THE TELEGRAPH
11 APRIL 2003

LIZA MINNELLI AND DAVID GEST, COME TO THE CABARET

They said it wouldn't last, but it has - for a year, at least. Liza Minnelli and David Gest's marriage is one hell of a production, with an eye-popping script, a huge cast of dressers and stylists, and the occasional visit to Taco Bell keeping the show on the road. Christa D'Souza has a front row seat

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David Gest says the two things he loves most about his wife's body are her nose and her left breast. Why her left and not her right one? Because the left one is the one he has slept on every single night since they fell in love 18 months ago. To illustrate, he extracts from a brown envelope a glossy photograph of him and his wife in bed that was taken for a recent Time magazine article, entitled 'The love that dares to speak'. 

 

There is the perma-tanned Gest, strangely sculpted-looking, who is smiling fixedly at the camera while he lies over Liza Minnelli's bosom. Readers, he's not wearing any clothes. 'Yes, I was naked under those sheets,' says Gest proudly. 'I always sleep naked and so does Liza. Now, will someone eat one of these finger sandwiches? There's tuna, there's salmon, there's egg. They look really good - I mean, this is not just for decoration, please…' 

 

It is about 4.30 in the afternoon, a small blizzard is grinding London to a halt, and we are sitting in a suite at the Connaught Hotel where the Gests - or Mr and Mrs Stevens, as they go by when they travel - are staying while in town. Gest, 50, looking every inch the Broadway producer in a white bathrobe and baseball hat, is sitting in a chair eating a bowl of fruit salad: 'My wife and I, we're on continual diets!' 

 

Liza, 57, is having her hair and make-up done next door, and is being sewn into a pair of black sequinned trousers by two Dutch designers called Reggie and Sten. Reporting on their progress is the Gests' personal hair stylist, Scotty, a blond hunk with a goatee that looks like it's had a Brazilian bikini wax, his limbs weighed down by tons of jewellery. 

 

'What they have to realise is that she's just lost 90lb and they need to show that,' he murmurs, munching on a power bar. He peers disapprovingly out of the window: 'All that snow - I'm worried it's going to be slippy for her tonight.' 

 

Tonight Liza is due to appear on the Graham Norton show with Gest (her third time, his first) but that is not the only reason they are in town. Aside from adoring London ('Have you been to this fish and chip shop, the Seashell?' wonders Gest. 'Liza's just crazy about the mushy peas…') there's also the award Minnelli is being presented with at the Dorchester for all the support she has given the Aids cause (her first husband, the Australian singer Peter Allen, died of the disease in 1992). 

 

Then there's the announcement of her involvement with the make-up company MAC Cosmetics. Following in the footsteps of the drag artist Ru Paul, Sandra Bernhard and Shirley Manson of the rock group Garbage, Minnelli is to become one of the faces for the autumn campaign. 'You know when people have their moments,' says MAC vice-president Michelle Feeney. 

 

'Well, this is definitely Liza's moment. Mary J Blige thinks she's the tops. All the kids think she's great. She had her moment with the Pet Shop Boys back in the Eighties. Now she's having another one. She's kind of now, if you know what I mean.' I do know what she means. There is something ineluctably modern and relevant about Minnelli's look. 

 

At the same time, it is a look which has been so mimicked - any drag queen worth his salt does Liza - it's almost as if she doesn't own it any more. As Feeney tells me, not long ago Liza and Madonna were at a gay bar in New York and nobody actually believed they were who they were, shouting out, 'Go girl! You do a great Liza!' 

 

While Minnelli takes centre stage, I get the distinct impression that Gest wouldn't mind a tiny bit of acknowledgment, too. And why the hell not? After all, he has a fearsome reputation in his own right as one the industry's top musical producers, with a client list that includes Ray Charles, Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson (whom he lived next door to as a kid in Encino, California, and whose brother Tito is still his best friend). 

 

Famously good with showbiz types, Gest has been almost exclusively responsible for reviving Liza's career and relaunching her back into the world as a sober, slim and deliriously happy human being. If anyone wants to query this, he's only too happy to set them right. Take, for example, the nasty rumour only last month that she was back in hospital after an overdose. 

 

'No, no, no,' he sighs patiently when I ask him about this. His wife was at the Caron Foundation, a rehabilitation centre where she goes every year for self-help sessions and counselling for alcohol addiction - a place she (and he, because he's married to her) 'have to go and, you know, after a while, want to go because you learn so much about yourself and the disease. But most people can't understand that we both do that when there isn't even a problem. I mean, isn't it interesting you have to even ask me about all this?' 

