Controversial broadcaster Paul Henry talks about his new book, living as a recluse, and the enjoyment he gets from being a nudist. By Michele Hewitson.
Of course we had a row. You can't, or I can't, interview Paul Henry and not have a row. Somebody once took a picture of us glaring at each other in an Auckland bar, silently but furiously having a row, and put it on social media.
It was a picture of us getting on famously. This is the third time I've tried to interview him and I have finally figured out why we get on. It is because we both hold ridiculous but hard-argued views on things that matter not at all.
The last interview's row was over my electronic cigarette. 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!"
That was pure Paul Henry. He would have approved of me smoking an actual cigarette because doing so would have offended other people, and that would have amused him.
The only thing that offends him is dullness. "I think one of the saddest things is how dull people are, just in general life. Why not try to make things bigger than they really are rather than smaller?"
He believes in theatricality and magic.
This interview's row was about whether sheep, as he maintained, were dim. As a pretend sheep farmer from Masterton – where he once stood as a National candidate and lost; not his fault, of course – I know sheep are very smart. As smart as Masterton voters.
Earlier, I had asked why many people think he can't live without an audience. He claims he is virtually a recluse and doesn't care "about being recognised or having people love me or anything like that. Never have."
But hardly anyone believes this. They think he's a fame whore, that he always has to be the centre of any attention going.
"Oh, I'm sure you're right," he says. "And that's why so many people were convinced I was doing things to be sensational.
"It's that whole thing, you know. Everyone to some degree or another watches or listens or reads things through their own veil of prejudice."
Take sheep. They're amazing, I say.
"Are they amazing?" he says, contemptuously.
Yes, I say, and affectionate.
"Are they affectionate," he says, contemptuously. "Have you got f---en trained sheep?"
I do and they are very clever.
"Sheep are," he says, with the surety of somebody certain he has just had the last word, "of course, traditionally quite dense."
"Ah," I say, "you are just looking at sheep through the veil of your own prejudice."
He laughed like a very camp drain, in that way that he does, when I sucker-punched him with his own quote.
One of the likeable things about him is that he is always willing to laugh at himself, although obviously he'd rather laugh at you.
He is jolly good fun to row with. He is like a particularly exuberant ram lamb – an exceptionally clever one, of course – all bounce and no malice.
His new book, his third, I'm in a United State (Allen & Unwin, $36.99), is about his love affair with the United States (as with all love affairs, there are quibbles and quarrels). It is also about how little he wanted to write the book and how much he tried to get out of writing it. He got into one of his ridiculous spats with his publisher over his advance. He didn't give a damn about the advance; it was a stalling technique and it gave him something to moan about in the book he never wanted to write.
The book is … I don't know what the book is and I suspect he doesn't, either. Part memoir, part travelogue, it's mostly Paul Henry being Paul Henry. I'll let him do the sales pitch: "Here I am writing this witheringly uninteresting account of my day …"
There are fascinating facts, or at least the sort of facts he finds fascinating: "The biggest Chevron service station in the world: 96 pumps, 60 restrooms, 50,000-square- foot kiosk and the candy store takes up 4000 square feet."
There are pictures of fascinating things, such as the world's tallest thermometer, and with family and some of his famous friends: John Key, Sam Hunt, Michael Hill, Richard Simmons. He is friendly with Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern – despite them being "raving socialists". Ardern has popped in for swims; he has been to her house for Burger Fuel.
There are, of course, digressions, and this is my "favourite" detour into the hinterland that is the mind of Paul Henry. Here he is on support animals on planes: "If you need a pelican by your side to prevent you going spastic on a flight, you need to stay home. Preferably in manacles."
He says, delighted: "I'm glad you like that, because I quite like that."
Of course he does. I'm sure he was very pleased with himself after writing those sentences.
"Yep, that's very me. The world, isn't it just bloody ridiculous?"
I say it's somehow encouraging, in a very weird way, to find that, in a time of worldwide chaos, he is still as awful as ever. "Well, see, that is lovely! Am I still as awful as ever? See, in a way, I wear that as a badge of honour. A few people have said to me, 'Oh, God, you've mellowed.' And I thought, 'Really?' Maybe it's just that they didn't appreciate what an extraordinarily rounded rich tapestry I was before." They probably also didn't appreciate his genius. "Yes, but they would appreciate sarcasm, Michele."
In addition to being a rich tapestry and a genius, he is also rich. His wife, businesswoman Diane Foreman, is seriously rich. She is estimated to be worth about $190 million.
Yes, they had a pre-nup before their wedding in March this year: "You'd be a fool not to." He says he is the poorest of all his rich friends, but he won't say how rich he actually is. "I'm rich enough to mingle with people who are seriously rich. The answer's in the book. I consider myself fabulously rich, because I'm rich enough to have choice, which, to me, is the only measure of richness."
