Alex Ritman - Writer and Editor in Dubai now working for The National. Esquire, Time Out, LA Times, Sunday Times, Dazed & Confused.

The Hoff Can Save Us All – Esquire, November 2009

“People say they’re Muslim, they’re Christian, whatever. Really, they just want to meet the guy from Knightrider.” The Hoff may be mad, but he’s an absolute winner for quotes. This feature appeared in the launch issue of Esquire’s Middle East edition.

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Hasselhoff Can Save Us All

Twenty years ago this month, Günter Schabowski made a very famous blunder at a press conference broadcast on German state television. As Propaganda Secretary for the Socialist Unity Party, he was to announce regulation changes for refugees passing through East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. But, having just returned from holiday and a little tired, he hadn’t had time to prepare himself. Sat in a drab grey suit in front of the assembled journalists and cameras, Gunter read a note aloud that said East Berliners would be allowed to cross any of the borders with proper permission. He then paused, realising the enormity of the statement. Peering through his glasses and confused by the lack of further information he’d be given, he added his own uninformed and incorrect addition, “sofort, unverzüglich” (in effect, immediately).

News of the statement swept through East Berlin like wildfire. Tens of thousands swarmed around the checkpoints and the dismantling of one of history’s most notorious walls began.

While Schabowski’s err was perhaps the final nail in a divided Berlin’s coffin, many would argue that the wheels of motion had been oiled some months back. One of the more famous historians is David Hasselhoff, who has suggested on several occasions that a major factor had been music, specifically his. Hasselhoff’s English cover of local 1970s hit Auf Der Strasse Nach Suden, a lighters-in-the air-anthem that captivated the current movement of revolt, had been racing up the rankings during late summer. It was sat comfortably at the number one spot several weeks before Schabowski made his spectacular broadcasting fail.

Two decades have passed since, but ‘The Hoff’ is rarely mentioned in the same breath as German unification. Understandably, the star of Knight Rider, Baywatch and, more recently, America’s Got Talent, was left feeling slightly aggrieved that his pivotal role was not credited more in the history books or museums.

But now 57, having no doubt come to terms with this oversight, Hasselhoff wants to do it all over again and on a much larger scale. But this time, the walls don’t simply divide a city, they serve as a barrier between societies, religions and cultures. Yes, we’re talking metaphorical walls. And, best of all, he wants to do it from the Middle East via a TV show.

“I was thinking of doing a television series based in Dubai, a bit like the Knight Rider, where there is this tycoon who has this incredible yacht. Everyone thinks he’ a playboy, but something happened in his life that turned him around that made him realise he had the capacity of going out and doing good.”

Hasselhoff is explaining this vision to me while stomping around his hotel room overlooking Miami Beach. It’s 9am in Florida and by the ridiculously loud and overbearing voice hurtling at frightening speeds down the phoneline I’m imaging wild arm gesticulations and a facial shade veering slightly towards the burgundy. His gameshow host-worthy opening line, “Helllloooooo Doooooooobai”, immediately has me reaching for the volume control, but my eardrums still take a frequent battering whenever his seemingly endless levels of enthusiasm are kickstarted with another inspirational thought.

It’s like talking to a hyperactive and overly talkative child. Tangents fly in all directions as he skips unaided between subject matters like a conversational schizophrenic. He interrupts himself continuously, often puncturing sentences merely syllables old simply to highlight one of long list of international achievements. “I won a Bollywood award,” “I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most watched TV star in the world” and “I carry autographed pictures with me wherever I go so people can walk away with something they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives” are fired out without warning, like a rare variety of self-promotional Tourette syndrome.

If it were anyone but Hasselhoff talking, you’d probably be put off by this towering ego. But with him it just seems endearing; a little similar to listening to your friend’s dad retell tales about his glory days playing bass with a rock and roll band. That is, assuming your friend’s dad is a ridiculously loud American famous for driving a talking car, wearing little red shorts and, more recently, a troublesome series of ‘ear infections’.

But behind all of this bravado is, so he’s trying to convince me, a new burning desire to do good. And it’s a something that struck The Hoff on a recent trip to the UAE. Almost too spiritually to believe, it all began in Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

“It was an absolutely fantastic experience,” he excitedly tells me as my index hovers back over the volume control. “When I went to the mosque, I said as a joke that I could bring the world together, but there were about 20 countries represented and they all knew who I was. They were all smiling and laughing and hugging and I just thought ‘this is what the world is about’.” There can’t be many people around who can visit one of the largest monuments to religion on the planet and come out believing themselves to be the star attraction.

