Three Minute Squiz With… Neale Whitaker

You probably know him as the urbane, quick-witted judge on the top-rating TV show, The Block – but did you also know that Neale Whitaker started his illustrious media career as a protege of the London PR woman who was the inspiration for Absolutely Fabulous? Or that the Vogue Living editor-at-large dreams of drinking bourbon with Billie Holiday? Or that he’s on Team Wallpaper? Read on!

Where, when and how do you Squiz?
Preferably with my first Nespresso of the day. Sometimes on my laptop but generally on my phone. Occasionally at the gym or when I’m Uber-bound to the airport for an early flight. Always first thing.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Rochester, England, about 50km from central London. When I was born in the 60s it was in the county of Kent, but these days it feels more like part of south London’s urban sprawl. When I was five years old my parents moved to Margate on the south-east coast. That’s where I grew up, by the English seaside.

What was the first concert you ever went to?
I’m not sure if it was the first concert I ever attended (I think that dubious honour goes to a 70s British pop band called Showaddywaddy) but the first one I remember really clearly was Stevie Wonder. I would have been 15 or 16 and I went with my brother. Stevie was joined on stage by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. It was pretty special.

Before arriving in Australia you had a busy career in the UK, including working for Lynne Franks, the legendary PR maven said to have been the inspiration for the TV comedy series Absolutely Fabulous. Two questions: 1. On a scale of one to 10, how accurate was Jennifer Saunders’ portrayal? and; 2. What lessons did you learn in that job?
Jennifer Saunders’ Eddi was a brilliant comic creation, but on an authenticity scale it would only be a 5/10. There were elements of Lynne like the fashion victim excess – that were captured perfectly, and others that bore no relation to the switched-on publicist I remember. Lynne Franks was and still is a savvy, creative and passionate woman who to the best of my knowledge rarely touched a glass of Bolly. What I learned in that early 1980s job (my first) was the power of left-field thinking (long before anyone used the word disruption), a fledgeling understanding of PR and marketing, and affirmation that it was OK if not downright desirable to be different.

As a former editor of Belle and Vogue Living, would you say Australians have a signature style when it comes to home decorating and if so, what might that be?
It would be absurd to suggest there is a one-size-fits-all Australian style, any more than there is an equivalent singular British, American or French style. Australians are good at editing international trends and adapting them to our lifestyle. We’ve also taken ownership of indoor/outdoor balance it’s something the world has embraced from Australian interior design. One thing we definitely love in this country is mid-century Scandinavian design ironically (given its geographical heritage) it seems to work well with our climate and our light and the ‘Scandi’ look has almost become our default setting in recent years.

Danish furniture: are you a fan?
Of course, Danish furniture (I’m assuming we’re talking mid-century and later) is without peer. It’s the great chameleon of interior design. It works beautifully with almost any interior style through the genuine neutrality of an aesthetic based on precision, functionality and timelessness.

Where do you stand on wallpaper?
I’m totally on Team Wallpaper. The argument against wallpaper has become confused with the argument against the feature wall, which has in turn become confused with the feature nook. It’s not the wallpaper’s fault, it’s the way it’s often misused. Used correctly (on entire walls or in entire rooms), wallpaper can look amazing. It’s hard to argue with the brilliance and beauty of wallpaper manufacturers like Elitis, De Gournay or Cole & Son.

If there was one piece of furniture or interior design objet d’art in the world that you covet, what would it be?
I’m not especially covetous and I’m very fortunate to already own a few of my favourite design pieces by the likes of Patricia Urquiola, Tom Dixon and Vico Magistretti. But on that cloud-based wish list would be a sofa by Edra, a Dani Marti artwork, a Jan Kath carpet, original chairs by Pierre Jeanneret and almost anything created by Australian master craftsman Khai Liew. But I’m very content with what I have!

You’re hosting a dinner party for six historical figures, living or dead. Who do you invite and what do you cook them?
I’m ignoring that word historical because I really don’t want an evening with Mahatma Gandhi or Henry VIII. My crazy soiree would include Billie Holiday, Christopher Isherwood, Tracey Thorn, Joanna Lumley, and (Barneys creative director) Simon Doonan. Eye candy and tatts courtesy of (Byredo fragrance founder) Ben Gorham. Four living and two dead guests. With that lot around the table there’s no way I’m cooking. It will be Uber Eats all the way and plenty of bourbon for Billie.

Your favourite writers?
I’ve never been one of those people who reads a book over and over again. I read it once and move on to the next. In recent years I’ve devoured everything I can get my hands on by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Colm Toibin. I’m also a big fan of Indian writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai and Rohinton Mistry. I love the slow pace and exquisite detail of Indian storytelling, although I have to confess I’ve never yet finished anything by Arundhati Roy.

You’re about to return to our TV screens in the 12th series of The Block. How do you explain the enduring appeal of this show?
Quite simply, The Block feeds our very Australian passion for real estate and renovation. The tall poppies get chopped down, the larrikins win out and everyone gets a fair go and goes home with a few bucks in their pocket. What could be more Aussie than that? You also have to factor in the producers’ brilliance in adding a fresh twist to each series, highly relatable contestants and three irresistible judges (inserts winking emoji here). By the way, I also co-host a show for Foxtel called Love It or List It Australia. I need to give that a plug too!

Complete this sentence: “Faux-fur scatter cushions are…
totally cool if used sparingly and mixed in with cushions in other fabrics, patterns, colours and textures. Remember a little faux fur goes a long way. By the way, the worst thing about that sentence is ‘scatter cushions’. We haven’t called them that for years.

What skill or talent do you not have but wish you did?
Easy. I wish I could sing and play the piano. I can’t think of any better way of celebrating life and the human condition. I would have loved to be the male Diana Krall but something went wrong. I blame my childhood piano tutor who had facial warts and an odour of boiled cabbage.

Who has been your most influential professional mentor, and what did they teach you?
Felicity Green OBE is a remarkable woman now in her 90s who was my first-ever editor. Felicity was the first woman to sit on the board of a British newspaper (back in their Fleet St heyday) and amongst many journalistic achievements is credited with introducing the mini-skirt to 1960s fashion, through her great friend, designer Mary Quant. Felicity taught me how to write, how to edit and the incredible power of a perfectly-cropped image.

Magazines: do they have a future?
Yes they do, but only as part of a holistic approach to content delivery. The printed magazine has to be supported online, digitally and on social media. A ‘magazine’ is now the total, 360-degree brand, and has to deliver to multiple audiences across multiple platforms. Sadly not every print edition will survive, but the first step in ensuring longevity has to be to redefine what a magazine actually is.

You’re a recognised man of style. Word on the sartorial street is that the double-breasted suit is making a comeback. Two questions: 1. Is this true? and; 2. How do we feel about this?
The double-breasted suit has actually been back with us for a while. Personally I love it as it’s incredibly flattering and hides a multitude of sins. Good news for men of a certain age. The downside is that a double-breasted suit jacket can look untidy when it’s open. General rule of thumb is keep it buttoned up when you’re standing but always unbutton it when you’re seated. Double-breasted jackets look fantastic with jeans and T-shirts too. Molto Italiano!

What would you say is the most overlooked or underreported news story?
I believe the recent Facebook debacle is merely the tip of an iceberg when it comes to the misuse and manipulation of personal data; social media and cyber-bullying are creating shocking levels of social dislocation, anxiety and suicidal depression, particularly amongst the young. Isolated cases like that of Dolly Everett make the headlines but my concern is how many others go unreported. And on an international level, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar genocide in anyone’s book – has surely been underreported and marginalised.

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