Simply the Gest: He was friends with Michael Jackson and married one of America’s biggest stars, so how come David Gest has ended up living in York? Chris Berry finds out.
When David Gest was first beamed into our living rooms with his tall stories and quirky, deadpan American delivery he made such an impression that television executives were crawling over each other to offer him his own shows.
Having found such love on this side of the pond and having undergone a massive media battering over in the US ever since his catastrophic marriage and divorce from musical legend Liza Minnelli, he now lives not just over here, but in York.
“It’s my home and the most beautiful place in the world. You look at the Minster, the cobblestone streets, the history with the Vikings and the River Ouse running through. It also has the York Hog Roast. People come by and see me eating there and I tell them I’m having my turkey and my Yorkshire pudding, my stuffing, my crackling, my vegetables and my gravy and I’m loving every minute of it.”
When he appeared on I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here most viewers had never heard of Gest. The few that did, knew him only as the clean cut, executive suit who had appeared beside Minnelli on numerous US TV chat shows. At that time he often looked stiff and awkward, but now he is effortlessly riding the wave of celebrity status.
“I don’t look at celebrity the way others look at it. I’m down to earth. People come up to me in the streets in York and I talk with everybody. I don’t believe there’s really a difference between any of us. We all pull down our pants to go to the bathroom.”
David has been in the music business since he was a teenager and grew up with both Tito and Michael Jackson amongst his best friends in Encino, an affluent neighbourhood in the San Fernando region of Los Angeles.
“I was about 14 when I became friends with Michael. I’d be at his place or he’d come to mine. At 16 I was going out with Latoya Jackson, it was just puppy love and nothing serious. She got sick one night and Michael asked if I would drive him to a memorabilia show in Pasadena. We ended up going out regularly to antique and record stores and became best friends.
“I was always the one with the bigger ego and full of myself. When we went to a gas station I hated pumping gas, spilling it and getting it on my feet so I made Michael do it. He’d smile and say, ‘I have the biggest album in the world and I’m pumping gas’.”
For the most part he was happy to remain in the background and carved out a lucrative career in TV production. It was Gest who was behind the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Special for CBS and who produced many American Cinema Awards shows honouring glitterati such as Bette Davis, Clint Eastwood, Robert Mitchum, Tom Cruise, Donald O’Connor, James Stewart, Lauren Bacall and Gene Kelly. Yet the glamorous life he came to live could never quite ease the painful memories of his own childhood.
“I cried when Michael died and also when Whitney [Houston] died. I’m not name-dropping because they both meant so much to me but I still have a hard time crying. Dad beat me for spending my allowance on candy. You don’t beat a kid for buying a dollar’s worth of candy. I don’t cry because I never cried when I was being beaten, no matter how painful it was and no matter how many times that strap would break my skin. I would never give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. So I don’t cry, I frustrate. I never became close to him. In later life when I became successful he was very proud and enjoyed my success but I could never really look him in the eye.”
One of the major reasons why Gest has been able to capitalise on his on-screen success is probably due to a combination of his background, his ability to spot a market opportunity and his uncanny knack of what many refer to as ‘blagging’. It all started when he began a business making love beads and flogging records in the Summer of Love.
“I used to go to a recording studio called TT&G on the corner of Sunset & Highland with my girlfriend Ellen Mandell. We ended up going to all the record companies and say we were reviewing for the school paper, which I don’t think we were. They gave us promotional copies and we sold them at 35 cents each. Because we were cute little kids they’d give us a ton of things. There was this one guy who asked whether we wanted to come and listen to his session. This guy was Jim Morrison and I sat and watched Love Me Two Times being recorded. You didn’t think about him being an icon back then, he was just a recording artist.”
His career proper began when he started writing interviews and music reviews for various newspapers and, aged just 17, he was hired by London Records.
“I said I was 21 and I looked that age because by then I had a beard, moustache and an afro down to my tush. They hired me as West Coast publicity director and the next year I became national public relations director in New York. I was handling the careers of people like Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdinck, ZZ Top and Al Green.
“About a year later Al Green said he didn’t have a manager and needed someone to look after him so I opened my own PR and management firm and as well as managing Al I took on the Doobie Brothers and Burt Bacharach.”
Since his spell in the jungle, he’s found another opportunity to combine business with his love of soul music. He’s recently embarked on his sixth year of presenting and producing his Legends of Soul Tour with some of the biggest names from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
“We’ve got the original lead singer of The Temptations, Dennis Edwards. He’s the singer who sang Papa Was a Rolling Stone, Ball of Confusion and Psychedelic Shack. We’ve also got Eddie Holman who sang Hey There Lonely Girl; Eddie Floyd Knock on Wood; Sheila Ferguson the voice of the Three Degrees; Gwen Dickey the voice of Rose Royce; and Jody Watley the female vocalist with Shalamar.
“These are all the people who sang the original hits on the records we all bought. I understand people have to make a living and who are not the original singers but when I present something I want it to be the real thing. I’m so excited about this show as we also have the beautiful and wonderful Candi Staton.”
I was in the audience three years ago when what could best be described as a circus of oddball acts took to the stage in Sheffield City Hall with David, in between soul heroes including The Stylistics led by original frontman Russell Thompkins Jr; Freda Payne and Billy Paul. Personally the circus acts spoilt my night and I felt it was unnecessary, only adding greater credence to those who feel that the new UK version of David Gest is at best described as bizarre. Perhaps lessons have been learned or maybe he’s just giving them a break.
“None of them are on this tour. It’s just me. I just tell stories.’
Yet Gest and the bizarre are never far apart – this year it looks like he will officiate at the third wedding of Kerry Katona.
“I am marrying her in August or September. I have a licence to marry people from the US and recently married my friend who runs Gilgamesh, a very trendsetting restaurant in Camden.
“I’m a Methodist and I do go to church but not every week. I took Kerry to a church in Memphis. When I preach I get very into it. It’s like PRAISE GOD! I speak about life, obstacles and how you can overcome anything if you have determination. I’m looking forward to her wedding very much.”
Beneath that veneer of the bizarre you get the feeling that David Gest is just a man of quirky humour who loves life… and York. He has found somewhere where he is accepted and has been allowed to play to his heart’s content. He might not cry but he’s certainly smiling.
David Gest’s Legends of Soul, Hull City Hall, February 20. 01482 300300; York Barbican, February 21. 0844 854 2757, www.yorkbarbican.co.uk