Reporters never forget their scoops. It’s that exclusive story we broke, that interview no one else got, which earned us a front-page byline and a yellowed newspaper clipping that we still cling to over the years, to remind us of how great it feels to beat the competition.
I was 22 when I met Pete Waterman at Legends, one of the biggest dance clubs in Kuala Lumpur in the 1990s. He was 45 and one of the greatest and most successful British songwriters and producers of the 1980s. It was also 1am in the morning!
He was on his way across South-East Asia to find new talent for PWL Records, which he had grown from an independent studio into a powerhouse label that engineered the breakout careers of Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley, Jason Donovan, Bananarama and Mel & Kim, to name just a very few.
PWL was at a crossroads at the time. Waterman’s collaborators – Matt Aitken, Phil Harding and Pete Hammond – had left, and so had many of his hit-making artistes. Waterman was a man who had made his fame and fortune, and now he had nothing to lose.
I had arm-twisted the record company executive to hook me up with him, after finding out he would be on a 24-hour layover in Malaysia. My editor had dangled as bait the page one of Section 2 (as it was called back then) if I could land a one-on-one with Waterman, and I wasn’t about to disappoint.
I had been a reporter with The Star for three years by then. I’d had entertainment industry-related front-page features before. But I’d also seen terrible articles ripped apart and gloriously rewritten by my editors. And I’d had stories spiked for missing deadlines.
I had also been banned by a PR company from one of their client’s events after I wrote about Richard Marx slagging off his local concert sponsor. He had found out that he was in KL on tobacco money and was not amused. But that’s another Vault story for next time.
I’d learned journalism the hard way, and I knew there was no secret formula to a great scoop. It’s generally a combination of luck (or insider info), negotiations, research, having the nerve to ask the tough questions, and hoping you’ll get no-crap-to-give answers.
So, at 1am on a balmy Friday night in October 1992, there I was in the VIP lounge of Legends, facing a man twice my age whose music I loved, admired, bought and respected. One of his latest acts was blaring over the speakers as I dived into my interview.
Some say you should never meet your heroes. And in the 28 years I’ve been in the news biz, I can attest that sometimes you should never interview them. Julia Roberts, for one, wasn’t really a hero but I had liked her… until I met her in 1997. But again, that’s another Vault.
Waterman wasn’t exactly rock star material. He looked like what you’d expect of a middle-aged Englishman – grey hair, a bit heavy, a lot like someone’s uncle. But he was clever, sharp, unabashed and gave one of the most brilliant interviews I’ve ever had.
The moment was absolutely surreal. We were surrounded by a very Chinese crowd that had no idea the record they were wildly dancing to – Get Ready For This by Dutch group 2 Unlimited – was another one of Waterman’s masterpieces. Mind you, they had no idea he was even there!
He was upfront about the success of Stock Aitken Waterman, and though my stomach quivered when I asked him about their failures, he was completely honest about it as well. Despite being interviewed by a kid, Waterman didn’t tame down his answers.
After an hour of chatting with him about the entire state of pop music – which, let’s be honest, was ruled by S/A/W and PWL at the time (in Britain at least) – we had finished our drinks and ran out of recording tape, just as the club was hitting its peak.
The DJ had already played a few more hits from Waterman’s stable after finding out who he was, and was banging another one out as he got up to go. We shook hands, he patted me on the back, and strode off while I sank into the sofa in disbelief. I had just interviewed Pete-bloody-Waterman!
I started writing the story that night, trying to capture the excitement, enthusiasm and energy of our meeting. In the end, after days of struggling to craft a narrative, my editor decided to run our conversation as a direct Q&A. It took three pages to contain the article.
Waterman never reclaimed the glory of those 1980s chart toppers. He never found that breakout Asian act either. But to every Kylie, Rick Astley and Bananarama fan who still sings along to I Should Be So Lucky, Never Gonna Give You Up and Love In The First Degree, he’s a champion.
And while I’ve done other memorable work for The Star since – driving around Penang with Tommy Page; chatting with the Pet Shop Boys as Neil Tennant popped grapes; reviewing Madonna’s 1993 concert in Melbourne after winning a competition for tickets – Pete Waterman will remain one of my best firsts.