Craig Bennett: life amongst the stars

Craig Bennett (pictured) has spoken with the Sydney Sentinel about life, love and his glittering career.

You might know him best as the entertainment reporter on Studio 10 – but there’s much more to Craig Bennett than his shameless celebrity gossip and vividly patterned shirts. Travis de Jonk delves into the life of Bennett, who, for more than 30 years, has rubbed shoulders with Australia’s – and the world’s – biggest stars.

Back in the ’80s, when Craig Bennet was in his twenties, he visited a psychic who shocked him by correctly intuiting that he was adopted, before going on to tell him he was abandoned at a bus stop as a baby. It was true – he is, in fact, adopted – although he doesn’t know for sure what the circumstances were or whether they involved a bus stop. To him, it doesn’t really matter. He was taken in by a loving family who offered him a charmed life growing up in the leafy suburb of St Ives on Sydney’s North Shore.

At school, he was an excellent student and got great grades – something that would set him up well later in life.

He grew up loving the outdoors, relishing bushwalks and being amongst nature. It was during these communes with nature that he developed one of his life’s biggest passions – a love of creepy crawlies. That’s right – spiders, bugs, snakes and lizards. Things that make many go ‘eww’. You can imagine his mother’s exclamations when he arrived home one day after a bush walk with a diamond python he found and wanted to keep. It would be the first of several weird and wonderful pets he would come to share his life with.

Craig Bennett introduces his snakes on Studio 10. Video: Studio 10/YouTube.

When indoors, the stars of TV dazzled and captivated him. Iconic movies by greats like Joan Crawford, and TV shows such as Number 96, The Box, Prisoner, The Love Boat and Gilligan’s Island. He was fascinated; hooked on the magic film and television.

He tells me that back in the ’70s there weren’t a lot of options for “people like me”, as he puts it – a euphemism for being obviously gay – before naming a roll call of predictably stereotypical job options gay people were ‘allowed’ to access back then. Among them, hairdresser, window dresser, interior designer – you get the picture. And then he really puts the situation in context: it was a time when being gay was still illegal.

“There comes a point when you ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do, when I leave the sanctuary of school?’ I figured sporting hero wasn’t for me. Neither was brain surgeon. I very quickly figured that being a newsreader with this voice that sounds like I’m the lovechild of John-Michael Howson and Jeanne Little, wasn’t going to work out. I guess I could have explored acting, but I can’t act – I’m not good enough to be an actors boot,” he laughs.

The budding journalist

The vocation Bennett thought would be both most realistic and bearable was journalism. And as luck would have it, he scored a cadetship at the Daily Mirror in Sydney.

His cadetship put him right in the thick of everything ‘happening’ in Australia and the world. These were environments undeniably dominated by posturing machismo, male ego and power – something Bennett had to jostle through.

He got sent home by the news editor for wearing clothes that were “too stylish” – a silk shirt, plastic shoes and bright green tight pants, which they deemed “unprofessional and unbecoming”.

“That was [the] time and place, and you just accepted it and got on with the job,” he remarks now.

Bennett started out doing cadetship odd jobs such as research and collating articles from the publication library while he studied to become a journalist. Then he got moved up to doing those tough ‘bread and butter’ reporting jobs that no one wants to do, but which need to be done. He cut his teeth covering the police rounds and local crime, and at one point was even thrown onto reporting for the sports pages.

The experience of interviewing footballers and jockeys he recalls as being so boring, they could “put a glass eye to sleep”.

But it wouldn’t be long before the astute Bennett found a place where he belonged: amongst editors of the women’s pages and senior showbiz journos. He clearly made an impression rubbing shoulders with them and eventually got offered the opportunity to write his own regular column. It was a showbiz gossip column. He took to it like a duck to water. And it was at this point that his biggest passions collided and catapulted him into the thrilling career he still has today.

Since his days as a cadet reporter, Craig Bennett (right), pictured with Hollywood superstar John Travolta, has reached the pinnacle of his profession as an entertainment journalist. Photo: Craig Bennett/Facebook.

The Don Lane Show

Meanwhile, his infamous love of reptiles and creepy crawlies had garnered Bennett the nickname ‘The Snake Boy from St Ives’. His obsession took on a life of its own – so much so that producers of the biggest talk show on Australian TV at the time, The Don Lane Show, invited him on as a special guest. It was a massive deal, and Bennett recalls it was his first taste of stardom.

