Love, luck and no look­ing back

Ra­dio star Leighton Smith is call­ing it quits after more than four decades. He tells Phil Tay­lor about Trump, truth and find­ing love

Weekend Herald - - Review - “WHAT I’M

At the out­set, the New­stalk ZB icon who will next week leave the build­ing after 33 years of be­ing the Leighton Smith Show, pre­pares me for dis­ap­point­ment.

“You are about to dis­cover,” says Smith, dressed as usual in a prime white busi­ness shirt, “that I am a re­ally bor­ing in­ter­view. Noth­ing to say, ter­ri­bly jeal­ous of pri­vacy.”

This po­lar­is­ing broad­caster — a cli­mate change de­nier, Trump sup­porter and cy­cle lane loather — will later claim he is more a lis­tener than a talker.

So we sit on fac­ing so­fas in a North Shore home com­pris­ing two storeys and many rooms.

And then, Smith says, “Well, I wrote a book you know?

What about? “Me of course.” Leighton Smith: Be­yond the Mi­cro­phone was pub­lished in 2013. “I’ll give you one, we’ll can­cel the in­ter­view and we’ll open a bot­tle.”

Hours later I leave with a copy of the book and a bot­tle of Smith’s own Cleve­don Hills Es­tate wine.

Chap­ter five be­gins with an un­der­tak­ing: “As I un­der­stand that al­co­holic drinks and to­bacco are harm­ful, and re­al­is­ing the im­por­tance of hav­ing my mind and body strong and healthy to do the best in life, I there­fore prom­ise with the help of God, not to drink al­co­hol or smoke to­bacco . . .” The Aus­tralasian Tem­per­ance So­ci­ety ju­nior pledge is signed by a 14-year-old res­i­dent of Wahroonga in New South Wales named Leighton Smith. It came with the ter­ri­tory of be­ing raised a Sev­enth-Day Ad­ven­tist.

Though Smith, 71, shunned to­bacco, that chap­ter is an ode to the grape, specif­i­cally the vine­yard he de­vel­oped near Cleve­don.

Cleve­don Hills Es­tate is a homage to his favourite coun­try. De­signed by Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Avio Mat­tiozzi, the build­ing is mod­elled on the Villa Gam­beraia out­side Florence.

He chose an­gles to il­lus­trate his book that played down the grandeur. Why, when the prop­erty may be seen as a re­flec­tion of his suc­cess?

“I’m not a show-off,” he says. “I was raised not to use the ‘I’ word but . . . it’s a dif­fer­ent world now and do­ing what I have done you’ve got to talk about your­self.”

“It was a grand house. I poured ev­ery­thing into it but I didn’t want it as a hey-look-at-me house. I wanted to build my dream and I did.”

“When I built it I thought I was go­ing to die there and be buried un­der the lone pine down the pad­dock. You know, full of ro­man­tic ideas.”

Turned out the land, the house, the dream an­chored him through a tur­bu­lent pe­riod.

He bought the bare land from a dairy farmer in 1997, the year his mar­riage to the mother of his two sons ended, the year his fa­ther died. There had been loose talk of fa­ther and son es­tab­lish­ing a vine­yard in Aus­tralia. He could have upped sticks and gone to Amer­ica where his sis­ter lives. He had a green card. “But I couldn’t leave the kids.”

CAROLYN LEANEY,

the pro­ducer of his show, is his fourth wife. On air, Smith play­fully refers to her as Mrs Pro­ducer.

He first mar­ried two weeks after his

19th birth­day. His girl­friend was preg­nant. The baby was still­born and the on and off re­la­tion­ship ended after four years.

His sec­ond mar­riage — to a Syd­ney woman — was not helped by Smith mov­ing for ra­dio jobs to Townsville and then Welling­ton.

Lit­tle is said in the book about his third mar­riage other than it pro­duced his sons.

“Hav­ing had three di­vorces, if it had not been for Carolyn, I have se­ri­ous doubts whether I would ever have got mar­ried again,” says Smith.

Leaney joined the show from a job as a pro­ducer at the BBC. They had worked to­gether for 14 years and were friends be­fore things changed in

2002. That year Leaney’s re­la­tion­ship ended and Smith faced a health cri­sis.

“I was di­ag­nosed with prostate can­cer and her sup­port dur­ing that pe­riod de­vel­oped into what we have got now.”

Leaney was one of a few peo­ple Smith told about his can­cer. “That was an emo­tional mo­ment that we recog­nised down the track. I re­alised that friend­ship is the most im­por­tant thing in a re­la­tion­ship and there was a grad­ual re­al­i­sa­tion that this one would work.”

They got en­gaged in 2009 while hol­i­day­ing in Colombo, Sri Lanka. A year later they bought the home they now share full-time. They didn’t marry un­til 2012. It wasn’t a case of fourth-time shy. “We were just re­laxed. We have a say­ing, the Smiths just put one foot in front of the other.”

They make a blended fam­ily of six: Charles, 29, and Chris­tian, 26, and Carolyn’s daugh­ters, Madeleine, 26, and Char­lotte, 24.

For five years as hus­band and wife they lived much of the week sep­a­rately, Smith at Cleve­don and Leaney in the house on the North Shore. That changed last year with the sale of the coun­try es­tate.

