Rejoinders of the Rich and Famous

Robin Leach on the art of the interview


in Conversations

For many decades, Robin Leach has been a world-renowned entertainment journalist, producer, writer, and television star. Best know for his longtime show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Leach is that rare person who can do red carpet interviews and walk the red carpet himself as a celebrity with equal comfort. At the forefront of changing media, Leach currently is developing the digital entertainment content for Las Vegas Review-Journal. Questions for this interview were composed by students in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College course “The Art of the Interview,” taught by the Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz. This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

TSS: How did you discover you enjoyed interviewing celebrities?

RL: The very first day I went into the newspaper business, I had the good fortune to interview a gentleman — Leslie Bricusse, a songwriter — and he was in the middle of writing a Western show for Anthony Newly called Stop the World — I Want to Get Off. After the story appeared in my first local newspaper, Leslie was gentleman enough to call up afterwards and say: “Would you like to come in and see the show at its premiere?” I jumped at the opportunity. And at the end of the show in England the audience really does not applaud for the star of the show so much as they applaud for the author of the show. And so my friend Leslie got all of the standing ovations and applause, and then, after that had died down and the house started emptying out, I was invited to tag along with him and Anthony Newly’s wife at the time, Joan Collins, and a number of other people from show business to go backstage to congratulate Tony Newly. Instead, Tony was banging his head against the brick wall of his dressing room, making it bleed, and apologizing to Leslie that he had failed to give it his best on the crucial night. And I said to myself, “he’s beating himself up because he didn’t do well and he just heard all of the applause and bravos with everybody proclaiming the production of Stop the World. This is an interesting person — maybe they’re all like this.” And it was out of that interest in digging into the psyche of stars and finding out why they’re so frail that I decided to pursue that side of journalism.

TSS: Do you read most of the articles about you? Has being someone who has been reported on molded the way you report on others?

RL: I’ve never really believed my own press. I don’t think the way that I’ve reported on people has influenced anybody, whether they’re writing about me or they’re writing about anybody. I absolutely don’t let it influence me. I write how I feel, I write how I speak, I write how I think. I would never pay attention to anybody’s observations, criticism, or praise of me in the way that I write.

TSS: What was the most memorable interview you’ve ever conducted?

RL: There are so many memorable interviews! Over 50 years of interviewing celebrities. A very fancy financer in Britain used me as his confession before he committed suicide. I left his home with the exclusive. I said to myself as I was bike riding away from the house, “I don’t think that man is going to make it through the night,” and, sure enough, before midnight he’d committed suicide. So that memory always sticks in my mind.

We interviewed the then richest man in the world for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, who was named Adnan Khashoggi. We devoted a one-hour special to him because we had never seen such wealth. And that was memorable because I had never seen a man trade with so much money in my life — he bought a telephone company, sight unseen, in Toronto. He flew into Toronto, looked at the financials, and laid out multi-millions of dollars to buy a telephone company. And then got back on his plane and went back to New York. It was extraordinary because I thought when you bought things — including telephone companies — you at least went and kicked the tires of the office building where maybe the equipment was housed. But he was so rich he didn’t bother with that.

Memorable in show business would be when we had [Sophia] Loren [on Lifestyles] and we did a tour of her home in Italy, and she probably showed me the bedroom pointing out the very bed where her sons were conceived. It was something I had not asked, so I’ve always remembered that. And I chuckled out loud about it and Sophia was very confused because I wasn’t laughing at her response, I was just laughing at the circumstances. And then she said get down on your knees and give me 20 pushups. And when you’re in the presence of someone like Sophia you do what you’re told, so I did it. I’ll never forget it.

TSS: What is the most outrageous response you’ve ever received on air? How do you handle a wildcard answer?

RL: The only way to deal with wildcard answers is to deal with [them] from the soul. A completely natural response — unrehearsed, unplanned, spontaneous — gets you through anything. I could’ve resisted or struck back at Sophia. saying, “I’m not giving you 20 pushups on the floor” ‘cause I’m an old man, and I can’t do 20 pushups. But I went ahead and did it.

I remember when we were in the halls of another wealthy man on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and they wanted me to play table tennis with him; my Ping-Pong skills years ago used to be quite good. This rich man had never lost a game of Ping-Pong until he played with me. And when I was leading 17 to 11, the ball fell off the table and I bent down to pick it up, and a shoe came into my sight, and a voice leaned over and said “He’s never lost. Don’t let him lose today.” And I said, “screw you, I’m going to win.” I need to win more than ever, and I did. And afterwards the guy came over and said, “You know you must be a really good table tennis player because I’ve never ever lost before.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him he had never lost because his staff told everyone he had to win.

TSS: How would you angle an interview with Donald Trump now that he’s in politics? Have you ever interviewed politicians?

