three, with a film to finish – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

And did she consider that any of her husbands were a complete waste of time? She yodels with laughter “Yesss. But I’m not going to tell you. I’ll let you guess. I’m a gentleman.” Listening to this exchange afterwards, we sound – and not for the first time – like a couple of tipsy molls painting the town red. And yet Taylor, after years on the razzle, is now teetotal (she still indulges her taste for beer, but these days it’s non-alcoholic) and I am on the mineral water. For the most part, I get the impression that she enjoys being a bit risque and bawdy and that is why, unlike many reformed drunks, she is a lot of fun to be with.

The more cheeky the question, the better she seems to like it. She is homely rather than high-handed, without a trace of grande-damery. At one point, she offers to refill my glass of water herself, unlike most of the bigwigs I have encountered who simply yell or ring a bell for a servant. Standing up, she loses her balance, and apologises for her clumsiness, saying that since the brain surgery she has been left unsteady on her feet. Several weeks after our meeting, Taylor has another of her falls and is obliged to recuperate at the Cedars-Sinai hospital, a place with which she is so familiar that Burton once referred to it as her second home.

High on the list of dud husbands, I suspect, was the last one, Larry Fortensky (that hair!), the construction worker she met in rehab. Later when we talk about how she would still like to live with a man – “I like to cuddle and the companionship and all that, but not that blasted piece of paper” – I ask her why, in that case, she had not forgone marriage sooner. “Well, first of all, John (Warner) was running for Senate, so that explains that one. Fortensky? God only knows. His mother was dying of cancer, and she wanted us to get married so badly… and I got carried away in a moment of sentimentality.”

She suddenly breaks off and shrieks: “Shhhugggarr! You just come here to your mother!” The miniature dog, which resembles a bedraggled Slinky, comes into the room and Taylor leans down to cuddle her, making a series of mewing, infantile bleats including, stomach-turningly, “Has Sugar done a poo-poo?” You really love your dog, I say redundantly. “Oh I worship my dog,” she replies, “she’s an extension of me.” Looking at their fluffy white hair, together, I am struck by the fanciful notion that perhaps Taylor’s new hairdo has been modelled on her dog’s. Sugar is not simply a canine accessory but part of a double act – she is featured with her owner in the perfume ads, for instance, and is in Taylor’s arms at press conferences. It’s only later that I realise how rude my question sounds, but fortunately Taylor does not take it that way.

The only time she does get cranky with me is when I ask her about being beaten. I reviewed a couple of trashy biographies of Taylor some years ago, which left me with the impression that she had been physically abused by several husbands. When I raise the matter, she says, stony-faced, “Not plural. That’s all I’m going to say. I have never been beaten or abused by more than one man, and if someone out there wants to say, ‘Oh God, it must have been blah, blah, blah,’ I will say, ‘No it was not blah, blah, blah. It was Nick Hilton, who drank himself to death by the age of 33. And alcohol was a great part of this behaviour.” So you wouldn’t consider lending your support to a refuge or anything to help other battered women? “No. Because it makes me sound like a battered woman,” she replies. “I had a very unfortunate marriage and part of it was being beaten up. I’m not going to make that one of my crusades.” (It emerged in a recent American interview that Hilton had once kicked her in the stomach, causing her to have a miscarriage.

Her reluctance to discuss this period of her life may well be that it summons memories that Taylor would rather were not revived, but I think something else was going on as well. The uplifting message of our interview – and one which the star seemed keen, in an unforced way, to promote – is that despite all her adversities, the illnesses, the addictions, the tragedies and deaths, Taylor has not only survived, but in her late sixties, she is on top form. “With age, if you set your mind on the positive,” she says, “you can have more fun. You can be more in control and you can make things happen.” So let’s not spoil it all by focusing on a time when she was a victim of something out of her control.

And while we are on the subject of rejuvenescence, Taylor’s libido, she informs me, is as lively as ever. I ask her whether it’s important to her to have a good sex life and she exclaims: “Yesss. God! Yes! I have some girlfriends who are my age and they say, ‘Oh Elizabeth, (breathy dowager voice) sex isn’t important at our age.’ And I say, ‘Bull-shee-ut.’ Well, each to his own, but I have as much desire as I did in my twenties and thirties.”

She is tight-lipped about Michael Jackson presumably because they are the best of friends and perhaps something more. By which I do not mean anything romantic, although there is a framed poster of the singer, in one of the rooms, with the inscription: “To Elizabeth, my true love, yours eternally”. What they seem to share, more than anything, is a sense of communality, of being kindred spirits. I put it to her that perhaps the reason she said Jackson was the least weird man she knows is that her own upbringing was so weird.

