The uncomfortable relationship between celebrities and journalists

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 23/06/2013
rock

CELEBRITY SUBJECT: Gene Simmonds from the rock group Kiss liked the fact his stardom made it easy to go to bed with girls without having to take them out to dinner first.

Rock
BRASS IN POCKET: "I'm only talking to you because I have to sell some tickets for my New Zealand shows,'' spat Chrissie Hynde.

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Lou Reed talked about his trouser snake. Rihanna struggled to form a coherent sentence. Cliff Richard told me tennis was better than sex and Rod Stewart recounted a backstage dare that involved snorting a line of cocaine from the private parts of a naked roadie.

Yes, the celebrity interview can be a very strange experience. I've done hundreds over the years and it can be a vexing business, as The Times writer Janice Turner discovered during an unpleasant encounter with British actor Rhys Ifans a few weeks ago.

Ostentatiously hostile throughout, Ifans eventually told Turner to "F. . . k off!" before storming out, adding "I'm bored with you. Bored! Bored!" A PR person later blamed Ifans' boorish behaviour on prescription medication and sent the writer flowers, complete with bogus "Best Wishes, Rhys" card.

But the journalist didn't need buttering up. She was happy as a clam. Turner had traded 30 minutes of abuse for a great story, while Ifans ended up looking like an ill-tempered arse who'd foolishly ignored the old adage: never pick a fight with someone who buys their ink by the barrel.

Such meltdowns are rare, because the interview tradeoff is usually well understood by both sides. The celeb reluctantly fronts up because they have a new book/record/ show/ haircut to promote. In return for listening to them bang on about said project for far too long, the journalist is eventually flicked an illuminating anecdote about the star's personal life.

It's an age-old dance played out between uncomfortable partners. On a good day, everyone knows the steps and gets through it without bruised egos or feet. Sometimes it can even be fun. Twenty years spent blathering to celebs has provided me with a visitor's visa to that fascinating parallel universe of vanity, weirdness and entitlement inhabited by the famous.

Al Green spent our entire interview referring to himself in the third person. Glen Campbell owned up to being a right-wing redneck. Stoned to the bone in his studio, Snoop Doog started freestyling rhymes instead of answering questions. Tom Jones reminisced over his panty-dodging early years, and Lemmy from Motorhead admitted that under all the heavy metal bluster, he was a pretty melancholy soul.

The late Godfather of Soul, James Brown, told me success was all about personal presentation: "In show business, hair is the first thing and teeth is the second. Hair and teeth. A man's got those two things, he's got it all".

Gene Simmons from Kiss was an incorrigible horndog: "If you become a rock star, you can wake up each morning next to a girl whose name you never bothered to learn. If you're not a rock star, it's all - what sign are you, do you like the colour blue, let's have dinner, I won't put out on the first date - and other such torture that girls put you through. But if you're in a big band, you just cut to the chase."

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Occasionally, it all went horribly wrong. "I'm only talkin' to you because I have to sell some tickets for our New Zealand shows," spat Chrissie Hynde down the phone. "Most journalists just want me to write their f . . . king article for them! I don't understand why people are so fascinated by rock musicians anyway. Most celebrities are morons! But of course, you have to be nice, otherwise they'll say ‘Chrissie Hynde is a bitch.' But you know what? Chrissie Hynde doesn't care what you f. . . king say."

But really, a petulant Pretender is small potatoes. The interviewee who strikes terror into the heart of even the most battle-hardened journalist is Lou Reed. This leathery old misanthrope is notorious for humiliating his inquisitors, so when I got the chance to talk to him it was my turn to cut to the chase by asking why he was always such a prick in interviews.

"Because you people don't really care about my music," he replied. "You want gossip. What journalists really want to know is how big your dick is."

He was right. I wasn't interested in his new album; I wanted to know about the Velvet Underground, his junkie years, his magnificent early solo records. But hey, I'll take whatever I can get. So I asked, how big is your dick? There was a long pause, followed by a repetitive rasping sound, like someone scraping a rusty tin lid across concrete. Reed was laughing and for the next few minutes we were on the same side, sharing a joke while we did the dance.

"How big? I'd say it's at least 11 inches long. Maybe longer, because it's pretty cold today. And you'll just have to take my word for that, because there's no way I can show it to you."

- Sunday Star Times

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