There goes another one.
On Tuesday afternoon the news broke that beloved entertainer, producer, presenter, and performer David Gest had passed away at the age of 62. The reason I've listed him as an entertainer, a producer, a presenter, and a performer is because I'm not especially sure what David Gest was. The raison d'etre of his celebrity, at least here in the UK, seemed wrapped up in a relatively complex web of Hollywood connections, a friendship with Michael Jackson and an ill-fated marriage to Liza Minnelli.
Now, we're not short of people on television who are famous for less-than-clear reasons but David Gest, during his strange and slightly hard to explain existence on British TV, managed to turn this ambiguity into a mythology. While he might have been an LA-born producer to begin with, and had Elizabeth Taylor at his wedding, in the final decade of his life he found a new home: in the warm comfortable hospice of British reality TV shows.
Some might think that Gest was ultimately just fame-hungry, and that following his high-profile marriage he found a way to milk this fame, but it's not a simple as that. The word 'celebrity' means something very different now to what it meant 30 years ago. In the 21st century, the culture shifted from one of prestige and mystery to one of all-hours documentation and constant voyeurism. We switched from seeing "stars" as cosmic objects to wanting to see them in their pyjamas arguing with Hollyoaks actors. David Gest managed to straddle both of these worlds, from the MGM Grand to the Big Brother house.
David Gest's love affair with British television started with Ruby Wax Meets Liza Minnelli. During that show, which was intended to be a look at the life of the living legend, Gest routinely took centre stage, as perfectly illustrated in this clip where he buys his wife an enormously expensive necklace.
For the viewer, the scene pushes the level of awkwardness to near unmanageable limits, but no amount of intimacy seems too much for Gest who relishes every second the camera is on him. Perhaps it was in that moment, in Harrods, the glare of the incandescent shop-lighting, an £82,000 Cartier necklace draped around his new wife's neck, that he first felt the full glow of love from Britain —his new family, his new home. From then on, Gest was destined for a lewd romance with reality TV.
Within a year Gest and Minnelli had separated, and in 2006 he appeared on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Where Hemingway met Fitzgerald, Stein and Joyce in the bars of Paris, so Gest, in the Australian jungle, fell into the warm arms of Jason Donovan, Matt Willis off of Busted and, of course, Dean Gaffney. You only need watch his attempt to dodge ostriches, flanked by Dean, to witness the birth of true friendship. He was widely loved both in the camp and by the British public, finishing fourth and enjoying a standing ovation when he appeared on the Royal Variety Show two days later.
From this launchpad, the sky was the limit. Gest worked reality TV shows like a stadium band does the summer festival circuit, hopping from Soap Star Superstar to Grease is the Word and stopping off at Come Dine With Me on the way, he appeared regularly enough to keep his profile up but never too often as to become boring. He became, in a sense, a raconteur for generation ITV2. Spinning yarns about Tito Jackson to Myleene Klass, trading blows about Liza Minnelli on Loose Women.
Sadly it wasn't to last, and in January of this year David Gest made his final appearance on British television, this time as a housemate on Celebrity Big Brother. It's an appearance now endowed with strange sort of morbid significance, yet while most people will likely be distracted by the "David is dead" debacle, there was in fact a far more eerie moment given what we now know. Before leaving the house citing ill-health, David took some time in the diary room to apologise to Big Brother for his early departure.
"Do you have any final words?" Big Brother, God, asks from on high.
"I want to tell all the castmates that I love them," he replies, his voice cracking. "I love this country, for their support and for being so good to me. Thank you Big Brother."
"Thank you David," Big Brother pauses, "and goodbye."
We can pretty safely assume he didn't know he was going to die – demonstrated by the fact he was about to embark on a tour called "David is Not Dead" – but as a final outing in the public eye it's perhaps fitting that his life was book-ended by a Celebrity Big Brother appearance that culminated in him essentially delivering his own eulogy. For a man who finally found a home playing the minutiae of his existence out on LCD screens, it's probably exactly what he would have wanted.
There's something genuinely admirable in just how effectively David Gest made reality television work for him. He clearly clocked early on that it wasn't just a means of bolstering a career, but a career in of itself. The man from LA leaves behind him friendships with everyone from Noel Gallagher to Shaun "Barry from EastEnders" Williamson, and an empty diary room chair. Now over to Ant and Dec for his best bits.
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