“Oh my childhood and Michael’s childhood are so similar and so strange,” she agrees. “We had no chums our own age. I, thank God, adored horse riding and had that for my release and I loved my horse, King – the one they used in National Velvet – with a total passion. But Michael had nothing! The rest of the kids – the Jackson Five – would, um, I shouldn’t be talking…” I say that if we look at what he has done to himself – a perfectly attractive young black man who has disfigured himself in his desire to be something other than he is – well, it’s sad, at the very least, isn’t it? “It is,” she agrees. Does he see himself that way? “I can’t talk about him,” she says. “It’s not my prerogative, other than to say that there are reasons that would explain to you and the public… why he looks this way, or whatever. But it’s not my position.”

The more time I talk to Taylor, the more struck I am by the thought that she could have been a formidable force, had she been born in a different era. She has the courage of her convictions, a hatred of injustice, and the ability to apply her considerable will to get what she wants: qualities that have been amply demonstrated in her Aids work. Party politics don’t interest her, but issues do. She was an active pro-choice supporter and of the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, despite being married to a Republican senator. She says that it would be fascinating to be a politician… but being a politician’s wife was not.

“It was one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had,” she recalls. “You are told what to think, when to say what you’re supposed to think, and you have no opinions of your own, supposedly. If you cut out of the cradle and blurt something out, you’re looked down on – ‘Naughty, naughty.’ Having been very verbal all my life and independent – even before it was fashionable – I found it soooh difficult to keep my mouth shut.” Did Warner ever get cross with you, if you were indiscreet? “He’d give me a look that could kill a cat,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Never anything out loud, but I could get the vibes across the room.”

Taylor was born at a time when a woman’s power tended to reside in her ability to manipulate her sexuality. She has no qualms about using a little charm or flirtation for the sake of a good cause, saying that’s it’s no more dangerous or obnoxious than taking off your bra; shorthand, one takes it, for bra-burning Women’s Lib. Then she examines her poitrine with a quizzical look and says: “Maybe if I…? Well, I did have pretty good tits in my day.” Another cackle of laughter.

As a young woman, at least into her thirties, Taylor was dismissed by her directors and fellow actors, particularly those who had come from Shakespearean backgrounds. If you were pretty, naturally, you couldn’t have any brains. “And that hurt me enormously,” she recalls. “Because I don’t think what you look like has anything to do with what you are. But I rode right over it, because I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of and all I have to do is go out there and prove it.”

She was not always blessed with this unshakeable sense of self-belief. I had imagined, partly because of the luminous sheen of her screen presence, and the precocity which goes along with being a child star, that Taylor had always been confident about her allure. So it is a surprise to hear that she was once such a passive little woman that Humphrey Bogart, no less, felt obliged to take her to task. “I’ve been watching you,” he told her. “All you do is follow Michael (Wilding) around like a puppy dog. Don’t you realise that you are your own being? You’re a very beautiful woman. And when you get up the nerve and open your mouth and make a remark, you’re a very funny woman.” Bogart insisted that she go off and sit on her own and within ten minutes, he predicted, she would be surrounded by a crowd of men. “Oh Bogey,” she said, “don’t make me do that. I’m too shy. I love listening to Michael talk.” He threatened that if she didn’t, he would never invite her round to his house again: “This is a lesson. It’s a test. Treat it that way.”

“So I got up, walked over, smoked a cigarette, smiled…” Elizabeth Taylor is performing for me “…and eventually somebody came over – a very attractive somebody – and in five minutes there were about five men around and Bogey walked by and went…” she winks at me. She would often think back on that moment with Bogey – the teacher with his pupil done up in Christian Dior – and it would make her laugh inside. She would test it out and the more it worked, the more confidence it gave her… “and all I did was just sit there.”

While we’re in the past – and they certainly did do things differently there – I ask about her relationship with Montgomery Clift. She says that although they were attracted to each other – “We would kiss and stuff” – she knew that they were not meant for each other: “I loved Monty so much, he was beautiful, and he loved me so much, but one night I looked at him – and this was before I knew what gay was or anything about closets – and I thought, my God, he should be with a man, not a woman, and I know who.” Who? I ask, of course. But, alas, she won’t say. So did you matchmake them? “Yeah, and they were together for about three years,” she says.

David Heymann, in his biography, Liz, had interviewed a man who had claimed to have slept with Taylor’s art-dealer father. But when I ask her about this, she goes mad: “Whhh-aa-a-t? My father was g-a-a-y? Bull-sh-it! I know he wasn’t. He was my father. And especially since I seem to have a sixth sense about this…” She says she didn’t read the Heymann biography, or any of the others, including Kitty Kelley’s, but that if her father had been gay, “My answer would be, yes, and that’s why I think I learnt to understand homosexual men. But it isn’t true, so don’t put something on the man that isn’t true.” And then, in a low, confidential voice: “But I know he had an affair with his girl secretary.”

