Turning the tables: interview with the Demon Barber
Lynn Barber was the UK’s first celebrity interviewer, and is renowned and feared for her scathing honesty. But how will she fare when her own interviewing tips are used against her and she is asked about sex, drugs, fame and death threats?
Lynn Barber: ‘If I know somebody as a real person, I don’t then feel I can write about them because I know things about them that I shouldn’t know.’ Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Lynn Barber is not happy to see me. Proper order. This is, after all, the woman they call “Demon Barber” and a woman who wrote of me – accurately – in the Observer in 2001 (when she interviewed my partner, Shane MacGowan, and me) that I would “climb over my grandmother to get to a celebrity”.
So far, I am the only one of Barber’s interviewees to have been given the chance to do a Barber on her. She should be petrified. Barber was the UK’s first – and is arguably still the most famous – celebrity interviewer. She has won the British Press Award for interviewer of the year six times. Most interviewees are terrified of her. The Observer used to advertise her on billboards that read: “Doner kebabs. Tequila slammers. Being interviewed by Lynn Barber. You know you’ll pay.”
Over her 50-year career (she currently writes for the Sunday Times), Barber has interviewed everyone from Salvador Dalí to Lady Gaga, from James Stewart to Pete Doherty and from Robert Redford to Rudolf Nureyev. The list of people of importance she hasn’t interviewed is short and getting shorter.
Celebrity interviews are often cringeworthy, arse-licking and predictable. Not Barber’s. If a celebrity has a vain, arrogant, rude or aggressive side, she will discover it and dissect it for the pleasure of her readers. This is why she is adored.
As well as several books about sex, one about natural history and two collections of interviews, Barber has written two memoirs. The first, An Education, became a film starring Carey Mulligan as the schoolgirl Lynn who is seduced by a flashy, older man in a sports car who turns out to have a wife and kids a few streets away.
Her new book, A Curious Career, is about her experiences as an interviewer, and it includes top tips for doing the job. She advises undertaking thorough research, ideally reading everything the interviewees have written and everything that has been written about them. With this in mind, I have ordered her sex books online, and although I haven’t read everything she has written yet, I am relatively confident on that score.
Another tip is to be punctual. “There are a million ways of screwing up. Arriving late is the most obvious one,” she warns. I am three-quarters of an hour early, so I have been hovering around her house for a bit, hoping she isn’t looking out the window. It is a classy Victorian house in an increasingly expensive part of London, near Highgate. I have brought her some Prosecco from the local off-licence and some sweets.
She advises interviewers to prepare a long list of open-ended questions. I have never in my 20-year career prepared such a list. This might be why she has won awards and I have not.
At the appointed moment, I ring the doorbell. She opens the door and immediately backs away, indicating that I should do the same. She is ill with a very bad cold, she says, and would have cancelled the interview had I not come from Ireland to do it. She coughs a long, painful cough.
“I am so sorry, I think I am going to have to go to bed soon, so ask me what you want to ask me as quickly as possible,” she croaks. She looks on the verge of collapse. I say I could come back in the morning. “I won’t be any better in the morning,” she says. “You might as well do it now. Just get it over with.”
A difficult start
Inside, flustered, I fiddle with my tape machine and decide against bringing out my long list of questions, instead complimenting her on her house. The room we sit in is light, spacious and tasteful, painted a perfect shade of sunshine yellow. The art is good – modern but not flashy – and the interconnecting reception rooms with period fireplaces stretch away to French doors and a flower-filled garden at the back. The place is spotless (I check the cleanliness of the kitchen and downstairs loo, as she advises). She tells me she has never done any cleaning in her life: she has always had a cleaner no matter how poor she was.
In her book, she writes that her mother never cooked. “We lived on tinned food and Bird’s Eye roast-beef dinners for one.” Lynn never cooked either. “Until my husband [David Cardiff] died [in 2003] I couldn’t boil an egg,” she says.
There is no medicine cabinet to inspect in the downstairs loo (a good celebrity interviewer will sometimes check the dustbins too). I dare not sneak upstairs, but I see a press award and a framed, handwritten letter from Lucien Freud, in which he tells her he sees no reason why he would ever want to be interviewed by her.
She offers me a drink. I choose water and she pours red wine for herself. She lights up when I proffer the Prosecco. “Oh how lovely,” she says. “Shall we have some now?” Her voice is suddenly girlish, excitable, as if I am proposing a midnight feast at Malory Towers.
“Do you smoke?” she asks. Having done my research, I know she prefers people who smoke, so I tell her to fire ahead. Her relief is obvious.
“Who if anyone has tried to kill you?” I begin with my first open-ended question.
