Celine Dion (Mail Today, November 09, 2013)

I first met Celine Dion on the boiling hot rooftop of Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, just after watching her powerful, emotional stage show, complete with a raging real water storm for the Titanic number My Heart Will Go On.

I have always thought she is an odd mix, a diva who is totally humble. She has never been cool. She told me, ‘I don’t try to be, that’s not me.’ She’s never been edgy. Yet she’s sold over 200 million records worldwide, making her the best selling female artist ever. Her amazing multiple octave voice reaches across far expanses of the world.

When we met the album she played me was beautiful, perfect, but weeks before its release she decided to start again, to try to become the thing that she’d never been – cool.

‘The new album is half full of the songs I sing on stage, but the other half was because I started to be sent a lot of amazing songs, so we kept going to put them on the album.’

The new single, Loved Me Back To Life, is written by Sia, one of the hottest songwriters around. Other songwriters are taken from the cool pool of hitmakers like Ne Yo, Eg White, Tricky Stewart, and Babyface.

‘When all these amazing songs came in my 12-year-old said this is not possible that Sia and Ne Yo are sending you songs. I thought they wrote for Rihanna. They must have made a mistake.’

Her voice is also very different. It’s like a cat’s purr. ‘It’s very dry. Normally my voice would be blended. That’s been the recipe for it all my life, so I decided to modernise.’
These days she looks every inch a proper pop star in glamorous expensive designer slinky gowns. Yet her quirky rural French Canadian accent is still there when she speaks.
She is 44 and seems to have undergone the ageing process in reverse. She started off geeky looking and launched a thousand jokes of “Why the long face, Celine?” But she’s not only grown into her features, she is radiant. Lustrous hair, giant sparkly eyes, creamy skin.
When we are face to face the air conditioning isn’t working and it is 110 degrees outside at midnight and hotter inside. She doesn’t complain.
Maybe it’s happiness that has made her look better as she’s got older? ‘Maybe. I’ve worked hard for nearly 30 years and I feel like only now it’s paying off in terms of happiness. Emotionally I feel stable. So I do feel more beautiful. If I’d had 30 years of career and no children I would not have felt beautiful. I would have felt like I’d accomplished only part of a life.
‘I think motherhood has given me a stability and a strength. It’s given me a different approach to how I feel about myself.
determined not to commit until she was pregnant.
‘I don’t have to do any of this.’ She means performing and recording. ‘I do it because I love to sing. But the only reward that would mean anything to me is my children. There is nothing that can top being a mother. I’m 44 years old. I would like more but I don’t know if it could happen. I want the twins and I to have quality time. It’s selfish to keep wanting more, although I would love a girl. Imagine all the shopping, the jewellery, the shoes, the dresses I could give to her.’

Her twins came with a determination that is super human. Her first son René-Charles, now 11, was also an IVF baby and she had already had embryos frozen for future planning.
‘I did IVF six times one after the other (in 2010).’ Nobody does that. She shrugs. She must have been crazy with screaming hormones. She shrugs again. ‘I don’t know. You might have to ask René (Angélil, her husband) that. I was not over emotional, not even tired.
‘I did five years at Caesars Palace and went half a year around the world on tour, and it was finally time. I thought as long as my health permits me I’m going to go and on until I get pregnant. I told my doctor that unless he thought physically I couldn’t do it, I would go on until someone told me to stop.’
Six IVFs one on top of another are not only physically draining but mentally debilitating. I tell her about a friend of mine who has had four attempts over as many years. When she finally got pregnant she was in denial. She couldn’t believe or invest in the pregnancy because it was too important to her.
Did she suffer from anything like that? ‘No. Tell your friend to have coffee with heavy cream every morning and take it easy. Any pregnancy whether it’s in vitro or not you feel a danger. You have to remain positive and try to relax as much as possible. I always say that the first country my children own is inside of me, so I try to make it a good one and be healthy.’
Dion comes from a huge family. She’s the youngest of 14. She grew up in Charlemagne, Quebec. Her father was a lumberjack and they were extremely poor, but it wasn’t something she noticed. Did she always want to have a big family? ‘I never thought about it at first. I was on stage from being a child and I was busy professionally at twelve. I’d barely had a period.
‘I didn’t think about children in general but when love came into my life and I got married and I had money and success I was like, what’s missing? For a long time I thought that’s the price for me to pay for success. I’m from a big family. I now have a lot of money, I’m not going to be able to have children, you have to pay a price, you can’t have it all.
‘It was quite self-punishing. Then I thought I’m going to try to have it all. I’m going to try very hard, and it happened.’

She had René-Charles when she was 33. Getting pregnant at 42 was obviously going to be even harder. ‘So I had to deal with it. I was going to do whatever it took and of course there was a window of doubt. And I kept that window. I was 95 per cent positive, five per cent doubting. I didn’t want the doctor to call me and say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not going to work and I would crash.
‘I needed to protect myself a little by saying I already have one child. I can’t make all my life, my spirituality, my strength, my happiness, dependent on the next pregnancy. What about my child now? I would say to him I hope you are going to have a brother or sister and when it didn’t work I told him it didn’t work, we’ll try again.’
How long did all this take? ‘We signed the contract to come back to Vegas and we had to postpone two or three times. If they’d said you want babies, we need a singer, I would have understood. I told René I can’t stop. I have to try and try and try all the way.

‘People stop because it’s very expensive but I kept on going and would only have stopped if I’d been told my health was in danger but I was not going to stop just because I had a contract for singing. I would have hated every song for the rest of my life, so I said try to postpone the Caesars Palace shows because it wasn’t a good enough reason for me not to try for a baby. A life or a contract? I couldn’t live with that.
‘If the doctor had said this is your last try, your health cannot go on any more, but he never said that. I was reacting better to the treatment as we went along.’
Cancelling a Vegas contract would have cost her millions of dollars but she already has millions of dollars. She is reputed to be worth £300 million.

She knew that IVF meant there was a good chance of a multiple pregnancy and when the test was finally positive, ‘I had three babies inside me. It was unbelievable. Every week I would go to the doctor and there would be three heartbeats. The doctor was freaking out because in your forties if you are expecting more than one baby there’s a high risk of Downs Syndrome, and also you’re more at risk from other things like high blood pressure. (You’re also at risk pre-eclampsia).
‘I went for ultra sound every week and saw baby A, baby B and baby C, but one week baby C was not moving. (Baby C had died). It was around three months into the pregnancy. The baby is tiny. It doesn’t even come out. It makes a dry patch on the placenta. That’s the only proof of a baby.
‘My husband and I shed a little tear. Then you reason to yourself that baby has passed, let go for a good reason. It was to give more strength to the other two babies. Who knows what might have gone wrong if three had remained. I didn’t have to make any decisions, any choices, I just focused on my two babies, and they got stronger and bigger. Nobody wants to have a 1lb baby.
‘When my twins were born they were 5lb 10oz and 5lb 4oz. almost 12lb of baby. I gained 60lb in all. That was just belly.
‘I had a C-section. I had one with my first child at the last minute and I was already dilating. That was hard but because it was twins they recommend the C-section and I wanted healthy babies. It wasn’t a fashion choice.
‘We scheduled it carefully. We wanted to wait till the babies were at least 5lb.’ She was 35 weeks pregnant when she gave birth to twins Eddy and Nelson in November 2010. They remained in a neo-natal intensive care unit for several days.
‘They were a little jaundiced at first so we had to stay in the hospital and we had a little bit of blood on their heels for a couple of days, but they were fine, more than fine.
‘We named Nelson after Nelson Mandela. You can’t have one child with the name of a hero and the other Bob the Builder. So I named Eddy after my other hero (Eddy Marnay), who wrote all my French songs for me at the beginning of my career.’ (He also wrote songs for Edith Piaf).

