Celebrities, Music

Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction

The Times December 19, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

What must it be like to watch your child’s life spiral into drug-addicted chaos, reported daily by a rapacious press? Mitch Winehouse on the torment of Amy’s self-destruction, its impact on the Winehouse clan, and why he believes she’s finally getting better

Photo – Phil Fisk

mitch winehouse

So, let’s get the great big elephant out of the room straightaway. Is there something a bit iffy about the way Mitch Winehouse appears to be making a career on the back of his daughter’s demons? What career, you might ask. Well, there are at least two documentaries in the pipeline in which he features large as day, as well as Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant, an online TV series that films him in his cab sounding off to various celebrity-lite passengers (David Hasselhoff; someone called Shaggy, who was told to take his feet off the seat) – “And don’t get me started on that Lady Gaga…” and so on – and now he’s even recording an album of his own, Rush of Love, due to be released in spring.

Isn’t it a bit weird, I ask him, since he would never have got an album out if… “Never. Not in a million years,” he jumps in. “Course not. I mean, I’m not an idiot. I know that I got the album ’cos I’m Amy’s dad.”

You love the limelight? “That’s a very good question, and you wanna know the truth? I do. There’s no getting away from it, Ginny. But I didn’t ask to go before the Commons select committee [to talk about addiction in families], just like I didn’t ask to go on GMTV or This Morning or Ian Wright’s show. They invited me. What am I supposed to do? Not go? And if I said, ‘I didn’t enjoy it,’ I’d be lying because I do enjoy it. But I don’t want it to come across that I’m big-headed and I love the limelight for the sake of it.”

It was for Amy’s sake, initially – a self-confessed “Daddy’s girl” with those words tattooed on her arm – that her father came to the fore to protest about various untruths, as he sees it, being written about his daughter. And now that the media have got a taste of Mitch, we find him distinctly more-ish. Although it’s debatable how much of that has to do with him being a convenient conduit to channel Amy, whose talent – and, more so, the personal turmoil that threatens to destroy it – makes her such an object of fascination.

For her father, of course, this objectification of Amy is part of the problem. The more insatiable the public interest in the details of her downward spiral, the longer it will take her to recover – or, according to him, stay recovered: “My daughter is a recovering addict. She is not a drug addict now.” He says she has been clean of drugs for a year. A whole year? “Yes, a whole year.” But according to one of the documentary-makers, Daphne Barak, who spent time with father and daughter in St Lucia and later wrote about it, Mitch had said there had been relapses since Christmas and, “She [Amy] didn’t [give up drugs] all of a sudden; she was talking about it for two or three months.”

When he talks to me, however, Mitch’s version of events is rather different. He tells me his daughter declared in August last year, “‘Dad, that’s it. I’m not taking drugs any more. I’m done.’ It did take her a couple of months, but she actually came off them in about October.” Part of me thinks that as Amy’s father, he is entitled to offer whatever edit on his daughter’s progress he wishes. But there is also something Faustian about accepting the role of the singer’s public mouthpiece that makes me want him to be, at least, consistent in what he tells us. At one point, he says apropos of an anecdote about him commanding Mick Jagger to pipe down during one of her performances: “What’s good about it is that it’s a true story. Normally, I make these things up.” Later, I make him swear on his daughter’s love that he hasn’t made up anything in this interview, and he does. So since he seems to me to be a good, warm-hearted bloke, we’ll take him at his word.

Barak, who did not endear herself to either her rival documentary-makers (with their My Daughter Amy as opposed to her Saving Amy) or her subjects, painted a grim portrait of Amy as a tragic child-woman – needy and obnoxious, in turn – who has substituted her drug addiction for alcohol abuse. Is this true? “Well, you know, having spoken to many counsellors and therapists and experts in the field, normally one addiction can follow another. But this isn’t an addiction; it’s just that she drinks too much every now and again,” he says. “It’s not alcoholism. I would say that she doesn’t drink every day, but when she drinks, she drinks a lot.

“But there are also positive addictions, like her gym work. She’s got the physiology – if that’s the right word – of, like, an Olympic athlete. The doctor who saw me last week said: ‘She could go into the Olympics, she’s so fit.’”

Is she happy? “Well… it’s difficult to know really. I mean, she’s my daughter and we’re very close but she’s not gonna tell me her most intimate things.” But does she seem happy to you? “Most of the time.”

Amy has been back in London, from her extended Caribbean sojourn, for about three months, working on songs for her new album and living in Barnet, near her mother. Her father says she wants to move back to Camden. Is that a source of debate for you? (He had earlier in our conversation told me that an addict had to be removed from surroundings that trigger their addiction.) “Well, it’s her choice – she’s 26 years old – and it’s her money.” But the thought of it makes you anxious? “What I was saying to you before – and I’m not talking about Amy, because Amy hasn’t taken drugs for a year – is if anybody wants drugs, they could be in Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, and they’d pick up the phone and within an hour, somebody will be there with drugs. So it doesn’t matter where you are.”

This is not the first time that Mitch seems to contradict himself, but the role of a loving parent in dealing with a child – who remains that father’s child, regardless of his or her age – is, perhaps, necessarily contradictory. You want to protect your daughter from herself, and from those who would prey on her vulnerabilities; you want to protect her from the scrutiny of the public and the press. You consider tough love or maybe that she needs more love. Most of all, it seems – certainly in Mitch’s case – that you want to believe that every small, teetering step towards getting your child back from the possibility of extinction might presage the larger step into her being restored to the blithe, healthy spirit she once was. If his own “recovery” – and it’s interesting that he uses that word for himself – involves a measure of blanking out and delusion (another word he uses), then so be it.

There is a poignant moment when Mitch is crooning some of the songs from his new album (Sinatra, but not the standards; Antônio Carlos Jobim’s How Insensitive; four new songs by Tony “Save Your Kisses for Me” Hiller – “They’re much better than that; more like Cole Porter”) and I ask him whether he has a vocal coach. “I don’t need one,” he says, mock-outraged. “I taught Amy to sing, for God’s sake! She used to stand on the table when she was 2, even younger…and I would sing…” He starts to croon, and I swear there’s a trace of that distinctive, slightly adenoidal Amyness about his voice. “…‘Are the stars out tonight? I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright/ Cause I only have eyes for…’ and she would sing ‘you’ in her little voice. Oh, she was so cute.”

Any parent can imagine the pain of seeing their child go off the rails so spectacularly. How did that dear little girl end up with blood-stained pumps and wild eyes, scoring drugs from a prostitute, fighting with her (now ex) husband, Blake Fielder-Civil? “I can’t remember how I felt,” he says. “Well, I do remember how I felt; I felt terrible. But part of the way I protect myself, and it’s not only me who does this – it happens with all the families of recovering addicts – is that as things progress positively, they kind of draw veils down a little bit. You can’t forget entirely.”

One of the reasons he agreed to participate in My Daughter Amy, Mitch says, is that although Amy was beginning to emerge “from 18 months of hell”, she was still being portrayed as “‘Junkie Amy’ and ‘Wino’ and all the rest of the stuff they do. And yet Amy was starting to get better, remarkably better, and I felt this was a chance to redress the balance and maybe show how she really is. How she is now.”

Back then, he admits that he did succumb to despair, although he never really could bring himself to believe that Amy might die: “People said that I wrote her obituary. Absolute rubbish.” He took to going to bed with his mobile phone, knowing that it could go at three in the morning. “And I’d be waiting for the phone to ring. But it was almost as bad if it didn’t ring. Because if the phone didn’t ring, why didn’t it ring? Is it because something bad has happened? Is it because it’s been a good night? You know, there is a whole raft of emotions. What I found amazing is that if you had told me about this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But you are programmed genetically to protect yourself emotionally and you won’t know that until, God forbid, you are in that situation.

“And delusion is part of the protection. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of families [in therapy groups dealing with addiction], nice middle-class and working-class people, who were normal and didn’t abuse their children, and we have had exactly that conversation – ‘How are you able to cope with this?’ – and part of it is delusion, because how else can you survive? It’s all about very, very small steps forward, the occasional big step backwards, small steps forward… You cling on to little things; little things become massive triumphs.”

I had read that Amy suffered from manic depression but refused to take medication for it. Is that so? “She’s never been diagnosed as a manic depressive. Ever.” Has she ever been thought to be? “Not as far as I know.” Frankly, I would have thought that if there were a possibility that this might be the case, it would have emerged by now. Is there any manic depression in the family? “I’m pretty sure there’s none.” What about addictive behaviour? “Kindly leave my Uncle Alfie out of this, please,” he says crossly. Sorry? “Nah, that’s a line from Hancock… ‘Is there any insanity in your family?’ ‘Please can you leave my Uncle Whatever out of this.’”

What about his own experience of drugs?

“I once took a puff of a marijuana whatever – reefer – and I thought, ‘Why is everyone going mad? This is rubbish.’ I’d rather go and eat a bagel [which he pronounces ‘bygel’, very Yiddishly] or something.” Drink? “I have a glass of wine every now and then.”

I ask how many times Amy has done rehab but, apparently, she really meant it when she sang, “No! No! No!” “Yeah, she’s got a thing about it… I don’t know why, ’cos there’s obviously hundreds of thousands of cases of people going into rehab and having marvellous results,” her dad says.

“She’s had counselling and therapy but she’s got this thing about being able to sort a lot out in her own mind. You could argue that it wouldn’t work for everybody, but at the moment it’s working for her.”

So what’s his explanation for Amy’s descent? “I would say that she couldn’t deal with fame and in her mind, she had image problems, which she shouldn’t have done ’cos she’s lovely, and at the time that she was vulnerable, she met Blake who, in my mind, fed on that vulnerability and, you know, it was, ‘I love you, darling. Here’s some drugs.’” (Blake has admitted that he introduced Amy to crack and heroin.)

Is he totally out of the picture now? “Hope so. It will be a disaster if he’s not out of the picture.” Do you have anything to do with him or his family? “None whatsoever. I think his family saw [us as] a fantastic opportunity.”

Isn’t there talk about a book coming out? “You’re kidding! See what I mean? Now why would anybody be interested in a book that that woman [his mother] is going to write about her son, who is a criminal? He’s a drug addict, he’s a liar. He kicked someone in the head [so hard that the victim’s face had to be reconstructed], he tried to pervert the course of justice and his mother’s going to write a book about him?”

No, I think he was going to write a book (which was to have been a joint effort with his ex); that’s what I read anyway. “He’s gonna write a book? What’s he gonna write a book about?” My life with Amy? My drugs hell? “OK, that’s up to him. We need the money; we’ll be able to sue him. Jesus Christ. I think I have heard something about this before. It’s pathetic. Anyway, I don’t want to get aggravated by it.”

It’s only at the end of the interview that Mitch mentions that for the past two years – precipitated by Amy’s annus (or so) horribilis – he has suffered from panic attacks that have made it impossible for him to drive his cab. “If I heard over the radio that the traffic was gridlocked, it would come on,” he says. Now he’s worried that if he took a passenger, he might have forgotten the best way to go. Anyway, as he admits, he’s no longer reliant on cabbing for an income since he and Janis (Amy’s mum, his ex, who suffers from multiple sclerosis) now run their daughter’s business, which is worth £5 million – half of what it was the previous year. (So, this is what Mitch meant when he said, “We need the money.”)

When we had started talking about Amy’s troubles, he said that, “My own feeling is that Amy was affected by Janis’s and my break-up [when Amy was 9], although my son [Alex] and daughter saw even more of me. In the end, they said, ‘Dad, you really don’t have to come here every day!’ But I couldn’t be without them. I had to see them every day – which was causing Janis problems. But, obviously, when I left home I was guilt-ridden; not because of Janis, but because of the children. Although it was definitely the right thing to do.”

Had you been arguing a lot? “No, you couldn’t argue with Janis. She’s such a lovely, well-centred person.” But unfortunately you had fallen in love with someone else (Jane, who worked with him in a double-glazing business and to whom he has been married ever since)? “Exactly. It happens. But Amy has known Jane since she was 18 months old and she loved her then and she does now. Everyone loves Jane. Janis loves Jane. They all love each other! It’s fantastic!”

He comes from a huge Jewish family – tailors on his mother’s side; barbers and cabbies on his father’s – and was brought up not far from where we are conducting our interview in a film production office in Commercial Street, East London. “We had six people living in a house, including my uncle, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my aunty, and a lodger from the Holocaust who lived upstairs, and everyone was kissing and cuddling you. It was great in those days.

“And when you come from the East End, you do whatever you can to protect your family. When we moved to Southgate in North London, we were the only Jewish family there and they thought Jews had horns in their heads or something. So I was fighting all the time – that’s what you did, when we were kids. I’m not a tough guy or anything like that, but I know how to protect my family.”

When were you last in a fight? “In a fight?! I’m 59 years old! If I had a fight now I’d die. In a fight? About 20 years ago.” He does admit to throwing Pete Doherty out on his ear, when Amy was late for a gig and our Rimbaud wannabe was sprawled on her bed, being creative. When I ask Mitch what he thinks of Pete, his answer is succinct: “He’s an a***hole, but an enormously talented a***hole.” The problem for Mitch is that Pete’s attitude towards drugs is the same as his former son-in-law’s, who once told him: “I don’t want to give up drugs. I like them.”

Nick Cave – a reformed junkie – told me he used to feel much the same way. But he also said, “I think the heroin addict becomes one in order to separate himself from the rest of society. It’s a very masochistic act. For a long time, it served me well, but there did come a point when it became intolerable. When it became clear that it was interfering with things that were ultimately more important to me – like my artistic aspirations.”

Cave was a good deal older than Winehouse when he finally came to that conclusion, and it takes a certain level of maturity to weigh up your priorities in life. Amy has had a number of serious health scares – such as the threat of emphysema – but is she evolved enough to comprehend that her significant talent is worth fighting for, let alone her own health?

It’s worth reminding ourselves of her triumphs before her (hopefully short-lived) fall. Her debut album, Frank, in 2003, was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. With Back to Black, its follow-up in 2006, she became the first British singer to win five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. In 2007, she won the Brit award for best British female artist. She has won the Ivor Novello songwriting award three times.

Her dad loves Frank: “It was a much better time for her. The songs were great, innocent-ish. Back to Black obviously sold three trillion copies or whatever but, of course, to me, I can’t play the album any more because a lot of the songs are about Blake. ‘If my man were fighting’ – I mean how great is this – ‘If my man were fighting/ Some unholy war/ I would be beside him.’ But she’s talking about depression, ’cos he’s not around and whatever, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, I don’t wanna listen to this album much any more.’ It reminds me of a really bad time and part of my recovery is to put that aside.”

He wasn’t best pleased when he first heard What Is It About Men?, with its stinging lyrics: “Understand, once he was a family man/ So surely I would never, ever go through it first hand/ Emulate all the s*** my mother hated.” “I thought, ‘How dare you?’ and when I read it, I thought, ‘You’ve got it bang on.’ ‘All the s*** my mother hated’ – perfect. Absolutely perfect. The way she encapsulated it in a sentence. At least I’m big enough to admit it.”

He’s heard some lines from a new song, Queen of Spades, Amy wrote for her paternal grandmother, Cynthia (teenage sweetheart of the late jazzman, Ronnie Scott), whose death three years ago was thought to have contributed to her granddaughter’s descent: “She was a massive influence on Amy because she brought the kids up when we worked.”

They’ve been talking quite a lot about songwriting recently; perhaps working on his own album is giving Mitch some ideas of his own. “What she does is carry loads of books around with her all the time, and I say to her, ‘What are you doing?’ and she says, ‘I’m just writing’. So when she’s gonna write the album, she does it in a month. She writes little stanzas which she uses and goes back to.

“Actually, you tend to forget… because to me, she’s Amy, my daughter, I tend to forget that she’s actually a genius. And those aren’t my words. She’s got people thinking she’s a genius and it’s not the singing so much as the songs. I say to her, ‘Amy, when you write a song, what do you do first? Do you write the music or do you write the lyrics?’ And she looks at me, like to say, ‘Aw, Dad!’, like I should know! So with Rehab, it’s re-hab – bah, bah. ‘They tried to make me go to re-hab,’” he sings rather unconvincingly, à la Matt Monro, “so she’s explaining to me about beats, but I’m still not quite sure what she does.”

What parts of you do you see in her? (They are remarkably similar physically around the eyes and strong eyebrows.) “She never gives in, ever. She’s resolute and brave and – although, obviously, there is a weakness in her character – nothing can beat her down when she sets her mind on it. And she’s got a great sense of humour. Like me, she’s a great practical joker. I mean, with us it’s like a fine art.”

Mitch is obviously partial, but Lily Allen said something similar: “I know Amy Winehouse well. And she is very different to what people portray her as being. Yes, she does get out of her mind on drugs sometimes, but she is also a very clever, intelligent, witty, funny person who can hold it together. You just don’t see that side.”

What would he wish for his daughter if he could wave a magic wand? “What I would want her to be is as she is – a normal, lovely person with a loving family – and to find a man, or a woman, if she wants…” Oh! Is she…? “No, no, no, no! A person she loves and who loves her and who cherishes her and wants to have children with her. That’s what I hope and I don’t care about her career. Well, I do care about her career, but it’s secondary. In other words, I’d prefer it if she had a normal life being a normal person, but she’s not.”

Finally, what does he think Amy’s new album will be about? Might there be any sunny songs? “I doubt that for one second! Every song Amy writes is like… [He sticks an imaginary knife into his substantial tum and circles around as though he is eviscerating his entrails.] In Yiddish, it’s ‘schlapping your kishkas [your insides] out’. Amy’s a great one for schlapping her kishkas – because every song is, like, heartbreak… sorrow… depression,” he thumps out the words. “She’s never gonna write a song about, ‘You look lovely in the moonlight, my darling, give me a kiss.’ I mean, that’s just never gonna happen, is it?”

* * *

My Daughter Amy is on at 7.30pm on January 8, 2010, on Channel 4, made by Transparent Television. Mitch Winehouse’s Showbiz Rant is on livingtv.co.uk every Wednesday

Artists, Celebrities, Women

Tracey Emin on a year of living dangerously

The Times July 25, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

Endometriosis, tapeworm, and an on-off love affair — the bad girl of Brit Art says she has had a tough time, but is now bouncing back

Emin

Tracey Emin is serene. That is not a sentence that comes naturally. She has emerged from her year of living dangerously — nothing to do with wild antics and everything to do with ill health — purged of both her demons and a giant, Gothic-sounding tapeworm.

We meet in Spitalfields, East London, where Emin lives and works. She was a little bit late for our interview and so I had a chance to potter around her studio. This is where her embroidery and appliqué pieces are created and the room resembles a well-stocked children’s day centre. There is a row of orange washing baskets brimming with brightly coloured fabric and a wall of plastic boxes filled with all manner of things, neatly labelled: “Bits and bobs”, “Postcards and diaries” and “Voodoo dolls”.

At the far end of the room is a trio of antique French chairs and a circular table, a glass top protecting an Emin oeuvre/tablecloth of appliquéd letters of the alphabet, and a ridiculously large bean bag on which Emin and her team of seamstresses sprawl, a (literally) laid-back sewing bee, to protect their spines and necks while they work.

A glass door opens on to a small courtyard just large enough to contain a wrought-iron table and a couple of chairs. In the corner, next to several bicycles, is an impressively full rack of wine bottles which, on closer inspection, all bear the same label: Château de Tracy (sic).

The chatelaine arrives, wet hair, gleaming tan, shorts and a fitted pale-blue mannish shirt, revealing a glimpse of a cerise balcony Agent Provocateur bra. An assistant has brought a pot of Earl Grey tea, with a quaint flower-motif cup and saucer, and La Trace decides that she will risk the caffeine — she has become, perforce, a non-wheat, non-dairy purist — to join me in a cuppa as we sit outside.

In her street there are two blue plaques dedicated to Miriam Moses, the first woman mayor of Stepney, and Anna Maria Garthwaite, the designer of Spitalfields Silks. There will, surely, be a third plaque celebrating a woman after Emin has passed on. “Do you think I’m blue plaqueable?” she asks. Well, yes, actually.

In 2007 she was not only chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale (the second woman to have a solo show, after Rachel Whiteread, ten years earlier) but also joined the hallowed ranks of David Hockney, Peter Blake and Anthony Caro when she was made a Royal Academician. She is a patron of the Terence Higgins Trust, regularly donates work for charities such as the Elton John Aids Foundation, and founded her own library for schoolchildren in Uganda last year. Senior politicians on both sides are competing for her support. Forget the blue plaque, can a damehood be far behind?

Emin had been a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party until her recent defection, when she voted for Boris Johnson to be Mayor of London: “I knew that Boris would make a really good mayor. He’s dynamic, he’s interesting, he’s educated, he likes partying, he likes the creative arts … Ken should have been the ideal Mayor of London, because he loves it, but somehow he sold out, and that’s what disappointed me.” (Emin was a vociferous opponent of Livingstone’s enthusiasm for high-rise development, particularly in her own historic neighbourhood.) Gordon Brown, she says, “was fantastic about the Titians. He didn’t muck around with that, he just understood that it was important that those paintings remain here. So obviously he understands that art is important but it doesn’t mean to say that his Cabinet understands that.

“I think Sarah Brown is very interested in the arts, too. In fact, I wish she was Prime Minister!”

Emin was particularly unimpressed by the former Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham: “He doesn’t know anything about art. I went to 11 Downing Street and Burnham made a speech and I said, ‘You can’t give us a glass of red wine and a patronising speech like that and think that everything’s gonna be all right! What are you going to give us? Tax breaks? Are you going to change the law for people donating works? Tell me what you are going to do!’ But he didn’t have a clue.”

This was in marked contrast, she says, to the arts dinner hosted by the Tories in the spring. What was that like? “Brilliant,” she beams, “because there were people like me who don’t vote Tory who were actually being listened to.”

A journalist recently asked her what she thought of David Cameron, to which she replied: “What do you mean? Do I fancy him? Which I thought was really funny.” (We assume, then, that the answer is “No”.) The Tories, it seems, shouldn’t count on Emin joining. “I’m too independent,” she says. “But in some countries people are having their hands cut off because they want to vote, so you do have to choose.”

We last met five years ago in Istanbul, where Emin had a show supported by the British Council, and I notice that she is still wearing the clunky gold necklace that her half-brother, George, gave her, with her grandmother’s wedding ring and the ring that Emin would give her daughter if she had one (now, at 46, she admits, unlikely): “I like the invisible worlds coming together around my neck.”

Her late grandmother, May Dodge, was like a surrogate mother since Emin’s own mother — a single parent after Enver, her Turkish-Cypriot husband, took off — was often absent working various jobs to support Tracey and her twin brother.

Later, crippled by arthritis, her grandmother became bedridden and Emin would visit her in Margate where they would lie on the bed together holding hands — or crocheting — and listen to the radio.

“My nan really liked one particular DJ on Radio Kent. So I went to the trouble to get a photo of him and get him to sign it and of course as soon as I gave her the photo she said: ‘I never thought he’d look like that. That’s not at all what I imagined.’ So that was the end of that.”

I had read that Emin never spent Christmas with her family and wondered why: “Because I’ve got my own house, my own life, and I left home when I was 15, you know. That answers your question.” Well, not really.

Christmas, it transpires, was the most unhappy time for her mother and the children. “We’d be sitting on our own waiting for our Mum to come home because she was always working like the clappers and we were incredibly poor. One Christmas the Salvation Army had to come and give us presents.

“So I always dread it. When Boxing Day comes I think, ‘Yes! I did it again. I managed to get through another Christmas and eat baked beans on toast. Fantastic!’ What’s funny is that I’ve started to invite people round on Christmas Eve. You’d think that everyone would say ‘No’ but it’s weird, from Bianca Jagger to Vivienne [Westwood], a fantastic, eclectic collection of people come and we all go to church for Midnight Mass, and then it’s back to my house, where I’ve got all the fires burning and made soup, and it’s really cosy and nice.”

One year, however, it wasn’t so nice. Her guests were about to arrive when Emin developed the most appalling stomach pains. A few people noted that she wasn’t drinking but their hostess kept on smiling, collapsed the next day and was taken to hospital, where it was discovered that she had endometriosis: “I couldn’t walk because of the terrible pain in my hip from all the swelling.”

This was on the back of tapeworm saga, which is a fascinating tale but not for the fainthearted. Her condition was eventually detected when she was detoxing at an Austrian clinic and the worm was dispatched with the aid of massive and prolonged doses of antibiotics.

During the period that the tapeworm took residency, Emin’s skin deteriorated, her hair fell out and she was permanently bloated. Her parasite also had a sweet tooth, and she found herself — inexplicably — eating pots and pots of jam. When she was in Australia, Emin spent four hours exercising every day in an attempt to get rid of her belly, unaware that it was caused by her tapeworm. That failed, so she gave up drinking for eight months. My God! “Yes, it was horrible. It made me much more quiet and subdued because I was so miserable.”