RL: I stay away from politicians but I interviewed Donald Trump many times when he was just a real estate developer. You know, men that are building have, like, a red-Ferrari complex. The building has to be bigger and better and more luxurious than any other building. And I think that pretty much sums up Donald Trump. If I were to interview him now, I’d be asking about what other buildings he plans to erect in the United States — other than the wall — if he gets into office. I’d be far more interested in the Department of Housing [and Urban Development] under his control, more than any other department, because I do not think the man can resist building things. Be they roads, be they new buildings, be they new post offices, building a new military, it will always be about building, because that’s what he does best.

TSS: While filming Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, were there any rules about what you would or wouldn’t show? Did you make the calls or did the guest?

RL: No, there were no rules. If a publicist for a star asked not to go into certain details, I would observe the request, but I would skirt around it. One of the great joys about asking questions of celebrities is trying to find a way to get them to answer the thing they don’t want to answer. And that was always the kick for me. If I was just told the celebrity was told not to talk about his new 20-year-old bimbo wife who was 30 years younger than the woman he was divorcing, I would observe it, but I would go at the question in a completely different way. Because in the end that’s what the public wants. They want to know why he got rid of the wife.

We didn’t really have to abide by rules because it was a different kind of television show. Celebrity journalism has become the protected property today of a bunch of overzealous PR people, anxious to protect the false image of their clients, and they get paid very well to do it. Back in the day — in the ‘80s when we were practicing this craft — both in print and in television we didn’t have to deal with the now very annoying PR people who police and guard their stars.

TSS: You worked in British and American journalism. Which side did you prefer, and how were they different?

RL: British journalism is much more aggressive than American journalism. There are no sacred cows in Britain — everybody is fair game for reporting: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here the reporting is slanted in such a way that one understands why the media is called liberal: because it attacks conservative people and conservative causes. It’s not a conservative media that exposes failings of a liberal society.

TSS: As an interviewer, is there any topic you adamantly stay away form?

RL: I’m not interested in the political views of celebrities. Actors and celebrities read the words that are written for them. You generally find that actors and actresses who portray characters created by other people, speak words that are created by other people, don’t really have much to say about themselves. So politics and the lecturing that goes with it goes right off my radar.

TSS: What was your motivation for becoming a journalist?

RL: I remember every morning I used to run downstairs when I woke up and get the morning newspaper. I thought it was magical that the previous day’s news and the night’s news were all sitting there in an easy-to-read format. You have to remember back in the late ‘50s and ‘60s when I began in this business, it was really only newspapers. Television in terms of news at best was a nightly event at six where you marked the end of the day and beginning of the evening. When I started writing, it wasn’t blood in my veins — it was ink. And I still have 55 years later the same passion for getting exclusives, the same passion of working round the clock. I live, sleep, and breathe the business of lifestyle journalism like nobody else. Beating other journalists at their stories is very important to me. I can’t tell you why I’m obsessed with it, I just am, and I think it’s just a part of being a journalist.

TSS: Is there any celebrity you regret interviewing?

RL: I regret not being able to sit down at great length with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I had a very stilted interview with her on a shuttle plane between Washington, D.C. and New York. It was a lousy scenario to do an interview. It was somewhat a trap on my part because you could never get an official interview with her. I discovered that she was going on a regular weekly basis to a psychologist in Washington, D.C. and decided to find out what time the appointments were and what shuttle she would take. I managed to jump on the same shuttle she was on and I wangled my way into sitting beside her and started stupidly trying to pretend that I didn’t know who she was, and she knew who I was and what I was trying to do the moment I opened my mouth.

I regret never getting the opportunity to talk to Katherine Hepburn as well. My favorite all-time celebrity interview was Lana Turner — she was the original girl discovered in Schwab’s drug store in Hollywood. And she was a remarkable veteran of the silver screen. And I remember that for Runaway with the Rich and Famous we took her to Egypt. The classic line of all time was that I was really worried that Lana would run late as she always did and miss the royal barge trip that we had finagled for her to ride with Queen Noor down the river in Cairo. Sure enough, I had lied to Lana and said that the boat was leaving at 2 when it was really leaving at 2:30. But by 2:20 she had still not gotten down from her hotel room. She was always worried about hair and makeup being in place, whether it was for the camera or if it was for fans, and this was the day she was going to meet the royal family of Egypt. At that time, I had called up and said, “It’s 20 past two; we’re 20 minutes late.” And she said, “With everything I’ve done in my life, I can assure you, Robin Leach, that the effing royal barge will wait another ten minutes.” And sure enough, ten minutes later she descended looking better dressed than the queen. We only turned up 15 minutes late to that interview.