She says the twins now love to dress up and play with her clothes. ‘They have strong and very different personalities but both of them love to wake up first thing in the morning and go to their closet and decide what they will wear.’
Sometimes her Canadian French speaking is difficult to fathom because she speaks with a strange syntax. Sometimes it makes her speech poetic and heartfelt. ‘They told me one day I’d start dreaming in English and then speak it better. It didn’t happen. Although now I’m not sure what language I dream in. I like to sing in French because sometimes I connect better with the words. A table is not a table, it’s a feminine thing. But a chair is a masculine thing. It’s more precise, like Japanese, but Japanese is all about the emphasis.’
She starts singing in Japanese. I’ve no idea what she is saying. But even sat down in a suite at Caesars Palace her voice is astounding and overwhelmingly emotional.
Does she find it hard to juggle being a mother of three and performing every night” Isn’t it difficult to shift the focus?

‘I’m not sure there is a shift of focus. When I’m on stage my kids are with me. When I’m home my head sings songs. I don’t bring them with me because I don’t want to live that showbusiness life. I want to sleep, go home and get into my pjs.’
She has a house nearby. ‘After the last song I change very quickly and do a runner. I’m home at 10 o’clock to be with my babies and I leave at 4 o’clock, so I’m with them as much as possible.

‘In the morning one of my biggest pleasures is to have my kids round me and coffee with heavy cream, no sugar. I hold the cup like it’s a little bird nest. It comforts me. At night I go to bed and my kids are sleeping and I whisper I can’t wait for tomorrow to have my coffee and my kids. It’s the simple pleasures of life that make the most sense.
‘None of my children are good sleepers. My eleven-year-old, my big boy, likes to wait up for me to come home. My twins wake up constantly, but I don’t care. I have lots of help. My sisters and nannies make sure they are fine.’ She smiles in a kind of dreamy gratitude. She is very emotionally available and direct. If something moves her she cries. If she likes you she hugs you. She’s always waving her arms around on stage and off to express how she’s feeling.
‘I can’t believe I did this show for five years and then they wanted me to come back for 70 shows a year. We like to change the show and evolve it in case the same people come back. She likes to please people. She tries hard. She used to try even harder so her face would sometimes appear strained and tight. she dressed in trouser suits a lot, restricted. Now she loves the floaty, the drapey, the soft. Does she feel more sexy? ‘I feel more happy and sure of myself.’

I have read recent rumours that she is pregnant again. ‘No-o-o,’ she says emphatically, and goes into a small diatribe about the internet and she doesn’t even own a computer and assumes that’s where I’ve read it. She does add: ‘We did not really close the whole chapter on children, but right now I don’t have plans. I’m not pregnant. I’ll let you know if I am.’
There’s a wistfulness in her voice. She grew up as part of a huge family and would have liked to have something similar. She’s always claimed that her family were wonderful and loving, yet growing up was torture for her.
The song 17 by Janis Ian is particularly emotionally resonant for her. When she performs it in the show it brought much of the audience to tears because they identified with being ugly and rejected, which she felt at that age. Today she is a glamorous diva, but there is graciousness and humility that exudes from her, probably because she grew up tormented by her looks.
‘It was hard for me. I was not pretty. Going to school was hard for me. I was skinny and my teeth were really bad and we didn’t have the money to fix it with braces. I didn’t have these.’ She gestures to her now perfect formed and perfectly lined up sparkling whites.
‘When you’re the good looking little girl everyone wants to be friends with you and nobody wanted to be friends with me. I’ve never forgotten that. Of course I’ve emotionally grown. I’ve been a girlfriend, a wife, a mother. But when you’re ten years old, teeth right out there that are twisted, it’s cruel. I never wanted to go to school. I wanted to be home all the time because there I knew I was loved and would not be laughed at.
‘I don’t know if it’s normal that at eight you feel this way. I just know I love maturity and I never want to be eight or 25 again.’ Coincidentally at 26 she married Angélil, who was 52. ‘At 44 my life is getting better. Both parents gave me wonderful values of life, a foundation of love and support.
‘As soon as I hit showbusiness my mum was with me all the time. She didn’t trust anybody.’

Angélil became her manager when she was 12 and he was 38. At the time he had a bit of a bad boy reputation. He’d been married twice. ‘My mother didn’t trust him. She wrote to him to take care of me but she stayed with me till I was 18. I learnt a lot by meeting a lot of older people with experience. I would not change any of my journeys.
‘In my early 20s I fell in love with René but we were hiding it from the world because it was impossible to fall in love with a man who had three children and was married twice. It was a no, no, no with my mum.’
She bows her head and for the first time. She looks as if she is talking with difficulty when she remembers this. She shifts in her seat when she says it was deemed ‘inappropriate.’

‘When he first started managing me he was married. I was not involved with him but people imagine things. It was not proper, it was not the right thing to do.’
His marriage had been dissolved by the time she sang for Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988, aged 20. In the euphoria of winning the song contest she kissed him and has said that kiss was one of the greatest moments of her life. They married in 1994.

On the day she discovered she was pregnant with René-Charles her husband was declared in remission from skin cancer. ‘Imagine, we faced life and death in one day.’ She had put her career on hold to care for him through his cancer treatment.
Her love for Angélil is palpable and vice versa. He is now He was sat in front of me during her performance, hung on her every note, warmed to her every word, beamed with pride.
He carries himself with grace and confidence. His son Patrick from his first marriage is part of Celine’s management team and is equally gracious. Angélil was recently in a Quebecois movie called Omert where he played a Montreal mob boss. It topped the box office across Quebec. He got the part because in Canada people think of him as a kind of godfather-like character.
‘Sometimes I treat him as that character. They came to him because they know his personality. He is charismatic and low key. He’s a good poker player. He’s got the look.’

‘Today I feel more beautiful and more strong than I ever have. Next week my mum is coming to the show and then we’ll all move to Florida for a month where my son goes to school. She also has a house in Montreal.
‘I don’t want to be busier than busy. I don’t want my kids to feel I’m not there for them. I’ve wanted them for too long for that. I want to make the most of them. Now the simplest things make me happy. I’ve got a feeling the sky ‘s the limit. I don’t feel I can’t do this any more. I feel like I want to do everything; enjoy time with my children, enjoy the growth of my twins, and I also love to sing.’
She doesn’t just sing to her audience, she gets inside them, communicates joy, pain, everything she’s ever felt. ‘It proves to me that the world is still alive. If I cry it’s because I’m alive.’



