Great Moments in Pop Culture – “David’s Dead!”

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[Previous Great Moments: “I’m Not a Real Witch”Jimmy Stewart’s Yeti FingerJames Cameron Digs Up ChristMr. T Thanks His MotherRicky Gervais Has a FightByker Grove Nukes the Fourth Wall]

David Gest first attracted the attention of British audiences through his status as former Mr. Liza Minnelli, as seen in their all-time great wedding photo, where the happy couple stood alongside Liz Taylor, best man Michael Jackson, and Martine McCutcheon. As a nation, we all judged the book by its cover when Gest was announced as a contestant on 2006’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, as his look at the time was… shall we say, rather ‘Hollywood alien’. Look, I’m not throwing stones; if I had the cash, I’d be straight off to get my gnashers done, before figuring I might as well do something about my great big hooter while I’m at it.

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As a complete unknown, joining a cast of big names such as Dean Gaffney and Toby Anstis, the images of Gest’s clay-like, simpering gazes at Liza — from whom he’d separate a year after the wedding — informed everyone’s assumptions that he’d be a prissy nightmare. Every year had a jungle diva, screeching in fright because they touched a tree, and boring fellow camp-mates with impotent, hourly threats to walk off the show. But Gest turned out to be a self-effacing, playful delight, who spent his time confusing dim-bulb D-listers with deadpan tall tales about his cleaner Vaginika Semen, and how he and Michael Jackson spent hours following spiders to see where they went. The Baron Munchausen via Carry On films raconteuring enamoured him to viewers, elevating Gest to one of those Americans who effectively become culturally adopted as British in the wake of a good showing, like Ashley Roberts would six years later. As a now-established face on our screens, it was inevitable David Gest would eventually sign up as a housemate on Celebrity Big Brother.

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Channel 5 were asking for a bout of shrieking drama that year, with a perfect storm of the kind of tabloid types Gest was assumed to have been a decade earlier. Gemma Collins had herself been I’m a Celebrity‘s jungle diva, walking out of the show two years earlier after only 72 hours in camp, and more recently could be seen on the Crystal Maze, stopping mid-game and demanding to speak to the producer. Still, it’s good that TV continues to hand opportunities to someone whose entire brand (and skillset) is behaving like someone who’d be caught on CCTV doing a massive slash on your driveway of a Friday night, while swanning around expecting subjugation like she’s the Queen of England.

Danniella Westbrook had been a fixture in the redtops since her nose fell out in 2000, from hoovering up so much beak, and fell into a cycle of public relapse and redemption, including a brief period as a born again evangelical Christian in LA. Similarly obsessed over by Fleet Street was Darren Day, branded a tabloid “love rat” early in his career, and unable to shake the tag, perhaps due to a crippling addiction to becoming engaged to actresses. Though I couldn’t dig it out, I vividly recall a big Sunday exclusive about a lifetime of coked-up sex having left him punching himself in the penis “just to get some feeling in it.” Also in the house was Christopher Maloney, a losing X-Factor contestant whose admitted self-esteem issues manifested in a string of public cosmetic surgeries, with each new eyelid lift definitely the final key to happiness and self-acceptance. Following the show, he and Westbrook would become besties, even flying to the same surgeon in Poland for dual procedures, like you and a mate would a trip to the pictures, posting a video of the pair sat in bed eating crisps, while done up in bandages like the invisible man.

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Though it was a full cast of sixteen — including Angie Bowie — the final housemate relevant to our story is Tiffany Pollard, aka ‘New York’ from VH1’s Flavor of Love; a show best remembered for the time a women pooed on the floor of Flavor Flav’s mansion while he was giving a welcome speech. The 17th series of Big Brother begun airing on January the 5th, 2016. Remember 2016? The year whose mere mention formerly made everyone do a sharp intake of breath, but now we’ve been through 2020, just seems like a right fucking laugh? Together, all these elements combined to form, arguably, the single greatest moment in the history of television. Occurring over a wildly chaotic yet brief seven minutes of airtime, its sheer historical weight requires it be broken down at a microscopic level, second by second.

