Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

The Canadian teenage superstar has just turned 18 and the Justin Juggernaut continues. David Leser recalls the Bieber tour Down Under and his awakening to Bieber Fever.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never by David Leser

Photo by Pacific Coast News

The tender hearts of Australia’s female youth are probably still palpitating, but now that he has departed our shores it might be a good time to get some perspective on the phenomenon that is Justin Bieber.

Never mind if there are those of you who’ve only just heard of him – I, too, was living under a rock marked `Paleolithic’ until recently – this is the 17 year-old from Stratford, Canada, who, is now re-defining fame and the history of pop culture.

Consider this: Nine million albums sold worldwide in his first year as a professional performer; earnings of over $100 million in 12 months; one billion viewers on YouTube, 9 million Twitter followers, nearly 17 million Facebook friends, a best-selling book, a 3-D movie about himself, two performances at the White House, appearances on Oprah, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, David Letterman, Saturday Night Live and a host of others, sell-out tours across America, Europe and Australia. And all this before the singer with the Cupid smile can vote or drink in his own hometown.

Think Frank Sinatra in 1942 when he nearly caused the walls of the Paramount Theatre in New York to cave in, such was the commotion from his teenage fans. Think Elvis Presley in 1956 after he sparked near riots with his smouldering good looks and voice, not to mention his on-stage gyrations. Think the Beatles who, during the 1960s, triggered a worldwide hysteria that was to become forever known as “Beatlemania.”

Yes, think all the pop acts of contempory history that have caused the tweeny thermometer to sizzle and melt – Old Blue Eyes, The King, the Fab Four, the Monkees, David Cassidy, Michael Jackson, the Backstreet Boys (for a moment anyway) – and Justin Bieber is now a glittering star in the same firmament. Only he’s done it faster.

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Julian Assange: The Most Wanted Man In The World

As Julian Assange awaits a British Supreme Court challenge to his extradition to Sweden this story looks at the early life of a computer wizard who became one of the most wanted men in the world.

Nearly two decades ago in the hills outside Melbourne Julian Assange would go to sleep in the early hours of the morning dreaming of police raids. He would hear footsteps on the driveway gravel, see shadowy figures hovering near his house, and imagine armed police bursting through his backdoor at dawn.

Julian Assange: The Most Wanted Man In The World

Photograph: Carmen Valino

He was often paranoid and exhausted, mainly because he’d been up all night hacking his way into Australian and overseas computers. His lack of sleep compounded his paranoia. He believed the police were watching him, tapping his phone and about to raid his house.

He was dead right about that.

In late October 1991, this 20 year-old computer wizard was a key member of an elite underground movement in Melbourne known as International Subversives, arguably the most sophisticated hacking group on the planet.

Comprising three brilliant, obsessive young men from dysfunctional family backgrounds – they met initially on computer bulletin board systems, not in person – the group had managed to break into some of the most secure networks in the world, including NASA, the Naval Surface Warfare Centre in Virginia and the Pentagon itself.

We know this because Julian Assange was to tell us himself six years later in a book called Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, published to great international acclaim in 1997. Written by Australian post-graduate student, Suelette Dreyfus, with Assange’s close co-operation, Underground lifted the lid on the exploits of this rogue sub-culture operating out of Australia’s second largest city.

Their maxim was: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.”

The book, in part a ghost-written autobiography of Assange’s early life, never actually revealed the names of the Melbourne hackers, but rather online nicknames such as Phoenix, Electron, Prime Suspect, Trax and Mendax.

Court documents and biographical details on the Wikileaks website would later show that Mendax was none other than Julian Assange. He’d chosen his moniker from Horace’s splendide mendax, meaning “nobly untruthful.”

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Heath Ledger

Two years after Heath Ledger scandalised sections of middle America with his near-miraculous performance as a gay cowboy, he would light up the screen with another tour de force, this time as the lovelorn, heroin-soaked poet, Dan, in the Australian cult movie, Candy.

Little known outside Australia, this film was based on a loosely autobiographical book of the same name written by Australian author, Luke Davies. In the film Ledger somehow managed to find his way inside the twisted, twilight world of the drug addict.

"Heath Ledger"

I pull the syringe from her arm and drop it on the table and hold my thumb down over the tiny hole I’ve made. I release the tie with my other hand. Candy looks down at her arm like a child who’s relieved that the innoculation is over. Then she says, mmmm, and her facial muscles relax and she lies back on the bed and says, that is heaps better. Heaps better. Fuck oh God. Fuck fuck fuck. This is the best. Oh God, this is awesome.

This was – as the New York Times commented of Ledger’s role – acting of the first order. “Ledger looks and plays the part of the scheming user exceptionally well. He’s deep in the character’s skin right from the start.”

