Gossip Week: Sam Brooks meets legendary New Zealand gossip writer David Hartnell MNZM to talk celebrity friends, men in makeup, and the importance of reinvention.
All week, The Spinoff is taking a look at the role of gossip in Aotearoa’s past, present and future – read more Gossip Week content here.
“The two worst things you can do to a celebrity are spell their name wrong or not talk about them at all.”
That’s one of the many pearls of wisdom that David Hartnell MNZM drops before me when I visit him in his Grey Lynn home. He also charmingly but firmly insists on those four letters being put after his name whenever mentioned. Fine by me – he’s earned that honour as much as he has his pearls, with 45 years under his belt as New Zealand’s longest-serving gossip columnist.
The pride he takes in his title is reflected in his home, which he shares with his partner of 28 years. Full of clearly beloved curios like small Queen Elizabeth figurines (constantly nodding), couches with more cushions than any furniture store, and a brightly coloured plastic chandelier, it feels very much the home of somebody who has loved his life, and is deeply proud of what he’s accomplished. Hartnell’s dog, a small wig of a Pekinese called Liza, cheerfully barks upon my arrival and then sits quiet and docile.
Hartnell is kindly, witty and classy as we settle into the interview. This isn’t the first time he’s discussed his career – I doubt it’s even the 50th – and it definitely won’t be the last. Despite this, he remains engaged with me and my questions, asking if I enjoy my job, and reminding me that as a journalist, I am a professional gossip. He is, in short, a well-seasoned pro, as you might expect from someone who has been in the media for the better part of half a century.
After writing for the Guardian in 1976, Hartnell’s first gossip column appeared in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, a publication he still writes a trivia quiz for along with a regular slot in the Ponsonby News. He’s interviewed hundreds of celebrities and still maintains a robust black book. This is not just our first full-time gossip columnist, but also our longest serving one, complete with his own winking catchphrase: “I’m not one to gossip.”
Simply put, the man knows gossip better than anybody else in this country. “My gossip has always been tongue-in-cheek, it’s never been nasty,” he says. “Gossip has changed over the years because of emails, because of social media. Everybody thinks they’re a gossip column and they can put out whatever they want, which is terrible.”
When it comes to his own work, he has a few hard and fast rules. First, the obvious ones. He doesn’t dig for dirt, he doesn’t get into politics, he doesn’t out people. He follows the off-the-record rules, and he doesn’t write about who sleeps with who. Then there are the smaller ones: when he brings out his best and worst dressed list, he only looks at celebrities who are out at events, not someone just going to the rugby or getting their shopping.
The golden rule, though? “If I put somebody in my column, and I have to explain who they are, they shouldn’t be in a gossip column. It’s like an MC saying, ‘my guest needs no introduction’, and then they spend 15 minutes introducing them. The name should be enough.”
One thing he admires in the people he’s written about, or at least his favourite people he’s written about, is their ability to reinvent themselves. He namechecks Joan Collins (a friend of his), Madonna (Madonna) and Cher (probably somewhere in the middle) as people who have all done it right. What might be surprising is that Hartnell has done more than a little reinvention of his own.
David Hartnell lived a few lives before he became a gossip columnist. Born in Auckland’s Sandringham suburb as David Segetin – he changed to Hartnell as a homage to fashion designer Norman Hartnell – he had a keen interest as a young man in magic and rollerskating. After leaving high school, he became a champion roller skater, scoring runner up in the dance pairs at the World Roller Skating Championships in Christchurch.
He later became Australia’s first in-store male makeup artist, working for Revlon in the 1960s. It was a role that would later take him around the world, from Hong Kong to New York to London; he even had a piece about him in the UK’s News of the World about how he was the only man allowed in the dressing rooms of the Miss World contest. This is where his love for, and his dedication to, gossip began. “It’s where you hear all the gossip – in the makeup room.”
Sometimes, it was what happened before stars even arrived at the make-up room that would raise eyebrows. “You have to send the car to pick up the celebrity,” Hartnell explains. “If they’re not home, you know they spent the night somewhere else, with someone else. So you find the gossip there. When I went to lecture on makeup, they asked me what Elizabeth Taylor was like to work with, and I would talk about it.”
