Zoe Heller in America: This is my last appearance on US television

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The Independent Culture
A WOMAN with a very nice posh accent rang a couple of months ago and asked me if I would interview Barry Manilow for a BBC documentary she was producing. I have interviewed Manilow before, for this paper - and I enjoyed the experience - but I told the woman no: I wasn't the right person.

The few occasions that I've ever appeared on TV, it has been, by common consent, a complete fiasco. I always look terrible. My hair hangs in my eyes and my eyeliner gets smudged Baby Jane-style. My clothes are all wrong. ('Wear something structured,' people chant, not understanding that the most structured thing in my wardrobe is a bra.) I sound revolting too. Until I went on TV, I fondly imagined that my voice was a charming, mellifluous alto. What a blow it was to discover that I had been speaking all those years in a middle-class mosquito whine, accessorised with a major lisp. As for what I say - it's as if my body had been taken over by the spirit of a 15-year-old Pearl Jam fan. I talk as if I'm just, like, totally disenchanted and pissed off, you know? And I can't finish a sentence without saying the words 'crap' and 'sort of'.

I told the producer all this, but she persisted. It would be fine, she said. I wouldn't be on screen very much, she said. They would fly me to LA and put me up at the Sunset Marquis, she said. Oh, OK, I said. Now, obviously, the offer of a free trip to Los Angeles was a big incentive. In fact, a chance to get out of the house at all and still be able to tell myself I was 'working' was pretty tempting. But, in truth, I was also secretly hoping that this time - contrary to all the historical evidence - I would be fabulous on telly. Really brilliant and witty and incisive. I imagined people across the country saying things like, 'Goodness, that woman really knows how to handle Barry]' How did I ever get to be such a cretin?

As it turned out, I didn't fly to LA. Barry's plans changed and the interview ended up taking place in the Presidential Suite of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. When I entered the bedroom of the suite, last Monday, Barry was sitting on the windowsill, staring moonily out at Central Park. His personal assistant had to announce my presence twice, before Barry finally turned around and shook himself in this phoney, 'Oh-I-was-in-such-a-reverie' way. 'Hi, Zoe,' he said, a little frostily, I thought. Then he went back to staring out of the window. Determined not to be intimidated, I ignored Barry's glacial manners at first, but as the time for the interview drew near I found myself growing increasingly paranoid.

'Are you pissed with me, Barry?' I finally asked. 'Didn't you like the piece I wrote?' We were now standing in the bathroom. I was nervously applying my seventh layer of make-up and Barry was watching me.

'Well, I guess you said some nice things,' he said, 'but you went through all that stuff about how I'm regarded as kitsch, which is just so boring and insulting to me at this point.'

'But what about when I described you as so handsome and sexually appealing?' I said. 'Didn't you like that bit?'

Barry sniffed. 'Yeah, that was nice. But you had to work your way through that other stuff before you got to it . . .' He broke off suddenly and stared at me.

'God, Zoe,' he said. 'You look great.'

By this point, the accreted foundation on my face had turned a florid orange and was beginning to develop strange cracks and fault lines. I looked like one of those Sunday supplement photographs of drought-stricken land. 'Don't toy with me, Barry,' I said.

'No, really,' Barry said. 'You look really soft, really . . . vulnerable. When I saw you in London you seemed so hard, like nothing was going to get to you. Honestly, you look fabulous. It's a much softer look.'

Now, I knew and he knew that I looked about as soft as a slab of (orange) cement, but Barry didn't get where he is today by not knowing how to schmooze effectively.

'Re-really?' I said, patting my hair coyly. 'You think so?' Then we went in to the Presidential parlour for the interview. Barry got to specify exactly what angle and height he wanted the camera at. He also got to see himself on the monitor and check if his hair was all right. Excuse me guys, I thought, what about me? But I didn't say anything because I figured it wouldn't be professional. Then the interview began. What horror. I don't really mind the fact that whenever Barry was talking, I let my mouth hang open like some kind of retard. I don't mind that my hair, when I saw the playback, was all big and fouffy. I can live with the fact that my questions were garbage and that when I tried to ask anything interesting, Barry got snotty and said he wouldn't allow it in the final edit. But why, oh why, did I have to giggle sycophantically whenever Barry made one of his crap jokes? This kind of thing makes you doubt your moral fibre. If I can't resist kissing Barry Manilow's butt when under pressure, what hope is there that I would have stood up against the Nazis?

Thankfully, the interview only lasted half an hour, but the horror wasn't over, because the director and the producer both started pressuring me to do all this extra stuff - like being filmed arriving at the Four Seasons and saying things to camera like, 'I'm here to see Barry who's just over from England, where his smash hit musical, Copacabana, has been packing in the crowds for over a month now.'

'Look,' I said. 'I really don't want to be difficult, but I absolutely will not do this.'

Half an hour later, I was being filmed walking back and forth across Park Avenue, with the director shouting things like, 'One more time Zoo. And could you smile a bit more? You're looking a bit depressed.' Mortification is too mild a word to describe what this felt like. But I've thought about this a lot since then, and I realise now it was God's way of making sure I would never be vain and stupid enough to try appearing on television again. Okay okay. Praise the Lord. I repent.-

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