Cher (Sunday Times Magazine, September 22, 2013)

I am waiting in Malibu in an over-stuffed flamboyant house, lots of velvet, gold leaf, plumped pillows, chandeliers. It could be Cher’s house but it is in fact the house of a rich Russian person who has rented it out for my interview. Cher lives in another Malibu house eight miles away in her own gothic glory.
Cher, her manager, her make-up artist, her photographer, get lost in those eight miles and arrive a little late. The photographer has been hired to take my picture with Cher. It wasn’t something I asked for but Cher thought that I might like it.
She arrives with a green drink in her hand, giant hazel eyes sparkling as much as her giant treble-diamond ring. She is wearing a black tailcoat, white waistcoat, foamy chiffony shirt, dark jeans, thick boots. Rock chick clothes. Oddly she pulls it off. Her best features are her hair and her eyes which are so mesmeric you forget to look to see if you can see if the skin on her face has been pulled and tightened.
What everyone really wants to know about Cher is how did Cher, gay icon, gothic rocker, activist, former hippie chick, disco diva, Oscar winning actress, daytime vamp, the woman who launched a thousand drag queens, really feel when her daughter Chastity first came out as a lesbian and then underwent full-on sex change therapy to become a man.
You wonder just how you are going to ask her about this because you’ve read that she was mortified and you could imagine she would be. Cher, so slinky and feminine, loves men, manicures, sequins.
She made dresses for golden ringleted Chastity who would appear with her parents on the Sonny and Cher Show in the Seventies. How could she have imagined that her little girl would grow up first of all thinking she was a bull dyke and then realising she wanted to be a man, a very fat man at that?
I am surprised that Cher is warm with a relaxing motherly presence. Still, how does she feel about her daughter becoming a son is a difficult question.
Now the only child of Cher and Sonny Bono is 43 and renamed Chaz and is delighted to be burly, bearded hairy backed. He had death threats when he appeared as a male partner on Dancing With Stars, the US equivalent to Strictly.
I stumble over the pronoun. She and the he somehow get mixed up in my mouth and Cher gives me a look of concern and empathy for my embarrassment.
‘You mean Chaz. Don’t worry. I screw up the pronouns all the time,’ she says with a Mona Lisa smile and it reminds me that she won an Oscar for Moonstruck. Is this calm facade brilliant acting? Remember she was also nominated for her very un-Cher downbeat role in Silkwood, and so hilarious in The Witches of Eastwick. Of course more recently there was Burlesque where she simply a parody of Cher-isms. I decide rather than studied introspection what I see before me is real.
‘I would have said that Chaz is like Sonny and there is a portion of him that’s like me.’
What about when Chas became Chaz? ‘Oh yes, I had a hard time.’ She looks me right in the eye. You can tell her heart was quite pierced by this.
‘I didn’t have a hard time in the beginning because when Chaz came to see me and told me this is what I want to do I said well if you’re miserable then you’ve got to do it. But then as it was starting to happen, you know, it’s a strange change for a mother to go through.’ To suddenly have two sons instead of a boy and a girl. ‘Right,’ she says. I am surprised by how easy it is to talk to her about this.
When it was first happening she was afraid to see him in case she didn’t recognise him. She asked if he would save his old answering voice because it was his girl’s voice before it had been lowered by his daily injection of testosterone.
He had his breasts cut off and fat redistributed in a thickset blokish sort of way. As yet he has not had an operation to reconstruct his clitoris into a penis. He talks at transgender conferences and provides counselling for others in a similar situation. He is a pioneer. Perhaps he really is like his mother.
‘When I’m talking about Chaz in the old days it’s very difficult. [to get the pronouns right]. If I’m talking about something that’s happened with Chaz when we were in Aspen and when Chaz was little, he was she. But things that happen from now, or from a little while ago, Chaz is he.’
Did she have a sense of loss and mourning for her daughter? ‘It was difficult but now I don’t think about it so much. We talked about it on and off for years. He would talk about doing it and then he would go off it. And then finally he did it. It’s a huge decision and not something you make lightly. But it’s turned out well.’
Her voice has a certainty in it, and almost a soothing quality. ‘For the people who don’t understand it I try to help them understand it by saying, you know, I just love being a woman so much, but if I woke up tomorrow and I was a man I couldn’t function. And that is the only way to describe it to someone who doesn’t understand. But it’s hard to relate to, oh, I must change my sex. But I know that if by some miraculous something I woke up as a man I would hate it so much I can’t tell you.’
I look at Cher with her white fingernails, the pointed tips painted black, her ultra pouty pink lips and feathery-mascaraed eyes, her long dark glossy curls. There’s something almost doll-like about her. I stare at all of this. How could Cher, the most girlie of girls, cope with having a daughter who wanted to be a son?
‘You know, your children go their own way and I think it took so much courage. I don’t think I would have had that much courage. But he was so miserable in that body and now he is happy. Totally happy.
‘When I say I knew he wanted to be a man I don’t know what I really knew. I knew that he wasn’t happy but I didn’t know the exact reason he wasn’t happy, but this seems to be the thing that was missing. [When he was a lesbian] he was in a relationship [with a girl] but they broke up a long time ago. She is a lovely girl.’ Jennifer Elia, an attractive brunette, was his partner for five years and he’d always told her about his gender struggle, but when the change was complete the relationship faltered.
Was that because she was in love with him as a girl? ‘I don’t know. I think she was having a hard time with her sobriety for a while. But also they had been together for a really long time and I think the transition for her was really difficult.’
Apparently when Chaz was charged with all the male hormones he got aggressive and sexually demanding and in a documentary Being Chaz, Jennifer admitted that her sobriety had been tested over her girlfriend becoming her boyfriend and she said, “He’s not the person I fell in love with.” Indeed he (she) wasn’t.
What’s impressive is that Cher is old school. You ask her a question, she answers it unflinching. She doesn’t even try to plug her new record. She is not like some newbie pop star who only wants to talk about her music. That said, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to be modern. She has come up with a record that is relevant – tracks produced by Paul Oakenfold and a song with Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters and songs written by Pink.
At 67 she still has the stamina to tour constantly (new world tour in 2014) and in silly tiny sequined outfits where she must feel she’s literally turning back time. At the end of her hot and throbby performances during her residency at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas from 2008 to 2011 she always said, “Top that, you bitches.” Sure, she likes to run with a young set because she likes to outrun them.