As soon as the worm was expelled, Emin, being Emin, went out partying every night: “I was on such a high, I was so happy — ‘worm free’,” she sings out to the tune of Born Free. And then — bang — she developed a quadruple whammy of lung, kidney, vaginal and urinary tract infections and was back in hospital. All in all her life was subsumed by illness for six months. As she says, “I had a bit of a year of it last year”.

When we were in Istanbul, Emin talked mysteriously about a man she referred to as her “Roman husband”. “Well, it didn’t work out because he’s gay,” she says, laughing her head off. For the past three and a half years she has been in a relationship with a Scottish portrait photographer, called Scott, whom she met at her favourite pub, the Golden Heart. Scott is one of the reasons why she is so happy, these days, along with her newfound respectability. Last year, however, when Emin took off travelling for four months, her boyfriend went off with someone else.

“He just presumed, ‘Well, if you want to go travelling around the world, you know, you’re obviously not interested in me.’ Which is a fair point.

“That’s what’s persuaded me to buy a place in France. So we’ve got a place together because he lives in Scotland.” (Where his five-year-old son lives with his mother. ) How does that work? “It suits me when I’m busy and it really doesn’t suit me when I’m not. When I haven’t seen him for a long time and he’s really missed me and comes to me, I’m always a bit kind of nonchalant at first — ‘You’re here, are you? Oh . . .’ But it doesn’t take long because it’s a good relationship.”

In the future she is hoping to spend most weekends in the South of France, near Saint-Tropez. Her house, which is “like a Moroccan castle”, is on 32 acres of land, with views of the Alps and the Mediterranean.

Our Trace is a keen gardener and will be tackling the greenhouses next year. The property also has vines, which have been neglected, but Emin intends to bring them back to life.

Her first crate of Château de Tracy was a gift from her friend, the Belgravia art dealer Ivor Braka. It’s a delicious Pouilly-Fumé but Emin can, perhaps, do even better. Except that next time, as Emin — a notoriously bad speller — points out, it will be Château de Tracey with an “e”.

* * *

One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Emin has just been published by Rizzoli at £40. To buy it for £36, inc p&p, call 0845 2712134

My perfect weekend

Town or country?

City.

Friend or lover?

Lover.

Owl or lark?

I’m more of a lark than I am an owl, but owls are really cute and fluffy.

Rembrandt or Rothko?

Rothko.

Full English or a fruit salad?

Rice Krispies with soya milk.

Beer or champagne?

Champagne. I never drink beer.

Film or theatre?

Theatre. I last saw an art play at the Victoria Miro gallery in North London.

Builders’ tea or soya latte?

Redbush tea, without milk. I hardly every drink caffeine and never drink coffee.

Celebrity party or quiet night in?

I can quite happily say yes to both of these.

Book or DVD ?

Book — An Education by Lynn Barber.

I couldn’t get through the weekend without . . .

My telephone. It’s on 24 hours a day, seven days a week

Actors, Celebrities

A close encounter with George Clooney

The Times, April 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

George Clooney’s easy banter and high-brow films have made him the thinking person’s heart-throb. But what do we really know about him? Ginny Dougary has a close encounter with a most elusive superstar

George Clooney is a guys’ guy, a gays’ guy and, obviously, a ladies’ man. It’s not just the looks and the voice, the irony (a slanting sense of humour not generally shared by his compatriots), the charm, the political awareness and unphoney compassion – an American who isn’t an embarrassment to America; it’s the whole package. He must be too good, surely, to be true?

The Clooney effect is even more astounding. You can attract your own little fan club just by announcing that you are off to interview him. My taxi driver, the most bloke-ish of South London blokes, got unusually excited: “George Clooney! Even I fancy him, and I’m heterosexual.” A gay female friend announced that she would cross the line for a night with him. Editors expirated; acquaintances asked if they could touch my hand as though they could press Clooney’s flesh, by long-distance osmosis, when he brushed mine; friends were beside themselves with envy. Mentioning his name at Heathrow and LAX airports was an “Open Sesame” for instant upgrades. On my return, I watched a documentary about a sex change ex-paratrooper whose first woozy words on coming round from her final op were: “Get me George Clooney’s number.”

I was not immune to the Swoon, and started off by klutzily knocking over my tape recorder. He agreed that this was not my best move, setting the relaxed, jokey tone of the rest of our fiercely negotiated time together. Later, I find myself blurting out that it’s funny looking into those dreamy brown eyes (when you’ve just seen them magnified on the giant screen, there is the odd moment of unreality as you gaze into them face to face). “Yes,” he grins, “they are dreamy, aren’t they?”, as though they were something quite separate from himself.

Is it ever hard being “a lurve object”? “Yes, yes, that’s me, don’t you think? Once you meet me, though, it’s not so fun, is it?” Mass giggles. “Too old and too grey.” But does it become tiresome being fancied by everyone or is it endlessly marvellous? “Well, you know, people have been nice to me most of my life. I mean, fairly kind. But there was a time when compliments about your appearance were used to make it sound as though you weren’t bright, in some way – so much so that you almost wanted to avoid them.

“But you get to an age [at 46, he's closer to 50 than 40] when you’ll take any compliments you can get – you know, ‘Yeah, thanks’ [a casual, molasses drawl] – so when people are trying to be nice, I’m never bothered.”

People may have been “nice” to Clooney before ER but it was that television series that led him to becoming an international heart-throb at the age of 33. He admits that he was suddenly catapulted into a different stratosphere of attention, because “ER was so huge. In America, with hits like American Idol, they’ll say, ‘Twenty million people watched it!’ But we averaged 45 million. It was such a giant hit that the focus had to be on certain people and things.”

ER’s “certain person” was careful not to emulate other stars of mega TV hits, most notably David Caruso in NYPD Blue, who was released after one season of a four-year contract to pursue a film career, which failed to take off. In contrast, Clooney honoured his five-year contract without once demanding a pay rise, even as he was almost single-handedly contributing to its enormous viewing figures, which cemented his reputation as a man of honour who valued such sturdy virtues as modesty, integrity and reliability.

Post-ER, his first critically acclaimed venture was Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of the Elmore Leonard thriller Out of Sight – with the famously sexy scene of Clooney’s bank robber spooning Jennifer Lopez’s US marshal in a car boot. The following year, he talked himself into getting a leading role in the first of his political films, Three Kings, which takes place during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein after the end of the first Gulf War. In 2000, he displayed a talent for comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ resetting of The Odyssey in Thirties Mississippi, as good ol’ boy chain-gang escapee Ulysses Everett McGill.

Fast-forward, via The Perfect Storm and Ocean’s Eleven blockbusters, to 2006 when Clooney received an embarrassment of Oscar nominations – the first person to be shortlisted for best director and best supporting actor for two separate films (he was also nominated for best original screenplay). He lost out for best director (for Good Night, and Good Luck, his atmospheric black and white Fifties film about TV journalist Ed Murrow’s battles with Joseph McCarthy) but bagged best supporting actor for his role in Syriana as a bearded, overweight – he gained three stone for the part – CIA agent caught up in the shifting moral eddies of the Middle East.

A few days before meeting the Swoon, I managed to catch up with him in Michael Clayton – he lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor (There Will Be Blood) in this year’s Oscars – and felt that in this portrayal of a flawed and troubled hero, he was digging into deeper psychological territory as an actor. There is a key scene when a shell-shocked Clooney runs across a mist-shrouded field at dawn to look at a trio of horses whose stillness matches his own. I confess he looked so very forlorn that it made me feel quite maternal, and he laughs and says: “Give me a hug.” (And, no, incredible though the Swooney Fan Club finds it, I did not.)

The new film Leatherheads, the first offering from Clooney’s production company, Smoke House, is a romantic comedy about the early days of America’s pro-football league in 1925. Clooney directs and stars as team captain Dodge Connelly opposite Renée Zellweger as a sharp-talking ambitious reporter, Lexie Littleton, who is dispatched by her editor to do an exposé on Connelly’s prize signing, an alleged boy wonder war hero – Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford.

It has the Clooney charm and farce and appeal – it is very good-looking, for a start, drenched in rich colours – but doesn’t strike me as an instant classic in the mould of the golden oldies such as The Philadelphia Story, which inspired its creators. Clooney recently admitted that Zellweger had been “a little bit” of a girlfriend and I would say there is a little bit of screen frisson between the two – a loaded dance, a romantic although rather chaste kiss, lots of zingy repartee. I particularly liked a couple of the lines, such as the one Lexie lobs at Dodge – “How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you in Deluth” – but wondered how much of the film’s audience was likely to be even dimly aware of Dorothy Parker and the round table of New Yorker wits.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “There’ll be somebody who picks up on it. Having grown up working in television, what all the networks say is, ‘Well, no one will get it.’ When we did the pilot for ER, the NBC executives literally turned round to the head of Warner Brothers and said, ‘What did you do with our $3 million? There’s too many stories. No one will get it.’

“And the truth is – when you think of the shows that have been hits over the years – that people are smart. M*A*S*H and Seinfeld and Taxi are all smart shows.”

Despite all Clooney’s love action with the opposite sex over the years – one ex-wife, decades ago, a string of girlfriends, none of whom has lasted for longer than three years – there have been persistent rumours about him preferring men. I had read about a website called “George Clooney is gay, gay, gay” and the fabulous, practically Wildean insouciance of his response: “No, I’m gay, gay…” “The third gay, that was pushing it,” he completes his quote, looking fleetingly pleased with himself.

The truth is that Clooney has a habit of playing up to the gay rumours. When I ask him about the film company he used to run with Soderbergh, Clooney’s response is: “Steven and I broke up.” Sifting through the cuttings – which despite their bulk are remarkably sparse in terms of fresh content, with the same slender details endlessly recycled – there is a distinct thread of playful campness. Way back, he was asked about an episode of his life when he brought girls back to mess around with him in his boudoir (a bed in a buddy’s cupboard) and his jocular riposte was: “I’m certainly out of the closet now.” During the ER years, asked about what might unfold in the next series, he referred to one of his male “colleagues” thus: “I think Noah [Wyle] and I become lovers on the show. Last season, you could see the longing glances across the room.” When he and some of the Ocean’s Eleven cast were invited to leave their handprints outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, he said: “If I had to be on my hands and knees with three other guys, I can’t think of three better guys to do it with.” Well, excuse me, but frankly how could you not think, “Hello, sailor!”

While some of our own local sex gods also enjoy teasing the press and the public about their various proclivities – Russell Brand and David Walliams instantly come to mind – it is highly unusual for an American film star to set the cat among the pigeons in this way. On the subject of pets, Clooney’s longest relationship has been with his beloved Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, Max, the actor’s constant companion – until his recent demise – for 18 years. According to newspaper reports, Max was even allowed to share Clooney’s bed in the rare gaps between his owner’s human relationships. If any of Clooney’s girlfriends could have been persuaded to go for a menage à trois, they might still be around.

When I say that I’m not going to ask about his sexuality, obviously, Clooney – as relaxed as it is possible to be – says: “That’s all right, you can.” Most people say that you’re so right-on that you won’t dignify the question with a concrete response… “Because then you denigrate the people who are [gay],” he agrees. “Also, I remember when there was a whole story about Richard Gere and the truth is that he handled that as best as he could. He didn’t want to say, ‘I’m not something,’ because it’s somehow insulting to other people.

“You know, people can think whatever they want. I live my life and have a great life and I’m not worried about what people in that world think.”

Later, he mentions “some actor” who introduced the subject of Clooney’s preferences recently, “and it was the funniest thing”. Er, what? “You’re talking about me being gay…” Which actor? “Some actor in a London paper brought it up. I can’t remember who it was but they were really tearing into me and I was, like, ‘Wow, that was strange.’” Sorry? An English actor said that you were gay? “I don’t know if that was what it was – maybe they were just saying that I was an idiot, I can’t remember.”

The unmemorable English actor, I later discover, is Rupert Everett, who had lambasted Clooney for his Ocean’s films, describing them as “a cancer to world culture”, and rammed the knife in even further, saying: “He’s not the brightest spark on the boulevard. He’ll be president one day. Mark my words, if he’s straight [Everett is a very out gay], he’ll be president.”

It is when we talk about the forthcoming presidential election that Clooney really hits his stride. On almost any other subject –which may explain that meagre sense of him in the cuttings – his charm acts as a sort of shield, creating a series of cul de sacs. His favoured response to any question that is remotely personal is to come back with a wisecrack, rather like the banter of an English public schoolboy, but more beguiling – so that you don’t instantly recognise it as a withholding device.

He admits to being a bit of a bloke himself – a bloke with a Peter Pan complex, with his train sets and model airplanes and motorbikes. When I’d read about his pranks – which he still likes to play, he says – my heart rather sank. There’s nothing debonair about leaving your calling card in your host’s cat litter tray (my sons thought this was hilarious, but they are teenagers) or borrowing friends’ cameras at parties to take photos of your naked bottom. His favourite clip on YouTube is of a monkey sticking a finger up his arse, smelling it and passing out.

Even his wedding, to actress Talia Balsam, sounds like a joke – with a ceremony conducted by an Elvis impersonator in a kitsch Las Vegas chapel. Three years after the couple’s divorce in 1993, Clooney himself sounded a bit worried by his prospects, saying: “The problem is kind of image. As you get older, that image isn’t cute any more – not like when you’re 18 and going out with a bunch of girls. When you’re 40 and you do it, it’s kind of sad.” I mention his current gorgeous girlfriend, Sarah Larson, a waitress turned reality television winner, and ask him how many months – “She’s, uh, I think she’s 29 years old, actually” (see, he’s quick) – before mumbling that they started dating in August.

Clooney has referred to his own immaturity, saying that even though he was 28 when he got married, he was probably too young for that commitment, since actors tend to be less grown up than the rest of us. He has often said that he has no desire to reproduce, but is that partly because fathering a child would deprive him of his own extended boyhood? He responds, inevitably, with a gag: “Don Cheadle [Ocean's Eleven, Hotel Rwanda] came up with a very funny line when he introduced me at an awards ceremony, saying, ‘George Clooney doesn’t have kids because he doesn’t want the competition.’”

I read him Philip Larkin’s famous anti-parenthood anthem (“They f*** you up your Mum and Dad”), which he finds very funny, as a way of asking him about his own childhood. He says: “Oh, I had a great childhood. I’m really, really close to my parents and talk to them all the time. But they were Catholic and very strict. I was always being grounded and being told to be in by seven. Grace at the meals and all that. But I was also a child of the Sixties and Seventies, with all those movements that were going on – civil rights, women’s rights, the drug counter-culture, the sexual revolution – which were interesting to me.”

Apart from Max the pig, Clooney’s longest relationships have been with eight buddies he’s known for 25 years. He says that he does, on the whole, prefer to hang out with “the guys” than with women. When he’s not making films or getting involved in humanitarian causes – he and his father, Nick, a former television news anchor, travelled to Sudan and Chad to make a documentary about genocide – or entertaining guests in his villa on Lake Como, the actor likes nothing better than to play basketball and kick back with his pals by drinking beers and watching sport on TV.

He sounds horrified when I ask whether the gang of eight are all actors. “Noooo, noooooo, noooo. One sells real estate, one’s a lawyer at Warner Brothers, one’s a writer-producer, one’s a security guard in Italy. Only one is an actor. They’re a great touchstone when things really take off…” And you could become a bit of a wanker; do you know that word? “Yes, I know it very well [a look of mock befuddlement], I’ve heard it a lot lately. I don’t understand why.

“What happens is that sometimes people can be too nice to you and say, ‘You’re really brilliant,’ and your buddies will go, ‘Oh, he’s a real genius,’ and they’ll just cut you up. They’re never mean, just funny. We’ve worked very hard for a long time to make sure that the most important thing is that we’re still all around for each other.” This sounds slightly odd when you consider that six of the eight have wives and children but, hey, this is Hollywood.

We had talked earlier about Clooney’s dismay at the way news is increasingly presented as entertainment. He cited a grotesque example of a boy who drowned during some dramatic floods and a producer’s decision to jazz it up with the Doors’ Riders on the Storm. Even Diane Sawyer – who, naturally, turns out to be a friend – plays the emotional card too much for my taste. So I tell him I’m going to attempt to ask him a serious question now. “OK, I’m ready.” This is my Diane Sawyer moment. “I’m ready,” he looks nervous. Do you ever worry about lonely old age? “I [sniffs, pretends to get tearful]… no, actually, I was joking about this with my Dad – about getting old and dying alone, you know, and my Dad was, like, ‘You die alone! That’s what you do, basically. Whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, you die alone.’ So he defends me a lot. And I have a great world. I have a great family and great friends.”

Do you get depressed? “Sure, I get depressed sometimes. But then if you drink, you know, then it’s fine.” No, no, drink can exaggerate depression. “Hahahahahahahah. Not if you’re Irish!”

I mention the references to Clooney’s drug use in his youth – dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms – and comments by his late aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, about his dark circles and wild lifestyle. “Oh, I didn’t know that she said that. That’s funny. I was mellow compared to my friends. Certainly it was a different time in terms of drugs in general, but, you know, I never had an issue with it. It was just casual use.”

Rosemary Clooney had her own “issues” with prescription drugs and wrote about her addiction and subsequent confinement in a mental hospital. It was her illness that dissuaded Clooney from taking any pain medication when an accident on the set of Syriana led to him suffering severe back problems and short-term memory loss. He still gets headaches but other than that he has recovered pretty well. “They gave me a tub this big, you know,” he extends his hands. “And you take one and it feels pretty good and you take two, and it feels better, and the next day two doesn’t do it. They’re incredibly addictive.

“There are so many people in this town who are or were addicted to it. They pass them out like M&M’s out here. They really alter your personality. It’s like a bad drunk. It takes you away from who you are, which in Rosemary’s case was a really fun person, but she went through a time in the early Seventies when she was truly hung up on prescription drugs and she wasn’t fun to be with. You were always aware that might be in your genes, so you stay away from them.”

Since Clooney has been outspoken about his support of Barack Obama, I wonder whether he agrees with the view that the Clintons have been fighting dirty. “They have upped the ante and have made it difficult if they were to have a dual ticket so, yes, I suppose that means in some ways they have.

“But, at the end of the day, not too much damage is done – it’s probably nothing more than he would have gotten from the Republicans – so it might as well come out now. I think it would cause an awfully big rip in the Democrats if he isn’t the nominee.”

Was it an easy choice for you? “From the very beginning.” Why not her? “First of all, it wasn’t ‘not her’, it was him. I’m a friend of Bill and Hillary’s and I like her very much, but Barack Obama is that person who comes around very rarely. He’s just spellbinding.”

He mentions that he was talking recently about the state of America with his father – the only reason that Clooney doesn’t mention his mother is that she hates being talked about, but she’s a former beauty queen who was also mayor of Augusta – when the Clooneys Snr and Jnr decided that all was not doom and gloom.

“My father and I were saying that we’ve been lucky as a country historically. When we needed a constitution – something which has to be really well-handled – we had Thomas Jefferson. Then we had a civil war, which could have destroyed the country, and there was Lincoln. With the Depression, we had Roosevelt. The Cuban missile crisis was the closest we’ve ever come to a nuclear holocaust and there was Kennedy. These are some of the greatest leaders of our time, and then we had 2001 and got unlucky. And, listen, I can’t believe that Bush is an evil man – I just think he wasn’t equipped. But maybe 2001 or September 11 wasn’t that moment – although they were two of the biggest moments in our country’s history – but now that our economy is in the tank, our face across the world is probably at its most blemished, our country has been assailed, the fact that we don’t necessarily adhere to the Geneva Convention… maybe in terms of that moment when you absolutely need someone to lead, not manage the country, maybe it’s now.

“Because here’s the thing that’s sort of astonishing. Even at the time of the civil rights movement or Vietnam – when kids actually had something to lose – they still didn’t show up at the polls. But you know what? They’re voting right now like you cannot believe. So maybe this is that moment where, for the first time in our history, kids are going to understand that they have to take the reins of our country and that may be why Barack Obama is around right now.”

Time’s up. I try, unsuccessfully, to coax Clooney into doing a duet with me and warble those lines from O Brother – “Let’s go down to the river and pray” – but he says that his voice is so bad that they cut it out of the movie. “My father, he had an album. My aunt, she could sing. My mother cannot sing at all. She screwed it up for me.” Well, I say, as he is walking out of the door, I’m sure I’ll see you again one day. “Yes, you will,” he pokes his head back and does the Swooney grin, “because I’ll be your stalker.”

* * *

Leatherheads is released nationwide on April 11

Actors, Celebrities

Robert Redford: An American idol

The Times – November 3, 2007
- Ginny Dougary

Robert Redford was the screen heart-throb of his generation, but he never quite played the Hollywood game. Back in the director’s chair, he talks about being an outsider, his looks and why he is in mourning for his country

It’s a measure of Robert Redford’s enduring appeal, even at the grand age of 70, that when he says, “I’m all yours”, just for a fraction of a second, a tiny bit of you wishes it were true. In truth, despite an occasional dimpled grin – when you catch a flicker of the old Redford screen charisma that made your 13-year-old heart pound in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – and surprisingly gentle manners, he has neither the playfulness nor the hint of danger of the natural-born flirt.

This should be music to his ears, if Redford is to be believed, since the poor man has spent decades trying to be taken seriously, only to have his good looks stand in the way. When he appeared on the scene, journalists of both sexes drooled. A Newsweek profile by a male writer is a classic of the type, launching into his “gorgeousness” thus: “The head is classically shaped, the features chiseled to an all-American handsomeness, the body athletically muscled…” Not to be outdone by this homo-erotic rhapsody, the women writers swooned: “He gives you the feeling that even his sweat would smell good”, and raved about his “cool” and “sexual arrogance that is far more fetching than any amount of sweet talk”.

What is more interesting, apart from the quaint gush of these early pieces, is to see how consistent Redford has been from his earliest interviews in the Sixties and Seventies about the issues that he is known for now: anti-Hollywood, pro-environment, concerned about youth apathy, questioning of the government and sceptical about politicians in general, as well as the power of corporations. He has always been protective of his privacy and had periods of withdrawal from work – even at the height of his fame – to travel around Europe or do his own thing.

Way back in 1970, a year after he shot to fame as the Sundance Kid, Redford vented his frustration about Hollywood to a young Derek Malcolm: “You can’t run an art form like a business any more and they’re still trying to. Films to them are just like vacuum cleaners or refrigerators. The approach sickens me.”

Not content to bitch from the sidelines, Redford founded the non-profit-making Sundance Institute in 1981 – using his own land and property in Utah – to support emerging screenwriters, directors, composers and producers who work alongside established names to craft their skills and develop their projects. To this was added the now internationally famous Sundance Film Festival which, to its creator’s evident discomfort, has become so successful it has assumed the mantle of the Cannes of America, with all the trashy commercialism that entails.

This is anathema to Redford, whose rueful complaint to me is: “What happened was the success of it brought the media, and then the merchants came and the stars came… Look, when Paris Hilton comes to the festival, she’s coming to the parties. We’re doing the same that we always have, but then the brand names come to take advantage of the festival and they throw parties to promote their brands and they say, ‘Come and we’ll give you a free coat or a free perfume or we’ll take your photo.’ I can’t control it because it’s a free country – that’s the reality and it is ironic. But I don’t worry about our mission as long as we stay true, and the Lab is non-profit and that’s the purest thing about Sundance.”

Naturally, with Sundance’s success, come the knockers. A counter-festival, Slamdance, established itself in Utah in the Nineties to show the films the organisers believe Redford has turned his back on – but there’s no evidence that his vision has been diluted. He may be attracted to the likes of The Horse Whisperer, which appeals to his romanticism about the American landscape he fights to protect, his love of horses and his sadness about the dying ranch culture of the West, but the films that have come through his “Lab” or have been showcased at the festival are very different and include Pulp Fiction, Sex, Lies and Videotape (the director, Steven Soderbergh, and Redford have since fallen out), Boys Don’t Cry, Orlando, The Blair Witch Project, Memento and Little Miss Sunshine.

Redford has worked equally hard on environmental issues, both publically and behind the scenes, and has a slew of awards in recognition of his contribution. The Utah home he built himself almost three decades ago was fitted with solar panels – visitors have commented on its rather spartan decor – long before it was fashionable to be green. He successfully campaigned against a huge power station being built between five national parks and disgruntled locals – Utah is a Republican stronghold – responded by burning an effigy of the star. Most unglamorously, he took on the role of the local sewerage commissioner with a mission to transform the area into an independent municipality with its own produce and energy resources.

For his pains – and even his detractors could hardly accuse the man of not backing up his words with action – Redford is hammered for being earnest or worthy, impatient, arrogant, humourless, a control freak and so on. One of the biggest and legitimate complaints against him is that he is always late. He once kept a Sunday Times journalist waiting seven hours, after she had made the epic trek to Sundance. Paul Newman, his co-star on Butch… and The Sting, presented him with a needlepoint runner stitched by Joanne Woodward (Mrs Newman) that read: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.”

