Gest is one of those special people who is primarily famous for being famous. He had been friends with Michael Jackson, and was still technically married to Liza when he took up residence not a stone's throw from the Flyer's
Tennessee St. offices. Before jumping across the pond to try his hand at shows like "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!" Guest lived in Memphis' South Bluffs community, and was often seen puttering about Downtown, or chowing down on fried chicken at Gus's. He could also be seen in Midtown, East Memphis, and other parts of the city where, in spite of a professed desire for anonymity, his face was blown up larger than life, and split into two halves on billboards promoting the man and his various initiatives.
On November 20, 2006, the Flyer
received a transcontinental phone call from the London Sun
, a daily Rupert-Murdoch-owned tabloid that was looking to hire a fearless reporter who could get to the bottom of a hot story that was taking Europe by storm. Longtime Flyer
columnist and reporter John Branston took the call but not the job. According to a blog post Branston wrote later that same morning, the Sun
wanted someone to visit Gest's house to confirm a story he'd shared with the British media about a maid he kept on staff in Memphis named "Vagina Semen" — a name that was later revised to the slightly less graphic "Vaginika Semen." The Sun
"We are so NOT making this up," Branston wrote. "Stay tuned."
Memphis has known its share of eccentrics, but few have been more wondered about than Gest, who upon growing weary of his life in big cities (and the tabloids), tried to escape all the notoriety by moving to our sleepy little river town where he fancied buying, "a very small, intimate luxury hotel with a ballroom on the top of it," but never did.
In 2004, after weeks of trying to score an interview for an article about him and a charitable event he was planning, Gest told me to meet him at the Peabody Hotel. He kept me waiting for an uncomfortably long time, but he did show up eventually, and we chatted over a plate of batter-fried veggies and cheese.
Here's the original Q&A from Dec. 3, 2004.
The Two Faces of David Gest
"There's another David Gest, and I'd really like to meet him. The one you read about is fascinating, wild, weird, and wonderful, and I don't really think of myself in any of those ways. I never intended to be a personality. I went for years [behind the scenes] as a producer. Then [I produced] Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary] special. That's when I fell in love and everything changed. Things changed after my wedding and after my life with Liza."
— David Gest, at The Peabody, November 29, 2004
He's on a diet and he's had cosmetic surgery. He's good friends with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson (who has had cosmetic surgery, is probably not on a diet, but has other troubles with which to contend). He's married to Liza Minnelli (whose diets, surgeries, and other troubles are well-known), but they are separated and suing one another. He says she got raging drunk and beat him to the point of disability. She says he swindled her knock-kneed.
These are the things you already know about music producer David Gest, if you know anything about him at all. And since these stories have been blown out in the supermarket rags and on tabloid TV, there's really no point in repeating any of it, now is there?
Gest lives in Memphis now, on the south side of downtown near the river. And he wants to make sure that every Memphian who is hungry, cold, old, infirm, lonely, or down on his luck has a nice dinner waiting for them at various Memphis restaurants on Christmas Day. He's promised participating restaurants money up front and is willing to fund it out of his own pockets. But he'd prefer to pay for the whole shebang by way of a star-studded shindig at the Cannon Center: David Gest's All-Star Holiday Extravaganza.
"So I'm only bringing 40 or 50 artists to town," Gest says, countering criticisms that many of the celebrities he's used to promote the event won't be attending. "Who else is bringing four?"
And who else is offering a free Christmas dinner to anybody who shows up and says "I'm David's Gest" at Corky's, Gus', Willie Moore's, the High Point Café, Westy's, Precious Cargo, Neely's, or Ray's? Whether you love to hate him or hate to love him, David Gest is in the house. He's roaming downtown Memphis, performing random acts of kindness, offering up the moon and determined to deliver some stars.
Flyer: Where were you and what were you doing when it occurred to you that you would be moving to Memphis?
David Gest: I was living in Hawaii and suffering from a brain concussion, and somehow I just dreamed about living on the Mississippi River. I always had an affinity for Memphis. It was something that I felt like I needed at this time in my life — to be away from the paparazzi and not to be someone who's always in the tabloids. I wanted to buy a home that was facing the river, and I did. In my life I've learned you've got to go with your gut. I wanted to live in the South. I felt that I could go to Memphis and make records and do things. I can always fly to L.A. or to New York. And I like living in a small town. It agrees with me.
But what was the specific allure of Memphis?
