April 17, 2009
He may think it’s “terrible” that there are no mushy peas served with our restaurant’s fish and chips, but Piers Morgan happily wolfs down a dish of parmesan- coated courgette batons. Ever since Morgan, 44, was fired as the Editor of the Daily Mirror in 2004 over pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners that were subsequently claimed to be a hoax, he has become used to the finer things. Thanks to his friend Simon Cowell he has become a television star, a winning contestant on the American Celebrity Apprentice, and a judge on America’s Got Talent and its British counterpart, a new series of which starts on Saturday. His ITV one-on-one interview show has been re-ordered for a longer run next year. He reveals that he is at “an advanced stage” with NBC for making an American version of it. “It would be the first time since Frost, a great hero of mine, that anyone had a transatlantic chat show.”
You can probably hear the tone of voice: self-assured, boastful, posh from his middle-class Sussex childhood, peppered with regular-bloke glottal stops and dropped consonants. He’s Teflon to any criticism, which is handy as it keeps on coming. Many claim that he is smarmy, self- satisfied, “a fat arrogant git” is one of the insults he himself invokes. Private Eye called him “the Boy Morgan” when he was a young tabloid editor and latterly “Piers Moron”. He doesn’t care: he’s raking it in and living fabulously. His greatest fear? “To be forced to do a job I hated.”
Even his detractors might concede that his writing has had its moments. The Insider, his first set of diaries, wittily and gruesomely sketched the absurd highs and grubby lows of a tabloid editor. His new book, God Bless America: Misadventures of a Big Mouth Brit, takes us into the more dreary dahling-dahling territory of Morgan: the Celebrity Years. There are nice snippets — notably a valedictory airport encounter with Tony Blair while Heather Mills desperately tries to get the latter’s attention — but it has none of the skewering merits of The Insider. However, as an interviewer and diarist, he is still the tabloid terrier ferreting for salacious titbits: on Sunday Richard Madeley revealed on his show that he had cheated on his first wife ten times.
Morgan doesn’t accept the “mocking the afflicted” criticism made of Britain’s Got Talent, although he smiles at the alternative name, Britain’s Got Special Needs, that a fellow crew member gave it. “We don’t exploit anybody. If we feel someone is losing it we stop filming. My role in the British one is to be a foil for Cowell. In America I play the villain.”
Growing up, he was “always a bit of show-off. It was incredibly happy and stable. I’ve tried to come up with some clouds, make one of those misery documentaries. I said to my dad, ‘Can’t we come up with some beatings, say you stubbed out some cigarettes on me? We could make some money, shift half a million books’.” His parents ran a country pub. “I read newspapers avidly, particularly head- lines. I always wanted to be a journalist.”
He loved music, television, This is Your Life, Frost and Parky. “When I read books on holiday it’s always biographies. I don’t care if they’re about Matisse, Margaret Thatcher or Jade Goody. I’m fascinated by people’s lives. When I interview people, I think, ‘What if Sharon Osbourne came in to the pub, what would everyone want to know?’ ” When he got the Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg to confess to having sex with “no more than 30” women, Morgan “teed him up” with some questions about the importance of openness in public life. “And there you go: that’s his obituary headline. He didn’t have to answer. I’m not sure it necessarily did him damage, although he might have had a conversation with Mrs Clegg when he got home.”
Morgan’s first job was on a South London paper. He recalls reporting on a group of 19 prostitutes arrested in a crackdown and going for the “poor exploited women” angle only to hear one of the girls tell the judge: “How do you expect me to pay the bleeding fine when every time I go out to make money you nick me?”
He also reported on the Brixton Riots of 1985. “I saw the pressure building in communities. There’s a similar situation now. I think there’ll be real payback. In the cities you have got total lawlessness on the streets.” Really? Total lawlessness? “It’s not necessarily there in the figures, but in terms of an underclass of kids abandoned by the establish- ment and by their fathers in some cases. The gangs are all they have. Thirty kids stabbed on the streets of London last year doesn’t tell me crime is getting any better.”
Morgan became editor of Bizarre, the Sun’s showbusiness section, then (at 28) the youngest Editor of the News of the World, before becoming Editor of the Mirror. Now he judges tap-dancing dogs and holds forth on issues of the day. He “isn’t sure” that entering politics is for him. The political system would work better if its members weren’t “completely exhausted”, he says. “Why do they vote at 10 o’clock at night? No reason. Tradition? Change the tradition. It’s bad for MPs and bad for the country. The media is obsessed with high-profile people having to lose their jobs. It’s pretty distasteful to watch.”
