David Gest: Selling off the showbiz chintz

Record producer, theatre impresario, celebrity husband, and reality TV star... David Gest has done the lot – and befriended half the stars in Hollywood in the process. Now, he's selling off his extraordinary collection of showbiz chintz. John Walsh gets a sneak preview
Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Gest leans back in a comfortable armchair at the Grosvenor House hotel and greets his public. "Hello there!" he calls, as a serious-looking businessman walks by, blank-faced. "How you doing?" he enquires, like Joey in Friends, of a pair of tourists who walk within hailing range. "Hi! How're you today?" he calls out to the waiter delivering a glass of wine four tables away.

The people thus addressed stare at Gest, take in his huge, if disconcerting smile, his vast, saucer-like eyes, his bootpolish-black hair. They stare at the twin crucifixes around his neck, the curiously oriental cast of his physiognomy (like an alcoholic-but-still-game samurai warrior) and wonder either a) who in God's name he is, or b) why that strange-looking bloke off the telly is shouting at them in the bar of the Grosvenor House.

Gest is fantastically friendly towards the passing world at large. Whether people respond politely ("I'm, er, very well, thank you") or completely ignore him, he remains unfazed. He knows that he is a star, and that the British public love him.

Nothing in his extravagantly busy life prepared him for this stardom thing. It happened about a year ago, when he took part in the reality TV show I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. Notwithstanding the show's title, Gest, 54, was far from being famous when he went into the Australian bush and rubbed shoulders with a score of dimly renowned fellow-sufferers. He was known, if at all, as the record-producer chap who married Liza Minnelli in 2002, in an extravagant ceremony with Michael Jackson and Liz Taylor as best man and matron of honour (the wedding snaps were like something from The Addams Family) and split from her 15 months later.

The TV show featured plenty of oddballs, including the vast-bosomed comedienne Faith Brown, the matey Jason Donovan and the noisily querulous former newsreader Jan Leeming. But, from the start, Gest stood out for his flood of entertaining, if mildly implausible, stories about his friend Michael Jackson and his ex-wife. He came across as an amusing Run-yonesque curiosity from the underbelly of Hollywood, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley.

Things changed with a "bushtucker trial" of endurance, in which Gest was required to stand in a glass box, undo 10 valves that let in a cascade of jungle water and a shower of fanged and slimy creepy-crawlies, and collect dinner tokens as they nibbled and flayed his skin. He collected six tokens with aplomb, and left the box with a spider the size of a squid clamped to his head. When told of its presence by the quaking Ant and Dec, he plucked it off like a badly fitting trilby and threw it into the undergrowth.

****

What a guy! Across the nation, the TV-viewing audience sat up and took notice. They began to admire his coolness among the frantic egos on display, his ability to keep conversation going when all about him were weeping, even his tall stories about his maid, the unfortunately named Vaginica Seaman. Around the nation's watercoolers, people talked about the weird-looking Yank – about whether he dyed his hair, whether he owed his look to botched plastic surgery, whether he was, in fact, rather funny. People even started using his expletive: "Holy fock-accia!"

He didn't win (Matt Willis from the boy band Busted got the prize, and promptly disappeared off the celebrity radar) but his future was assured. In the weeks that followed, Gest became ubiquitous on British television, appearing on every light entertainment panel-show that required a quirky, er, guest: Never Mind the Buzzcocks, The Friday Night Project, 8 Out of 10 Cats. He was given his own show, This Is David Gest, and, in a piquant reversal of fortune, was signed up by Simon Cowell as a judge on a reality TV programme, Grease Is the Word, and its sequel, Greased Lightning.

It was a watershed in Gest's life, his transformation into a media star. "I don't know what changed in me doing I'm a Celebrity... but when I came into that airport the first day after the jungle, there was all this screaming. I looked round, thinking maybe Mick Jagger is here, but these kids were shouting 'Holy focaccia!' and I thought, 'What the hell is happening?'" Luckily a friend was on hand to enlighten him. "I called Petula, and she said, 'You'll never believe what's happened.' I said, 'What?' She said, 'They all know what we know, that you're nuts, but they love it. Just you wait to see the reaction.' And then they sent me the clippings..." He pauses to chuckle. It's a richly fantastic noise, like milk escaping down a plughole.

Petula is, of course, Petula Clark, a friend of his from, ooh, decades ago. The way he throws in her name is very characteristic; Gest is a weapons-grade, Olympic-standard name-dropper. Stars of stage and screen, musical titans from the Fifties, rock stars of the Sixties and soul divas from the present day flit back and forth in his conversation, all of them his dear friends. The strange thing is, he did know them all, and enlisted them all to take part in the multi-star concert spectaculars and TV specials that made his name.

