The Incredible World of Navel Fluff
Part 4: My Tonight Show appearance
What would you do if you were offered an expenses paid trip to Hollywood to appear on one of USA's highest rating talk shows, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kylie Minogue?
I was surprised to receive such a phone call in October 2001. In an otherwise ordinary day at work, an NBC producer phoned me and suggested that a segment on me and my world record navel fluff collection would be a great addition to the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Apparently they were looking for items of "light relief", especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks just a few weeks earlier.
Stunned disbelief gave way to natural reluctance. I'm a quiet shy person, uncomfortable talking in front of even a small crowd, and I doubted the entertainment value of both myself and my fluff collection. But the NBC offer was explained further - return airfares, luxury hotel accommodation, limousine transport, an appearance fee and meal allowance were all included. That got me thinking! The payments would only cover costs, but it could be the experience of a lifetime, and a great holiday opportunity.
Various commitments prevented me going at that time, however I agreed to go in late January 2002, and I took a friend with me to document the experience on video. We both had a vision of producing an arty, quirky documentary of the whole navel fluff phenomena, and the amazing response to it by the public and the world's media. Peoples' responses have been stranger and more entertaining than the fluff itself, with interesting cultural and philosophical issues that could be explored in a unique short documentary.
We flew Qantas to Los Angeles and were met at the airport by a chauffeur in a stretched limousine. This came as a culture shock as I'm more accustomed to lugging a backpack around on public transport, but I gratefully adapted! Being more familiar with hostels than hotels, the accommodation also required some adapting to, but the staff at the Universal Hilton worked hard to make us comfortable. I was treated so much like a celebrity that I could almost imagine that I was ... until I had to explain to people why I'd been flown to America.
To help us settle in, we were treated to a day at Disneyland, with limousine transport once again. A great time was had, even though I was becoming rather nervous about my impending TV appearance. The next day we made our own arrangements, which included an afternoon at Venice Beach where being different is very cool. I even bumped into another world record holder - Frank Simon - and after he'd removed the large stove he was balancing on his teeth we looked up each other's entries in the 2002 edition of the Guinness Book of Records.
The day of my TV appearance was interrupted by frequent toilet visits due to nerves. Thank God for Imodium tablets! It was hard to stay calm when facing the prospect of being interviewed in front of a large studio audience and countless millions of viewers across USA ... and about thirty other countries. Appearing between megastars like Schwarzenegger and Minogue only highlighted the absurdity of my subject matter.
Monday afternoon - February 4th 2002 - our favourite driver came to take us to the NBC studios. It was another stretch limousine but I didn't feel in any condition to savour its comforts. Entering the studio had a grim finality to it, as my most terrifying public speaking ordeal was about to happen, and it was far too late to even think about backing out (but I admit the thought did cross my mind a little bit).
I had my own dressing room which held ample refreshments and, importantly, a toilet. The NBC staff did a great job of making me comfortable, and Jay Leno himself dropped in for a chat and to reassure me that he would be making fun of the subject, navel fluff, but not me personally. A quick familiarisation tour of the set, then I also bumped into the guy in the dressing room next door, who happened to be Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The beer I drank in the dressing room did little to calm me as I watched the TV screen showing Arnie talking about his latest film ... I was on next! Someone led me to the back of the studio during an ad break, in readiness for my appearance. I really felt like going to the toilet again, but I heard Jay Leno introducing me, and suddenly my time had come.
Most of the nervousness I felt strangely subsided into relative calm as I walked onto the set in front of the very noisy audience. This shouldn't have surprised me in view of all the praying I'd done, but it did. Jay interviewed me with his classic humour and made me feel like I was having a friendly fireside chat. At all times I was conscious of the cameras, the studio audience, and the unseen millions who would soon be watching, yet felt unruffled by it, as if I was in the calm eye of a hurricane. Jay asked me about my collection, about lint, people's reactions, then emptied one of my jars of lint onto his desk. For the finale he got me to expose my navel to the world and demonstrate how I pluck out the lint.
When the interview ended it felt much shorter than six minutes: there was so much more I could have said, but it would have lost impact had it been longer. I remained in the hot seat while Kylie Minogue performed a song, then moved to the couch while she spoke to Jay, then the show was over.
The relief was memorable, as was the departure from the studio. As the limousine drove out of the gates, crowds of young people with autograph books and cameras clamoured to try and identify the great celebrity inside. I don't think they could see that it was just a lint collector from Australia.
With the mission successfully accomplished, I was free! I may never pass that way again, so while still in America I took the opportunity to have a holiday. Some more videoing was done for the proposed documentary then I hired a car and went for a drive - through California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. I came home to Australia financially poorer as a result, but immensely richer for the experience.
Credits - I thank God for the experience I had and the strange calmness during the interview. Many thanks go to the Jay Leno and NBC staff who were extremely kind and accommodating, and who made it all possible. Thanks also to friends Natasha and Ben, and our driver Shaun. The photo at bottom was provided by NBC, and the three before it were captured from the video of the show that NBC sent me.