It begins on January the 10th, with the tragic death of David Bowie. News breaks the following day, to both the world at large, and to Bowie’s ex-wife — and mother of their film director son, Duncan Jones — Angie, who, cut off from the outside, is called into the diary room and privately informed by Big Brother. What follows is classic British farce, where a grieving woman, still catching her breath from devastating news, is inadvertently pulled into a 1970’s sitcom. Angie is wet-eyed and clearly reeling as she wanders into the kitchen, and asked by Tiffany if she’s okay. Led into another room so they can talk, a distraught Angie begs “you gotta do me a favour, you can’t say a word.” As Tiffany assures her she won’t, it’s then that Angie says it. Two little words in a hushed whisper — “David’s dead.

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The sounds that Tiffany makes in response are akin to someone seeing a ghost over their shoulder in the bathroom mirror; a series of instinctual belly-deep howls and a panicked “NO HE’S NOT!” As though drowning, she flails an outstretched arm towards Angie; herself a woman in the first flush of grief, and now forced to restrain ‘New York’ in a half-hug, half-choke hold, as she goes off like a burglar alarm. “You can’t,” begs Angie, “you can’t, you can’t do that.” What is not known to Angie at the time, is that Tiffany has interpreted ‘David’ to mean David Gest, a housemate she has spoken to less than an hour ago.

Tiffany’s every outward breath is a loud cry of confusion and despair, and the sound arouses the garden crew, a posse of Day, Maloney, and Westbrook, sat on benches on an astroturf lawn in smoker’s corner, overflowing ashtray at their feet, arms folded to protect from the chill winter air. It’s the gossipy table at school lunch, reeking of Polo Mints to cover up the Silk Cut, and Darren wonders aloud “what the fuck is that?” though they do not get up to investigate.

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Back in the house, there’s a long back and forth of Tiffany freaking out while Angie tries to sooth her before she draws too much attention, all with the vibe of a movie set during the Holocaust; trying to quiet a crying baby while the floorboards above creak with Nazi footsteps. Clasping her disorientated housemate by the hand as she circles the room, Angie leads the pair in an unconscious Tudor dance, admonishing in a stage whisper — “Stop it, they’re all gonna know!” But Tiffany squirms out of a matronly hug, now struck by the stage of grief where you start laughing hysterically. “We gotta get everyone together!” she says, staggering off as Angie tries to shush her, and we cut to a close-up of Chris Maloney idly clacking his teeth. The conversation, which plays out over a few minutes of television, was edited down from 45 minutes, during which the producers, presumably like Angie, couldn’t believe how much of a hardcore Bowie fan Tiffany Pollard had turned out to be.

With a shambling run over to smoker’s corner, a sobbing, hysterical Tiffany is ensconced by Day and Maloney. “What’s the matta, babe?” asks the former. She babbles about Angie telling her a secret; a secret she cannot keep in — “I hope she’s just jokin’, but she says she’s not…” Big Chris Maloney is beside himself with curiosity, as he’s informed in a wobbly voice; “they told me David is dead!” Maloney’s eyes pop out of his face like two boiled eggs — “David? David?!” and the virus of Tiff’s hysteria instantly infects everyone within reach. Man of action Darren Day is off the bench like a shot, pelting towards the house in his cowboy boots, with the others following behind. In an empty room, Angie pleads, perhaps to Big Brother, perhaps to God himself, “you gotta help me… I fucked up.

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The other housemates burst into the bedroom, with Tiffany wailing “OH, GOD!” — ironically in the exact manner of a graveside widow — and an angry Westbrook demanding to know “where’s David?” The answer to that is ‘taking a nap’, but in truly incredible comic providence, specifically, a nap where he’s flat on his back, arms folded on his chest, with the duvet pulled right over, leaving a very still, very corpse-like shape on top of the bed. For a small moment, perhaps the greatest moment in all of recorded human civilisation, Gemma Collins watches open-mouthed from her bed, as Darren Day, Danniella Westbrook, Christopher Maloney, and New York from the show someone shat on the floor, genuinely believe that David Gest — who barely an hour ago was walking around chatting — has very suddenly died of an undiagnosed cancer, and that they’re about to pull back the duvet and reveal his corpse, which had been casually left there by producers as the show trundled on.

