Stars in his eyes

KIM KNIGHT - THE SUNDAY PROFILE
Last updated 05:00 08/05/2011
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Photo: Phil Doyle

"My lips are sealed'': This time David Hartnell's revealing his own secrets.

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David Hartnell with partner Somboon (Ekk) Khansuk.
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Memoirs of a Gossip Columnist by David Hartnell, Penguin NZ, $45.

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How a self-made man became a Hollywood insider and a minor constellation himself.

DAVID HARTNELL: Made, not born.

In 1967, the one-time roller skating champion and Australia's first male in-store makeup artist sat in Sydney, pen and paper in hand, contemplating a new identity. "I was born with one name and it was shut off. My mother remarried, and I had no say, it was changed. I thought, `Well, why don't I change it to something I really want?' And that's what I did."

His homage to London fashion designer Norman Hartnell was also a feat of alliterative foresight. Hartnell's Hollywood rolled off the tongue onto the gossip pages and into our pop culture history.

The man became a brand. And now the brand has released a memoir.

Last week in suburban Auckland, 67-year-old Hartnell sipped coffee from a Metro Goldwyn Meyer mug, and sat under a swag of plastic orchids. His ridiculously bright red socks peeped through the punch-holed pattern of his slip-on house shoes. He invited us to flog his new book, but was easily distracted.

"I'll tell you about the royal wedding. I thought it was magnificent. She was every inch the princess. I thought the clergyman went on. If this was an amateur operatic society wedding, he would have been the wild, wacky, crazy one.

"And then, when Beatrice and Eugenie arrived, I thought, `This is perfect: the ugly sisters at Cinderella's wedding.' And I thought, `Good on them."'

Carole Middleton (mother of the bride) was his pick for best-dressed. He says Sarah Ferguson (mother of the ugly sisters) should have been invited. And nothing will dissuade him from believing Diana, Princess of Wales (mother of the groom) was murdered.

"I am absolutely and utterly convinced. I am convinced she was pregnant and definitely murdered. They couldn't get away with it on English soil... it's just like a bad soap opera."

Fact is frequently stranger than fiction. No one knows this better than a gossip columnist.

In its heyday, Hartnell's Hollywood was a women's magazine must-read. Our very own bearded, bespectacled, bow-tied man in Tinseltown brought us news from the stars and turned himself into a minor constellation.

There were the coups. Like the world first interview with Marc Christian, after his HIV-infected lover Rock Hudson died. There was the right-place-at-the-right-time flight to Los Angeles with Cybill Shepherd (and the autographed boarding pass to prove it). And there was the lunch with Sylvester Stallone's mother, Jackie, when she turned on a group of Middle Eastern diners and ordered her boyfriend to, "Go over and tell them I'm Sly's mother... my boy saved their country."

Twenty-nine chapters in all, from the man who says, "I've got an ego like everybody else, but I try to put it away. I've always thought, when the red light is on, you perform. When it's off, why waste your time?"

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A star on a walk of fame is a lovely thing, "but you can't eat it". And anyway, says Hartnell, in Hollywood those hand prints are paid for – nearly $20,000 from a fan club pretty much guarantees immortality, he claims.

It was 1985 when Hartnell got his own Hollywood-style star. Greymouth was hosting the world premiere of the Princess Grace musical. Hartnell had a WTF moment on national television, and West Coasters turned it to their advantage, inviting him south for a red carpet and Swanndri welcome and asking him to press his prints in the concrete outside the theatre.

But fame is fickle. When the Star-Times called the theatre last week, manager Debbie Collings confessed the footpath had been retiled. Inquiries were underway to discover whether the handprints left by Hartnell, Billy T James and others subsequently inducted into the Greymouth Walk of Fame were dug up – or covered over.

It's possible Hartnell won't mind either way. Pull the Auckland Star archives, and two brown manila envelopes stuffed with clippings reveal a man who clearly believes any publicity was good publicity: "With the success has come the egotism of the self-made man," reported Yvonne van Dongen in 1986.

And today?

"When I started gossip 40-odd years ago, they said, `Oh, you'll never last.' And here I am. I don't know where the people are who rubbished me."

CHAPTER ONE: David Segetin was born in Sandringham, Auckland, and grew up in a state house in the neighbouring suburb of Mt Roskill. His parents separated before he turned four; his father's face subsequently cut out of every family photograph.

"My school years were a mixture of boredom and bullying," he writes. He left Avondale College, aged 15, with no formal qualifications. "Nobody has ever asked to see my School Certificate."

Hartnell is fond of telling reporters he never came out, "because I was never in". It's a single sound bite, oft-repeated, moving right along. But in his book, he reveals, "when you're young and gay, you can feel like there is no one else in the world like you".

At school, the only thing that mattered was sport, "and if you didn't join in you were labelled homo, faggot or queer". When he took up competitive roller skating, the bullying got worse. He says he considered suicide.

"It's the sort of thing, I guess, people go through. But no, I never would have had enough guts to do it anyway. And now I'm glad I didn't.

