View interactive

Michele Hewitson interview: David Hartnell

By Michele Hewitson

David Hartnell, despite his 40 years of rubbing shoulders with celebrities, lives a fairly staid life, it seems. Photo / Paul Estcourt
David Hartnell, despite his 40 years of rubbing shoulders with celebrities, lives a fairly staid life, it seems. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Of course I had my picture taken with the gossip columnist, David Hartnell. Wouldn't you have? The one thing everyone knows about him is that he has all those photographs of him with famous people and that they are prominently displayed in his house, even in the loo, which is where he keeps what he calls his "wanker's wall".

There was no good reason for going to see him except that, as he knows better than almost anyone, flattery will sometimes get you somewhere. In this case it got me into his house and if he regretted the outcome of his sweet-talking, he heroically hid it even when I pointed out that his famous pictures were a bit (a bit!) dusty. "Who cares? As Quentin Crisp said: 'It doesn't get any worse after three years!"

He had sent me a very sweet email, mentioning in passing that when his memoirs came out last year he'd asked the publisher to ask me if I'd interview him. They didn't (to the best of my recollection) but of course I'd like to interview him: He has always seemed a completely made up person and they are always interesting, in person. So I told him to come up with a peg.

He is, as he says, a total media slut, but he proved sadly hopeless. Never mind, it was Oscar week, we could do the best and worst frocks.

"Of course!" he said. "I'd forgotten all about them! The trouble is: I don't know a lot of their names!" He says he sometimes goes to the loo and thinks: "Ooh. A lot of these people have flicked the twig!" He's 68 and he's written gossip for 40 years so he might be permitted a bit of a rest. Do not suggest this. I asked when he was going to retire and he looked at me as though I was as mad as, say, Liza Minnelli, which brings us to his loo.

When we were in the loo - he had said, "would you like to go to the toilet? Come this way. I'll take you, darling" - I said: "Where's Liza?" I didn't mean the dog. He and his partner of 19 years, Somboon Khansuk, have two: Miss Liza, not named after the other Liza; that was the name she arrived with; and Miss Cele, which is pronounced Sally after an earlier dog named Sally.

He says he couldn't remember the new dog's name so called her Cele. This seemed to make perfect sense at the time he told me, and in only a slightly nutty way. Anyway, he says the other Liza is not off her rocker, as I so rudely put it; that she has had a stroke, which most people don't realise. I meant before that, actually. He said, purse-mouthed, "I'm not sure ..." and we moved up the hall where he showed me a framed certificate proclaiming him the patron of the Variety Club of New Zealand.

He emailed later to ask if I could possibly mention this; he's very proud of being the patron, so of course I'm happy to. He and Somboon were very kind to me and gave me a lovely afternoon tea, a poodle key ring made, by members of Somboon's family, from pink beads, and a ride home when the taxi didn't arrive.

Somewhere along the way, we had what could charitably be called a digressive interview which was mostly my fault, but not entirely. So, right: where were we up to with Liza? In the loo, then, I asked where she was and he said: "She's in the other room." That is not a conversation you are likely to have with anyone else, in any other house in the country.

I am not likely to have my picture taken with a gossip columnist and a large stuffed monkey wrapped around my neck in any other house in the country. What mad things he has. Why does he have a large stuffed monkey? He said, a bit huffily: "You saw the monkey and you enjoyed it, and so many people do and the kids who come here love the monkey."

I shouldn't have been rude about the monkey (or Liza) because we share another mad thing: A model of the Queen which has a tiny solar panel on the top of her handbag and when the sun shines, she waves. "When she's waving, I know it's going to be a good day. If she's not waving, I think: 'Ooh! It's not a good day." His Queen is far superior because of course he's embellished her. "They missed something very important. She had no brooch."

He went to the $2 shop and bought one of those Indian hand decorations and made her a sparkler. "We can't have the Queen without a brooch! I'll get you a pink one." He did, the very next day, and emailed: "Now remember - it goes on the left hand side of her coat, she always wears her brooches over her heart."

I thought he was probably a bit bossy (see above) but Somboon swears not. He was a bit bossy with me, but only in a helpful sort of way. He certainly wouldn't let me boss him. I wanted to know where his famous little black book was. "On my desk." Could I have a look at it? "No." Why not? "I am not going to show you my little black book." Just a little look? "No."