“It was the ’80s – an absolute [peak] for talk shows – where everyone, even ‘nobodies’ got treated with a rolled out red carpet and a first class attitude.

“[The Don Lane Show] was the biggest show on television back then. You were flown down first class and picked up by a limo from the airport. They put you up in a swanky hotel in Melbourne city on Collins Street. Champagne flowed and you’d meet real stars in the green room, and that was really a ‘pinch yourself’ moment.”

Appearing on the show draped by an 8-foot diamond python, with a stylish shag of ’70s hair, and appropriately tight flares, the undeniably handsome Bennett looked a million dollars. He was – and is – handsome, cheeky, fun and perhaps most importantly, extremely likeable. He was made for TV. His Don Lane Show appearance switched people on to him and led to his now famous television career.

“I was writing columns and appearing on television shows. I was in heaven. I’d found my nirvana and where I wanted to be in life. I remember thinking, ‘This is it. This is where I’m supposed to be.’”

Hooray for Hollywood

It wasn’t long before he was working across print media, radio and television – becoming synonymous with celebrity gossip and entertainment reporting. He moved to LA, where he lived and worked in the heart of the Hollywood action as one of Australia’s preeminent entertainment correspondents. He was doing the morning television shows, radio and writing columns, interviewing huge celebrities, reporting on events like the Oscars and eliciting inside scoops, which included The Nanny’s Fran Drescher opening up about her sexual assault during a home invasion incident.

As for the reptiles that helped make him famous? They’re still very much a part of his life. He shares his home in Northbridge with two pet pythons and six blue tongue lizards, who more than occasionally enjoy a scratch in bed with Bennett as he watches his favourite Joan Crawford movies.

It’s clear that Craig Bennett is in his element around famous people. He tells me that although he may occasionally be intimidated, he never gets star struck.

His undeniable likability, good looks and ambition opened doors for him – and earned him the trust of the stars. People who once captured his fascination and admiration – like John-Michael Howson and Jeannie Little – became close friends.

In 2019, he put all his incredible experiences together in a self-penned book titled True Confessions of a Shameless Gossip. Among the memorable encounters recorded in the book is the time he snuck into Cher’s dressing room and put on her wig and jacket from the show.

Friend of the stars

I ask him about these memorable celebrity encounters and he regales me with some truly special moments; if there is a commonality between them it’s that nearly all of them begin in a formal way and end in a level of beautiful friendship.

There’s the time he was to interview Patricia Routledge, the star of stage and screen perhaps best known for hit British comedy Keeping Up Appearances, who insisted she wouldn’t do the interview with anyone who was jet lagged. As such, he was to arrive in the UK at least two days before the interview. First they went to dinner together and got to know each other. Then, when they did the interview, it was as if they were old friends – and indeed, she did become friends with Bennett.

Craig Bennett with Dame Patricia Routledge at London’s Sloane Club in 2017. Photo: Craig Bennett/Facebook.

He met dancer, pop star and American Idol judge Paula Abdul on the set of Studio 10. Upon arrival, Abdul had warmly greeted all the hosts of the show with a hug and kiss. Bennett was the last to be greeted and jokingly asked where his kiss was. He got more than he bargained on when she created quite the television moment by pashing Bennett – tongue and all – on national TV. That sealed the deal. They became close friends and she invited him to visit her at her home in LA, which he did. The two are still good friends.

The story that Bennett lights up about the most is his interview with the legendary stage and screen actress, Angela Lansbury.

“Dame Angela Lansbury had me over to her house for a TV interview. There were no make-up people, there were no PR people. At 92, she did her own hair and make up. She answered her own front door. We did a no holds barred interview … a remarkable interview. She was gracious, kind and giving.”

After the interview, Dame Angela served up cakes she had ordered in specially, and tea for the whole crew.

“She made that crew feel like they were her sons and she made me feel like I was her oldest friend in the world.”

Craig Bennett and Dame Angela Lansbury at the actresses’ Los Angeles home in 2018. Photo: Craig Bennett/Facebook.

He continues: “In my job, I get the gift of being let into the world of talented and fascinating people; people that we admire and love, that I admire and love. I’d hope to share a good moment and do a good interview, but I never expected that so many would not just share a conversation but open up their lives and friendship to me. That’s just so special and I’m so grateful for that.”

Of course, not every encounter has been a cake walk. Some have been downright nightmarish. He illustrates this by telling me about an interview he did with Tommy Lee Jones during a movie press junket.

