Neale Whitaker. Author, Vogue Living Magazine Editor, Channel 9’s The Block Renovation Design Judge and all round quintessential style expert shares some misty tinted memories 80’s style from his hazy upbringing in the english seaside town of Margate. T Rex, curly perms, Pot Noodles, boy eyeliner, sailor hats, Teena Marie and cockles. This small town boy did it all.
Neale Whitaker is an editorial force to be reckoned with. His stylish career spans over 25 years and 2 countries. It began in his native UK, where he successfully edited lifestyle magazines for high street giants Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and Ikea and launched Waitrose Food Illustrated. His migration to Sydney in 1999 quickly led to multiple successes with magazine launches and editing roles on lifestyle publications such as Marie Claire Lifestyle, Australian Coastal Style, Vogue Entertaining & Travel, delicious and Good Food. Since 2006 he has been editor in chief of Belle. Neale ventured into the world of TV in 2009 as a judge on Nine Network’s HomeMade which later led him to the same role on the award-winning and ongoing Nine Network home renovation show The Block. This publishing heavyweight, toiling tirelessly for avid, glossy page flickers, has a voice for radio, a face for tv and a pen for prose. He authored his own book TheAccidental Foodie in 2005 with Bill Granger as Creative Director and he also coined my favourite phrase in 2012, describing himself as ‘a failed minimalist‘. A status that he promoted himself to after years of enjoying life as a ‘lapsed minimalist’.
Mr Whitaker is charming, with manners reminiscent of a lead role in Downton Abbey. He arrives 10 minutes early, smiling, immaculate and carrying a butter-soft, leather hold-all containing a pristine change of clothes ‘just in case’ our photo shoot should dictate it. He’s the kind of person that commands attention just by showing up and yet his energy is warm, calm and agreeable to whatever I feel I need from him. Not really what you’d expect from such a successful and editorially powerful man.
He explained clearly, politely and crisply on arrival that he has a meeting at Bauer Media straight after this shoot and by this time I already know, without doubt, that this is not a man who would be late for anything. Ever.
I didn’t initially expect him to go with this different angle of interview. I was unsure of how he’d feel being transported from the world of sophisticated interior design and tweaked tailoring and into the (not always dignified) murky corners of adolescent past, but he loved the idea and within days I had in my possession wonderfully faded personal photos of the man himself with hair, dungarees and all my questions answered with gritty honesty and a dash of wry humour.
His interests are endless…interiors, furniture, art, music, books, travel, plants, textile designs, films, restaurants, hand painted dog bowls, the beauty of Istanbul, Chardonnay, Brogues, the list goes on but with no hint of know-it-all about his person. It really is easy to understand why he is so respected in the competitive magazine and media arenas. He is knowledgable yet humble when discussing of all of the above, his experiences after all cover many a glamorous and worldly field. His voice is as velvety as it is clipped, he listens intently to everything that is said to him, no matter who you are or what you do and his attention to detail is nothing short of extraordinary.
Mr Whitaker’s world revolves around his work but it’s apparent quite quickly that his heart is always at home with partner, stylist David Novak-Piper and their 2 bouncy and ever so photogenic Weimaraners, Ollie and Otis. He beams brightly when asked about them, the conversation leading then to family in the UK and lastly to his late mother Pamela Whitaker. His eyes lower and he drifts momentarily as he describes her affectionately as an elegant and beautiful person who was taken from him far too soon by cancer in 1995. Neale has supported cancer charities ever since as well as Beyond Blue and WSPA.
He is comfortable, experienced and natural in front of the lens and so our shoot concludes bang on time. Cameras and lights are downed, goodbyes and thank you’s expressed (to everyone) and he glides swiftly out of the door, leaving behind a heady trail of the most delicious and hypnotic aftershave I’ve whiffed since ungainly colliding with Colin Firth at Heathrow Arrivals Terminal in December 2011.
And then, like Colin, he was gone….
Roots..I was born in the outer south-eastern suburbs of London, but my family moved to the south coast of England when I was five. I grew up in Margate, famous for its cockles (small saltwater clams, eaten raw with a dash of vinegar), its golden sands (actually beige), a pier which fell into the ocean more than 30 years ago, and artist Tracey Emin. Margate was in the doldrums for decades, but the recent opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery has re-booted it.
