by Vicki Woods
This followed Mike Tyson’s guilty verdict for rape. Part of his defence had been that the girl had come into his bedroom willingly.
As I plough through accounts of the Mike Tyson rape trial, I have some sympathy with the plight of young Desirée Washington. Not because of feminist fellow feeling, but because I too entered Mike Tyson’s bedroom one night, freely and of my own volition. I was interviewing him for American Vogue, to go with a handsome set of pictures they’d taken of him and his (then) inamorata Naomi Campbell, the south London supermodel. I flew to Las Vegas and waited for Don King’s office to make the call. Don King is Tyson’s manager and has himself served time for homicide.
I sat around in the Las Vegas Hilton for a day and a half watching Americans put money in machines, until a laconic man called Aaron Snowell came to pick me up. The interview was to take place in a house Don King was renting. We drove there in complete silence. Snowell pushed open the door and left me in the hall. It was the noisiest house I have ever been inside. The walls heaved. Some of the walls were made of television screens six foot high by five wide, all switched on and belting out an incredible level of boom-boom racket. The rooms all ran into each other, and the place was packed with heavyweight boxers and a couple of dozen assorted men built like heavyweight boxers: trainers, managers, minions, hangers-on, cooks, waiters, minders and limo-drivers. Don King was standing at a desk in front of a bank of six telephones, yelling into two of them while the rest rang continually. It was dark. I felt like a helpless mamma coming home to find a teenage party in full swing, heaving with gate-crashers. In my hand I held a notebook and a tiny tape-recorder. I began to see this wouldn’t be the easiest interview I’d ever done.
Across the room, I picked out what I thought were two Olympic gymnasts clinging to Mike Tyson’s legs. Then I realised they were his legs, naked thighs in little baggy shorts. He caught my eye and smirked at me, waving me over, so I scuttled across and began to shout questions at him above the din from the televisions. Sitting down, he’s as big as four people my size. It’s disconcerting. He’s shy, gauche and awkward, which is disconcerting, too. And he talks in a tiny, tiny voice, which you have to bend close to hear, and he has a lisp like Violet Elizabeth Bott. Me, fortissimo: ‘I hear you’re keen on Damon Runyon, Mike.’ Mike, in a baby voice: ‘No, I’m not; it’th rathitht crap.’ Mmm. ‘What are you reading at the moment, Mike?’ ‘A Hundred Yearth of Lynching.’ ‘Gosh. What’s that about, exactly?’ ‘Lynching niggerth in America.’ Tyson didn’t want to be interviewed. Don King wanted him to be, but he didn’t; it was pretty clear. I ploughed on, trying to get on to boxing, but he wouldn’t. ‘I don’t want to talk about any of that thtuff.’ I tried lighter topics. ‘Whose clothes do you like, Mike?’ ‘Gianni Verthace’th.’ For two hours against the nightmarish din, I tried every question I could think of, both germane and pointless, trying to break him down. He began to come across a very little bit when he’d established my Englishness: he likes England. ‘My biggetht fanth. England and the Brathilianth.’ He then established my married state, the ages of my children and where I was staying. He was getting less mulish and unco-operative, but there was altogether too much social intercourse and not enough interview. ‘You theem like a very charming lady to me,’ he said. I shouted, ‘Oh, thanks.’ He said, ‘You thouldn’t cut you hair tho thort.’ I yelled, ‘Oh, really?’ He was clearly beginning to melt and brushed my hair off my forehead with a giant hand. That was seriously disconcerting, but what the hell. And then he suddenly yawned and began to look much more relaxed and cheerful, and I began to feel as though I might get an interview out of him when he leaned across me and said, ‘How much… do you weigh?’ I felt like a chicken leg.
Unfortunately, Don King went into hyperspace at this point. He seemed to have a German banker on three of his six telephones, and Don was demanding of Tyson that he come over and concentrate on a deal that was going to be worth 90 million or 90 billion. The size of the deal raised the roof, and Tyson had had enough. Nobody could watch a six-foot-by-five television with this sort of racket going on, so he swung off the sofa and walked towards the stairs, shouting for me to come up to his bedroom. Well, I grabbed the opportunity as fast as any 18-year-old American fame groupie, picked up my tape recorder and hopped up the stairs after him.
Freely and of my own volition, I made for the bedroom. Nobody caught my eye, but I saw tongues popping into cheeks all over the room. Up I went, along the corridor and into a very tidy room with children’s drawings stuck on the walls, and a big double bed, and a day bed. Inside there was absolute silence. Tyson shut the door behind me. My God, at last. Peace and quiet and no televisions and a slightly more co-operative interviewee. Well, now. Here we are in Mike Tyson’s bedroom, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. In the blue corner, on the day bed, is a man with gold teeth, a tiny pair of shorts, the brain of a 12-year-old, the body of a tank, an entourage of faithful hangers-on and an earnings potential of 90 million or 90 billion. He is patting the seat beside him and saying, ‘Let’th jutht thiddown and relaxth and hang out a little.’ In the red corner, wearing a suit, is a 40-year-old woman journalist with an empty tape-recorder, a headache, a deadline to meet, a ticket back to London, and a slight unfamiliarity with the American vernacular.
Hang out a little, eh? Well, how do you hang out, exactly? Let’s maybe not hang out a little, perhaps. I hopped around the room pointing animatedly at the pictures. ‘Gosh! Lovely picture! Who drew that?’ and so forth. He patted the daybed. ‘Gosh! What a lot of clothes you have!’ He didn’t respond. ‘Erm, can I look in your closet?’ I asked. It’s American for wardrobe. At which point, and who can blame him, he leapt off the daybed, opened the wardrobe, pointed silently at about 200 suits and said he had to go into town and thee thome people. A limo drove me back to my hotel.
After it appeared in the magazine, American Vogue had a letter from a reader complaining about my piece. It was a well-written letter. She said it was full of slights and cheap jokes about Mike Tyson and Don King and everyone else I had met. She said that it was racist. She said I had clearly been unnerved by finding myself in a roomful of black Americans. She complained that I had told the readers nothing about Mike Tyson the man or Mike Tyson the boxer, and she was very scathing about my having ducked the bedroom scene.
‘Just what did your writer imagine would happen to her in Mike’s room?’ she asked, and concluded with a very telling thrust. ‘She should have used the opportunity to get a better interview.’ Well, it’s a point of view. And I did feel bad about ducking out of the bedroom, all the way back to London. Maybe if he hadn’t been wearing shorts, who knows?
(Spectator, 8 February 1992)