But he was part of that baying mob as an editor? “I changed my mind,” he shoots back. “The media were more interested in me losing my job than they were with investigating what we had published. There was a bigger story.” Does Morgan stand by the story? “No one knows the truth about those pictures.” Was he unfairly sacked? “The heat was on. The [Trinity Mirror] shareholders were getting uptight about it. I’m not sure it was right to take that decision without knowing the facts. “But I was getting bored. I enjoyed our campaign against the war in Iraq and 9/11. There will never be bigger stories than those, Dunblane and Diana’s death. I was there for Blair, the Royal Family. It was the great tabloid decade. I was slightly piqued that I got no recognition for the campaigning.
“I was frogmarched out. It could have been done in a more dignified way. But it liberated me. I would probably be dead by now, considering the pace I was going at. I had a huge physical crash afterwards. I never get depressed. Maybe for an hour sometimes. I read papers now with amusement and interest, but never think: ‘I wish I was there’.” Would he ever return to editing? “I never say never. But fewer newspapers are being sold. There’s a migration to online. All my ex-editor friends are knackered.”
Anyway, he loves his TV life. “Where do I start? The freebies, upgrades, best tables in restaurants. I did a ‘real job’ for 20 years. Now I do a bit of judging and interviewing. People treat me differently because I’m a celebrity. I couldn’t give a toss about intrusion. When I get chased by the paparazzi I chase them back. I want to be in the papers. At least I’m honest about it. I haven’t got ‘Hugh Grant syndrome’, chucking baked bean tins at photographers, then smiling at them at my next movie premiere to promote my sorry little ass.”
Some celebrities haven’t taken kindly to Morgan’s self-glorying presence. Jeremy Clarkson punched him, Robbie Coltrane threatened to do the same “and couldn’t go through with it, the big Jessie”. He boasts: “I work out a bit. I’ve got quite good guns [biceps; he flexes them]. In America they’re obsessed with how you look. I refuse to have plastic surgery, Botox or dye my hair. The only concession I make is to be reasonably fit. I like to eat well and drink fine wine in large quantities, so have to make an effort. The Hoff [David Hasselhoff, a fellow judge on America’s Got Talent] and I were in the gym with Mariah Carey’s trainer Nick Cannon lifting ludicrous weights. The Hoff said: ‘He may be the Cannon, but we’ve still got the guns’.” Yeugggh.
Has he really had nothing done? He looks suspiciously baby-faced. “Nothing at all. This does move,” he says, wrin- kling his forehead. “I’ve got very good skin. I’ve never had facials, I don’t use a moisturiser, I think they’re a scam. I lie in the sun all day. Having been called ‘the boy Morgan’ for so long I can’t wait to get a few flecks of grey. It’s distinguished for an interviewer. I’ve got a couple of hundred quid bet with Cowell that I’ll never have anything done. He’s had Botox. I have had my teeth whitened once. It was f***ing painful. But what you see is what you get. I’m au naturel, mate. I’ve got wrinkles, I like women with wrinkles. I’m in my 40s and feel fitter than when I was 18.”
Morgan has three children (Spencer, 15, Stanley, 11 and Bertie, 8) with his former wife Marion and is now with the journalist Celia Walden, who he met when writing a profile for a magazine. He says he gets lots of attention. “The more telly you do, the more attractive you become. There was a wild party after the American Celebrity Apprentice. I was with my mother and sister. This stunning blonde of about 25 gave me a piece of paper and said: ‘That’s my phone number. Call me any time. Trust me, I ain’t no apprentice’. What a brilliant line. My mother said: ‘If that’s what I think it is, darling, put it in the bin’.”
On the show, Morgan became volcanically angry when another contestant, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, said his kids hated him and that he was a “faggot”. “I won’t have my children bought into things,” he says. “They mean more to me than anything I do professionally. I don’t mind whoring myself and playing the celebrity game. But once you start deliberately using kids in interviews to promote yourself for commercial benefit you cross the line. I’ll never sell my wedding. I’m sure I would be offered a fortune but I wouldn’t take a penny.”
Did full-on tabloid editing affect his parenting? “They had a very good mother. They’ve always been loved by everyone around them.” Was Morgan around enough? “No, but who is? I am now.” But he’s away four months a year filming. “Yes, it’s never ideal. I would much prefer to live with my children. Unfortunately the relationship with their mother broke down and we got divorced. I see them whenever I want. I talk to them every day.”
