Gossip columnist David Hartnell has written many times about Hollywood stars being lost for words at award ceremonies.
But it was his turn to be speechless and choke back emotion on stage when he was presented with the prestigious Fullers Entertainment Award.
In front of a crowd of Kiwi showbiz greats, the 69-year-old received the honour at the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand’s Benny Awards.
The veteran columnist, who has met screen icons such as the late Dame Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly during his years working as a writer of celebrity news and also make-up artist to the stars, says being honoured by his Kiwi peers far outweighed the thrill of meeting any overseas star.
The annual award is presented to someone who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes in the New Zealand entertainment industry, but is not an entertainer.
It came out of the blue to the Weekly’s Hollywood trivia guru, whose first brush with fame was giving comedienne Phyllis Diller a makeover in 1967.
“Winning was a total surprise to me,” says David. “I know people always say that but, for once in my life, I was speechless – that doesn’t usually happen.”
This year David will celebrate 50 years in show business. In those five decades, he has seen a lot of change in the local entertainment scene, including the coverage of Tamati Coffey’s wedding to partner Tim Smith in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly in 2011 – the first gay wedding on the cover of any Kiwi women’s magazine.
Although he’s not keen to tie the knot with his longtime partner Somboon Khansuk, David, who was one of the first openly gay men on Kiwi TV screens on his show The Express Report, was delighted when the Marriage Amendment Bill was passed last year.
“I never thought it would happen,” says David.
“My niece is 15, and she got an invite to go to a wedding the other day and she had to have a look to see if it was a gay one or a straight one and I thought ‘How interesting’.
“My partner Somboon and I have been together 21 years and we don’t want to get married. We’ve crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s with wills and legal documents, so why get married? But I think it’s great that people can.
“My career was probably stomped on at times because of [being gay], but it’s other people’s problem, not mine. I never came out of the closet because I was never in it. It’s part of me; I just get on with life.”
His home is covered in photographs of the stars he has met working as a celebrity columnist in New Zealand and the UK, but there is one famous person he still wants to meet.
“I would love to meet the Queen. Nobody knows how
to work celebrity better than her,” he says.
The only gossip columnist in the Commonwealth to have been honoured by Her Majesty, David, who became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2010, is showing no signs of retiring.
He’s working on his ninth book, and also stays busy working on his Weekly trivia column and walking his dogs, Australian terrier Miss Cele (11) and pekingese Miss Liza (2) – who surprisingly, he laughs, isn’t named after actress Liza Minnelli.
David says he was particularly proud to be working in the New Zealand entertainment scene when 17-year-old Lorde was nominated for four Grammys.
“Anything is possible in the entertainment business. Lorde is amazing. It’s great that a young woman can get a number one hit, but also appear on Ellen, the number-one talk show in the US,” he says.
“That’s the magic of show business, those stories of overnight success, and that’s why I love what I do. I’m lucky that my job is still my hobby and my passion.”