New Zealand Woman’s Weekly
HE MIGHT BE 70 THIS MONTH, BUT DAVID’S NOT ONE TO MAKE A FUSS
Legendary gossip columnist David Hartnell has spent years being a guest at exclusive parties attended by Hollywood royalty. He met Princess Grace Kelly at one function and was even invited to Elizabeth Taylor’s star-studded 60th bash, held at Disneyland.
But when it comes to his own 70th birthday celebrations later this month, he won’t be making any fuss. In fact, David hates birthdays.
“When I turn 70, I’m not leaving the house,” he exclaims. “Nobody’s coming here, there will be no cake and no singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ – none of that rubbish.”
Although one might assume the Auckland-born-and-raised personality is pessimistic about all milestones, his face lights up when he talks about the two treasures in his life that he believes are worth celebrating.
“This year marks 50 years of my being in the entertainment industry and it’s been 21 years since my partner and I got together,” he says proudly. David’s long-term love is Somboon Khansuk (47), whom David met soon after Somboon moved to New Zealand from Thailand.
“We hit it off straight away. It was just right,” David says with a smile, as he glances at Somboon. “He had no idea who I was and I liked that. The only celebrity he had ever heard of was Michael Jackson.”
The couple moved in together after three months, and as Somboon spoke limited English at the time, he brushed up on the language by watching Fawlty Towers and Coronation Street with David. They now live with their pooch Liza in a quaint Auckland villa, filled with hundreds of photos of David with stars, and a vast collection of memorabilia and books about Hollywood.
“We’ve lasted this long because we are best friends,” Somboon tells.
Somboon is Buddhist and David holds no religious views, but despite their differences, the couple have enjoyed a lasting friendship. Both their families have embraced their relationship. They’ve even bought a home in Thailand and visit it each year. But despite celebrating 21 years together, and David being one of the first openly gay men on New Zealand television, he says marriage is not for him and Somboon.
“We’ve crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s with wills and legal documents, so why get married? I think it’s great that people can, but I’ve never been one to wave any flags,” David tells.
Landing a job as a make-up artist at Revlon in Australia in the 1960s led David into the world of celebrity, and eventually into writing.
“I’d always wanted to be in show business,” says David, who had a passion for magic tricks and roller skating as a teenager. “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, so writing about celebrities was the nearest I could get to being a part of this world.”
The Weekly was the first magazine to offer David a permanent gossip column in New Zealand in 1976. “Jean Wishart was the editor then. She is what Hollywood would describe as a classy dame.”
These days, David continues to write a weekly Hollywood quiz column and compiles the annual Best Dressed List.
Celebrating 50 years as a gossip columnist, David says the pinnacle of his career was receiving a New Zealand Order of Merit from the Queen in 2011 for services to entertainment. He’s the only gossip columnist in the world to be bestowed such an honour.
The writer says his gossip is tongue in cheek, and he always sticks to his self-enforced rules. He never talks about stars who are pregnant until the baby is born, in case something goes wrong. “As soon as the baby is born, trumpets are blaring,” he says. And he always takes pictures of himself standing with every Hollywood celebrity he comes across.
He learned a valuable lesson when he attended the premiere of Total Recall, starring then-unknown actress Sharon Stone. He didn’t bother getting a photo with the now world famous star.
“When you attend these functions, you have to take a photo with anything that moves, because you don’t know how famous they might become!”
On David’s frequent trips to Los Angeles, he visits the cemetery where many of his celebrity friends now lie, often spending extra time at the grave of actress Eva Gabor.
“She was a huge star,” he says mournfully. “Now her final resting place is weathered, the gold lettering is fading, and all that is left is a piece of marble.”
During each celebrity interview that David conducts, he asks how they would like to be remembered. When asked the same question, David thinks of Eva’s grave and responds, “The only people I truly want to remember me are Somboon, my family and close friends. They are what is important
New Zealand Womans Weekly
After 50 years following the stars. The celebrity columnist is finally in the spotlight
Gossip columnist David Hartnell has written many times about Hollywood stars being lost for words at award ceremonies.
But it was his turn to be speechless and choke back emotion on stage when he was presented with the prestigious Fullers Entertainment Award.
