I’m conflicted about Michael Laws. He’s brilliant – a brilliant writer, a brilliant broadcaster, a brilliant thinker, a brilliant political strategist and, when I first met him at a celebrity debate in Dunedin several decades ago, brilliantly funny. But I abhor most of what he writes in his columns in the Sunday Star Times. Or rather the way he writes. I have the feeling that the intemperate language, the provocative posturing, the seeming determination to outrage and offend have less to do with the real Michael Laws, whoever that may be, than with the near requirement on tabloid newspaper columnists to shock their readers into penning apoplectic letters of protest to the editor. None of this sits comfortably with a man who could write so lovingly and movingly about his young daughter or confess in his column today that the prospect of her death from cancer brought him to thoughts of suicide.
‘I could see no point to my existence if she were not a part of my life.’ And now we learn that Laws had a sexual relationship with a former prostitute and P addict. Laws has told us so himself, on his radio show, and now extensively in the press. He did it because he expected to be outed. Wearing my media consultant’s hat, I can say that he did exactly the right thing. I have been in a similar situation myself, though the circumstances were different and had no sexual context. But the principle was the same: getting things out in the open pulls the teeth of an intended media exposé and ensures that your version of events appears first and is accurately reported. So, can the revelation of a brief affair with someone who describes herself as an ‘ex crack ho’ ever be a good look? You would have thought not. But somehow the story of Michael Laws and Jacqueline Sperling which has emerged over the past couple of days has a quality which sets it apart from the usual celebrity exposé or mea culpa.
It is a fascinating story, well told, and with a happy ending. It begins with Laws’ description of what drew him to Sperling. ‘In June of this year I met someone in Auckland and, quite unexpectedly, entered a physical relationship. This lady had life experiences that were completely different to my own. I was intoxicated by such an unusual background and flattered by her attentions. ‘We met only twice. We have shared texts and messages of an intimate nature connected to the physical attraction that seemed to exist between us. ‘I was not involved in any other relationship during this time.’ Sterling, it transpires, had run a private escort business in Auckland until 15 months ago and was charged in June of last year with possession of P for supply. She was sentenced to seven months home detention. She was wearing an electronically monitored anklet during Laws’ visits – a detail which, for the life of me, I can only find utterly charming and romantic. The Sunday Star Times reports that Laws was not fazed by the anklet:
‘Why would I be? Here was somebody who had plunged into the depths of a P addiction and enormous depravation, who had got absolutely on the wrong side of the law. ‘I’m very supportive of the idea of people making amends for things they have done wrong in their lives. ‘I was more interested in her story [than sex]. I had no intention of starting a relationship. I told her if I was ever in Auckland I would pop in and talk about a book she was writing [about drug abuse]. She is a great writer.’ And the happy ending? Well, Sperling was understandably annoyed that Laws had chosen to make their relationship public, but the two have since met and Sperling has expressed an interest in renewing the relationship: ‘I am very fond of him. I think he is a good man. Through all of this we are now friends again, and that is more than we were a few days ago. He is a man I am so very fond of.’
Sperling, whose home detention ends on September 1, says she will use her ‘15 minutes of fame’ to teach the public about the evils of drug addiction. Several things distinguish this narrative from the traditional celebrity sex exposé: First, the patent truthfulness of the parties. There is nothing self-serving in anything they say and I believe them utterly.
Second, their courage, particularly that of Sperling who has allowed her life to become public property. As she herself says: ‘There is nobody in this country who sticks their hand up and says, “Look, I am an ex crack ho and look at where I am now.” I have nothing to be ashamed of with the life I left, because I left it behind forever. I am proud of that. I have done nothing wrong. I make no secret of my past.’ And, finally, the lack of bitterness and the mutual respect and affection that so patently suffuse this story. The romantic in me says that we may not have heard the end of the Laws/Sterling narrative. It is, it seems to me, first and foremost a story about a meeting of minds and the sometimes comforting, sometimes passionate relationships that can develop from such meetings.