 

There are also the tabloid rumours falsely alleging that the marriage is not working out ('I swear, she goes out for a cigarette and they say we're divorcing'); that Liza's back on the bottle ('That's not Coke they say Liza's drinking, it's gin'); and that Gest is not heterosexual. But more of this later. 

 

Much more pressing right now is the black diamante sandal which a stylist has just presented for Gest's approval (nothing gets near Liza's body without the OK from him), lovingly handmade over the past couple of days by Jimmy Choo. 'I think they're a little high for her feet,' shrugs Gest, whose own feet are equally tiny and, in contrast to his bronzed face, whiter than the driven snow. 

 

'I mean she's had two hip replacements and she's gonna be wearing these all evening? I think it'll be a lot easier if they're a little lower. Liza baby?' he calls out. 

 

'They're gonna make the heel a little less high and a little thicker so it's easier for you, OK?' 'OK, baby,' comes a tremulous voice from the next room. 'Whatever you think, whatever you think.' 

 

And then out totters the star of the show in her matching bathrobe; a tiny Kabuki-faced thing, her enormous, melancholic features framed by the signature black spiky hairdo. 'Hello, I'm Liza and I'm sorry about the way I look,' she says in that breathless, sing-songy voice, pulling her bathrobe around her slight yet barrel-shaped frame, and sounding so like her mother it's spooky. 

 

'Now, what's your name? Why, I love that name! How d'ya spell it?' Then, looking imploringly at her beloved husband for direction, as though nobody else in the room existed: 'Darling, what am I wearing tonight?' 

 

How awe-inspiring, meeting Liza Minnelli, the only daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, in the flesh. Whether you are a fan or not; whether you thought that scene in Cabaret where Sally Bowles yells her head off in the subway was a defining moment in cinematic history or never even saw the film; whether you think she looks good for 57 or you don't - and for someone who's gone through three divorces, two hip replacements, at least two bouts in rehab, double pneumonia, throat polyps and viral encephalitis, believe me, she doesn't look half bad - is beside the point. 

 

Liza Minnelli is a living, breathing icon, a proper, old-style Hollywood star, the like of which we really don't see any more. David and Liza first met 14 years ago, backstage at a Frank Sinatra special that Gest was producing. He recalls, 'I said, "Hello, Ms Minnelli", she said, "Hello, Mr Gest", and that was the end of that.' 

 

The same thing happened at a Ginger Rogers special a couple of years later. 'I don't think she really knew who I was at that point.' 

 

About 10 years after that - by which time Liza had already paid her first visit to Betty Ford for her addiction to valium and alcohol, and was still recovering from an attack of viral encephalitis which had put her in a wheelchair, added 100lb to her dancer's frame and temporarily halted her speech and coordination - Michael Jackson asked Gest if he could get Liza to perform for his 30th anniversary special.

 

'I said, "Michael, I don't think this is such a great idea," ' recalls Gest. ' "I got Whitney on the show, I got Luther Vandross… [Liza's] heavy, her voice isn't the way it was in the Seventies, she's got to compete with these people. Are you sure?" But Michael goes, "I want her on my show." 

 

So I sent my conductor Joey Melotti over to see her and I said call me, so he calls me and he goes, "She's got a three-octave range! It's incredible! So I said I wanna hear this for myself, and I went over the next day and that's when we fell madly, madly in love.' 

 

Five months later the couple got married in New York. Liz Taylor and the actress Marisa Berenson were maids of honour, Jackson was best man and the 850-strong guest list included Kirk Douglas, Diana Ross and Lauren Bacall. When Whitney Houston, who was booked to sing at the ceremony, failed to turn up, Natalie Cole stepped into the breach and sang Unforgettable. 

 

The other slight hitch was that Taylor, Minnelli's surrogate mother when Judy Garland was in the throes of her drug addiction, came in her slippers by mistake and the whole congregation had to wait while her driver went back to retrieve the proper shoes. It was that kind of wedding. 

 

Bob Mackie, who designed the wedding dress, told People magazine, 'The whole church was talked about as if it were a theatre. People were referring to areas as "backstage" and "you cue me" - it was all about a show.' 