This was a revealing rebuke since it suggests – something one can glean from the early cuts when the actor was a bit more forthcoming – that Redford’s early chippiness about being born on the wrong side of the tracks has prompted grandstanding posturising to demonstrate that he’s as important, if not more so, than the Hollywood royalty he had joined. Newman, who is a friend, was gently trying to point out that such behaviour is not classy.

I would have liked to have asked Redford about his punctuality problem, but our interview, of course, was cut short by his late arrival. However, I should add here, it was the star himself who dared to defy the publicity martinets by insisting that he make up the extra 15 minutes in his own lunch hour. This was gracious of him and also provoked an unexpected conspiratorial mirth between the interviewer and interviewee. “I’m here to serve,” he kept saying plaintively, and moaned that, “They have me jammed to the gills.”

Redford describes himself as coming from “a lower-working-class family. My dad was a milkman and supported us with no money. We didn’t have anything. I grew up in a Mexican neighbourhood [Santa Monica, 12 miles from Hollywood, known as “the home of the homeless”] where you had to provide your own entertainment. I was blessed that I was athletic and so could do sports.”

In one of his earliest interviews, he confessed that, “Sometimes I’d break into those big houses in Bel-Air just to look around and I thought, ‘What have they done to deserve all this?’ I was always good at tennis and I took great pleasure in beating the rich kids.”

His education was not good, but one teacher discovered that her problem pupil had a surprisingly creative bent. “I started drawing because there was nothing else to do,” he says. “If my parents went somewhere on a visit, they would take me along because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. So I’d sit in the corner and pick up a pencil and draw things. And then in class, I would be distracted and looking out the window all the time, or I would draw instead of doing an assignment.”

When he was nine or ten, the teacher who had started out by punishing him – insisting that he draw a picture once a week and describe what it was about to the class – began to realise, “‘Wait a minute. He’s telling a story and he’s pretty good.’ I loved hearing and telling stories and that’s the way I learned – through stories.”

The rest of his school years Redford describes as “a disaster”. He was always in trouble, going off the rails and drinking too much. He believes there is a connection between the Celts – he is Scottish and Irish on both sides of the family – and boozing, and says that some members of his family, although not his parents, had problems with alcohol. He managed to win a baseball scholarship to Colorado University, but was kicked out because of his drunkeness.

Of all the different characters he has played – and critics complain that they tend to be a one-note samba, detached and unknowable, or perhaps played that way, much like his reputation off screen – the Sundance outlaw is the one who, Redford says, feels closest to his own skin. He was originally up for the part of Butch Cassidy but persuaded the director, George Roy Hill, that, “I can identify with that guy [the Kid] a lot more because of my earlier life, and he got interested in that because we’re both Irish and so on…” So the roles were swapped, leaving Newman in the lighter part and Redford as the brooding, more intense foil.

As a bleached-haired Californian surfie teenager, part of a gang of semi-delinquents, Redford grew up despising actors – referring to them as “sissy boys” – and the whole Hollywood scene. On one occasion, he and his older half-brother broke into one of the studio lots and trashed the place. Even at this long remove, when he has achieved so much, Redford still identifies himself with alluring ne’er-do-wells, particularly if they have a death wish – such as the beautiful but doomed alcoholic younger brother, Paul (played by Brad Pitt looking uncannily like the young Redford) in A River Runs Through It, which Redford directed in 2002.

Perhaps this connection with the wayward rebel – who enjoys a certain reckless freedom – also explains his ambivalence about the acting world and made him more determined to define himself in other ways. He tells journalists that he is not of a psychological disposition, though this seems a convenient way of sidestepping awkward territory and may be a legacy of his upbringing – “We never trusted words much in my household.” Yet, he did see a therapist in the Eighties (who promptly betrayed him by selling his story to the press) when his long marriage to Lola Van Wagenen, mother of their three children, finally came to an end.

His real education began, he says, when he came to Europe in the late Fifties. This flight from America, when Redford was 18, followed the death of his mother. “I wanted to get out in the world and experience other cultures and histories and people,” he says. “I wanted to be an artist, so I went to France and Italy and I was living a very low life, you know, in a bohemian area. But what got me was that all the students I engaged with – whether they were artists or medical students – were all extremely political. It was the de Gaulle era, you know, and the time of the Algerian crisis.

“They were asking me questions and I was humiliated because I didn’t know the answers. I was just absolutely ashamed. So I made it a point to begin to look at my country but from another country’s point of view – because in California you’re given a very comfortable view about things. And I realised that I had a high regard for this other point of view because it was very intelligent and very different. So I began to put all these together and when I came back, a year and a half later, I schooled myself on what my country was doing and how I felt about it.”

Were you able to find like-minded people when you returned to the States? “I was not. I was expecting engagement and all people asked me was how the girls were or the food, and that was so disappointing. So it was around that time that I started to put a critical eye on my own country but I also realised, having travelled around, how fortunate I was in the country that I was from and how that country was blessed in many ways, and how do you protect that?”

He landed in New York, enrolled in art school and, “through a series of serendipitous turns”, ended up at drama school at the same time, supported by his wife, and acting was the career that took hold. (It would seem ill-advised, particularly since the Redfords had separated for a good ten years before the press got hold of the story, to comment on his current status. But, with no evidence to the contrary, we must assume he is still with Sibylle Szaggars, a German painter, who has been his partner since 1996.)

Redford’s first roles were on Broadway, where he created something of a stir as the male lead in Neil Simon’s light comedy Barefoot in the Park in 1963, directed by Mike Nichols. It won a Tony Award (but not for Redford) and ran for 1,530 performances, which appears to have put the actor off a career in theatre for life. And then, in 1969, came his big breakthrough, as the Sundance Kid, at the un-Kid-like age of 32.

I have the impression that Redford has a low boredom threshold, as well as a short attention span, which may explain why he turned his back on theatre once his film career took off. He says that he loves going to see plays – of course, he saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens about the build-up to the Iraq war – but he agrees that he is unsuited to the daily routine of performing on the stage.

“You are partly very right. It’s not that I have a short attention span but I do have a low boredom threshold. For me, the joy of acting was in the spontaneity of expressing yourself – and being part of what makes a play ‘happen’ is pretty exciting – but after nine months of doing the same thing every night… you just want it to move to a new place,” he says.

Redford is sensitive to criticism about his acting and, as ever, believes that his appearance has prevented critics from an accurate appraisal of his performances. It’s difficult to know how to respond to his angst about his looks, particularly when one reads about his insistence on photographs being touched up. Even as far back as 1973, The Way We Were, in which he co-starred with Barbra Streisand, became known as “the Battle of the Close-Ups” because both actors reputedly competed to be shot from the most flattering angle. (Redford, who had apparently successfully negotiated to be paid more than La Streisand, allegedly won.)

One has to ask why Redford would be so concerned about protecting his image if he genuinely believed that it has been an obstacle to him being taken seriously. There has been a certain amount of speculation about whether he has had any “work” done on his face, particularly as he has lambasted those who have submitted to the knife. I found one reference to his eyes having been operated on “on medical grounds” – whatever the reason, for a septuagenrian he certainly does have a strikingly open, unlined gaze. But one can equally imagine that Redford would find it demeaning, “sissy” even, to stoop to any surgical enhancement.

He tells me that he still gets drooled over: “Even today. It happened last week when we were on tour. I keep thinking, and I mean this when I say it, when do we get past this? I can’t speak for Europe but certainly in my country, there’s an obsession with youth. People trying to stay young and facelifting and all that, which I haven’t done. I keep thinking that I’ll grow out of being labelled, you know. I just don’t understand it.”

Face to face, it is a shock to see quite how freckly and “ginger” Redford is. Redheads don’t suffer the same stigma in the States as they do in this country, and we have a funny moment when my interviewee attempts to get to grips with the point I’m endeavouring to make. “Bullet?” he asks. No, bullied. “Bullied? Oh, really? Are you being serious? Why?” Nevertheless, although Redford was never exactly tormented on account of his colouring, “When I was a little kid, I had red hair and freckles and I was certainly teased, yeah, yeah – ‘Hey, Red! Hey, Red!’” he taunts.

Surely it was quite pleasant to discover that you were so appealing to the opposite sex. “Absolutely it was,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say it was a shock but it was a surprise and it was something I could enjoy for a period of time. But then it got out of hand and I began to see the dark side of it. Particularly since I’d grown up in Los Angeles and was not enamoured of Hollywood.”

He no longer turns up in cowboy gear – partly because of his age but also, perhaps, because of the way that image has been tainted by Bush in his off-duty garb and on-message rhetoric (“We’re gonna get them bad guys!”). Still, Redford wears his shirt a little like medallion man, unbuttoned to his chest, revealing a sparse-ish crop of carroty hair. When I tell him that the elderly taxi driver who dropped me off said that he hated Robert Redford “because of the way he looks compared to the way I look”, the actor says: “I’ve gotten a lot of that but when you get it from the critics, it’s really rough. You know, they resent you because of your physical self and you say, ‘Would you not judge me for that, please? Would you please judge the performance?’”

Dick Cavett, America’s veteran chatshow host, once described Redford as having “a withheld quality that makes the viewer come to him”. It is this reticence, some might call it subtlety, that has laid the actor open to accusations that his range is limited, as though he were too buttoned down, too afraid of being unmanly, to show overt emotion. One of his directors said that he felt Redford was a natural character actor encased in the body of a matinée idol. He says that when he started out as an actor, “I played all kinds of parts. I played killers and rapists and deranged people and they were great fun as an actor because there was variety. But no one knows that except the people who watch old TV series like Naked City and The Twilight Zone.”

Whatever his reasoning, apart from an early role when he agreed to play the part of a bi-sexual reprobate at a time when plenty of Hollywood actors would have declined, Redford seems to have settled for roles which are safely within his comfort zone – restricting his risk-taking for the higher ground.

His new film, Lions for Lambs, about America’s role in Afghanistan, the first he has directed for seven years, is a case in point. It is worth pointing out here that it is as a director, rather than an actor, that Redford has been honoured with an Academy Award for his debut feature, Ordinary People, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Quiz Show.

Although Redford talks at great length about his new project, like the politicians he dislikes, the actor-director (environmentalist, philanthropist, etc) has the same battering-ram tendencies to repeat himself, albeit in a variety of ways, in the hope of getting his point across. There appears to be a certain level of anxiety behind the scenes, judging from the number of times I was asked what I thought of the film by various personnel.

Well, it may have its flaws – as commentators have already noted – but I would say that it is essential viewing, particularly for American audiences. The story unfolds in real time, during the course of a single day, and explores many of the issues that are dear to Redford’s heart via three separate strands – the role of the media (how, in the present climate, can it step away from being the Government’s propaganda machine?), the politicians’ justification of the War on Terror, and the losing battle of educators (Redford plays the anguished professor) to prevent students retreating into a torpor of cynical lassitude because they feel helpless to effect change.

The power of the film is the juxtaposition of two injured soldiers – former students of the professor – waiting to be killed by the Taleban on the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, while in the safety of lecture rooms and living rooms and White House offices, politicians, professors and students, reporters and editors, argue about how to end this war. The scenes between Meryl Streep as the veteran journalist and Tom Cruise as the ambitious senator are as dazzling as they are daunting, with the senator saying: “You sold the war, now you have to help sell the solution.”

You just have to look at the level of debate – so ranting and knee-jerking and, frankly, moronic – in response to Lions for Lambs on the website of Variety, America’s newspaper for the entertainment industry, to see what Redford is up against and why he feels the need to make such a film.

There may be a sense in which Middle America could feel betrayed by Redford – how could the denim-clad cowboy and lover of the great open plains be such an unpatriotic turncoat? But despite his lack of polish and uneasy way with words, since that early “lowlife” European education, Redford has remained true to what he holds dear about America. It is only now, as he enters the last chapters of his life, that he feels his country has lost its way.

He is not at all optimistic about the future: “The bottom line has taken over everything, including journalism. It’s surprising, frankly, that the studios would take a chance on this film. There has been so much damage to our country that it’s going to take a long, long time to pull ourselves out of it.”

Can you see it happening in your lifetime? “Anything’s possible,” he says. “It’s just that there’s so much damage and there’s such a negative impression of America throughout the world and for these people to be talking about democracy while practising policies that are so undemocratic…”

Does he feel angry? “You know, what I can’t forget or forgive is that we were asked to give up our freedoms and let them do what they needed to [after 9/11] and we zipped our lips and gave up challenging the election because they had a difficult job. And it sure was good timing for them.

“And we gave up criticising the administration and our president, and we all saluted and marched in lock step in support, only to be lied to and cheated and send young people in harm’s way and unnecessarily risk losing their lives. That made me angry. And now I’m past anger and in a state of mourning.

“Freedom of opinion, freedom of debate and dissent, that’s what democracy means, but it’s all been shut down now and it’s ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ and we don’t even have to talk about how dangerous that is and where that leads if it’s not corrected. And I know that [with this film] I’m probably not going to change anybody’s opinion but at least as an artist I can try to dramatise what my feelings are about.”

——–

Lions for Lambs opens nationwide on November 9

Celebrities, Women

Rock’s Stepford wife

The Times – August 21, 2007
- Ginny Dougary

She married two Sixties legends and inspired three of the era’s greatest love songs. But Pattie Boyd’s life in the most famous love triangle in rock was far from glamorous.

The strongest feeling I had on completing Pattie Boyd’s autobiography was relief: “Thank God, I was never a super Sixties model who married two of the biggest rock heroes of the era and inspired three of the most enduring love songs of all time,” was my thought.

Boyd’s story is fascinating because it reveals the realities of rock-chick Stepford wifedom behind all those photos which made such an impression on me as a kid living off the Kings Road in the days when it swung: Pattie gorgeously gap-toothed and stylishly draped in her antique velvet coats and floppy hat, on the arm of George Harrison, then Eric Clapton who famously supplanted him.

In the flesh – she is still pretty fab at sixty-something – Boyd reminds me, with her wholesome poshness, occasional flashes of theatrical whimsy and sense of humour, of Joanna Lumley. From time to time, apart from her obvious attributes, one catches a glimpse of what it was that turned so many men’s heads. When you say something that amuses her, for instance, she throws back her chin and laughs so uproariously that you can’t help but feel flattered. Put almost any point to her and she endeavours to answer it as directly and thoughtfully as she can.

Despite her pukka but dysfunctional background, Boyd left school at 17 – before taking her A levels – and became a model at 18. She met George Harrison on the set of Richard Lester’s Hard Day’s Night, when she played one of a trio of the Beatles’ smitten schoolgirl fans. George and Pattie fell in love and married. Fast forward and – according to her book – Pattie got the Eastern mysticism bug first which resulted in all the Beatles, and their various spouses and girlfriends, taking off to meditate and get in touch with their inner selves in a spartan Indian retreat with the Maharishi. By the time George and Pattie returned to England Harrison had become somewhat “obsessive” about his spiritual practices.

Ensconced in the grand eccentricity of their old palatial pile of Friar Park, near Henley-on-Thames, put-upon Pattie has to deal with her husband’s periods of withdrawal – either to meditate for hours, sometimes months, on end or planning the restoration of their folly-filled grounds (her opinion is never sought) – and bursts of counteractive drug and booze-fuelled entertaining.

The latter, at least, gave her some sense of value since Boyd had – in her increasing isolation (Harrison saw no reason for his wife to continue modelling) – become a keen cook and a dinner party gave her an opportunity to show off her culinary skills. But even this pleasure is taken away from her when George decides that he would prefer to have Ravi Shankar’s nephew, a long-term guest along with an assortment of Hari Krishna families, to prepare his meals.

Eric Clapton, in the meantime, has been waiting in the wings – bombarding his friend’s wife with Baudelarian billets-doux and penning what was to become an anthem of unrequited love: “Layla. . . you’ve got me on my knees”. But Pattie does not prove so easy to conquer even when – how ridiculously this reads – he says that he will turn to heroin, showing her a plastic bag, if she continues to spurn his overtures. She resists him, he becomes a world-class junkie, and some years later – by which time Clapton has switched his addictions from heroin to alcohol – Pattie finally takes the plunge and replaces one form of glamorous-seeming imprisonment with another.

Before we talk about her years with Clapton, what interests me is the way that Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono both seemed to “manage” their husbands – and had, apparently, the most successful Beatles marriages as a result. Both of them come across as strong characters with careers of their own – Yoko as an avant-garde artist, Linda as a photographer. Those amazing songs – Something in the Way She Moves, Layla and Wonderful Tonight – were prompted by Pattie being the Object of Desire but the tributes have proved more durable than the intense feelings which inspired them.

She says that when so much is made of your looks: “It’s fantastic but it’s a double-edged sword . . . it made me really nervous because if the praise is purely about good looks, obviously there are other girls who are better-looking than me and, you know, could I be replaced?” The key thing about Linda and Yoko, Boyd says, is that they were American (Ono’s Japanese family moved to New York after the war) – and “whenever I went to America, I was amazed at how strong the American girls were with the guys. English girls were woosies in comparison.

“The English public as a whole didn’t like Yoko or Linda because they didn’t get them . . . they were looking at them physically and thinking, ‘I’m sure I look better than those two.’ But they stood up to their men, which is what was needed because they’d been fêted and courted from a very, very young age.

“Whereas I would be: ‘If the man says that he wants this, that or the other then that’s what we’re going with’ because that’s what I learnt from my mother, you see – whatever the man says is right.” While to the outside world she was a modern goddess, behind the doors of her rock-star palaces whatever power Boyd had wielded through her beauty and glow had shrunk with her diminished self-confidence. Had she become a doormat? “I think I did slide into the doormat syndrome, most definitely, and what happened one day is I thought, ‘My God, this doormat’s getting thinner and thinner and thinner and unless I do something about it soon, I’m not going to have the strength to get up and . . .’ I knew that unless I moved when I moved, I wouldn’t be able to.” Reading Boyd’s book with its swift descent into the misery of living with an extreme alcoholic, and looking at the photographs of Clapton then – with his perpetually pickled glaze – it is hard to remember what a cool figure he was.

Still, I wonder whether there wasn’t something of a guy-thing about the adoration even at the time; his virtuoso guitar-playing spawning legions of adolescent Clapton wannabes. George and Eric’s allnight guitar duel to claim “rights” to a bemused Pattie in the kitchen of Friar Park sounds more like the antics of Rock School Frat Club brinkmanship than anything truly romantic.

Boyd says: “He was like a modern-day Pete Doherty to me. Well . . . I don’t know, actually, Pete’s a bit beyond . . . But he looked sort of rascally and naughty.” Of course, one of the reasons that she’s written the book is money. Boyd is admirably up-front about this: “Well, I always need money. As I told you earlier, I love to travel and I’m not the sort of person that can back-pack, quite frankly.” There is also no sense whatsoever that Boyd was exactly an innocent when all the partying was going on. The book is filled with references to her drinking and not all of it is blamed on her attempts to keep up with her spouses. There is one reference to her being offered “uppers, downers or sideways” by Andrew Loog Oldham’s (manager of the Rolling Stones) wife, Sheila, while her hostess’s children are playing in the garden.

Mrs Loog Oldham narrowly escapes burning the house down and George is not impressed by his wife returning in such a drug-addled state. She tries the really hard stuff in the loos of the airport en route to some fabulous location where she intends to get her younger sister, Paula, off junk for the umpteenth time. And, somehow, even this is relayed in such a breezily jaunty way that it sounds like “Bunty tries Heroin!” Clapton has been more outspoken about the worst depths of his behaviour with Boyd than she has – although she does write about her feelings of dread, lying in bed at night, hearing his sozzled footfall on the stairs and not knowing how he will behave.

When I ask Boyd why she chose not to include those incidents, she says: “You know, I don’t want to twist the knife.

“Eric knows how he was when he was married to me and it’s probably not happy for him to think of me and him because he must remember how he was and his alcoholic ways and nobody wants to remember the worst time in their life. I think it’s important for people who are in a position that I was in when we were married to see what the life is really like – how one has to hang on to secrets, and it’s a very sick relationship and a very sick disease. One wants to be loyal and within that loyalty, you don’t really tell anybody else about the extent of the pain and anguish that’s involved . . . the way you fool yourself that one day the person you love will get better.” There is a sense in the book that Clapton’s desire for Boyd was always at its most intense when she was absent and beyond his control. But I wonder whether, at some level, he never quite felt that he had the upper hand.

Do you think that Clapton ever felt that he quite “owned” you? “I don’t think so. He wanted to – he did his utmost to. We’re talking on a very deep level here.” Do you think it was almost as though he wanted to break your spirit? “Yes, he did. And he said that once. There must have come a time when he realised that he couldn’t and that was when he started to back off.

“But I think people do punish each other in relationships, don’t you? Sometimes it’s very obvious and other times it’s more like a little sting every so often – a reminder, and it’s a punishment, actually – part of a punishing process.”

Her last partner, Rod Weston, a property developer, was the first man who allowed Boyd to be herself: “He was very supportive and I realised that I could actually stand up to a man and he wasn’t going to desert me – so I thank him for that.”

We talk briefly about the painful area of children – her inability to have a child, despite undergoing IVF treatment when she was married to Clapton, and his joy when his mistress bore him a son, Conor, who he then lost in tragic circumstances. In the photographs of Clapton holding his son, he looked so happy, as though some deep shadow in him had lifted. “It was the boy in him that had lifted, I think,” Boyd says. “Because he now had his own boy, he didn’t need to play that role any longer.” It’s not as though there aren’t children in her life – Boyd has 13 nephews and nieces – but she still thinks she would have been “the best” mother herself and would have liked to have had four of her own.

She doesn’t like ageing at all: “It’s to do with looks – what else could it be to do with? I just think, ‘Oh my God, are my arms good enough for this T-shirt?’ [An off-the-shoulder number, revealing cleavage and a glimpse of black lacy bra.] See, I do love clothes – and clothes look good if you don’t look too old.” I ask her whether she’s had any work done. A dentist persuaded her to fill the gap in her teeth, which was part of her charm: “Years later, I thought ‘Oh what a mistake, I rather liked my gap’ and under my eyes,” she says. “I always describe them as ‘tear bags’. After my second marriage went so wrong and I was so terribly sad, I thought I’ll have my tear bags removed.”

We are sitting in a boudoir-ish room of a mad hotel off the Portobello Road. It’s eccentrically stuffed with antiques and knick-nacks. Boyd is something of a one-off too but I don’t have the sense at all that she is a tragic Sunset Boulevard figure trapped in her past glories, partly because of her insistence that the reality behind the façade was often far from glorious.

She has her photography and travel and in November a chocolatier course: “I want to make chocolate and learn about it right from the start.” She is attractively unbitter about life even though she does point out that one of her Burne-Jones paintings is still hanging in Friar Park “but, anyway, we won’t talk about that . . .” and that her divorce settlement from Clapton was hardly in the same league of today’s goldmines: “Amazing, isn’t it? Eric did say to me that I divorced him at the wrong time, and then had a bit of a chuckle after he had taken me out to lunch and I said: ‘Thank you for bringing me back to my two-bed-room flat’.”

The big reconciliation that she has had in recent years is with her mother. “I like her a lot now,” she says. “She’s my good friend. She phoned me the other day after she’d read some of the book and she said: ‘Poor darling, you had such a miserable childhood. I’m so sorry. It made me weep a bit – I was such a dreadful mummy.’ And I said, ‘So? Maybe I needed that sort of thing to battle against, you know. I’m hardly damaged now, am I?’

“And she laughed and said: ‘No, Pattie, you’re not damaged at all’.”

Celebrities, Writers

Culture vulture

The Times – May 12 2007
- Ginny Dougary

Once famous for his barbed dissection of tacky TV, Clive James all the while was living a life of the mind. Our correspondent meets a modern polymath as he unveils his 40-year cultural odyssey on Times Online

Clive James
Photo: Mark Harrison

Australians, in my experience, however deeply transplanted, still crave the cerulean skies and bright light of their birthplace ­ which is why it is unexpected to find Clive James, on the sunniest of English spring mornings, in a curtain-drawn lair of such impenetrable gloom that the atmosphere seems to fizz with electricity from all the wattage. Or, perhaps, that’s just the effect of his personality.

His London pad is in a converted warehouse near Tower Bridge. It’s wine-bar territory rather than the sort of coffee-house bohemia that is his preferred habitat but that’s precisely why James chose it ­ all the easier for him to guard his anonymity and get on with the serious business of writing and, ah, tango dancing.

Most of the walls are covered with thousands of books: old Penguin novels with their classic orange and white design, and titles covering every subject that could conceivably prick the curiosity of their owner’s magpie mind. (This is a man who, after all, has painstakingly acquired at least six languages, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese, in order to read certain books in the original.) There are also paintings by his artist daughter, Claerwen, many photographs of beautiful women, including his wife, various objects from his travels and “Postcard from…” television programmes, and a loo full of Schiele-like nudes.