‘You know we were working out this morning, my teacher and a couple of friends and I said give me a break, I’m older than everybody here, but the teacher said, you’re full of shit, you’re 30. You work out better than my 30-year-olds. So in some ways I forget how old I am and in some ways I don’t.
Cher’s age is indeed a conundrum. I’m not sure what 67 looks like but it doesn’t look like Cher, and she doesn’t act it. Sure, she might have had a little help with her face. She admits to a nose job and a breast reduction. She denies the constant rumour that she had one of her ribs removed. She says that her good friends are often the teenage and twenty something children of her friends. ‘Young people like me. I don’t know why.’
Certainly she was friends with Lady Gaga. There was going to be a collaboration with Gaga’s prolific producer RedOne – a track called The Greatest Thing. RedOne thought instead of the original plan of Cher singing it, it would make a great duet. In the end Gaga was disappointed with the result and vetoed it. Cher voiced her own disappointment that the two icons could not be on song. When someone leaked a version of The Greatest Thing. Cher was all over Twitter in her anger at the unfinished version’s appearance.
Cher is an epic tweeter. I’m surprised she could take the time off tweeting to talk to me. She tweets whatever comes into her head. No censorship, lots of swear words,1.7 million followers. In her tweets she is forthright, funny, and likes to complain about Madonna. In person she is a lot less flighty.
Her new album Closer To The Truth will be her first in eleven years. ‘I am not a Cher fan. I don’t listen to the records I’ve made for fun. This one I’m surprised by.’
Has she now become a Cher fan? ‘No, no, no, let’s not go that far. It’s just my voice is very distinctive and it’s not a voice that’s appealing to me. And on this record there are a couple of songs, Silence and My Love, that I sing in a different way, a kind of straight way, no vibrato.’ Indeed, these songs do not sound like Cher. The voice is high and melodic.
Does she feel like a different person to who she was ten years ago? ‘I feel like an older version of myself. I don’t think I’ve changed much in what I think is right or wrong or what I think is bullshit. My mother is 87 and she’s pretty much the same person as when I was little.’
Recently she made a documentary – Dear Mom, Love Cher – about her mother. Georgia Holt looks tall and strong and at least 20 years younger than her 87 years. She also sings and sounds exactly like Cher. Her mother was six times married and says, “Don’t pay attention to age and it won’t pay attention to you.” Her mother is part Cherokee, hence the high age-defying cheekbones.
‘I had two grandmothers, one died at 87, the other at 97, and I said to the 97-year–old one, “Nana, how old do you feel?” And she said, “Darling, I look in the mirror and wonder who that old lady is because I feel so young.” And that’s sometimes how I feel. I forget that I’m older.
‘The other day somebody said how old are you and for a minute I forgot. I thought I was ten years younger and I still thought that was old. It’s not easy getting older in this business for sure.’ I notice she doesn’t mention any numbers here.
Does she feel that in her business becoming old is the same as becoming extinct? ‘No, there’s just not the access to older performers that there is to younger performers, especially women, because it’s a young person’s art.
‘More than any other time in history the people who came up in my time are now having a hard time. We don’t want to stop singing. The Stones don’t want to stop and I don’t want to. But it’s hard. You try to find your niche and stay relevant in your music and you keep going.
‘I hoped there wouldn’t be a prejudice because I was a certain age and people wouldn’t even give the record a listen.’ She says this in a deadpan way but it is obviously something she’s thought about.
Was that why it took so long to get the record out? ‘No. In those eleven years I wasn’t thinking about it. Honestly. I just forgot. I forgot to make a record. I was on the road, I was in Vegas. I did the movie Burlesque. I had some vacation and I didn’t really have a contract for a while, I was in limbo, so I went on the road and didn’t think about it.’
She performed a lot of shows. ‘That was very stressful. On the last day I wanted to kill myself. I cried and cried and cried. We were at the Hollywood Bowl and I spent the night on the tour bus. I’d never done that before. It was so weird that suddenly I just didn’t want to stop. The only thing that is stressful about being on the road is the road. The shows themselves are fabulous. I love that part. I just don’t like the road, the isolation of the road.
‘It’s hard because I can’t go many places. We might buy out a movie theatre or miniature golf course or paint china or go bowling. The only way we’d do those things is if we buy them out and no one else is there. We want to be where there’s no people with iPhones.
‘I remember going to the movies thinking why is everybody texting and emailing, and then I realised they weren’t, they were taking photos of me. So it’s hard for me to go about in a normal way. I love having freedom. In the old days the paparazzi were polite. They would say can we take a picture? They wouldn’t ambush you and be aggressive.’
‘Once we had to get a restraining order against a paparazzi. He made my boyfriend go into a ditch and we rolled our car. This was in the eighties.’ Her then boyfriend was bartender Robert Camilletti.
‘My boyfriend went to jail because he was so angry he went to their car and he ripped it apart and they said he tried to kill them. If you saw these guys they were just old and just wankers. If he wanted to kill them he could have done easily. But after they’d forced us to roll the car he was so furious he tore their car up. He went to jail for a day and then got so much community service. I think he could have killed someone and got less community service.
‘We had a restraining order on these paparazzi and they came on the property and they broke the restraining order and he was angry the whole time because he was trying to look after me. Whenever I went out I’d have to sneak out the driveway and lay on the floor of the car.’
Is being too recognisable a double-edged sword? Is there pleasure in being an icon as well as pain at the lack of freedom? Would she swap?
‘No, I’d rather have both of course.’ She pauses: ‘I’d probably go for freedom. Fame is great and then it gets hard. Like things you used to take for granted you can no longer do. Like if I wanted to make a run to Safora (a beauty supplies shop) I have to know exactly what I want to get and go for it, like a hunting expedition.’
It must be tough being Cher. It must be even tougher being Cher’s boyfriend. Traditionally Cher has dated men who are younger than her, but not always less gothic looking than her. There’s been Val Kilmer, Gene Simmons of Kiss, Bon Jovi Richie Sambora, and biker Tim Medvetz.
Did she find it unsettling that boyfriends didn’t like being Mr Cher? ‘It wasn’t so much unsettling for me. I’ve also had some amazing boyfriends and some really famous ones but it takes a certain kind of man to be able to put up with it. It certainly puts a strain on them. Like Robert for instance. He didn’t buy into go into jail or having people chase him. He’s a private citizen and people were very mean to him. That stuff doesn’t keep you from having relationships it just makes it harder to go for a walk on the beach or something like that. You have to outsmart people and try and just live your life.’