He got rich by being paid "fabulously well" and by making "good choices". He is frittering it away now "on ludicrous things like boats", but for most of his life he has been what he says his daughters would describe as "overly cautious". You can understand why he might have been, and why he wanted to be rich. He grew up in a council flat in Bristol with his adored single mother, Olive, after his father buggered off. She worked triple shifts in a "hideous plastic bag factory". There were always worries about where money would come from and where they would live.
He was an anxious child and as an adult battles with an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which takes the form of his almost debilitating obsession with the number three. He thinks it entirely possible that his disorder stems from "some sort of insecurity" as a child. "There was a lot of insecurity when I was young, so I can understand that, in a situation like that, a child might rely on something extraneous and think: 'Right, if I constantly check on that, if I constantly keep that in check, everything else will be okay.'"
If all else fails, he takes his clothes off. He is a keen nudist. Being naked alleviates his OCD to some extent. "Yes, everything is a bit alleviated."
He lives, or did before Covid, some months of the year in Palm Springs, in a nudist enclave. He once met and struck up a friendship with Potsie from Happy Days in a swimming pool. They were both naked at the time. He seems to spend much of his Palm Springs time naked in pools and hot tubs, polishing off copious amounts of alcohol and talking nonsense. He is such a boaster that he can't just say he drinks a lot. In an uncharacteristic display of modesty, he says he is "a fabulous drinker". He says, hardly hyperbolically at all: "I'd rather die than not drink wine again."
He would probably also rather die than never go naked again. He doesn't mind if you are not a nudist. His wife is not a nudist. "I'm not evangelical about it, and some people are. You've got your naturists. They're a bit bloody evangelical."
It is one thing to collect your newspaper from the letter box of a morning in a nudist enclave in Palm Springs; it is quite another to get about in the altogether in Remuera, where he and Foreman spend part of their time. He writes about a neighbour who approached Foreman, saying: "I wish to complain about your husband." Specifically, said neighbour wanted to complain about Foreman's husband's penis, which had been sighted and – who'd have thought? – caused offence.
He is, as he points out somewhat redundantly, not "a perfect fit for Remuera". He may not have this particular problem much longer. Odds are that when the residents of that leafy Auckland suburb read what he has written about them, he will be run out of town, naked. "The problem with Remuera … is too many surgeons and lawyers. Who the f--- do they think they are? They need to know there's a gypsy living in the neighbourhood and things are about to hit the fan."
He really is a gypsy. At least, he is part gypsy: his father's mother was a gypsy, something he didn't discover until he was an adult. It was a family secret, because in England, having gypsy heritage was, and still is, regarded as shameful. Predictably, he loves being a gypsy, particularly one who resides in Remmers.
He loves the US in part because he's a nobody there. In the US, nobody knows, or would likely care, that he was once deemed New Zealand's biggest racist over offensive sillinesses that culminated in his resignation from TVNZ. (The tipping points were his ridicule and pronunciation of the name of an Indian politician and comments about then Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand.)
I wonder if he has regrets. He will concede he said silly things, but (there is always a but with him): "How many times a day do you say silly things?"
So, he's naked in the States in more than one way. He likes the sense of "being dwarfed by America. It literally doesn't give a shit whether you are there or not. You drive into a valley and you think, 'Shit. This is like eavesdropping on a country, you know. This is such a privilege to be driving here, because it doesn't need me; it doesn't even recognise my presence. This tiny little car just driving down this enormously long road in this endless landscape.'"
He also loves America, I say, because he loves tacky shit. "Um, is it tacky shit or is it just interesting? It's part of their society. Would you call Indian jewellery tacky shit?" I have no thoughts either way on Indian jewellery and I don't want him to go off on one of his rants, so I just say "yes". This is the right answer.
"Oh, good for you. But it is as much a part of their culture as Indian jewellery, as those great big wooden carvings are. Those appalling wooden carvings in the islands." What's appalling about them? "See, you're not prepared to say it. They are very badly crafted. Don't tell me they're not."
I don't tell him they're not, because we have already had the requisite row and I had already spent the best part of our hour with my head in my hands. He had ventured off into that hinterland again to explain why he hates it when people say nice things to him: because then you have to say a nice thing back. If they give you a lovely smile, you have to give a lovely smile back. "On the occasion that you can tell people don't like you, it's just so liberating."
At which point I tell him I had forgotten how he bores into the brain. "I'll pull back. I've gone too far," he says.
Does he believe any of this? Who knows? All one can say with certainty is that he doesn't believe he's gone too far. He never does. Beyond that, he's a mystery to me and, I suspect, to himself. But he is certainly an entertaining mystery in, he would agree, very small, infuriating doses.