Paul Holmes looks back

By Carroll du Chateau

Do you think they like me?" asks Paul Holmes as I make my way to the door. "You know, do people like me or not? What do you think?"

It is a stunningly personal question that reflects the inner vulnerability of our most influential broadcaster. No, he is not an egotist: he is, at heart, a little kid rattling round an enormous Remuera mansion with three small dogs and a cat, wanting to be liked.

Now the house is for sale, his job of 22 years ends on December 19 and for Paul Holmes, life as he knows it is about to change forever.

Holmes has done it all: the big gory stories, the sob stories, the scandals. He infuriated American yachtie Dennis Conner so much the man walked off the Holmes set on its first evening.

He became the interviewer-of-choice for the famously difficult diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

He has bared his soul over his alcoholism, his prostate cancer, his marriage break-up and his affair with Fleur Revell. He fronted up to the nation over his step-daughter

Millie Elder's P problems. For 15 years he worked two jobs - his arduous NewstalkZB gig which required him to get up at 4am and Holmes after the 6pm news on TV One, which kept him working late into the evening.

Many would have crumbled under the strain. Holmes just got louder, prouder and more irascible. He was still in his early 50s and enjoyed devouring the news of the day before the rest of the country woke up. His beloved producer, Phil Armstrong, who died suddenly of cancer in May this year, was still around. "We would meet on the steps every morning for 21 years and, you know, we were wildly successful," he says.

"Doing breakfast made me well-briefed into the evening. I just loved them, loved the jobs. It was an immense privilege, brought a fellow a bit of prestige."

He doubtless drank too much and his first marriage cracked under the strain. He swung through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s with a succession of pretty, sexy, flirtatious women on his arm and married two of them. His first marriage was to Hine Elder, mother of his step-daughter, Millie, and 17-year-old son Reuben. He tied the knot a second time with Deborah Hamilton, a real estate saleswoman. Many of their close friends, "the Friday night group" says Holmes, are real estate rather than media people.

Today the wooden sideboard in the sitting room is crammed with photos, many of them Holmes with different people: Bill Clinton, Te Kanawa, his children - and with an old, extremely attractive, girlfriend "it's strange how that one works its way to the front".

He has also done some spectacularly silly things. One of the most notable was calling Kofi Annan a "cheeky darkie". Another was when he took himself, and his Holmes show, off to Prime.

He left the company that had nurtured him for more than 15 years for a precarious, less-resourced job - and for around the same money. Then he insulted his former bosses at TVNZ.

When his ratings at Prime fell into a black hole as his faithful followers failed to find the channel on the remote and follow him over, he berated his old bosses some more.

Bad move. Since then, and long after he left Prime six months into his three-year contract, Holmes has appeared on TVNZ only once - in the forgettable Whatever Happened To? series last year. Despite reasonable ratings, it didn't win a second series.

The most likeable thing about Holmes is that he is honest. Yes, he says, the TVNZ and subsequent Prime failure still hurt. "There's nothing like telly, is there?" Yes, too, to the fact that his bosses at NewstalkZB are behind him giving up weekday mornings in exchange for Saturdays. "If I were honest, if I was offered those two programmes, I'd do it again in a flash!"

However, he acknowledges it is probably time to move on. "To be fair, we've finally found a successor. Hoskings had to be offered an incentive to stay on. I could do with stepping down. I've had a very, very good run. I am getting older and I do have a loyalty to the wonderful company [ZB]."

His personal triumphs are impressive: "Taking NewstalkZB to number one in the Auckland market and staying there for 22 years - and this year we're also number one in Wellington which I'm incredibly proud of."

Then in mid-1989 came the Holmes Show. Before the news was stretched to an hour, it was broadcast at 6.30 weeknights, and was an almost-instant success.

"How did you get the break?"

"Apparently it was Julian Mounter's wife," he says. Mounter was CEO of TVNZ and his wife Paddy liked Holmes' breakfast show. He got the job and made it work.

Today Holmes is uncharacteristically sombre. He shifts a pile of fliers advertising the Remuera house and takes us into his book-lined library (complete with massive flat-screen TV). "I still love the job," he says. "One in five cars are listening to us in the mornings, across 45 [radio] stations."

And the secret? What makes Holmes' brand of news talkback so successful? "I could say it's all down to good looks and talent, but above all, the format is so very, very good".

Back in 1987 the ZB morning formula of news, current affairs and entertainment was radical. It was a rip-off of Australia's 2GB, tweaked by Holmes until it fitted snug as a glove, with his personality and "strange" mix of talents.

Alongside the soft stuff, he has always added some penetrating journalism - and was prepared to ask the tough questions and take on the fatuous, famous and powerful. He is also atrociously impertinent - and funny with it.

He famously wrote about asking Helen Clark's husband, Peter Davis, if they "did it" and even now can't resist smiling when retelling how Davis answered.

