Paul Henry reveals why he hates people

By Greg Bruce

Shock is his stock-in-trade, but talking to Greg Bruce, the controversial broadcaster takes it to a whole new level. Not surprisingly, content may offend.

"F*** 'em!" Paul Henry said, having just walked in on a conversation about organisations that want him to attend their evening events.

"What are they morons, these people?"

His publicist said: "They're like, 'he can just have a drink and mingle'."

"Yeah, because that's what I really want to do," Henry said. "I'm hanging out to have drinks and mingle."

He doesn't like doing interviews, didn't want to do this interview, and particularly didn't want to do this interview in a place where there might be other people. He was hungry and I had offered him the opportunity to talk somewhere he could also get food, but he instead chose to stay in the photo studio, where we had just finished the photoshoot he hadn't wanted to do.

Over the several hours we spent together, the theme of his not particularly liking people came up more than once, in sometimes-astonishing verbal onslaughts, such as the following:

"I don't like airports," he said, "I don't like them at all. I don't like people and I particularly don't like people at airports."

"Do you really not like people?" I asked him.

"No, not really," he said.

"Why?"

"They are a huge disappointment."

I asked if he was being a bit disingenuous.

"No, I'm not," he said.

The publicist said, "He is not."

"Okay, let me talk about a person at an airport," Henry said. "When you're standing in the queue and you know you have to take things out of your pockets and out of your briefcase, do you know you're going to have to do that?"

He waited for an answer, so I said, "Yes."

"So why - the f*** - do you get to the front of the queue and have all this - 'Oh f***! Oh shit! Oh my f***in' Christ! I had no idea I had a hand grenade in my pocket! Oh, do I need to put my laptop in a separate thing? Do I need to take this out of my sock? Do I need to take my shoes off? Am I a complete f***in' moron who can barely breathe on my own?'

"Do you have any idea how much that infuriates me? And I'm standing behind these c***s and I think, 'What is it about you that is so f***ing special that you can hold me and all these other people up because you are so without your own f***ing mind that you can't prepare in all the f***ing time you've had to get your laptop - 'Oh, what have I got in here? Oh, what have I got with me? Oh, I've got two litres of plutonium. Do I need to put that in a separate tray?'

"You know? And you think, 'What is it with you, you complete f***in' moron?' And you're going overseas, you're going to f***in' Sydney or wherever you're going, to a f***in' CEOs' conference and you can't f***ing get the two litres of plutonium out of your briefcase in advance, you complete f***in' dipstick.'

"So," he said, "that pretty much sums up my view."

I asked him if he felt the same about people outside airports.

Paul Henry on the set of his breakfast programme.
Paul Henry on the set of his breakfast programme.

He paused for a long time, which is something he does rarely. "I mean, there are lovely people about," he said. "There are lovely people about. I don't meet people very often."

"Is that by design?" I asked.

"Well, you said we could sit out there," - he gestured in the general direction of the outside world - "in what is a much nicer environment, with fewer ceiling tiles missing and even probably food - and I am quite hungry - but I'd rather sit in here just with you than be out there and run the risk of people seeing us."

I asked what it was about the idea of being seen by people that he didn't like.

"What are they thinking? And it's interesting because I don't care what they're thinking; I care that I don't know what they are thinking. So whatever it is they're thinking I don't care about, but I care that I won't know what they're thinking, and I don't f***in' want to ask them because I don't want to engage, you know? And sometimes they will come up and engage and because I'm lovely, I want to be lovely, but I don't have the energy to be lovely because my life takes every f***in' ounce of energy I've got, and you know it's easier for me to extend this interminably long interview than it is to go on and do the next thing."

Not long after we were first introduced, an hour or two before the above exchange, during what Henry described as the "pre-interview", he asked me what this article was going to be about. I told him that TVNZ's revamp of Breakfast and particularly their rushing forward of new hosts Jack Tame and Hilary Barry felt a bit like a response to his show's success, like a "Paul Henry moment", a sign his career was on the up-and-up. I wanted to talk about that.

I'm not loving [my job] or hating it, I'm doing it. Some days are very satisfying, some days are less satisfying. But they're days.
Paul Henry

"Yeah," he said. "So - basically - TVNZ has got the shits up itself. Basically. Yeah, yay for me. No, I like it: 'Paul Henry; yay for me.'"

