Sunday 21 December 2014

Bibi and the 'dirty little question' that riled her

It was meant to be a chat about her new show, but Bibi Baskin's attitude nearly left Entertainment News Reporter Niamh Horan speechless

Published 20/07/2008 | 00:00

BIBI Baskin has spent more than 20 years as a passionate advocate of Ayurveda, the ancient Hindu health system that strives for spiritual, social and physical harmony.

But there was little serenity on show during my encounter with RTE's legendary redhead.

Somewhere along the line we got our chakras in a twist, and what should have been a relatively soft assignment as we chatted about her new TV series Failte Towers -- set in a hotel run by celebrities -- became a most unpleasant encounter.

Instead of the warm, gentle breezes of her adopted home of Kerala in India, I got the icy storm-force gales that batter her native Ardara, Co Donegal.

Waiting in Dublin's boutique Dylan hotel, I was excited about interviewing my late grandmother's favourite television personality. Bibi was part of my childhood -- a touch of glamour on a Saturday night.

But little did I know that the scarlet upholstery in the hotel's front bar would soon be matched, figuratively speaking, by blood on the carpet -- mine.

Dressed in a sharply tailored cappuccino suit and a pair of killer black stilettos, Bibi swirled into the room.

We shook hands, but then my well-intended compliment on her elegant dress was met with an icy stare.

"Hi, how are you Bibi? Lovely to meet you," I smiled. "Wow, you're looking fantastic these days."

A curt and cool, "Hello," was offered back, but at least she had a big smile for photographer David Conachy.

Perhaps we just need to get warmed up, I thought, as she walked outside to get her picture taken on the front steps of the hotel.

After snapping Bibi in a few poses, the photographer called it a wrap and she turned to join me on the front terrace.

Again I complimented her on her revamped image, but I got no reaction.

We made our way over to a quiet table on the veranda and I took a seat beside Bibi, while an RTE press officer -- who later had to step in like a referee in a prize fight -- looked on.

From the moment I switched on the tape recorder, our encounter descended from suspicion into barely concealed hostility on Bibi's part.

I wasn't to know it, but her last two interviews on RTE television -- first with Pat Kenny two years ago, and then again last Saturday week with Miriam O'Callaghan, had left her defensive and deeply wary. Behind the painted smile for the cameras, Bibi was infuriated to be asked what she calls "the dirty little question" by Miriam. The "dirty little question" being why there is no man in her life.

And so even though I didn't intend to ask anything along those lines, I got a glimpse of the hot-headed Bibi. Was it something I said? You decide.

Niamh: So why did you decide to take on this project?

Bibi: It was offered to me.

Niamh: Right.

Bibi: Yeah.

Niamh: That's it?

Bibi: It was that simple. Because I'm connected to hotels and I'm passionate about hotels. So it seemed to fit. And I think the third reason is because it's live, and I've always particularly liked live television. And really that was it. I mean, there was no great think process because I'm afraid I don't really do life that way. So if you've come looking for, 'What's the plan?' and, 'What are you doing next?' and, 'What's your five year plan?' I've never done that and I don't think I will.

Niamh: And how many years have you been living in India now?

Bibi: Seven.

Niamh: How are you finding life over there?

Bibi: Fabulous. Why would I stay seven years [otherwise]?

Niamh: What's so good about it?

Bibi: Well, most people like the weather. I don't particularly like the sun. But it is 30 degrees every day of the year, which is a great attraction for a lot of people. For me, it's the people. South Indian people are very gentle, and I think when you live there you start to realise just how aggressive Western people are. And how nasty they can be.

Niamh: In what way?

Bibi: There's just a friendliness and warmth to South Indians, and they don't have ulterior motives to the degree that people have here. And they have a great tolerance. With the risk of sounding boring, the history of India shows that it's one of great tolerance -- of religion and belief. And India has been invaded over the centuries so often -- by Muslims, by European people and the rest of it -- and yet they live pretty much harmoniously together. Lovely tolerance, patience. I like that.

Niamh: Do you think [the Irish] have become a bit more aggressive in the past couple of years?

Bibi: I think what I have noticed has changed in Ireland more than anything is that nobody has time for anything. Especially not time for people. I think that's terribly sad. I've got used to living with people who would always make time and who would consider it very rude if you said, 'Could I possibly see you tomorrow?' They would consider it very rude to say, 'No, I've got a meeting,' or, 'No, I've got to go to the gym,' or, 'No, I've got to go and get my hair done.' It just would never happen.

