“I’m at a turning point!” He gets to his feet and I almost expect him to deliver a verdict-upending address to me as though I’m a sitting juror. He pauses. I wait. “Let me go to the bathroom,” he says, “I’ve always got to piss before I tell lies.” He takes two steps, turns and sits back down.
“Just now as you catch me, I’m trying to f—–g reinvent myself.”
The Charles Waterstreet across from me is a perennially unfinished work; a man in constant revolution with himself and the often chaotic consequences of his actions.
Richard Skaff, director of the unreleased Waterstreet documentary, has spent much of the past three years with Waterstreet and finds he’s “watching him trying to get out of his own way”.
“He’s so often stumbling and falling and getting back up,” he says. “You can’t get any more a complex character than him.”
In 2019, Waterstreet’s legal practicing certificate was cancelled following the NSW District Court’s order to pay over $400,000 to the tax office.
“I was devastated. I never wanted to go out in the saddle but I never planned on not,” Waterstreet says.
“I didn’t have a plan for life, well I’ve never had a plan for life.”
But, Charles is a man who’s more than capable of reinvention.
A publican’s son turned physics and chemistry prodigy, turned hippy, turned ‘controversial criminal barrister’, defending expansive collections of names many wouldn’t touch. The eye of the public has long watched over him, as if permanently conjoined to the adjective ‘high-profile’.
The law was long his enemy, his love, the thespian nature of a court performance. As material he was the right fit to inspire the legal drama Rake.
“I never wanted to do law,” he says. “That’s one thing I was very certain of. Never wanted to do law. I’d do anything to avoid it. I kept doing it because, well, there was nothing else, I couldn’t think of anything else… I’d go to court by day and theatre at night. I realised that I wanted to be a writer.”
The Morning Bulletin once called him ‘the master of metaphor’ — a title that produces a proud smile when I mention it.
“In crime all you need to know is all the facts,” he says. “Before trial all you’ve got to do is know every fact about the case and win.”
Swaying the minds of members of the public was Charles’ craft. He could juggle facts with circus performer ease.
“I had 12 people who couldn’t leave. That was the best thing, an audience just for me.”
Waterstreet spent formative time in author Patrick White’s house, where he could uncover the creative slices of himself.
“I was dead broke,” he says. “It was the beginning of the year, I was asked whether I wanted my scholarship money in fortnightly payments or all in one. I said ‘ah — I think I’ll have it in one’. I lost it all at the 33 Club and was living under the stairs of this boarding house on Queens Street when two girls rescued me. I went to Patrick White’s place. I lived there for six months, it was meant to be three weeks.
Life is a joke and some people live with the joke.
“That changed my life because that’s where I met all the artists, writers and listened to Barry Humphries’ records.
“It changed the way I looked at the world. I always felt awkward until that moment. I felt I wasn’t the only one that looked at the world on a slight angle and realised that I could send it up. It’s just this joke. Life is a joke and some people live with the joke. That really made me peaceful in myself. I felt comfortable in my own skin.”
He pauses from talking to search for his bank card — he hadn’t allowed me to pay for our lunch, though the one condition of the interview was that I would.
“The trouble with being disorganised for so long is that when you try to get organised you lose everything,” he tells me.
Waterstreet pulls out a stack of papers, a draft law he’s working on, the latest edition of Rolling Stone, a thick legal text — I won’t attempt at outlining the specifics — and the Sunday paper: “All the worldly possessions.”
Digging deeper into the laptop case he produces a collection of receipts and notes which he promptly stuffs into his trouser pockets without sorting. He tries the front pocket of the bag and draws out a small undergarment — a pair of skin-coloured, lace panties. “Old habits die hard,” he grins.
Now, through a digressive weave of crashed weddings, strip clubs, artists and actors we reach the topic of the sex. It was only ever going to be a matter of time.
”I led quite an open sex life, I mean, I didn’t do it in traffic… only on the footpath. That’s a joke,” he warns.
I laugh, but it’s easy to see how he’s got himself in trouble.
