In tribute to Victoria Wood who died today, I’m posting this interview I did with her in 1998, for Attitude magazine. An historically funny – and very smart – northern woman.
‘The Northern Woman,’ said Alan Bennett, who knows about these things, ‘is like the Galapagos Turtle—she’s an entirely different species.’ In the eighties, Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV was the HMS Beadle of comedy, bringing us bizarre flora and fauna never seen before on telly. Creatures like Bossy Northern Woman: ‘Make way! I’m a diabetic!’ Common Northern Woman: ‘Is it on trolley an’ can yer point to it?’. And Very Common Northern Woman: ‘I’ve got ‘ide and ‘eal on me lovebites—I were shit-faced on a pint of brandy and Babycham last night!’
Since then, these exotics have become naturalised to the British TV landscape and Victoria Wood has become a national institution. And like many national institutions, she hasn’t done so well in the Nineties, a decade which turned out to belong to the Southern Fash Mag Slag.
But now everyone’s bored with the Nineties and the Eighties are back and so is Ms Wood, with a square meal sit-com called ‘Dinner Ladies’ that makes you wonder why you ever bothered with insubstantial London tarts. Dinner Ladies is a perfect excuse for getting an eclectic bunch of Northern Women together to fill a lot of torpedo rolls and serve up a lot of classic Woodisms: ‘…don’t get me wrong,’ says one middle aged lady to another, ‘I’ve nothing against ‘Delilah’, it’s just Tom Jones squatting in his swimming trunks on the cover of TV Times that I have a problem with…’.
Did she consciously aim for a Beckettian standard of dialogue? ‘Well!’ laughs Wood, swallowing the last of her Welsh Rarebit, rubbing her fingers over her plate and looking away to the right, eyes raised, in that slightly shy but determined way she has. ‘I wanted them to have conversations which shot past one another and they’re never concluded. People overhear the end of conversations that are left unexplained. I wanted a mixture of high comedy and naturalism.’
Wood in person is a mixture of friendly unpretentiousness—laughing loudly and generously—with a quietly confident smartness. She’s also of course northern, but in a mild, lower middle class Lancashire-bred and BBC-educated way.
Wood’s father was an insurance underwriter in Preston. She had one brother and two sisters, but they didn’t mix. It was a lonely childhood. ‘We lived in a very strange house on a hill with no neighbours and no visitors. I just stayed in my room and watched the TV and played the piano. Sometimes my father would come in and watch a bit of TV standing up, as if he were just about to leave, but my mother wouldn’t watch any telly at all. In fact, it used to go back to the shop in the Summer to encourage us to pick bluebells in the meadow, or something.’
Wood didn’t turn to that other staple of desperate youth: pop music. ‘It seemed to me to be about dressing up and going out and meeting boys, which scared me. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I had a boyfriend or any friends at all. I felt like I’d been accepted for membership of the human race.’
In addition to her own humanity, Wood discovered a passion for performing and studied drama at Birmingham University. Even before she graduated she was performing in folk clubs and appearing on Pebble Mill, followed by ‘a really awful talent programme on ITV with Lenny Henry’. Almost single-handedly, Wood invented the British female TV stand-up.
But it seems a bit extreme—to spend your youth as a bedroom recluse and your adulthood as a stand-up comedian? ‘Yes,’ she agrees, nodding, ‘but it’s very therapeutic,’ she explains. ‘You have to bond with the audience: this is my world, do you get it? When they say, “Yeah!” It’s great, especially when you feel that you live in a world that doesn’t really get you….’
Perhaps this is the reason why so many gay fans ‘get you’ to the point of obsession? I have several gay friends who can recite whole seasons of As Seen on TV…
Wood nods. She’s heard about these cases. ‘Flattering as it is, it was never intended. That would just be patronising and dire. Mind, I did wonder about the signals I was giving out: I had short hair and a big suit. These enormous lesbians used to come round the stage door and they’d be wearing the same suit and the same hair!’
Having gay fans can mean that you’re incredibly sophisticated and witty, or… ‘… it can mean that you’re just a really sad middle-aged woman,’ laughs Wood finishing my sentence. ‘But I’m not dependent on that relationship for my own self-esteem in the way that some gay icons who are very responsive to their gay fans are. I’m not in that world. I have my own life. I don’t inhabit my own TV series.’