“Maybe he didn’t like me, or maybe he just got out of bed the wrong way that day, but Tommy was like talking to a brick wall. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, so I asked my questions and just chalked it up for what it was.

“The nature of the job is relatively straightforward. Showbiz is a whole heap of smoke and mirrors and nonsense, really. I put fame into perspective. People are simply people. Beyond all of that, [celebrities] have a job and so do I … if they want to be difficult about it, it’s really their own time they are wasting.”

What makes a star?

Given his years amongst the famous, I ask him what makes a celebrity a ‘star’?

“It’s absolutely a charisma. There’s something about certain celebrities that slams you in the face like a custard tart … they stand out and you feel it straight away. They suck the oxygen out of the room but in a good way.

“It’s a whole bunch of luck and hard work. You can have all the talent in the world but never get to first base. You can have no talent but a whole heap of charisma and luck on your side and all of a sudden be bigger than Ben Hur.”

To illustrate this point, he talks about the iconic Zsa Zsa Gabor – who he has met and who many consider to be one of the best Tonight Show guests of her time. She had no specific and discernible talent, but she had presence, charisma and x-factor in spades.

“Here was someone who was absolutely larger than life. You’d be hard pressed to pinpoint her talent – apart from marrying a string of rich men. Her thing was being incredibly witty, incredibly charismatic and being the most fabulous person in the room. You knew if you booked her as a guest on your show she would always deliver in spades.”

Another example he is quick to offer up is one of Australia’s most loved personalities and someone who became a close personal friend of Bennett – the one and only Jeanne Little.

“There was Jeanne Little, who was essentially a seamstress, who went on The Mike Walsh Show – and because she was interesting, different, larger than life, she became a starburst that people love and are mesmerised by. That is by far the hallmarks of an enduring star.”

There is another important quality he thinks real stars have.

“They appreciate and respect that people love them and adore them, and they never forget that it’s those very people that allow them to have the careers they have. It’s a kindness and generosity that anyone who meets them knows is sincere.”

He contrasts Gabor’s fame with that of some contemporary celebrities who, like her, are famous for being famous, such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

“They don’t do anything for me personally and they are nowhere near the kind of star that Zsa Zsa was, but there’s no denying that there is something special about them … that, at some level, they too have a charisma that draws vast followings of people to them. It’s charisma, luck and work.”

The love of his life

There is another huge passion Bennett has. And as someone who loves love, it’s perhaps the one I’m most keen to explore. It’s also the passion he least gets the opportunity to talk about: his partner, also named Craig. It’s a rather romantic true story.

“You wouldn’t believe it but we actually went to school together, though he was in the year above me. And we only lived around the corner from one another. We only vaguely knew of one another back then and it was only many years after leaving school that we actually got reunited.”

In the meantime, his partner to be, Craig Murchie, took off to Tasmania to pursue a navel career, eventually rising to the rank of captain. Bennett, on the other hand, went off in his showbiz direction, and it was about the time that he was working as the entertainment reporter on The Harry and Ralph Show that their two very different paths crossed once again.

“I met Craig [Murchie] through the producer of the show. She had a new neighbour move in next door who she thought was a bit lonely and could use the company. She had invited him and myself to dinner – and it was Craig Murchie, who I went to high school with all those years ago in St Ives. And right from then there was this spark … and all these years later here we are still together.”

Bennett jokes that his partner has the patience of a saint to still be with him. There is a smile in his voice when he talks about Murchie.

“For whatever reason, it just works between us. We are still together and we haven’t murdered one another, he hasn’t become an alcoholic or a drug addict, and he is great with the snakes and all that craziness.”

We both erupt into knowing laughter. All jokes aside, what more could you ask for? Which is literally my final question. Bennett has done so much and met so many people, I wonder if there’s anything he still aches to do but hasn’t yet.

“I know how this sounds, but I’m already living my best life,” he replies. “I’m so lucky to have had a career at all, let alone the amazing one I’ve had and continue to enjoy. I’m so blessed – I really mean that – to have the life, the partner and the career I’ve got. Really, what more could I ever ask for?”

Craig Bennett appears regularly on Network Ten’s Studio 10. His book, True Confessions of a Shameless Gossip, is available at https://bit.ly/3gJTDz3.

The above interview was initially conducted for an episode of the Sentinel Speakeasy, the official podcast of the Sydney Sentinel, first broadcast on Tuesday, 24 August, 2021. For the full interview, visit https://thesentinelspeakeasy.buzzsprout.com.

Travis de Jonk is the features editor of the Sydney Sentinel.