In front of a crowd of Kiwi showbiz greats, the 69-year-old received the honour at the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand’s Benny Awards.
The veteran columnist, who has met screen icons such as the late Dame Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly during his years working as a writer of celebrity news and also make-up artist to the stars, says being honoured by his Kiwi peers far outweighed the thrill of meeting any overseas star.
The annual award is presented to someone who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes in the New Zealand entertainment industry, but is not an entertainer.
It came out of the blue to the Weekly’s Hollywood trivia guru, whose first brush with fame was giving comedienne Phyllis Diller a makeover in 1967.
“Winning was a total surprise to me,” says David. “I know people always say that but, for once in my life, I was speechless – that doesn’t usually happen.”
This year David will celebrate 50 years in show business. In those five decades, he has seen a lot of change in the local entertainment scene, including the coverage of Tamati Coffey’s wedding to partner Tim Smith in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly in 2011 – the first gay wedding on the cover of any Kiwi women’s magazine.
Although he’s not keen to tie the knot with his longtime partner Somboon Khansuk, David, who was one of the first openly gay men on Kiwi TV screens on his show The Express Report, was delighted when the Marriage Amendment bill was passed last year.
“I never thought it would happen,” says David.
“My niece is 15, and she got an invite to go to a wedding the other day and she had to have a look to see if it was a gay one or a straight one and I thought ‘How interesting.’
“My partner Somboon and I have been together 21 years and we don’t want to get married. We’ve crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s with wills and legal documents, so why get married? But I think it’s great that people can.
“My career was probably stomped on at times because of [being gay], but it’s other people’s problem, not mine. I never came out of the closet because I was never in it. It’s part of me; I just get on with life.”
His home is covered in photographs of the stars he has met working as a celebrity columnist in New Zealand and the UK, but there is one famous person he stills wants to meet.
“I would love to meet the Queen. Nobody knows how to work celebrity better than her,” he says.
The only gossip columnist in the Commonwealth to have been honoured by Her Majesty, David, who became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2010, is showing no signs of retiring.
He’s working on his ninth book, and also stays busy working on his Weekly trivia column and walking his dogs, Australian terrier Miss Cele (11) and Pekingese Miss Liza (2) – who surprisingly, he laughs, isn’t named after actress Liza Minnelli.
David says he was particularly proud to be working in the New Zealand entertainment scene when 17-year-old Lorde was nominated for four Grammys.
“Anything is possible in the entertainment business. Lorde is amazing. It’s great that a young woman can get a number one hit, but also appear on Ellen, the number-one talk show in the US,” he says.
“That’s the magic of show business, those stories of overnight success, and that’s why I love what I do. I’m lucky that my job is still my hobby and my passion.”
10 Questions with …
Gossip columnist David Hartnell has seen, and told, it all. The Westmere author was honoured with The Variety Artists Club of New Zealand’s Fullers Entertainment Award for his 49 years working behind the scenes in the entertainment industry. Reporter Jess Lee sat down with him to find out some of his own secrets.
1. How does it feel to be recognised for your work?
It was a great honour and for once in my life I was gobsmacked. I certainly never thought that would happen when I started out writing gossip. People said you can’t make a living out of writing gossip and here I am nearly 50 years later.
2. Why do you think you have been so successful?
I woke up in New Zealand and thought – they’re not going to come to me, I’ve got to go to them. You must be where it’s happening and that’s what I did. I’ve never written salacious gossip – I’ve always written tongue-incheek. There are other gossip columnists but I find them too vicious. There’s only been one celebrity in that 30-odd years that has complained and she’s not worth even mentioning.
3. What are some of your tricks of the trade?
The worst thing you can say to a celebrity is: ‘‘tell me about yourself’’ because they don’t want to hear that – so do your homework. There are areas that you don’t write about. You never write about anybody that’s pregnant because by the time it goes to print they could have lost the baby. Never take things for granted, never assume anything. Agents and assistants will say to me that entertainers won’t talk about this and that and then you get there and they’ll really talk about anything. It’s just the way that you ask them really.
