Janet: love her or loathe her?

Few people divide opinion like the irrepressible Janet Street-Porter. As viewers of ITV's 'I'm A Celebrity...' prepare to make their feelings known, we hear the case for and against
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Neil Tennant: 'She has qualities the public never sees. She's loyal, kind and thoughtful'

The Pet Shop Boys have sold 30 million records, but if I walk down the street with Janet, people always recognise her and not me. As a public figure, she is unique. She is very tough, absolutely her own woman. When she had to put her hand into the pit of snakes on I'm a Celebrity, I knew it wouldn't faze her.

I've always admired people who invent themselves, who don't see their life as pre-ordained. And she has never given in to what people expected of her. At 57, she is as rebellious as a 16-year-old - for better or for worse.

I first met Janet in 1986, when Chris [Lowe, the other half of the Pet Shop Boys] and I were appearing on a Saturday morning children's TV programme. Janet was the producer and wanted us to put paper bags on our heads. Her idea was that the children in the audience would then gather round us and try to guess who we were. We refused. She said: "Well, you've got to." We didn't put the bags on our heads. After the show, she said, "What I like about you two is that you have a lot of negative energy."

In her one-woman show, All the Rage, she comes on every night and says that she hated her mother. Even if you find that appalling, you have to admire her nerve. Many women have difficult relationships with their mothers and can't talk about it. At the end of the show, you notice that women applaud and men look uncomfortable.

Ultimately, you have to be courageous to speak your mind in the way that she does. You might have to be pigheaded as well, but the two often go together. She never gives the received wisdom; she gives the received Janetness. It may be completely wrong, but we should admire her for it.

She has turned the way she looks, with all its so-called faults, into a brand. Everything that might have been thought of as a negative about her appearance, she has made a positive: the glasses, what she calls the "frilly teeth", the extraordinary accent, and being tall and skinny.

She is now one of my closest friends. We see each other several times a week. Often, we'll go to the theatre or opera together. She loves baroque opera, which I hate. Occasionally, she has tricked me into going to see it by inviting me to the Proms and keeping quiet about the programme. Then, when I turn up, it'll turn out to be Handel. We've also been on holiday many times together.

Her energy is absolutely extraordinary. She'll get up at 7am, do an interview, get back home, write her column, find time to complain to the local council, do two more interviews, get changed, go to a reception, meet you for dinner, go to the Groucho Club afterwards and then suggest going on to a club. She has built her last two houses - and the first time, she got the bricks for free. Recently, she walked for a week across the Australian outback from Alice Springs. How many people do you know who do that?

Earlier this year, she had a group of friends round before my 50th birthday party. The party had an Andy Warhol factory theme and the whole house was full of friends putting on wigs. Janet was having her hair done by a make-up artist and simultaneously serving up delicious roast chicken. She has many other qualities that the public doesn't see. She is very loyal, kind and thoughtful. If you are having a bad time, she'll be very sympathetic. She's a good neighbour. She has a house in Yorkshire and is president of her local village hall there.

She's a much more serious person than people realise. You might go on a long walk with her and she'll be talking about the problems of sheep farmers in the north of England. At some point, when she's much older, she'll turn into an amazing campaigner for pensioners. She won't thank me for saying that, but it's true.

She's a walking dialectic, an extraordinary mixture of opposites. And I think that's why people find her difficult. She's not afraid to be provocative and adversarial. I know that she can be bullying and careless with people she works with, but I don't see that. I wouldn't work with her. I don't work with friends.

She hasn't been given the credit she deserves for her career. If you look at what she's done since the 1960s, at some point in every decade, she's been at the cutting edge. She is often derided for invent- ing "yoof TV", but that programme was amazingly influential. It was a defining moment: it changed the way television was presented. How many other people could be editor-at-large of the Independent on Sunday and also go on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here? Not many.

I thought that it was a good idea for her to go on I'm a Celebrity. She's very competitive, a games player. She'll sit in the corner of The Ivy playing Scrabble with Charles Saatchi all night. In the jungle, hopefully people will see the real Janet.

Neil Tennant is the song-writer and lead singer of the Pet Shop Boys.