Niamh: So do you feel more, I don't know if it's more 'wanted' over there or that you fit in more over there, more so than you would over here?

Bibi: Wanted? I'm not that desperate.

Niamh: No, I mean that people make time for you over there and people make more of an effort to see you over there, where people here are just so focused on their own lives.

Bibi: No, it doesn't bother me that much -- if people don't have time, they don't have time -- it's not going to make me feel particularly bad. I just think it's terribly sad to see people rushing all the time.

Niamh: And you talked about ulterior motives there as well. Show business is a tough business, did you find it [tough]?

Bibi: No, not here, not as much. I would find interviewers perhaps more than anybody else, coming with their ulterior motives ...

Niamh: [Laughs nervously] What did you learn from your time working with Ayurveda? I understand you got into that when you went over to India?

Bibi: I've been into that for 20 years now. Long before I went over to India.

Niamh: And you were talking about bringing it to Ireland as well?

Bibi: No. I started becoming familiar with that system of health in Ireland, and the reason I went to India seven years ago was to learn more about it. The Irish connection there that you're talking about -- I put out my back for the first time ever and I went looking for some sort of Ayurveda centre in Ireland, and I found a fabulous one in a five-star hotel in Cork called the Kingsley hotel. So I went there and it worked terrifically well, and then I got to know the family. And I would go there for my Ayurveda treatments even though we do it in the hotel in India. It's a bit like the shoemaker always wearing the worst shoes in town -- we could have the Ayurveda treatments in India in the hotel, but I would still prefer to do it on holiday. So I would go to this place in Cork and have treatments there, and that's really the Irish connection that you're talking about.

Niamh: I had read somewhere that you wanted to bring it here at some stage?

Bibi: No. In May I started sourcing the oils. I bring the oils from Kerala, where I live in India -- which is the home of Ayurveda, 5,000 years ago -- and I source staff for them. Because the staff are all Indian in that hotel and they're fully qualified Ayurveda staff and they have to come and go, so that's the connection.

Niamh: Do you think there's a big market for that here? Do you think it will catch on?

Bibi: I think there's such a huge market for spas in Ireland, that was another big change, there's a huge market for pampering and spas -- but all the spas in the Republic seem to be to product-led, so 'you come to my spa because we have certain products', but this one is the only one in the Republic that is actually led by a system of medicine and that system of medicine is the one that started 5,000 years ago.

Niamh: So you do think there is a market?

Bibi: I think there is a market and I think it's growing.

Niamh: Also, when I was doing some research prior to our meeting, I noticed you talked a lot about liking solitude as well.

Bibi: Oh, that was years ago. That's all changed now. Sorry about this. Sorry to be so rude [picking up her phone and texting], it's been a hell of a day. Normally the days are very quiet. It's all changed because there are one thousand million people in India ... and try and be alone. I hope I don't need to say more on that. I used to, but it's gone forever now. You just can't be alone in India. When I would come home there were flights to Sligo airport, my sister would pick me up, and we would drive through these Irish towns at six in the evening, and I still say to myself today, 'Where are the human beings? Where are the human beings?' Where I live, you can't walk from here to the post (and of course you have to keep your head down because the streets are so bad), so you're walking along and you could walk for two hours and all you see is brown feet, never one gap, densely populated.

Niamh: I read that you said sometimes you want to be on your own, you hate being in other people's company. ("I can't stand being crowded. I hate to have company when I'm not in the mood." Sunday Mirror, May 31, 1998.)

Bibi: [Exasperated.] No, I don't hate being in others' company. This is why I don't do interviews. I have never said I hate being in other people's company. Where did you read that?

Niamh: I can get it for you again. It's just that I heard you said you sometimes like being alone, you don't like being around other people ...

Bibi: Don't read a load of shite that is perhaps misquoted by other people and assume that that is the truth.

Niamh: That's why I'm asking you.

Bibi: I cannot imagine any time in my life that I would say I 'hate' being in other people's company.

Niamh: So do you think you get a hard time in the media?

Bibi: No, not in recent times.

Niamh: OK. It is just that 'solitude' was a key theme that came up.

Bibi: What are we talking about?

Niamh: I'm just trying to build up a general picture of you.

Bibi: Isn't this article supposed to be about a programme about entertainment, Failte Towers, and why I went to India? So can you please tell me what this has to do with solitude of years ago?

Niamh: I'm just trying to build up a picture of you. You can appreciate that, being in the [media].

Bibi: This article was based on the premise that it was about ...