Later, when I asked him what he thought about what has happened with TVNZ's Breakfast, he said he doesn't think about it. He followed that up by saying he gets great joy from seeing people improve as a result of trying to compete with him.

"So you would be happy to see that?" I asked. "If they do a better job on Breakfast?"

"They can't," he said. "They can't."

"Not a better job than you," I said, "but if they improve their own product, you're happy about that?"

"Absolutely," he said, "because it's a direct result of me. What have they told you so far? And I'm talking about you, as a viewer. They have told you that they have been perfectly happy to produce shit for all this time because no one has put them under pressure to produce anything other than shit. And the reason we know that is the fact that they just offloaded the shit. Unceremoniously, they have offloaded the shit. Not because they wanted to produce a really good product - because they have never wanted to do that, otherwise they would never have had shit in the first place - but because I came along. So, yay for me. I should be congratulated."

An interview with Henry, especially one as long as this one, boils down to a lot of this kind of thing: outrageous claims, insults, self-aggrandising statements, insults embedded in outrageous claims, self-aggrandising statements dressed as insults. Asked about his desire to host a 7 o'clock current affairs show, he said: "There was a time when I was supposed to get the job, when [Paul] Holmes left. I was essentially told that I was going to get the job and then they employed Mark Sainsbury for some Christ-would-only-know-what reason. But then they said, 'It's okay, because you will be the fill-in.' Now, up until then, the fill-in had been a full-time job, but I was expected to do it as an add-on to the job I was already doing, probably because I was seen as being a genius. And I did it for a little while and then I thought, 'This is actually hard work and why would I want this job?' And I did want it then, and I thought, 'Surely they can see how much better I am. Why is this not my job?' But it wasn't, and all of a sudden I thought, 'I'm f***ing over it.'"

That was the end, he says, of his aspirations to be a 7 o'clock host.

"Because what is it with 7 o'clock?" he said. "You could put a f***in' chimp on at 7 o'clock and it would get a decent audience, because it's prime time. In fact the frightening thing is, if we did put a chimp on at 7 o'clock - literally a chimp, I'm talking a chimp in a tree - if we did do that, you might be surprised how well it did. I don't know, but no, I'm not interested."

"So if you were offered it," I said, "you would say what?"

"I would say no."

Photo / Michael Craig
Photo / Michael Craig

It's easy to watch him, with the endless attention-grabbing comments and to think, that on television, where he has spent so many of the most productive years of his life, he has found his natural habitat, but the longer we talked, the less interested Henry appeared in being on TV.

"I'm doing the best I can possibly do, so I give a damn about that, and I really care about the product and about the programme, but I don't care whether I've got the opportunity to do it or not. So at the moment I'm doing it and I really care about doing it as well as I possibly can, but if I couldn't do it, that wouldn't bother me."

Midway through our interview, Henry tried to finish the interview: "This is how we need to end this," he said, "because we need to f***ing end it."

I told him I still had more questions.

"Great," he said. He told me he was going to need a break "to go wees", but first he wanted to make the comment he had hoped would be his last of the interview. "Here's the thing: I have been waiting to live for most of my life and I'm not alone. You have been waiting to live and you are waiting to live." He turned to the publicist: "You have been waiting to live and you are waiting to live. And that doesn't mean that we're not living now and that doesn't mean that we're not doing some things we like, but people are constantly waiting to live."

He looked around the studio disdainfully and said, "I could probably just piss in any one of these cupboards. Who's ever going to know?"

Later, he said, almost to himself, "It's only Tuesday. This is dayus horribilus, as my life just forges on. I don't know if it's got forward momentum but it has some sort of momentum."

I told him I had the sense he wasn't really loving his job at the moment.

"No," he said, "I'm not loving it or hating it, I'm doing it. Some days are very satisfying, some days are less satisfying. But they're days."

I asked him why he was doing any of this at all. He took a fair while to think about it.

