Michele Hewitson Interview: Jackie Clarke

By Michele Hewitson

Jackie Clarke's home is a kitsch-crammed cottage in Grey Lynn. Photo / Richard Robinson
Jackie Clarke's home is a kitsch-crammed cottage in Grey Lynn. Photo / Richard Robinson

Jackie Clarke - who I'll settle for calling a chanteuse for want of any better description of her odd career - is always being mistaken for other sort of famous, shortish brunettes who are a bit funny and quite loud.

She's mistaken for Jaquie Brown, hence the infamous cocktail food fight in The Jaquie Brown Diaries where satay sticks were used as weapons. A mix-up over a misdirected fashion week invitation, apparently. I tried to work up a bit of Jackie/Jaquie enmity but no luck there. She says the other Jaquie is "lovely" even if she did get "excited" in rehearsals and bit her leg.

She's mistaken for the comedienne Michele A'Court. And most people think she was in that silly When the Cat's Away band when she was actually in the even sillier When the Cat's Been Spayed band, which was a parody of the Cat's Away one, apparently.

I always thought her band, the Spayed one, was some sort of feminist band - it did covers of love songs in such a way that made you realise the words were a bit ick.

"A lot of love songs are incredibly passive aggressive. A lot of people don't listen to the words so you go to a wedding and somebody is using: 'Every breath you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you.' That's the wedding song and it's basically a stalker song. Ha, ha!"

She says she and two friends (Charlotte Yates and Robin Nathan) put the band together as a joke, really, to help out another friend at Victoria University who was putting on Lesbian and Gay dance nights and "lost money. You know, back in the day". Well, no, not really, but I'll take her word for it. But did that mean the band have a big gay and lesbian following? "Aah, no! It was just all sorts." Anyway, this joke band turned out to be an amazing success and they toured for 10 years.

But why was it an amazing success? "I don't know!" Perhaps it was the cheesiness. She has always had a liking for a good bit of cheese. "Yeah, I embrace a good bit of cheese." Why does she? "Because we get enough serious bloody naturalism in the world."

She says it wasn't, "not explicitly", a feminist band. "But probably, inexplicitly! You know, if you march to the beat of your own drum and you do your own thing - that's empowering, Michele!" So she is one of those sorts of feminists. The kind who are empowered by ... corsets, say. She has long been a fan of the corset, in a feminist sort of way, of course, which is to say she wears a corset to make her feel good.

"I love corsets. I love the way they make me look because I've got a small waist, big hips and big tits. You put on a corset, and, honest, it's just like a building: it makes you more erect and powerful." Blimey, I thought, and, maybe we won't go there.

We later looked at the flyer for her new show - Cole Porter's Anything Goes (at The Edge, from next Thursday) - in amazed silence. In it she's wearing a saucy red wig, and a vaguely nautical get-up which involves a vaguely French-looking fairly tight striped top. Blimey, I thought, about the top. She said, "I don't know why my norks look so huge. Jesus." It was the horizontal stripes, we decided, but she does look lovely and bright and sparky.

She has one of her bright and sparky faces on for the promotional picture of course: it is a Cole Porter musical. Her character is "big and brassy and always performing. She's a show girl." Hence the "norks", then. She of course loves musicals (cheese and froth, that's what she likes) and she loves Cole Porter because "he's so f***ing funny. And he's such a clever bugger." That'll do for the plug; it's a pretty good one.

This is the sort of character she gets offered. She is good at wearing big flashy frocks and at playing over-the-top, larger-than-life ladies which is funny because she's tiny and quiet and quietly pretty. She says when she turns up for rehearsals in her jeans and specs and Chuck Taylors, there is often a sense of uneasiness; she gets a muted reception. "People are vaguely uncomfortable and when I turn up at seven o'clock in my sparkly frock and my hair do and ready to go, I can see them visibly relax: 'Oh, she's here. Who was that other woman?"'

I do know how they feel, while knowing it's ridiculous to expect her to be that big cheesy personality at home. But she has known horribly annoying people who are "on" all the time and "it's just a pain in the arse. You know: All things in moderation."

We were sitting at her dining room table at the time and you do not sit anywhere in her house and think: Here lives a woman who believes in things in moderation.