‘What I tend to get are very intelligent creative gay boys of 15-16 who really like my sketches. I think part of the reason why gay men respond so well is because camp is partly about echoing, in exaggerated form, the way some women speak, which is what I do in my work.’
I ask about a famously intelligent and creative fan of Wood’s whose work also echoes the way extraordinary ordinary women speak. ‘Oh yes,’ she recalls, ‘Morrissey used to write to me a lot. He invited me to his house once. I didn’t go because, well, I don’t visit people’s houses if I don’t know them. It just doesn’t seem right.’
Of course, Bossy Northern Woman would have been round there in a flash, poking around in Moz’s cupboards and measuring the pile on his shag.
Marc Jacobs talks to Mark Simpson about his Brazilian (ex) porn star boyfriend, foreskins, gay fashion misogyny, turning 50 and being turned into a stuffed toy.
(Originally appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Man About Town Magazine)
Marc Jacobs is many things. So many things that it would make a lesser Mary giddy.
He’s a fashion label. Three, in fact: The Marc Jacobs Collection, Marc by Marc Jacobs, and Little Marc. He’s a range of fragrances. He’s a retail store, with 239 outlets in 60 different countries. He’s the creative director of Louis Vuitton in Paris. He’s a three times winner of the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award and a four times winner of Accessory Designer of the Year.
He’s also a relaxed, 49-year-old American from New York City whose pretty much life-long openness about his sexuality – along with his sustained success – has made him a poster-boy for gay pride, ranked 14th in American gay magazine Out’s 2012 ’Power List’.
Furthermore, Marc Jacobs is, perhaps most importantly in our superficial age, a bona fide global celebrity. Snaps of him socialising with friends and boyfriends appear in newspapers, mags and on gossip sites around the world: even the pages of even the UK’s notoriously gay unfriendly Daily Mail. Instantly recognisable, Marc Jacobs the man and the brand is a familiar part of our visual culture.
In keeping with that culture Marc Jacobs is also, nowadays, a body. A few years back, with the help of ruthless diets and religiously regular gym routines – and, no doubt, some of the hunkiest personal fitness trainers in town – he transformed himself from a chubby, nerdy, pallid chap grazing on junk food into almost fat-free, pumped, tanned, tattooed beefcake.
And now – dwarfing all his other achievements – he’s also a stuffed toy.
Mark Simpson: Word is you’ve been turned into a ‘Muscle Man Marc’ doll.
Marc Jacobs: I have. By the makers of South Park.
It’s every gay man’s dream. How did that come about?
Well, I have quite a few tattoos and two of them are of toys that belong to the Cartman character in South Park. And I guess I’ve been photographed so many times with those tattoos that it came to the attention of Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] who created the series, so as a sort of homage they made me into a doll, a toy in Cartman’s room. And of course I found that to be the greatest honour I’ve ever received! I have such great respect for them and I think the show is so clever, so well-observed.
But do you ever worry that people might be sticking pins in those dolls? People can be very jealous. I know I am.
[Laughs] Y’know, I sometimes read comments by people online to things and think, well, I don’t know these people and they don’t know me and so everybody has a right to their opinion and if it makes them feel better about me by putting me down, then fine.
Did you find, when you transformed yourself a few years back, that there was hissing as well as applause?
Yeah, like with everything y’know, some people said we like the old, sort of geeky Marc. But I got tons of letters from people saying that I encouraged them to go on diets and encouraged them to go to the gym. I started it for health reasons—I have ulcerative colitis and my nutritionist encouraged me to change my diet. I started going to the gym and started to feel better and look better—and anything that makes me feel better I want more of! Lots of people wrote to me to say that my story gave them hope that they could change as well. That it was never too late to change one’s diet or one’s lifestyle or pick up a habit that’s nourishing and positive.
What’s your current body fat percentage? Trending up or down? It was an eye-popping four per cent last time I read about it.
It’s probably about eight per cent at the moment. I missed a few weeks at the gym because of preparing the [Louis Vuitton] show for Paris Fashion Week. When I go back to New York it will go down again, probably to about five per cent very soon.
That’s a great relief!
Yeah—I’m sure people all over the world will be thrilled to know that!
There should probably be a website where we can check up on your BF percentage in real time.
Oh God, I hope there’s never any such thing!
Oh, it will come, it will come. I hear there’s one bad habit you’ve not been able to ditch: smoking.
Yeah, that’s true, unfortunately.
If smoking made you fat do you think you’d stop tomorrow?
I don’t know… I don’t know. I mean, I tried to quit smoking before. I’ve had periods of success—the longest was seven months. I really do enjoy smoking and as bad as I know it is for me I just can’t seem to stay quit.
Everyone should have at least one vice.
Well, I guess…
Though you seem to have a weakness for tattoos also. Any recent ones?
I had the ‘Muscle Man Marc’ doll tattooed on my right forearm a few months ago. That was the last one.
What’s the current tally?
I think we’re up to 34.
Some people like to agonise over their choice of tattoos.
That’s not something I agonise over. I mean, I can agonise over whether we use black and white or red and white or both in a collection, but I certainly don’t agonise over my tattoo choices. They’re very spontaneous.
Is the doll anatomically correct?
Well, it’s in pants.
And the pants don’t come off?
No. So I guess the answer’s no.
Ah, but since the pants don’t come off we’ll never know for sure. Do you remember Billy the gay doll?
Yeah, I do.
Did you ever have one?
No, I didn’t.
He was very anatomically correct. Or incorrect.
Yes, I remember!
What would you say was your favourite part of the male body?
Lips. I love a full pair of lips.
They’re an oft-overlooked male attribute.
I don’t overlook them!
Are you a passionate snogger, Mr Jacobs?
Yeah, that’s what gets the rest of me going!
Still dating Harry Louis, the humpy Brazilian porn star you were snapped with on the beach in Rio recently?
Oh yeah! He’s my boyfriend.
Harry looks to have been blessed in the lip department—and everywhere else.
Oh yeah! In all the right places—and it all works very well! He’s also a really lovely person. He’s nothing to complain about on any level, inside and out. He’s a total sweetheart. He’s a very sexy, hunky man.
I believe you. I can hear you getting turned on talking about him. Did you see him ‘in action’ before you met?
No. I met him through a friend of mine. I’d actually never seen him before.
And how did you feel about your boyfriend working as a porn star?
Oh, I thought he was very good at it! [Laughs] He’s given it up now though. It’s very disappointing for some of his fans, but I’m very happy about it. He told me that he wanted to give it up and have a monogamous relationship. So he’s been busy exploring what he wants to do with his life and has been working at a club called The Roof Gardens in London. He loves to cook and has been thinking about opening up a small café or restaurant. He’s also very good at cooking, by the way.
He has lips like those and is great in the kitchen as well?
Where did I put those pins?? Oh here they are: you once said “I always find beauty in things that are odd and imperfect—they are much more interesting.” Mr Louis doesn’t look terribly imperfect from where I’m panting.
That quote was in regard to fashion—me talking about things that inspire me to make clothes. And Harry, or Eddie as I call him, has his imperfections. I wouldn’t say they were physical—he has this quirky character, and what people see on the screen isn’t who he really is. It’s a persona.
People have trouble understanding that porn isn’t real life. I certainly do.
I’d say I hit the jackpot with Eddie. But I’ve also had skinny boyfriends. Shorter boyfriends. Darker skinned boyfriends. Lighter skinned boyfriends and boyfriends of all shapes and sizes—I don’t really have a type. Eddie is pretty much physically perfect and sexy but he has his own quirky personality and is super sweet and not at all what people perceive him to be on screen.
As an American dating a Brazilian, what’s best? Cut or uncut?
Um, I don’t really have a preference…
Speaking as an uncut Brit, Americans tend to either run for the hills shrieking or are maybe a bit too interested in that flap of skin.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love it! But I just don’t have a particular preference.
Okay. So you’ve got yourself a porn star body…
… I wouldn’t say that!
Well, I would. And you’ve got yourself an ex-porn star boyfriend. So… when is the Marc Jacobs sex tape coming out?
Well if there is one, it’ll just be for me—it will not be for public consumption!
How old fashioned! Am I right in thinking that your mother’s soft porn magazines turned you on to the male form?
Yeah, it was Playgirl and Viva. I found them in her room. I saw the naked men in them and thought ‘Wow! That looks good!’
What was the look back then?
Hairy chests, moustaches, that kind of thing.
And big hair?
The camp counsellor you’ve mentioned in the past you had your first crush on. Did he look like a Viva model?
Probably. A younger version.
So he was the first time you kind of transferred what you were feeling for the Viva models to an actual guy?
And nothing came of that?
No. I was quite young. I was nine.
Oh! Yes, that is quite young. How old were you when you did do something about it?
