Peter Phelps and Sex Without Madonna

I was really hoping I’d get an explanation for that book title. Alas, I did not. If I think about it, I figure it’s just sensational enough to get the crowds interested. Ooh, an actor’s memoir with ‘sex’ in the title – that has to be juicy. It’s quite a decent ruse, I suppose. Makes me rethink the title of this blog category: My Sexy Reading Year, maybe? Or, Sex and the Single Girl … With Books? Something will come to me, I’m sure.

For my first book of the year, this was an interesting one. A last-minute grab, a two-day read, full of Hollywood gossip, on-set anecdotes, and an overall handy insight into the life of a successful Aussie actor (on his home soil anyway) in the early ’90s trying to land that make or break role. Phelps’s story is not rags-to-riches as he doesn’t succeed in becoming what Russell Crowe would become a few years down the track. He was not a part of the great Aussie actor explosion in the USA, and he really did very little of note at all while in-country aside from 12 episodes of Baywatch.

The fun thing, though, about Phelps — a recognizable TV and film star in Oz — is he knows he’s marked very little territory in Hollywood, and while he could be full of excuses, he’s instead upfront about his misfortunes and is without regrets. Not everyone makes it, he informs us, but that doesn’t mean a sojourn OS needs to be boring. What Phelps has collected here is a range of weird and wacky experiences involving famous movie stars dancing to Bee Gees records, bar brawls with Hell’s Angels, a breakdown of the best burger joints LA has to offer, experiences with naked women flashing on the roadside, rodeo riders, swordsmen, and seedy nights on the town with Czechoslovakian film crews. It’s less to an actor’s journey and more a travelogue of adventures abroad, with a few auditions and film sets thrown in. Phelps’s chatter is from the perspective of a Sydney-surfing fish-out-of-water, and he views his surroundings as any great wanderer would, soaking it all up as he goes, taking the hits with the misses in his jovial Aussie stride. (And after Baywatch, it’s all pretty much misses.)

I wasn’t expecting, however, the actor to have such a way with words. If the book is without a ghostwriter, then I wonder if Phelps shouldn’t scrap acting all together and start a career with Lonely Planet. His observational eye is sharp, his enthusiasm as far as getting into the spirit of each visited locale refreshing and fun. His musings on life share a mix of wicked self-deprecation and enormous ego (he’s an actor, after all). He’s down and out, but, in his eyes, he’s still Hot-As and able to bed women left, right, and centre. Just not Madonna, apparently.

The book works as a glimpse into one man’s quest for superstardom that didn’t quite eventuate, with a few gossipy moments here and there (David Hasselhoff fans beware). It’s also a fairly decent guide for LA visitors wanting to experience the best in food and shopping. And it’s very much a breakdown of a particular era in Hollywood history – the early ’90s, that, it would seem, tragically hasn’t changed that much.

One thing Phelps manages to identify well, too, is the contrast between Americans and Australians as far as personality, sense of humour, and what each holds dear. Phelps, although faking an American accent throughout much of his time “over there”, writes here with a distinctly Australian surf-coast voice and attitude, which makes his crazy situations slightly moreso – selling mobile phones to Hollywood wives, trying to decide with of the 3,000 types of salad dressing to enjoy in a meal, or shooting paint ball paint all over the Tucson Hilton with some mid-level TV stars. Americans, we learn, are just different.

The larrikin in Phelps remains, and with this kind of charm, it’s hard to decipher just why he didn’t pip Crowe at the Aussie superstar post. But then, as Phelps reminds us, that’s Hollywood.

Note: The book is 15 years old, and, as far as I can tell, way out of print. So, instead of a cover image, I’ve posted a TV Week cover featuring Phelps in full-on hunky Aussie soap star mode. I get the feeling he’d appreciate that.