What have the men she’s gone for had in common? She perks up. ‘Actually many of them have had amazing senses of humour and they’ve all been really kind. I love people who are kind and I wouldn’t date anyone who wasn’t, it just wouldn’t work for me.’ Kindness is very underrated. ‘Yes, and it’s a game changer for me. Intelligence is great but I don’t know that it trumps everything. Kindness and an adventurous spirit is what does it.
‘I still like to do dumb things. I like to do kid things. So I like it when the person I’m with wants to ride a paddleboard or go-karting or take a run to Disneyland or go to Hawaii. I like people who are adaptable because I have to pick my moments.’ Meaning if she suddenly finds a break in her schedule she likes to make the most of it.
Does she have a boyfriend now? ‘Er, well, actually, no. I just broke up with someone. Or let me rephrase that. It went to a certain place and I couldn’t see me putting any more time into it so it wasn’t really a break-up. I think relationships have to go in stages and we just couldn’t go to the next stage. We are really good friends but there was no impetus to keep going. Love feels to me like unbelievable fun, and if it’s not unbelievable fun you stop it.’
Is she the person that ends a relationship? ‘Most of the time. I am a serial monogamist. My relationships seem to go for two and a half years, maybe three, and then that’s it.’
She was married to Gregg Allman, from The Allman Brothers, from 1975 to 1979, but her longest relationship was with Sonny Bono. They met in 1963 and broke up in 1972, but didn’t divorce until 1975. He died in a freak skiing accident in January 1998, aged 62. Meeting him, loving him and losing him were the most important things that happened to her.
‘Meeting him changed everything and leaving him changed everything as well, and losing him was huge. It’s like when people say losing a parent is a huge defining moment. It was like that. Even though we weren’t that close at that point in so far as we weren’t seeing each other very often, but it was a huge, huge loss.
‘I was in England when it happened and I remember going to a certain place that I didn’t think the paparazzi would follow because I was so upset. I got there and I was sobbing and sobbing.
‘It was the end of an era for me. It was the end of a time that had been so important for me. It was the end of something that had been a major part of my life. It was like a parent dying. When I met him I was 16 so he was…’ I finish the sentence, a father figure. ‘…Well he was a mentor. He got me a job background singing and he always believed in me and wanted me to be a solo artist and I didn’t really want to and then we became famous together. I had so many milestones with him that would never have happened without him. I wouldn’t have done any of that. I had the energy but I was so scattered. He was the person who focused it all.’
She was born on May 20, 1946, the last day of Taurus. In some astrologers view the beginning of Gemini. Is that scattered energy her Gemini side? ‘If you knew me you would see that I am very Taurus. I am sturdy, in my own way a plodder, but I have the vocal energy of a Gemini.
‘Taureans can be very spontaneous and are stubborn. And I’m really stubborn, ridiculously. A lot of Taureans can end up quite corpulent because they like food, like Orson Welles, and I like food when it is good, but it’s not a major thing for me to eat for the sake of it, but I’m very materialistic. I like my house and I love things.’
Did she have to fight against the love of good food? Is she very disciplined? ‘No. When I was growing up we were very poor and my mother was from the South and we didn’t eat a lot of meat because it was expensive so I never got a taste for it. I eat vegetables because meat is something l don’t like the taste of. I do have a terrible sweet tooth.’
They moved around a lot when she was growing up and her circumstances could change dramatically depending on who her mother was married to or if she was on her own. Mostly she grew up in California where her mother had bit parts on TV shows.
‘She married my dad twice, I don’t know why. She told me she never loved him that much. She just said he was very convincing but that never made much sense to me. I didn’t meet him until I was 11.’
How was that? ‘He was nice. I enjoyed him.’ Wasn’t her whole life trying to find her missing father figure? ‘No, because when I met him it was fun. I was a lot like him in certain ways. Suddenly I knew where a lot of my expressions came from.’
So nature rules over nurture? ‘Right. Elijah is like that too with his dad.’
Unfortunately, Elijah, 37, inherited his father’s addictive personality. Gregg Allman was a heroin addict. Elijah had a problem with drugs. ‘There are so many thing that Elijah that Gregory does which is odd because they never spent much time with each other.’
Didn’t Allman once try to kill her when he was high on drugs? ‘No, he didn’t try to kill me. He would never have done that. But he lost his temper when we were in Jamaica and I had to spend the night on the beach with this fabulous who was the housekeeper in the house we rented and we sat on the beach all night while guys with torches hunted crabs. It turned out to be an interesting adventure. We didn’t split then. Not then. He and I went back and forth, back and forth because I was crazy about him. But you can’t have people that are doing drugs that are around your kids.’
Elijah inherited that side of him? ‘Well, yes. But he’s okay now. He’s great. But it took a chunk out of his life. A chunk out of both of them. He very much looks like his dad. I think he is going to be a manager.
Does she think not having her father around made her attracted to a certain type of man? ‘It might have done because Sonny was very nurturing. And when I first met him I was very sickly. He was much older than me and he had a vision. I was just running around dancing and hanging around with my friends. I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t have any focus. Maybe I would have got there anyway, but Sonny was the one who said if you do this, this will work. This will be the right thing to do. He was a catalyst for everything.’
Was that when she fell in love with him? ‘Oh no, I did that way before. We didn’t work together at first. I think I hero-worshipped him because he was as very extraordinary person. Not fabulous all the time for sure, but he was a very forward thinker, interested in life. He would do things that maybe men would have had a problem with. Like I used to dress him crazy in the beginning and he just said okay, fine, this is fun. He was open to a lot of things. He wasn’t open to a lot of things as well and we got into fights, but he liked to stretch himself. I think he’d given up before he met me and I was a spark for him too. He tried to have a career that didn’t work out so we sparked each other.’
So what happened with this man that was such a huge influence, what went wrong? ‘It didn’t go wrong. I was just finished. It started to become more about the work than the relationship. Plus I was 27 and I didn’t need to be told what to do any more.’
She says this without a trace of regret because regretting nothing is all part of her mantra. She takes a swig from her wheatgrass drink. ‘Honestly, it doesn’t taste disgusting. It’s got powdered vitamins in it. I’m not the kind of person who wants to suffer ill health.’
I’d heard she had a phobia of getting sick ‘No, that’s not true. But a long time ago I had Epstein Barr (syndrome) and it made my life a misery for two years.’ The symptoms are extreme tiredness, lethargy. ‘I’m not very phobic at all. In general, I’m very happy.’ If this is not the case, she’s done a very good job of convincing me.

