'I don't like that everyone has to have a Brazilian wax'
Ahead of her visit to the Lughnasa International Friel Festival, iconic journalist Lynn Barber talks sex, female friendship and Shane McGowan
Published 28/08/2015 | 02:30
Mention to a fellow journalist that you're about to interview the 'Demon Barber of Fleet Street', and colour invariably drains from the face. In a glittering 30-year career as a celebrity interviewer and journalist, Lynn Barber has been known for her forensic interview skills and her searing honesty. She is not, in a word, one to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. For the first time in a very long time, I am nervous ahead of an interview.
Barber has been occasionally irascible and short on the receiving end of the dictaphone, but luckily for me, I have caught her on what appears to be a good day. "Very prompt, I like that!" she chuckles approvingly when I ring her London home at 10am on the nose. I'm relieved that, amid the stateliness of her manner - down the phone she sounds like she is waving a cigarette about, grandly - she is personable, with a story and sound bite always to hand.
The normally fearsome journalist is bound for Belfast this weekend for the Amongst Women event at the inaugural Lughnasa International Friel Festival, where she will discuss the relatively light topic of female friendship alongside author Kathy Lette.
"They can be a mixed bag," she reflects, referring to the literary event-touring beat that she sometimes finds herself on. "This one sounded fun, although I'm not in favour of all-women events. They can get a bit whiny."
Lynn will talk about the female friendships she's had down the years at this weekend's event.
"The best female friends I made where ones I made at playgroups and things when I had my children in my 20s," she recalls. "When I was widowed (in 2003), single people, and especially single women, became very valuable to me."
She notes that while at Oxford, she was "busier chasing boys than making friends with girls". Famously, Barber's book An Education, later made into a film starring Carey Mulligan, charted a teenage romance with a charming, much older con-man that nearly jeopardised her plans to study at Oxford. But she eventually made it to the college, and wasted no time at all in making an impression.
While at Oxford, Barber started writing for the university newspaper, coming to the attention of publisher Bob Guccione. Before long, Barber was writing salty sex tips and interviews for Penthouse Magazine. In the 1960s, Barber also wrote a sex tip manual, How To Improve Your Man In Bed.
"That book was so quaint (compared to what's available) now," sighs Barber. "Now, people can go and watch a video, whereas there were very few sex books written for women by women at the time. I don't know if it's the same but it was occasionally the case where you might really like someone but he might not be that god in bed. I thought, maybe that could be improved."
As to her impression of today's sexual landscape: "The trouble is I don't know about it first hand," she laughs. "I didn't like the idea that everyone had to have a Brazilian wax. I don't know if it's true or not, but that's bad. Also, the idea of girls sending pictures of their breasts is rather worrying."
Not that Barber is even a slight bit prudish: during her tenure at Penthouse, Barber was invited to partake in several threesomes. One of her lovers before marrying her husband David (who died in of leukaemia in 2003) was Mr Nice himself, Howard Marks, who declared her 'a great shag'.
"Penthouse were always banging on about threesomes, and it was always one man and two girls because there was no danger of anything gay going on," she chuckles.
"The dream in Penthouse was a threesome with sisters or ideally twins. I'd just tell the couple it was my time of the month and that was that.
"There used to be these things called 'happenings'; like orgies but instead the woman went along and did a wafty dance. I don't know if I was married but I was certainly committed so I never was the one to waft."
Barber is rarely without an uproarious anecdote or a humorous take on things, which is why her sixth book, 2014's A Curious Career, was one of the year's must-reads.
In it, Barber reflects on some of her more memorable celebrity encounters. From the sublime to the ridiculous, there was rarely a dull moment. Certainly, she is known for flaying A-listers far and wide, much to the delight of her fans. Yet there have been moments of effusiveness and harmony: she got on famously with Lady Gaga and Shane McGowan.
"I went to Dublin to interview Shane McGowan… and the interview was scheduled in a hotel for 2pm, but he didn't appear until about 4 or 5pm," she recalls.
"He looked disgusting, almost as if his suit was encursted in vomit, but the barman immediately put down some gin and tonics in front of him. Pretty soon the entire table was covered in drinks.
"We were still talking at 9pm in the evening, and he told me he was planning to rob a bank the next day and whether I would be the getaway driver. I told him that I didn't like to break the speed limit and he said, 'that's what you want. The police would never expect that'.
"I had to tell him my husband wouldn't like it. It's funny, because when I was widowed, I remember thinking, 'I'd better get in touch with Shane now about being the getaway driver'. That was the peak of my grieving madness."
Barber also instructs others on how to conduct a properly revealing and forensic interview. At a time when celebrity journalism is marked mainly by PR-controlled junkets, quick phone interviews and the cutting and pasting of Tweets, Barber is one of the few interviewers who is still allowed to do things the old-fashioned way.
Asked whether she feels she would thrive as a young whippersnapper on Fleet Street (which has, technically, relocated to Canary Wharf), she muses: "I'm not sure I would. My reliability is that I can write, but these days it's all so cut-throat.
"If I do an interview, I need to be promised at least an hour (with the subject)," she explains. "I won't do it for less. Some people are prepared to write 3,000 words on the back of a 15-minute encounter, which I think is insane."
Stars often queue up for the honour of a Barbering, yet her own brand of telling it like it is hasn't always been a hit with everyone.
"I've a great advantage as a woman, no one has tried to punch me," she says. "I once got a whingy call from Art Garfunkel, who said he was ready to give up on his whole career as I'd made him feel so bad about himself.
"Boris Becker wasn't too thrilled about a piece I'd written about him, and he complained to my editor. Helena Bonham-Carter said that she was in floods of tears for days after I'd written that 'her face is exquisitely beautiful down to its delicate moustache', and Melvyn Bragg was so caught up with an interview I did with him he wrote a novel that had a horrible female journalist character.
"You can't quite tell who will be so touchy that almost anything will upset them, and who will be more robust. Either way, you shouldn't care too much.
"I get lots of (interview request) refusals," she reveals. "They don't say, 'she'll slay me', they just go, 'Lynn Barber, oh no'. I do hope that editors back me up and say, 'it's Lynn Barber or no one'."
Far from flattering a star into confiding in her, Barber's failsafe tips include punctuality, fastidious research and having a generic question in case of emergency.
"If ever my mind goes blank, I ask 'what one of your achievements are you most proud of?', and that gets me back on track," she notes. "A good question I recommend to others is to ask what their friends tease them about. Sometimes, it can lead to someone confessing something.
"That said, a frank interviewer won't beat around the bush," she adds. "I got complaints years ago for saying to Jimmy Saville, 'people say you like little girls'. People were up in arms about it, and how dare I ask such a question. Only later, people asked, 'why didn't you ask him more about it?'"
Now in her 70s, Barber has recently branched out to TV interviewing ("it's fun and different"). Predictably, her followers are chomping at the bit for yet more reading material.
"It wasn't for want of trying," she reveals. "I did at one stage try, and I know that's one thing I can't do." Given Barber's past form for adventure, perhaps 'never say never' is more appropriate.
'On Friendship' with Lynn Barber and Kathy Lette takes place in Elmwood Hall, Belfast, August 30. See lughnasainternational frielfestival.com