Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 | 8:36 p.m.
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Longtime celebrity journalist Robin Leach looks back on his 50-year career, talking of some of his favorite stories and friends in his 50 years in the field. Also, country music star Neal McCoy remembers some of his more compelling USO tour shows and why he never performs Encores. He is at Buffalo Bill's in Primm on Saturday night.
It was a warm June afternoon in 2008. The scene could take place only in Las Vegas, and in the life of Robin Leach.
A cluster of media members was invited to view five tiger cubs under the care of famed illusionists Siegfried & Roy.
The spunky cubs were being shown to the public for the first time and were to go on display soon at the duo’s Secret Garden at the Mirage.
Siegfried & Roy and the cubs were positioned on a grassy expanse in a tented area on the grounds of their vast estate across the street from Las Vegas Municipal Golf Course.
Reporters were instructed to park in open spaces along the neighborhood’s tight streets. Reporters were led to a covered patio where pastries, juice and water were laid out as we all waited for the big unveiling.
I recall the day’s events represented one of the first assignments in the city for the Associated Press’s Las Vegas bureau reporter Oskar Garcia. We waited for quite a while, maybe a half-hour, while the staging for the cubs and the duo was completed. Suddenly, one of the estate’s groundskeepers rushed up to the group, saying, “Someone has blocked the gate! Does anyone here own a Jaguar convertible?”
“Not yet,” I said.
We all looked around. Nothing. None of us raised a hand to say, “Oh, that’s my Jag blocking the gate!”
Finally, I said, “Wait! That’s Robin’s car!”
I was speaking of Leach, of course. The groundskeeper said, “Well, it needs to be moved!” as it was parked in front of two tall gates leading into the property, with “S&R” decorating the wrought iron. There was a threat of towing if the Jag wasn’t moved. We all looked around the immediate area for Leach, and finally I said, “Check over there, in the off-limits area. I’ll bet you’ll find him there.”
Certainly, he was out there, talking with Siegfried & Roy and getting the first glimpse of the new litter. No one could begrudge Leach the special treatment, as he had been friends with the duo for decades.
So once more, Leach was not just a reporter on assignment but was embedded in the scene. But even star celebrity reporters must obey the rules of basic neighborhood parking, and Leach was summoned. He hurried through the group of awaiting journalists, calling out, “Oh, my! I am so sorry! I will move my car at once!”
I looked over at a grinning Garcia, not needing to say what I was thinking: Welcome to Vegas, and, especially, welcome to the world of Robin Leach.
Leach has lived and worked in Las Vegas for a little more than a decade, having been fascinated by the city when he began luring celebrity chefs to the then-under-construction Venetian for specials on the Food Network, a powerhouse cable channel he helped found. First it was his good friend Wolfgang Puck and his Postrio, then Emeril Lagasse with Delmonico. This was in 1995, just as “Lifestyles” had played out after 14 seasons. At that point, Leach saw an opportunity to push Las Vegas’ visual dynamism to television on a regular basis, as TV viewers love celebrities and glitz, and the Strip is famously bathed in both.
“Anybody I ever talked to in any casino was petrified of television, and I found that so sad,” Leach says. “To me, that was like a little calling, to show you how you can work with television and get shows here and promote the city, and it doesn’t take people out of the casino. ... Oprah had never done a show here. MTV had never done a show here. So we were able to steer a ton of television stuff to Vegas, and now the city was arching in terms of television. It was exploiting the city and promoting it. I really wanted shows and show business, my kind of television, and we did that.”
But today, Leach is far more a former TV personality than a current one. He is a veritable writing machine, as the host of VegasDeluxe.com, his Luxe Life blog appearing there several times a day and rolling over to LasVegasSun.com and LasVegasWeekly.com.
There is no busier journalist in the city, as Leach often pumps out 2,000 to 5,000 words of copy each day.
Leach makes no secret of his approach to reporting about Las Vegas: He focuses on the grandest megaresorts and nightclubs. He consciously appeals to readers who live outside Las Vegas, particularly those who are eager to be informed of the latest celebrity happenings on the Strip.
Thus, you will not likely see him hanging out at such local hovels as Emergency Arts or the Griffin on Fremont East.
“Not that there is anything wrong with that,” says Leach, seated in his Spanish Trail home, wearing beige linen pants and a button-down shirt whose sleeves are short and color a blazing pink. “But people who read my column are interested in the celebrities on the Strip, and not what is happening at a lounge in town.”
Leach is a writer at the core, a reality that might startle those who have observed him on the air over the past few decades. He is without question a dynamic, highly energized TV personality, but Leach first entered journalism simply to write.
“I wanted no other job than to work in newspapers,” he says. “I was fascinated by the process of collecting information, talking to people and having the story appear in a paper that would be delivered in your letterbox.”
As a 10-year-old student at Harrow County School for Boys, a working-class education facility about 10 miles outside London, Leach began peppering the editor of the hometown Harrow Observer with weekly stories about the latest happenings at his school. Those columns were printed in the Observer regularly, but little Robin received no byline or compensation for what amounted to the gossip column in the school pub, The Gayton Times.
This went on for five years. After graduation, a 15-year-old Leach walked into the Harrow Observer and was met by an editor who showed him his newsroom desk.