He produced the Miracle On 34th Street concerts at Madison Square Garden three years running from 2000, signing up Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Shakira, Destiny's Child, Alicia Keyes, Gloria Gaynor and other soul super-divas. For Michael Jackson, his childhood pal, he put on the super-colossal (and cumbersomely titled) TV special Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Celebration: the Solo Years in 2001; it was watched by 44 million viewers, one in every four households in the United States. Gest also masterminded the American Cinema Awards Show for 11 years, and the International Achievement in Arts Awards for four years, thus enabling him to meet every actor that ever stood before a camera.

He was, in short, The Man Who Knows Everybody. His attempts at modesty – "I wasn't really into the stardom thing for myself. I never did it. I'd stay in the background. In my book, there aren't pictures of me with my arms round celebrities" – are undercut by his glee at telling stories about famous pals. Like the time Ray Charles came to his house to sing with Liza. "They're in the living room, and Ray never eats in front of anyone because he always eats with his fingers and he gets embarrassed, but he's sitting there eating with his fingers, and the food is going here and there, and I was taking it off his face! It was just so fucking cool. He wrote me a letter saying, 'I loved having dinner at your house.'"

He talks fondly about Liz Taylor, who gave him valuable advice about how to run an award show. "I went to her house and she was there with Robert Wagner, and she said, 'You can have everybody talk about the person, and say how great he is, and it will go on for ever and be the most boring crap. Or you can have one person talk for two minutes, show the film clips no more than eight minutes, I'll give the award, two minutes maximum, and the rest of the evening is all music.' I've followed that philosophy ever since." It was one of the few times in history that anyone received a lesson in restraint from Elizabeth Taylor.

Partly through his studio producing, partly from his arts-award ceremonies and partly through a lifelong obsession, Gest has put together possibly the world's largest collection of rock and movie memorabilia. He's been collecting for years. Such has been his passion to acquire both ephemeral merchandise and rock-souvenir gold that he's had to add a third storey to his mansion in Memphis, Tennessee to house it all. And, on 5 December, the cream of his treasures will go under the hammer at Bonhams in Knightsbridge.

The 600 lots are an Ali Baba's cave of treasure, with some genuine gold, stacks of flashy gewgaws, and many sober bits of paper that represent landmarks in rock history. The heart of the collection is a trove of 100 gold discs, each representing sales of a million records, presented to individual recording artists. Sixties survivors have a chance to buy the gold disc of "Satisfaction" inscribed to the late Brian Jones, "Hello I Love You" signed to Jim Morrison of The Doors, The Monkees' first hit "I'm a Believer," The Beatles' "Help!" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs Robinson" and "The Sound of Silence". You can bid for sheet music signed by The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Hollies and Frank Sinatra (though, sadly, not all together) and for the original signed contracts that brought The Supremes under the tyrannical sway of Berry Gordy's Motown.

Jollier, if more ephemeral, items from the pop heyday of the Sixties and Seventies include a complete shop-display stand of Beatles purses and a pair of the Fab Four's "sneakers" in their original box and tissue paper, plus some must-have toys and cheap bijoux emblazoned with the images of The Osmonds and The Jackson Five.

"I probably bought close to a half-million pieces in the last 40 years – the stuff in the auction is just a tiny touch of the whole collection," Gest says. "I think it was because work meant so much to me, I was so involved in trying to be a success, that one of my outlets for enjoyment was just going to buy things and collecting. I was kinda crazed. I wanted everything. I wanted every intricate little piece the Wade Company made for Cliff Richard in 1959. They made a little trinket box for him, pink, heart-shaped, one of a set of four. The others were for Tommy Steele, Frankie Vaughan and Marty Wilde." A dreamy look comes into his eye. "I still have a couple of sets. They're very rare..."

****

And as for the gold discs... does it mean that Gest has Aretha Franklin's personal disc and the lady herself doesn't? Doesn't that seem a little unfair? "No, there would have been a few discs each time. Usually they present one to the artist, one to the record company, one to the producer and maybe another to the company to put in their hallway. And sometimes people got short of money and sold their copy."

Does Jimmy Page know that Gest has the gold record presented to him for "Whole Lotta Love"? Gest frowns. "It may have been a copy in the Atlantic record offices that he never picked up, or he may have given it to somebody – who knows? But when I saw it in auction, I had to buy it and it was one of the smartest moves I ever made. Like Brian Jones's copy of " Satisfaction", these are priceless things, beyond value to some collectors. Who knows what they'll go for?"

Gest's interest in collecting goes back to his teenage years in Los Angeles. Born (officially) in 1953, he was a perfectly ordinary child, except for having some interesting neighbours. "When I was a kid, I was dating LaToya Jackson. I went to her house one day but she was ill and couldn't go out, and Mrs Jackson said, 'Could you drive Michael to the memorabilia show?' I said, 'Sure; what is that?' Michael said, 'David, you gotta get into memorabilia, you gonna love it.' He said, 'You see all these posters I got up here?' and he's got this poster of Jimi Hendrix, signed, and a poster of James Brown at the Apollo, signed, and I thought, 'This is pretty cool.' So we went to the show, and he got mobbed, but he was buying things and saying, 'I'm gonna buy this for you,' and I began to start loving all this and I thought, 'What a great idea for stuff to collect.'

