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Mark Chipperfield - Journalist, Travel Writer and Beer Sleuth

Confessions of a Serial Gatecrasher - Catch Me If You Can

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

Robbie Ward, serial gatecrasher extraordinaire, is racing up Bayswater Road, towards what he hopes will be the highlight of his frenetic, meticulously-planned Thursday night – a glitzy bikini parade, with free vodka martinis, at Hugo’s Lounge, Kings Cross.

Hugo’s is not an easy target – “only one way in, no back entrance,” he confides – and Ward is bracing himself for contest, twitching with nervous anticipation, like a track athlete before a big meet.

Then the gods of gatecrashing throw him a lifeline – Ward spots two willowy girls in Jimmy Choos and backless dresses tottering up the road toward Hugo’s, all bling, big hair and bad attitude.

“Hello there,” he says in his odd, high-pitched voice. “Are you girls going to the Daughter of the Gods thingy at Hugo’s?” But the gambit backfires; the women give him at withering stare Sydney party girls reserve for the non-rich, non-hunky male.

But Ward seems hardly to notice the rebuff, quickly motoring past them towards the crowded steps leading up to Hugo’s, the pleasure palace favoured by the city’s B-Listers, frocked-up wannabes and tourists from the western suburbs.

Balding, jowly and decidedly middle-aged, Robbie Ward (his nom de guerre) pushes his way through the beautiful  people towards the front of the queue, pausing only for a quick chat with the Asian girl on the door, before signalling me to follow him.

How had he pulled it off? Did he use his favoured method of reading the invitation list upside down and pinching the name of a real guest? “I cheated,” he confides over his martini. “I managed to get my name on the door for this one – I couldn’t risk it.”

For a moment, Sydney’s most assiduous gatecrasher looks almost downcast like a rugby player who’s just missed a try in the grand final, but he has, at least, stuck to his time-honoured mantra of “don’t pay, don’t line up”. He goes to the bar for another cocktail.

Reviled by Sydney’s leading publicists and event organisers as a serial pest, freeloader, leech and social embarrassment, Ward has already hinted that he has plenty of contacts “on the inside” who frequently tip him off about the best parties in town.

“I know several event organisers who get really offended if B…. [his real name] doesn’t try to gatecrash their function,” photographer Nyk Sykes tells me later in the night. “It’s like, ‘what’s wrong with my party?’ He’s almost an icon in Sydney now.”

Ward’s own motivation is hard to fathom. This is our second evening together and I’m yet to decide whether he’s a Walter Mitty character living in a fantasy world, a suburban bon vivant, a cheapskate or just a very lonely, 50-something bachelor.

“Why do I do it? For the thrill, the challenge,” he says.  “I really don’t like that word [gatecrashing]. I prefer to call it social bungee jumping and if I have to describe myself then it’s as a ‘non-fully accredited attendee’. That’s rather good, don’t you think?”

Mark Patrick, a well-known Sydney publicist, does not hold back when asked about his opinion of Ward, one of several gatecrashers (including a married couple) who target his events.

“He’s a bludger, it’s as simple as that,” says Patrick. “I cannot stand him. I chase him out of parties – and my girls know to do the same thing. These gatecrashers are all the same: boring, unattractive and badly dressed. Why should a client spend good money to wine and dine these people?”

But others believe that Ward is a refreshing presence on the media-driven social scene, exposing its profligacy and  superficiality. “I really like the guy,” one publicist tells me. “It’s ridiculous how much money is wasted on these events. And who are these celebrities? Kate Waterhouse, Willie Mason and some girl from Home and Away, give me a break.”

Ward may cast himself in the role of a social anarchist – the German Baader-Meinoff Group was an early inspiration – out to expose the hypocrisy, venality and snobbery of Sydney society, but stealth is not one of his chosen weapons.

Earlier in the evening we’d gatecrashed a party at the National Art School in Darlinghurst (“getting into art shows – a walk in the park”) and Ward astonishes me both by his brazen behaviour and his enclopaedic knowledge of the city’s social scene.

“Oh, that’s Bob Hawke’s grandson over there,” he says, pointing out a scruffy student. “Do you want to meet him? And, guess what, I’ve just seen the director of this venerable institution. Very nice woman, forget her name. I’ll get her over.”

With that Ward waves his stolen glass of champagne at Professor Anita Taylor who, and this is typical, seems to recognise this dishevelled character near the drinks tent but clearly can’t quite recall where they have met. She joins us for a chat.