Music. Thefirst record I remember owning is ‘Baby Love’ by Diana Ross & the Supremes. Given that song was released in 1964 when I was 2, I guess it must have been bought for me! I remember my 7-inch vinyl single had a big chip in it (bite?) but somehow if you dropped the stylus on it in the right place it would still play. Do I need to explain ‘single’ or ‘stylus’?
Musically I am a child of the 70s. I cut my teeth on The New Seekers, Middle of the road and The Carpenters, flirted with T Rex, Roxy and Bowie and embarked on a long term relationship with Ms Ross, Donna Summer, George McCrae, George Benson, Rose Royce, Earth, Wind and Fire, Chaka Khan and the entire African-American family. Dance music peaked in that much-maligned decade and for those of us lucky enough to live (and dance) through them, they were the halcyon days.In the late 70s I encounteredan American R&B artist called Teena Marie and have every track she ver recorded. Her reach across jazz, soul, funk, blues and rock was astonishing. Sadly she passed away in 2010.
Gigs and Concerts… Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder TOGETHER on stage at Wembley, London in the late 70’s. Teena Marie at Hammersmith Odeon. Every band that ever played at Warwick Uni Student Union from 1980-1983, including the Thompson Twins, Madness, The Specials, The Selector, Marine Girls (aka Tracey Thorn), Pete Burns (Dead or Alive).
Fashion.. Like Piaf, I regret nothing. Everything I have ever worn I loved at the time. Even leg warmers over dungarees. Even tartan pants and diamanté brooches. Even a sailor suit and hat (in my ‘Querelle’ days). I was the Boy with the Pearl Earring. Berets and eyeliner in my Simple Minds/Human League period. Blond streaks and foundation in homage to Wham. Do I regret the (very) curly perm I sported for most of my uni days? Barbra Streisand doesn’t so why the hell would I?
Night Clubs..Atlantis Margate in the 1970’s was a magic subterranean world where guys so rough their teeth were tattooed danced jazz/funk with the grace of Nureyev. Birminham’s Holy City Zoo in the early 80’s was were you could spot a cute young band called Duran Duran. Apparently they became famous. At Taboo in london in the mid 80’s you could rub shoulders with Boy George and Lee Bowery. Camden’s Black Cap for drag. Arq Sydney was where i first took my shirt off on a dance floor.
Film and TV…Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘Paper Moon’ which starred Ryan and Tatum O’Neal and Madeline Kahn. The most brilliant depiction of Depression-era mid-America. Liza Minnelli in ‘Caberet’. Dians Ross on ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ British comedy from the 70’s, ‘Are you being served?’ ‘On the Buses’, ‘George and Mildred’, ‘Porridge’. The list and the brilliance was endless.
Food and Drink..Chinese takeaway was a novelty and a treat in the early 70’s. I was intrigued by the inconvenience foods that were fashionable at the time: Vesta curries, Pot Noodles, Angel Delight, Smash potatoes, Toast Toppers. I grew up without understanding that fresh food was superior. It seemed inferior in many ways, less exciting. That was the era. My parents would allow me a small sherry when they each had one at sherry-o-clock, with hindsight that was an extraordinary privilege.
Magazines and Posters…Look-In and Record Mirror are the magazines that I remember. I was TV and music-obsessed. Our next ddor neighbour Judy would allow me to peek at Jackie and I went straight to the ‘Dear Cathy’ page. Pithy problems like how to get rid of love bites or maybe how to give them in the first place. Posters..I remember Diana Ross, David Cassidy and a map of french regional cheeses donated by the local travel agent.
Shop…UFO in Ramsgate was the last word in disco-denim chic. Baggy jeans, lurex socks and suede sandals.
Favourite Teacher… Mr Newman. He was gay.
School and University. Chatham house Grammar School, Ramsgate. The university of Warwick at Coventry
Booze...I graduated from sherry to lager, like a good English lad. From lager to Breaker Malt Liquor and from Breaker to Special Brew. Wine was never in the frame apart from Christmas lunch.
Bedroom.. The aforementioned French cheeses poster competed with yellow carpet, aqua curtains and purple walls. A colour scheme Jonathan Adler would admire now.
Heroes...How far back are we going? My pre-pubescent world revolved around TV presenter Valerie Singleton, everyone’s surrogate mother. As a young adult, I put Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama and princess Diana on pedestals.
Images by Graham Jepson for Iconic and Vintage National Treasures Series 2013