"This campaign in America, `It gets better' [a movement started by columnist Dan Savage following the reported suicides of a number of gay teens] – well, it does. It's just a matter of getting over that hurdle.

"Whether you're gay, whether you're straight, whether you're being bullied, it does get better, and I'm glad that a lot of stars have come out and said that."

For the past 18 years, Hartnell has shared his life with Somboon Khansuk, a Thai man he calls by his nickname "Ekk".

"It's an extraordinary relationship," says Hartnell. The pair met at a restaurant. Hartnell was planning a holiday in his now-partner's home country, and gave Ekk his house keys and dog-sitting responsibilities in his absence.

"Thailand. I love the people, I love the country, but people thought, `You go to Thailand and you bang your brains out'. That really annoys me, to this day."

He came home – and Ekk never left. "We do everything together. We're just lucky."

According to Hartnell, "the gay community have never been supportive of me".

"I know I'll get into trouble saying this. It's the tall-poppy syndrome. I've never been asked to speak at a gay function, to raise money at a gay function, all of which I would do, but they don't ask, so I think, `OK, fine."'

In 1996, he scored a spot on The Express Report, New Zealand's first gay news and lifestyle television show. "The worst experience of my TV career – and that's really saying something."

In a Star-Times interview before the show aired, Hartnell said he didn't support gay parenting, for fear children would be bullied (he has since softened his views). The television production team hauled him over the coals. "The whole show was nothing but a bitch-fest..." Hartnell was gone by season two.

The new memoir is peppered with photographs, but today he gets off the couch to fetch one that isn't in the book. It's a diptych of his Pop, a colour picture of a kindly looking man, and an older, sepia-toned print – the same photograph his mother kissed every night, when her father was "away".

In the mid-1960s, when sex between two men was still a jailable offence, Hartnell's Pop took him aside and asked him to be careful. And then he confessed that, during the war, he had been jailed as a conscientious objector.

As a gossip columnist, says Hartnell, "I've never outed anybody. I hate it when people do that".

Hartnell's early adult claims to fame came as a makeup artist. Sydney, London, New York, Los Angeles. He turned Phyllis Diller into a glamour-puss (and lifelong friend) when she visited Australia to entertain American troops on rest and relaxation breaks from the Vietnam War. He made over Coronation Street's Hilda Ogden and says, "Jean Alexander was one of the nicest people I've ever met". Every step of the way, he made sure the press was alerted.

He worked with country singer Glen Campbell. "He wanted me to make him look like an orange. He wanted this suntan. But we couldn't do his hands, because of the guitar. My god."

Hartnell was among the first makeup artists to use that Maybelline mascara – the pink and green-packaged best seller known now as "Great Lash" was, back then, called Fabulash.

"There were technical difficulties. They had terrible trouble with the fibres dropping on to women's eyes and cheeks. But we mastered it in the end."

Eventually, he got bored. Interviewing celebrities was always going to be more interesting than applying their mascara.

"I realised in the early days that Muhammad must go to the mountain. I must go to Hollywood. That's how I will make contacts."

They're all there, framed and mounted on the sideboards and walls of Hartnell's home. He says he had his photograph taken with celebrities because people refused to believe he had met them. Elizabeth Taylor needs dusting. Jenny Shipley rubs shoulders with Joan Collins. Michael Crawford is the spitting image of Don McGlashan.

BACK IN the conservatory, Hartnell offers more coffee, chooses a lemon tart over a chocolate friand, and wields an antique cake fork with delicate precision.

Has the gossip business changed?

"Some gossip columnists are really nasty. Some should be arrested for carrying their tongue around in a public place – let alone writing a column."

And the talent?

"We don't have stars now. Stars are the public on television and that's a shame."

In the United States, says Hartnell, social pages are a bible. "Here... same shit, different bucket, each week."

He likens the fame game to a "fabulous iceblock".

"They suck the colour out of it, and all they've got left is a stick and a piece of ice. They biff that and move on. There's no longevity. Will we be talking about Lady Gaga in 10 years' time? I don't know."

But he can guarantee we probably won't remember who won American Idol. Once, he says, celebrities had to work for fame.

"Gone is the glamour. Gone is the mystique ... You can twitter something and you can become a star, you can go on Facebook and be a star."

Hartnell doesn't even text. Ekk bought him a cellphone, but it's still in the box. When the landline rings, it really rings – an old-fashioned bell, blasting from the past.

"I don't have a thing about age. What you see is what you've got."

He doesn't believe in injectables, denies he's had plastic surgery and says he'll never reveal which stars routinely used tape and hat elastic to pull their faces back another decade.

Hartnell looks younger than his years. His beauty regime begins with tepid (not hot) water and finishes with moisturiser. He does not drink alcohol, smoke or take illegal drugs. He would never dye his hair.

"My skin colour respects my hair. If I dyed it black, it would be like a crash helmet. They'd say `Look at him, trying to grab on to youth."'

Memoirs of a Gossip Columnist by David Hartnell, Penguin NZ, $45.

- Sunday Star Times

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