In between delivering a discourse on the Old Sydney Gaol, the state government’s recent funding allocation to the college and the general state of art education, our genial gatecrasher remembers his manners and offer Professor Taylor a glass of wine or champagne – a piquant gesture, given his “non-accredited” status.

Looking like you belong, he tells me, is the key to successful gatecrashing:  “Always walk purposefully across the room, even if you have not the slightest idea where you are going. People get hung up on passes and ID. I go to the polo every year and have never been challenged because I look like I belong there.”

Watching him in action it suddenly occurs to me that despite his awful clothes (black pants pulled up high, unironed shirt and sensible lace-up shoes), discoloured teeth and bald pate, there is something oddly charismatic about Ward – an infectious enthusiasm for life, ideas, people, gossip.

 “As Theroux says most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he says, sipping his champagne. “What does the average person do?  They just meander around the place, go the pokies, go the casino, watch TV – but there are so many really interesting things happening in Sydney. This is a city of four million people. What was the population of ancient Rome? A fraction of the size.”

After a career stretching back 30 years – his baptism of fire was gatecrashing Gretel Packer’s 21st birthday party in Bellevue Hill – Ward retains a deep-seated fascination with Sydney; especially when he can blag a free meal, some champers and a gift pack along the way.

On average he is drinking someone else’s champagne on three evenings a week and attending upto five events (fashion parades, art shows, movie previews, restaurant openings etc) in single night. His forays are planned with military precision.

“I look at how good the event is, how easy is it get in and how all the events fit together,” he explains. “It’s obviously preferable to attend two or three things in the same vicinity. You also need a good exit strategy. I went to an event in Watson’s Bay once, was refused entry and then found myself stuck there. A disaster.”

Apart from Gretel Packer’s 21st, Ward nominates gatecrashing a formal reception for Helen Clarke, then the New Zealand prime minister, at Fox Studios as one of his greatest achievements.

“Everything was going fine, until one of the other gatecrashers I was with was spotted strutting about and chucked out,” he recalls. “The lady on my right twigged that we’d come in together and alerted security. The game was up.”

Given his rhinoceros-like hide, embarrassment is not an issue. But even this veteran of the red carpet admits to the occasional disaster, such the recent screening of Getaway, a new music video by US rap artist Kanye West.

“Well, I was a bit disappointed with the Kanye West event,” he admits. “I thought it was called Runway, as in fashion runway. Being a rapper I thought he’d have some semi-naked women parading around – you know how misogynistic they are.”

Film premieres, he claims, are the easiest celebrity-laden events to infiltrate. Ward’s CV includes both Matrix movies and the launch of The Interpreter, the 2005 thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. “And the security at Tropfest is embarrassing,” he says. “I’ve never been challenged – no ID, nothing.”

Oddly enough for a man who seems to have few scruples about consuming other people’s drinks, finger food and generally making merry, Ward does draw the line at gatecrashing charity events, which he believes is morally indefensible; although he later admits that they finds them a tad, well, boring.

The Lord Mayor’s New Year’s Eve party, once a social highlight, has also been scrubbed from the gatecrasher’s calendar. “Oh, yes it’s a great party down at the Opera House, fantastic views and all that,” he concedes. ”But the last time I went Clover had invited all these worthy types, social workers and so on, which is a bit dull.”

Entertaining, polite and well educated (he has a degree from the ANU and speaks several languages), Ward is, in his own way, a very likeable human being. But there seems to be a lingering insecurity about his behaviour – a mania for reflected celebrity – and a sense of pathos. The tears of a clown, I wonder?

After the bikini parade at Hugo’s, where Ward incongruously occupies a sofa in the middle of the catwalk, we adjourn for a pizza and Sydney’s doyenne of gatecrashing tells me that his dream is to find a apprentice capable of carrying on his life’s work.

“There was a girl,” he admits. “I had great hopes for her. We went to several events together and I showed her some of the tricks of the trade. But she let me down. We no longer see each other.”

After three decades of canapés, vacuous small talk, cheap champagne and dodging security guards (females are the most tenacious, apparently) the grand old man of gatecrashing is toying with the notion of retirement, or at least relocation.

“The problem is that I’m just too well-known these days. I even had an invitation from a security firm land in my email this week – can you believe it?,” he says. “Maybe I’ll have to move to Melbourne, but I don’t know anyone there or the venues. I might get lost.”

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