Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with David Hartnell

Reality shows are like an ice block, says David Hartnell. 'Once the colour has been sucked out you are left with a block of ice.' Photo / Paul Estcourt
Reality shows are like an ice block, says David Hartnell. 'Once the colour has been sucked out you are left with a block of ice.' Photo / Paul Estcourt

The boy with the state-house upbringing who became a makeup artist and gossip columnist to the stars has worked for 40 years in the entertainment industry and has no plans to retire. 'People who retire don't like their work. I love my work.' He lives in Auckland with his partner of 20 years

What place has gossip in our media and society? Is it like expensive vices - best consumed rarely and only in small doses?

I've always believed gossip is like raw fish - it becomes less valuable with age. I'm happy to say that the public has a voracious appetite for celebrity gossip. But I truly believe that gossip, whether celebrity or not, is the oil of all human society.

What are the boundaries for a gossip columnist?

If you can't put a name to a celebrity don't write about them. Don't write about things like who's bonking who. Quite frankly, unless I was standing at the foot of the linen battlefield and saw the action for myself, I'd never write about it.

I've always believed whenever you point a finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you. I have never hidden myself.

What is the thing a celebrity should not do in handling gossip?

The best put-down is to say, "I didn't know you'd said that. I never read your column." Actually, you should never reply to a columnist. That is bait. We have people in New Zealand who if I put breadcrumbs on the window ledge they'd appear. Overload can be the death of the celebrity. Little and often is best. And reality shows - oh dear. They are like an ice block. Once the colour has been sucked out you are left with a block of ice. The social pages here mean nothing. They are simply people attending a function.

How did you hear of the death of your friend Phyllis Diller?

Her son Perry let me know before it got released to the press. I first met Phyllis back in 1967 on her first trip to Australia. I was working as a makeup artist for Revlon in Sydney and I did a makeover of her for a paper. We stayed firm friends from that day. We just clicked. She was a dear, loyal friend who opened lots of doors in Hollywood for me and asked nothing in return. She was a trailblazer, the first female stand-up. And it was bloody hard in America then. It still is hard for women in Hollywood. You know, if a woman goes on to a film set and asks that a particular angle of her face not be focused on, they will say, "What a bitch". If a man does the same thing, they say, "Isn't he professional". Nothing much has changed.

You also did Elizabeth Taylor's makeup, when she was engaged to Richard Burton?

She arrived with her basic makeup on. Such a professional. It was for a cover shoot. Once we'd done the makeup and her nails she asked me to pass her a box and open it. She didn't want her nails to chip. So I opened it and there was "the" diamond ring. I said, "I might just slip it on", and she said, "Go on darling, why don't you?" She was just wonderful. A bit like Phyllis. They didn't take themselves too seriously. Looking back, it's the females who have had the greatest impact on me. They are strong women who don't put up with BS.

"Gossip" is used in a pejorative sense now. Were the 30s and 40s - the Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons era - the heyday?

Stars were then very controlled by the studios. It was a very powerful business. Now it's agents. Agents feed the information. So if you hear something about Nicole and Tom and they have the same agent, you know that agent is getting a double fee. But today's columnists have no soul or heart. These days, 90 per cent of columnists simply cut and paste. There is so much that is vile and vindictive. With the internet and Facebook, everyone is a gossip columnist. The recent Prince Harry naked pics in Las Vegas are a prime example.

What's the biggest myth about gossip?

That women are the greatest at gossiping. You do hear the best gossip in the makeup room. But it's not just women. Men are just as fascinated.

Tell me a shocking war story from a long lunch with very famous people.

Jackie Stallone is a total eccentric cashing in on her son. She is as mad as a March hare on heat. But she makes fabulous copy. We went to lunch at the Regent Hotel in Auckland many years ago. She was with her boyfriend and another publicity guy. A group of Arab men arrived and she told the publicity guy, "Go over and tell them I'm Sylvester Stallone's mother and that he saved your country." He came back and she said, "Well, what did they say?" He said, "To say hello." She said, "They can pay me in diamonds." She was dripping with them. Jackie is a "rumpologist" now. She reads people's bums. It's true. You sit on a photocopier and send the picture to her and she reads it. She's 90 now, I think. A gossip columnist's dream.

Have you ever been bribed by a celebrity to peddle self-promoting information?

Does the Pope have a balcony? I have been at Beverly Hills events where the boyfriend of a celebrity will go up to a photographer and hand over $500 and say, "Take a picture of me and so and so, will you?" It's not the star who wants to be in the paper, it's the star's boyfriend.

You're the only gossip columnist to ever receive a Queen's honour?

I remember growing up, whenever I did something good, my grandfather would say, "What do you want? A medal?" When I was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday list last year, I thought, Grandfather, I got my medal! I'm pretty proud of the moment I was made patron of the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand. To be honoured by your peers means everything to me.

You had a hard start in life. What was the worst thing about growing up gay in 60s and 70s New Zealand?

Being bullied all through my school years, simply for being different. I was not effeminate, I was just different. I was called all the names - homo, faggot and queer. Being a kid and trying to figure out who you are is hard enough without other guys attacking you either verbally or physically.

But you know, I'm glad I hung in there and didn't let the bullies win; I think it made me a stronger person. You know being gay is not like the menu at McDonald's - you don't have a choice.

If the same-sex marriage bill gets through, would you and Somboon get hitched?

Somboon and I have been together for 20 years, we have no interest in having a civil union or getting married. We are not against it. It's just not for us. But if you're not into gay marriage then don't marry someone who's gay. It's a lot of straight people getting up in arms. It's a personal thing.

- NZ Herald

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