He gave me some tips on interviewing, which were welcome, I can tell you. "An interviewer needs a good opener question, a middle question, in case the interview's crap, and a good closer. I've always spoken to people as I would like to be spoken to and shutting up and listening - like you're doing to me - is a good interviewer." I said: "I can't get a word in, David!" "Well, there you go. If I was giving you 'yes', 'no' answers you'd say: 'For God's sake!"' I said I was only teasing him and he unhuffed immediately. "I know you are!"

He says he's not a complicated person, and I believe him. He lives, happily and quietly, with Somboon and the two dogs, and they visit Somboon's family in Thailand most years where they do "nothing!", except watch DVDs and he has a very occasional Baileys and milk and potters about on a push bike - an image which made me giggle; it makes him and Somboon and Somboon's family giggle too.

He says he had a very happy and stable upbringing, although it doesn't much look like one on paper. He was raised by his mum, and her parents, after his father left when he was a very little boy and he didn't see him for years and years. He later discovered a half-brother and sister who knew nothing of his existence.

After his father left, his mother cut all the pictures of him out of the family photo album. He never asked his mother a thing about his father until, in 2000, he saw a death notice of a man called John Segetin. He asked his mother (who is still alive, aged 88, in a retirement village) if that could be his father and she said: "That'll be him."

And that was that. He is not at all bitter. He says it never occurred to him. He has never talked to her about being gay; they have never talked about being gay with Somboon's family either. (Somboon, at 45, tells me he is the "toyboy", which I said I was relieved to hear because it saved me saying it.) It's just not a big deal and he is not much interested in talking about being gay to me, or to anybody. When he was talking about the dog called Miss Liza, he said: "People say: 'Trust you to have a dog named after Liza Minnelli.' It's so camp. But it's nothing to do with us at all."

Is he camp? "I don't know. I would have no idea. What do you think?" I said that I thought he might be a bit camp. "Well, that's all right. I am gay. So that's a compliment, I would think." He doesn't know why anyone would be interested what anyone else does in bed, for one thing. "But yes, I have sex, if that's the next question."

It most certainly was not. They are such a staid, married couple (even if not actually married), it was like hearing that your parents have sex.

It was a relief then, to hear that he has never been a party person; he was always career-minded and he really did make himself up: He left school, without School C; he became a champion roller skater (he still has his skates, of course and God only knows what else he has hoarded over the years.

He did give away some of his 200-plus trademark bow ties to the doorman at TVNZ but of course not all.) Then he became a make-up artist and worked in New York and London where he met the stars and the rest is the stuff of gossip column history - except that he has never done anything wild enough to appear in one.

He might have been born middle-aged, really. He never ever took drugs, he has those two Baileys a couple of times a year, he managed to make a very good living while wearing bow ties and refusing to be photographed without one ... That really is about it.

He always wears his brooch, his Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit button, because he's terrifically proud of having been awarded it, "by the Queen," as he always says. He signs all of his correspondence, including emails, MNZM. He thinks he's the only gossip columnist to have been so honoured, for services to entertainment.

He knows people think he's a name dropper and that all those pictures of fading, or dropped-off-the-twig stars are silly and show-offy. He says he doesn't care and, mostly, now at least, he doesn't seem to.

If he ever frets, and he does occasionally, about what will happen next, Somboon tells him not to worry, whatever will happen, will happen. They both say he really doesn't care that one day people might say: "Whatever happened to David Hartnell?" I think this is almost true, and I hope it is because it would be sad for him if not.

But I can't write about him and not name drop Joan Collins because they are friends. I asked if he really loved her and he said: "I love Joan, as I say in the book, but not as much as Joan loves Joan." What a thing to say about a friend! "No! No! Stop! She's a survivor. That's what I love about Joan. I love strong women ... And Joan is always promoting Joan." At which my mouth dropped open and strange squeaking sounds came out. Ahem! Ahem! I managed. "Well!" he said, "You've got to keep the name out there, honey!"

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a3 at 22 Sep 2014 10:58:10 Processing Time: 705ms