Michele Hewitson interview: Paul Henry

By Michele Hewitson

The naked truth about interviewing this love-him-or-hate-him television host is it's as uncomplicated and satisfying as herding cats. In the rain.

A respected therapist describes Paul Henry as the most highly functioning dysfunctional person they'd ever met. Photo / Sarah Ivey
A respected therapist describes Paul Henry as the most highly functioning dysfunctional person they'd ever met. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Paul Henry arrived and was really rather sweet and gave me a peck on the cheek. How he's changed, I thought. Ten minutes later, he said: "It's not my fault that you work for a rogue and a scoundrel."

Me: "Who's the rogue and the scoundrel?"

Henry: "Your editor-in-chief."

Me: "Tim!?!"

Henry: "Tim who?"

Me: "Tim Murphy."

Henry: "Oh. No, not Tim!"

Me: "Tim is the editor-in-chief!"

Henry: "Shayne (Currie)."

Me: "He's the editor."

Henry, shrugs: "Well, editor-in-chief, editor ... "

Me: "Don't you get on with him?"

Henry: "I do actually. That doesn't mean he isn't a scoundrel and a shyster."

The above exchange is proof of two things. The first is that even when he sets off on an argument in which he gets the facts wildly wrong, he ends up being right. At least in his own mind, which is all that matters. The second is that I must be around the twist to have decided, having interviewed him before, that doing it again was a reasonable idea.

He refused to let the photographer take pictures during the entire interview, which is what usually happens - and hardly anyone, except the most difficult of sorts, objects.

But he is hardly anyone; he is somebody whom the Herald has it in for, apparently, and so he wasn't having it. He posed for some shots and so I asked, I felt generously and hardly sarcastically at all, how he'd like to be portrayed. "Oh, no, no. Just like me." And what, I asked faintly, is that? "Now, you're making a bigger thing of this than I am. You see, the Herald has a track record with me and it's a track record of misreporting and it is just easier for me to nip it in the bud at the beginning."

This was the preamble to the rogues and scoundrels lesson; almost everyone else at the Herald is merely a "twat". Honestly, what he was worried about? "I worry about the fact that I dislike the Herald intensely and they will save some photos with odd expressions and use them at other times and I think you have to agree with great validity." He said this in a very snooty way and I thought: Oh Christ, now he's going to be really difficult. So I said, fairly snootily in return (in for a penny and all that) that I could think of a fairly easy solution: Don't make any odd expressions.

He said: "Well, you can't not." Then he gave one of his high-pitched campy giggles, pointed at me and said, with glee: "There! You're doing one now! You can't not." He was in this case absolutely right. You cannot interview Paul Henry without your face taking on a contortionist life of its own.

He is four weeks into his new show, The Paul Henry Show, and pretty pleased with how it's going so far but not crowingly so. He is "happy with where it is at the moment". He must read all of his reviews, because he can quote from them.

He said, scathingly, that the headline on a review of the first night was: Henry's New Show A Tame Affair. "Now," he said, settling happily into what I knew was going to be one of his arguments with himself - these are of course his favourite kinds of argument because he always wins them. Also, they are so exhaustively (in both senses of the word) carried out, they leave you with nothing left to ask by the time he's finished - if by then you can even remember what your original question was.

So: "Now, this was presumably because there wasn't a significant broadcasting standards complaint launched against me after the first show. (There may, he said, have been complaints but not, as far as he knows, any official ones.) But the point I'm making about misrepresenting: The show is a tame affair because I didn't say something which deserves an official broadcasting complaint on the first show, the implication being that when I used to do Breakfast ... this would have meant that I'd have had to have had three official broadcasting complaints every morning when I was doing Breakfast (and) is just misrepresentation by people who don't know what they're doing."

The aforementioned twats, who are not, of course, confined to the Herald, in other words. He has not signed some sort of good behaviour bond. "No. Absolutely not. I would never sign anything like that."

Only twats could regard his nine-month long Australian telly flop as a personal failure. There is a long argument against the possibility of anyone with half a brain thinking so, but the gist of it is that it could not possibly be a personal failure because he wasn't in control of every aspect of the show."It was a failure, but it's not my failure." That sounded to me like a way of protecting himself.

I should have just taken along one of those game show buzzers that make a loud rude noise when somebody gives a wrong and stupid answer - or in this case asks an imbecilic question. "No. Because I don't need protection."

He might have been upset that 100 people lost their jobs when the show was cancelled. Oh push that buzzer! "No more or less than me losing my job."