“Bob Guccione, who was my boss at Penthouse and who I loved dearly, did threaten to,” she says. “Years later, I went to interview him and he didn’t like the piece, I think because I was nasty about his girlfriend.”
Did she take the threat seriously?
“It came second-hand from the art director, who said, ‘Bob says that if you ever set foot in New York again, he will kill you.’ But I never took it seriously.”
There was another one. “I interviewed somebody, and I got a phone call after my piece came out saying that he needed to talk to me about it. There was something vaguely threatening about it, so I did report it to the Sunday Express security guys. If someone was seriously threatening to kill me, it would bother me, because I am a coward.”
I follow another of her tips and give her a chance to plug her book. She runs with it. “What made me want to write the book? Good question. When An Education came out and was surprisingly successful, loads of publishers were asking if I wanted to do a follow-up, but I had covered my whole life up to David’s death, so I wasn’t sure how I could do it. So Alexandra Pringle [editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury] said, ‘Why not do a book about interviewing?’
“I said, ‘Yes, I can do that.’ But writing a book is hard, and I was almost going to give up, but I thought: I am coming up to my 70th birthday, and it is sort of embarrassing to throw a 70th birthday party for yourself, so if I deliver the book, the publishers will throw a party.”
We discuss how she was in the right place at the right time to become a success at interviewing celebrities. “Nowadays I meet people in their 20s who want to be interviewers, but when I was in my 20s there wasn’t that career option. The desire for interviews in newspapers only got going in the 1980s. There certainly weren’t those celebrity magazines that there are now.
“But actually there is no money in it now,” she adds. “I used to say to students that they should go for it, but now I am not so sure. Especially celebrities. You wouldn’t get access to a star now if you were unknown.”
Barber is so well-known that being interviewed by her is a coup. In her book, she is adamant that the lines between friendship and work should not be blurred. She has interviewed several of her friends including the artist Tracey Emin. “There are ethical questions about what is on the record and what is not. I take that very seriously. If I know somebody as a real person, I don’t then feel I can write about them because I know things about them that I shouldn’t know.”
What is her agenda when she embarks on an interview, I wonder. “I want to find out as much as possible and try to read their character, and I want it to be as interesting as possible, a good read. Usually there is an area that you know you will have to ask about – like with Jimmy Savile, I had to ask him if it was true that he liked little girls.”
And she did, long before it became public knowledge.
“And you think, ‘How will I place that question?’ while slightly dreading it. I don’t want them to dislike me, but I don’t want to pretend that we are friends.”
There is a Tracey Emin interview in the book. It takes place in 2001, and in it Barber writes: “This interview is precious to me because it marks the birth of a lasting friendship.” To befriend the Demon Barber must be some kind of accolade. Why Emin?
“I found her very, very honest.”
“But she did say that is calculated, that honesty,” I counter. (“It’s all edited: I decide to show this or that part of the truth,” Emin says in the interview.)
“Yes, that is true. But you could ask her absolutely anything. Also I really loved her tent, and I thought, you can’t be stupid and produce art like that. I am still jaw-dropped by Tracey’s intelligence. She is not such a good judge of people as I am, but a very good strategic thinker.”
Are you a strategic thinker?
“No. Tracey should run my career, and I should advise her who to trust.”
Trust is an issue I want to raise. Did her affair with the married con man, as she calls him, hinder her ability to trust people, men in particular? For instance, how did she manage to trust her husband, David, after being so horribly deceived?
“As a teenager I got the flashy, sophisticated older man who took me to Paris, which is what teenage girls want, but it was such a fiasco. At Oxford there were all these boys talking about their dogs, very naive, really nice boys. And David had that niceness, but he was gorgeous-looking. Look at the picture up there.”
We examine some photos of David on the mantelpiece and I agree that he was gorgeous. But good looks don’t mean they are trustworthy, I say.
“David was very trustworthy, very good. He never told a lie in his life.”
The encounter with the married man had a lasting impact on her other relationships. “It was good for me as an interviewer, because I am very suspicious of people, but it damaged me as a human being. I always start from a position of distrust with new people.”
Turning down Salvador Dalí
David trusted her, even though she was constantly being invited to join in orgies when she worked at Penthouse.
“Salvador Dalí’s secretary suggested I join them for a threesome. If you worked for Penthouse, everyone expected that you were up for threesomes, but I wasn’t, so I always gave my standard answer, which was: ‘Wrong time of the month.’ I was very faithful, even though some of them were dishy.”
Before she met David, she had a period of “really intense promiscuity. I really slept with anything that moved,” she giggles.