We sit at a dining-room table in the hall on high-backed Mackintosh chairs (only repro, James assures me) and get stuck in. His new book, Cultural Amnesia, is an 800-page whopper, which has taken him four years to write and all his life to collate. The subtitle is Notes in the Margin of My Time, and although there are many different figures in it, both well-known and obscure, the one that weaves through them all is the author himself.

This is Culture with both a large and a small C as befits the man who dubbed himself a premature post-modernist: “Hard to say, isn’t it?” he says, “Crazy name! Crazy guy!” ­ so under M, you will find Thomas Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain Mann, preceded by Michael Miami Vice, Manhunter Mann, sandwiched by Norman Mailer and Mao Zedong. American talk-show host Dick Cavett, Coco Chanel and Tony Curtis are given equal billing to Cocteau, Camus and Chesterton.

Several times in our interview ­ when we talk about lust, for instance, or sensitivity to criticism (neither of them foreign to James) ­ he directs me to one or other essay in his book. Ernesto Sábato, an Argentinian writer ­ “take this down”, James dictates, spelling out his name ­ is quoted: “Only a thick skin can defend itself, and the characteristic of an artist is an extreme delicacy of skin”, which prompts our cultural guide to ponder how the statement might apply to himself ­ “If I had my time again, I would never react publicly to criticism, no matter how unjustified.”

A page or two on, and he’s into the tango ­ “a sad thought, dancing” (coined, not by Sábato ­ we learn ­ but by a vernacular poet, Enrique Santos Discépolo, in the Thirties; the book is full of such snippets of what James is proud to call useless knowledge) ­ and he’s off again: “Undoubtedly it was the sight of old goats with pretty young women in their arms that helped draw me into the tango world, a man in winter longing for a touch of spring”, and on through a dazzling and sometimes beautiful series of seemingly unconnected connections ­ like a jazz riff, the notes scattering and cohering ­ to his conclusion: “A man who wants to find out who he really is should try watching the woman he loves as she dances the tango with a maestro.” There is more along the lines of this Old Man Winter refrain, prompted only partially by my first question. In the introduction to the book, James suggests that such a colossal work ­ based on four decades of jottings and notes ­ was something he had planned to write towards the end of his life.

So is the publication of Cultural Amnesia accompanied by the sound of a bell ominously tolling? “I’ve been feeling towards the end of my life-ish since I was about 24,” he wheezes and laughs. “I used to have some very bad habits including drinking, and I thought I’ll never last at this rate, especially at the rate I smoked. I always feel like I’m living on borrowed time… So I do feel this is the last round-up,” his voice taking on that ironic Jamesian swoop, “but as my friend P. J. O’Rourke has already warned me, I can overdo this last-ditch stuff. You can’t spend 20 years saying this is the last gasp.”

But you’re not really all that old, are you? “No, I’m a fairly young 67,” he says, a little smugly. “I’m just wearing the internal effects of having smoked since I was nine.” He tosses aside the suggestion that this sounds as though he’s hinting at something sinister: “I’ve got the lungs that anyone would have who’s smoked since that age.” And then: “I’m not sick. I haven’t got time to be sick… I’ve no time to die.” He goes on to introduce his comments, several times, with the portentous words: “If I am granted life…” which seems to intimate a certain preoccupation with his own mortality.

England has been his home since James arrived here aged 21, but he has always been bewildered by the prevailing attitude that there is something suspect about throwing yourself into learning for learning’s sake; that it is bad form to wear your erudition as unlightly as he has been known to do.

In the old days, some of this hostility may have been attributed to a strain of anti-Australian snobbery, what James considers was “a licensed anti-semitism, particularly among the Private Eye crowd.” But there are plenty of towering English talents ­ Peter Brook and the late Anthony Burgess, to name two ­ who have also despaired of their own country’s anti-intellectualism.

Cultural Amnesia is aimed at the clever young ­ perhaps, like his whizbang, multimedia website, of which James is inordinately proud, it is another bid at longevity. “The hardest thing when you’re a young person going into university or the world is to figure out how it all ties up; the answer is that it doesn’t, and it takes a lifetime to find out why. It’s always handy to have voices somewhere up ahead of you, which I always did, and they tend to be the writers we worship ­ in my case, people like Scott Fitzgerald and Camus. Camus is one of my her-ow-ww-ws,” James says dragging out the vowels, like a dog howling at the moon. “And I wanted to write a book that would do that job for the next generation.”

The whole book ­ and I cannot pretend to have read all 856 pages ­ is like a free-form jazz piece. He assures me that “it’s designed to be dipped into ­ I hope that people when they dip, won’t be able to stop dipping”. It is also meant to be useless, he says: “It has no obvious use. Learning is not utilitarian. It should be pursued for its own sake. I wrote the book for its own sake. Although I do hope to get my money back.” Each small essay is so clotted with information and quotes and bridges between different times and people that although there is much to enjoy, it can also feel strangely airless and certainly too much to digest at one sitting. He acknowledges these challenges himself in his introduction, writing, “If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligibleŠ I hope that the episodically intermixed account of direct experience from my own charmed life will alleviate the difficulties of a densely woven text”.

A clue to his thinking behind the book comes when I ask him how he rates his poetry. “I rate it very highly, actually,” says James, who reserves his self-deprecation for the things that don’t matter to him. “And it’s gratifying that as the years go by, the rating gets higher. As a showbusiness name, I was crossed off the list of the serious [those Japanese game shows can't have helped]. But that problem is going away and now I’m getting estimated somewhere near my true worth, which I think is fairly high up the second rank.” I cannot think of a living English poet who would have the gall to assess themselves in this way, with the possible exception of the deeply eccentric Fiona Pitt-Kethley.

So what poets do you rank yourself alongside? “I wouldn’t say but I know where I want to be,” he says. “I want to be with the poets who some of what they wrote is remembered and recited. My favourite poets wrote something ­a stanza, perhaps ­that you can remember.”

It is not the names in Cultural Amnesia that matter, so much as what they represent or, more crucially, the significance of what they said ­ often just a line or two (like the poet’s stanza), that may endure long after they have gone, often in this case, because they sparked something in James’s imagination.

There are occasions when Clive James disappears from his own prose, and allows an image of such shimmering, lovely economy to emerge that you catch a glimpse of that poetic soul. Describing his inability to squeeze his book into a conventional schematic straitjacket, he writes that he could only produce: “a trail of clarities variously illuminating a dark sea of unrelenting turbulence, like the phosphorescent wake of a phantom ship”. But elsewhere, he cannot prevent his Clive James ventriloquist’s doll from taking centre stage ­ that glib, punny TV persona ­ as in the essay on Sophie Scholl (“You’ve really got to chill, Will,” trills Marty cutely”, part of a drawn-out explanation as to why the actress Natalie Portman should playŠ oh, please, just read the book).

To learn about the brief, brave life of Sophie Scholl is one illustration of why Cultural Amnesia is an important book. She was a member of the White Rose student pacifists who was guillotined by the Nazis at Stadelheim prison in Munich on February 22, 1943, for publishing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. She, unlike her brother Hans, was offered the chance to recant.

But she refused and died, with her whole life stretching ahead of her, at the age of 21. At her trial, Sophie said simply: “Finally, someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think. They just don’t dare to express it.” The Scholl siblings were Aryans protesting against the fate of the Jews, as James writes, “purely out of common humanity”. Humanity, and what binds us together, being the central thread of his thinking.

How do we account for such selfless courage in someone so young? James has clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about such matters and, indeed, dedicates his book in memory to Scholl, along with three other fearless women, but he has no answers for me. “I can’t account for it and the book is saying that you can’t account for it,” he says.

The linking theme of the book, James says, is the reaction of the thinker or the writer to a political development, particularly to totalitarianism. In the introduction he refers to “the worst of times which has become our times” ­ and I wonder what makes him so certain that this is history’s darkest age. “I didn’t actually phrase myself well there,” he says. “I think that the time that I was growing up was the worst of times when the Soviets and the Nazis were both going full blastŠ and things have eased off a bit. Totalitarianism hasn’t gone away entirely. It’s still there like aer–os–ol spray,” an extravagant wave of the arm, “but people are dying now in thousands not millions. That’s about as good as it gets.”

James is presumably thinking, in part, about the toxic spray of the Taleban and al-Qaeda terrorists, but he’s reluctant to be drawn into a discussion on the new totalitarians. “I try to keep my counsel and reserve my opinions for articles at the very least and for books if possible,” he says. It could be said that people who have spent their lives reading and thinking have a duty to speak out about the crucial issues of our day, I say. “Yes, but I’d rather wait and find ‘the words for my bewilderment,’” he says quoting a French philosopher.

I don’t get it. There’s barely a writer I’ve interviewed ­ from Martin Amis to Norman Mailer to Salman Rushdie (naturally) ­ who hasn’t felt it necessary to engage in this subject. It seems miserly, almost ignoble, to hoard his nuggets of wisdom for some future publication date. And it’s particularly odd when the entire raison d’être of his new book ­ which we are, after all, here to discuss ­ is that democracy is worth fighting for at all costs.

After some badgering, he says, “Anti-semitism is a great enemy of the Palestinians and I state it as a paradox that’s true because they’re really saying that the Israeli state should disappear and it will only disappear in one way ­ in a great mass of heated light that will melt the entire district ­ so you do the Palestinians no service by giving a moment’s credibility to anti-semitism as a position… But that’s as far as I will go towards a sound-bite.”

Is that really it? “If I wrote a long article or a short book on the subject, I’d say that waiting until Islam secularises itself as our religions have done is too long a wait, and what we have to hope is that moderate Islam ­ which, of course, is the majority ­ will see its way clear to denouncing extremism and get out of this trap where you can’t denounce extremism without being seen to favour the West. But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go, because I don’t want to be consulted as though I’m some sort of expert when I’m just a writer. If I’ve got something to contribute, I’ll contribute it as a writer, not as a public figure.”

There’s more circumspection, albeit less surprisingly, on Diana, Princess of Wales, as we gear up towards the tenth anniversary of her death. The very mention of her name prompts an urgent desire in my interviewee to retreat to the kitchen and make a pot of coffee. I tell him about the time, a few years before her fatal accident, when I was lunching with Sir Hardy Amies at Launceston Place. Towards the end of our meal, Diana walked past our table, looking radiant ­ close up, she did take your breath away ­ in a bright-yellow suit (a colour not many women could carry off with such aplomb), and ducked her head, in that nervous birdlike gesture of her early photographs, at the sight of the Queen’s couturier. “She’s a very bad princess,” Amies said loudly, as she walked out of the door, followed some minutes later by… Guess who?

“Me?!!” James shouts back. “Where were we? Oh yes, she liked that place. She liked Caprice when she wanted to hide in public ­ hahahahahaha ­ and Kensington Place and Launceston Place when she was really hiding.”

So were you in love with her? “Who wasn’t?” he responds, quick as a flash. “Most men were.” But you weren’t at a distance, were you? “I fell into the category of wicked uncle,” he says. “You’re not going to get much out of me on this one. I’ve nothing more to say. [He does tell me that he's been approached ­ and declined ­ to contribute to various high-profile anniversary pieces.]” He still has no misgivings about Requiem ­ “I don’t regret it a bit, that’s what I felt and I’m proud of it. I adored her” ­ the piece he wrote for The New Yorker in the week of Diana’s death, where the rawness of his emotion came to the fore in such overblown lines as these: “What flowers have I to send her but my memories? They are less a wreath, not much more than a nosegay: just a deuil blanc napkin wrapping a few bloom of frangipani, the blossom of broken bread.” But he is unsympathetic to the extraordinary displays of mass emotionalism that greeted her death: “Why should anyone who was born in 1939, as I was, and grew up during the war against the Nazis, trust mass emotion? One of the reasons that I like England is that I don’t like the idea of proving that you’ve got emotions.

“I understood the grief ­ and shared it ­ but the idea that there was necessarily something sincere about showing it rung hollow. Show business. I’ve been in show business all my life and I know how it works. It all turned into a production. The main reason that I’m so unforthcoming about the subject is that I really do believe in letting her rest, I’ve written about it and I have no more wisdom to add ­ heh ­ to the subject,” and he retreats back into the kitchen.

Perhaps it is the relief of not being asked to comment on subjects in the public domain which encourages James to be less careful than usual about his private life. Still, it’s a bit of a surprise ­ after all our fencing over the things that really matter ­ to be at the receiving end of the Clive James flirtation method.

He is telling me that he’s a sceptic rather than a cynic, and a romantic (“I’m very romantic” is what he says) not a sentimentalist, so I ask him whether he falls in love easily. “Constantly,” he says, drawing a big breath. “I’m falling in love right now.” Oh, stop it. “I go for smart redheads.” Stop it ­ and, yes, of course I’m giggling. “I can’t stop,” he says. “And this goes back to the roots ­ attractive and smart women are infinitely appealing to the extent that the woman only has to be attractive and I start thinking she’s smart. That’s the flaw.” What does that go back to then? “It probably goes back to my beautiful mother whose life would have been different if history had not played such a cruel trick on her. I can’t bear to see a woman’s potential creativity thwarted.” This “cruel trick” refers to his father’s death ­ who, having survived horrific years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, died in a plane crash on his way home to Australia. James still remembers his mother falling apart when she read the fateful telegram, and early volumes of his memoirs leave the reader in no doubt about the lasting imprint this made on his life as a fatherless only child.

His mother, he wrote back in 1980, “was the only pillar of strength available. One parent is enough to spoil you but discipline takes two. I got too much of what I wanted and not enough of what was needed. The effects have stayed with me to this day, although in the last few years I have learnt to blame myself instead of circumstances.” I catch several glimpses of this spoilt only child ­ if we spent any time talking about one of the subjects of his book, particularly if they were male, James would bleat: “But, anyway, let’s get back to me!”

He, himself, acknowledges that he likes to boast: “I have a big ego but you need a big ego… because people who are going to be modest for you are lined up from here to the horizon.” I ask him how he knew that his mother, who was obliged to go out and earn a living in a menial job to support him, was thwarted creatively? “She wrote beautiful letters for one thing, and everything she touched was neat and interesting,” he says. “What little money she made on top of her war widow’s pension, she made by smocking baby frocks. She was an expert smocker and I used to watch her doing it, and the stitching provided me with one of my ideals of concentration and density and neatness, because these things get to us very early.”

Were you enthralled by what she produced? “I was enthralled that she was doing it, and somehow that stuck. If a woman wants to be a dancer or something,” he segues unexpectedly, “I give them credibility. I love dancers and singers, and of course you fall in love all the time, who doesn’t? I suppose wise men don’t but who wants to be wise?”

Did you always know you would be like that? “Eventually you have to explain to your wife and that can be awkward.” I’m sure that she must have learnt to become indulgent of you over the years, that must go without saying? “More coffee?” he says. “I tell you what does go without saying,” he continues from the refuge of his kitchen, “you have to be very careful ever to co-operate with any effort that portrays your wife as long-suffering. Nobody wants to be long-suffering.” While we are wading around in what James has called the squalor of the male mind, I press him ­ in an attempt, possibly, to outface his flirtatiousness ­ on what he finds sexy. He flays around a bit, suggesting that it might be a woman’s voice ­ “the Anna Ford phenomenon” ­ before settling for this: “A beautiful woman… are you ready to escalate?… reading one of my books!”

Naked, I suppose. “No ­ if she’s naked she’s not paying sufficient attention. It happened to me,” he continues. “It was in Sydney harbour and a girl of stunning beauty got on to a ferry carrying one of my novels, and the ferry was pulling out and I thought, ŒHere it is. All I’ve got to do is jump 16ft and a conversation is going to begin that’s going to change my life.’ So I didn’t jump.” But, alas, awkwardly, I know of at least one occasion when he has jumped.

Ten years ago, Fiona Russell-Powell, a pop star in the Eighties with the group ABC, turned journalist, angrily denounced James for grafting her life on to one of his characters in his novel Brrm!Brrrm! on the back of their five-month affair. This became a front-page splash on the News of the World, followed by a self-penned account by Powell herself in Punch. The story has resurfaced in the Australian press, and there’s not a lot James can do to make it go away.

“Yes,” he says, when I mention it. “I’m sorry about her… she was a talented young girl.” Since there is something elegiac about his tone, I ask him whether she’s still alive. “I have no idea,” he says (she is). “She had some very…” Drug problems? “Yesss. I regretted that. The occasional busy journalist, especially in Australia, likes to run an article when they hear about this, saying that Clive’s marriage is on the rocks, and I have to point out, if I get the chance, that my marriage has been on the rocks for 40 years.”

But by far the most damning portrayal of James, in my opinion, was one that he participated in ­ a Sunday Times Relative Values interview with the writer and his older daughter, Claerwen, last year. He may have agreed to do it to help his daughter’s career but she certainly did not return the favour. A more cool-eyed portrait (in that respect, not unlike her own beautiful but strangely detached paintings of children, particularly girls) of a neglectful and selfish father would be hard to find; his daughter’s efforts to engage his interest are quite painful to read. And what are we to make of James’s own comment about his daughter: “I think there is a great deal in me that she feels disappointed in, but I don’t want to know ­ life’s tough enough… There’s a great loneliness in some of her paintings, I hope I’m not responsible for that.”

When I ask him about Claerwen’s comments about him never appearing at any of her school events and her sudden realisation that it was unusual to have a father who was never home, he laughs for a long time. What on earth are you laughing about, I ask. “She knew it would wind me up, that’s why. I regret it but there it is,” he says. So no feelings of guilt on your death bed? “Well, look at her,” he says, pushing the catalogues of her art towards me. “Yeah, look at her.”

James is probably not the first man of his generation to be bored by young children, but he may be unusual in admitting it. “When they got old enough to read my books, that’s when they get interesting,” he says. You narcissistic sonofa… “It’s more than half true,” he shrugs. He admits that he is cold-hearted: “I’ve got the chip of ice Graham Greene talked about.

There’s almost nothing that I can’t shut out when I’m concentrating. When I’m working on a poem and fancying myself the most sensitive man, I’m insensitive to everything, yeahhhh,” he sighs.

His wife, Prudence, is a Dante scholar ­ profoundly allergic, one feels, to the whole showbiz nonsense ­ who James returns to for weekends in their Cambridge home. It was their daughter, again, who revealed that James “holds on tightly to us all. He rings mum three or four times a day, in an are-you-still-there? kind of way. Yet the content of his call is always that he is too busy to call.” I wonder how he would have reacted if Prue had left him?

“Ohhh, we can’t get into that. Nohhh,” he says, making a cross sign at me. And then, “Of course it is devastating when the kids say, ‘You weren’t there’ but I’m still not there. I’m an absentee ­ and I’m an absentee even when I’m there because I spend a lot of time in my head. If I had a chance to do it again, I would have been somebody else. I would have been a guy who regards his work as definitely a sideline to the importance of being a family man ­ and with me it’s the other way round and was bound to be so. “I always knew that I had no business being any way except alone. I’m very glad I’m not because it civilised me. To the extent that a man like me can be civilised, I’ve been civilised by my family.”

James talks of himself as a “partial creature” ­ who “experienced my own interior life as fragmentary and one of the consolations I got from Camus is that he said that all bright people feel that way. So I console myself by thinking that people who are complete don’t have any great impulse to complete something on the page or on the canvas or in music. But I don’t spend a lot of time sitting in the corner punishing myself for what’s missing in my personality. I just get on with it.” I wonder if there isn’t a contradiction between his propensity for falling in love and his essential coldness. “Well, there are plenty of feminists who would say there’s a connection there. You love everyone because you can’t love anyone.”

Oh, so is falling in love just lust then? “Just lust!” he says, shocked, before referring me to the second essay in his book… a Viennese coffee-house poet and bum by the name of Peter Altenberg who when challenged by his pretty young protegée, protesting that he was only interested in her body, responded, “What’s so only? But it’s so much better in the German,” James says, writing it down as he speaks “Was ist so nur? It’s a very, very deep statement. There’s nothing only about being attracted to someone.”

We finish with a tour of the newly installed sprung dance floor upstairs which, as he quite rightly says, has been overbilled as a Versailles ballroom. Still, despite the grubby white curtains ­ which James points out ­ there is a touch of the Sun King about the space. The first thing you see as you come up the stairs, for instance, next to a throne-like chair is a portrait of Clive James in the black polo-neck sweater he is wearing today ­ followed by another huge painting of a bald-headed James (back view) dancing the tango, surrounded by a giddy swirl of dancing couples. He reels off the names of the women dancers, but not the men, as he slides and shuffles on his own around the dance floor, practising the steps that he loves: the tango, his holiday from words.

At the start of our interview, he warned me that he would be a dull interviewee. Whatever else James may have been, dull is not the word.

Clive James online

For the first of three exclusive films for Times Online on the figures that have shaped our world, go to timesonline.co.uk/clivejames

Clive James tells the stories of:

Coco Chanel and the Nazis: “During the occupation she took the easy path. She took on a powerful German protector. It paid off in a big way in the early stages: she would not have wanted for butter or sugar.”

Albert Camus: “Though he sometimes fudged the research and often fell victim to the lure of a cadence, Camus was stuck with a congenital inability to be superficial: he could be glib, but would regret it while correcting the proofs.”

Chairman Mao: “To concentrate on Mao’s late-flowering monstrosity is surely misleading. His early-flowering humanitarianism is a much more useful field of study.” Part two premieres on Saturday May 19: Evelyn Waugh, Tony Curtis and Margaret Thatcher. Part three premieres on May 26: Sigmund Freud, Louis Armstrong and Sophie Scholl

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James is published by Picador and is available from BooksFirst priced £23 (RRP £25), free p&p on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Celebrities, Writers

Educating Piers

Times Magazine – April 7, 2007
- Ginny Dougary

Fired as editor of The Mirror, Piers Morgan published a bestselling diary of his rollercoaster career. Now the former tabloid bad boy is back and talks to Ginny Dougary about praying, his beloved granny, and stardom in America

Piers Morgan
Photo: Mark Harrison

The Penis on Legs – aka Piers Morgan – is resiliently handling my barrage of offensive, tabloid questions. It’s just as well that’s
he’s so robust since two days after we meet he gets fired again; only this time it’s for charity, Comic Relief’s celebrity The Apprentice, where we see Morgan enjoyably insulted by the likes of Maureen Lipman (responsible for the aforementioned penis jibe), Alastair Campbell, and later, Graham Norton’s: “Piers Morgan – what an easy person to hate” is greeted by whooping cheers from the audience.

The timing of this panto-villain acclaim is highly convenient for the latest chapter in the saga of Morgan’s entertaining career – as the former “shamed” Mirror editor (to give him the treatment his old paper meted out to the likes of Peter Mandelson) prepares to become a boo-hiss judge on the British answer to Simon Cowell’s America’s Got Talent.

The latter – involving “zany” acts such as granny rappers and men who put scorpions down their trousers or kick themselves in the head – has been a huge hit Stateside (number one in the ratings game last summer for the NBC network, attracting more than 14 million viewers) and Morgan has found himself recognised in the streets of Beverly Hills and – joy of joys – “papped” frolicking in the surf with his girlfriend (gorgeous!/glamorous!/posh totty!/blonde bombshell-with-brains!) the Telegraph’s gossip columnist, Celia Walden.

Never one to suffer self-doubt, Morgan predicts that Britain’s Got Talent, unleashed this summer, will be equally huge… more weirdo acts and a more savage audience made up of strangers from the street “and it’s like a Roman ampitheatre where someone will start an act and suddenly the mob will start screaming, ‘Off, off, off’ and it’s crazy! And Cowell holds his hand over the buzzer like a Roman Emperor asking, ‘Should he live or should he die?’ and the crowd starts chanting, ‘Press it, press it, press it’ and he looks around, smirks and goes ‘boom’ and that’s it. Cowell came out of the first day of auditions and said it was the best television he’d ever been involved with – completely crazy, I mean, hilarious! And with Ant and Dec presenting and Simon Cowell and Amanda Holden and me on the judging panel…”

So would you say that it’s downmarket? “Er – it’s not upmarket. I don’t think it claims to be Newsnight in a different guise, no. But is it damn good entertainment? Yes. Is it fun to judge? Yes.” Do you feel a bit moronic doing it? “No, because I’ve never worried about being taken seriously…” It’s quite an odd move after… (Morgan’s anti-war campaigning years on the Mirror when he hired heavyweight writers such as John Pilger and Christopher Hitchens, and won the sort of awards which are usually reserved for the top end of the market). “Not really,” he says, anticipating where my question’s going. “If you’re the editor of a tabloid newspaper, you’re not really saying,‘I want to be taken seriously.’”