Niki Lauda (August 25, 2013)

I am not sure how, or even if, I can look Niki Lauda right in the eye. I am waiting for him in a multi-chandeliered and cream cake heavy hotel suite in his native Vienna. I have just seen the movie Rush. Utterly compelling.
It is based on his story, the danger, rivalry, excitement and brushes with sex and death in the world of 1976 Formula 1 when the sport was so dangerous at the beginning of each race there was a certainty 20 per cent would not make it to the end.
The Ron Howard movie chronicles the impassioned rivalry between Lauda and the first British Formula 1 champion James Hunt. In one vital race at Nürburgring in the 1976 Grand Prix Lauda’s tyres lost grip and his Ferrari caught fire. He was dragged out
‘Another ten seconds and I would have died.’
There followed gruelling operations to remove smoke and debris from his lungs and his face was irreparably burned, he lost half an ear. He refused to give up. Showing spectacular strength and verve he appeared just a couple of months later at a race meeting in Monza with for want of a better description, a new face.
Fellow drivers recoiled in horror and couldn’t look at him. He was shocked and hurt. The damage was horrendous and this was first time he saw the impact on the rest of the world. Even though he’d missed races he was still in the lead.
He enters the room relaxed, jeans, checked shirt. Eyes like pale blue Swarovski crystals, they burn and sparkle. His charisma almost takes my breath away. He sees me looking at him, examining him and gives a slow knowing smile.
He has just seen the movie, which is basically his story – he was a constant companion to writer Peter Morgan and helped him with memories and knowledge of the sport. Apparently Morgan knew nothing about Formula 1 and he tells the story with the passion of its discovery. Undoubtedly his best work.
I look at Lauda’s face. The scars have faded with age. He is now 64. ‘Yes, the wrinkles improved it,’ he says with an almost impossible confidence. He is comfortable with me looking right at his face. In fact he enjoys. He enjoys staring tragedy and disaster in the eye and dealing with it. He enjoys strength. This is a man who has not only learned to live without his face but has enjoyed living despite it.
‘When after the accident I came out into the world and people looked at me they were shocked. It upset me. I thought they were impolite not to hide their negative emotions about my look. When I saw the movie it let me see the story from the other side, from the point of view of other people looking at me. It helped me understand why people were shocked.’
What was it like for him when he first saw the scarring? ‘My then wife fainted when she first saw me, so I knew it could not have been good. I wondered is this really the way I look? As I get older the scars get lost in the lines and well…’ he shrugs to himself, ‘you just get used to it.
‘It took a long time though. I never realised because I accepted the way I looked at the time. I never thought about it, I just kept on going.’
It’s interesting in the age of cosmetic microsurgery where transformations are commonplace that Lauda refused to have any more work done after the initial surgery to keep him alive.
‘I only had to do surgery to improve my eyesight. Cosmetic surgery, it’s boring and expensive and the only thing it could do is give me another face. I had the eye surgery so that my eyes could function and as long as everything functions I don’t care about it.’
You believe him when he says that. He is striking in the way he has very few insecurities. Born to a wealthy Austrian family in Vienna. His parents had expected him to follow into a comfortable life. Lauda wanted none of it. He’d never been afraid of speed and always had a passion for the way things worked.
He peers out from under his ubiquitous red cap that only slightly disguises the fact that half of one ear is missing. ‘You have to accept it. You can’t think how you would be until it happens to you. If a person gets burnt somewhere when you are in that situation you think differently, you think what do I do now, how do I find my own way of handling it and when you’ve found it it doesn’t bother you any more. People who have never been in your situation they can’t imagine what they would do. They just ask themselves why is he like this? Why doesn’t he do something about it?
‘Maybe if they were in my situation they would behave the same way as I did. I was always being offered cosmetic procedures. See this little thing here and he gestures to the side of his face. This was done by Ivo Pitanguy in Brazil. He was the most famous plastic surgeon in the world at the time. He wanted to do everything. He asked me, “Are you nuts? Why wouldn’t you want this?” I just don’t like the look of it.’
He looks up at me, through me, examines my face. ‘You have not had work done. What do you think of the stupid women who get work done all the time?’ I’m not sure. Ask me in ten years.
‘I think it’s bad. If you have something done people can see right away that you’ve had surgery.’
The point of good surgery is that you don’t see. ‘I see it straight away,’ he says as someone who is hyper aware.
‘What about women who have their lips done and have all this shit? (He mimics the trout pout). I hate it because it becomes part of your personality.’
Does he automatically find a woman unattractive if they’ve had any cosmetic surgery? ‘I would hate it. It means they can’t stand whoever they are. I’ve had a lot of incidents in the past where people were wondering how I looked. At least I can say I had an accident. The idea that people would work on themselves, who hadn’t had an accident… I can’t stand plastic surgery. You have to have enough personality to overcome this beauty bullshit and find the strength to love yourself the way you are.’
There’s no point in telling him many people could never find that strength. When you look at him you don’t see scars you see strength and that strangely makes him really good. His eyes seem to glint even bluer when I tell him this. He says, ‘I’ve learned from my life experience. I think I was much less charismatic before.’
In the movie it shows the young Lauda being very determined, practical and pragmatic. His personality was the opposite of the flamboyant catnip to all women James Hunt.
Actor Daniel Brühl who played him had to have prosthetic teeth. He was known as the rat for his protruding large teeth which strangely you don’t notice at all now.
‘Marlboro was the sponsor. They put The Rat on my visor. A marketing guy thought of it because of my teeth. He wasn’t vain before the accident or diminished by being called The Rat and he wasn’t diminished afterwards. He has never counted on his looks.
His psychological journey to overcoming his brush with death and a face that was so scarred it shocked people, was one that he treated with his usual sportsmanship and pragmatism and got on with it. He didn’t falter. Was he ever afraid?
‘I’ve had lots of positive and negative experiences. I don’t really have any fear.’
Did he ever have fear? ‘I was brought up in a well-educated family here in Austria. I knew how to use a knife and fork. I had a very good and stable personality from a very young age. I don’t know the reason I don’t have fear in me. I’m very secure and always have been. I went through a lot of terrible things, like my accident, which again taught me how to be stronger.’
He retired from Formula One in 1979 but made a comeback in 1982 with McLaren, hanging up his helmet in 1985. Still fascinated with fast and powerful travel he decided to start airline Lauda Air having gained his own commercial pilot’s licence. It did well for a while.
‘Another terrible thing was the airplane that crashed, the Boeing 767.’ The flight crashed in Thailand in 1991 killing all 223 people on board. He talks of it still solemn.
‘I’ve been through a lot and I realise the future can’t be controlled. I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties. That said, I’ve always been a stable person.’
Is that why he was attracted to Formula 1? You wanted to test that stability. ‘No. Formula One is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits. This is why people race, to feel the speed, the car and the control. If in my time you pushed too far you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive.’
He says this recalling the precision not the danger. It was always a mathematical equation for him. ‘I was more technical than the other guys. I didn’t just want to make it go quicker, I wanted to understand the car so I knew exactly how to make it go quicker. I always knew that the car makes me successful. The faster the car the better my chances of winning were, but in those days it was always a fight to stay alive. You had to push to the limit without making any mistakes.’
Much is made of the physical scars that remain from his 1976 crash at Germany’s Nürburgring, but it left his lungs weakened and he was in severe pain. It took him all of his strength to breathe. Was there never a moment where he felt simply grateful to be alive and not need to get back in the car? ‘No, not one moment, because I knew how things go, I knew about the risks. They questioned me, did I want to continue? But I always thought, yes, I do. I wanted to see if I could make a comeback. I was not surprised to have an accident. All these years I saw people getting killed right in front of me.’
He was married at the time to Marlene – who passed out when she saw him and went on to have a nervous breakdown. ‘Yes, I remember. I expected her to tell me that everything would be alright but she passed out. It didn’t help at the time. Other than that it didn’t really affect things. We went on to have two sons.’