"I started collecting when I first got into music at 12 or 13," he said. "The first 45rpm I bought was Jan & Dean's 'Ride the Wild Surf'. The first album I bought was Downtown by Petula Clark. My tastes changed to Cream and Jimi Hendrix, but I was really into soul music. I was like this black kid in a white body. And I loved Motown. All I wanted to do was see The Four Tops, Al Green, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Tammy Tyrrell. Little did I know that I'd become friendly with these people."

He progressed to R&B, and started bunking off school to hang out at a recording studio in downtown Los Angeles, on the corner of Sunset and Highland. "I had a fake ID made, and we'd steal $2.50 from our parents' wallets and go to the Whisky-a-Go-Go to see The Four Tops."

His collection includes examples of a comparative newcomer in the collecting world – first-edition signed film posters. Gest has had privileged access to film memorabilia through his involvement in the American Cinema Awards shows. "I worked with, and was best friends with, Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones," he says proudly. "I used to spend a lot of time at her house with Gregory Peck and Joel McRae." I said how much I admired McRae in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. "The poster of that movie is in the auction. And Roman Holiday as well."

A woman in a beautifully tailored crimson jacket walks by. "Hi there!" says Gest. "How are you?" She glares at him. "She used to cook dinner for me," he confides. What, the woman in the red jacket? " No," he said, puzzled, "Audrey Hepburn..."

How in God's name can he now give it up? How could he shed the cream of a collection so zealously amassed over four decades as insouciantly as he once tossed a giant spider into the outback?

It was the jungle that changed him. "When I went in there, I'd gone through probably the worst two years of my life. I didn't know whether I could ever work again, or travel again. You see, I had terrible head concussion from when I was in England and Liza was drunk. I'd picked her up and lifted her over my head, and because she's so violent when she's drunk, she hit the back of my head, bang bang, 20 times, and I put her down and she hit me again, 20 times. Then, four weeks later, in Hawaii, my head exploded."

****

He takes a slug of Diet Coke and winces at the memory. "Now, when you hear about a guy being beaten by a woman, people conclude he must be a wimp or something. But when people saw me in the jungle they realised I'm not afraid to fight anybody. I'm not afraid of snakes.

"And when I came out, I realised that I didn't want to leave. Winning didn't matter. As far as I was concerned, I'd won when I lasted more than 24 hours in there. But all of a sudden, this life of collecting things seemed... I started to ask, 'Can you live without all that?' And I realised that if I could live in the jungle with so little food and still have a happy life, then everything I thought was important just wasn't."

After the TV show, he began to give things away. James Bourne, another member of Busted, became the happy recipient of Michael Jackson's belt from the "Bad" video. Gest's co-judge on Grease is the Word, the singer Sinitta, was given one of the Jackson outfits. When Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain fame told him how they'd admired Liza's Back (his TV spectacular of Mrs Gest's return to the musical stage) he found them an original poster for the show signed by the star.

"I just felt, I don't care," he says. "I could go back to a very sparse home with just a few good books. I didn't need any of it any more." Luckily, before he could dish out any more priceless items, a friend advised him to take the collection to an auctioneer.

It wasn't the only change in his life. Gest fell in love with England, the place where he first tasted true stardom. He's bought a house in Cambridge. "It's not huge, it's got a nice living-room and a couple of bedrooms." Why Cambridge? "It's just so English. I love the people. Someone snuck me into King's College the other evening and showed me the library. There's something about the history. I just feel so at home."

Has he made friends? "I've made a lot. I have a friend, a football player who owns an Italian restaurant. I make friends wherever I go." (The footballer is the Arsenal star Mathieu Flamini). And when not hanging out among the dreaming spires, he can be found getting down with the kids in north London.

"My life is so different now. My friends are all 22 or 24. I hang out in Camden Town, at this bar Amy Winehouse hangs out in. I'm like a teenager. I'm living through a second childhood, and loving every effing minute of it."

He still collects things, but not in the frenzied fashion of old. "I always loved going to those antique fairs, those big sales in a field. But I can't do that any more." Because you're too famous? "People want to take pictures all the time. I do it, I don't want to be rude. But I end up posing for 50 pictures. It was fun when you could go to those places and bargain away. Now, if I try to bargain, they look at you like they think, 'What a cheap guy!'"

Will he regret the auction? In his sixties, will he miss the souvenirs of his glamour days? "I don't care," he says. "I don't want to live in the past. I could have given it all up for a happy marriage. But now – I'd really rather go for a drink with Matt, go dancing in Camden, listen to the Kaiser Chiefs." And, of course, bask in adulation. "Yeah. Did you know I'm a kind of unofficial mascot to Arsenal? I get given tickets to all the games. I love screaming my heart out. I love hearing the fans screaming, 'Gesty! Go, Gesty!'"

David Gest just loves his new fans – and the person he's become. " Hosting The Friday Night Project," he says in all sincerity, "was one of the thrills of my life."

Comments