Stephen Bayley: 'Far from being an audacious hipster, this woman is in thrall to normality'

Only a small phonic distance separates loathe and love. And Janet Street-Porter flounces highly coloured and indefatigably in that gap. But while there is certainly a case against her (and mine, given time, could develop into quite a strong one), it is difficult to loathe someone so resolutely game for a laugh. What Boswell called "rude, coarse buffoonery" she has raised to the condition of art. Whether you loathe or love this performance is a matter of taste.

We have Janet on sex. Much married, multiply partnered, Janet recently declared to a nation on the edge of its seat that her policy on men is that of a hungry diner approaching a buffet. Possibly a voracious reference to the eat-as-much-as-you-like phenomenon, possibly to the notorious failure of finger food to satisfy serious hunger, this is only one of a number of culinary metaphors offered in the continuously evolving and slightly mad Street-Porter Weltanschauung. This programme with snakes in which she is the hilarious and unlikely star was hitherto declared to be as unappetising as old chicken pie.

Which takes us directly to the source of Janet's irrepressible tormenting devils. Blameless Elmstone Road, Fulham, in the mid-1950s (in fact, polite Parsons Green; rather later I used to live in the next road). Our schoolgirl suffers the privations of suburbia. The Light Programme plays. Rock has not been discovered. Processed peas are, we imagine, being eaten off a knife. There is old chicken pie, the status detail that fed all those fermenting hatreds and anxieties which have since found expression in such colourful broadcast sublimation. Here in Fulham Janet designed her future life as a revenge against all she felt was ordinary. Vectors of escape were conceived. Here in Fulham, the young Janet learnt to hate her mother. Her recent autobiography, Baggage, does such gruesome violence to decorum that it is charitable to assume it a parody. "Fark off, mum, I hate you!" is a paraphrase, but accurately conveys a sense of the delicate framework of offence and vulnerability upon which Janet built her astonishing career.

And what this career showed us in magazines, on the telly and in the papers is an ego that is seriously out of control. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is a useful reference book in search of an explanation. There is a syndrome which, while not calling for hospitalisation, certainly leads to antisocial behaviour. It is called "narcissistic personality disorder" and is defined as: "A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy."

Grandiosity? Well, Janet does have a thing about hobnobbing (see Neil Tennant, opposite). Admiration? She certainly wants to be noticed. Janet is not a counterculture radical, but a mainstream publicity hound. Empathy? Well, she is laudably indiscriminate in her distribution of scatological insults.

All these factors contribute to a world view that sometimes appears to be confused, but, in a clever defence, Janet makes no claim to consistency. So, while she (rather flatteringly) had me in Room 101 because I am a brainless, opinionated slave to style, it is quite all right for her to have the architect Piers Gough design her a house in Clerkenwell. Here Gough did as all good architects do, reflect the client's personality: thus the house has irrational, bizarre look-at-me characteristics. Another example: in 1998, The Independent on Sunday serialised my book Labour Camp (a satire about Blair's Dome) in four successive, splashy covers of the then second section. Soon after, a little bird in these offices told me Janet expressed some misgivings about my proposed new column with the elegant put-down : "Nah. We can't have him. He's so farking middle class."

That's as may be (I don't think Janet and I have ever spoken), but it is certain that this farking middle-class thing preoccupies the poor woman. So far from being the audacious hipster of her too often freely externalised yearnings, Janet Street-Porter is in thrall to normality and convention. She clearly enjoys the double-barrelled inheritance, and good for her, but there is something very odd about women who cling through history to the names of a first husband: just look at Shirley Conran and various Saatchis. And as if to prove an ineradicable suburbanism, Janet became the president of the Ramblers' Association. This is like the WI in Timberlands. These conformist tendencies also find expression in a trenchant anti-intellectualism that is her least attractive characteristic.

But for the rest, Janet bashes on with her own comic self-indicting. It is just so good to have reliable things in life. For instance, I can predict her response to a claim that she reminds me of Gibbons' description of the Empress Theodora: "Her venal charms were abandoned to a promiscuous crowd of citizens and strangers, of every rank, and of every profession." Janet would say: "Farking pretentious twat." That's my girl!

Stephen Bayley is a writer and design consultant

Comments