Every week I would send a request through to the Vatican, imploring for the Pope to give us a tour of the treasures of the Vatican, the great items kept underneath Vatican City. I never got a reply or answer or anything. One day we got a collect phone call from the Vatican and they said they would honor the request. When we got to Rome we were met by a bishop who was Scottish — he was the guy who was assigned to us. The quote I won’t ever forget was I wanted to get the Pope getting out of bed in the morning and going to his first prayers. So they wouldn’t let me into the little house he had. They said “You can walk with him as he leaves his house for the chapel for prayer.” Then the Scottish priest turns to me and says, “What do you want him to wear? Do you want his party frock or do you want his regular suit?” I said, “I’ll take the party frock.”

TSS: Was this Pope John Paul II?

RL: This was the one before him.

TSS: How close is your TV personality to your private personality?

RL: Two totally different things. My TV personality is a cartoon character that I send out to make lots of money. I don’t wake up in the morning and scream for scrambled eggs. There is no butler, no housekeeper, no bodyguard. I don’t go into my Jacuzzi in the backyard wearing a tuxedo, I don’t drink gallons of champagne — I’ll confess to a bottle a week. Nothing too much in excess.

Television is this strange beast that’s in your house. When you start a program, like we did with Entertainment Tonight, you have to have a persona that is different so that it will be noticed. I just wanted to speak faster and louder than anyone else. Solely for the reason that I thought that it drove the pictures faster. If I spoke faster, it meant that we got more words per minute onto the screen and therefore we needed to have more pictures on the screen to back up the story we were telling. So that was a concerted effort to look and sound different, but it was, in the end, a cartoon character. The journalism part of it was serious and professional.

TSS: Do you have a target audience? How do you balance what you want to write with what your audience wants to read?

RL: Well, that’s a brilliant question, and it’s one that worries me as I get older. You know, today’s music stars, in the world of hip-hop and rap — I’m a little further than them in age. Last night, I happened to be in a restaurant, and Jermaine Dupri was in the restaurant. He was sitting at another table, and he came over to me — fortunately, I knew who he was — and he said, “We have to make another music video together.” I’d completely forgotten that I’d made a music video with him a long time ago.

TSS: Have you ever formed friendships with anyone you report on regularly? How do you feel that relationship helps or hurts your reporting?

RL: It’s a fine line to walk, and I prefer not to really call it a friendship. I’ve been accused of being far too friendly with Criss Angel because I break all the stories that has to do with Criss Angel Mindfreak. We go back to the first question we started with: Why did I become fascinated with these people? Entertainers in the most part are frail people: They have this need for recognition and applause. Entertainers are not accountants; they exist just to entertain. So therefore, their skills in life are perhaps not as good as yours are mine are. It’s such a strange world to make money in. You can be talented as an actor or singer, but as journalist you are wiser to the ways of the world. I never think of people in show business as street smart. I don’t think that quality goes to people in show business. Otherwise, why would you bang your head against the wall in the night of glory and think that you didn’t do as well as you should’ve? There’s a price to fame; in many cases, the ultimate price of fame is suicide. And people who abuse drugs still think they are immune to it happening to them. So the long way of answering your question: I try, if anything, not to be a friend but to be an acquaintance who’s there with a common-sense answer to their questions about what they may or may not be doing right or wrong.

TSS: When you interview a celebrity who has a negative reputation or is part of a controversy, how does that impact the interview and how do you handle it?

RL: I’m on the softer side of journalism. I think of myself as really the Sunday comics wrapped around the front-page headline. It’s not something that I really get my hands dirty with. I think when it’s necessary to write those kinds of stories, you write them as straight facts without opinion or comments.

TSS: Has your interviewing style changed over the years?

RL: Softer, gentler, in the back-end of life. Still just as enthusiastic about getting the unusual answer. You know, the one piece of advice I would give you students about the art of interviewing is to listen. There is a joke about a television newscaster who asked all of her questions from a blue card that was prepared by or for her. So instead of listening to the answer to the question she asked, she would busy looking at the next question in order to ask it. I never go into an interview with questions on cards. It is a conversation, designed to elicit information, and you get information only by listening. The follow-up question is more important than the original question. And there is nothing better than eliciting a response by remaining silent.

TSS: Are you most proud of your business ventures, your television ventures, or your journalism ventures?

RL: I’m proud of my television venture because it got to so many people. We were one of the top five longest-running shows on television. It was extremely profitable for me, and I’m glad we were nice reality television before reality televisions became so disgusting. •

The conversation was transcribed by Zacharia Thottakara and prepared for publication by Maren Larsen. Introduction by Richard Abowitz. Student interviewers who contributed questions: Rebecca Cargan, Brandon Eng, Sarah Griggs, Susan Kelley, Grace Kerschensteiner, Charles Maguire, Trevor Montez, Melanie Ng, Ridhima Phukan, Callan Powell, James Pyne, Nicholas Santini, Arin Segal, Joshua Settlemire, Karen Shollenberger, Melissa Silvestrini, Allison Starr, and Zacharia Thottakara. Feature image created by Melinda Lewis with images courtesy of Robin Leach and Thomas Hawk via Flickr (Creative Commons).