Thirteen, I think.
That’s still quite young. You must have had an adventurous spirit from an early age.
Oh, I did!
How did it go?
It was pretty awkward. It was with a friend who was staying over. But it was a first experience, I guess.
Would you say that things have changed a lot for gay people since you were a kid?
I think so. We can get married now.
Why are there so many gay men at the top of the fashion business?
I don’t know. There are plenty of straight men in fashion as well. There are also plenty of straight women in fashion. I wouldn’t really single gay men out. The people I admire most in fashion are straight women. Coco Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli. I consider them to be the most important designers in the history of fashion—the most inventive and creative, and they’re all women. So there you go.
What about the ‘misogynist’ brush that some people like to tar all gay designers with?
I don’t think we get accused of that so much with what we do. First of all there’s no real vulgarity and there isn’t that kind of misogynous approach. We don’t bind women or objectify them sexually. I don’t think the style of the clothes we make would put me in that category. More appropriate perhaps in other cases…
You’re not going to name any names?
Damn! What’s your secret to surviving the queer curse of Paris fashion houses? Galliano and McQueen have come and gone at Dior and Givenchy, but you remain in command at Louis Vuitton, where you’ve been since 1997.
I think I’m just very passionate about making clothes and I guess if there is a secret it’s having a very good team of people who also share that passion and natural curiosity for taking on something new each season, which keeps it sort of fresh and surprising and challenging for us. As long as the will is there and you work with a group of creative and able people then you can continue to produce season after season.
Is being a fashion designer a lonely business? It can look that way sometimes, to us civilians.
No, I don’t feel that it is, not for me. Every day I spend a lot of time with people I admire and respect and actually really like—and hopefully like me as well. Both for Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton. So I’m not alone. I also have a great group of friends whom I’m inspired by, although I don’t get to see nearly as much of them as I’d like to. So I wouldn’t say my life is very lonely.
What do you think of the presidential candidates’ presentation? Any style tips for them?
I’m just going to say that I’m going to vote for Barack Obama. I think he did a great job as President and I’d love to see him serve again. That’s all I’ll say.
C’mon! I’m trying to get you to be shallow here!
I know people make a big deal about what they look like, but to me it really doesn’t matter. The qualities I look for in a President or a First Lady are an ability to run the country and be intelligent and honest. I really don’t give a toss about what they wear!
I however did give a toss or two over what you and Eddie were wearing to the beach in those Rio snaps—Speedos. The much-maligned anatomically-correct Ozzie beachwear looked spiffing on both of you.
I only get the chance to go to the beach once, maybe twice, a year and I love to catch the sun, so wearing knee-length board-shorts seems counterproductive. I like to lie on the beach and tan wearing as little as possible. I like to be as close to naked as I can be.
And God bless you for that. Do you have any plans for your half-century this April?
Currently I’m planning to go to Rio and spend a nice time with Eddie. I’m not having a big party or anything like that. I don’t like celebrating birthdays. I know everyone says 50 is a big deal but it’s just another year as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t want to make a fuss of it.
Either way, in or out of Speedos, we can be sure you won’t be looking 50 in April.
Mark Simpson interviews David Halperin about his controversial new book How To Be Gay at Out.com
I’ve always been a big fan of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Doris Day. But it was a secret, shameful love – until, that is, David Halperin’s new book, How to Be Gay (Harvard University Press), finally gave me the strength to come out about it. Talking about gay culture can make people of all persuasions very angry indeed. When Halperin began teaching a course on it at the University of Michigan called “How to Be Gay: Male Homosexuality and Initiation” back in 2000, it caused a national scandal: He was inundated with outraged, abusive emails, politicians tried to axe funding for his university, and his course was denounced on Fox News, as well as in some corners of the gay press.
SIMPSON: How on earth did your charming—entirely chaste—course on gay initiation manage to upset so many people, straight and gay?
HALPERIN:It was the title. Conservatives in the United States had long suspected that college professors aim to convert straight teenagers to homosexuality; now they had the proof. And gay people in the United States get very upset at the slightest implication that any aspect of homosexuality might not be inborn. Of course, I was neither trying to convert straight students nor suggest that people become gay because they are recruited into the homosexual lifestyle. But in order to understand that, you would have had to read the entire course description, not just the title. It’s interesting, though, that gay culture should be more scandalous nowadays than gay sex.
If you’re doing it right… Do you expect your book to cause a similar outcry? Do you want it to?
