Yes his acting is mechanical, his muscles implausible, and his segue into right-wing politics mired by sex scandals and incompetence, but it's still difficult to hate Arnold Schwarzenegger. The 68-year-old Austrian oak remains a modern day renaissance man; he turns terrible movies into brilliant ones by himself being terrible, sort of how two odd numbers always add to make an even one. Plenty of action stars have fallen from stardom since the release of his first big film Conan the Barbarian in 1982, while Arnie has just gotten more famous with each passing year.
Which is why I was somewhat surprised to see the two-term California governor announce Edinburgh and Birmingham, UK, meet-and-greet sessions, proffering "An Experience with Arnold Schwarzenegger." These black-tie soirees promised a big band orchestra, an Arnie impressionist, and a "breathtaking Schwarzenegger entrance" alongside an upscale, à la carte meal. Ticket prices range from £100 to £1,500 [$145 to $2,100]—and it's only if you pay the top rate that you are granted a handshake and selfie opp with the big man. Even the £445 [$642] "VIP" tickets don't include a personal "hello" from Arnie.
By the time I'd logged on the website, the event was almost entirely sold-out.
Schwarzenegger's hardly blazing a trail when it comes to such occasions. "Evening with..." events are enjoying something of a reboot. Olexy Productions, the Yorkshire firm behind the this one, has brought Al Pacino, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sly Stallone, and Mike Tyson to our shores recently, for sit-down Q&As with Jonathan Ross types in front of a whooping audience. In a world where people care more about their Instagram likes than they do about happiness, charging a fortune for a quick snap and a high five may be the future of fandom.
You have to wonder what's in it for Arnie, though. Money, sure. But for a chap worth an estimated $200 million, is jetting in from California only to recycle some anecdotes and have drunks from Birmingham throw their arm around you worth a few extra bucks? And who exactly are these people forking over a month's pay for a stilted, five-second meet-and-greet with an actor whose last truly good film, the undisputed Christmas classic Jingle All The Way, came out in 1996.
I decided to pop along to Birmingham and find out.
By the time I arrive at Birmingham's International Conference Centre, the lines are already snaking out the main hall and down a few flights of stairs. Everyone is extravagantly dressed but in quite a shitty way, as if en route to a high school prom.
Once inside, Arnie is everywhere. There's Terminator pinball, offbeat Arnie artwork, and plenty of car-sized signage sporting his chiseled mug. The atmosphere is all a bit confused. The dress code (and ticket price) gives the impression of a swanky dinner. The wall-to-wall branding and merch makes it more like Comic Con for action nerds.
There's a VIP section, with flush inhabitants slurping shots of black liquid through a straw. I'm soon informed it's a hot new health craze, activated charcoal, something that'll turn your poo black (this is a good thing, apparently). "People often think it will taste of burnt sugar," says the PR guy. "But it really doesn't." He's right. It tastes like watery charcoal.
It's there I bump into Alex Reid (he of cage-fighting fame) with his tightlipped squeeze, Nikki Manashe. Reid, who cribbed his questionably-spelled nickname "Reidernater" from Schwarzenegger, gushes to me about his Austrian idol.
"I love films," he says, four buttons of his shirt undone. "I grew up on them. Schwarzenegger and Van Damme are my heroes. I'm an actor. I went to acting school. That physical presence he has—it's his acting, his physique. It's just inspiring. Wow!"
Before heading into the auditorium, I spot an impressive bit of Arnie artwork, set to be sold in tonight's auction and made exclusively from nails. I approach its creator, Marcus Levine, a surly looking man sporting headwear that resembles a leather condom. Before I can open my mouth he says, "I can't tell you how many nails, I don't count them," before wandering off. "He's so bloody stressed," his friend apologizes.
Inside, the auditorium is drenched in purple UV and (electric) candlelight, every corner guarded by a life-sized Terminator, or else a wandering impersonator whose prosthetically made-up face makes it look like he's been in an accident. Stage left, a swing band schizophrenically flits between covers of Frank Sinatra, Nirvana, and the theme tune Postman Pat. At the tables, besuited attendees—around 80 percent male—knock back bottles of Peroni, champagne, and what looks like slow-cooked lamb. I wouldn't know. My pockets aren't deep enough to afford the tea.
The auction lots are announced on-stage (Conan sword, Terminator exo-skull, too many signed movie posters to mention), and I chat to a proud 40-year-old fanboy named Ross. His parents drove him up from Kent. His ticket set him back £500 [$720], which scored him dinner, early entry, and a table near the stage. Still, he's crossing his fingers for first prize in the raffle: a meet-and-greet with Schwarzenegger.
"Oh, mate, that'd do me—it'd make my day," Ross beams, resplendent in a kilt and knee-high socks. "I've been a fan of his since his bodybuilding days, and I've got so much memorabilia, it's unreal.