After years of giving his good celebrity gossip away “for free”, he decided to start writing it down. “If I had listened to people 35 years ago who said, ‘you can never make a living writing gossip’, I don’t know what I’d be doing now. So I just got onto it.”
Getting “onto it” is underselling what happened next. Hartnell has written 10 books, fronted multiple TV shows, and is the patron and ambassador for many charities and causes, including the Variety Artists Club, the Brotherhood of Auckland Magicians and the St James Saviours. His latest accolade? A star on the New Zealand Walk of Fame in Orewa, alongside local luminaries like Hello Sailor and Sir Howard Morrison.
The only thing that Hartnell might have more of than achievements are contacts. He mentions the names of several people he considers personal friends which, from anyone else’s lips, would clatter to the floor with an echo. He’s proud of his friends – not because they’re famous, but because he seems to genuinely respect their achievements. Phyllis Diller, comedy’s first major female stand-up, and Edith Head, the costume designer famously spoofed in The Incredibles, were among his closest celebrity friends, he says.
While most of his references are from an age that predates every celebrity having access to a million people at the swipe of a screen, Hartnell is still up to date. He has opinions on the Kardashians (“trailer trash”), Meghan Markle (“come on”) and the only star he thinks is going to last, Lady Gaga (“she’s come a long way since being on Graham Norton with telephones on her head”). Not a single New Zealand celebrity is referenced during our interview. Why would you bring up a Real Housewife of Auckland when you can bring up your close friends Joan and Jackie Collins?
While happy to drop names – although from him they feel laid out gently, rather than dropped – Hartnell honours the trust that his famous friends have placed in him. “A lot of these people you meet once, you interview them, and you never see them again.” Only a handful ever come back into your life, he says, and that is not something he takes lightly. “These people would confide in me. We would just talk, and they’d say, ‘well, we can’t say anything about it’, and I would always stick to that. Their friendship was far more valuable to me than doing a little headline and losing a friendship of 40 years.”
His best dressed list remains an annual must-read. Last year, when voting The AM Show’s Duncan Garner the “Supreme Best Dressed Man of 2020”, he gleefully complimented the presenter’s “happy go lucky wardrobe” and his ability to “come off sleek rather than slick”.
That’s another thing that sets him apart from other gossip columnists: Hartnell bears no ill will towards his subjects. “I have seen Kiwi gossip columns come in guns blazing. Most of them fall on their sword and are never heard of again. They do not understand the art of writing gossip.
“My gossip is never nasty. It is always entertaining. That’s why I’m still here.”
What does Hartnell think about the world of celebrity today? “It’s a whole new ballgame,” he says, with the resigned air of a zookeeper who has had to watch meerkats be dumbasses for decades. “It’s more accessible. With social media, everybody wants to be a star, and have their say. The glamour has gone. They don’t have any of the glamour side.”
You can’t say he’s wrong. The definition of glamour involves some sort of bewitchment and enchantment; some necessary distance. There’s a reason why glamour was so easy to produce in the golden age, or at the height of the glossy magazine era: the stars were as distant as the ones in the sky. Now, relatability and accessibility trump glamour.
Hartnell has advice for today’s stable of celebs, which might seem quaint in this age where influencers write their own press releases in the Notes App, or craft meticulous apologies to be delivered via a Twitter thread. Unsurprisingly, though, his wisdom is still salient: “Always thank the press. If there’s an area you don’t want to get into then you say, ‘look I don’t want to discuss that, but I’m happy to discuss other things with you’.” (He later notes that nine times out of 10, the celebrity will bring that thing up anyway.)
Towards the end of our conversation, Hartnell returns to the importance of reinvention. “Longevity is about getting back to reinventing yourself all the time. It’s like everything, even a packet of biscuits has a sell-by date. Everybody in the entertainment business has that as well. They think, ‘shit I’ve got to do something!’, so they reinvent. People will admire that sort of thing.”
After our interview, Hartnell follows me out of his front door. He’s going to tell his neighbours they can start working on their house again; he hadn’t wanted any noise to ruin our chat. That’s just the kind of thing you do when you’re a seasoned pro. Clearly, that last bit of advice about reinvention is one that he needn’t follow himself anymore. You only have to look around his house to see the lives he’s lived – the skating, the magic, the makeup. But for Hartnell, MNZM, he settled on what worked for him 45 years ago. And he got it right.