I never like to upset people, and I don’t aspire to be polemical, but I have a point of view to defend and I think the book is going to be controversial because it celebrates the fact that gay men are not exactly like everybody else. In an era of gay assimilation, the notion of gay difference arouses a lot of doubt and suspicion.
Is it true to say that the gay culture you are writing about is mostly the “gay sensibility” – the subcultural appropriation and subversion of mainstream straight culture that characterized pre-Stonewall gay life? Judy! Joan! Oklahoma!
Yes, I’m interested in the persistence of that subcultural appropriation at a time when gay people have now created their own culture. I love that new, post-Stonewall gay culture, but it has trouble competing with the appeal of those traditional icons or their contemporary descendants, like Lady Gaga, and I wanted to find out why. I wanted to know why gay men in particular still thrill to divas and train wrecks when they have original works of gay fiction, movies, and pop culture that feature gay men instead.
Why has the out-and-proud gay identity failed to kill off the self-loathing, closeted gay sensibility?
Because gay identity can’t contain the full play of gay desire. I discovered this when I taught a class on contemporary gay male literature a dozen years ago — I expected gay male students to like such a class. But they got bored with the reading and amused themselves instead by drawing cartoons on the attendance sheet, portraying the members of the class — including me — as characters from The Golden Girls or Steel Magnolias. That’s when I realized I was doing something wrong and decided to teach “How to Be Gay.”
Does the fact that you’re in many ways an outsider on gay culture make you the right or the wrong person to write this book?
Both. I spend a lot of time reconstructing laboriously and imprecisely what many gay men already know. I’m sure they could do it better, but they aren’t talking, except in one-liners. It takes someone who doesn’t get it on the first take to work out the logic. I wish someone else would do the explaining, but it looks like I have to.
How bad at being gay are you? Embarrassing examples, please.
Terrible, truly terrible. I’m not a very camp person; I’m very serious. I spent the first several decades of my life absorbing high culture — studying Greek tragedy, German music, American politics. I thought the appeal of Judy Garland to gay men was a profound enigma. I hated disco and loved rock music. I was a junkie for meaning.
Tell me about your “mother” — or rather, the fact that you didn’t have one. Do you wish you’d had an older gay male confidante who taught you about gay culture?
Well, from time to time in my youth I would meet a wise old queen — that is, someone in their early thirties — who would explain to me why my idiotic notions about gay romance were wrong. But in some respects, my “mother” turns out to have been an Australian boyfriend half my age who made me watchThe Women about 20 years after I came out.
To my undying shame, I only saw that film myself a year ago. So many great, instructive lines: “Cheer up, Mary, living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
Golly, I’d forgotten those. How about “Pride’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford”?
Back in the ’70s, when I came out, I saw no need for a mother. Like many gay people of my generation, I thought homosexuality was just a sexual orientation — I resisted being initiated into a separate culture. I just wanted to know how to find guys who would sleep with me, how to be sexually fulfilled, how to have a successful love affair.
Of course, it turns out that gay culture was full of information about that topic, but the information it offered seemed mostly useless or homophobic; it implied that the object of gay desire did not exist. Now, after decades of disillusionment, we may be coming round to some of those radical insights. But that will be the subject of my next book!
What will it be called? There Is No Great Dark Man?
Perhaps After Sexuality, Love.
A cherished line of mine in your book is ‘Sometimes I think homosexuality is wasted on gay people.’ Why are gays these days so keen to out-straight the straights?
They’ve been bought off with promises of normality, and their social worlds have been destroyed, so they lack the context and the courage to claim their cultural heritage, to the genius of being queer. They still produce cultural breakthroughs of brilliance, but they aren’t comfortable taking credit for them.
Is it a paradox that the resurgence of biological explanations of homosexuality has coincided with the dominance of the line “gays are just like everyone else,” except even more boring?
It’s kind of weird that so much of the gay movement embraces that bogus gay science, because that’s the one area in which claims of gay difference are triumphing in a kind of return to Victorian notions about congenital abnormality. You would think gay people would prefer to think of themselves as culturally different rather than biologically different. But here you can measure the effect in the United States of religiously inspired homophobia: In order to dodge the implication that homosexuality is a sinful choice, gay people are willing to accept biological determinism.
Believing that you only suck cock because God made you do it is kinda kinky, though. Are you a bit of a gay chauvinist. Do you believe that being gay is better than being straight?