 

But, says Gest ('the Mike Todd of our times', as Liza lovingly describes him to me), the wedding was really nothing compared with the anniversary party the couple were going to throw in New York this month - until war broke out, spoiling their plans. Now it's set for some later date, which Gest cannot yet reveal for security reasons. 

 

Apparently the 'show' is going to feature an 80-piece orchestra, and 80 acts - including the Chi-lites, the Stylistics and the Doobie Brothers - all playing to the 1,200 guests from 6pm until 2am. 'And you should see the invitation,' says Gest, fairly rubbing his hands with glee. 

 

'There's this picture of us on the front and the words "They Said it Wouldn't Last…" printed underneath it. It's so funny. I always vowed I'd never get married, but now I would never not be married. We just really, really love being around together, and we've never been closer than we are now. 

 

'Our biggest problem is the press that always surrounds us. It's like, our favourite restaurant in the world is Taco Bell, so we went to our local branch the other day and Liza orders a taco - no sour cream, just a regular one with no extra cheese - and suddenly it's all over the papers.' 

 

We are now in the car on the way to the television studios where the Graham Norton show is being filmed. It is a little squished with the three of us in the back ('Don't you British people have limos?' Scotty, who is sitting in the front and munching another power bar, wonders) but it is somehow rather cosy being snuggled up to Liza's full-length black mink coat - a present from her 'manager' as she sometimes calls Gest. 

 

She, or rather David, has finally plumped for tonight's outfit: her own black oversized shirt ('because you gotta feel comfortable, baby, that's the most important thing') and the spangled trousers, although right now these are in another car, frantically being ripped apart and resewn, yet again, by those accommodating Dutch boys.

 

David himself wears a dark suit, baby-blue silk scarf, immovable hairdo (apparently Scotty paints his scalp with black eyeliner to get it looking that sleek) and his beloved prescription shades. As we bowl up Piccadilly we talk about the amazing shrinking diet he put Liza on: 'Fruit, cottage cheese, fish, chicken,' intones Gest, 'and if she ever tried to sneak out I'd go, "No!" A friend of mine gave a big party and the waiter comes over with this veal parmigiano and her eyes were like this she was so excited, and I snatched it away and said, "Sir, thank you, she'll have the chicken." ' 

 

'Oh, he's strict,' cackles Liza happily, leaning her spiky head on his shoulder. 'Aren't you, darling?' 'Yeah, but we've both changed our lives a lot,' says Gest. 

 

'We just bought a home in Hawaii [where Liza is leader of the local AA chapter]; we're in a whole different space. We're so happy and in tune with one another. We're just about to get these two dogs and adopt this baby - really, the relationship is stronger than it's ever been.' 

 

He explains how he cannot talk too much about the child, but that it is a girl, she is a three-year-old American citizen, and when she arrives they will call her Sabrina, one of Liza's all-time favourite names. 

 

'Yeah, we're real excited. Liza's always wanted a baby, I've always wanted a child and Scotty's going to cut her hair, aren't ya, Scotty?' 'It's about getting them ready for what life is going to throw at them,' pipes in Liza, exuding a whiff of Obsession, her favourite scent, every time she moves. 

 

'You know, every mother with a three-year-old is going to read this and think, aah, they don't even know what they're talking about, but I do know what I'm talking about. I've worked with disabled children. It's a matter of learning how to take care of yourself as your parents cared for you. 

 

'My mother,' she adds quickly, 'raised me beautifully. That advice she always gave me - one foot in front of the other and then do your damnedest on stage - was the best advice anyone ever gave me.' 

 

'Oh, Liza will be the best mother,' says Gest firmly. 'She was just made to be a mother. Forget that she is Judy Garland's daughter, she is the nicest person you'll ever meet, and she's disciplined, too. It takes a lot of discipline bringing up kids. We both share that philosophy.' 

 

'Oh, I know what I want to say about our child,' says Liza. 'It's like this wonderful John Lennon song which goes, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find…" ' 'Yeah, that's the Stones, baby.' 'Oh, yeah, I'm sorry, I knew that,' says Liza absent-mindedly. 

 

'I'm no good with names, I never have been. Sometimes I can't remember someone's name and it'll bug me and then in the middle of the night I'll suddenly wake up and shout, "Pinkus!" But with faces and what people are wearing I have a photographic memory. David, he has that other memory so I guess that's why we work well together, right baby?' 

 

'Right,' says Gest, suddenly adding, 'God, isn't my wife just so beautiful?' He leans over to plant a smacker on her lips with such urgency it almost feels rude not to turn away. 