Did having children change your desire to race, to take those risks? ‘No, I was very focused and continued racing and now I am married again and have twins, a little girl and a little boy.’
He talks of his Max and Mia born in September 2009 with great pride telling me that his wife is away, that he’s been looking after them on his own. Does he think his twins will be racers? ’I hope not. Too early to say. My daughter though is fearless. She climbs everywhere with not a care at all. She is like me. This is actually my first time alone with the kids while my wife is in New York. I’m going to rush home after our meeting because that’s when the nanny will leave and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a nice experience. Birgit Wetzinger (his second wife) said I would never be able to do it, but it’s all working out.’ He beams.
Birgit, 34, used to work for his budget airline company FlyNiki, also now sold. She was a stewardess. Did he meet her on a plane? ‘I met her at a party and I fell in love with her. It was one of those things where you see someone and you just know. I connected with her right away because of her boots. They were a hippy type, flat boots. The opposite of the high heels that everyone else was wearing at the party. That was my first interest.’
You fell in love with her because of her boots? ‘Yes. Then I found out she was working for me. Long story short I asked her out and that’s where it started. We got married and after eight months Max and Mia came along. She is a Scorpio and I am a Pisces. Scorpios are very difficult to handle,’ he chortles to himself.
In the movie we see that he met his first wife when she hitchhiked a ride. Is that true? ‘Actually I met her at a party but I did drive her somewhere soon after and she did not recognise who I was and she thought I was a tennis player.’
In the movie he picks up hitchhikers and half scares them to death when he is suddenly not the sedate saloon car driver they imagined him to be. They then recognised him by the way he drove.
Is he still in touch with his first wife who he divorced in 1991? ‘Yes, very much so. She is part of our life. We have a house in Ibiza. She lives there. My old family and new family often get together. We went to a restaurant the other say, Marlene, Birgit and myself. She is an outstanding woman. When everyone is happy she is happy. We were joined by Lukas and Mathias (his sons) and their girlfriends. There’s no issue at all. Marlene never wanted to get married. I wanted to as everyone I knew at 28 was married. Later on I said I wanted to divorce and she said “Okay, if you stay who you are and take care of me” – which I do – “I have no problem with this.” We got divorced but we are still friends. Nothing has changed. What is more, Birgit is her friend too. It’s really an outstanding situation thanks to Marlene more than anyone else. She’s a secure, straightforward and warm hearted person with a positive way of thinking.’
The more I sit with him the more I’m impressed by his positive way of thinking, the more I realise what an unusual person he is to make seemingly impossible situations miraculously straightforward.
German actor Daniel Brühl did a very good job of capturing him. ‘He speaks English better than me. He came to Vienna to meet me and studied me for a while. I also took him to the Brazilian Grand Prix a couple of years ago. I like him. I asked him what he found difficult. He said because people know me from television, interviews and talks, they know how you speak so you can’t not get that right. He did a good job.’
Nowadays Lauda lives a little outside of Vienna. ‘Nothing fancy,’ he shrugs. I have a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake.
Does he ever get tempted to speed through suburbia? ‘No, but when I am stopped by the police if I go a little fast I always tell them I cannot help it, it’s in my blood. They either laugh or give me a hard time.’ He laughs now, an easy throaty chuckle.
His relationship with James Hunt is one where he laughed. In the movie they are portrayed as extreme rivals who eventually come together out of mutual respect and become even friends. ‘Yes, we were friends. I knew him before we met at Formula One (Formula Three). We always crossed each other’s lines. He was a very competitive guy and he was very quick. In many ways we were the same. When I looked into his eyes I knew exactly what was going on. I had a lot of respect for him on the circuit. You could drive two centimetres from his wheels and he never made a stupid move. He was a very solid good driver.’
The movie shows them as very different characters, Lauda very serious and pragmatic, Hunt loving to party, to womanise, to drink.
‘I liked his way of living. I did a little bit of what he did. I was not as strict as I appeared in the movie, but I was more disciplined than he was. I would never drink before a race. Certainly after it, I had to. Every race could have been my last. It’s different today, but then it was a tougher time. Every race we went out and survived we celebrated, had a party. It was a different time. We all had lots of girlfriends. I was not as bad as James but we were similar. He was just more extreme, so the movie emphasised this. We never had rivalries over girls. With the others we would have a beer after the race and then goodbye. That was not friendship. With James it was different. James was different.’
Does he think that Britain could ever produce another driver like Hunt? ‘No. Today life is different for the racers. They start younger. They do go-karts first. Everything is as safe as possible. The last driver to be killed was Senna 19 years ago, and the improvements were so big since that. Now nothing ever happens. It’s just not the same.’
Does that make it less exciting? ‘Maybe. But Hamilton did well in the race the other day. A little into the race his tyre exploded. He is a very good guy. A great personality.’ Then he gets a little gossipy. Asking me if I’d seen the tabloid headline about Hamilton and Nicole Scherzinger breaking up. He knows her well as he doesn’t often miss a race. ‘I have to as I’m in charge of the Mercedes team and I also commentate for German TV.’
Did he ever love airplanes as much as cars? ‘No. Cars are my profession. Airplanes I use for my own comfort. I’ve been a commercial pilot for many years, so if I want to go to Brazil I would go in my own plane. I go to any races I want on my Global 5000 12-seater airplane which can fly for 12 hours at a time. I never fly commercial.’
Does he miss his own airline? ‘No. I sold it as soon as I started the job I have with Mercedes. (He runs their team). Air Berlin wanted me to sell. It was the right time and the right price, so I did.’ He refuses to say how much he sold it for.
Can I assume that he doesn’t need to work for money any more, just for love? ‘I’ve never worked for money, never raced for money. You cannot do this for the money. You have to first race and if you are successful money comes. This is the way I’ve gone through my life. I did things I liked, and if I did it right money came. Money is not important to me at all. It’s nice when you have it.’
It’s been written that he’s not a very emotional person although I can’t believe that’s true? ‘I am emotional but I don’t show it. I protect myself. I’m always being watched so I cover myself. I cry easily when I see a stupid movie. I don’t know why, but I cry.’
He is very unflamboyant, not like his friend Bernie Ecclestone. Did he go to Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding, said to be one of the most lavish and over the top ever in the history of nuptials? ‘No. There was a race somewhere. But I know him well. It’s not Bernie who is ostentatious. He is the opposite, but the rest of his family. When I’m in London I go for lunch with Bernie a lot.’
Does he stay in touch with Hunt’s family? ‘I’m in touch with his brother, but that’s it.’
What quality does he think he shared with Hunt to make them both not ordinary drivers? ‘In many ways he was my opposite. We both tried to win. It’s sad that he’s not here now sitting with me. He had a rough time. He was sober and clean for four years and then had a heart attack. He died too early, too young. I wish he’d been here to see the movie. It would have been the best.’
I’m not sure if I don’t see a little watering in his eyes just now. He himself has no fear of death. He recently had a kidney transplant. Was that related to his lung damage? ‘Nobody knows. My brother gave me one of his kidneys which lasted for eight years and then I had one donated by Birgit. Unbelievable. She was a perfect match for the kidney. At first I refused to take her kidney. I found it impossible after only eight months of knowing me she wanted to donate an organ, but I felt responsible for her and she kept insisting. It was very hard to find a match. My son would have given me one but he was not a match. Lukas manages a company in Barcelona, and Mathias my other son is in Bali surfing. He raced cars until last years.’
Was he good? ‘He was medium.’
He has another son Christophe from an extra-marital relationship. ‘I have no contact with him. His mother wanted to have him on her own. That was it. He’s now 31 and I respect her wishes. I know him. We just don’t have day to day contact.’ He says this very controlled and matter of factly.
Did Birgit donating you a kidney make you more in love with her? ‘No. I was always in love with her.’
Could anything tempt you back into getting into a car and racing again now? ‘No. I’ve tried every type of car in every possible way. I retired. I came back. I nearly killed myself. I’m not interested any more. Now I behave.’
Fortunately he says this with an extra twinkle in his eye so I know he doesn’t entirely behave.