Yes, I am and I do. At least, I can’t imagine living any other way, or wanting to. I certainly think being gay is better than being a straight man. But then nobody really likes straight men, except for some misguided gay guys.
I know I’m hopelessly misguided, but I do think straight men make the best bottoms. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether you might not have too much faith in heterosexuality. After all, howstraightis straight these days?
Straight people these days may often be highly perverse, but that doesn’t make them gay. They would like to think they’re queer — the category “queer” is the greatest gift gay people ever gave straight people, because it allows straight people to claim an edgy, transgressive identity without having to do anything icky — but that’s just their usual insistence on being the everyman.
But you admit that some of your best “How to Be Gay” students were straight…
Yes, they were. There are lots of straight people who understand gay male culture better and who enjoy it more than gay men. There are numbers of straight people who are culturally gay, but gayness also involves that extra little sexual thing… It’s not a lot, but it adds something.
After teaching this course for a while and writing this book, are you any campier? Do you watchGlee?Desperate Housewives? Even Joan Crawford movies, when you’re not using them in class?
No, I still hate popular culture. I did love Desperate Housewives, even if it declined after the first season. But then, its producer was a great comic gay writer. I loved it for the same reason I loved Serial Mom: It produced such a demented version of normal life. I do think working on this book made me a lot gayer; I’m much more willing to claim my cultural birthright as a gay man in everything, from the kind of music I like to the kind of food I eat. But I’m still a desperate case, and I have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of you.
By Mark Simpson (Arena Hommes Plus, Winter-Spring 2011)
‘A few months ago there was a British boxing team training at my gym,’ recalls Yuri Foreman, in his charming, easy-going Russian accent. ‘I saw the young kids, 12, 13, and, well, they looked just like Russians. They all looked very tough, y’know. Tough faces. Wiry bodies. They walk around in the winter in t-shirts!’
They’re hard, I say.
‘Yeah, very hard. They had hard accents too!’
Ah, they must have been Northern. You on the other hand are a very pretty looking Russian. And I don’t mean that as an insult.
‘Haha! Believe me, I’m taking it as a compliment!’
You get the feeling that some boys have taken up boxing because they want their face made a bit uglier, if you know what I mean.
‘Yes, I do.’
You managed to keep your face pretty, Yuri.
‘Yes, they say in boxing you need to be careful of boxers with pretty faces because it means they’ve got good defences. They know how to fight.’
YURI Foreman, the Lion of Zion, the Jewish-Russian Israeli who boxes with a Star of David on his shorts, certainly knows how to fight. How to stand his ground and come first in a world that sometimes seems to want you to come last. The first Jewish WBA champion in 30 years and the first Israeli ever to win a world title (the Israeli VP recently called him up on his cell phone to tell him how proud Israel was of him). The first to box in Yankee Stadium since Muhammad Ali took on Ken Norton in 1976. And in a couple of years time when he finishes his studies of the Talmud and Jewish mysticism – which he takes in the morning, before he goes to Gleason’s gym, Brooklyn, in the afternoon to spar and pummel – he will also be the world’s first professional boxing rabbi.
Some find all this a bit difficult to swallow. The stereotype of Jews as rather more intellectual than physical is a popular one. On his chat show recently an incredulous Jimmy Kimmel demanded of Yuri: ‘I wanna see some proof that you’re Jewish!’ ‘After…,’ Yuri parried, without missing a beat, to loud audience laughter. Yuri is fast on his feet.
Just like Muhammad Ali – a fast-talker and even faster mover who used to brag about having a pretty face and how he was gonna keep it that way. Ali was one of Yuri’s boxing heroes. ‘I watched lot of his boxing tapes. He was a pioneer. He was a new kind of boxer. Y’know, when I was a kid doing shadow boxing I was always trying to kind of imitate him in some kind of way. A heavyweight staying on his toes for 15 rounds. Amazing. Mike Tyson was also a huge hero of mine. Marvin Marvellous Hadler, Ray Leonard. And Rocky Balboa, of course!’
Mike Tyson liked to trash talk – like David Haye the British heavyweight champion who recently got into trouble for saying his upcoming fight against Audley Harrison was going to be “as one-sided as a gang rape”. Has the boxing rabbi ever trash-talked?