What he’s learnt about television is that it’s all theatre “whether you’re Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight or Simon Cowell on X-Factor – one is very intellectual, the other isn’t, but I believe they’re both thinking, ‘How can I make this work from a televisual point of view’ and I’d say that if you’re looking at quick-wittedness and sharpness of wit, they’d both go head-to head. I’ve never sought to be, you know, a serious intellectual and I don’t claim to be massively well-read, although I’m reading a lot more now and I’m enjoying it – but I don’t think I’ve ever been stupid and I’ve always tried to be open to anything and I’m interested in people and events.”

Here’s a confession: some people actually don’t find it easy to hate Morgan and I’m one of them. He was only 28 when Rupert Murdoch promoted him from Bizarre showbiz columnist on The Sun to editor of News of the World (the youngest national newspaper editor for more than half a century) and much like the boy bands he used to dish the dirt on, Boy Morgan had to do his growing up in public. He made plenty of indefensible mistakes and had his knuckles duly rapped (the photographs of Victoria Spencer leaving a detox clinic allegedly prompted his proprietor to say, “The boy went too far” hence Morgan’s enduring nickname). He continued to make them when he became editor at The Mirror ( the ACHTUNG SURRENDER headline on the eve of the England v Germany Euro ’96 semi-final; the Viglen shares scandal of 2000 which dragged on for four years with Morgan eventually cleared while his City Slicker columnists were fired; culminating in the publication of the hoax photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners which finally did for him).

Morgan’s adventures in the tabloid world were revealed in his first bestseller The Insider – a rattling good read, fascinating for its glimpse into just how much power a red-top editor can wield with the great and the good (so many visits to No 10; so many e-mails from Peter Mandelson), but also riveting for its self-penned portrait of the author as a sort of Artful Dodger happily nicking scoops off his senior colleagues, playing fast and loose with the truth, distorting celebrity photographs and so on, if it suits him.

But it’s not all harmless high jinx as Morgan discovers only when his own marriage difficulties are written about in other publications, and finds himself growing up rather abruptly. These personal complications coincided with the build-up to the Iraq war and suddenly Morgan was a man with a mission – The Mirror was to transform itself into a tabloid with a conscience, reconnecting itself with the pre-Maxwell Cudlipp era, taking on governments rather than bothering itself with the minor peccadilloes of B-list celebrities. His anti-war campaign there lasted for two years, during which time the circulation went into freefall and he was eventually sacked.

Even during his glory days Morgan was still capable of behaving unattractively, to put it mildly. There were his petty long-running feuds with Ian Hislop (against whom he launched a campaign in The Mirror, thereby making himself look both vindictive and ridiculous); ditto David Yelland, then editor of The Sun – and that strange business with Jeremy Clarkson who docked him for printing photographs of him kissing a woman other than his wife. All of it to do, rather loweringly, with either being exposed or exposing – and none of it showing anyone in a particularly good light.

So what’s there to like? Not a lot, if your only experience of Morgan is through his TV appearances. Television may be Morgan’s new career but it does not flatter him. He has certainly improved since his early excruciating performance on Have I Got News For You – but he can still seem horribly pleased with himself, bumptious, brash, arrogant, tub-thumping and generally not someone you’d want to spend any time with.

But off the screen, on the few occasions I’ve bumped into him – he is smart (as opposed to a smart-alec), funny and generous-spirited. He can be immensely charming, and his character makes a great deal more sense when I discover that he’s Irish on both sides of his family (the Pughe-Morgan double-barrel is from his Welsh stepfather who brought him up, rather than evidence of plummy landowning stock). I happen to know that he has been helpful to all sorts of organisations without reaping any personal reward or kudos and he’s naturally meritocratic, trebling or quadrupling the number of women journalists on The Mirror as well as people from ethnic minorities. This is one of things he’s proudest of in his journalistic career, alongside his editorship of the paper after 9/11.

He was to be applauded for saying “Enough!” to copy control when a transcript from a Richard and Judy interview came back littered with absurd “corrections” (he printed the two versions alongside one another and a humbled Richard Madeley phoned up to apologise). But what is perhaps most attractive about Morgan is his energy. When he’s on form – and I’m sure he can be a nightmare when he’s not – he’s one of those people who makes you feel immeasurably more alive to be around. His whole family, it seems, is the same way. He comes from one of those big extended clans of matriarchal grannies and loads of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces, “and we all tend to be the life and soul of the party”. He also gets ragged something rotten by his siblings particularly his brother Jeremy (a major in the Royal Regiment of Wales who was dispatched to Basra): “He takes no nonsense at all from me about my ridiculous, shallow, showbusiness life.”

Like most former journalists turned celebrities, Morgan is far too alert to the dangers of being wrong-footed to allow himself to be led into perilous personal territory. He refuses point blank to talk about The Guardian columnist Marina Hyde for whom he left his wife, Marion. In The Insider, he refers to Hyde in the acknowledgements only as “my best friend, most amusing companion, and unpaid but razor-sharp proof reader” (they are no longer together). Private Eye, among other publications, thought that Morgan’s private life was fair game since he had no qualms about running similar stories about other media figures (eg, Clarkson).

“You know, it’s just that I’ve never felt comfortable talking about a relationship or my private life and I always find that Hello! stuff really gut-wrenching and never understood why people wanted to do it,” he says. “Now obviously I was a rank hypocrite as an editor because I wanted people to do that… but it’s a bit like when somebody would ask me, ‘How do you feel about the snitches who ring up and offer dirt?’ And I would say, ‘Well I used to hate them but be delighted that they were doing it.’ And it’s the same with people spilling their guts out. I think they’re ridiculous but I’m quite pleased that they do it. And with this new book [Don’t You Know Who I Am? The story of how Morgan rose from the ashes to conquer America and become a celebrity himself] I was told that it would be nice to know who you’re with and what you were doing and who was sharing this adventure with you. And that’s why I put Celia in this book because I thought that, actually, not to do so would be unnecessarily – you know – standoffish.”

There’s a whiff of disenchantment with his old tabloid world in the new book, which opens with Boy Morgan – not yet 40 – suddenly feeling a bit like “a semi-retired old fart, running around Sainbury’s all day and watching DVDs because that’s what happens when you’ve come from a huge job and you’re suddenly ex-communicated from a big corporation – the reality of your life is the mundanity.” At some point, “you just start thinking, ‘God, this is really bad, you know I really need to sort myself out.’ At no stage was I depressed [although he does read as though he was], it was more a sense of listlessness and an increasing feeling of edginess and frustration about what was I going to do for the rest of my career since I was only 39.”

Not only did Morgan find it increasingly intolerable to be asked “So what are you doing ?” after years of never having to explain himself, but when he got together with his old mates at The Mirror, he felt out of the loop and simply unable to get excited about this or that scoop with him no longer in the driving seat. He says now – and this is not going to endear him to his former colleagues – that he doesn’t hang out with journalists very often these days because he finds them “really aggressive. It’s quite funny, I know. But I do find them really aggressive.”

In what way exactly? “If it’s been a really busy news day, they’re all absolutely wired with adrenalin and aggression and competitive spirit and it’s obviously the way I used to be. And I realise now why people had a view of me when they saw me at those award shows and I got so fired up, so competitive and so desperately wanted to win. And if I didn’t win, I’d just be blindly in a rage about it and feel cheated for me, my staff and everybody and now I can look back at it and laugh and think, ‘My God!’”

He makes no apologies for his editorship of the News of the World. There is a certain freedom of youth which makes the paper really exciting, you know. Did I go over the top a few times? Definitely. Do I regret some stuff? Definitely. It was only later as I got a bit older and had my own life and started getting responsibilities that I began to rethink things. And writing the book, it was quite cathartic to look back on the impact of some of those stories and the slightly carefree way that you dealt with people’s lives. ”

Most journalists, in his experience, have to be hardbitten. One of his least proud moments was being disappointed when Concorde crashed and there were no celebrities on the plane. “It was full of German pensioners on a charter and I reacted in a really offensive and ugly manner – pissed off because there was no story. But when you go home and have a drink, you think, ‘I really should not have reacted like that. A hundred people have died.’ But there’s this protective shield of “I’m a journalist… I’m above
human reaction in this.’ And when you’re a newspaper editor I think you’re so completely consumed with it that everything just becomes a story.”

It was the Mirror readers themselves, he says slightly surprisingly, who made him think more seriously about what he was doing. “I’m not talking about all of them but as a rule of thumb, I found their letters and their thought processes – the way they voted on issues on phone lines – a great insight into the type of people they were. They were just more caring and sensitive, and I think that evolved me completely.”

He believes that most newspapers misread the public’s appetite for stories which crucify celebrities. “The worst hypocrites I know are editors and senior journalists. I could tell you about the private lives of all of them and they’d fill the News of the World for weeks,” he says. (But then most members of the public would not be all that interested since they hardly expect journalists to be pure as the driven snow.)

As regards his own affair, “Without being drawn into specifics, I would say that my life experiences over the past ten years did radically alter my moral code as an editor because I realised that human frailty can be something that, you know, can pop up with everyone and your ability to be utterly censorial and moralistic about everybody else starts to look vaguely ridiculous.

“Actually, I think what all journalists should do is lose their jobs and go and live a normal life for a few years and then come back into it because they’d have a much better understanding about how real people think about things and react.” Most people who have been involved in a massive scandal, in his opinion – from Jonathan Aitken to Jeffrey Archer to Lord Levy to Jade Goody – get almost universally positive reactions from the public. “The media wants to say, ‘You are a disgusting human being and everybody thinks so.’ The public says, ‘You did something stupid but forget it – you’re actually just like the rest of us.’ They are much less judgmental and not into this media bombardment of hatred and fury and destroying people’s lives.” And, in any case, he says, everyone’s a celebrity now.

Despite his own transcendence into celebritydom, Morgan hasn’t ruled out the possibility of editing another newspaper – it’s just that no offers have been forthcoming. He keeps his hack’s hand in with a weekly column for the Mail on Sunday, a column in the national children’s tabloid First News (of which he is editorial director) and a monthly celebrity interview in GQ magazine. The questions Morgan asks his celebs in that slot are beyond belief – “I’m certainly not going to answer any of those!” he says. Oh go on, Piers, don’t be coy – are you good in bed? “No comment.”

And what position, pray, do you like? “Look, you and I would say ‘No comment’ but what is unbelievable is they [see, for example, Ulrika Johnsson and Billie Piper] seem pleased to answer them.” He’s just done Naomi Campbell (rather sporting of her to agree to be grilled by Morgan, one might think, after he exposed her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Chelsea with all the ensuing courtoom dramas.) “I found her a joy to interview,” Morgan says, because she made very little apology for her behaviour. I asked her, ‘Why are you always late?’ and she said, ‘Because I can be.’ What a great answer. There’s nothing to say to that, is there? It’s obviously reprehensible but it’s also great, I think.”

This comes on the back of me asking Morgan for his Top Five All-Time Gruesome Celebrities, and him saying that he’s quite sympathetic to the genuinely awful “pieces of work… the grand divas” who make no pretence to be anything other than they are. Top of his black list is – da-da-dahhh – Elizabeth Hurley, “the ultimate example of a talentless wannabe becoming grander than the biggest star in the world bleating about privacy and then selling her wedding for two million quid. You cannot complain about privacy and then sell your wedding – the most private event in the world – and the whole excessiveness of it, the whole celebrity thing that came with it is just ghastly, utterly ghastly.”

Hugh Grant is next: “The biggest whinger in the world, constantly saying he hates being a film star but constantly making movies when he probably doesn’t need the money. If he doesn’t like it – disappear. Hugh, you are a very annoying, miserable little man. Right? Go away.” I point out that he’s always calling people he dislikes “little”, even when they’re not. “It’s my ultimate insult,” he says. “I like people who are over 6ft, men and women. Oh and, Kate Winslet has just disappeared up her arse. Awful, awful, awful. I used to love her, such a sweet girl who’d ring me up effing and blinding and having a laugh and it’s the Catherine Zeta-Jones syndrome – they go off into Hollywood and never re-emerge.

“I saw her [Winslet] on Parkinson recently where she began sobbing when Parkie asked her what Sam Mendes thought of her new movie, and she said the reason she was sobbing was the memory of Sam having come home from watching a rough cut of the film and he was in tears saying to her, ‘You were absolutely wonderful, darling’ – and at that point she sobbed – sobbing at the memory of her husband sobbing at her being wonderful.”

Kate Moss and Pete Docherty complete his list. “Awful, skanky little Croydon girl. I don’t get it at all.” But she looks beautiful in every snap of her I’ve seen. “So she scrubs up well, like a lot of Croydon girls do. Why is she this great phenomenon?
I have no idea because when I saw her she was revolting and he was disgusting – fat, bloated heroin junkie sweating and singing tunelessly and I thought, ‘God, these people are supposed to be the hottest stars in the world.’ They’re not exactly Mick Jagger
and Marianne Faithfull, are they?”

It is perfectly possible to construct a convincing portrait of almost anyone based on a few slender facts. So with Morgan, the military family, childhood in an East Sussex village, prep-school education, early admiration for Margaret Thatcher for whom he cast his first vote. “I thought she was a great leader for most of her reign but then, like most of them, went slightly potty”, short-lived stint at Lloyds and the double-barrelled name all created a certain pukka image… but it’s not the whole story.

Of course, he’s not averse himself to hamming up the toffee-nosed Brit bit particularly for his American audience for whom he is thinking of reinstating his dropped barrel – “They want me to be a sort of James Bond charming, smiling assassin – so I posh it up in America.” Anyway, the only reason he excised it on The Sun was because it made his by-line too long and in Sussex, where he spends most weekends with his family, he’s still a Pughe-Morgan, as are his three splendidly named sons, Spencer, Stanley and Bertie.

He only discovered recently, when he went to Ireland for his aunt’s funeral, that his natural father – Vincent O’Meara – who died when Piers was one year old, was a journalist for two years on a local newspaper. “There I was in the middle of southern Ireland in a place called Bannagher and all these people came up to me who had known my father,” Morgan says. “His mother persuaded him to become a dentist because there was more money and security and all that but it was interesting to find that out that it’s obviously in the blood, you know.”

His maternal grandfather was a “proper investigative journalist” on the Sunday People back in the Seventies. Piers’s first introduction to Fleet Street was through his grandfather’s connections with friends such as Brian Hitchin, then editor of the Star.

Dublin, he says, feels like his spiritual home… “my best nights out have been there at Lily’s Bordello [which turns out to be a nightclub, rather disappointingly, not a brothel]. I do actually feel quite Irish – the blarney and the craic and all that – and I’ve got lots of Irish cousins and I like Irish people very much and feel a certain affinity with them.”

Morgan was brought up as a Catholic and went to church most Sundays. He describes his mother, Gabrielle, who is a part of the Cantopher clan as “very Irish who has remained a pretty devout Catholic whereas I’ve become less so”. He still prays when times get tough and he is a definite believer. Does he suffer from Catholic guilt? He says not although he has become more reflective “now that I’m calmer and less in that volatile cauldron of competitive tabloid nonsense”. He’s suddenly a bit worried about how this will look, saying, “You know I’m not a Sinead O’Connor in a male wig, if that’s what you’re getting at. I don’t want to overdo my devoutness because I think a proper devout Catholic would see me as pretty lapsed – it’s just that my whole family, apart from my dad, are believers and that’s the way we were brought up.” He describes getting instruction from nuns when he was a small boy “which I rather liked, actually”. Now this is a revelation. What was it that he liked? “You’d just go along and chat for an hour and I liked the purity of the nuns and their pure view of life and the world. It was nice.” Is there any way that could be seen to have a bearing on his life now, I ask somewhat doubtfully. “I don’t think that I’ve led such a pure life as those nuns, no. But I thought there was an idealistic side to them that was rather nice, you know. Always looking for the good in people is a nice trait to have.”

Talking about his natural father makes him feel uncomfortable because he’s worried that it will seem as though he is downgrading his relationship with the man who brought him up – “And, you know, he’s been absolutely incredible. He took on two young boys when he was in his twenties and did a great job for us. All four of us children [he has two younger siblings through his mother’s second marriage] had a lovely upbringing and a lot of fun. It wasn’t privileged and we didn’t have much money but we had a great time.”

Morgan is extremely close to his grandmother, Margot, known as Grande to whom he dedicates the new book: “To Grande, my
incomparable grandmother.” She was largely responsible for looking after her grandchildren when Morgan’s parents were working “unbelievably long hours, catering to maybe 200 people a day” running a pub, the Griffin Inn in Fletching, seven days a week.

When Grande had a stroke some years back, Morgan converted the garage of his half of the family house (a Grade II Georgian wreck, set in six acres, which Morgan’s parents had done up slowly over the years), so that she could be looked after. “She was living on her own in Shoreham on the beach and I thought, ‘I’ve got a big garage, why not just convert it into a lovely little cottage for her?’ And now she’s back on fighting form and it’s a bit like the Waltons. There’s my granny and mum and dad next door and then my brothers and sister all come down with their tribes and at night it’s “Goodnight, Grandma” [cheesy American accent] and I love it. And I’m totally unashamed about it because I like having a close family.”

Before we move on to the present-day Piers, there is one last incident from his childhood which is illuminating. Like all his siblings, Morgan’s education was a mixture of private and state; Jeremy and Piers went from a prep school to the local comp, while Rupert and Charlotte did it the other way round. Morgan reckons that he and his older brother got the better deal. “I think my education was, in many ways, perfect. I went to a great prep school until I was 13 and then I got my snobbish creases ironed out [at Chailey, near Lewes] where some of the kids did give me a hard time for being a posh twit. [His younger siblings suffered a lot of snobbery, he says, having come from the state sector.]”

I wonder whether he was bashed around? “Yeah, a bit,” he says, naming a boy called Gideon Short (what’s the betting he was teased?) who had an orange mohican and another kid in particular, John Surret, who had done some boxing training in Canada. Morgan can still vividly remember getting off the school bus outside his house and slugging it out in the street. “The first couple of punches when he smacked me in the face were really bad. But after that I became completely immune to the pain and didn’t feel anything else. And I think that’s not bad as a template for life, really – the first couple of blows hurt, and then after that it’s fine. And you just have to keep in there fighting.”

Years ago, I spent a riotous evening with Piers, after he had given a most unentertaining speech which went on interminably and ended up with him being jeered off the stage (even though he had funded the event). It was at the height of his tabloid madness, and a group of us piled into Mirror-chauffered limousines and went from club to club dancing into the early hours and quaffing champagne paid for presumably by Morgan’s expense account. It was enormous fun but did have a slightly excessive Scorsese-Coppola feel about it. When I mention that it’s somewhat nerve-wracking that he tends to dissect his interviews in his books, he growls with a Corleone look: “Yes, you gotta show me respect.”

Although he does remember that long night, it was clearly one of many and his life – just as well – is no longer like that. “It’s different now. I’m calmer now,” he says again, “and I don’t feel the need to get wrecked like I used to.”

In Los Angeles, where Morgan spends about two and a half months filming America’s Got Talent, he has a ferocious German trainer who feeds him dreadful purging potions and is very “big on the burrrrrrrn”. He goes to the gym a lot, and has lost almost a stone which shows more in person than on unforgiving telly where he still looks a bit jowly and puffy. So will he be getting American teeth and all that jazz? Absolutely not, Morgan is horrified by the idea. Cowell “who obviously has had all that stuff” has bet him a $100 that he will succumb to the knife or Botox at some stage… “and I have resolutely said that the day that happens, I’m out of here – because I’m quite happy with the way I look, thank you.”

But it’s a different sort of training in Morgan’s life that’s really interesting. His new girlfriend, Celia – with whom Piers is clearly very smitten indeed – has made him put ten bookshelves up in his flat to accommodate her essential reading list. It’s not that he was anti-books, he says, “it’s just that from the age of 21, I was on The Sun and rampaging around seven days a week.” What he’s learnt recently, he says, is the pleasure of quietly listening to music of an evening – be it Snow Patrol or Tschaikovsky and going to art galleries, travelling for the sake of it and “walking in parks and stuff”.

He’s just finished reading Madame Bovary and then there’s the complete works of Shakespeare – a gift from the girlfriend “a beautiful bound thing”, and lots of Dickens and Hemingway and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and “In the next five years, I’d like to have read the hundred great classics,” Morgan says. “I want to immerse myself in the great works of literature because I never had the time or the patience to do it before.”

What really draws him to Walden, Morgan says, isn’t her undeniable prettiness – “I’ve never really been attracted to people just because of the way they look” – nor her accomplishments (she speaks French, Russian and Italian fluently and has her first “beautifully written” novel coming out shortly) but the fact that she’s always roaring with laughter: “She has a lovely sunny disposition and I find that very appealing.”

It’s just as well that she has a sense of humour because she’ll certainly need one if she’s to hang in with Morgan in the years to come. I ask him how he’s going to cope if he becomes absolutely huge celebrity-wise. “What do you mean if?” he says, with mock-outrage, and then proceeds to tell me about his last Christmas in Barbados.

There’s this bloke buried up to the neck in sand who worked for an agency Morgan always used when he was at The Mirror. And our man is tipped off from someone else on the beach that the snapper has been taking photos of him and the girlfriend walking up and down the beach. “So I walk over to him and he’s stuck there with some sort of camouflage over his head, and his great big lens and looking very sheepish and I said, ‘Mate, you’re gonna have to do better than that. This is my game you’re at.’ So I tell him to show me the pictures and I said, ‘You’ll never sell these.’ And he said, ‘I already have, mate.’ And so he’d taken the pictures, sent them back to his office and sold them all in three minutes.” Well, talk about the papper papped.

Do you think, Piers, you’re ever going to have a sense of humour failure? “Of course I will,” he says. “If they get a picture of me looking fat on a beach I’m going to be absolutely incandescent at the brand damage this will cause!”

There’s no question that the papper papped is having the time of his life after the initial strangeness of being a bit lost in LA without all the familar buffers of old friends and family. But he is under no illusions about the ephemeral nature of his new fame: “It’s great fun and you’re treated brilliantly over there but it’s a very brutal world and if the ratings dip, you know the game – you’re sent back on economy. But I can cope with that very easily. If it all ended tomorrow, I’d think what a great laugh that was and come home and do something else.”

* * *

Don’t You Know Who I Am? Insider Diaries of Fame, Power and Naked Ambition by Piers Morgan is published by Ebury Press, and is available from BooksFirst

priced £16.19 (RRP £17.99), free p&p on 0870 160 8080; www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Celebrities, Women

Hostess with the mostest

THE TIMES – February 11, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Davina McCall may host shows at the tackier end of the television spectrum, but her appeal lies in a naughty, but oddly wholesome niceness. As she takes on BBC One’s primetime chat-show slot, Ginny Dougary meets a former wild child who has turned her bad times to spectacular good.

She’s clearly not Essexy, like Denise Van Outen or the new (literally) faux-celebrity, Celebrity Big Brother winner, Chantelle; although she does have something of their cheeky charm. Her vowels are a bit all over the place – “moind” for “mind”, for instance – and she’s much given to using phrases which are generally employed by young teenagers regardless of their background: “Ah, bless”, “Hell-o-oh” (swooping up and down), “bodacious”, along with some unequivocal East-Enderisms, such as “God love ’im”.

Boris Johnson is probably the only broadcasting personality who can get away with making a virtue of his poshness. Elsewhere, for a successful television career, a populist approach and an accessible manner are essential – and it’s Davina’s common-touch watchability as Big Brother’s Big Mother (or, perhaps, big sister) that has landed her a new primetime role as mid-week talk-show host on BBC One. Now although this is clearly something of a big deal – the last pre-watershed King of Chat on the Beeb was Terry Wogan back in 1992 – reports of a million-pound contract or, in fact, any contract at all are apparently overstated. As McCall, in ladette mode, put it to me: “I’ve never signed a contract with any TV channel because I like being a slut and working for anybody who wants me.”

For her fans, who obviously include the BBC chiefs, what is engaging about McCall’s personality is that although she works at the tacky end of television, she manages to retain a niceness while still delivering on the pushy, tasteless questions: “But did the train go into the tunnel’’ (to establish whether two former Big Brother contestants, Stuart and Michelle, had sexual intercourse). Indeed, McCall’s USP may be that while she is undeniably naughty she is also oddly wholesome. For her detractors, of course, she is the epitome of Moronic Britain; representing everything that is wrong with declining standards and cultural dumbing-down.

On telly, she is an odd mixture. As a guest on other people’s chat shows (hosted by the likes of Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady – all of whom will probably end up on her show in today’s circular light-entertainment loop), she often goes in for that very English, very middle-class self-deprecation (think Emma Thompson). When she’s in charge as Big Mother – which is her main claim to fame – McCall is more obviously confident and excitable; shouty and motormouthy, talking ten-to-the-dozen in an Anneka Rice verbal gallop. Her own drink and drugs hell, and the long years of recovery, as well as her chequered childhood, may help to explain the genuine empathy she seems to have with the oddball contestants. But what makes her special, I think – which was certainly the strongest impression I had when we met – is that she is kind.

