Thursday 14 December 2017

Obituary: David Gest

Music producer who, after an extremely tempestuous marriage to Liza Minnelli, became a reality television star

Not made in Heaven: David Gest with his then wife Liza Minnelli. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Not made in Heaven: David Gest with his then wife Liza Minnelli. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire Newsdesk Newsdesk

David Gest, who died on Tuesday, aged 62, was a music producer, reality television star, childhood friend of Michael Jackson and martyr to plastic surgery; he was also the fourth husband of Liza Minnelli.

"In the annals of weird celebrity couplings, Liza Minnelli and David Gest are surely filed under E for Eek!" one commentator observed. It was the first wedding for the 48-year-old Gest, who had been introduced to the 56-year-old actress by Jackson. "I am the happiest I've ever been," his fiancee said. "Everything I've been through was worth it to find David."

There were some raised eyebrows, not least because many had assumed that Gest was gay. He denied it, claiming he had "never been a friend of Dorothy" (a reference to Liza's mother, Judy Garland, in The Wizard of Oz). Not everyone was convinced.

The much-hyped wedding, an over-the top affair, took place in New York on March 16, 2002. Jackson served as best man, Elizabeth Taylor and Marisa Berenson as maids of honour and former EastEnders actress Martine McCutcheon was one of 14 bridesmaids, aged between 26 and 78 - all dressed in black.

The 500-strong guest list included Anthony Hopkins, Michael and Kirk Douglas, Elton John, Gina Lollobrigida, Joan Collins, David Hasselhoff, Barbara Walters, Mia Farrow and Donald Trump.

"There's no VIP unturned, you know," observed gossip columnist Cindy Adams.

"If they could get Mae West from the grave, they'd stuff her and sit her in the third row."

Proceedings did not go entirely to plan. A British Airways Concorde packed with celebrity guests had to abort take-off from Heathrow Airport after developing a technical fault; Whitney Houston, who was due to sing her 1980s hit The Greatest Love of All as a processional, pulled out, to be replaced by Natalie Cole singing Unforgettable.

The groom's sunglasses, it was noted, remained in place throughout the ceremony.

The marriage lasted until July of the following year, when Gest sued Liza Minnelli for $10m, accusing her of being a violent alcoholic who had failed to tell him she carried the herpes virus.

So serious were the injuries she had inflicted upon him during episodes of "spousal abuse", he claimed, that he suffered from "throbbing pain, severe headaches, vertigo, nausea, hypertension, scalp tenderness and insomnia".

At the time of their marriage, his 11-page suit went on crushingly, Liza Minnelli "was an alcoholic, overweight (and) unable to be effectively merchandised".

Liza Minnelli denied the claims and filed a counter-suit, claiming he had stolen at least $2m that she had earned while performing in shows that he produced. Both dropped the claims before finalising their divorce in 2007.

By this time, David Gest had embarked on a new career on British television as a contestant on ITV's 2006 run of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!

To begin with, his chances did not look too promising. On the insurance form he filled out for the producers, he listed among his ailments vertigo, hypertension, scalp tenderness, insomnia, dysphoria, photosensitivity, recurrent vomiting, anorexia and shingles. He also claimed to suffer from chronic phonophobia - fear of the sound of his own voice.

His fellow 'celebs' were dubious too: Cherie Blair's half-sister, the writer Lauren Booth, described Gest as "even scarier than his pal Michael Jackson. I mean, I wish him well but he's got an ironing board face... I'm really scared to be around someone who's got tattooed eyebrows."

The comedienne Faith Brown said that Gest reminded her of a vampire. "Does he scare me? No, I wouldn't say that. I'll just take a string of garlic with me."

Gest went in with odds of 50/1. But his efforts in the bushtucker trial, when viewers saw him beset by all manner of creepy crawlies, calmly collect the six required tokens to emerge from the box with an enormous spider attached to his back, began to swing the odds in his favour.

Meanwhile, his celebrity name-dropping, his entertaining, if often unlikely, tales about Michael Jackson and his range of imaginary characters meant that he soon acquired an army of British fans. He eventually finished fourth.

"When I came out and saw all the clippings, I was overwhelmed," he recalled. "It was an amazing feeling to be loved... I never had love as a child, so I feel very blessed."

David Alan Gest was born on May 11, 1953 in LA and grew up in southern California, where he became friends with his next-door neighbour, Michael Jackson, and his brothers. Like the Jackson children, he had a difficult childhood, enduring frequent beatings from his father, Jesse, a financier.

Unhappy with his looks, and inspired by Jackson's example, in his late twenties Gest decided to do something to alter them. "Michael had had a little nose-thinning done, so I knew I could do something about my face," he recalled later.

"I went to his plastic surgeon, Dr Steven Hoefflin, to do something with my nose. All of a sudden, I decided to have a nose job and facelift in one operation and have cheek implants and a cleft chin in another a week later."

Nine years later, he had a hair transplant. By this time, he had begun to forge a career as a music producer, working with, among others, Jackson, Ray Charles and Luther Vandross.

He signed up stars such as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Shakira for concerts in Madison Square Garden. In 2001, a tribute concert to Michael Jackson was watched by 44 million viewers.

His success on I'm a Celebrity led to Gest becoming a staple of British reality television and from then on he spent most of his time in Britain. He starred in his own ITV show, This Is David Gest, showed up on Soapstar Superstar and did stints as a guest judge on Simon Cowell's Grease Is the Word talent show and its sequel Greased Lightning.

A memoir, Simply the Gest, was published in 2007.

In January of this year, Gest was the favourite to win when he entered the Celebrity Big Brother house and prospects were looking good when he went on a date with his tattooed fellow celebrity Jeremy McConnell, who turned up in drag as Gest's ex-wife, and when Tiffany Pollard misheard the news about the death of David Bowie, thinking it was Gest who had died. The moment housemates ran into the bedroom and pulled back the covers to find Gest, recumbent but alive, made for shocking viewing.

In fact Gest, though not dead, was unwell, and on day 13 he left for unexplained medical reasons. Before his death, he had been planning to capitalise on the incident by embarking on a tour of Britain with a show entitled David Gest Is Not Dead, But Alive With Soul.

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