Southerly by David Haywood

Freak Circus (with Dancing)

A few years ago I worked with a woman called Stacey, who possessed the biggest wart that I've ever laid eyes on. It was so spectacularly large that it almost entirely covered the back of her hand.

One memorable afternoon, Stacey sidled up to my desk (her customary mode of approach), and with the air of someone announcing a special treat, whispered the following words into my ear: "Hey David, you know that wart on my hand? Well, it burst while I was having lunch. And inside there are millions and millions of little baby warts. Would you like to have a look?"

I wish I could report that I declined Stacey's repulsive and unnatural offer of entertainment. And, furthermore, that I told Stacey to go away and show her millions of baby warts to someone else.

But, alas, I can report no such thing. What I actually said was: "Okay, Stacey, giz a look."

Such is the dark and shameful side of human nature; the despicable beast that lurks within us all. The desire to see the worst of nature's horrors: no matter how vile, abhorrent, or deviant. To wallow in dreadfulness, and satiate every facet of our morbid curiosity.

Which is why I found myself watching the opening episode of Dancing with the Stars (Tuesday, 8.30 pm, TV ONE).

Not since Christians were turned into cat-food by the Roman Empire has there been a form of entertainment quite this brutal. Local celebrities are dressed up as either clowns or prostitutes, made to dance around a stage like performing monkeys, and then excoriated by a group of sadistic psychopaths. Public humiliation doesn't get any more public or humiliating than on Dancing with the Stars.

It's brilliant television. This year's line-up included three celebrities that I particularly wanted to watch getting 'done over': Suzanne Paul, Michael Laws, and the detestable Paul Holmes. I could hardly wait for the blood-letting to begin.

Suzanne Paul -- the termagant who first introduced infomercials to New Zealand -- was first in the firing line. In her pre-dance interview, Suzanne tearfully revealed that the past few years had been utterly miserable for her. "That's why I'm so happy to be on this programme," she explained.

"Ho, ho," I thought. "Something tells me that Dancing with the Stars won't help your emotional fragility." You could have knocked me down with a feather when Suzanne's cha-cha charmed the taffeta off the judges.

"Fantastic first effort!" cried Brendan. "You shouldn't be this good yet!" declared Carol-Ann. "Feisty and fearless!" gushed Craig Revel-Horwood, a dance expert who'd been specially imported from the UK on the basis of his Rottweiler-like savagery. It was all so disappointing.

But happily there was no such disappointment when Michael Laws took the stage. The mayor of Wanganui is a man utterly transformed from his former life as a New Zealand First political hack. Gone are the days when his inexpertly-applied eyeliner and moulting ginger moustache made him resemble a cross-breed between a panda and a weasel. Now Michael sports a fashionable 'bikini wax' goatee in the manner of deceased strip-club impresario Rainton Hastie. It looks like he's wearing a vagina on his face -- which, you must admit, is a major improvement.

Michael maintained a terrifying rictus for the duration of his dance routine. Only when Craig Revel-Horwood described his performance as "appalling" and awarded him "1 out of 10" did the grin begin to fade.

Laws told the Listener that he'd been pressured into appearing on Dancing with the Stars by the citizens of Wanganui, because it would "put [their city] on the map." I suppose that's a possible analysis of their motives. To me, a more likely interpretation is that the citizens of Wanganui hate their mayor's guts as much as the rest of New Zealand, and want to see him shamed and humiliated on live television.

It wasn't until the end of the night that Paul Holmes made his dancing debut. As he waddled onto the stage like an elderly dowager, something snapped within me. I've loathed Holmes since early 1989, but there is a point at which someone can be punished too excessively. I was uncomfortably reminded of George Orwell's essay Revenge is Sour where he describes witnessing a former SS general being mistreated by his jailers:

So the Nazi torturer of one's imagination, the monstrous figure against whom one had struggled for so many years, dwindled to this pitiful wretch, whose obvious need was not for punishment, but for some kind of psychological treatment.

I couldn't bear to watch any more.

Why anybody would appear on such a television programme is a mystery to me. Generally speaking, people are only motivated to perform in freak circuses because otherwise they will starve. What possible incentive can Michael Laws or Paul Holmes have to make such an exhibition of themselves?

Are they suicidal? Hypnotized? Has TV ONE taken their children as hostages?

Or is it possible that public attention -- no matter how degrading -- is better than being ignored?