David Hartnell MNZM has been writing celebrity gossip for 51 years and is the only gossip columnist to receive a Queen’s honour. He is ambassador for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
1. Why do we have a love-hate relationship with gossip?
My catch phrase is, “I’m not one to gossip, but … ” because that’s what people always say to me. Men try to pretend it’s their wives who want to be in the gossip columns. Baloney. They love it! Never feel sorry for a celeb who is in the gossip columns, because their agents and PR people get them in there. If you’re in the public eye, that’s part of the deal. You take it or you get out. But the children and families should be left totally alone. They didn’t ask to be involved.
2. What do you think of the Kardashians?
I take my hat off to them because they’ve made something out of nothing. Really it’s just crap TV but the gullible public buys it and they’ve got money oozing out of every pore. Perez Hilton will be working hand in glove with them on this week-long ban. Inside a couple of weeks he’ll have an exclusive. He doesn’t fool me at all. It’s like Caitlyn – he or she does look extraordinary but it’s just the timing of it. Cross-dressing is common in Hollywood. I’ll only believe he’s serious about being transgender when he actually has the surgery.
3. How did you get into the gossip game?
Through my work as a make-up artist. I was actually the first male make-up artist in Australia. When I applied for the job I had no qualifications but I’d taught myself how to do make-up during my years as a competitive roller-skater and I just went for it. Years later I asked the Revlon woman why she employed me and she said, “You had the ‘it’ factor. You understood show business”. I toured all over Australia for David Jones and Farmers and then on to London and Hollywood. That’s what led me into gossip. In the make-up room you always know the gossip because you have to send a car to pick the person up where they’d stayed the night before.
4. Do your celebrity friends ever feel betrayed by what you write?
I can go and speak to everyone I’ve ever written about. I’ve always been tongue-in-cheek. An exclamation mark or a raised eyebrow is all that’s needed. Today’s gossip columnists are vindictive and nasty. They have no soul. A gossip column should be entertaining and give readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a fantasy world they can never enter. There has to be some mystery.
5. Do celebrities have to be on screen?
Yes, somebody who comes into your home. You should never meet a person on radio with a wonderful voice because they look like crap so the whole illusion is broken. I did like Jay-Jay Feeney on Dancing with the Stars … she’s got chutzpah. “Take me as I am.” That’s class. But I’m sorry, All Blacks are not celebs. There’s a total dividing line between a movie star and a sporting star. Musicians are not celebs. Lorde? Good on her, but no. I wrote about Taylor Swift last week, but that was because she appeared on the cover of Vogue. Rachel Hunter – we would never hear of her if she hadn’t married Rod Stewart. They always say “international model”. When was the last time she did any modelling jobs?
6. You’ve been with your partner Somboon for 22 years. How did you meet?
He was working at a Thai restaurant called Tusk. Now he’s the assistant manager at Harvest Whole Foods. If our lives had been reversed, I couldn’t have done what he’s done. I can’t cope with the Thai language. We have a house north of Chiang Mai where we go every year. We both do charity work in orphanages. I teach English, very badly. I feel like Anna out of The King and I sometimes with all the kids sitting around me.
7. What’s it like being gay in 2015 compared with the old days?
Looking back I understand the Hollywood cover-ups like Cary Grant and Rock Hudson because under the law you could be jailed for having sex with someone of the same sex. I have friends a little older than me who will still not admit to being gay because it’s ingrained in them and I respect that. People say to me, “When did you come out?” But I was never in. I got bullied at school terribly. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t stand up for myself more.
8. Why did you become an ambassador for the Prostate Cancer Foundation?
My dearest friend Robert Young passed away two years ago of prostate cancer. He was a theatre director here and on the Gold Coast. By the time it was diagnosed it was too late. Unless you catch it early it goes rampant. Men will do the blood test but they’re too scared to do the digital test. Our catchphrase is, “Give prostate cancer the finger”.
9. How has the gossip game changed with the advent of social media?
Everybody today is their own gossip columnist. Everybody has a cellphone and can put a photo out on social media instantly. You don’t have to wait until next week to see it in a magazine. In my grownups.co.nz column now I give my opinion on the week that was. I also write a Hollywood trivia column for the NZ Woman’s Weekly.
10. Any plans to retire?
I won’t retire because I’m doing a job that I like. The New York Times gossip columnist Liz Smith is 90-something. Extraordinary! There are new stars but they still go through the old agents. Rogers and Cowan have been in Hollywood since the 1940s.
11. Seen any good movies lately?
They don’t make movies like they used to. Why they’d want to remake a classic like the Wizard of Oz or 42nd Street I don’t understand. A classic is a classic – don’t touch it! I don’t see movies in a theatre with the public anymore. It’s not being snotty. The simple reason is people talk through the movie. They come in late, they switch their phone off but it goes on vibrate and out of the corner of your eye you can see a light. The last movie we went to was in a half empty theatre and these people came and sat right beside us! No thank you. I get it on DVD or by some other means.
12. At 71, how is age treating you?
Absolutely fabulous. You can get away with murder – do whatever you like. Everybody worries about growing old but there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, so go with the flow. I lived in Hollywood where age is key and everyone gets surgery. Joan Collins has a little surgery, often. That’s the key to it. I couldn’t be bothered having cosmetic surgery. I’ve moisturised all my life. Never put soap on your face. It’s for floors, walls and ceilings.
September is Prostate Cancer Awareness month. For more, go to prostate.org.nz
NZ Herald August 27, 2015