As a tabloid editor he wallowed in high-profile marital breakdowns when he was going through the same, I point out. “It’s true that towards the end it was the serious stuff I enjoyed, not the celebrity exposure because I had my own problems. I knew how bad the fallout could be. When you are a 28-year-old Editor you’re carefree, it’s a laugh. When you’re 37 and you’ve split up from your wife and separated from your kids, it’s a different ballgame.” He adds emphatically that “love is the most important thing in the world; without it everything else is rather meaningless. I don’t like being on my own. It’s not a natural state for a human being to live.” Will he marry Walden? “I don’t know. You’ll be the first to know if I do. I’m certainly very happy.”
He thought “I love this person” when her laughter pealed above the booing and catcalls at an awards bash. “She comes shopping to Miami, Seattle, New York. What girl is not going to love weekend trips to these places? She knows which side her bread is buttered. I’d have no objection to having kids with her. Pablo Picasso was still banging them out when he was 86. I see bits of myself in my children. The youngest one is stubborn and determined to win. The middle one is a showman, the social organiser. The eldest has a fantastically advanced sense of humour, sarcasm and irony. He loves tormenting me.”
Many critics do the same. “One said recently: ‘There’s no other word for him but ‘wanker’,” Morgan recalls. “But a lot of people I know are wankers and I like them. My persona polarises people: half love me, half want to kill me. I don’t think I am a wanker in real life. My ‘personality’ probably is, yeah. I’d hate it if I was called a terrible father rather than a wanker. If I get stitched up in an interview I’ll come back and take my revenge.” He looks at me meaningfully.
Who is he if not the panto baddie? “I’m not quiet but I am less inflammatory, less overtly self-confident. I am probably more sensitive than people think, more generous. You have to project supreme self-confidence as a tabloid editor, but underneath of course you have self-doubt and after you are sacked you are not sure what to do next, whether you’ll be successful ever again or if you’re a washed-up has-been. But I’m positive. I’ve got columns, my GQ interviews, TV shows. I’m easily pleased: give me a cricket match, a ticket to Arsenal, my kids, Celia, my family. My celebrity, celebrity itself, is ludicrous. I find it wonderfully preposterous and fabulously fun to milk for all it’s worth.”
What if it ends? “You become a sad old git who used to be Piers Morgan. You can get a few late-night reality appearances on Channel 5 out of that,” he says blithely. “It would make a great book. I could end up like Alan Partridge.”
Could he exist out of the public eye? “I wouldn’t chase after that particular rainbow. I accept that the way I do it is to be controversial. I don’t care about the fallout, I find it funny. I expect my views to be taken more seriously than my judging a piano-playing pig. I can deliver populist soundbites, but I believe what I say. I don’t care about being popular. If I did I’d try to be Mr Nice Guy.”
He is bracing, very funny company. But if Morgan takes everything as a joke, and projects himself as a joke, why should we take him seriously? He begins to say “I wouldn’t take me…” then pauses. “It’s horses for courses. I’ve had ten years of editing newspapers pretty well. I have audiences with the prime minister. I’ve won awards. If you worry about how you come over you do what Simon Cowell says you should never do — take yourself too seriously. He gave me the biggest break of my life after I was sacked. He’s very smart, rich, an inveterate show-off, a shameless populist when he wants to be. He’s incredibly competitive, like me. That’s my overriding characteristic. If I was prime minister I’d make egg-and-spoon races compulsory. I’d introduce an hour of sport for kids every day.”
Does Morgan enjoy flirting? “Yeah, it’s fun, harmless. Celia flirts all the time. I always say flirting is where it has to end.” Are they monogamous? “Oh yeah, there’s no clos- ing of the deal. Absolutely not.” Let’s Clegg him. How many women has he had sex with: 10, 20, 30? “I’d say a gentleman would never answer that question. Men should never get into a scorecard on anything.”
Morgan has had an awareness of his mortality twice, first when he fell from a Segway. “I slammed on to the concrete. I had cracked ribs, couldn’t breathe. To my dismay it’s one of the most downloaded things on the Daily Mail website. Another time I was in a two-seater plane which Alan Sugar was piloting. He said there was a plane above us but didn’t know where it was. I thought, if we go down now, the reports would say, ‘Sir Alan Sugar dies in plane crash’. I won’t even get a mention.” It’s a brave, but thunderously unconvincing, stab at self-deprecation.