“We’ve been expecting you,” Leach was told.
He was hired at a rate even meager by today’s standards, about $6 a week, and thus began his career in journalism.
For one of Leach’s first stories, an article to accompany a picture page, his editor fired a dart at a map of the city on the newsroom wall. He then sent Leach to the random neighborhood the dart struck. Clad in short pants, Leach rode a bike through a downpour, waddled up to a door picked at his whim, knocked and was met by a gentleman.
“It was rare to be met at a door during the day by a man because most of the men were working during the day,” Leach recalls. So he asked, sensibly, “Why are you home?”
The man said he was busy writing a play.
“What’s it called?” Leach asked.
“Stop the World, I Want to Get Off,” said the man, who happened to be that classic production’s co-author (with Anthony Newley), Leslie Bricusse. With random timing and a couple of clear questions, Robin Leach had his first scoop. Years later, he watched the opening of the production at Queen’s Theater on the West End and recalled, after the show, Newley banging his head against the wall after what appeared to be a smash (so to speak) performance.
“I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he said, “ ‘I could have done it better!’ That’s what has drawn me to celebrities. A normal person does not do that.” That was 1961. By then, Leach had forged a successful career in print, working for the Daily Mail, where at age 18 he had become that publication’s youngest editor of Page One. He decided to immigrate to America, where the thirst for celebrity coverage far exceeded that of Great Britain.
Leach arrived in the states in 1963, less than a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He wrote prolifically for such publications as the New York Daily News, People (where he is particularly proud of his stretch of 11 cover stories launching the vastly popular magazine) and Ladies’ Home Journal. He launched the weekly pop-music magazine Go (a forerunner to Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone) and was later the entertainment editor of The Star. He strayed into celebrity broadcast journalism as one of the first on-air personalities, producers and field reporters for “Entertainment Tonight,” helping secure an interview with Siegfried & Roy on that show’s debut in September 1981.
Leach spent three years, which he recalls as a largely frustrating period, working on “E.T.”
“We’d go into these houses and we would interview people, and instead of talking about the house that they lived in, we would talk about how they were stretching and wanting to do Shakespeare in Central Park,” he recalls, his voice rising with indignation. “But there was nobody who had said, ‘Why don’t we shoot the living room and shoot the pool room and bathroom and the swimming pool?’ ”
Convinced TV viewers would want to delve into the undercarriage of celebrities’ home lives and their vast estates, Leach teamed with his longtime friend and “E.T.” founder, the late Al Masini, for an idea to create a syndicated show where a host would crisscross the globe, playing off celebrities’ pride in their estates and feeding a yet-unmet need for viewers to visit the homes of Liberace and Elizabeth Taylor and the like. The readily recognizable phrase “Champagne wishes and caviar dreams” was developed by Leach and Masini during an evening of getting bombed on the bubbly, and to this day fans still shout that phrase at Leach.
In a move that helped shape the latter stages of his career, Leach decided not to hire a star actor — whom he has never identified — as host of “Lifestyles,” as that individual commanded too high a price tag.
The show ran through 1995, employing Shari Belafonte as a co-host in its final season. Leach then parlayed his connections in the celebrity chef culture to start the Food Network, selling his equity in the breakthrough network “quite lucratively,” and through those culinary connections, turned his attention to Las Vegas.
The move to Las Vegas has done nothing to temper Leach’s image as a gallivanting celebrity journalist who sips Cristal and is just as likely to walk the red carpet as cover it. But he resists wholly accepting his status as a true celebrity, although he remains a universally identifiable figure. Observing such celebrities as Flavor Flav, Fergie and Neil Diamond spotting Leach on a red carpet and swiftly moving over to him shows he is atypical among those who work the carpet.
Still, he says, “I try to tell the story, always. I do not want to be part of it.” He allows that he does have a public image, but it is largely a role he plays.
“There is this image of a guy in a hot tub, drinking champagne with two buxom blondes,” he says, of course understanding that image came to the fore because he often finds himself in such circumstances. “But that is not the real me. I am a father, and I am a grandfather, too.”
When Leach leaves his post each summer, it is to spend time with his family at his estate in Italy and also in La Jolla, Calif, as he loves spending time near the water. Married once and divorced, he has three sons: Steven lives near La Jolla, Rick in Washington, D.C., and Greg in Santa Barbara, Calif. Leach has four grandchildren: Twins Jack and Meg are 14, Brandon is 8, and Gianna is 2. Of possibly remarrying, Leach says, “Been there, done that.”
But Leach does still hold a strong bond with his family, and the public Leach and his more private persona once clashed years ago at, of all places, Costco on Martin Luther King Drive.
Buying provisions for an upcoming family trip to Lake Powell, Colo., Leach was practically unrecognizable, having pulled a ball cap over his face. At checkout for what was a pretty substantial haul even by Costco standards, a siren went off. Balloons and confetti descended upon his shoulders.
“I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ ” Leach says, laughing at the memory. “What is with all this confetti?”
Turns out, Mr. Rich and Famous had just made the first $1,500 order in the history of the MLK Costco in Las Vegas. It was cause célèbre!
“It could have been anybody,” Leach says, still chuckling.
But it was not anybody. It was Robin Leach. And somehow, it all makes sense.