I see him first from a distance. He’s strikingly slender, his thin frame topped by a flop of bouffant hair. He meanders down George Street, two heads above everyone else, which is hardly surprising, as by reputation his brain is twice the size of ordinary mortals. He reminds me of Big Bird from Sesame Street, mixed with the sanguine good looks of an ageing heartthrob, or a bassist in a band that shouldn’t be touring anymore. My first impression proves correct. For after he sits, he bursts into rapid-fire conversation that swings this way and that and I realise he is indeed a wonderful contradiction of many things – a visual and intellectual hotchpotch of a human wrapped in freckled flesh. A tremendous swirl of polar opposites jumbled in with a large dash of joie de vivre and a serving of “I don’t give a damn.”
This is Charles Waterstreet: barrister in criminal law, writer, socialite, film and theatre producer, columnist, humorist and, as I am to discover, womaniser.
He speaks in a posh drawl as if slightly drunk, but I soon discover he’s teetotal. He recoils when I offer him a glass of Shiraz.
“Don’t think I’m as good as you think I am,” he smiles, “I’ve done a lot of drugs. When I was born I realised I had a cocaine deficiency.”
“You can’t say that,” I answer, “You’re a barrister.”
“I just did”, he replies.
This is going to be interesting.
“My mother was an alcoholic but I only drank to excess,” he continues, the corners of his eyes smiling too, “I haven’t touched a drop or a drug for twenty years. It’s a funny thing I spent the first half of my life trying to kill myself and the second half trying to live forever.”
The waitress approaches and Charles immediately flirts. In fact, during our interview he charms everyone; the barmaid, passers-by, I swear even a pigeon falls under his rakish spell.
Of indeterminate age, Mr Waterstreet has a twenty-five-year-old son.
“How long were you married for?” I ask.
“All night,” he replies. “She found two lipstick smeared champagne flutes in the sink of my hotel room on our wedding night. I thought as I was newly married, I should start as I mean to go on and tell the truth. So I told her about the two women who’d celebrated the end of my bachelordom. That was the last time I told the truth in marriage. I lived in a motel for three weeks after that.”
Mr Waterstreet hasn’t lost his truth gene with the passing years. If anything his blunt honesty has been sharpened to a point.
“How old are you really?” I ask, genuinely unsure, for he looks as if he has bathed in Oil of Olay for decades, “I mean you have quite the reputation for being a ladies man. It must be quite hard to keep up.”
“Nearly 30,” he lies. He is, in fact, sixty-six. “But my portrait in the Archibald keeps getting younger. I call it my fifty shades of Dorian Gray. Naughtiness reduces ageing you see, and I’ve never felt more blood flowing through my veins.”
“Is that true Charles?”
“Well, in truth, I’m finding I’m slowing down a lot,” he continues, a cheeky glint flickering behind his spectacles, “I don’t frequent bars so nowadays I meet most of my girls online.”
“What do you look for in these women?”
“I’m fluid. I like blondes, redheads, and brunettes, all of them in every shade and colour. I’ve had interesting experiences. Female sexuality is a volcano you see. Once I was with these beautiful girls and a superfluous man. One of the girls put my hand on his penis. It felt like old cheese and a wet fish all at once. I’ve never gotten over it. I still wake up some nights with a frozen palm.”
“Well, you obviously weren’t looking for that then.”
“No,” he answers gently, “I’ve spent years interviewing the fairer sex and I’ve discovered there’s a little sugar and a whole lot of spice.”
“Is spice what you seek?”
He smiles and sips his Diet Coke – the only drink allowed under doctor’s orders. His answer comes from left-field.
“Did you know the female body is completely covered in flesh?”
It dawns on me I’m dealing with a fine legal mind honed over years in the nuances of argument, misdirection and persuasion, defending some of Australia’s most notorious rule breakers; murderers, drug dealers, and terrorists. This man has charmed them all and many of their jurors. Even the artist he defended ended up painting his portrait, and it won the 2015 Archibald prize.
I change tack.
“Have you ever been in love?”
“Many times,” he answers. For a beat his eyes mist behind his polished lenses. “I love ‘love’ you see. Three years ago a girl, whom I loved tremendously, went overseas. She broke my heart.”
“How old was she?” I ask.
“The right demographic,” he replies quickly, “twenty-four.”
I can’t help but laugh. His easy charm had me at hello even when he talks about saying goodbye.
“She was a vagina painter,” he continues, “She painted beautiful pictures of the vaginae of all the girls I slept with. They hang in my house. She left me for a Swedish backpacker she met on a Vipassana retreat. He’s a tantric yoga teacher.”
“How clichéd,” I proffer.
“Very,” he answers.
“Why do you crave these young women?” I respond quickly. I can see he’s on a roll now and can’t wait to hear his answers.
He sits back and takes his time.
“It’s a compulsion I think. I have an excessive need for nurturing. My mother died at an early age and I was excessively spoilt and breastfed by her. I was the oldest but then she had five other children and died. I was young. I was jealous of my siblings, and when she passed my aunties and my nanny continued breastfeeding me. They had a nursing room for babies and mothers in Albury and when I was a young boy I went back there, fascinated by the breastfeeding process. I went around and tried all the different breasts.”
“Didn’t the women think that odd?
“No, they thought it was funny.”
I feel slightly hypnotised by the man and not at all repulsed. His candour is disarming and his stories make me hungry for more.
“How would you describe yourself?”
“A bumptious, strange guy,” he answers. “I don’t care what others think. I deal in the truth. When you get older you realise what people say doesn’t matter very much.”
As he continued to speak, I understood Charles more. He was not a man who told tall tales. He was simply a tall man who’s experienced a lot in life.
‘What would you have done if you weren’t a barrister? You co-created ‘Rake’ the television series. You’ve written for the Sydney Morning Herald. You’ve produced hit theatre productions and the film ‘Blood Oath’ with Russell Crowe? Is there any stone left unturned?”
“I would have been a stand-up comedian.”
“Why didn’t you give that a shot?”
“It didn’t really exist when I was young.”
“Do you think law was the right choice?”
“Well I got into it at twenty-four and I’ve realised now that I’ve been performing all along. I dress up. I have a captive audience. Well, they can’t get up and leave, can they? And I hate to say it but if the jurors like you, there’s more chance of them voting for you. My technique is to get them laughing you see. So really, I haven’t missed out.”
“Didn’t you ever want to be the judge?”
“Because I have no judgement.”
I sit back and laugh again. I realise Charles Waterstreet is right. I’d vote for him no matter whom he was defending. He’s guilty of being eccentric but he’s not guilty of being a bore, a dullard or someone I’d not like to see again. In fact, I’d like to spend a lot more time with him. If he ever decides to do stand-up comedy I’m sure we’ll see what we’ve been missing all these years, and judging by past performances, the comedy clubs better prepare themselves for an influx of groupies.
SOME SECRETS ARE BEST SHARED...
When he's not fighting high-end battles in court, getting clients off the hook and generally entertaining everyone around him with his aloof ways, Charles finds ways to unwind and relax. The following took place in his apartment...