I was — I think — 17 and I was a journalist when I first came here. It was 1971, and I came to Memphis for a rock-and-roll writers' convention. Everybody got to go to Stax and to Hi Studios. There was a big reception at the Holiday Inn Rivermont, which was the hotel back then. You'd see Rufus Thomas walking around in hot-pants promoting "The Funky Chicken." You'd see all the great Memphis artists there. And all of this had a really strong effect on me, so I kept coming back. About two years later, I was offered the job of national public relations director for London Records. I was supposed to be 21, but I'd just turned 19. I lied about my age. I had a thick, thick Afro that went down to my butt and a moustache and a beard, so I looked older. You know when you're a kid you always want to look older. Then you get old and you want to look much younger. When you get to my age — which is 51 — you start to go, Unh-unh.
That was when you started doing PR for Al Green.
Yes, I did public relations and career guidance for Al Green. [He] was the biggest thing at the time. I did the publicity campaign for [Ann Peebles' hit] "I Can't Stand the Rain." You know, I was the one who had John Lennon come to the Troubadour [an L.A. club where Peebles was performing] on the night he wore the Kotex on his forehead. He was really drunk, and he was screaming, "Annie, baby, I love you! Annie, baby, I wanna, I wanna " And then he asked the waitress, "Do you know who I am?" And she said, "You're an asshole with a Kotex on your forehead." They kicked him out of the Troubadour that night. But he loved "I Can't Stand the Rain." It was his favorite record.
How often were you in Memphis back then?
I'd be here every three to four months. I'd fly in and work with Quiet Elegance, or maybe Ace Cannon, and others. I gave a party in 1977. It was called "Moonlight on the Mississippi in Memphis." It was a party on a riverboat for the Doobie Brothers. Jerry Lee Lewis was there and Rufus Thomas, Ann Peebles, Carla Thomas, the Memphis Horns. It seemed like everybody was on that boat, and it was a jam all night.
Is it true that you recently gave an elderly woman who was shopping at the MIFA thrift store $100 to buy a coat?
Yes. I loved this lady's face. She was 70 or 80. The sweetest little woman you've ever seen. She came up to me and she said, "I love you." And I said, "Well, I love you." She'd seen me on Larry King a few times, and she said, "I think it's wonderful what you're doing for the community." And so I asked her what she was doing, and she said, "I'm buying a coat." I said, "Let me buy you a coat." I went in with her to shop, but she couldn't find the right coat, so I said, "Here's a hundred dollars. Go buy yourself something." She was sweet. I have no idea what her name was.
When you moved to Memphis did you know that you would be producing a celebrity gala and trying to provide Christmas dinner for 100,000 disadvantaged people?
No. In fact, when I moved here, I'd decided that I really wasn't well enough to start working again. Then one day I saw this man on the street and he said he had no food and he needed $7 for shelter. He said, "I've got no place to go not even for Christmas." I asked, "What do you do on Christmas?" and he said, "I beg for food."
I thought, I'm going to put on a show. I'll call my friends and put together a concert so that on that one day a year people can eat for free. [Even with the benefit concert] it's probably going to cost me money to feed all of these people. I'll underwrite it. What's important is seeing results.
Is Memphis now your home or is it just a pit-stop?
Home. I'm going to buy a hotel. I'm in the process of buying a property and building a very small, intimate luxury hotel with a ballroom on the top of it. It's something I want to do with some of my friends. With all these artists coming in because of the FedExForum, there's a need for something like that here.
Have Memphians encouraged your plans to feed 100,000 people on Christmas, or have they been cynical?
A little bit of both. Some people are jealous. Some people would like to see me not succeed. But I will succeed regardless of any obstacles. I will thrive. People can say what they want, but the doubters are going to see this happen in Memphis.
There was recently news that many of the artists scheduled to perform at the benefit concert wouldn't actually attend. How many have confirmed?
Tons have confirmed. It's going to be phenomenal. We're going to have the full band from Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary special. And to give you some idea [of what's in store], Kim Weston, who had a hit with "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)" in the '60s is going to sing that song with the Doobie Brothers who also had a hit with it in the '70s. They are going to be accompanied by a 200-member gospel choir. It's really going to be phenomenal."
David Gest is dead. The American producer, and the former Mr. Liza Minnelli who became a British reality TV star, was found dead Tuesday morning in his room at the Four Seasons hotel in Canary Wharf, London. He was 62.