James Franco (April 14, 2013)

James Franco’s mood can shift from wary to jokey in a heartbeat. This I find particularly charming. As well as his faded grey and white check shirt, distinctive cheekbones and eyes that dart.
He has flown into Los Angeles for the day to talk about his latest movies, Harmony Karin’s Spring Breakers. It is just one of many projects. He has an incredible nine movies in development as an actor or producer. He is also a multimedia artist, a soap star, a Playboy columnist and an author. He has become an eternal student studying for his PhD at Yale while also a teacher to film students at UCLA.
He takes his literary side extremely seriously. His 2011 collection of short stories, Palo Alto, was praised by critics. Palo Alto is the town where he grew up with his maths teacher father and poet/writer mother. He asked her not to read it. It referenced his teenage years where he got into trouble for drinking, shoplifting and graffiti-ing.
He said at the time, ‘I think I was running. I didn’t know how to focus my energy because I was scared of failure.’
Perhaps that is where his tumultuous drive originates. He is still determined not to fail. He excels at performing delinquency and hurt.
His portrayal of James Dean in a 2001 biopic won him a Golden Globe. He seems to enjoy throwing himself entirely into a character.
He ended what he called his ‘young leading man in bad movies phase’ when he enrolled in UCLA in 2006. He’d always regretted dropping out of college to go to acting school, paid for by a job at McDonald’s.
It is quite mesmerising the amount and variation in his work. He was Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk and Peter Parker’s ex-best friend in Spider-Man. Weirdly he played a character called Franco in US daytime soap General Hospital. He was a charming and menacing multimedia artist. He then wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about the aesthetic legitimacy of soaps and coordinated a video installation at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles in which Franco examined the implications of Franco playing Franco.
In Spring Breakers he plays Alien, a sometime sweet, sometimes crazy gangster rapper. He is unrecognizable with multiple cornrows and a mouthful of silver teeth. His co-star in the movie, Vanessa Hudgens, told me, ‘I have no idea who James Franco is. I know who Alien is. I don’t know what James Franco is all about as a human being.’
Franco is as method as Daniel Day Lewis. For City By The Sea he played a homeless person. He hung around junkies and street people, poured beer on himself and ‘really stank’ so homeless people would recognise him as homeless.
He hung around with real-life male hookers in New Orleans and paid them by the hour to listen to their stories when he played in Sonny, about a man who was brought up into prostitution by his mother.
He obtained a real pilots licence for his role in Second World Drama flyboys. He spent eight months learning horse riding tricks – somersaulting and leaping from one hors to another in Tristan and Isolde only to find his big battle scene had been cut.
In the US Spring Breakers got an R-certificate, not the dreaded NC-17. You wonder about this because I’ve never seen so many breasts on screen since the ill-fated Showgirls.
Korine, whose credits include the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids, is an agent provocateur director. It shows the mythic dimensions of a spring break – boobs jiggling, beer swilling, cocaine sniffing. It’s all shot in anamorphic widescreen and burns and dazes with its fluorescent colours. The character Alien is as far away as Franco can get from academia and his previous career as a matinee idol.
I ask Korine was he surprised at his R rating? There was a sharp intake of breath where he says, ‘Let’s just say it’s very good. It’s actually a secret morality tale.’
Harmony Korine lives in Nashville where he paints until one of the images he creates inspires a movie. He is twelve years sober with a new wife and baby. Of his previous existence he says, ‘I was out of it. Debased. I got to the point where I just decided I’m going to try this other thing,’ he says by way of explaining a movie that’s fuelled with sex and drugs and girls in bikinis and ski masks.
Did Franco draw on any of Alien’s qualities from his own early life? ‘He came from a lot of different sources. Harmony (Korine) and I started talking about this movie a year and a half before we shot it. We talked about the character before there was even a script.
‘As an actor I look for things I can relate to, so yes I’ve been to parties and I understand that in a liberated state people just let loose. That’s one of the big reasons people go. It’s an environment where you don’t have rules, so you don’t have to take on the same persona. It’s a phenomenon that’s been going on forever. Even in the past where they had maypole fairs and carnivals.
‘I can relate to Alien in that he’s a teacher, a mentor, albeit a very dark one. He’s a mentor in the ways of the underworld. I am a teacher and I teach students the same ages as the characters in the movie but I try to teach them other things other than how to be criminals.’
It is an impactful movie. Clever. At times you feel like you are drowning in mammary flesh. It’s a non-stop party where lines of cocaine are sniffed from buttocks. Alien, with his braces on his teeth, his crazy cornrow braids is wild and abandoned.
Did he draw any of Alien’s qualities from his own early life? He talks very energetically, very enthusiastically. He doesn’t come over as a person who lives on catnaps. But how does he fit it all in, the teaching, the writing, the acting, the preparation. Does he sleep?
‘I sleep on airplanes a lot. I do sleep at night. I do a lot of things but I collaborate with a lot of people so I’m able to work on one project while another is being developed. I never do nothing. People always ask me do I relax? I guess that means sitting on a beach and reading a book or watching television. I do all of that. I don’t know what nothing is. If it means going to a bar and just getting drunk I don’t want to do that. I’m in a fortunate position where my work is the same thing as my passions. So when I’m working I’m happy and I don’t really need a break in the same way that somebody who hates his job might. I work with all my friends and people I love so work is also my social life.’
His production company is called Rabbit Bandini after the struggling would-be writer in the John Fante novels. It’s as if he sees himself as a person who is still struggling.
He once told me that he used to feel an outsider when he was growing up. ‘In high school they don’t pay attention to the arts, so if you’re interested in those things you do feel an outsider. When you surround with people who care about the things you do it’s incredibly invigorating.’ Perhaps that’s why he now likes to surround himself with like-minded people.
Recently he has co-directed a short movie called Interior. Leather Bar. where he plays the leading character called James. It has been called a cruising movie, an exploration of sexual freedom. What is fascinating is the way he juxtaposes the overly gay with the over the top heterosexual – Alien with his love of threeways and he is upcoming as Hugh Hefner, the ultimate heterosexual playboy.
Is it intention to express extremes? ‘I have a lot of different interests and there are a lot of different sides to me and sometimes different sides come out at once.’
It is as if he is constantly looking at himself in a fairground mirror, each time finding a new side, a new route to becoming a potentially great artist, and certainly a prolific one.