‘No, never! I don’t believe in trash talk,’ Yuri asserts, passionately. ‘Boxing is a very physical sport but it’s also a mind game. You have to have a very strong mental and spiritual edge. Sometimes boxers trash talk because they want to impress the audience, and sometimes they do it because they need to pump themselves up. They might be a bit vulnerable there – not so strong. Listen, you can talk all you want but at the end of the day you have to use not your mouth but your fists and brain. Trash talk is for the playground.’
Perhaps this is why his namesake the legendary George Foreman (‘Yuri’ means ‘George’ in Russian), who himself has found God (it happens more than you might think to ex-boxers), approves of Yuri. ‘Everyone tells me that Yuri is just the best man you could ever meet. You don’t hear that about boxers today. Everybody wants to imitate Mike Tyson. But this Yuri Foreman seems to carry the baggage of decency, and I like that about him.’
In fact, while it’s just about possible to beat Yuri in the ring – he lost his WBA title to Miguel Cotto this June at that Yankee Stadium fight after an old knee injury flared up – it’s utterly impossible to dislike him.
Yuri Foreman was born August 5, 1980, in Gomel, second largest city in Belarus, then part of the Soviet Union, and the hometown of dimple-chinned Jewish action hero Kirk Douglas’ parents. Just 170 miles south from the birthplace of another heroic Yuri whom Mr Foreman strikes me, only slightly fancifully, as facially resembling: Yuri Gagarin. And barely 50 miles north of Chernobyl which exploded when Yuri was just seven years old, forcing his evacuation to Estonia for three months. So in a sense Yuri was born between the technological highs and lows of the Soviet Union. Which collapsed just a month after his family left for Israel in 1991. ‘It couldn’t live without us!’ he quips.
Yuri took up boxing when he was seven. He had started the sport programme all children had to undertake in the USSR, choosing swimming – but was being bullied by older kids and came home with bruises on his face. His mother wasn’t impressed and took him to a boxing gym. ‘She thought, “Oh, he will just go to boxing for a while and learn enough to see off the bullies,” but it didn’t work out that way of course. I ended up dropping the swimming and took up boxing instead.’ But not before running into one of his Pool Bullies and settling the score, just like in the movies.
Yuri was the youngest in the group of young boxers in Gomel and keen to impress his trainer. ‘I was quite proud when he used me as an example to the older kids – “See how Yuri is hitting the bag non-stop!” In addition to loving the atmosphere – and smell – of the boxing gym, Yuri credits his hero-worship of his trainer with inspiring his love of boxing. ‘He had a very strong personality, was very funny, very strict and very muscly. I didn’t want to let him down. It’s funny because the other day I was reading an interview with him in a newspaper from Belarus, and he told a story I remembered very well. I had my first fight when I was 7 1/2 and I lost the fight. I was in locker room, crying because I was ashamed. He came and comforted me and told me, “You know what? You’re going to be a professional world champion one day.” I was like ‘Wow!’ Again, just like in the movies: Yuri’s life is the kind story of struggle that Hollywood used to love telling.
On arrival in Israel Yuri and the other Russian migrants were greeted at the airport by Israelis with wedges of fresh oranges: ‘I never tasted anything so sweet and delicious before. I thought we had arrived in paradise.’ But pretty soon he realised that Israel wasn’t paradise – at least, not for Russian immigrants in Haifa in the 1990s. School was entirely in Hebrew, and he wasn’t welcome. ‘I had a lot of fights in school. I wasn’t accepted. There was always a gulf between native Israelis and Russian immigrants. At 15-16 I felt they hated me and I wanted to return the favour, y’know?’
His family’s new life was tough. His father got a job cleaning offices which Yuri would help him with after school. In the Summer Yuri worked on construction sites with Arabs, seven days a week. There was no boxing gym in Haifa, the third largest city in Israel. But in a nearby Arab village there was. Young Yuri decided to train there. The Arabs weren’t very welcoming either, to begin with. ‘They set up a sparring match for me with one of their boxers. In the beginning they try to kill you, then they see that you can actually box and defend yourself and so they accepted me. It’s like that in lots of situations in life – they don’t like you to begin with, you’re not welcome, but then they see you can fight and they accept you.’
Yuri had a glittering amateur boxing career in Israel, winning national champion three times. ‘I could have just stayed there and been four or five or six times Israeli champion, but that’s pretty much it. Basically I was stuck with the question, “What do I want to do in my life?” What I wanted was to pursue my dreams, my career. I wanted to be a boxer. And New York is home of boxing. I made a decision. I remember my Dad came home from work and I told him “Dad, I want to move to New York and try my best over there. He was silent for five seconds and then he said, “OK”. And that was it. He bought me my ticket.’