She tells me about Jack Kennedy – “I went out with him when he was a young congressman and I was 17, doing A Place in the Sun. All he could talk about was politics, it was one of the more boring dinners of my life.” And Marilyn Monroe – “I adored her. I felt very protective towards her and there was no way of protecting her… she had brought this net of negativity and self-destructiveness around her that anyone could put their Machiavellian fingers through. She drank and took too many pills.” You’ve done that and survived. “But she didn’t have the grit.” And Edward and Mrs Simpson who used to entertain the Burtons on Sundays in their house in Paris. I could listen to her talk like this for hours more, but our time is up and she is flagging.

The previous day, Taylor had cancelled our interview because of an urgent dental appointment. I was not particularly convinced by the excuse, and suspected her of prima-donna malingering. But when we meet she is still suffering – she clutches her jaw every so often, and gives a ladylike moan – and I half-wondered, whenever there was the odd slurred word or glassy look, whether she might not be a little high on medication. But gone are the days, she says, when irresponsible doctors would hand out as many pills as she wanted. This lot keep her in line, and admonish: “A little pain won’t kill you.”

She signs an autograph – “It was fun!” – pecks me on the cheek, and retires for a rest. I wait in her office for a taxi, and look at all the old photographs on the walls and tables. There she is with Jack Lang, who thanks her for “un jour lumineux”, with Michael Jackson, and with Michael Caine. The years peel back, and there she is in National Velvet, her hair tied up in a bow, beauty spot on cheek, already too sophisticated to look like a real little girl who loves horses. On one wall, there is a safari series of her with Burton, black eyeliner and Jackie O specs on her long dark hair, him grinning craggily into the camera, the two of them cuddling up to a baby leopard. On the table, there’s a photograph of her squashed on a sofa alongside all her hippy offspring and their babies, in which she looks so young you could mistake her for one of the children. And then I see a picture of her that I am unlikely to see again – it is a recent one of Taylor sitting in her hospital bed, cuddling Sugar, with no make-up and no hair, none at all. What a woman. If there were any evidence of her lack of vanity, this is it.

I had seen her at close quarters once before. It was when I was about ten, 30 years ago, and she must have been about the same age I am now. My parents and I were staying in a hotel in St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and one lunchtime Taylor and Burton and a couple of teenage children – a boy and a girl, with the same tar-black hair and lavender eyes as their mother – walked into the dining room. They sat at the next-door table and my mother, who had her own movie-star glamour, was determinedly unimpressed. Sitting on the verandah afterwards, she turned to my father and said, “Rather a dumpy little thing, didn’t you think?”

“Well, Dougie,” he said on cue, “She’s not a patch on you.”

I love Taylor’s old movies, particularly A Place in the Sun and Suddenly Last Summer: the suggestion of something corrupt in her beauty, that it was both damaged and damaging; the hint of moral decay behind her succulent bloom. Now that both my parents are dead and a huge span of my life resides in memory, being with her in some odd way reminded me of them. Her face is different now; her features have coarsened, but she looks fresher and somehow cleaner with her freckles and minimal make-up. My friends warned me that she was bound to be a disappointment. I would discover that the goddess had feet of clay. But it was her very ordinariness, if anything, which was captivating. The idea that she would be happy to let herself go, if it weren’t for all those darned well-wishers in her entourage, constantly nagging her to dye her hair and lose weight, even to have a breast reduction to ease her back problems: “But I’m fond of my old boobs,” she said, mock-forlornly. Still, as a journalist, I know that the fan interview does not always make for the most satisfactory read. So, perhaps, it is just as well there was a sting in this tale.

When I got back to my hotel, still glowing with pleasure from the encounter, I received a phone call from Tim, the friendly assistant. He was wanting to finalise the paperwork, and wondered why I hadn’t left a particular document. “You didn’t leave it, you dog,” he said. I’m sorry? “You dog.” Well that’s not a very nice thing to say, I say, and since it was your job to deal with it, if anyone’s the “dog”, it’s you.

Dog insults out of the way – an odd way of doing business, one might think, even in Los Angeles – I take the opportunity to check on a few details. When was Taylor’s last interview published, and when is the next scheduled to appear in an American magazine? Bam! Another gratuitous swipe, along the lines that the other bunch are much more thorough and professional than The Times. “Oh, ha, ha,” I say, assuming this is some kind of off-joke. At which point, a new purring voice comes on the line: “Ginnyeee.” My hairs stand on end as I realise that Taylor has been listening to this conversation all along, quite unannounced, tacitly or explicitly egging her assistant on.

In an instant, the heroine of my imagination has become a horrid hybrid of Gloria Swanson in Hollywood Boulevard and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

It was a mistake to think we were on the same planet. Whatever Elizabeth Taylor says, she is a great actress.

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