"He said 'of course'," says Holmes.

"But then he, Davis, may not have heard the question, but may have been answering the previous one."

And what was that?

"I asked him, 'is this a real marriage?"'

Whatever the truth, the interview pleased the then Prime Minister. "We were driving down the southern motorway the next day when I saw Helen's car. When the phone went I said 'oh my God'.

"'Nice piece about Peter,' she said. And we drove on."

He infuriated his colleagues in the media by winning Qantas Columnist of the Year in 1999 with a column about a rat that ate his dishcloth.

The diminutive Holmes has always been obsessed with sex - and his fascination did not disappear after his very-public prostate cancer - which, he said, decreased his ability to "do it".

In a shameless effort to flog the Paul Holmes Extra Virgin Olive Oil from his 2500 olive trees growing in Hawkes Bay, he recommended to Herald on Sunday readers that "extra virgin olive oil is great for the heart and keeps you young, so why should it not help ward off cancer of the prostate? It is probably not a bad thing to rub a bit of oil on where it matters either."

Holmes and his second wife, Deborah, seem well-matched and despite Holmes' serious mood, are apparently delighted at the prospect of moving to the Hawkes Bay farm he bought in 2001.

They met and married a decade ago, when he was 48, and they're having a "nice" relationship. The three dogs are hers; he's a "cat person".

"Relationships are not my greatest suit," he says. "Hine and I... I doubt we ever had an argument - they came during the divorce!"

"If I were honest, the kids didn't see me in the mornings and I didn't get home until 8 at night after the Holmes programme."

Like it or hate it, the Holmes show started a trend that has become an indelible part of network television in New Zealand. John Campbell started a competitor on TV3 and Holmes himself took the formula to Prime, leaving his slot to Mark Sainsbury, who proved once and for all that in TV, at least, it is the medium, rather than the message, that works.

Apart from that Holmes has been good with money. At 58 he is undoubtedly the wealthiest journalist/broadcaster in the country.

Back in 2001 an NBR survey of the country's "rising stars" put his earnings from the television programme at between $616,000 and $624,000 plus a "tidy salary" for NewstalkZB breakfast and a much smaller amount for his Saturday column in the Herald.

While Holmes disputed the numbers published, it is worth noting that that same year Helen Clark said his salary was "revolting" and he was forced to take a $150,000 pay cut. It was about that time he bought his seven-bedroom Hawkes Bay property for over $1 million. Since then he has refused to talk about money.

The decision not to talk about his children came much later. Early on he trotted Millie and Reuben around like little show ponies. Now Reuben has issued an edict that his father may not mention him and Holmes takes it seriously - although he has said before that one of the drivers for the move to Hawkes Bay was to spend more time with his son, he will now not even say what school he attends.

As for Millie, who since June 2007 has been in and out of the courts on drugs charges, he has decided that talking about her is "counterproductive. It makes her feel like a celebrity and that's counterproductive".

He has done his best for the 20-year-old, fronted up in court when it probably did his reputation no good and tried his best to pull her away from the world of drugs. Now, he says, his anguish is "indescribable".

He will run the Saturday morning show half the time from Hawkes Bay and half from Auckland and he will have one minute in Mike Hoskings' show on weekdays to bring up any subject he wants. A minute is a long time in commercial radio.

"Am I pleased or sad? I'm starting to wonder what it will be like to stop," he says - then perks up.

"The big day is December 19. There will be all sorts of guests and celebrities, very exciting - a party going on."

But for the workaholic and reluctant early riser who has learned to love getting up at 4am, the future obviously looks a little daunting.

SOUND BITES

* In September 2003, Holmes infamously described United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a "cheeky darkie" during a rant on his radio show.

There was a public outcry but Holmes kept his job after making several emotional apologies, claiming he had been "tired". However, the major sponsor of his TV show, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation, withdrew its support. Holmes apologised to Annan.

* In April 2004 he called MP Tariana Turia a "confused bag of lard", a bully who folded under pressure and who did not have the guts to vote, and as being "all mouth and no trousers, all talk and no walk". As well, he described her as a "complete fool." The outburst followed Mrs Turia's about-face on foreshore and seabed legislation.

* In June 2006 Holmes laid into the Greens as the party of "the hippies, the Morris dancers, the square dancers, the anti-Americans, the nuclear ships fanatics, the fascists of greenness, the far-left, the remnants of the Alliance, anti-free traders, apologists for Mao, communist sympathisers, the enemies of science and the rabid, irrational anti-GM movement". A square dancer's complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority was turned down.

* Last month at a charity fundraiser where Bob Geldof was the drawcard, Holmes, the MC, confused his Bobs. "Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Dylan." The broadcaster explained he was "weary".

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 23 Nov 2014 20:49:54 Processing Time: 1287ms