Laura Davis meet American star David Gest as he prepares for his first stage role, at Liverpool’s Royal Court
IT’S hard to get David Gest to stick to the subject. His mind whirls from one vaguely connected topic to another, like a human game of consequences.
Perhaps it’s because of the post-rehearsal buzz he’s riding – we are sitting in the rented dance studios where he has spent the afternoon running his lines – but I suspect this is actually authentic Gest, a man whose roving brain flits from memories of childhood bullies to the loss of dear friends to roast dinners, his conversation embroidered with bursts of song.
In the next 40 minutes, he will serenade me with My Way (the number that made Smokey Robinson realise Gest’s vocal range, he explains), unfavourably compare his choice of career with the work of Boris Pasternak and cancer specialists, and reveal how his wealthy parents provided him with only four sets of clothes (“most kids who were poor got more than that”).
During his impromptu performance of My Way, and later Born Free (a song he is performing as Frankenstein’s monster in the Royal Court’s Christmas show A Nightmare on Lime Street), he strides across the wooden floor, arms spread operatically. He stares into the mirrors lining the room, but I bet it’s not his own reflection he sees but an imaginary audience.
“When they hear me, I think people will be a little startled. You’re a little startled,” he finishes.
It’s true – I am, and not just because his voice is surprisingly good, but because I have never felt more British, sitting on a plastic chair in a bare room with my notepad and pen, while an exuberant American belts out showstoppers.
“I also sing Ferry Across the Mersey in the play and as a kid I used to sing that with Michael Jackson as we’d be driving,” reveals Gest.
“To do it in Liverpool. . .”
It is hard to get a grip on Gest’s childhood, not least because his autobiography mixes the truth with passages of fantasy (which he identifies by italic type). Born in Los Angeles, he grew up Southern California where he counted both Michael and Tito Jackson as close friends and their mother, Katherine Jackson, as a surrogate mom.
He also counts Hollywood starlet Jane Russell as a mother-figure. She died last year, which with Whitney Houston’s death in February and Jackson’s in 2009, means Gest has suffered a great deal of loss in recent years.
“It’s been tough but I know Michael and Whitney are smiling, watching me do all this,” he says.
“I know they’re laughing up there in Heaven going ‘well, now you’ll see what it’s like to go on stage’.”
Gest knew from an early age that he wanted to be a producer, he says, and started working at the age of 12 – as a market stockboy – because his 50 cents allowance wouldn’t even cover a cinema ticket. Eventually he got a job at London Records.
From his descriptions, his youth was peppered with fistfights against strapping adversaries who he prevented from beating up smaller kids.
“I’d break their noses but they’d win the fight – they’d break my arms and my wrist – but they’d never fight me again,” he says.
“I used to always want to pick on someone who was big to show them ‘I’m not afraid to fight you’.”
Gest is afraid of little, he suggests, but when I ask him if anything does scare him, given his role as the “Nightmare on Lime Street”, he laughs: “Ask me that after the opening night.”
He is disarmingly honest when discussing his nerves about the show, which he agreed to almost on a whim when Royal Court chief executive Kevin Fearon offered it to him in front of a queue of autograph hunters outside the theatre.
“It sounds all good until you start rehearsing and you go ‘oh my god, what did you get into?’,” he admits.
“It’s a big committment because you’ve got so many lines to learn and then all of a sudden I’m with a choreographer learning steps. It takes an hour and 20 minutes to put the prosthetics and the make-up on and about an hour to take it all off afterwards. I never realised!
“I think I’m a little shocked at all of it.”
Nightmare on Lime Street is the Royal Court’s fourth consecutive Christmas play from the pen of Liverpool writer Fred Lawless, with a cast that includes soap and stage musicals star Michael Starke and Holby City’s Mark Moraghan: “They love to hear the funny stories about Hollywood and me producing Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and Jimmy Stewart. I love hearing about Brookside.”
Until his appearance on I’m a Celebrity. . . Get Me Out of Here in 2006, Gest was best known, at least in this country, as Liza Minelli’s ex-husband. Their marriage was a period when he “used to wear those stupid dark glasses because I was so nervous, I looked like I was with the mafia” and when they would eat at Toby carveries on trips to England “because we loved turkey and stuffing and the fact you can get as much as you want”.
With a farm in York, on which he keeps a 6ft python and a bearded dragon, Gest was made for jungle life, he says: “I could have stayed there forever. I love camping out, I’ve always loved insects.”
He finished fourth but left the show with a new fanbase and the offer of three prime time TV shows, taking him from behind the scenes producing into the limelight.
“I don’t need Beverly Hills or have to be in London at a £500 dinner to prove who I am,” he says of swapping his glitzy showbiz lifestyle for a flat in Sefton Park, where he strolls for a mile each day, greeting friendly passersby in “my bad Dick Van Dyke English accent that’s never going to change”.
With his voice to look after, there’ll be no partying – “Oh can’t. Not at 59-years-old” – and he is also very worried about the potential effects of a British winter on his vocal cords.
After the seven-week run at the Royal Court closes, he’ll be back to the theatre in February for five performances of his star-packed Soul Spectacular, and there’s the screening of his new TV series with Kerry Katona – Certifiably Nuts! – to look forward to: “It’s very funny. It’s like I Love Lucy and you’ll see her in a whole different light.”
Plus there’s his ongoing fundraising work – Gest has raised millions of dollars for charitable causes, including several in Merseyside: “I look at what they’re doing and what they’re helping. If someone with cancer wanted to meet me and was dying I would certainly go and see the person if I could.”
And after that?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 10 years I would do charitable work in Africa or a Third World country,” he muses.
“I might write novels. I thought about it the other night. My plate is pretty full for someone who’s 18. Did you write that down? Not 59. . . 18.”
A NIGHTMARE on Lime Street is at the Royal Court from November 23 to January 12, 2013. David Gest’s Soul Spectacular is at the same venue, February 6-9, 2013.