Ledger and his co-star, Abbie Cornish – who recently appeared opposite Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age – had received their tutoring from an expert, a heroin addict belonging to a Sydney group called “Proud Users.”

“Abbie and Heath got lots of lessons with a prosthetic arm on how to inject,” the film’s producer, Margaret Fink told Vanity Fair. “They had instructions from an expert … and Heath was as convincing as one could have been.”

In the wake of Ledger’s death last week in a New York apartment, it is tempting to now speculate that Ledger simply took his heroin classes too seriously. One Australian tabloid newspaper asserted as much by reporting that Ledger had spent several days at a drug rehabilitation facility battling an addiction to heroin following his separation last year from American actress, Michelle Williams.

At the time of writing there was no way of confirming this. What could be confirmed was that Heath Ledger’s death had shattered his family and closest friends, as well as the proud and close-knit Australian film industry.

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Audette Exel – High Flyer

She built a career on making millions for the

rich, but her true achievement has been using

her legal and financial nous to make money

for the world’s poorest. David Leser meets the

ISIS Foundation’s Audette Exel in Kathmandu.

Audette Exel: Story by David Leser

Audette Exel hugs a Nepalese child whose life she saved.

To enter the Alice in Wonderland-like existence of Audette Exel, you could do worse than go down the rabbit hole and poke your head up into the ancient former kingdom of Nepal. Weddings are erupting around the capital, Kathmandu, with flourishes of trumpets and beating drums. Cows amble across the street amid dust storms and endless traffic jams, vying for space with urchins, holy men and hawkers, all under the looming presence of the Himalayan mountains.
A monkey passes Exel’s hotel room as she works via email on a half-billion-dollar sale of a European banking group. The negotiations are crucial. If successful, they will represent one of the biggest European financial transactions of 2012. This is just before breakfast.

After breakfast, Exel visits some of the children she and her organisation, the ISIS Foundation, have rescued from child traffickers in the remotest part of the country, children taken from their homes under false pretences and imprisoned in appalling conditions.

The children are hugging her, squeezing her, holding her hand. An 11-year-old boy who almost died from a hole in the heart before being saved by Exel and her team won’t let her go.

Later that afternoon, Exel works on forging ties between her Nepalese staff and her manager in Uganda, the other country where her organisation has saved the lives of thousands of mothers and their children.

“If you want to know me,” the former corporate lawyer and banker says as she greets me at the door, a flourish of blonde hair, blue eyes and Nepalese silk, “you have to know me in this context. The truth of me is here, it’s not dressed up in high heels and a business suit in Sydney.”

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Enemy of Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 37, faced terrible adversity from a young age in her native Somalia and now aims to reveal the “truth” about Islam and its treatment of women.

*first published in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 28/6/07

Her strident views on Islam have earned the Somali-born author, film-maker, politician and human rights campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali fame. controversy, a Nobel Peace Prize nomination – and countless death threats, writes David Leser.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t look or sound dangerous but if her enemies had their way she’d be dead. A public stoning perhaps, or a bomb detonated in the middle of the night, or even an attack in broad daylight, like the one that finished off her friend Theo van Gogh’s three years ago. That’s the degree of hatred she inspires.

Never was this made more apparent than on that chilling Amsterdam morning two and a half years ago when van Gogh, the maverick Dutch film-maker, was cycling to work during rush hour and a Muslim extremist by the name of Mohammed Bouyeri stepped out from the shadows to shoot him eight times.

Van Gogh staggered on for a few metres and then, according to witnesses, twice begged his assailant for mercy. “Can’t we can talk about this,” he pleaded in words that sound today like the dying gasps of the Enlightenment.

Bouyeri, a Dutch-born citizen of Moroccan descent, was not interested in talking. He drew two butcher’s knives from under his jellaba  (Middle Eastern outer garment) and with one of them slit the film-maker’s throat. With the other, he impaled a letter on his victim’s chest, addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It read, in part: “You will break yourself to pieces on Islam. You, oh America, will go down. You oh Netherlands will go down … You, oh Hirsi Ali, will go down.”

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SYDNEY WRITERS’ FEST – TMI (Too Much Information)

Don’t miss what will surely be an insightful, provocative and no doubt amusing exploration of exactly how much information is ‘Too Much Information’ with three brilliant but very different contemporary memoirists. The talk will be facilitated by acclaimed feature writer and author, David Leser.

THURSDAY 17th MAY, 10-11AM.

Pier 2/3 Main Stage

** This is a ticketed event.

“How much do you tell when writing a memoir? Lemon Andersen (County of Kings), Joshua Cody ([sic]) and Marieke Hardy (You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead) decide if there is any such thing as Too Much Information.”