There seems to be a mass exhalation as Day whips the covers off to reveal a confused but alive David Gest, before the mood immediately shifts, not to relief, but anger. “SHE TOLD ME THAT DAVID DIED!” yells Tiffany, now furious at what she assumes is a horrible prank on Angie’s part, and sprinting off to confront her. Maloney follows behind, begging her “chill, chill, chill!” and a bewildered Angie watches through the window, as Stephanie Davis from Hollyoaks needlessly puts a hand up to hold her back, like a pissed-up brawl outside a kebab shop — “what did I do?” The penny doesn’t drop until Westbrook strides in to accuse her, in her Don Henderson voice, of telling Tiffany “that David was dead from cancer.”

     Angie: “Yes, he is!

     Westbrook: “He’s in there, asleep!

     Angie: “David. My ex-husband!

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As Angie cries in the diary room, Tiffany; used to the American reality television on which she made her name; interprets the whole thing as Angie’s prank; as psychological gamesmanship; and is absolutely raging — “why the fuck would she get in my head like that?!” Inexplicably, even as the simple confusion is ironed out, the Smoke Crew now start arguing about Bowie. A furious Westbrook spits “David Bowie ain’t dead neither!” and that Angie, “she needs to be taken out of here, man… that’s fucking sick… speaking ill of other people like that is sick, and I can’t speak to her no more.”

At this point, the story very clearly switches to the idea that Angie did this deliberately, just for the fuck of it, and that nobody is dead. Tiffany starts misremembering, convincing herself Angie specifically said “Gest” and that he “died in the diary room,” presumably before C5 dumped his body in the bedroom like fucking Threads. Housemate Jonathan Cheban, mate of Kim Kardashian and “founder of thedishh.com” (thanks Wikipedia) paces the plastic lawn, aghast at Angie’s actions; “I’m not well with crazy people, I don’t have that in my life.” Westbrook takes the playground gossip into the bathroom, informing a wet and naked John Partridge through a crack in the shower door that “she told Tiff it was David Gest that’s died of cancer in the diary room or something.” “David Gest has died?” asks Partridge, whose soggy cock and bollocks are shielded only from the camera by the fumin’ figure of Danniella Westbrook.

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With everyone now baying for Angie’s blood, Partridge emerges into the garden in a towel to play peacemaker, albeit in a needlessly mysterious ‘I know something you don’t know’ way — “Angie has had some news… she’s misunderstood the name, that’s all i’m gonna say,” and hushing a still furious Tiffany with a pointed “it’s the wrong David, honey.” We end with Angie Bowie crying in the diary room, and Tiffany alone at the end of the garden, silently squatting on the astroturf, almost nose to nose with her own reflection, and staring blankly ahead like a dog that’s really contemplating itself for the first time in the family glass cabinet. In 2020, people kept saying how no generation had ever lived through as much history as we did that year, but keep in mind, this incident happened in the same week as Come Dine With Me‘s what a sad little life, Jane.

One thing that’s been lost in analysis of all this over the years is how it must’ve appeared from Angie’s side, having never crossed her mind that Bowie had been confused with Gest. Tiffany first wildly over-reacted as though she’d lost a member of her own family, before switching to disbelief; the belief that Angie must’ve been set a secret task by Big Brother to make housemates falsely believe her ex-husband had died; and finally that she’d done it out of spite. And all while trapped in a TV studio surrounded by cameras, with nowhere to hide, reeling from bad news she was desperate to keep quiet. Weirdly, Angie telling Tiffany in the first place was also symptomatic of the harsh competition of Reality TV, as Angie didn’t want her housemate to think her eyes were running because she had a cold, and was therefore weak.

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Following the fiasco, two of its main players really leaned into it, with Gest promoting a touring music show entitled David Gest Is Not Dead but Alive With Soul, the poster of which showed him emerging from a coffin like Dracula, with the date of his premature BB death emblazoned on the lid. Tiffany Pollard, who to this day gets “David’s dead!” shouted at her in the street, begun selling a range of t-shirts, bearing the words DAVID IS DEAD. Sadly, just a week after the shirts went on sale, and three months after Big Brother, David Gest unexpectedly died for real. Along with a series of ludicrous anecdotes, he leaves behind a legacy as centrepiece in one of the funniest things that ever happened, and all while taking a nap.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on March 16, 2021.

2 Responses to “Great Moments in Pop Culture – “David’s Dead!””

  1. When is your next article up?

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