Niamh: And I'll ask you about that as well, but you know yourself Bibi, you've been in the media for years now.

Bibi: No. I thought we laid down terms of reference.

Press Officer: No, it's fine. I think that Niamh is just maybe referring to things that had appeared before.

Niamh: It's just nice to build a bit of colour. I'm not going to make you answer anything. If you don't want to say something, just say, 'Look I don't want to talk about it.'

Bibi: I just think it's not what we agreed to do.

PO: That's fine; do you want to move on then?

Niamh: Yeah I'll move on. So do you want to tell me a bit about Failte Towers?

[Silence. Bibi looks flustered.]

Niamh: I don't want to upset you, Bibi. I'm just trying to do my job.

Bibi: No, we set down very clear terms of reference, didn't we, and dragging up something I don't honestly think I said, that was a misquote.

Niamh: OK. That's fair enough. You just need to tell me that and I'll move on. I don't want to upset you.

Bibi: I will tell you so.

Niamh: OK, so tell me a bit about Failte Towers.

Bibi: [Turns to RTE PO.] So my instinct was right.

PO: I think it's absolutely fine.

Niamh: This is what I do. No matter who I'm interviewing, I'll always talk about more than the programme. It's nice to get a nice news angle as well. I didn't mean to upset you, but that's life, that's journalism. I'm just doing my job.

Bibi: Right, well I think this interview has to be over now.

Niamh: Is there something I said to upset you?

Bibi: No we laid down ...

PO: Why don't we just move on?

Niamh: OK, let's move on. Tell me a bit about Failte Towers.

Bibi: It's Failte Towers [pronounces it with more of an Irish lilt] not 'Faulty Towers'.

Niamh: Failte Towers.

Bibi: This one is Failte.

Niamh: Yeah OK, that's what I said. I apologise if you think I mispronounced it.

Bibi: So it's a live reality show. And it's based in a real hotel, and about 10 or 12 well-known Irish people have been selected to run this hotel in real terms like a real hotel. And then there are three judges, and I'm one of the judges, and Derry Clarke, who is a Michelin-star chef at L'Ecrivain restaurant, is another judge, and Sammy Leslie, who is from Castle Leslie hotel in Co Monaghan. So basically the Irish public have been invited to come and stay in the hotel for free. They do have to pay for their drinks and their food. And then the celebrities have to run it like a free hotel. And the public will be invited to vote for the celebrities, and all the money from the telephone calls will go to the chosen charities of the celebs. Then every night the people with the three lowest numbers of votes, of those three, one will be evicted by the judges -- and that will continue over the 10 programmes.

Niamh: And there's a great selection of celebrities?

Bibi: That apparently is quite secret and I honestly don't know who they are -- apart from Evelyn Cusack, who does the weather, and Jennifer Maguire, who was the Irish person on Alan Sugar's Apprentice.

Niamh: And obviously you've had a lot of experience yourself building up your own hotel out in India?

Bibi: Yeah, yeah.

Niamh: Can you tell me a bit about that?

Bibi: Well I bought up an old colonial property and it really needed horrific renovation. It was maybe one of the untidiest messes I've ever seen. I was sort of in the mood to play house because I had lived a sort of busy life and I used to get people in to do interior design, so at that stage I was working on a writing project and I had sold my house in England. And I went on this holiday to Kerala for three weeks, and after I thought I'd go into a month of the Ayurveda treatment in a clinic, and after that I thought, 'Well, what am I rushing back to? The house is sold.' (I had been staying with friends in London.) 'I may as well rent a house here.' I did for six months, and then after that I thought, 'I really need to buy a home somewhere in the world,' and I thought, 'Well why not here?' And then I thought it would be nice to have some company, and I thought to have some people in during the tourist season at weekends. To do that sort of thing you do need a licence, and suddenly I discovered the government of India tourism department decided that we were a heritage hotel of India -- which is equivalent to four- star here.

Niamh: Fantastic.

Bibi: Because of the standard, and because of India, you will always have a huge amount of staff in the house. Even if you live alone you will always have a driver, a cook or a cleaner. You're left kind of doing nothing. And they came and did an inspection of international standard, and we got equivalent to about four star, and that's really how I became a hotelier. I have never sat and planned.

Niamh: So, if I asked you if you'd ever think of coming back to Ireland again?

Bibi: [Frustrated.] I'm here!

Niamh: Back living here again.

Bibi: No! I live in India and in Ireland -- sometimes one month here, six weeks there; sometimes four months here, three months there. I don't see it that way you see it.