For more information and ticketing please go to:


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SYDNEY WRITERS’ FESTIVAL – Interview with the Interrogator.

David Leser will be facilitating both interviews and discussion panels at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Don’t miss the opportunity to attend the thrilling Interview with the Interrogator.
Interview with the Interrogator – Thursday, May 17. 2.30-3.30pm at Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay. 
*(This is a ticketed event)
Glenn Carle says he would not use physical torture when interrogating a supposed top al Qaeda operative rendered to one of the CIA’s notorious black sites overseas. Carle, who later served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats (i.e., terrorism) – the US Intelligence Community’s most senior position for terrorism analysis – is the only CIA officer to have spoken out, and written, about rendition, detention, interrogation, and torture. He talks to David Leser about his autobiography The Interrogator (heavily redacted by the CIA) and how he wrestled with what defined his real duty to his country.
To see the entire interview please click here:
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ASHER KEDDIE – The Girl Who Played Ita.

From Ita’s lisp to Blanche’s vulnerability, Asher Keddie has made celebrity roles her own. Yet there’s more to this versatile actress than mere mimicry, as David Leser discovers.

Ita Buttrose and Asher Keddie are at dinner in a small chic restaurant in Sydney’s Surry Hills, a week before filming is due to begin on the ABC mini series, Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo.

Asher is … how shall we put it? Perspiring. And not just because the night is steamy. Next to her is one of the most famous women in the country, the woman she’s about to try and embody on the screen as a 30 year-old magzine editor launching the ground-breaking magazine, Cleo, in 1972.

It’s only the second time the two have met and Asher – never one to be easily intimidated – is suddenly aware that her every movement and expression is being scrutinised.

“Will you stop that?” Ita commands.

“What?” the actor replies.

“You’re sitting like me.”

“No I’m not.”

“Yes, you are .”

And then they both burst out laughing, to the blessed relief of everyone else at the table. Here – for the student of characterisation and subplot – is a delicious example  of the observed (Ita) observing the observer (Asher) and both observer and observed approving of what they see.

“Her hands were imitating where mine were – on the side of my face or under my chin,” Ita happily recalls to the Weekly now (a magazine she, herself, edited in the mid 1970s) and I have never seen anyone doing that before.” (If truth be known, Asher Keddie’s been doing it since she was a child.)

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GINA RINEHART – The Richest Woman on Earth

Fate has given Gina Rinehart both blessings and curses – unimaginable wealth and poisoned personal relationships. On her way to becoming the richest woman on the planet, writes David Leser, the “Iron Maiden” has fought numerous court cases and now finds herself in a bitter battle with three of her four children.

It’s hard to know where to start with Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person. Perhaps with that history-making image of her father, Lang Hancock, flying over the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia 60 years ago and discovering the world’s biggest iron ore deposit.

Or maybe the spectacular falling out between this hard-boiled, visionary prospector and his daughter nearly 30 years later when Gina realised the Filipino housekeeper she’d hired to look after her father had – ahem – assumed duties well beyond her assigned brief.

Or possibly the manner of Lang Hancock’s death in 1992 when, drowning in his own fluids from cystic kidneys and renal failure, he was then thrown into the psychological anguish of seeing his only acknowledged daughter and third wife, Rose Lacson – the aforementioned Filipino housekeeper – warring over the spoils of his vast minerals wealth?

(Lang Hancock is said to have fathered an illegitimate half-Aboriginal daughter.)

All these points of entry would take us into one of the great unwritten mini-series of our times, but they would only touch the tip of a jaw-dropping narrative that has fascinated – and appalled – Australians for decades.

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HEALING HEART – The Story of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

*Originally featured in Good Weekend, 14 May 2011.

Two years ago, Izzeldin Abuelaish lost three beloved daughters in an Israeli tank attack, yet the famed Palestinian doctor refuses to let hate fill his soul. he explains why to David Leser.   

“My God, my God. They killed my daughters. Shlomi, I wanted to save them, but they are dead. They were hit in the head. They died on the spot. Allah, what have we done to them? Oh God.”

These were the words of Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, as he spoke to Israeli television journalist Shlomi Eldar from the ruins of his home in the Gaza Strip on January 16, 2009. More than words really, an animal cry from the depths of a father’s heart.

The war in Gaza, codenamed “Operation Cast Lead” had entered its twentieth day when Dr Abuelaish used what was left of his fading mobile phone battery to make his call.

No reporter, Israeli or otherwise, had been allowed into the heavily populated Palestinian territory since the beginning of the war, and, for many journalists, this refugee doctor’s eyewitness account had become crucial to their understanding of what was happening.

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