“I gave up drinking in ’96, that and drugs. I was a complete addict in everything I did,” he says.
It’s all very good being a rebel or a gang of one, but not when you haven’t eaten a square meal.
“I said I’ll just concentrate on sex. I can’t do drugs, I can’t do alcohol, so just sex. Then I realised sex is another addiction. Then I tried nangs [nitrous oxide]. By the end I’d done quite a few nangs. but never further. When I did sex that was sex, nangs that was nangs.”
I nod and smile, but I don’t know if I believe him.
He crosses back: “Addicts only do things in double measures, I always did life to excess.”
“It’s all very good being a rebel or a gang of one, but not when you haven’t eaten a square meal, you know…”
In conversation with Waterstreet, the moments of, seemingly, complete sincerity arrive with as much, if not more, surprise than his infamous psychosexual, shock humour.
“I’ve never been much good with money,” he says. “I grew up in a hotel; I’d hardly made a bed in my life, never cooked a meal, never typed. It feels as though there’s no market for me. I’ve only just realised I’ve got to get a job.”
He appears to be hinting at his aforementioned turning point. No doubt the culmination of the many bumps on the hillside he found himself tumbling down after 2017, when he gave the general public their first reason to lose love for his larrikin edge.
I’ve also realised I’m a bit sex addicted; so probably keep your sex addiction to yourself.
A female intern spoke out against inappropriate workplace conduct. Lengthy denials and controversy followed.
“I’ve changed a lot since then ,” he says. “I definitely had a motormouth and not everyone needs to know. When I’m doing sex cases all day and writing for penthouse, living a fairly sex life, you tend to talk what’s on your mind. But, I’ve learned that’s not always welcome. To an extent its been good for me. I was a pretty selfish guy — probably still am. Now I try to marshal my words at most times — at all times. I’ve also realised I’m a bit sex addicted; so probably keep your sex addiction to yourself.”
Student alleges hideous sexual harassment during job interview with legendary sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet https://t.co/UozU4GnLmP
— Bhakthi (@bhakthi) October 24, 2017
He changes direction. “I only take advantage of myself, and that’s harder and harder. My hands are playing hard to get now, they clump together in order to… you know, avoid it.” He begins to recreate a dramatic scene of the battle between libido and wrist.
Herein lies the frustration with Waterstreet. The stumbling over himself. The revolutions.
“He’s the most inconsistent, endearing, difficult person. He doesn’t help himself,” says Felicity Verdouw, producer of Waterstreet.
“Our biggest struggle is that we can’t get this documentary up in the current environment. Sydney doesn’t want to see a movie about Waterstreet. Especially because of what’s going on,” she adds, alluding to the mounting sexual misconduct scandals in Parliament.
He really does respect women. He’s in awe of women, but he’s awkward around them and he doesn’t know how to behave.
“The thing is, when we look at Australia, and we see where Waterstreet has come from, we get to see through his lens, to look at the ingrained misogyny that’s been enabled and promoted in our society. A misogyny where women have to speak out and go to the press to make any change. Charles was the first to go. There’s no doubt his conduct would have been highly unprofessional and ridiculously inappropriate.”
Sighing over the phone line she adds: “The strange thing is he really does respect women. He’s in awe of women, but he’s awkward around them and he doesn’t know how to behave.
“He’s the most inconsistent, endearing, difficult person.”
Still, Waterstreet wants to win back the public’s affection.
“Most of my time has been sitting down and trying to work out what to do,” he says. “All my luck seems to have run out at one time. I’ve been lucky all my life… who knows, once I find out how to put Word onto my computer, I’ll type all my handwriting, convert handwriting to text, and then text to book and then re-seduce the publishing houses.”
For all of his wordplay and myriad misadventures, you could wonder how much is fact and how much is act.
In his many court performances he loved to believe one thing: “A laughing jury will not convict.”
Might it save him yet?
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. Another helpful resource maybe Sexual Assault Counselling Australia: 1800 211 028. In an emergency, call 000.
Main picture of Charles Waterstreet by Max Aldred.