 

When Graham Norton and Minnelli meet in the corridor there is a frenzy of air kissing but not much time to chat as they are so very, very behind schedule. The celebrity liaison officer looks ready to burst a blood vessel. 

 

'They're always late,' she hisses at me, 'but they've never been this late before. It's that David. I know he thinks it's good to keep people waiting…' 

 

Liza seems a little jangly. Despite being used to performing in front of people from the moment, as she herself puts it, the obstetrician smacked her on the bottom, she seems downright nervous tonight, a row of tiny beads appearing on her forehead as she is whisked into hair and make-up for a final check. 

 

For all her pre-stage nerves, however, she sparkles during the taping, chatting to Norton with such fluidity one realises just how much more at home she feels on stage than off. The youngish audience, most of whom don't look like they were even born when Cabaret came out, are riveted. Though this may have something to do with their reaction to Gest being there. He has that effect. 

 

'Did you like that little joke I made about getting Liza her own chat show?' Gest murmurs as they are led after the show into a small hospitality room. 'I just made that up on the spur of the moment, and I think Graham was really fooled, I really do.' 

 

Liza, meanwhile, is hungrily devouring a banana, rooting around the mini fridge for a Diet Coke and unzipping herself out of her trousers. She looks totally drained, as though she would like to do nothing more than get into bed, order room service and watch My Fair Lady, her favourite movie, but David has made other plans. They are to go straight from here to the nightclub, Tramp, where they are joining their old friend Johnny Gold, the proprietor, for dinner. 

 

When we meet at the Connaught again two days later on the eve of the awards at the Dorchester, the atmosphere is not quite as ebullient as it was the last time I was here. Gest is in bed with a cold. Julien Macdonald, who has designed Liza's dress for this evening, is still stuck in Paris, which is a shame because Liza - or more likely David - is concerned that the draping around the tummy makes her look bigger than she is. 

 

Then there's Billy, the hotter-than-hot make-up artist who has been flown over from LA especially for tonight, and who Liza isn't sure she likes quite as much as Terry, the fellow who did her the night before last. While a rather beleaguered Michelle Feeney sorts this tricky one out - in between running out to Fenwick for a bra for Liza and dispatching someone else to a chemist to get some tooth-whitening paint for David - a young brunette whooshes into the room to say hello to Liza. 

 

This is Heather Murphy, the wife of the South African hotel magnate Sol Kerzner, and Liza's favourite 'shopping buddy', as Scotty puts it, whenever she's in London. Heather asks Scotty if it's all right to smoke. Absolutely not, he tells her, unless she wants to go to the little girl's room - the one place where David lets Liza indulge in her only vice (besides Diet Coke and iced coffee with Canderel, that is).

 

'God,' complains Heather, chomping away on a piece of gum. 'Every time I see these guys the smoking area just gets smaller and smaller.' 

 

Scotty puts on Minnelli's latest live CD, Liza's Back (produced by Gest, of course). The room is filled with that urgent, plant-your-legs-and-sing voice belting out New York, New York. Suddenly one remembers why Liza-with-a-Zee will always be so utterly now and fabulous. 

 

The moment is rudely interrupted, by a roar of rage and pain that is so loud everyone jumps slightly. 'Fuck!' squeals Gest, who, having finally emerged from bed, has caught his fingernail between two interconnecting doors. 'Somebody do something quick!' he yells, running around the room in a little grey maquillage cape, and clutching his poor finger in agony, his snowy-white stomach billowing out over his trousers. 

 

Scotty, as calm as ever, peers at Gest's fingernail ('Hmm, it's gone all black') before trotting off to the bathroom for a plaster. Meanwhile, poor Billy, the LA make-up artist, has no idea Liza's not satisfied with his work (she's far too polite to show it) and is happily showing us all a Polaroid of what he thinks is the finished job. 

 

The moment he's out of the door, Michelle promptly hauls Terry in to take everything off and do the job all over again. 'We'll just say that Liza likes to do her own lips,' she says reassuringly. Terry is thrilled, either way. He likes the whole French farce element. 

 

And besides, 'Are you kidding? Here I am sticking on Liza Minnelli's eyelashes. Aren't I living every gay man's dream?' Minnelli has done an extraordinary amount over the years for the Aids cause, being one of the first people to speak out publicly against the disease back in the early Eighties, singing at hospices and raising millions of dollars through concerts and recordings, one of which, The Day After That, was chosen by the UN to launch World Aids Day in 1993. 

