New Zealand Womans Weekly

After 50 years following the stars. The celebrity columnist is finally in the spotlight

David Hartnell - My Starring Role

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.

David Hartnell - My Starring Role

“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.”

David Hartnell - My Starring Role

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.”

Emma Rawson

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.

DH 10 Questions

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.


Entertainment journalist David Hartnell says he was not just a female impersonator … in Diamond Lil’s shows, “which was naughty for the time”, Mr Hartnell says.

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David Hartnell - ambassador of the St James Auckland Charitable Trust

David Hartnell – ambassador of the St James Auckland Charitable Trust

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.”


Auckland City Harbour News 21st June 2013


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The Variety Artists Club of New Zealand Magazine: Feb Issue

Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller

Last month I was at the Hibiscus Coast Village north of Auckland celebrating their 25th anniversary. They had asked me to unveil a brand new plaque to my dear friend of forty-five years, Phyllis Diller.

So you’re now thinking ‘why did they ask me? Well, twenty-five years ago I brought Phyllis out from Hollywood to open the village by cutting a ribbon and unveiling a plaque. Over the years the plaque had become – shall I say – somewhat weather-beaten? I’m sure you know that Phyllis passed away on the 20th of August last year at the age of 95. Village manager Peter Gasston asked me if I would like to unveil a new plaque, which of course I was delighted to accept in the memory of Phyllis doing the very same thing 25 years ago to the day.




David with Village Manager Peter Gasston

David with Village Manager Peter Gasston

I had the most marvellous day as did Somboon and VAC Secretary Glenda Law who I invited as the village is in her area. Residents of the village entertained us with a very funny sketch that they had written themselves.
Also a group of guys performed several numbers in the style of a barber shop quartet which was tremendous – not to forget a beautiful lunch they put on for us. All in all it was a great way to complete my year
of speaking engagements.

Hibuscus Coast Village

Hibuscus Coast Village

I know that Phyllis would have loved the day, especially knowing that two of her books she had
autographed for the village twenty-five years ago were still in their library and being enjoyed.

~ David Hartnell.

Published in The Variety Artists Club of New Zealand Magazine Feb 2013.

Lasting Memories - Phyllis

LASTING MEMORIES: Hibiscus Coast Village manager Peter Gastill holding the original plaque dedicated to the late Phyllis Diller, who opened the village in 1987, and resident Jocelyn Martin who was there at the opening. Jocelyn is holding a book signed and given by Phyllis to the residents.


CELEBRITY OPENING: Phyllis Diller and gossip columnist David Hartnell at the Hibiscus Coast Village opening 1987.

The lowering of a flag to half mast at Hibiscus Coast Village recognised a special connection with world famous humorist Phyllis Diller.

The village was one of two retirement complexes opened by Phyllis in 1987, who died on August 20 in her Los Angeles home aged 95.

It was opened in December by Phyllis and her New Zealand friend, celebrity gossip columnist David Hartnell.

The then owner John Bethell wanted to invite a celebrity to the event for the opening and contacted Mr Hartnell for some suggestions.

“I arranged for her to come down to open the villages because people who are going to retirement villages would know who she was – she spoke the same language,” Mr Hartnell says.

“I’ve known her for 43 years. Back then she said she always wanted to come to New Zealand whenever the option came up.

“I was asked if I could get a celebrity, and I knew exactly who should come.”

The village has a plaque up in recognition of Phyllis and her part in the opening.

“We have ordered a new, updated one to be put up because the old one was getting a little worn,” current manager Peter Gastill says.

Village resident Jocelyn Martin, now 77, was at the opening ceremony and recalls Phyllis as a very witty woman.

“She was a scream. Even when she wasn’t on camera. She made naughty jokes about how many facelifts she had. Phyllis was extremely thin and had high heels on. She made wise cracks all the time and laughed at all her own jokes. It was a very happy day.”

Jocelyn recalls the 35 residents having an afternoon tea with the celebrities.

Mr Hartnell says Phyllis was a very kind celebrity to her fans.

“You just don’t meet celebrities like they use to be. Phyllis was a very loyal friend of mine. I accompanied her on a number of occasions in Los Angeles, she was so kind to her fans who would come up.

“She always signed autographs and even carried her own pictures so she could sign them for people who didn’t have anything.

“At the village opening she was genuinely interested, she looked at everything and spoke with everyone.”

Mr Hartnell says Phyllis opened two retirement complexes on her visit, one in Mt Eden and the Hibiscus one.

She then stayed three days in Auckland and visited Rotorua.


- © Fairfax NZ News