"Because I've boxed myself into it and because I have an obligation to do it. I do things which are a real privilege to be able to do and which are very exciting to be able to do, which from my point of view are loathsome to have to do, but to be able to do them you have to put yourself in the position where you have to do them. Like, I couldn't just say, 'F***, you know, next Wednesday I might go and do a breakfast show,' because it doesn't work like that and neither should it work like that ... so to be in the position where I can do this, I have to place myself in the position where I have to do it, and that's the position I placed myself in."

"So," I said, "it's like life has led you to this point regardless."

"My own extraordinary talent has resulted in this and it is both a blessing and a curse," he said. "F***, this is Thomas Hardy-esque. Seriously, you must be very good because these are great lines. They are great f***in' lines."

Henry's hunger eventually overwhelmed his unwillingness to be out in the world and he took me to Al Brown's Federal Delicatessen, the eating place he loves more than any other, which he attends two or three times a week, and where his favourite things include poutine, pastrami, pinot noir, and lettuce salad with blue cheese and candied walnuts.

Watch: Paul Henry: 'I was practically begged to do 7pm'

Video

By the time we got to The Fed, Henry and I had spent around three hours together, hours he begrudged me, but he took me there because he felt he needed still more time to explain the spectacular success of his time on TV in Australia, which he said had been misunderstood by the media.

Pre-The Fed, he had already drunk a glass or two of pinot noir, his standard post-show morning drink. At The Fed he ordered a jug of pinot, which was shared among himself, the publicist and me, and once the jug was finished, he had another glass. None of this is to judge. Henry gets up at 2.30am on workdays, so by 9.30am it's like mid-afternoon in his body.

Somewhere in his brain, though, it was already after midnight. We were nearly finished lunch when his attention was drawn to the breasts of the woman at the next table: "The girl with the perfect titties," he said. "Am I right or am I right? No, I'm right - perfect titties. Talking to a girl with entirely adequate titties but she's decided to have lunch with someone with perfect titties."

"That's perception, eh?" the publicist said.

"Oh, it's just my perception," Henry said. "I could be wrong, but I'm not."

"How do you know the other one hasn't got perfect titties?" the publicist said. "She's just covered them up."

"Okay, I'll tell you why: because she's covered them up."

"No, that's not true," the publicist said.

"No, if you've got perfect titties, you know you've got perfect titties, because you see them all the time and you let them come out and play."

"This is a subjective thing isn't it?" I said, "Your impression?"

"No, oh no, you might like different titties to me, right, but there's titties you like, titties you don't like, then there's perfect titties. The titties you like might be different to the ones I like but the perfect ones are the same."

"What are they?" I asked.

"You can see them now, if you care to glance."

I said I didn't feel comfortable doing that.

"Well what can I do?" he said. "They are there in front of you. All you need to do is look."

"Is it the geometry of them?" I asked.

"It's a whole collection of things, isn't it?" he said.

"Wait until she has children," the publicist said. "They won't be perfect then."

"No they won't," Henry said, "No they won't. Oh, absolutely! And it won't be her fault - it will be part of the transition through life, which I fully understand, but right at the moment, this moment in time, it's like, at the moment she's Palm Springs. She will be Rancho Mirage, but at the moment she's Palm Springs. And you know, at the end of the day you want to spend the rest of your life with Rancho Mirage, but you want to dream about Palm Springs."

"Do you?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," he said, his voice low and sultry. "And you know what? When you're fondling Rancho Mirage, in here," - he tapped the side of his head - "it's Palm Springs."

Around this point, the woman put on and zipped up a tight leather jacket.

"Do you know what she's done?" Henry said.

"Covered them up," the publicist said.

"Yeah. She has not only covered them up - she has hermetically f***ing sealed them, in leather! By crikey, they're going to be ripe for a while. She's caring for them."

"Who could blame her?" I said. "Hermetically sealing them after listening to that onslaught."

"Well," he said, "I don't know that she could have heard that, but if she did, you know what? She's going to walk away 1) outraged, which is a feeling people love, and 2), very f***in' proud. 'Outraged and Proud, of Remuera.'"

Henry described the breakfast show he hosted on Network Ten in Australia as poorly managed, disastrous, a "clusterf***", but he said that he was a genius and had managed in spite of the endless disasters to get about 50,000-60,000 viewers after nine months on air, and that the two established competitors, on channels Nine and Seven, were "scared shitless" by the time the show was cancelled.