There were no wedges of fresh orange at JFK. Life was even harder in New York. ‘I had always wanted to go to America, and always had big, big idea that when I got there life, for some reason, was not going to be that difficult. Not so difficult as being an immigrant in Israel. But it was MORE difficult, because I didn’t have my family or friends. It was very tough. I had to find a job right away to support myself and found job in Lower Manhattan’s Garment District, pushing clothes racks. Working for my American Dream.’ Yuri worked from 9-6 and then ‘trying really hard not to forget the reason I actually came to the US’ he would force himself to go training at Gleason’s.
There’s a sign on the wall of that gym quoting Virgil: ‘Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands.’ Yuri put up his hands. And loved it. ‘It was like a lot of adrenaline! It was completely different experience for me. In Israel the boxing gyms are very small, with one ring, or no ring and just a few bits and pieces of equipment. Gleason’s has four rings, jump ropes, heavy bags, speed bags. I felt like “I’m in the right place now.” The fact this was the gym they used in Rocky made it all the more exciting for Yuri, who’d named his childhood dog, a Caucasian shepherd, after Sylvester Stallone’s dogged, everyman boxer who just wont quit.
Gleason’s was very well equipped indeed: Yuri met his wife there, Leyla Leidecker a former model from Hungary, and also a featherweight amateur boxer. ‘It’s very much a modern kind of place where you meet your soul-mate,’ he laughs. ‘If you can handle her in the ring you might get along!’ Their first date was in Gleason’s, attending a fight. ‘She’s a very smart girl as well as very beautiful and I’m trying to catch up with her.’ It was Leyla who introduced him to Rabbi Dovber Pinson, who is training Yuri to be a Rabbi. Like his hero Ali, Yuri found his identity through a religious awakening in adulthood.
‘In Israel I stayed away from religion, like my parents who are secular,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t see the point of eating kosher or not using electricity on the Sabbath.’ It was only in the US, cut off from his family and struggling to survive that he started to take an interest in Judaism. ‘I was so physically and emotionally drained that I needed a little bit of spiritual backbone. We could barely afford the rent, we didn’t have much money for food – sometimes in the Summer we would go through winter clothes hoping to find some change in pocket to buy lunch.’
In search of spiritual succour they attended a lecture by the Kabbalist rabbi Pinson. ‘He was explaining that life was like two boxers in the ring sometimes life hits you so hard that you find yourself lying on your back looking at the lights. He said that boxers always find a way to get back on their feet and continue fighting. He didn’t know I was a boxer so I was quite impressed. He was young too. After a while he invited us for a Sabbath dinner. That was cool because I’d never been invited to a Sabbath dinner in Russia or Israel. And here you come to the United States and someone invites you to explore Judaism!’ Yuri’s religious fervour isn’t perhaps so odd in a boxer. After all, ‘religion’ means ‘discipline’ and boxing is nothing if not a disciplined sport that requires, during training, an almost monastic separation from the world.
Yuri is not planning to be a rabbi in a synagogue when he is ordained. ‘I’d like to work with young people. Russian kids in Israel are very far from Judaism. Judaism can help on many levels when you’re growing up, it gives you strength.’
So rabbis can be heroes too?
‘Absolutely. As human beings we are both physical beings and spiritual beings. A rabbi is a spiritual teacher but he should also use his hands – be really physical, because we are living in the physical world.’
As I wind up the interview Yuri enquires earnestly after Ricky Hatton, who has been pictured in the scandal sheets recently taking cocaine and who has just gone into rehab. Being a cynical journalist I suggest he probably went into rehab because his publicist told him to. But Yuri nobly refuses to be contaminated by my cynicism. ‘I really like Ricky,’ he says. ‘He’s a great fighter but very down-to-earth. A People’s Champ. I’d like to think he feels he’s let down his fans and he’d better clean up his act because a lot of kids consider him their hero.’
‘Plus,’ Yuri adds, laughing, ‘I bet he wears a t-shirt in the winter!’
Yuri Foreman may not wear a t-shirt in winter, but he’s plenty hard enough. Hard enough to be soft. And I doubt he’ll ever let his fans down with bad habits. An unusual kind of boxer – and an even rarer kind of hero. The real kind.
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