Sell­ing wasn’t a wrench. “Carolyn will be the first to tell you I go through a pe­riod. I fin­ish it and I move on and I don’t re­gret. It is the same with Cleve­don. I did it, I en­joyed it and I got what I wanted out of it.”

Will it be the same when he signs off his show for the last time next Fri­day? “It will be emo­tional.”

SMITH BE­GAN

in ra­dio 44 years ago after short stints in bank­ing, the pub­lic ser­vice, in real es­tate rentals and driv­ing a taxi.

On leav­ing Ade­laide for Auck­land more than three decades ago, his Aus­tralian pro­ducer told him he’d be “bored shit­less in 18 months”.

He al­ways had the love. As a boy he played with crys­tal ra­dio sets and lis­tened to ra­dio se­ries Tarzan and The Lone Ranger. “It was fas­ci­nat­ing, it was the­atre, the­atre of the mind.”

His suc­cess is much more than a

I’m paid to have opin­ions. If I didn’t have opin­ions I wouldn’t have been in the job.

voice like rich gravy. He is a strong per­son­al­ity who seems to rel­ish tak­ing un­pop­u­lar po­si­tions. A com­men­ta­tor once de­scribed him as a “cranky un­cle”.

Ask­ing Smith the key to his suc­cess doesn’t help. “I never try to de­scribe my­self. I’m just me.”

Rat­ings dived — from a 19 per cent mar­ket share to 15 — within weeks of him com­ing to Auck­land in 1985 to take over from Alice Wors­ley. How did he re­spond? “I got pissed.”

“Peo­ple didn’t like it, a pop­u­lar host be­ing bun­dled out, me be­ing abra­sive, rude some­times. They weren’t used to it.”

Still rude? “I don’t know. Cer­tainly ag­gres­sive but there’s been a lot of change. You grow into things.

“I’m paid to have opin­ions. If I didn’t have opin­ions I wouldn’t have been in the job.”

“Here are the cur­rent things where I’ll have con­flict with peo­ple. Trump, be­cause I’m a Trump sup­porter. Cli­mate change, global warm­ing. Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, in gen­eral, start­ing with the Con­sti­tu­tion. I’m a be­liever in lib­erty, free­dom, small govern­ment. I’m anti-drugs, [pro] sel­f­re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Trump wasn’t his first choice, he says. “I came into it as any­thing, any­one but Hil­lary. The Clin­tons. I de­test the Clin­tons. Oh, don’t get me go­ing there. I think she is ev­ery­thing that I wouldn’t want in a woman.”

After Trump won, Smith’s faith grew. “You have to live with the fail­ings of the guy and they all have fail­ings. The Kennedys were worse than him when it comes to women.”

in­ter­ested in, corny as it sounds, is truth and es­tab­lish­ing truth isn’t easy any­more be­cause dis­cus­sion has been shut down. Ki­wis, and it’s not un­de­sir­able, still just want to live peace­fully, they don’t want to get into bun­fights, which gives the ad­van­tage to any ag­gres­sor.”

His opin­ions may be ex­treme but he makes for easy com­pany. It may be that he re­serves his cru­sad­ing for the stu­dio. A quote from his book: “The only place I en­joy an ar­gu­ment is on the ra­dio; be­tween fam­ily and friends it dis­turbs me greatly.”

Job sat­is­fac­tion “at one stage was the im­por­tant peo­ple I’d meet.”

He shushed Mar­garet Thatcher, back in 1983, after the Falk­lands War. The phone con­nec­tion was so bad he couldn’t hear the Iron Lady. “It was re­ally quite weird, telling the Prime Min­is­ter of Great Bri­tain to shut up.”

Favourite me­mories in­clude times his in­flu­ence helped oth­ers. After Sir Peter Leitch, aka the Mad Butcher, a long­time ad­ver­tiser on his show, re­vealed he was fight­ing ag­gres­sive blad­der can­cer, Smith rang Sir John Key and sug­gested it would be timely to recog­nise Leitch’s char­ity work.

Smith helped bring New Or­leans pian­ist, singer and song­writer Dr John to New Zealand and talked him up un­til the gig was packed. “To most peo­ple, he’s not a mas­sive star but I love him. I felt like a lit­tle kid, it was like Christ­mas.”

Dr John, who bat­tled al­co­hol and drugs, toured again six years later and said to Smith, “Leighton, you are a bless­ing in my life.”

Smith in­cluded a Dr John track — Such a Night —on Makin’ Whoopee ,a se­lec­tion of Smith’s favourite songs. The CD went gold and the framed award is lean­ing against a wall in one of the loos wait­ing to be hung.

IT’S LATE

af­ter­noon when Leaney ar­rives home to find her hus­band and me watch­ing horse rac­ing. It is strictly busi­ness — ev­i­dence of Smith’s as­ton­ish­ing good for­tune.

Smith paid $2000 for a quar­ter­share in a thor­ough­bred named Pharaoh that had ear­lier sold for $500,000. The horse showed tal­ent, broke down and one of the own­ers

Michael Craig, sup­plied from Leighton Smith: Be­yond The Mi­cro­phone

Clock­wise from above: Carolyn Leaney and Leighton Smith in the New­stalk ZB stu­dio; Smith re­lax­ing in a bath as ap­peared in the Townsville Bul­letin; Smith and Leaney with Dr John in 2004; Smith in­ter­views Mick Jag­ger in 1998.

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