Home is the kitsch-crammed Grey Lynn cottage she shares with her bloke of 18 years, the film maker Grant Lahood, and their boys, who are 8 and 11.

We arrived at 10.30am and she had her slap on - "I've gone to an effort for you, Michele" - but not yet her lippy because she was about to have her toast and we had arrived five minutes early. It was 10.30am! Had she just got up? "I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning."

She probably lies there procrastinating about whether to get up or not get up. She is a terrible procrastinator and every year adds to her "to do" list of things she never does. This list must be about a mile long by now. The main thing she is supposed to have done is to put her father's bit of land in Samoa in a family trust for her and her 10 siblings. Her father had four wives; her mother, Joy, was wife No 2. There are three daughters from that "chapter of James Clarke", an older sister, and then eight years later Jackie and her fraternal twin, Robyn. Four marriages! Eleven kids! What was that all about? "Oh, he was a Catholic. He just kept marrying them. He was a very charming root bag."

He died 11 years ago. Why doesn't she just do the damn trust business? She's far too busy, she says, airily. Another item on her list is what I'll charitably refer to as: Tidying up a bit.

"Whose," I asked, because you couldn't not ask, "is all this stuff?"

Some of the stuff: a wall devoted to fake stuffed animal heads mounted a la real stuffed animal heads; a vast collection of snow globes; a smaller collection of wall-mounted ukuleles. And most appallingly, a collection of matador "art" including an enormous beaten brass panel with matador-motifs (it is supposed to light up but when she flicked the switch to demonstrate, the bulb had mercifully blown). She maintains that she thinks all of these things are beautiful. I maintained that she can't, but I fear she really does.

It's exactly what you'd predict she'd have in her house because she's become a sort of kitsch figure herself. I don't know why anyone would want to, but she's made a career out of it and that's probably a good enough reason.

I wasn't at all certain what her career is. That's a bit of a tricky question, however you put it, but she didn't mind and hooted at my attempt to put it nicely. "Ha, ha! That's because it isn't really a career. I just know that I've been really busy for 30 years and I couldn't tell you what the f*** I've been doing."

She isn't a bit snooty about what she does do; she's just come back from doing a show in Tauranga (not to be snooty about Tauranga but if she was a real grande dame she might be) called Tarnished Frocks and Divas. She said she wasn't at all snooty but that she did want things to be good. She has never had to be the big star, has she? She looked at me in astonishment. "Oh. No. Shit no!"

Her public image is as odd as her career. She's an entertainer who thinks she doesn't much like people; she prefers them at the remove of a stage. Yet everyone thinks she's one of those life-of-the-party girls. "God, I hate parties," she said, quite violently for such a sweet, sunshiny girl. This is all rather clever: she's invented a quite annoying but much in demand character who is hardly anything like she is. As she says: she wouldn't want to take her home.

What she really likes to do is stay at home and get sloshed. No, no, not really. I wouldn't want to suggest that she has a drinking problem. She, on the other hand, has no such qualms. Also on that list of things to do that she'll never do: Stop drinking so much.

I didn't believe for a moment that she drinks too much. She's 45 and she looks fresh and pretty as a daisy. Also, she eats and she's not fat. She says she has fat thighs but that if she didn't drink she'd be a waif. She drinks every night but, a lot? "Oh, yeah!" A bottle of wine? "Yeah!"

She claims she gave herself a terrible scare the other night when she got back to her motel and realised there was nothing to drink, "and I had a moment of blind panic: How am I going to go to sleep?"

The other thing I really like about her (goodness, what's a bottle of wine a night?) is that she loathes exercising. She had to force herself to get in shape for Anything Goes. A friend found free Zumba classes (whatever they are) at local PI churches and she went to those for a while but, and this is the likeable bit, she didn't keep at it.

She is still "paranoid" about her thighs so instead of stepping up the exercising, she did what any normal 45-year-old woman would do. I know what she did because on the way out I noticed she had a package in the letterbox. "Ooh, fantastic!" she said. What is it? "Nancy Ganz!" From Ezibuy! "Yeah! Cheap!"

So you see, except for her taste in brass matador panels, she's a jolly decent sort of cheese. (I'd recommend keeping her away from actual cheese though. You just know she'd stick it on toothpicks with chunks of pineapple and make one of those retro, kitschy hedgehog things).

- NZ Herald

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