They might have been glad. Didn't they all hate him so much they wouldn't talk to him and threatened to boycott the Christmas party? "Well, if they did, I wasn't aware of it and as for not talking to me, as was reported, and turning away when I walked into the room, I was also not aware of that. But it's a f***ing good yarn, so it's worth reporting it ad nauseam."

It is, and so I will. I do admire the ingenuity of that answer. "Not aware of" doesn't mean it wasn't true. It also says: If they did all hate me, who gives a stuff?

I was beginning to wonder, and not for the first time: Was he actually human? There must be a lot of people like him, he said. How many people has he met who are like him? "Not many, to be fair."

He has always said - he always says the same things but when I complained about this he said of course he does because he hasn't changed his mind about the same things - that if his telly career came to an end tomorrow, it would be no skin off his nose. But wouldn't it really? I think he needs an audience; I also think he'd hate to think he does.

"Mmm. You see, this is a very interesting question." We both know what people being interviewed mean when they say that. "Usually it's condescending, isn't it?" he said, condescendingly. No, but really it was because it is his question; one he has asked himself. "I would love to say 'no', that I don't need an audience and I think that is the correct answer but I don't know if that is an absolute because you can't really know until the audience goes away."

What he really likes doing is staying home, wandering about his garden with a glass of wine, looking at things and watching a bit of telly, Father Ted, say. At which point I thought: Help! I am Paul Henry because that is just what I like doing. There is, thank goodness, one major difference. He likes having a glass of wine and looking at what other people (the hired help, presumably) have done in his garden and he may well be naked while he's doing it.

He said: "I spend days, sometimes, without any clothes on." This doesn't bear thinking about. "A lot of people think there's something weird about nudity." I said, "well, it's not natural, is it?" which made him giggle madly. He likes going to naked mixed spas in the States but he draws the line at nudity involving volleyball, barbecuing and tramping boots. That is a relief. I think.

A few people might think there is something weird about him. He is cheerfully, mostly, riddled with OCDs, but he thinks he's getting a bit better. "I've still got the bad counting thing and that still annoys me at times." He counts anything ritualistic: "Brushing teeth, putting on deodorant." He hadn't counted anything on the table at the cafe. Of course the minute he said this, he started counting things on the table.

He is "a bit of a shit," but not as much of a shit as his father - who buggered off when he was 11 after which his mother fled back to Bristol and they went from being rich to being poor. He admired his father for being adventurous and clever. He didn't and doesn't resent the buggering off (they had some sort of ongoing relationship but it was distant.) He appreciates struggle. He doesn't care whether people think he's a good person or not because he knows he is. "So I don't have to face the challenge of wondering whether it matters or not."

But he had told me that he is pleased about being "a bit of a shit"! "Yes. You would be, wouldn't you?"

It was it at this point that I called for wine. It was 3pm. "See, I've driven you to drink. That wasn't much of a trip."

We had a glass of wine and he went to the loo so I took the opportunity to have a puff on my e-fag. When he got back he said: "I'm glad to see you're smoking. Oh, that's not a real cigarette. Either smoke, or don't. That's not living, is it? It looks a bit stupid." Why on earth would he care? "Well, I'm sitting with you. It does look stupid. It goes blue at the end!"

He went up high at the end of that sentence, in that falsetto way he has. He's quite camp sometimes. "I am." Why is he? "I have no idea. Or maybe it comes from the fact that it was the typical upbringing with the father, and going to the rugby and going to sports. There were very few male role models in my life."

He was quite interested in this and later analysed his outfit. "This shirt is a bit camp. The trousers aren't. The shoes could be. Or not. Look at the f***ing socks!" We looked at the socks. They were SpongeBob SquarePants socks. People buy them for him but "they buy them knowing that they're the sort of sock I wear. But these trousers are not camp at all. Oh. I suppose they could be. Actually, this shirt is. And I've got ones that are more effeminate than this".

He has had therapy, which amazed me. "You know, I've been analysed, usually at the request of others." His ex-wife? "Just others."

He said he wasn't going to talk about his marriage but that he "wasn't a great husband. I'm entertaining and I'm unpredictable and those things can be very, very good in small doses but long term, you'd tire of some of those things, don't you think?" I do.

He doesn't tire of himself, of course. "No, no. I don't. Maybe the day will come when all of a sudden I do. I sometimes exhaust myself just thinking about things."

Anyway, back to the therapy, because he wanted to tell me that a "respected therapist described me as the most highly functioning dysfunctional person he'd ever met. It's a great line. I know no more than that".

It is a great line so I'm going to pinch it. I know no more than that about Paul Henry, except, damn it, that I enjoyed him very much. Paul, please send the phone number of that therapist. I need it, urgently.

- NZ Herald

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