Our interview takes place in a photographers’ studio in Fulham where McCall is doing a shoot, under duress, for the BBC’s Radio Times. I assume “under duress” because it wasn’t until the 11th hour that our meeting was actually confirmed, which seemed rather more Hollywood hauteur than cosy little Britain. It later transpired that McCall hates being interviewed (which is why it took her so long to commit), and that she has the absolute heebie-jeebies about the new show partly because everyone insists on calling her the new Parky: “It strikes fear into my heart that people keep saying ‘Parky’ because it’s very hard to step into somebody else’s shoes and it’s just a nightmare because I want to be me. Even though I do partly want to be like Parky [although it’s hard to imagine him asking the train into tunnel question] because he’s bloody brilliant, but if I try to be like Parky it’s just going to seem weird, and I don’t really know how I’m going to be but it will be me.”

Unfortunately I cannot report on what sort of “me” this new “Davina” will be because – despite numerous requests – the BBC fail­ed to send a DVD of the pilot. This much we know: the guests were Peter Kay, Paul O’Grady (presumably talking about his unorthodox new slot, alternating with the wonderful Richard and Judy), an actor from EastEnders and Charlotte Church. There will be stairs: “Shall I leap down them? Oh no, I’ll be wearing heels so I’d go arse over tit, wouldn’t I?” Peals of laughter. Has she got a nice sofa? “I’m not sure… I was under the impression it’ll be two chairs but I want them close enough for touching. I need touching.” There are to be no gimmicks, just talk and music, and she’s very happy with it, although, “in a funny kind of way I don’t want to push it be­cause I don’t want people to have great expect­ations – I just want it to grow in a natural way.”

She is softer-looking and more delicate in person, oddly more reminiscent of the act­ress Dervla Kirwan than McCall’s own high-octane TV self. Glossy hair that flops in her eyes, good teeth and cheekbones, no make-up. There is something endearing about her open quality. Her gaze is so steady and attentive that I comment on it – and her explanation is that perhaps it is because she has a slightly lazy eye. Although she is 38, there is a childlike aspect to her which belies her streetwise past, and still clings to her without any suggestion that she is simple-minded.

An image remains of her sitting schoolgirlishly on her hands, although I’m pretty sure she did no such thing. This is much of a piece with other Davina conundrums – her aforementioned wholesomeness in a distinctly unwholesome show; her surprisingly old- fashioned values despite such modern packaging; the feeling she gives of offering new-best-friend intimacy while actually guarding her privacy more fiercely than the starriest A-list celebrity.

I thought of her as being a natty dresser until a number of friends tried to disabuse me of that notion, and it seems that Davina’s husband, Matthew Robertson, may also be of their persuasion judging by his comments to his wife that morning. Apparently his very words were: ‘You can’t seriously be thinking of going out like that! Your trousers are far too short and your jacket looks two sizes too small.” Davina and I agree that this is a little harsh. Granted it is quite an unusual look; a sort of Hobbit meets homage to Jackie O. A forest-green retro jacket with a belt that ties under the breasts (Betty Jackson) and not quite three-quarter-length cuffs, over a mutton-sleeved black T-shirt (Jigsaw), denim gaucho culottes (French street market) and square-toed pixie boots. I am slightly startled when she shows me her devil’s horns tattoos on each hip pointing down – as she says, raising that well-exercised eyebrow – “to you know where!”

Her first attempts at experimenting with clothes and burying her Home Counties accent was at the age of 13, when she left her paternal grandmother’s house in Surrey to live with her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Gaby, in the wild streets of West London. She turned up on her first day at Godolphin & Latymer in long white socks and a proper uniform, “but Godolphin’s quite relaxed and everybody had their skirts taken in and so on, and I’m stood at the door with a pudding-bowl haircut, very, very nerdy and very square, with my doctor’s bag, and to go in at the second year of secondary school is difficult anyway because everybody’s already made their friends…”

So she abandoned the knee-length socks and went out and bought a bag from Millets with her stepmum. “I told her they were going to kill me if I didn’t”, and pretty soon she’d copied the names of bands she’d seen on other girls’ bags “because I just wanted to fit in. It was a survival technique, really.” By the same token, McCall changed the way she spoke when she got “a bit of hassle” from some kids in Shepherds Bush, on her way to school, “So I started talking ‘loik vat’ for survival because I thought I was going to be beaten up.” By this time, McCall’s survival skills were already pretty well-honed. Her French mother, Florence, and her English father – who comes from a long line of Wykehamists (which makes Davina’s background upper middle class, according to one of my Winchester- educated friends) and was a Debs’ Delight – had come to the decision to make their three-year-old daughter a ward of court since neither parent felt equipped to bring her up themselves.

She now knows that her parents did the best they could at the time by handing her over to her grandmother, but it has still left her with a lifelong fear of abandonment. “Being a mother myself [she has two little girls with Matthew, Holly and Tilly] has made me realise that all the things that make me want to be a great mum are all the things I missed when I was a kid,” she says. “Having got older and having been in recovery and going to meetings makes me realise that I can’t blame anybody else necessarily for all the things I’ve done in my life, but that my core insecurity is definitely going to have come from my mum not being around. “With time, I’ve come to realise that it wasn’t because my mum didn’t want me but when I was a teenager, I thought it was because my mum just had, you know, better things to do and that’s a horrible way to feel.”

Her feelings about her father seem to be less complicated than those towards her mother; in part because of the latter’s alcoholism, which certainly made its impact on Davina’s childhood, but also because her father was simply around more.

McCall would stay with her mother in Paris during the school holidays, in the chic eighth arrondissement off the Champs Elysées. At first, she says: “My mum was a very exciting wom­­an to be around, an electric personality. There was always a drama happening but she was always funny. She’d do the really embarrassing thing that you would never dare to do. I used to watch Absolutely Fabulous and I sometimes used to think, ‘Gosh, that’s like me – I’m Saffy and my mum’s Edina.’ Not the same kind of fashion preciousness, but that kind of relationship where she made me more square because I was constantly trying to look after my mum and keep her under control.” How embarrassing was her mother? “Well, I’m thinking of an electric-blue floorlength fake fur that made her look like Cruella De Vil which she’d waft around in, and she’d go to a café and have a double Ricard before she went to work [as manager of the Yves St Laurent boutique], and she’d be flirting with somebody, you know, inappropriate, and you’d be thinking, ‘Oh my God’, and she’d do citizen’s arrests when someone pinched her bottom. Just mad stuff but funny and fantastic… if you’re not the daughter. My friends would say, ‘Oh my GOD, she’s so cool.’ But I didn’t tell people a lot of the stuff that happened in France and I especially didn’t tell my English family because I didn’t want to upset them or for them to stop me going over there because I loved my mother. And I still love my mother and I’ll always love her, and she’s not drinking now and she’s doing really, really well.”

When did she realise that her mother had a drink problem? “Quite early on, really. Four or five. You’d walk into a room and you’d have to read the atmosphere and try to fit in. There are sort of survival techniques that kids use to deal with it. Like if somebody’s in a bad mood, you just sit quietly and know not to ask for anything or be too demanding. Or if they’re in a really good mood then you’ve got to join in and be silly. Or if they’re really crying, you’ve got to go and take care of them.”

In her teens, back home in London, the young Davina – no longer a nerdy square – started hanging out with an older set and be­coming a fixture on the clubbing scene. She was a regular at Taboo and the Camden Palace and Beetroot and knew Steve Strange and the late Leigh Bowery and Pete Burns, most recently seen being nasty on Big Brother. “I’d always quite cherished his kind of brutal honesty but I have to say that Pete Burns should not drink because when he has a drink inside him, he becomes vicious and he was drunk that night,” she says, apropos of his bullying attack on Baywatch’s Traci Bingham. A couple of interesting things emerge when McCall talks about her own relationship with drugs. She says that the reason she couldn’t allow herself to have even one glass of wine – although her husband is a “wine nut who spends a lot of time doing that lovely ritual of de­canting and sniffing and swooshing and sometimes, you think, you know, it looks fun” – is that she knows that she’s not the sort of person who can do “one” of anything. “And I can’t tell you, hand on heart, that if I got drunk at a party and someone said, ‘Would you like a line of coke?’ that I wouldn’t think about doing it, and that is too frightening… I’ve got two children, and I’ve got a life.

Just how bad was it? “If I started on New Year’s Eve, I would be taking drugs nonstop for three days because when I start I just can’t stop. And when I was an addict, I just let everybody down and maybe because I did have strong morals and good manners and stuff, that made me hate myself. With a passion. And that’s eventually why I stopped.”

For a long time, McCall was able to keep her life under control, working as a booking agent for Models 1 during the day and running clubs – her energy fuelled by drugs – into the early hours. But, she says, it was the control aspect that was so exhausting: “It’s like a white-knuckle thing – you know, trying really hard not to do something you really want to do, and you’re constantly in your head thinking about the next time you can go and get some drugs.” She left a boyfriend whom she’d blamed for getting her into heroin, but while he was able to quit, her habit got even worse. “I realised, ‘Gosh, it’s not his fault, I’ve got to look at me.’ And the last thing I wanted to do was stop taking everything. I just thought, ‘Am I still going to be a fun person to be around? And aren’t I going to turn into a really boring person? And I don’t want to be totally abstinent and I definitely can’t do it for the rest of my life. You know, forget it.’ But I tried it every other way. I knew I had to cut things out, so I stopped taking heroin about two months before I got clean [at 24], but then I just had a major coke problem, so I realised I’m obviously unable to take any drugs in moderation. And now when I see friends of mine coming into the rooms [at NA], in their mid-thirties, I think, ‘Well, thank God, I didn’t have to wait that long.”

At one point in our interview, McCall declared that she’s never been ambitious in terms of her TV career. I’m not having it that you’re not ambitious! was my response. Well, she demurred, ambition’s always seemed like a swear word – and she hates swearing – but, yes, OK, she was ambitious to get on to telly in the first place. And she was really proud of herself, when she finally got an opening on MTV: “Because I’d spent three years just chewing at people’s heels and annoying people. Tenacious. Addict without the drugs. Because the minute I put down the drugs, I needed something else to get my teeth into.”

Did she become a workaholic instead? “No, just tenacious. You see, if I work at something half as hard as I used to work on scoring drugs – and addicts spend a lot of time and effort trying to maintain their habit – then I’m going to be extremely successful.”

Still, I doubt that Davina appeared on most people’s radars until Big Brother really took off. And there were a fair number of turkeys on the way: a dating show called Love on a Saturday Night; a TV race to have a millennium baby, which she disapproved of anyway. But I do remember seeing her on a travel show years ago, and being struck by the new presenter’s… what? Freshness? Jauntiness? Slightly camp appeal? It’s hard to define what she had but as her French mother might put it, McCall definitely had a certain je ne sais quoi. So now, she’s routinely talked about in hyperbolic terms as one of the highest-paid female presenters, and there’s the new BBC show over the next eight weeks, hosting the Baftas for ITV and then, presumably, back to Channel 4 for the umpteenth series of domestic squabbles in The House, of which she says: “I’ve been very, very blessed to have a corker of a show to always come back to and I don’t know where my career would be if I didn’t have Big Brother to come back to, but thank goodness I have.”

Perhaps it’s because McCall has had more cause to examine herself than most of us, but she’s rather good at assessing what makes her so popular. “One thing I had in my favour is that I’ve never been skinny and I’m not putting myself down, but although I think I’m attractive and I know what my good features are, I’ve never thought of myself as a stunning beauty. And that’s a good thing for me because sometimes if you’re really, really beautiful you’re quite alienating.

“You know, I have to admit that when Traci walked into the Big Brother house, I was – like – ‘OMIGOD, look at her!’ And there was a part of me that hated her because she’s beautiful and she’s got such a bodacious body and enormous boobs. And when I saw that she was just somebody who needs a lot of love, I sort of melted a bit but she did have to work on me. And I don’t have to do that because people aren’t threatened by the way I look.’ And the other thing in her favour? “Oh,” she says, with a whoop, “I’m silly.”

What she really loves about Big Brother is when contestants say that they’ve learnt something about themselves from the experience: “Because for some of them it is a journey, a very personal one, and being in that house makes you look at yourself; I mean, you’ve got nothing else to do except think about yourself, and how your behaviour affects other people and how their behaviour affects you and how when there’s an argument you have to resolve it or else it just goes on and on. And it’s having to deal with things and deal with them in an open way and do stuff that you’d never normally do on the outside.”

Nadia, the transsexual who emerged the winner some time ago, was one of McCall’s favourites. That was the series that got me hooked, and following her over the weeks sometimes felt like watching an Almodóvar film which turned into The Elephant Man, in that extraordinary moment when she broke down in front of the camera and sobbed, “I am… not… a man…” “You see, there was real emotion there. She wasn’t in it for the money… I really believe she was in it for recognition and affection and that was an incredibly powerful and beautiful thing,” McCall says, her brown eyes blazing with sincerity.

What interests me about Davina’s own journey is how far she strayed from everything she held dear, in those lost years in her twenties. For several years after she got clean she went to church on a regular basis because, she says, “the vicar was amazing and unjudgmental, and he’s still one of my best friends”. She loves singing hymns and still prays, though “I don’t know who I’m praying to but I do believe my prayers are being heard.” When I ask her whether she has any role models, she has an instant reply: “My granny. She’s amazing. Highly emotional, highly opinionated, very fair and moral and just and incredibly thoughtful and kind to the community she lives in. She does a lot of charity work and she has a very strong faith and goes to church, and she used to say prayers to me every night. I mean, she’s really… well, she’s still the backbone of our family.”

It’s no surprise, then, that now she has a family of her own, and a husband she adores who jacked in his own mini-TV career as Pet Rescue presenter to become an Outward Bound instructor, that McCall has returned to her roots with a big house in Surrey and lunch every Sunday with family and friends. “A couple of years ago, my granny and I were talking about memories from childhood and I was remembering how I used to sit at the feet of my great-granny, who also lived with us, and how I would pinch the skin at the top of her hand and watch how long it would take to go back down again, and how she had these little things in her purse, like a pixie in a black cap which she’d let me play with. And a couple of days later, my granny had gone through the house and found the little pixie and sent it to me in the post, and now I have it in my purse.

“That was very emotional for me… a memory from 35 years ago and she still had it, and now I’ve got it. And she’s just done the most fantastic book for me, called The Grandparents Book, with all our family’s stories and the treats she was allowed when she was a little girl, and our family tree from way, way before me, and it’s these things that are really important to me, and will be even more so when she goes.”

It’s time for McCall to submit herself to more of the publicity hoopla she tries to avoid. She says she feels absolutely drained, stretching out on the banquette and whimpering as she kicks her legs in the air. But then a thought occurs to her: “Can I just say that’s what I’d like to have as my epitaph.” Er, what? “Whole­some but naughty. I love that. You know, I always wanted to be a little bit naughty.”

Celebrities, Women

The essence of Elle La Belle

THE TIMES – November 23 2005
Ginny Dougary

The Body has a mind all right, but it’s hard to fathom.

Wth rings on her thumbs and rings on her toes, Elle still turns heads wherever she goes. She is clearly a hippy chick at heart, particularly where accessories are concerned. The half-moons of her big toes are adorned with tiny crystals that twinkle as she wiggles them. Her bronzed forearm is covered in bits of string, ribbons and shells and each one has a story: “This one’s for breast cancer and Kylie. We’ve known each other for years. I haven’t spoken to her since she’s been ill and it’s on my mind.

“This is from a friend’s wedding that I organised by the sea and I gave everyone a bracelet in a box with sand; this is an elastic band for my hair; this one says ‘peace’; I have another one that says ‘patience’ but it’s probably in my son’s hair,” and so on.

When I enter the room where the interview is to take place, Elle Macpherson is sitting down trying to tuck into a bowl of leaves — assembled with a supermodel’s appetite in mind, but The Body says it’s too insubstantial for her — and a double espresso. She has been modelling ballgowns for a photoshoot and apologises for her charcoal-rimmed eyes. She stands up, and one almost gasps: it is like being confronted by a beautiful freak. The impression is of someone superhumanly tall, with the broadest and squarest of shoulders, tiny hips, huge hands, a narrow face and those panda eyes. Her look is fabulous but ultra-studied, in marked contrast to the effortless carelessness that is projected in the broad-grinned, outdoorsy image of her photographs. All in black, from head to toe: leather peaked cap, leather jacket, skinny poloneck and clinging trousers, a wide, wide belt resting far below her navel. Think Marianne Faithfull in Girl on a Motorcycle; Jane Birkin Je t’aime-ing with Serge Gainsbourg; Diana Rigg in The Avengers.

My impression of Elle La Belle from all I had seen or read about her was positive. She seemed straightforward; no bullshit; in command of herself and her assets; a bit controlling, but only because men usually call the shots in the world in which she operates. Perhaps it’s because she looks so strong and athletic that I had assumed a certain robustness of character, too. There was a little question mark when she checked into a clinic in Arizona after the birth of her son Cy, now 2; apparently she was suffering from postnatal depression. But you needn’t be intrinsically unstable to be knocked sideways by the hormonal tumult that can occur after giving birth. And in June she separated from Arpad Busson, a French financier and the father of her sons, Cy and Flynn.

Still, I had been expecting a certain directness, but found myself in less predictable territory. The first surprise was the way she spoke: with a pronounced French inflection that makes her sound more affected than I think she is. When I comment on this, she says: “I don’t know why I do today. Sometimes when I’m tired. It’s an interesting thing. I’d like to question why is that so?” Perhaps because of her early marriage and subsequent longish relationships with two Frenchmen? “From the time I was 18 I spoke French probably more than English. I speak it with my children.” So I ask her to speak French. “Pourquoi?” she asks, laughing nervously. Because I want to see if you have an Australian accent when you do. And she rattles off her response in fluent, accentless Français.

Her first and only husband — she and Busson never married, but were together for ten years — was a French photographer, Gilles Bensimon. They met on a shoot in Tahiti; she was 19, he 40. They were married for eight years and lived in Paris, where he was the head snapper for French Elle, and his Elle became the magazine’s favourite cover girl. She credits him with introducing her to the finer things of life, helping her to developing a discerning palate for wine — which seems a bit of a waste, as she gave up drinking two years ago. Had she become over-partial to her vino, I ask? She shrugs it off good humouredly. “I just decided I wasn’t going to drink any more,” she says.

I had said that of all her ex-beaux, the one I envied her most was the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. “But I haven’t been out with him!” she says, shocked, adding: “People’s looks are really not the first thing I look at.” Was Gilles a dreamboat, or more in that Gainsbourg toad-with-attitude mould? “Well, he’s 21 years older than me, not very tall, grey curly hair, glasses.” Hmm. Sexy? “Charismatic.”

Her mother, Frances, married Peter Gow when she was 17 and had Elle soon after, followed by two more children. Elle’s parents separated when she was 10, and she has talked about the awkwardness of coming from a broken home at a time when divorce was rare. When Frances remarried a lawyer, Neill Macpherson, Elle took his surname. Frances, I had read, was not all that happy about her daughter marrying so young, let alone repeating the pattern of becoming a teenage mother. I had also read that Elle wanted children early on and took no contraception. “Who said I wasn’t practising contraception?” she asks. It was in an article. “Do you think that I would have spoken to a journalist about that sort of thing?” she asks, more amazed than angry. You were young, you might have. “I may have. I just can’t imagine it. It’s not the sort of thing I would do.” Anyway, she says: “I loved having a young mother. We grew up together; in a way she was like my sister.”

When I ask whether her parents might not have been able to see some advantages in their daughter receiving a different sort of education in sophistication, Macpherson says: “I was fortunate. I was saved from a lot of the craziness of the industry because I had security and was with an older man. So when the girls went partying I’d go home to him and cook dinner.”

On the subject of partying models, I ask her view of the coverage of Kate Moss. “There’s a big difference between a fashion model and a role model, and Kate has never pretended to be the latter. She’s the same as she’s always been. But you know what? It’s absolutely none of my business.”

Given that she is increasingly drawn to exploring the connections between a healthy mind, body and spirit, I expect her not to be guarded about her postnatal depression. It is so common — I had it after the birth of my first child — that it might be helpful for someone in her position to lift the veil on the realities. But it is not a subject she wishes to be drawn on. “It’s different for every individual; painting broad brushstrokes is not recommended, especially when we’re talking about other people’s health,” she says firmly. Are you embarrassed about it? “No, no. I think the healthiest thing to do if someone has difficulties is to get help, whatever that is. That’s really healthy recovered behaviour,” she says. “I have zero shame around it all.” But nothing to contribute? “No.”

Are there areas in your life for self-improvement? You seem to be on some sort of path. “I believe it is the journey inside that is rich and interesting. In my life I’ve understood that it is stuff on the outside — clothes and people and places and acquiring things — that doesn’t necessarily make me happy. Twenty years ago I probably felt that if I had lots of money, I was important to some extent. My belief system supported that; now I’m a lot more centred.”

I wonder if you have anything to say about how you are — er — bearing up — er — under the whole — um . . . As she sees me struggling to put a question that I don’t feel comfortable asking, she laughs, but not unkindly. I must say that her composure and the grace with which she handles press intrusion into private matters is impressive. “I have nothing to say on that,” she says, knowing that I’m trying to broach the subject of her separation. “My children are well, I’m well and I’ve made a statement to the press that says it all.”

When I ask Macpherson what she thinks of Arki’s city academies to help deprived children (her ex describes himself, rather cutely, as a “venture philanthropist”), her response is so stilted it makes her sound like an automaton: “I think Ark is a very interesting charity and I think the philosophy behind it is commendable and what they’re doing is remarkable.”

She is an odd mixture of different parts. At times she comes across as a Valley Girl, every phrase swooping upwards in a dangling question mark — like, you know? The aforementioned French cadence; the occasional posh English word and — the voice I like best — down-to-earth Aussie, which is the only time she sounds really natural. This comes out when she tries to define the Australian character: “There is a sort of honesty of spirit, which is about trying to find out the truth behind a thing. ‘What are you trying to say, OK? You wanna do it or you don’t wanna do it. It’s cool by me, whatever it is’.” And explaining why she likes to accentuate the positive: “I don’t feel good when I s**t on other people.”

In the same vein, I like it when she calls me on what she perceives to be my interviewing technique: “I feel you’re much more savvy than you’re letting on. I think you are trying to play dumb to me.” A huge, gusty laugh. When I protest that I would never try to play dumb, she says: “You don’t even sound dumb so don’t try to play it.” But at odds with this bracing directness is her manner — which made me wonder whether her sun-kissed photographs captured an idealised version of herself, not in the way she looks, but conveying a freedom of spirit that she strives for but doesn’t find that easy to attain. For much of the interview she reminded me of a far more anxious, vaguely troubled individual than I had imagined. With those big blackened eyes and that serious expression, she reminded me of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the Martin Bashir interview. There was very little in her body language to suggest the sense she wishes to project of her newfound “centredness”.

When we part — she is punctilious about picking up her boys from school — she is concerned that she has taken herself too seriously. “I’ve tried to be as honest and open with you as I can,” she says engagingly.

In a Sydney Morning Herald interview in 1992, the journalist noted the lack of books in her Manhattan flat. “I don’t think you should read what you haven’t written,” was the 28-year-old’s response. This could have been an ironic riposte, but she doesn’t really do irony. It could have been invented, but that also seems unlikely. What is certainly the case is that Macpherson is now a reader par excellence. She asks if I am familiar with Noam Chomsky: “He is quite a modern thinker. His Hegemony or Survival is interesting: he talks about the rise of American culture and its effect on the world.” She is very taken with William Blake, and quotes philosophers: “As Socrates said, ‘ The unexamined life is not worth living’ . . . when I was in my twenties I was interested in finding out who I was, and to some extent I didn’t like what I found.” Why? “Because I was young, I didn’t get it.” Get what? “I didn’t have self-acceptance.”

I think the area she finds most difficult to balance is her success as a businesswoman — through licensing agreements on her lingerie, Elle Macpherson Intimates, and The Body, a new range of potions and lotions — with her desire to be womanly. I’d read, with astonishment, that she used to pack Busson’s suitcases. Was this a legacy of her early wife-training in Paris? “I have always been conscious — because I was financially independent — not to emasculate men, and it was important to me to maintain contact with my femininity. That is a thread throughout my career: not to become a hard-arse ball-breaker. Alhough I’m sure that, along the way, I’ve slipped into that mode. But I didn’t want to. But there’s stuff I like to do with a guy I like to be with. You know, to please him. I also like the domesticity of life.”

Where she loses me is when she goes into Gaia-speak about the differences between men and women. “I believe in the empowerment of women in their femininity, sensuality and sexuality. I cherish women as being Earth Mother Nature, protector of the Earth and Universe and femininity and goddess energy. We have disrespected and disregarded that as a culture, especially with women going in the workforce, you know, glorifying women in the workforce.”

