Pictured: Donna Summer. Why not?
With allegations of sexual abuse against pop stars, actors and high-profile business people at an all-time high, Steven Smith looks back at his own experiences as a 16-year-old on the celebrity party circuit in the late 70s. He asks whether society at the time was just as much to blame for the exploitation of teenagers as those that are having the finger pointed at them.
It’s a Monday morning. I’m at Soho Gym in Covent Garden and I’m working out. My book It Shouldn’t Happen to a Hairdresserhas been out for a month now. It’s my autobiography and follows my journey from coming out at 16 to tending to the hair of the rich and famous around the world. Though now I work mainly in the media, I still keep my scissors handy.
The book has caused quite a stir and there’s been a lot of press. Many are asking who the pop star was that seduced me when I was 16.
I decline to answer. It was not something I wanted to talk about further, plus, having worked for the tabloids for over a decade, I knew exactly where that conversation would lead. Having been harmlessly misquoted in some of the papers (one claimed that I hung out with Madonna), I still knew that interviews were a road that needed to be trodden carefully.
My phone goes. It’s a lady agent friend of mine who has been quite supportive in promoting the book.
“Hello darling. I simply couldn’t put the book down, it’s marvellous.”
She goes on to ask how the book is doing and who could imagine how difficult Katie Price could be. We both laugh, but then we get to the reason for the call.
“Darling, who was that awful pop star that seduced an innocent 16-year-old you?”
Innocent! Back in the late 70s, 16 was more like 20. Now, it’s not something that I felt was integral to my life and I won’t be naming him. But it was important to my story in the book. The gist of the call is she thinks that I should chat with one of her clients, a gorgeous police officer called Dan Neal. It could be beneficial to us both – he had read the book and was branching into showbiz.
My agent friend had always been good to me, so I agreed. Almost immediately, Dan called. He was involved with the Jimmy Saville inquiry and was making quite a name for himself (he later went on to marry Rylan Clark). Charming and full of life. He said how much he had enjoyed the book. But then came the cough!
“The pop star who seduced you when you were sixteen, would you name him?”
“No”, I replied quickly.
Dan asked if he could hazard a guess. Judging by the tennis courts in my description, was it —– ? I had heard that they were after this particular person, and funnily enough, I had met him. And a more asexual but charming person you could not want to meet. (Although rumours of his early years hold that he was rampant – but not with young men.)
“No, it was not.”
He went on about his duty to uncover these people.
Cutting Dan off, I pointed out that I was not about to be induced to join a witch hunt. There was a big difference between boys and girls who had been groomed (or been downright taken advantage of) and the youths who attended parties and venues dressed like they were in their twenties, who were desperate to bag a pop star or anyone in the limelight. Back in the 70s, 16-years-olds were very independent, with some passing themselves off as 20-something.
Many of them only seem to have decided they were taken advantage of after the star has died or when they’re in their late 50’s, when many (I’ve found, having done research) have money problems.
In the late 70s no-one asked for ID or carried it. We grew up in an era when, as soon as you could carry a bag of newspapers, you had a job as a paperboy. I was working at ten.
Benny Hill chasing a woman dressed as a schoolgirl around the garden and Barbara Windsor being sexually harassed dressed as a nurse in the “Carry On” films was acceptable in comedy, and for many in the UK (and the US) it still is.
When I was 16 the club to go to was BANGS! On Tottenham Court Road on Monday nights, Donna Summer blasted from the speakers and we dressed to impress. We danced on the stage as the beautiful, gay, stylish and soon-to-be famous mingled in an electric atmosphere.
There was a whole group of lads and lasses aged 15-16 who lived for Monday night. It was not unusual to be approached, asked to come to other parties or asked out.
A young air steward invited me to a party one night. It was being held the following Sunday and he said that a car would be sent for me. He wouldn’t tell me whose home it was but said it would be great fun. He was very cute, and Sundays were boring.
I slipped out on the Sunday from my parents’ home and picked up the car at the end of the road, where the steward was waiting with the driver. As we reached the destination, I was stunned by what I saw – it was the most magnificent house, more of a mansion really, with fake butler and maid statues to greet you in the huge entrance hall. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.
We parked the car around the back of the house and went to meet our host on the tennis court. I was shocked when I saw who he was – he had played with one of my favourite bands when I was growing up and here he was, greeting me on his tennis court! He was down to earth and seemed genuinely interested in me. Before long we ended up in his disco, where the cocktails flowed. And so did some other things. Some of the other guests offered me cocaine and laughed when I refused.
“Hey, have you brought a good kid to the party?” they asked.
Nevertheless, one too many gin and tonics and as Dorothy Parker said, I ended up under the host. Still, it was a great day, and I went home with my host’s autograph. That was enough excitement for me.
As he brought me home, the steward suggested I might like to meet other friends of his and intimated that it could be quite profitable for me. But I was streetwise beyond my 16 years and said no, thanks.
So, I was somewhat surprised when I received a call from the star’s right-hand man asking me to come down again, which I did. I found myself liking the guy, who even played a song for me on his piano, across from his statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Really, I preferred T-Rex. He sent cars for me several times and we even watched a movie in his cinema room.
He only stopped sending for me after I told him that I’d mentioned the visits to my family. He almost passed out! After all, I was still only 16. This, despite me pointing out that I’d been in the theatre and it wouldn’t seem unusual that I was hanging out with the likes of him.
Still, much as his interest in me waned once he discovered that, he still invited me to the parties. They were great fun and he always got me home safely.
All these years later, though, whenever I smell Opium perfume, I think of him. The fragrance filled the bathrooms in his fabulous house and I even bought some for my mother that Christmas.
One of the most wonderful moments was when a famous pop manager held a boat party along the Thames for his birthday and Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett were among the many celebrity guests. It was a dream come true and all I did was dance the afternoon away.
I was even hired briefly at the Embassy Club (in shorts).
With no age check.
Other parties were not so innocent. (Let’s not get started on the famous journalist with the three-way mirror whose parties hosted many a squaddie, some of whom went on to appear in the work of Mike Arlen (a gay photographer).
But I was lucky there was always an out. So, I never felt trapped or taken advantage of.
Of course, if I felt like playing victim I could rewrite this story in a different colour.
Many of the boys at the parties have passed on with HIV or disappeared. One or two I still bump into, and they talk of the good old times.
I’m sure that some may have regretted the follies of youth and even feel like they had been taken advantage of. But we can’t just blame the celebrities. The ’70s was a time that allowed freedom for the young and sexually promiscuous behaviour was rife.
Luckily, we have ID now and people check. I feel great empathy with those that have been hurt. But regarding those who, in their teens, labelled themselves groupies, only to say many decades later they were victims, responsibility must lie with more than one party.
There is a difference between the casting couch, grooming – and dressing up, passing yourself off as older and consenting to things.
Otherwise, it does turn into a witch hunt.
Steven is a published author, regular radio guest and has a monthly column in MilliOnAirMagazine.