4. Who or what stands out as a highlight of your career so far?
Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn was just beautiful, she is one of the most serene women I have ever met. One of the things that sticks out was when I was doing Elizabeth Taylor’s makeup I ended up holding the million dollar ring that Richard Burton had given her. It’s just one of those things that happened in a working situation so who would have thought I would have held that.
5. Is there still a person you haven’t met that you would like to?
I would love to meet the Queen. I would probably ask her about the Royal Command Performances that she’s had over the years and who she likes as an entertainer. Does she make the list or do agents put it together and she just goes?
6. What do you think of the calibre of celebrity today compared to back then?
In 10 years’ time Miley Cyrus won’t be around. I mean she’s a go-getter, she’s changed her image, she’s out there and we’re sitting in New Zealand talking about her now so she’s a good marketer. But they won’t have the longevity these people – even Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, George Clooney. Never feel sorry for the celebrities in the gossip columns because it’s up to the agents to get them in there.
7. Who would be your five dream dinner party guests?
I would have the Queen, Noel Coward [English playwright, director, actor and singer] because he’d be witty, Elizabeth Taylor because she was just so wonderful, she was always good fun. Phyllis Diller for the jokes and I’d probably have my dear friend Eva Gabor [Hungarianborn American socialite and actress], she was divine so she would add that elegance to the party. Not Zsa Zsa [Gabor, Eva’s younger actress sister] she would be far too bitchy at a dinner party.
8. How did you end up in the entertainment business?
My grandparents took me to all the shows at His Majesty’s Theatre, The Civic and the St James so that that really gave me the grounding. My grandfather really should have been on the stage. He loved vaudeville shows so I probably get it a lot from him and I’m very grateful. My parents also took me to roller skating and I just loved it. That’s where I really got into makeup because we did shows.
9. Why have you maintained such a commitment to the industry?
Entertainment is the vein of blood of any country that is down, any country that’s at war. You can get completely lost in a performance and that’s what a production should do. I love to go to a theatre with a red curtain that goes up, I love an orchestra pit. I very seldom go backstage because I want that magic to be there. I don’t really like reviewing stage shows because I know what effort has been put into it and it’s only my opinion. Never read a review for theatre or for a movie, just go.
10. Where to from here?
People always ask me if I’m going to retire. I’m not because what else am I going to do? I have a new book coming out next year, that will be my ninth book.
AUCKLAND CITY HARBOUR NEWS, OCTOBER 30, 2013
A NEW face is lending a hand to help one grand old Auckland dame get back on her feet.
Grey Lynn resident and theatre advocate David Hartnell has been made an ambassador of the St James Auckland Charitable Trust which is fighting to save the neglected St James Theatre on Queen St.
“It just breaks my heart when I see this grand old lady looking as she does,” Mr Hartnell says.
“To think this is somewhere where the Queen and heads of state have been and she stands there looking like that.”
Mr Hartnell is hoping to reignite discussion about the building’s future.
The theatre was built in 1928 but was severely damaged by fire in 2007 and has since sat derelict, suffering from a lack of investment and increasing decay.
In 1953 the building’s facade and vestibule underwent renovation ahead of a visit by the Queen who was attending a cinema premiere screening.
As part of the renovations the unique facade was hidden behind sheets of metal in an attempt to give the building a more modern look.
The estimated cost to restore, earthquake-proof and return the iconic theatre back to her glory days is $50 million.
The charitable trust was formed last year to help raise funds to save the historic theatre which sits opposite The Civic.
SPCA director Sir Bob Kerridge took on the role of trust chairman and actor Sam Neill stands alongside Mr Hartnell as ambassador.
As discussion continues around St James’ future, Wynyard Quarter’s Waterfront Theatre Project has just received a $5m funding boost.
Mr Hartnell says there are no hard feelings.
“I think we’re all big enough in the trust to realise that theatre is theatre and wherever a theatre opens it’s a good thing.”
Sir Bob says the trust is waiting on a report on the theatre received by Auckland Council before it can move forward with any plans.
The council still has to decide whether it will assume ownership of the theatre for the city, he says.
“The St James Auckland Trust is standing by to help in its restoration.”
By JESS LEE
Auckland City Harbour News 21st June 2013