Are you saying women should go back into the home? “No, I’m using it in my lingerie and beauty products, saying the beauty in women should be nurtured and respected and loved, for themselves.”

Ah well. In the meantime, Elle Macpherson will be nurturing and respecting and loving herself through her daily meditation, pursuit of her creative self, muscling through the demands of single motherhood in Notting Hill, striving to quieten her “inner chatterbox” and live in the here and now. As she says: “One of my interests is to find peace and serenity. I want to feel good about myself.” And at last I see that great, broad, captivating Macpherson grin.

Actors, Celebrities

A suitable case for treatment

IRISH INDEPENDENT – November 12, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Few lives are as dramatic or traumatic or just plain strange as Kelsey Grammer’s. From the violent murder of his father and his sister, to his own drug addiction and vicious physical and mental abuse at the hands of a string of ex-lovers, the star of Frasier could well do with some therapy from his alter ego. And yet there remains a childlike innocence and genuine kindness about Grammer. Ginny Dougary went snorkelling with him

DR FRASIER Crane hands me a towel, pats the sand between us on a glorious beach in yes! Hawaii, and says in that familiar sonorous boom: “Shall we begin?”

“Oh, hello. I’m Daphne. Daphne Moon,” I say, adopting my best cod-Mancunian accent. “Frasier Crane. Won’t you come in?”

I am introduced to Frasier’s father, Martin, and Eddie the dog. Soon it is time for the psychic routine. Frasier is describing my duties around the house, when … “Wait a minute, I’m getting something on you. You’re a florist.”

“No, I’m a psychiatrist.”

“Well,” I sigh, “it comes and goes. Usually it’s … strongest … during my time of the month … ”

Oh God, I’ve committed the cardinal sin of unscripted laughter. Frasier, ever the professional, presses on.

“Well, I think we’ve learned everything we need to know about you. And a dash extra.” Owlish look. That does it, I’m off again. What a bummer. Now I’ll never be able to leave the day job for Hollywood. Or, more particularly, for that cameo appearance in my favourite programme, which might lead to an occasional walk-on role that’s not asking for much is it? so I could spend my days hanging out with Niles and Fraze and Roz and Bulldog, making witty apercus over the double-skinny lattes. I mean, Simon, Daphne’s gruesome kid brother, is soohhh not right. Now what if her long-forgotten older sister were to show up, instead, and maybe she could be a psychiatrist, too? That, of course, might be a shrink too far. Or perhaps she could be a nanny and look after Roz’s child? Well, there’s a promising new plot line … Sorry, where was I?

You see, that’s the secret of Frasier’s success. Not only is it brilliantly written (and it has got better and riskier, for the most part, since that first episode) but once hooked, you are drawn into its world because of that rare alchemy between the players and their roles.

So although you knew that it wasn’t your actual Dr Frasier Crane sprawled out in the beach chair beside me, but the actor who plays him, Kelsey Grammer, I wonder whether most Frasier fans wouldn’t be more tickled by the idea of it being the character rather than the man behind him. (The very thought of Frasier snorkelling, for instance, is intrinsically funny.)

If we are guilty of the tendency to conflate life and art, so too is the actor. During the days we spend together in Maui, one of Hawaii’s most beautiful islands, where Kelsey and his wife, Camille, have just built a new holiday home, I am struck by how much more easily we engage when we talk about this or that character from the show, and how likely or not it would be for them to take a certain line on something. As if it were real.

The only times Grammer tears up to use his American parlance are not when he’s talking about Karen, his beloved, murdered younger sister, or his murdered father, or his half-brothers eaten by a shark, or his terrible childhood, or the wives who battered him and broke glasses over his head, or his cocaine and alcohol addictions, or his spell in prison, or his court case involving a teenage babysitter … but when he recalls a particularly emotional scene from Frasier. Which happens on no fewer than three occasions. But if you’d had a life like his, I found myself thinking, you, too, might find it more comforting to believe in the reality of a television show.

We first meet in Manhattan, backstage in The Music Box theatre, where he had just completed a gruelling couple of hours playing Macbeth. Gruelling, principally, because the production had been universally trashed by the New York critics. A couple of nights after our encounter, the play closes, a mere week or so after it had opened on Broadway.

Grammer started out in the theatre, after training at Juillard, on a repertoire devoted almost exclusively to classics, so it was particularly tough on him that Frasier’s unprecedented crop of awards coupled with its popularity meant that he couldn’t be taken seriously in a Shakespearean role.

The production, in truth, was hopelessly mismatched to a Broadway audience. It was uncompromising in its austerity; with no interval, the stage plunged into darkness throughout, the actors all in black contributing to the claustrophobic gloom. It is possible that it would have gone down better in an Off-Off-Broadway theatre; certainly Grammer would have been less vulnerable to hostile comments about his overweening ambition.

There is nothing in the least bit overweening about the actor I meet backstage. He seems sanguine about the appalling reviews, although obviously pleased when I tell him that I enjoyed his performance. I say that I was particularly struck by the visceral punch of witnessing Macbeth, the great warrior, unmanned by the force of his wife, and he walks over to give me a bear hug. We arrange to discuss the play further over coffee at his hotel the next morning.

The first thing you notice about Grammer, as he appears in the foyer, is that he doesn’t have the heft of Frasier. Even allowing for television’s tendency to exaggerate people’s weight, I did not expect the actor to be quite so slim and well-toned. Neither did I expect him to be dressed like an American golfer, in fawn slacks, a short-sleeved check shirt and sporty shoes. Frasier, of course, wouldn’t be seen dead in casual leisure (“leeeesure”) wear. And there were other little things which jarred: the way he walked into the restaurant before me, then ordered a black coffee for himself (sans caramel or cinnamon) without asking what I might like. It seems mean to flag these slight oversights, particularly since Grammer was so incredibly generous both as a host and interviewee in Hawaii, but they were the first outward signs that the actor was a very different creature from his fastidious creation.

We next meet, a month later, in the summer house in Maui. Grammer comes to the door wearing shorts, a Lacoste-type shirt and a baseball cap. He looks honey-brown and relaxed. Camille is upstairs taking a nap. I am taken on a brisk tour, and clock the large open spaces including a movie room, a gym, a courtyard with a giant tub, a sheltered area where the couple work on their all-over tans, and the landscaped garden with its infinity pool and infinite views of the horizon.

Then it’s into the golf buggy and down to the golf clubhouse where we are to conduct the interview, away from the distractions of home.

DESPITE the setbacks he has had the lovers who have betrayed him, the one-night-stands who have sold their stories to the papers, the family members who have attempted blackmail, and the rest the actor has the quality of an innocent. It is not that he is naive, exactly, more that he has this childlike enthusiasm for life. Yet, and this is awkward to express, one cannot escape the feeling that what makes Grammer such a refreshing change from so many stars his accessibility, his lack of pomp and circumstance, the pleasure he derives from pleasing others also enables one to catch a glimpse of what it was about him that laid him open to being so roundly abused.

The details of this abuse are listed in his unghosted autobiography, So Far … , which was published five years ago, when he was apparently through the darkness and into the light, with his then fiancée Tammi Alexander. In it, he recalls marrying Leigh-Anne Csuhany, a stripper he had met in a bar, right after the first beating, “just as soon as my black eye was gone”. He was attracted to her because she was strong, sexy, independent, outspoken, unafraid of anything and, most importantly, because she had no respect for or need of him. She repaid him by telling him that he was “so f**king” ugly”, that he was “so f**king stupid”, that his “acting sucks”, that he was “a piece of s**t”, that he made her sick.

Then: “She’d spit in my face. Slap me. Punch me. Kick me. Break glasses over my head. Break windows. Tear up pictures of my loved ones. Threaten to kill me, kill herself. Cut my balls off. Chop me up. Put a bullet in my head.”

Grammer filed for divorce, nine months later, just as Frasier was being launched. Csuhany tried to kill herself in a Malibu motel, swallowing five bottles of Tylenol pills. She survived, but their baby she was carrying did not. How on earth do you cope with such an extreme personal disaster when your professional life is taking off?

“It was very difficult,” Grammer says. “I thought I was going slowly insane. That my mind might explode. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that feeling, but it felt like I had a spike in my brain.”

I wonder whether that lack of self-esteem, which he has spent so many hours in therapy to overcome, may account for Grammer’s partiality for women who have made their living, in one way or another, by stripping off for men. I ask him, directly, if he is aware of that pattern? (Which, it hardly needs saying, is a somewhat tricky question.)

“Hmmmm,” he murmurs non-committally. Well, I wonder why that is? Have you never been attracted to women who are bright and classy and intellectually your equal, as well as being beautiful and sexy? “Certainly, they would appeal to me,” he says. “I’ve just never met them. It’s pretty rare that I would meet such people.”

Then he completely changes tack. “Maybe where you’re a little bit off-base is the assumption that a person who may have taken their clothes off for a magazine is not an intelligent, informed, compassionate human being,” he says.

“That might be an unfortunate presumption. Ahh. I’ve been with women for several months, even a year or so, that were educated who seemed to think that was more important than … being human.”

And, by the way, he says, his wife never posed nude for a girly magazine. “This is very important, because if anything was written like that, my wife would be very hurt. Deeply, deeply hurt.”

He goes on to explain rapidly, with a measure of sadness and distaste how Camille came to be filmed topless. He says she was a dancer on an MTV show, who had moved to New York in the hope of becoming an actress. Finally, she gets offered a part, only when she turns up for the shoot she’s told that it’s her breasts which are to play the major role in the movie … Oh, and, by the way, baby, if you don’t do it, you won’t get paid.

“Other than that,” Grammer says, “she hasn’t done anything I think she should be ashamed of. She has a beautiful body. She is a lovely woman. She’s also probably the most intelligent girl I’ve ever known. And she’s certainly an intellectual challenge to me.”

At some level, he seems to have forgiven Leigh-Anne, partly because she obviously had her own emotional problems, but principally because she has not sought to capitalise on their brief marriage.

Tammi, in contrast, according to Grammer, has been making a tidy sum selling titbits of their time together some real, some fabricated or exaggerated ever since their break-up. The more he talks about her, the more incensed he becomes. It is quite unnerving to witness the transformation; his easy-going mild manners replaced by a cold fury.

What about all those lovey-dovey articles you appeared in, you and Tammi at home in LA with your family of animals, proposing to her on the set of Frasier, and all the stuff you wrote in your book about how she was quite the nicest, most wholesome girl you’d ever met … ?

“Well, it was just my way ah I supported that because that’s what she needed to be in the relationship,” he says. “But she was a horrible, horrible human being.” As for her blabbing to the press including her most recent revelation that Kelsey was wearing Tammi’s knickers (a la Beckham) when he met the President “I’m disgusted with her,” he says. “I’m absolutely devastated. I find her to be one of the most reprehensible human beings that ever lived.”

Grammer finally called the engagement off when Tammi announced that she was intending to pose naked for a centrefold. “I mean, Camille wants to be a rocket scientist. She wants to be a person of substance who contributes to the world. This person just wants to be … a piece of ass! And I thought, ‘What are you … nuts?”‘

Before we move on to different terrain, we talk a little about politics (he’s conservative) and I ask Grammer what his view is on the death penalty. The question is out before I recollect that he has more than one reason to take a personal position on the issue.

“I have mixed … but that’s, of course, because my family has been murdered. I am still, however, reluctant to advocate the death penalty even though … ” he falters.

Karen Grammer was raped and stabbed to death in 1975 by three teenage boys outside the Colorado Springs restaurant where she worked in the kitchen. She was 18, two years younger than her brother and very much the kid sister. When she got into scrapes it was Kelsey who would bail her out. One doesn’t have to be a shrink to see why he would blame himself for not being there to protect her.

SO WOULD you like to see those men put to death? “Absolutely,” he says, “and I would like to pull the switch. And I’d be fine with it.” Have you ever thought about it? “I think about it almost constantly.” Would you prefer something more visceral? “I’d prefer to do it with my own hands. A gun wouldn’t be good enough. Eviscerate them. Cut them up. Yeah. That’s what they did to my sister, so … ”

All the while he is saying this, he is grinning. Which is odd until I realise that what I’m seeing isn’t a grin at all, but a terrible rictus of grief.

Is it true that they did it for kicks? “I guess. I can never get inside their minds, really. But she was the sixth or seventh person they’d murdered that night.”

It is extraordinary that all these tragedies have happened to one person, I say. I mean, no wonder there was a descent into “my cocaine and booze hell”!

“Hey,” a great release of laughter. “No, let’s not begrudge the man a drink! Please.” He says that the other deaths in his family were nothing like so deeply felt as the loss of his sister. “My father? Well, I did feel the growing impact of his death as I approached his age.”

Grammer’s parents met at a music school in New York, where his father, Allen, fell for Sally Cranmer who was training to be a singer. After leaving college and the army, Allen Grammer started a dance band with his girlfriend as the chanteuse. The couple moved to St Thomas on a kind of Dice Man whim. Allen opened a bar, played in a band, taught music to the islanders’ children and later went on, one reads with a certain measure of interest, to present his own radio show.

His wife, meanwhile, spent her days on her own with a three-month-old baby in a rat-infested home, and her nights listening to knife fights in the bar. When the marriage failed, she fled back to her family home in New Jersey where she gave birth to her baby daughter. Grammer’s father was murdered, when he was not yet in his 40s, in 1968; the killer surrounded Allen’s home with a circle of flames and then shot him.

The details of the rest of Grammer’s childhood help to provide the answer to that earlier question which had troubled him: “How did I get to the place where I felt that bad about myself?” His grandmother conjures an image of Bette Davis in one of her more terrifying roles: abandoned by her parents as a child, brought up by her aunts as an outcast, punishing her newly extended family for her own bitter legacy.

“She needed help. She needed attention,” Grammer recalls flatly. “My mum was going out to work selling men’s clothes, and I would go to school and then, from the age of about 12, I’d take care of things in the house. I’d make tea for Karen and me, and mix a drink for my grandmother, and then I’d make dinner.”

It is not a huge leap to see how a boy who was brought up in a matriarchal home to believe his role was to serve might grow into a man who was attracted to women who dominated him in whatever way they chose. He tells me that he was beaten not only by Leigh-Anne but also by his first wife, Doreen. When I ask him whether he is capable of violence himself, he says, yes, but that he has never inflicted it on women. “No, no. I’ve sat on them,” he laughs as though this is hysterically funny. “I’ve held them down. You know, asked them to stop hitting me.”

It is significant, he thinks, that his therapist for the past seven years is female, since so many of his problems stem from the difficulties he has had with women. “She’s really extraordinary but she’s also ahhhh,” a big pause, “probably the first relationship I’ve had where the person didn’t lie to me. The first person who stuck by what she said. Did what she said she would do. And that’s been an experience which is new to me.”

The Frasier shows that make his eyes well up are all to do with family loyalty, where one of the characters demonstrates the depth of his love for a sibling or parent. And it’s usually, I notice, Frasier who heals the rifts or cements the ties. He recalls a couple of episodes, his voice wavering.

I tell him that my personal favourite was the one where it emerges that it was the Crane boys’ late, saintly mother, rather than their father, as they had believed, who had had an affair with an old friend of the family. The man had just died, and Martin and his sons are looking at their old photo albums, and somehow inadvertently the truth comes out, and we see that the burnished innocence of the snaps told a lie. Oh no, you’re off again, I say. “I know. I know, that was a big one for me.” Gulp. “Because Frasier was dealing with the fact that Lillith had cheated on him, and then oooooohhhh he and Martin saw that they’d both had this experience in common.”

With all this talk of Frasier’s family, one wonders what Grammer’s relations are like, these days, with his own family: that is, what is left of it, namely his mother. He tells me that she comes to see the show every week: “She’s a fixture of appreciation. And she loved Macbeth.”

He says that she was not affectionate to him when he was growing up, but they are close now.

“She’s kind of quiet and she endures. Losing a child is probably one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, and I’ve always respected her for just surviving that.”

There’s a lot to respect in her son, too. Grammer’s been sober as they say for four years now, ever since he’s been with Camille, but he’s not about to trot out pious warnings about the perils of his former lifestyle. He used to do the odd “bump” (line of coke) when he was on Cheers, but mostly the cast would restrict their partying to after the show, and he says he had a ball. Eventually, however, he didn’t know how to have fun unless he was loaded and wired. “What started out as a small dull ache became more of a raging persistent agony, and the addiction was the only thing that tempered it.”

In the final months before he went into rehab for the second time, in 1996, he was snorting and drinking on his own, and that was no fun at all. “I hate talking about being sober,” he says ruefully, “because it’s so stoopid. But sobriety is a better trip for me. Now. I wouldn’t have liked it before. I was happily f**ked-up before.”

He has described his short spell in prison, for a drink-driving conviction, as a relief. Because you got beaten up less than at home? “Yeah, right!” he wheezes good-humouredly. “At least I wasn’t a punching-bag. Hohoho. That’s very funny.”

ON OUR last day together, Grammer took me snorkelling at his favourite beach. Flinging off his tennis shoes, he drew my attention to his buckled feet which are responsible for Frasier’s famous duck walk and said, “So there they are. Horrible, aren’t they?” And I thought, gosh, is there nothing you wouldn’t wish to conceal? And, indeed, during our long interview, the only subject he would not be drawn on was that messy business with the 15-year-old babysitter. (He was accused of having sex with the girl some years ago and although it didn’t lead to criminal charges, one can appreciate that it is not something he wishes to pick over.)

I was left with the impression that Grammer has, perhaps for the first time in his life, reached some sort of equilibrium. He plainly adores his wife and one hopes that this time he has found a woman who won’t let him down. Who does what she says, and says what she means.

Despite his fortitude, there was one comment he made which I found disturbing. Perhaps because it taps into the viewers’ strange relationship with television, where the line between what is real and what is not is increasingly losing its edge.

When he was talking about the negative reception of Macbeth, Grammer admitted that what alarmed him was the thought that, “‘Gosh! Is Frasier all I’m ever going to be allowed to do again?’ You know, that fear exists.” Which goes beyond mere typecasting. For what could be more existentially panicky than being trapped in a character whom you have played so successfully for so many years that your own personality has been somehow subsumed by your fictional self?

WE repair to the house to watch the sunset spread, like a beautiful bruise, across the skies. Camille comes out to join us by the pool. She’s a tiny-boned, pretty young woman, with an arresting brown-eyed gaze. When she’s not being animated, clapping her hands and beckoning Kelsey to watch the dog show on the TV (they are both animal nuts), she has a still, watchful quality about her.

He tells me that his wife is known by his friends as Camille The Real Deal: “She’s so brave. She’s taken so much flak, you know, for having the bad judgment to marry Kelsey Grammer, and she became the subject of a lot of tabloid nonsense. And she’s just a dear, sweet girl.”

She has certainly been brave enough to come out publicly about her Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which was diagnosed three years ago. Even her husband was momentarily shocked when she announced it on the Howard Stern show. But now he goes into rather more detail than I feel I need about its explosiveness, and the public embarrassment, and the way it makes people afraid to go out, including Camille since the couple are united in their campaign on the issue.

GRAMMER already has two daughters one from his first wife, the other by an estranged friend but he’s hoping to have more children with Camille. She has retired to the movie room with her parents, warm, friendly Italian-Americans, who are staying with the couple. Wrapped up in a blanket, her blonde hair tucked in at the nape, Camille looks almost childlike herself. Grammer glances her way, and his face softens.

“You see, my whole life I’ve been chasing the dream of having a family,” he says. “A mum and a dad, and a daughter and a son, living at home and coming home from work. And, granted, life as an actor is never going to be what you might call normal or stable I mean, dad disappears for three months to do a film but it is better to be a nuclear family. I never had that. And I want it. And so I’m gonna do my best to get it.”

Actors, Celebrities, Women

All by herself

THE TIMES – June 11, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Despite her frail beauty, Naomi Watts has overcome the pain of her father’s untimely death – and the label ‘Nicole Kidman’s best friend’ – to become a star in her own right.

naomi watts

Naomi Almost-Mega Watts is quite right when she says that she’s not the sort of actress who lights up a room. Admittedly it would take a Day-Glo aura to penetrate the dungeonesque gloom of the Manhattan hotel foyer we meet in, but it does take a while to register that the childlike figure approaching me – fair hair scraped back in a stubby ponytail, pale face with no make-up, jeans, flat silver pumps, baggy bleached-blue cardigan, clutching a takeaway coffee – is a Hollywood star.

Her prettiness is often commented on but what impressed me in the films I’ve seen her in is her grittiness. Even in a schlocky- horror teen movie such as The Ring, the intelligence of her acting makes the viewing more compelling. In genuinely interesting films (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which won her an Oscar nomination), Watts fills the screen with her raw, almost uncomfortable portrayal of despair, anger, bitterness; a palpable willingness to mine whatever it takes from her own life to realise the truth of her character.

There’s courage, too, in the way the actress wills herself to go to places creatively that she finds horrible to visit – masturbating in front of an all-male film crew on Mulholland Drive, for instance – and her apparent indifference to being made to look quite plain sometimes, snot and tears streaming down her face, a strange little bulge forming next to her cheek usually when one of her characters is in extremis.

Certainly in her work of the past five years, all the women Watts has played are either downright edgy or battlers or on the outer margins in some way. In The Ring, she is a single mother and single-minded investigative reporter; in Mulholland Drive, she plays two different women: Betty, a nicey-nicey wannabe starlet who falls for a mysterious woman, and her mirror image of Diane, a not-very-nice love-sick lesbian and ravaged Hollywood failure; in 21 Grams, a reformed junkie who relapses after her husband and two young daughters are run over and killed; in I § Huckabees, a model who rebels against her bimbo straitjacket, trading her bikini for dungarees and a mad Amish bonnet; in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a depressed, adulterous housewife who betrays her best friend in her desperation to remind herself what it is to be alive.

Even as the Fay Wray character in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong – a role which should definitively caterpault Watts into super-stardom status – one feels that she is likely to find a way, against the odds, of investing her part with something surprising and psychological. At 36, Watts is no overnight success. She has been toiling away at the Hollywood coalface for a good decade. Until relatively recently, she was simply (but surely irritatingly) known as Nicole Kidman’s best friend – accompanying her in those tricky post-Cruise months to various Academy-type functions. In photographs, the decorative but diminutive Watts is dwarfed – physically, at least – by Kidman’s towering stature.

Hey, I say, how come Nicole has so little influence in LaLa Land? I mean, surely she could have landed you a good part or two? What kind of sad sack of a mate is she? “You can’t really have that done for you,” she says, so seriously it is rather endearing. “Ultimately you’ve got to drive it yourself. I mean, now I’m lucky enough to be in this great position and some of my friends are struggling, you know, and you know, sure, I can introduce them to people and I have done that – as Nicole has done or did for me – but you can’t just call someone and say, ‘You need to hire this person.’ Ultimately, they have to get it on their own merit.”

Part of the problem was that Watts never seemed to have access to the right people: “A lot of the time I couldn’t get to meet the director; it was more like the assistant of some casting director. [She was commonly rejected for being ‘too intense and stressed-out’ or for being ‘a little too old’; on one occasion, a major Hollywood player actually fell asleep during her audition.] And when you’re up against all those things, how can you shine? How can you show anyone that you have something? You just feel like it’s too big a challenge.

“But, you know, it wasn’t their fault. I don’t blame them. I was unhireable! I’m not someone who can walk into a room and just light it up. It’s not who I am. Lighting up a screen and being good in a scene or a moment is very different to walking in and making people’s heads turn. Really, what I am is an observer.”

Los Angeles is such a soul-shrinking hologram of a place to pick for a home, where no one walks, and the bodies – pool-side – all seem to have been honed at the same gym; so many young, beautiful people chasing after the elusive mirage of one big break. Watts had her own share of rejection and depression and loneliness, weeping in cars, unable to pay her health insurance – which is a truly alarming predicament in the land where opportunity quite often fails to knock – struggling with debts and the prospect of imminent eviction. She once made the mistake of telling a reporter, “I remember driving along Mulholland Drive, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just go over the cliff because I can’t take it any more.’”

“That wasn’t literal. For the record, I am not a suicidal person,” she says, not at all sternly. In fact, with an easy laugh which is something she does often. “But I understand depression and I’ve lived it and I felt really badly when I read that and suddenly it’s everywhere, ‘Naomi contemplating suicide’.” It was always an option, in theory, to return to Australia where she had played a paraplegic in the soap Home and Away, and a schoolgirl in John Duigan’s film Flirting, in which she and Kidman cemented their friendship. (They had originally met at a casting for a film where they were asked to pose in swimsuits.) But, in practice, going back would have meant going backwards and that might have been as frightening as staying put and going nowhere: “Yeah, oh yeah. Because in Australia we’re very, very full of pride and, you know, it was always an option I was trying to avoid.”

