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.”