 

As such, it's little wonder that the well-heeled, predominantly gay crowd parts when she makes her slightly unsteady entrance on Gest's arm into the ballroom of the Dorchester. Before the evening starts, Liza asks me to come with her to the ladies. 'I need something to push on,' she says as she clasps hold of my arm and leans into me tight. 

 

It is the only time in the past three days that I have been alone with her. Now seems as good a time as any to ask her about David's reputation as a control freak. 'Oh, I can be fierce too,' says Minnelli. 'In fact, you should see me with my friends when anyone says anything about my husband. It's the Italian in me, I guess.' 

 

Before we head out she gives herself a once-over in the mirror and cackles ironically at her reflection. 'God, what has Scotty done to my hair? It looks like I stuck it in a socket or something. 'You know, I do get so nervous at these things,' she adds. 'It's OK when I'm playing a part, but when I have to be me it's a different thing.' 

 

While waiting to be announced, she and Gest stand outside the door to the dining-room which is filled with about 500 expectant guests all in black tie. Gest wonders aloud whether he should wear the shades or not. 'I think it would be very nice if you took them off,' is his wife's considered response as she fiddles needlessly with his bow tie. 

 

And then in they walk, the crowd, which includes Sir John Mills, Petula Clark, Kelly Osbourne and two members of Queen, rising to their feet clapping and cheering as they are led to their table. A week or so later, by which time the Gests are back in New York, getting ready for the first leg of Liza's nationwide tour, Gest and I have a chat on the phone. 

 

There are still some questions that need to be asked. After a brief discussion about his scholastic background (he majored in journalism, and 'minored' in psychology); what Liza loves most about his body ('my eyes'); and the dogs they've just acquired (a schnauzer called Emmalina and a corgi called Squiggles, whose recently deceased predecessor, apparently, was descended from one of the Queen's) I bring up the subject of the tabloid rumours. 

 

What is it with all these reports that Liza is simply following a family pattern and that he is not straight? 'That's just so ludicrous,' Gest counters evenly. 'I was in a relationship for 12 years with a woman before I met Liza - actually, Liza kind of reminds me of her [he will not tell me who this woman was, or who broke up with whom]. I dated LaToya Jackson in 1971. When you're in the spotlight they say it about everybody. But you know the rumour stopped when people saw how in love we were.' 

 

A little later, the day after the rumours about Liza overdosing and the announcement that the party had been postponed, I call again. Despite David's reputation for being murder to get on the phone (apparently he has people from New York contact him via his LA office, even when he's in New York) my call is returned almost immediately. 

 

Gest promptly denies that Liza is in hospital and that their marriage is on the rocks. He tells me he is convinced that there is someone out there spreading all these rumours. He says he knows who it is, he says Liza knows who it is and in the New York Post, gossip columnist Cindy Adams says she knows too. 

 

But Gest refuses to reveal this person's identity. More likely than not it is a disaffected hairdresser or former employee. 'There are some very sick, jealous people out there,' he drawls, 'but I guess the more successful you are, the more jealous people get.' And, apparently, the more impressed, he claims. 

 

'Oh, God, you should see what happens when I walk alone into a restaurant,' he sighs. 'There's always some girl who'll come up to me and talk to me and say, "Hey, David, I'll make you feel OK." I'm like, "Hey, I have to go! I have a wife! I'm very happy!" ' 

 

As for the child he and Liza are adopting, 'that hasn't happened yet, but it's happening soon', just like the anniversary party. 'Oh, there's not even an if - we're gonna have this party,' he says. 

 

'But imagine if we invited all these people from England and all these people from Italy and then they decide they can't fly because of the war? Everybody would go "aaah, look what happened with their party, only half the people turned up, poor things," even though they'd know there was a perfect reason not to fly. It's like I said to you before, sometimes we really have to think of others before ourselves.' 

 

But, as Gest graciously acknowledges, such is life. He would love it if people could just be a little nicer to each other, could think of others before thinking about themselves, and not be so 'materially driven'. 

 

Sadly people aren't and 'that's why we have wars', that's why 'the world is changing, and not for the better'. As this extraordinary man adds, he wishes from the bottom of his heart that people, particularly cynical people, cynical journalist people like myself, could just experience one iota of the love that he and Liza have for each other. Then they (we) would see just what he means.