In the end, it was David Lynch who rescued Watts in 2001 from her own Hollywood margins by taking a rather inspired, instinctive punt – he picked her on the basis of a snap taken by her photographer brother Ben and a half-hour meeting, never having seen her on screen. Mulholland Drive was initially a TV pilot – along the lines of Twin Peaks – but ABC balked at its dark weirdness and Lynch felt there was enough footage, with an additional story-line, to extend it to a feature-length film. The corporation’s rejection enabled Watts to show her stuff in the more challenging role of Diane.

Lynch was rewarded with best director at Cannes, and Watts, as the lead actress, soaked up the reflected limelight, but – from her point of view – she had certainly had to show more stuff than she had bargained for. We had been talking about Michael Winterbottom – an English director she admires – and the explicit sexual scenes of his most recent film, 9 Songs, when she mentions her Mulholland masturbation scene. Was that awkward? “Er. Yes. In a word. Yes.” Really? (Thinking of Winterbottom’s oral sex and full penetration and how that has shifted acceptable sexual boundaries in a mainstream film.) “I was mortified. Completely mortified.”

Is it because you’re shy? “Well, yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, masturbation is a private matter!” A big laugh. “It really is… for goodness sake! You know, you might share it with one other person but a whole film crew who you’ve spent a good portion with, well, it’s a whole other experience.”

So did you get drunk? “Well, I have done that before with sex scenes, had a little hip flask by me to calm the nerves. But in this one I didn’t. In fact, I had terrible, terrible… my nerves were so bad that I had to keep going to the loo. The thing is that you trust David and you know when he keeps going it’s because he’s looking for something very specific. I found it so humiliating that I kept on crying and he didn’t want that… it wasn’t reaching this particular place of emotion which he was desperately chasing, trying to connect with myself and all the memories I had of this woman and it became quite violent and… vulgar.” You were crying because you couldn’t help yourself? “Yes, it just felt so awful to be sitting with my hands down my pants in front of, you know, a bunch of men. And eventually he built this sort of tent around me and the camera was just peeking through, blocking out the crew.”

Did that help? “Yes, but still I kept crying and I could hear him speaking though his little thing saying, ‘Okay-ee, Neigh-o-meee. Don’t cry-ee. Don’t cry-ee.’ And I was, like [gritted teeth], ‘You try this, you f****** arsehole,’ and then I’d say, ‘David, I can’t, I can’t’ and I was thinking, ‘OK, he’s gonna call “Cut” now because I’m hysterical, you know, I’m bombing here.’ And you’d hear him go, ‘Ok-ayeee. Okayee. That’s right.’ And he just kept rolling and rolling and rolling until eventually I guess I just got it because, I mean, I was so angry.”

The film we are supposed to be talking about is We Don’t Live Here Anymore – a sort of Ice Storm but with sunny spells – directed by Watts’s friend, John Curran, based on stories by Andre Dubus written in the Seventies, adapted by Larry Gross who garnered the top screenwriting award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The New Yorker’s David Denby gave it a rave review, claiming it was “easily the best American movie so far this year”. It’s a low-budget (made in just three weeks) ensemble piece – Watts’s co-stars are Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter (Six Feet Under) Krause – exploring marital breakdown, friendship, betrayal, boredom, infidelity, creative frustration and how do you keep it all together (or not), when you’ve lost your way. The performances are all terrific, particularly as the characters are not all that likeable, but it’s Laura Dern’s which stands out.

I wonder, slightly carefully, whether Watts feels that she was eclipsed by Dern. “Oh definitely, definitely,” she says. As it turns out, it was Watts’s decision to play the less “showy” role, knowing she would arrive on set exhausted from just having completed 21 Grams. “Initially, I wasn’t even going to read the script because I would say – even though I’ve never been married – that reading a script while you’re making another movie is like cheating on your husband. Especially if you know it’s going to be quite good, you imagine yourself doing the film and you play it out in your head and see yourself on the set, and I did end up reading it – because John is my friend and he kept on passionately pursuing it – so, yeah, I am a cheet-ah,” she says, sounding very Aussie.

What really lured her was when Curran offered her the opportunity to be creative producer – a direction Watts is increasingly interested in pursuing. At Sundance this year, she produced as well as starred in a film called Ellie Parker – which revolves around a day in the life of an actress going from one audition to another: “Making the transition in and out of character, getting dressed and changing in your car, dealing with bad news on the way, subjecting yourself to constant judgment… yeah, it’s very much about how I spent my early days in Los Angeles, but you know it’s not just my story,” she says.

Despite Watts’s clear, even gaze and straightforward manner – along with her evident staying power which suggests a degree of dogged self-belief – there are times when her confidence seems to evaporate. She says that she would love to write and even direct, although she’s not sure whether she has the confidence or discipline to do either: “That’s a long way off and I’d probably be way too stressed out. I mean, I can barely make decisions for my day-to-day activities at the moment.” Are you neurotic? “I think I probably am!”

It is her role in 21 Grams that is the most self-revelatory of her work, and one which led her to explore a hitherto – I suspect determinedly so – unexamined part of her life. Watts’s mongrel accent – Australian at the forefront, English lurking not far behind, punctuated by the odd transatlantic slur or upward beat – is a legacy of her upbringing. She was born in England and lived in different parts of the country, for a couple of years on a farm in Wales with her maternal grandparents (“while my mother – whom I wanted to be around – was trying to piece back her life”) and moved to Sydney when she was 14. Her father, Peter Watts, was Pink Floyd’s sound engineer – it is his manic laugh which can be heard at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon. He and Watts’s mother, Myfanwy – known as Miv – divorced when Naomi was four. Three years later, he was found dead, at the age of 30, in a Notting Hill Gate house, of a suspected heroin overdose.

I was struck when I read that Naomi had always assumed that she would not be around beyond her 30th birthday, that Moby – whose father committed suicide at an even younger age – had the same morbid apprehension. I have also observed this among close friends who have had a parent die prematurely.

The back story of Christina, Watts’s character in 21 Grams, is that her mother died when she was a young girl. There is a pivotal scene, to me, in the film when Christina’s father tries to comfort her at the family gathering after the funeral of Christina’s husband and daughters. He tells her that when her mother died, he thought that his life had ended and yet you cope and you endure and you learn how to forge a new way of existing. Christina counters that she knows that she will not be able to survive this tragedy, which makes complete sense knowing her self-annihilating history.

“Oh, I’m so glad you remembered that scene because I really fought to keep it in. Alejandro was going to cut it, and I literally went down on my hands and knees and begged him to keep it in,” Watts says, burning with conviction, even at this remove. “You know, she spent so much time alone and I had been in these rooms full of people [as part of her research, she had spent days in group-therapy grief-support groups], and I had watched how these people grieve and how they hang on to things; they hang on to anger and they blame their existing family members and, you know, years have passed, decades have passed, and yet there are things that stay with them and I just… well, it was important to me. “I always thought that I would die when my father died… that would be when life finished. So I’m reading all these books about kids who have lost their parents, and as I was reading, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that is exactly what I always thought.’ And suddenly I felt validated and not crazy any more.”

She has very few photographs of her father but alerts me to one in which the members of Pink Floyd are standing on a beach somewhere “and being completely hippyish” and her father is there, and so is her mum, who e-mailed it to her, and she’s standing there in her bikini holding Naomi as a baby, with her brother alongside. It must be strange, I think, that your father’s laugh – on a huge, bestselling album – is what you are left with in the long years since he has gone. It gives me a little internal jolt when she replicates the laugh… “You know,” she points out. “It’s not just at the start, it comes in and out of the whole album.” And I have a vision of her listening to the record, often, at different times of her life, chasing the ghost of her father; wondering how much of her is made out of him.

She knows that some people find The Laugh haunting, or a bit frightening, but it isn’t to her. And she likes it, finds it consoling even, when it comes to her unbidden: “I was doing yoga the other day and the guy who was teaching the class just put on the track. And I thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t that bizarre?’” Does it never make her feel sad? “Well, it gets to me. Whatever I’m feeling at the time, I think, it tends to connect with me. I mean, there have been times when I’ve laughed out loud with him and got the joke – whatever that was, but I was right there. And then there have been times when it’s just been incredibly mysterious… like, who is this person? How strange. And I wonder if we would have got on. What would he think of me and what would I think of him and are we the same or are we… you know.”

Does her mother talk about him? “Oh yeah, there are times when she tells great stories about him. He was very hardworking, apparently. And she always says that both my brother and me are very, very focused – like him. Driven but not ruthless. But, you know, yeah, we like to work hard. It’s a survival instinct, I think.”

Anything else? “His sense of humour – we both have that, too; that’s what mum says.”

Watts does not talk about the circumstances in which her father died but, she says, of course: “You want to know why he didn’t stay and why he chose a certain life over us. And you have moments of anger, but then you also have moments of turning him into a hero. And that’s another thing I read about – the missing parent becomes the hero and you end up blaming the existing parent.” No, her mother – to whom Naomi is very close now – was not of the mind-set or money-bracket to suggest counselling: “I didn’t come from a family like that. My mother would hold me and let me cry but it wasn’t like: ‘Let’s get you down to the shrink’s office.’” When her mother saw 21 Grams for the first time, she was unable to speak for a good 40 minutes. Back at the hotel, she told her daughter: “I always thought you were so resilient. I had no idea you were holding so much pain. And I’m proud of you for utilising it in such a meaningful way.” At the time, Watts said: “It was a big thing for my mother to say, and there were a lot of tears.”

Growing up in such a bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, I wondered whether Naomi had reacted against her mother. Or am I making too much of Watts saying that Absolutely Fabulous is one of her favourite series? Did she have her Saffy moments? “Oh yes: ‘Mu-u-um. Please stop embarrassing me!’” she hams obligingly. And then: “I always knew that my life was filled with adventure. That my mum and all her wacky, hippy friends – despite the distinct lack of underwear – were great people and that they were stimulating not only me but everyone.” And then she adds, with distinctly Saffy-like punctiliousness: “You know, when I say that my home was an underwear-free zone, I’m just trying to illustrate the picture.” In most of her recent films, Watts has played the mother of young children and for some years now, she has been talking about her own desire to have a baby; with or without a partner. She says that she doesn’t see anything wrong at all with single parenthood: “Why would I? I’ve seen children from perfect two-parent homes and it doesn’t make them any less neurotic or damaged than… I just think the important thing is for a child to be raised with love.”

She doesn’t really see her stepfather any more – “He was a musician but I don’t think he’s doing that any more. He’s got another family now.” And she seems to like her mother’s partner, Mike Gurney, who runs a popular fish shop in Burnham Market: “All the ladies love him! He’s gorgeous.” Watts has been self-sufficient for so many years – earning her own living since the age of 17 – I wonder, with her career finally taking off, whether she would be prepared to opt out now to start a family of her own. There doesn’t appear to be a man in her life – or not one, at any rate, she is ready to discuss – but she is at pains to point out: “I am quite independent but, you know, I like intimacy, too. It’s not like I have a fort built around me.”
I notice that her eyes gleam when she mentions how much she’d like to work with Johnny Depp and there was, of course, a serious relationship with the Australian film star Heath Ledger, ten years her junior. When I say that I don’t really know much about him, she tells me what a fine actor he is and how many great movies he has coming out this year. “We’re very good friends so there’s nothing controversial,” she laughs. When Watts was subjected to numerous, inevitable questions about the couple’s age difference, she countered, “Well, he’s an old soul.” I ask her whether she would say the same of herself: “Well, yeah,” she grins, “I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times.”

After we say goodbye – Naomi is off to Africa via London to do charitable works – I wander down from Chelsea to Greenwich Village and stop off in the Magnolia Bakery. Sitting down to eat a retro cup cake – in homage to Sex and the City, that’s my excuse – I glance up and am startled to see a laddish magazine cover on the wall, depicting a younger Naomi Watts with smouldering black-shadowed eyes and glossy magenta lips, her finger placed lasciviously in her pouting mouth. It’s a pure David Lynch doppelgänger moment. Yes, I think, this is definitely a few blocks away from the scrubbed-faced woman I’ve just interviewed.

Celebrities, General

Better by design: how I can improve your life

THE TIMES – May 25, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Sir Terence Conran has designed a Peace Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Now he wants to do a Jamie Oliver on our “horrid” homes.

SIR TERENCE CONRAN has been intent on making his own political waves in recent months. There was his letter to The Times applauding Jamie Oliver’s campaign to improve school dinners and asking whether “our rather lethargic politicians” could be similarly jolted into doing something about “our appalling housing”.

He was one of three prominent Labour donors who refused to sign a letter supporting the Prime Minister — whom he refers to these days as “George W. Blair” — in the run-up to the election. And in designing the Peace Garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show — commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War — he also takes the opportunity of stating his fervent opposition to the war in Iraq.

Today he seems becalmed and saddened but mainly by personal rather than political events. The sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, a great friend and early mentor of Conran’s, has finally died after a lingering half-life following his collapse five years ago: “We never quite knew whether he’d become completely brain-dead. You’d go and see him and he’d sit there and you’d talk to him and talk to him and talk to him and sometimes you’d get a sort of flicker of something but . . .”

Directly after our interview in his Butler’s Wharf office, Conran and his wife, Vicki, and his son, Sebastian, are off to the funeral and “I shall be dreadful, pouring tears . . . I’ve got two large white handkerchiefs.” He pulls them out of his pocket like a mournful magician.

We started by talking about David Blunkett — Conran had come to see the showcase of the musical I’ve been involved in writing — and how he’d cried during some of the songs (Hasn’t He Done Well For a Blind Boy), despite not having had much sympathy for the new Work and Pensions Secretary before. And his eyes start to water again: “It’s very interesting that your emotions should connect to your tear ducts, isn’t it? Vicki ’s the same. If there’s a sad ending to a play or a film, we’ll both sit there and . . .” dab-dab with one of the handkerchiefs.

He seems the same old Conran behind his vast desk, reclining in one of his stylish chairs, puffing away on his cigar, in his pale blue shirt, elegant navy suit jacket to one side. There’s a loose arrangement of blue sweetpeas in a clear vase with a blast of sunshine lighting up the water; terracotta pots of lavender on the ledge outside his window.

But when I say that he looks thinner than when I last saw him a few years ago (and a bit older, at 73, which I don’t say), he tells me that he’s got a burst blood vessel in one eye which is “rather uncomfortable, especially as this is the only eye I can see out of.”

This was the first I’d heard of Conran’s semi-blindness; an arresting affliction for someone whose world revolves around the visual: “I was turning metal on a lathe at the age of 13 and a bit flew out and stuck in my eye — which got me out of National Service,” he says. “But I think an eye for two years’ National Service is a fair exchange.”

It’s probably inevitable, with the death of such a dear old friend pressing on his mind, that our conversation keeps returning to the past. There is something comforting — a form of resummoning — to recollect incidents with someone you have loved when you first knew them. Paolozzi was Conran’s teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, as it was known then, when he was just about the only male student among “33 virgins from the suburbs”.

Conran and Paolozzi lived close to one another and shared a workshop; the young student taught his tutor how to weld and, in turn, was inspired to transform junk metal into his own fledgeling innovative designs.

“Eduardo was also really the first person who got me interested in food,” says Conran, who is slightly dismayed that he’s known these days as a restaurateur rather than as a designer. “He’d cook things like squid-ink risotto which, in the 1940s and early 1950s, was unheard of. I can remember him teaching me how to slice an onion; the manual dexterity that was needed to do it properly.

“He was a most generous man. If he came to stay with you, he’d arrive with an armful of stuff: prints, pieces of cast sculpture. His pockets were always filled with every sort of little, interesting object that he would pick up. He’d sit down with my children and they’d make heads in clay together.”

As a boy, Conran was a dreamy, rather solitary child who liked nothing better than to wander through country fields with his butterfly net; collecting flowers and pressing them. His mother, Christina, was convinced that her son would grow up to be a botanist or lepidopterist. During the Second World War, his family moved for safety from London to Liphook, Hampshire, where there was a large arms dump which the Germans discovered and bombed. The young Conran was evacuated to an aunt who lived near Plymouth, and the bombs followed him.

Meanwhile, back in London, his father’s gum copal business — not far from the Butler’s Wharf area that Conran has colonised and made fashion-able — was bombed along with the family home. “Anybody who was involved in World War Two, certainly as a child, felt ‘Never again’,” he says. “So probably this is partially why I feel so strongly about Iraq. I mean, who am I to say, as George W. Blair did, that I have any sort of right to go and get rid of somebody else’s dictator?” Conran’s first “rather facetious” suggestion for the Peace Garden: “Two big green burial mounds, one with a plaque on it saying T. BLAIR, the other with GEORGE W. BUSH… Yes, it’s peace because we have got rid of two warlords.”

He feels a great deal of fury towards T. Blair, something almost akin to the cold intensity of a duped lover. “It is complicated because I had made a television film for his ’97 election and was initially very, very, very enthusiastic about what new Labour could do for this country.

“In the early days, it was rather like the young Kennedy coming to power in America. You felt an energy and a hopefulness and a freshness . . . and then it started to wane away.

“And the other thing that I was really upset about was the university top-up fees. How can you stand on a platform of education, education, education and then make it that much more difficult for people to get that education they so desperately need?”

Incidentally, he adds, this is not the first time that he has made a public stand against England’s involvement in a war: “I was very, very, very angry with Thatcher at the time of the Falklands and had been asked to some lunch at Downing Street and publicly said, ‘I’m not going’.”

The Peace Garden call from the Imperial War Museum came last year, just after he had completed another garden. The challenge for him, as someone so opposed to war, was how to use the garden as a way to provoke people to think. “How to come up with the appropriate symbolism when it’s a garden of remembrance, really, not celebration . . . quite the reverse,” he says.

Conran was sitting at the dining table of Barton Court, his Georgian country home in Kintbury, Berkshire, gazing absent-mindedly at the plate in front of him, when he realised that the symbolism he was searching for was staring straight back at him. It was his family crest, going back to his paternal grandmother “whose family was quite nobby at one time”, a dove with an olive branch in its beak standing on twisted serpents and the legend In pace ut sapiens. “From peace comes wisdom, and I thought, ‘That’s it!’” he recalls.

So his Peace Garden has an olive tree, and white ceramic doves made by a student at the Royal College of Art (where Conran is provost) emerging from an interesting triangular dovecote (“I would have loved to have live doves but you’re not allowed livestock”), a new frothy white rose called Remembrance, more white flowers with a scattering of scarlet poppies, water flowing with a pool at the centre for reflection, “about half a million pebbles to symbolise all the lives lost by the UK and Commonwealth countries during the war”; a large wall at the back with Peace carved into the stone in about 40 languages and Thinking Men’s Chairs, an early design by Jasper Morrison, who happens to be the son of the sister of Conran’s most recent ex-wife, Caroline.

Although he is famously frugal and believes in using food (at home, I presume, rather than in his restaurants) which is well past its sell-by date — another legacy of the war years — Conran is also generous with his time and his charitable foundation (the Design Museum; an Indian charity set up to protect street children and give them schooling; teaching at colleges in deprived areas such as Peckham).

One of his recent ventures is coming to the rescue of Embassy Court, a Thirties Modernist masterpiece designed by Wells Coates, which was languishing dangerously — “a complete death trap” is how Conran describes it — and disfiguring Brighton’s seafront. He was approached by an indomitable group of women who live there, known as Bluestorm, and agreed to do all the initial work (calling in surveyors, concrete specialists, meetings with Brighton council and so on) free. And, of course, where Conran lends his support, investment tends to follow.

I told him that one of the Bluestormers had mentioned some story about Conran becoming entranced by the building, years ago, when he was in Brighton on a dirty weekend. First of all, he asks: “Who told you that?” And then: “ Oh really . . . I have absolutely no memory of it. I think I’ll have another cigar.” Which may be the closest Conran gets to blushing.

What does Conran make, I wonder, of the survey that found Ikea to be Britons’ favourite shop? “Yuh, and they have fights in it as well,” he says. “I think what it says about us is that maybe the work I did in the early years of Habitat [which opened in 1964 and was sold to Ikea in 1992] — my belief that if you offered people things that were nicely designed and available at a price they could afford, that this has percolated down to the mass, mass market . . . which is where I always hoped it would.”

Conran has a nice line in gentle character assassination. I think this has more to do with an odd social ineptness arising from his shyness — he once described the most striking note of the scent on my wrist as “sweat” — as well as a slightly detached, absurdist response to the world. However his statements sound in print, in other words, I don’t believe they are meant to be snide. Of Marco Pierre White, for instance, with whom he had dined the previous evening, he says: “It was lovely. He talks and talks and talks, very enthusiastically . . . so it was quite a restful evening.”

Of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea (which Conran pronounces, correctly, one presumes, as Ick-ee-ahh), he says: “He’s an extraordinary man, quite apart from being one of the richest men in the world.” Didn’t you tell me that he was rather frugal? “I would say that was a totally insufficient description. He’s totally demented about frugality. He would never ever spend money on anything for pleasure.

“Part of his frugality is that he doesn’t believe in paying tax — which is why he lives in Lucerne. So he has this enormously complicated structure in this enormous business which is all to do with avoiding paying tax. Not in a dishonest way,” he emphasises.

He recalls taking Kamprad and his wife out to lunch a few years ago and “Ingvar came in chewing tobacco — because he’s still quite peasant stock — and he took it out and placed it on the side of the table [pulls a face] . . . and I said to his wife, ‘So, are you having a good time in London? What are you doing?’ and she said [sing-song voice], ‘Oh yes, I’m buying silver,’ and Ingvar said, [crossly] ‘No you ’re not! You’re buying silver plate.”

When I tell him that I own a Conran Burnham sofa [the dimensions of a ship] and now an Ikea sofa of more or less the same size and shape but at a fraction of the price, Conran sounds genuinely amazed and impressed. “Really! Really! Ikea’s doing one the same size! Well, you know, I keep saying to Ingvar, ‘For God’s sake, Ingvar, put another 5 per cent on the price and give service.’ Because the service is so bad.”

Jamie Oliver’s success with his school dinner campaign has fuelled Conran’s long-term concern about transforming the way in which people live. It’s not nearly enough for him that the swollen ranks of the middle classes — or even Ikea’s “mass mass market” — are able to assemble “plain, simple and useful” furniture (his William Morris mantra) to fill their houses, if those houses are so woefully ugly and inadequate for most people’s needs.
“We should have a public debate about why the average developer’s houses are such appalling, ticky-tacky little boxes.”

For many years Conran has wanted to make a film, taking the average family on a low income and looking at how they live: “The horrid visit to their bathroom first thing in the morning, down the stairs to this terrible kitchen, going on terrible public transport, taking their children to this terrible school . . . how it is, actually, for most people in this country,” he says.

“And then showing how it could be if thoughtful, intelligent design was used in every way. What public transport could be like, what a local school can be like, what an office can be like. To show the contrast. This is how it is for most people . . . and this is how it could be at the same sort of price level.”

It is hard to think of anyone who would not wish Conran well in this campaign, but it is — of course — an expensive one to fund. He is in talks, as they say, with the BBC, with one particularly enthusiastic producer keen to create a BBC model house. Architects, such as Norman Foster, have been contacted. And he has been trying to persuade James Dyson to design an all-purpose domestic unit that produces hot water, cool air, refrigeration, all the services you need for a house which would then significantly reduce the cost of building it. “We’ve been talking to a company in Japan about it,” Conran says. “But the investment to make it happen is enormous.”

I get the feeling that if T. Blair could rise to this challenge, Conran might even be able to forgive him. “We know in our gut how much we are all affec- ted by our surroundings. How we feel on sunny day, for instance, and when it’s grey and gloomy out.

“If you’re constantly frustrated by the way things work, then it obviously has an effect on you mentally and physically. We know this but I don’t think it’s ever been said to Government, ‘Look! You are responsible for the welfare of the nation. Why don’t you pay more attention to this subject?’

“This is what I’ve been trying to do all my life: to put things in front of people that are a thoughtful alternative.”

Conran once said that he loathed the expression “lifestyle”, which is interesting since he may well be considered the inventor of it.

I wonder what he thinks of Martha Stewart: the antithesis, I would have thought, of the most successful (in her own career) of his three ex-wives, Shirley Superwoman Conran. While her most famous line was “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom”, Martha’s reply would surely be that life is all about the stuffing of a mushroom. “Actually, they’re very similar,” Conran says. “I know Martha a little bit. Both of them are deeply ambitious. Basically Martha fuels her ambition by stuffing mushrooms. But what she’s really interested in is ‘Martha Stewart: the powerful, influential woman with her own television station and magazines and money’.”

So would you be appalled to be called the Martha Stewart of England? “Oh, I have been,” he says. “Don’t worry, and it doesn’t please me in the slightest. But where she has made teaching the American middle classes something which I suppose she believes in, I’ve never seen it as my role in life to be an educationalist. I’ve just done the things I enjoy doing.”

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.”

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