My brush with Rolf Harris is a moment I can't forget
An exciting opportunity for a young journalist now seems anything but.
There are some things in your career you never, ever forget and for some strange reason, an encounter with Rolf Harris is one of them for me.
This experience was well before the late entertainer and paedophile was found guilty of a string of historical sex offences in 2014. So, I have to say there was no precedent or public history back then about the tragic human Harris ultimately turned out to be.
It was the early '90s, I was a very young journalist with the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, and was sent off to interview Harris — he was in Australia flogging some book or tour or something — so it was part of the job and a rather exciting one at that, a perfect opportunity for a youngin' on the editorial staff.
I mean, Jake The Peg, Two Little Boys, Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, they were just some of the famous tunes he performed, let alone making his wobble board and third leg internationally known. For God's sake, he even painted an official portrait of the late Queen.
Even saying "Jake The Peg" and "wobble board" makes me feel sick now. In retrospect, I wonder if he was just having one big laugh with those names, at the expense of the young people he sexually abused.
Anyway, back to my brush with Rolf. I sat in the conservatory at Sydney's rather grand Inter-Continental Hotel, perched at a table in the light and breezy ground floor, with an Australian publicist on one side and the egocentric artiste on the other.
To be honest, it's not usual for a publicist to sit in on an interview. In fact, it's fairly much a no-go zone. If they can trust you to conduct a professional interview, you wonder why on Earth they bother being there. Just send a press release! We're not talking about a bad-boy rock or Hollywood star, but a then wholesome (ha!) family entertainer whose claim to fame was some ordinary art, some questionable lyrics, show tunes, ad campaigns and three-legged antics.
But here's the rub. Naturally the interview conversation turned to the success of Jake and the wobble board, which led him to ask whether I wanted to come up to his room so he could show me his musical accoutrements. I was quite keen to see the wobble board in action, but to her credit, the publicist (who was one of the best at the time) piped up, looked at me with a kind of death stare and said "that probably isn't necessary" or something like that, which to be honest, kind of disappointed me.
Did she know something? Was she aware of the disgustingly dark side of Rolf Harris? I'll never know as she died in 2006, well before any of his crimes came to light. But considering she opted to stay with me throughout the interview, when I thought about it many years on, I did wonder why.
'He grabbed me'
Anyway, with the jolly interview over, the irony of ironies was I had to return to the same hotel that evening for a great friend's 25th birthday, which he was having in the pasta bar of the hotel. His friends had all arrived and who should turn up to the venue? Rolf Harris. On his own.
Obviously as a guest of the hotel he was allowed to go anywhere in the venue, but when he saw a whole lot of, well, young women, he seemed soooo happy and couldn't stop smiling. So happy in fact, he grabbed me and popped me on his knee as he recalled our "fabulous" interview earlier that day.
Little did I know
Like most young women back then, in the presence of powerful men, what was I to do? I know what I would do now, but back then, things were different. I have to be totally honest, nothing criminal happened that night — he did wrap his arm around my waist (yuck) but my birthday friend and all the other guests rolled their eyes after he left, as what he did was highly inappropriate. We just didn't have the guts to say anything. We were young. Naive perhaps. And at that stage, Harris had not been found out for the sleaze bucket he was.
To this day, I can remember every moment of that encounter, which is weird in itself. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was something about that day that was repeated around the world a thousand times over and it was that behaviour which ultimately led to his catastrophic downfall. Either way, a tragic man who met a tragic and not-soon-enough end.
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