It wasn’t to end there. In Mall of the Emirates, Hasselhoff continued to get hounded by a fanbase he never knew existed. “I was stopped by about 15 Saudi Arabian women in traditional clothing – completely covered, except for their eyes – and they were, like, giggling and saying they watched Baywatch and America’s Got Talent.”

Clearly not having read the handbook on cultural sensitivity, Hasselhoff proceeded to have himself photographed with his arms around the ladies, a move that didn’t go down quite so well with the local men. “These Arab guys kept on coming over with stern looks on their faces, pushing me away from the women.” Eventually, even strict religious etiquette disintegrated before Hasselhoff’s charm and soon the security guards were smiling for his holiday snaps as well.

It was around here where Hasselhoff had his Eureka moment, and realised the power of good a TV show could bring. “I just thought of how entertainment and the Western world, you know, kind of brings the world together. Everyone’s talking about what they are; I’m a Christian, I’m Muslim, I’m whatever. Really, they just want to meet the guy from America’s Got Talent or Knight Rider.” John Lennon only went for Jesus. Hasselhoff is taking on the lot.

Initially, Hasselhoff’s plan for the Dubai-based Knight Rider-esque crime-fighting series was to have his millionaire do-gooder running a hotel. He’s still not averse to the idea – “I could put that hotel on the map. I’d base the series from there and advertise the hell out of it,” he bellows down his clearly moist receiver, openly endorsing some severe product placement that might not concur with Jumeirah’s marketing model – but he’s now more inclined towards the yacht approach.

“I kind of like the idea of having the harbour and the yacht and making it look like this is a self-indulgent guy who has tons of money and lots of women. But undercover he really uses his power to do good deeds, a bit like the Knight Rider.”

Granted, some of Hasselhoff’s ideas for the show might require the odd tweak (“I thought it would hysterical to have some women in the traditional Arabic dress and having her taking it off and being some hot babe.”). But, if he’s to be believed, it could do much more than simply unite people together under a Hoff-loving umbrella. “I just think that if I was to bring awareness to a place that is great and fun and exciting and accessible it could help the economy.” There you have it: David Hasselhoff > Economic Downturn.

In the end, and in an unusual role reversal in interviews, I have to call time on the conversation after over an hour of Hoff-assault (if this were written as a Q&A, there would only be about five Qs). But this isn’t before he has explained that NBC’s new Knight Rider series – in which Hasselhoff only had a cameo role – “didn’t work”, told me how much he liked my home town of Manchester – “I thought it was going to be like Pittsburgh, but it was cool!” – and said he’d love to do “something huge” in India to “help the people”.

As the receiver goes down and the reverberations in my ears begin to subside, there’s an odd feeling in the now uncomfortably silent room. Has the past hour’s excessively loud ramblings simply been the tragic desperations of a fading, recovering alcoholic trying to resurrect a career that has been flagging somewhat for at least a decade? Is his choice of Dubai as a location simply because this plastic city in the sand is yet to be troubled by the concept of irony, somewhere where the epitome of sophistication is pulling up at the lights in your bright yellow open top Lamborghini, peering over your Swarovski crystal-encrusted sunglasses and smirking at the man in the next lane driving a less-expensive motor? Hasselhoff is a man who clearly belongs in the excesses of the 80s and Dubai is probably the closest thing available.

Saying that, perhaps his experience in Mall of the Emirates tells us more. Hasselhoff is probably the only man on the planet who can get away with having pictures taken with his arms around a group of Burkha-wearing Saudi women. If anyone can help overcome barriers and divisions within society, maybe it really is this man. Perhaps his frustrations at his historical snub 20 years ago are fully justified.

Heading back to 1989, just over a month after Günter Schabowski’s slip-up, a reunited and reinvigorated Berlin invited Hasselhoff to headline a New Year’s Eve concert. Sporting a leather jacket covered in blinking Christmas lights and ball-bustingly tight stonewash denim jeans, he stood atop a section of the partially demolished wall near the Brandenburg Gate on December 31 and belted out ‘Looking For Freedom’ to almost a million people. The chorus lyric – “I’ve been lookin’ for freedom; I’ve been lookin’ so long; I’ve been lookin’ for freedom; still the search goes on” – may have appeared to be firmly of the fromage variety, even back in the cheese-laden pop mire of 1989, but they embodied the bitter frustrations experienced by the city’s population for so long. As one local newspaper at the time put it, “Hasselhoff: Not Since The Beatles”.

Hasselhoff is heading back to Berlin this month to take part in the 20th anniversary celebrations. Should back in the minds of German historians, why not let him have a go at fixing the world next?

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