So you got it out of your system?
“Yes. I hadn’t at that point had an orgasm, you see. So I slept with a lot of people, and then I met David and decided he was the man I wanted to stay with all my life.”
How did she research her book about how to improve your man in bed? “I was churning out sex articles the whole time. There had been some research done by Masters and Johnson about female sexuality, which was written in medical jargon. So I used that as background and then also asked loads of my friends. I would say it hasn’t really stood the test of time, though.”
Was her sex life influenced by her work interviewing people with fetishes? “A lot of them, even though I interviewed them sympathetically, I was privately thinking: are you mad?” She chortles. “Do you remember Fergie [in 1992 the Duchess of York was secretly photographed while topless and getting her toes sucked by an American financial manager]? I thought: no, people don’t really do that, do they?
Did she try it? “David and I experimented a bit, but we didn’t even think of toe-sucking. I wasn’t a prude but I was terribly straight.”
Seven years of interviewing people with sexual fetishes was excellent training for celebrities, she says. “It taught me to draw people out, and not to look shocked or disapproving. Quite a few of them were shocking, but the ones I dreaded were transvestites, because they just banged on about their clothes and their ironing. Their vision of womanhood was so dull: they wanted to be ordinary housewives.”
What do you think of actors? “The thing with actors is, after they talk to you, they go away and fret all night about whether it will harm their career.”
Don’t pop stars do that too? “I suppose I just really admire pop stars in a sweet, naive way. Just for getting up on stage and singing, being that brave. Whereas if you are an actor, you are just delivering lines. It’s nothing.”
She asks me how Shane is doing. In the chapter in her book about pop stars, she reproduces her 2001 interview with him during which the pair of them spent two days drinking in Dublin. He claims to have had to carry her back to her hotel.
“Is he as drunk as he seems?” she asks. She suspects not.
“Rupert Everett told me to take a drug, a really heavy tranquiliser,” she continues. “I had mentioned my fear of flying. I went to my GP and said, ‘Can I have some of this?’ And he was really shocked. I said it was for fear of flying. He wrote me a prescription for one valium. He obviously thought I shouldn’t embark on a late-life career as a prescription drug addict.”
“Why not take drugs? When I was at Oxford, we all smoked pot and I quite liked it, but I was never keen enough to actually buy it. Acid was just beginning in those days, but there was this big palaver about it. People would say, ‘Oh, are you taking a trip? We will do it on Thursday afternoon. We will go to the park. I will come with you as your guide.’ It was a performance. So I would make a date once or twice to do this, and then have something else to do. I think cocaine would have been the drug for me. By the time that was around I had small children, so I wasn’t going to take cocaine. But I don’t have a moral stance on it, because I drink and I smoke, so I can’t disapprove of people doing drugs.”
Barber writes in her book that she doesn’t enjoy the part of the interview where you get to speak to the person. Why not? “It is so connected with nerves and this clock in my mind that’s thinking: we have been together half an hour and there is not one usable quote. I have to hold back, be a bit chatty, be a bit pleasant and then get stuck in, but then I think, Christ, half the time is up. So I am in a frenzy of nerves.
“Occasionally I think I really liked meeting [someone] and I slightly wish we could chat for longer. But I can’t deliver that degree of interest once I have finished the interview. Sometimes people say, ‘Why don’t you just come over and hang out?’ I can’t think of anything worse. I don’t want to hang out with anyone.”
She tells me she has to go back to bed. “I hope you got some usable quotes,” she says. I tell her I am sure that I did.
A Curious Career is published by Bloomsbury
STRAIGHT-TALKING: BARBER ON . . .
. . . Robert Redford
“Oh, he was awful. He was really boring and very unpleasant. I had a really bad coughing fit, and he had a bottle of water and he just looked at me with such disgust, and didn’t offer me any water. No human contact whatsoever.”
. . . not being impressed by fame
“ I don’t think, oh, I am going to meet so and so. Sometimes you can see them thinking: this is the moment where she is supposed to go, ‘Wow, I am interviewing X.’ And I never do. Apart from Jarvis Cocker. I admire everything about him.”
. . . fantasy interviewees
“Top of the list is Rupert Murdoch, but now I work for him I can’t. So I think he is going to go uninterviewed by me. And I have always said I wanted to do Mick Jagger. ”
. . . actors
“I don’t like interviewing actors. Their stance is always, ‘So Lynn, what do you want me to say?’ They are asking you to give them lines and they always say they want to talk about ‘the work’, and when they talk about ‘the work’ I just want to fall off my chair with boredom, so I am not very good at interviewing actors.”