My own extraordinary talent has resulted in this and it is both a blessing and a curse.
Paul Henry

He says that Lachlan Murdoch and his wife Sarah took him to dinner and Murdoch told him it was a huge mistake to cancel the programme but he'd just hired a new CEO and, he told Henry, you don't hire a CEO and then not let him make decisions.

A year later, Henry says, Network Ten launched a new breakfast programme, with many millions more invested into it, a magnificent new set, a real point of difference, and so on. When the show was cancelled six months later, Henry says it hadn't achieved half the audience of his show.

"I will not die if I make a mistake," Henry says. "The most dangerous thing I do every day is drive to work, and I'm a very f***in' good driver and I drive with few bad drivers on the road, so I've got that in perspective. What is the worst that could happen? I could make a complete f***in' ass of myself in front of the nation? I don't give a shit, I seriously don't care. I seriously don't care. And when I think about the possibility of that happening, which I don't do very often, but I am now because I've said it out loud - so I'm now thinking about it because I have this multitalented ability - I can only see the upside in it ...

"If anything has held me back and I know I come across as arrogant but I don't give a shit and funnily enough I'm not arrogant, I'm just me, but if anything has held me back, it's been my entire lack of interest in my own career."

Watch: Media Ocre Awards: Paul Henry gets in too deep





I asked whether that lack of interest had possibly helped him.

"I don't know," he said. "It's not for me to say really."

That last sentence was so unlikely that it was no surprise when he immediately ignored it. "I think on a daily basis it helps me because you couldn't not give a shit if you're worried about your career. Like, I never think ahead. I think ahead in terms of, 'Oh Jesus, how long is this nightmare going to continue?' But I never think, 'God, maybe if I did this, or this happened, or if I went to that, or if I went to the opening of another f***ing envelope, I could be recognised by someone and this could happen or that could happen and I could end up there, maybe I could get an extra $500,000 a year or $600,000 or seven or maybe', you know?

"And in the back of my mind, I sometimes think, usually led by other people asking me questions, I sometimes think, 'Could I have done better if I cared?' Even to me that sounds arrogant, saying that, but because I don't care it doesn't bother me."

...I know I come across as arrogant but I don't give a shit and funnily enough I'm not arrogant, I'm just me.
Paul Henry

He told a long story about how, as a boy, he thought Pluto was the edge of the universe, and he found the subsequent realisation of there being no edge, no parameters, unsettling.

"You know what I mean?" he said. "I'm f***ed. I'm out."

He told a long story about the performance of Forest Whitaker in the movie The Last King of Scotland. The point, he said, was if he had been Whitaker, and had turned in a performance that strong, he would have quit.

"I would have walked away from that and I would have said, 'I'm happy. That's a great body of work. Maybe I could do better, but f*** it, I've only got so much energy. That was great. Literally, you walk away from there and you say, 'Yeah, that's good.' I've never done anything like that."

Because that final sentence seemed strangely out of keeping with his usual blustery self-promotion, I asked him if he genuinely felt he'd never done anything like that.

"No, Christ no," he said. "I do daily f***ing television."

"But within the parameters of that?" I asked.

"Oh, within the parameters of that I do it all the time, because I'm a genius, but that's the parameters of that, you know?"

He told a long story about how when he was leaving TVNZ, after one scandal too many, he was shown two letters. He said the letters were very similar, and he recited what he remembered of one:

"'I just wanted you to know it took six months for my wife to die at home and every morning you were on, she laughed. For the last six months.'

"That was my Last King of Scotland moment. So what I should have done then is f***in' said, 'I'm out.'"

I asked why he didn't.

"I did," he said.

"But you came back."

"Well, did I come back? Or did people badger me and in the end they wore me down? It's hard, because what do you do? That's the thing - what do you do?

"The point that I'm making is, Jesus gives you another day but he doesn't tell you how many more he's going to give you. So you are sacked, right? And then you sit around and you think, 'This is convenient: I've been given freedom. It's like individual democracy: 'I can do anything I want.' And then, after a few days of doing that, you think, 'I'm loving this! I could do this for ages!'

"How long is ages? Aha! You know? And so you think, 'Shit.' Because we need parameters, don't we?"

- Canvas

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