Niamh: You don't see it as if you're based in any one place?

Bibi: No. And I can't understand, because you're not the first person that has drawn that conclusion, and I can't understand it because -- here's another change in Ireland since I've been away -- an awful lot of people have a place in Spain or France. So where do they live?

Niamh: Well that would be their holiday home I suppose, they only stay there for a few weeks of the year. I suppose you spend most of your time in India.

Bibi: Well I work there and now I'm working here -- so if, following that logic, you live where you work then that means I still live in India and Ireland. Maybe that will change. Like I say, I have no plans. but that's the feeling -- I feel I live in both countries.

Niamh: OK. And can I ask ... people looking at you from the outside in would say, 'Bibi Baskin -- a good-looking woman with a great career behind her, has a lovely hotel business built up in India, everything going for her ... but,' then there's a 'but'. And I think for everyone there's always a 'but'.

Bibi: And what's the 'but'?

Niamh: Well, that's what I'm asking you. What would be yours? Is there anything missing in your life?

[Silence.]

Niamh: That people from the outside looking in mightn't see but that you feel yourself?

Bibi: [Mood turns.] You see, when we sat down I thought to actually say to you that, because I have been decades in journalism and I was a journalist before I was a TV presenter, I thought to actually say to you, 'I'll tell you what, why don't we start with the dirty little question that comes at the end? Let's start with that and get it out of the way.' Because that's always the question [where the interviewer asks]: is there a man in your life?

Niamh: Well, no, to be honest, do you want to know what I actually wanted to ask you?

Bibi: No, I think we'll leave it.

Niamh: Do you know what I was going to ask you?

Bibi: No, let's leave it because the programme is about entertainment.

Niamh: There was no 'dirty little question', actually.

Bibi: I said that to Pat Kenny actually two years ago on the Late Late Show. I said, 'Why do you guys always leave that dirty little question to the end?' [She zips up her bag].

Niamh: Well, why do you think people are so interested in that question?

Bibi: I don't know. I think people have an interest in the personal lives of people in the public eye. Miriam O'Callaghan asked me on Saturday night. And the answer is, 'No,' there's nobody in my life.

Niamh: I wasn't even referring to that. It mightn't have been romance that's missing in your life. It might be family, it might be children; it could have been anything. But there are a lot of rumours and conjecture out there. Does that frustrate you? Because, personally, I don't think that's fair, and I know you said journalists leave the dirty little question 'til the end -- how do you feel about that?

Bibi: I have absolutely nothing to say about that at all.

PO: Maybe we should just keep it to the show?

Niamh: I asked a very general question there and you brought [the question of romance up]. In fairness, I didn't ask about any man in your life.

Bibi: Well I was assuming that's where it was going because I felt it was definitely going into that sort of area.

Niamh: Because it always goes that way with you?

Bibi: Yes. With everybody.

Niamh: Does that frustrate you?

Bibi: I think it has got nothing to do with the show and we agreed to talk about the show.

Niamh: OK, but you yourself say that you were in journalism before you got into TV [and you should know how interviews work].

Bibi: Yes, but I never behaved like that. I never asked people those sorts of questions unless they had agreed to it. Now we have agreed to something and it's about the show and you're not sticking to it.

Niamh: I am, yes, but you have been chatting about India and living life between Ireland and India, and with all due respect ...

Bibi: 'I'm just doing my job,' is it?

Niamh: Well, yes, I can get certain information off a press release and I can get all the information about the show from a press release.

Bibi: Well I hope I have given you a little bit more than that.

Niamh: Yes, but I'm trying to bring colour into the interview as well. I don't mean to be prying and I don't ...

PO: Well I think it's simple. In response to a question [if Bibi doesn't want to answer it], we just move on.

Bibi: Well I'm afraid I have to move on completely because I have to catch my things and get off.

Niamh: If you think I've come across a certain way, I don't mean to ...

[I switch off the dictaphone as she abruptly stands up to leave.]

Bibi: Yes, well it's just Pat [Kenny] asked the same and Miriam asked the same last Saturday night.

PO: OK, perhaps we should just leave it there ...

Niamh: Well, look, thanks for meeting me.

Bibi: I have to go get my things.

With that Bibi walks off to collect her bags, leaving myself and the press officer standing there. I'm speechless.

"It's fine," he reassures me. "I just think she's a bit weary after a week of interviewing."

Bibi then returns with her bags and a look that tells me she can't wait to be out of my company.

The feeling is mutual.

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