"I work at the college, North West Kent, and I think if I actually got to meet him I'd ask if he'd go to the college and do a talk."
Nearby, I notice a skin-headed pensioner, trying in vain to take a photo of himself with a replica of Predator. "I won £100,000 [$144,000] on a scratcher in December," says Eric, 69, who drove to the Midlands from Clapham North yesterday. "I've got every single one of his movies. I'm going into the auction. I want his leather jacket."
Minutes later, and after sales of a poster for £2,200 [$3,170] and the exo-skull going for a staggering £5,000 [$7,200], Eric makes good on his promise: winning Arnie leathers for a cool two thousand. "I'd have gone to three," he smirks, hands still quivering.
Then it's showtime, and following an opening monologue by "celebrity interviewer" Jenni Falconer (who after Googling I can tell you hosts the 6-8 AM shift weekends on Heart Radio, once did a photoshoot with FHM, and appeared on the first series of Splash), there's a five-minute intro video, a thick cloud of dry ice, and finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The crowd's cheers are thunderous, yet the people might wish to query the "breathtaking entrance" they were promised by the website, as it amounted to Arnie walking on-stage and waving. Anyway, he sits, makes a joke about the smoke, yells "GET TO DER CHOPPAEURGH!" and we're underway.
Among the inevitable volley of catchphrases, Schwarzenegger holds court on topics as broad as the planned Twins and Conan sequels, his stint in government ("I worked seven years for free"), and how OJ Simpson was originally pegged for the role of the Terminator ("I said, 'Maybe he's not believable enough.' Little did I know..."). Even Donald Trump gets a shout out, though the mic suddenly goes haywire when Arnie is asked about his chances.
Once the technical issues are resolved, Arnie, not missing a beat, says: "I told you I'd be back." Cue laughter. Applause. More cheers. Schwarzenegger wears a constant grin, though whether he's genuinely enjoying this—or simply playing the role of a man who needs to tolerate repeating decade-old slogans before leaving with a bag of cash—remains unconfirmed.
On the tables, plenty are on their third bottle of merlot, and a large portion are busy fiddling with their smartphones—taking pictures of Schwarzenegger on stage, filming bits of the Q&A, or else just watching it through the fully-zoomed, pixelated screen. I also count at least five people browsing Facebook or Twitter seemingly uninterested in the thing they just paid hundreds of pounds to see.
Then Arnie disappears back to the VIP section where the meet-and-greet's afoot. YouTuber Lord Aleem, a millionaire teenager who vlogs about sports cars, is first to emerge, clutching a glossy photograph with him and a sweaty Arn. "To be honest with you, I haven't watched as many Arnie movies as most people, but he is definitely one of the most inspirational figures I have ever met," he says, explaining he didn't actually have to pay for his ticket as he was invited. "He told me never think that anything's impossible, always have the vision, and if you work at it you'll get there—which is right. OK, so it's everything we already know, basically, but his voice does sound amazing."
I'm consistently told I'm not allowed into the meet-and-greet's inner sanctum, not even for a peek, but with a professional looking camera in one hand, press lanyard in the other (and by sneaking through an unlocked door), I'm in.
Schwarzenegger sips champagne between posing for photos, engaging in hollow chitchat with his fans. Schwarzenegger's a fascinating chap, but how deep can you go in a conversation that spans 16 seconds? Most just tell him how they, specifically, are the biggest fans: "We came all the way from Australia to see you," says one couple. "We're brother and sister, we never see each other unless it's to watch one of your films," goes another.
Eventually, the throng is shooed away, and I find myself in a (probably) once-in-a-lifetime position: alone in a room with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Thank you, Mr. Schwarzenegger. Thank you for your portrayal of Howard Langston in the seminal 1996 Christmas movie Jingle All The Way. I don't care that it has a 17 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, you and I both know it was ahead of its time and will one day be celebrated as the single greatest piece of festive cinema."
That is what I wish I had said. But I don't say that. Those words don't pop into my head until I'm half way down Broad Street. Instead, as Arnie's imposing 6'2" frame looms over me and his nervous looking PR team exchange concerned glances at the door, I instead merely shake his massive paw and fire off a quick photo—as tongue-tied and unoriginal as everybody else.
But what of the hundreds of others here who didn't even get to meet Arnie? Someone told me earlier that these ritzy affairs are how megastars like Schwarzenegger "give something back" to their fanbase. But if that were true, he'd do it for nothing, right? It's not beyond him. He did exactly that in a California government office for seven years, and speaks of it like a badge of honor. Really this was just the grim endgame of celebrity culture, squeezing cash out of your most loyal supporters, and offering them little spectacle in return. Madame Tussauds, only this time with humans.
As I pass Lord Aleem playing on his phone in the hallway, I wonder how long it will be before people pay £400 [$577] for the chance to bid on his leather jackets.