Dealing with the unrealistic
Hong Kong’s humorist on why it isn’t a bad idea to start managing the accounts and tax matters of famous singers
A court in this columnist’s birthplace, Sri Lanka, recently sentenced an accountant to “367 years of rigorous imprisonment” in connection with forged documents, I heard from a helpful reader.
“Three hundred and sixty-seven years seems excessive,” she said.
Not to say unrealistic. A prisoner may manage a bit of rigorous hard labour for the first couple of hundred years, but after that he would surely slow down a bit?
In terms of physical strength, this writer peaked at about 17 and has been becoming increasingly puny ever since.
People with unrealistic attitudes have been on my mind recently – thanks to two hit movies about rockstars: biopics of Elton John (real name: Reginald Dwight) and Freddie Mercury (real name: Farrokh Bulsara).
Both films show the conflicts between rockstars (the humans with the world’s least realistic attitudes, with the possible exception of Hong Kong politicians) and the “men in suits” who have to make the sums add up.
Elton/Reginald’s money problems became apparent in 1998, when the Daily Mail wrote about his ridiculous spending habits, and the singer was furious – not because it was untrue, but because it was all too accurate. He decided that someone had leaked a warning letter from his accounting firm, the Big Four firm now known as PwC.
The fight eventually led to a high profile lawsuit between that accounting firm and the pop star which revealed just how his unrealistic his attitude to budgeting was. The court heard that his recent spending on flowers alone had been £293,000 (about HK$3 million). “I like flowers,” he said in his defense.
Freddie/Farrokh was different. He came from Asian roots and his family members were Indian accountants and lawyers –(his father had been cashier at a high court). In 1997, the singer hired an accountant, Peter Chant, to manage his group’s accounts and tax matters, and things went smoothly. Farrokh Bulsara died in 1991 with £9 million in the bank and a £20 million mansion.
Hong Kong singers also fall prey to the temptations to make their own financial decisions. In the 1990s, Kenny Bee bought the first Lamborghini in Hong Kong and splashed out on a series of luxury homes – before going bankrupt in 2002. “I’m not very good at handling money matters,” he told reporters.
Perhaps the unhappiest example is American singer Billy Joel. He got into a huge legal fight over millions of dollars of cash with his money manager, Frank Weber. But Joel had also married the moneyman’s sister Elizabeth – and fell out with her, too, having to file for divorce.
“I hooked up with the Borgias,” the pop star said, likening his manager/brother-in-law/wife to an infamous family from Spain who were prominent in the Italian Renaissance.
When I was a child in the 1970s, I, like every male on the planet, wanted to be David Cassidy, the Justin Bieber of the era. Every girl was in love with him, his music topped the charts and his earnings were off the charts. What happened? He spent his life drifting through a series of miserable relationships, filed for bankruptcy in 2015, and died an alcoholic two years later.
What’s the moral of all this? The more fate gives the creative person, the more important it is for a good, tough accountant to snatch it all away for safekeeping. And of course, to collect the fees when he’s dead.
And there’s the irony: rockstars, after they have peaked, often make loss-making albums (see Michael Jackson, John Lennon, etc.).
But after their deaths, their earnings shoot back up to high profitability.
By that time, of course, the stars themselves are gone – and only their accountants are around to collect their share.
Young readers: Don’t fantasize about being Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. Dream of being their accountants. You know it makes sense.
Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices