David Hasselhoff: 'If we have to go with the Hoff to pay the rent, let's go with the Hoff'

The Baywatch and Knight Rider star talks frankly about how he has come to terms with his new, semi-ironic fame

David Hasselhoff, psyched from jetlag and a morning can of Red Bull, bounces into the living room of his home in LA, where his dog Henry and I have been waiting. "I'm David!" he says and, sure enough, the height, the hair, the tan, it's all there, plus a pair of turquoise moccasins and the giddy air of the over-caffeinated. In the room with us: a 12ft-long, fibreglass model of the actor in his red Baywatch shorts; a Baywatch pinball machine; the mounted heads of various stuffed animals; and a photo of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He hands me a copy of his new album, This Time Around, and calls Nick, his assistant, to cart off the dog. "Henry loves women," he says. Oh, Hoff!

I have to admit it: I'm fairly giddy myself. For those of us who grew up on Knight Rider, Hasselhoff, 60, is and for ever will be the man with the backlit bouffant, leading us each Saturday night on a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist. Baywatch, the drinking, the inexhaustible hilarity of the phrase "famous in Germany" – none of that matters. What matters is the man, and the man is here.

It must be odd for the Hoff, moving between the sincere adoration of his fans in the German-speaking world – the gold discs on his wall are all from Germany and Austria – to the English-speaking world, where he is no less loved, but in a different way. Hoff understands the embrace to be partly ironic, and that it doesn't preclude affection. He also benefits, as stars of his ilk must, from an endearing range of blind spots. In the course of our conversation, and with no malice intended, he will refer to his Welsh girlfriend's parents as "hobbits", compare the relative thinness of his two daughters, liken a room full of fans to zombies and summarise Hitler's impact on Germany in the language of a failed relationship. But first, the singing.

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"I want to do the music I want to do," says Hoff, who has moved lately from rock anthems to show tunes. "In Germany, I was singing everything from … " he breaks off and shout-sings: "I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR FREEDOM!"

I jump in my chair.

"Which is a big anthem and huge hit. Kind of almost a Bruce Springsteen … "

Was that the one he did when the Berlin Wall came down? (Memorably, Hoff played at the Wall in 1989.)

"Yeah." He moves through several more song snippets, interrupting himself to shout "WE LOVE YOU HOFF!" to demonstrate a typical response from his audience. There is a nice rendition of What I Did For Love, A Chorus Line, and a few lines from The Producers, which Hoff's agent had counselled against – "I don't think you should do Hitler, it's deadly," he said – but the Hoff put him straight. "I said, what the fuck are you talking about? This is from The Producers, one of the greatest musicals. We're mocking him. It's not a tribute to Hitler, it's a gay Hitler."

Does he do that song in Germany? The Hoff stares at me incredulously.

"The show was a monster hit in Germany! The people of Germany hate Hitler more than the Americans hate Hitler! He screwed up their whole life. So."

To round off the show, he does a number from the musical Jekyll and Hyde, a rousing gothic anthem in the style of Meat Loaf, in which he plays both protagonists. He leaps to his feet to show me the moves.

"I had two wigs on. One wig for Jekyll, Jekyll was left, and Hyde was. Wait – Hyde was right and Jekyll was – Jekyll was right and Hyde was left. And then it gets really insane."

In slightly worse circumstances, Hasselhoff might have been another Charlie Sheen. He is doing shows in Edinburgh and London this summer, in which he does skits on Knight Rider and Baywatch, sings songs from his albums and conducts a jokey Q and A with the audience. Cannibalising one's own image like this nods to the so-bad-it's-good interpretation of his work, inviting a measure of condescension and there is a pre-emptive defensiveness to the Hoff that I can imagine tipping into bitterness. I'm sure he was horrible to deal with when he was drinking. But on the day I meet him, he is goofy and sweet and gives the impression of being a nice guy, albeit one who uses the "royal we". "It all started," says Hoff, "when we were eight years old and doing it for fun, not trying to make a living." He looks at me guilessly. Oh, Hoff.

He is currently dating a 32-year-old Welsh woman called Hayley, whom he met at a hotel in Cardiff when he was filming Britain's Got Talent. "Hayley's from Glynneath, which is near Merthyr Tydfil?" says the Hoff. For their first date, he whisked her away to a spa in Switzerland – "really nice and healthy and clean cut. Because I'm older than her and I didn't want her to think this was just about getting, you know, having … sex. It was about, I really like this girl."

When they met, Hayley was working in Debenhams. Now she is with him in LA. So she has moved in?

The Hoff looks alarmed. "She's moved, yeah, uh, no. Yes. We're both – we're back and forth."

The Hoff has been married twice and has two grownup daughters with his second wife, Pamela. It was one of his daughters who, in an effort to shame him into sobriety, filmed him drunk on a hotel room floor five years ago, the video of which turned up on YouTube. It worked; the Hoff says he is now sober. The fly-on-the-wall documentary about him and his family was cancelled after two episodes because the producers were "hoping that my ex-wife would come over, or that I was going to fall off the wagon. And I didn't. We have a pretty normal family, a lot of love. We're not hoarders, or drug addicts."

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His father was in sales and the family frequently moved around while the Hoff was growing up. He was close to his family; he gets his drive and sociability from his father, he says, who taught him the importance of being nice to everyone. After studying theatre at the California Institute of the Arts, he won a role in the soap opera The Young and the Restless and, in 1982, went straight from there on to Knight Rider. Baywatch first aired in 1989 and was the more profitable show – certainly for the Hoff, who had the acumen to buy back the rights from NBC and make a fortune on the reruns. "Maybe it's not curing cancer," he says, "but it's about saving lives, about heroes, and good-looking people and women in bathing suits and what's wrong with that when you're at the beach and the weather is the way it is?"

He gives it some more thought. "Over in the UK and in Wales, it's nice to turn on the TV and see Baywatch."

Until 10 years ago, he was a TV star in the conventional manner. And then one day he received a phone call from a journalist at a newspaper in Sydney. Something odd was going on in offices around the city.

"They said there is an epidemic of emails going back and forth between secretaries, using your name – "the Hoff" – in different situations. I said, what do you mean? They sent me the emails. So, Brave-Hoff, Some Like It Hoff, the Wizard of Hoff, every possible Hoffism you could think of. Irreverent ones, like whack Hoff, fuck Hoff. There were 400 of them. I have them for my show. When people walk in, I have them flash up on the screens. They are pretty funny."

Whatever got this started – some rare confluence in Hasselhoff of cheese, chest hair and good-natured sincerity – he saw the commercial potential immediately and started playing up to his kitschy new image. Now, when people come to his shows, he invites them to "party, Hoff-style". I wonder what that means, given his sobriety. "Mad rock'n'roll fun," he says.

Does he get a buzz these days from being the most sober guy in the room?

"You know I just feel – I don't like to go to clubs, or concerts, I like to be on stage. When you're on stage, you're in control. No one can get to you. I can invite them on and send them off."

He looks suddenly crestfallen. "If someone says something negative, I – I, it's fine, I can play that game as well."

His phone goes and Hoff yells through the door: "HEY NICK, SOMEONE JUST TEXTED ME, SORT IT OUT WILL YOU?"

Nick appears. "That was me. Texting you the address of where you need to be at 2pm."


He has to be disciplined about exercise. It's always a bad sign, he says, when he stops going to the gym.

"I once didn't work out for six weeks. It took me for ever to get the weight off. My daughter – one daughter is naturally thin, the other is constantly working out and I see the pain that she goes through. She works more than anybody. She's so beautiful, she's got a gorgeous porcelain face. [When she models] she's smart enough to work for the plus-sizes."

His daughters find his music corny – "techno-pop" is more to their liking – but now and then a song will appeal to them. Most of his fans are in their 30s, although since Knight Rider and Baywatch have been reshown around the world, a new generation of Hoff fans is emerging. And, says the Hoff, he discovered something amazing while performing in Germany recently. "We have this huge gay following!"

I glance at his album cover, in which the Hoff sits on a gold throne, shirt unbuttoned almost to his waist, a large celtic cross on a leather thong around his neck.

"They said I'm like the new Cher!" He looks mystified.

He is pragmatic about his appeal. Would he rather be a straightforward TV star, without the irony? Of course. "But if we have to go with the Hoff to pay the rent, let's go with the Hoff."

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And he is canny about business. He is doing panto again this Christmas; is in an ad campaign for Mr Lean, a brand of snack food, and has a Hoff video game coming out. The 12ft replica is from the SpongeBob movie he did. For Hoff-hair authenticity, it is covered in yak-hair. ("Somewhere," says the Hoff, "there is a very bald yak.") He would like to do a Bollywood spinoff of Baywatch – "Bombaywatch".

"I think, OK; I've got the money for retirement over here. I've got the money to take care of the ex and the kids. And I've got my rent money."

He looks suddenly tired. The problem is he gets bored– "don't you get bored?" He worries he doesn't have enough Twitter followers – 430,000 when "Justin Bieber has millions." He thinks about how to stay in the public eye. "I know places I can go to have a nice trendy lunch and keep current in the press," he says. That's when he advises Hayley to "put on your little nice outfit". Likewise, "where to be grungy, [where] nobody bothers. I know where there's the best beach, where there's whales. She's been on jetskis with me. For my birthday I'm trying to go diving with whale sharks. They're really big, but they're real docile."

He wants to go on a university tour in the US, giving motivational seminars in which his message will be: "life isn't fair. That's my key. When you realise that life isn't fair, you don't act out, you don't get overly wasted, you don't get self-indulgent. You just move forward."

He frowns. "You can create your own environment! You can go and do a rock show!" With sudden, heartbreaking bafflement he says, "I mean, they dress up in discos as me. We went to one in Hertfordshire and there were 1,200 people dressed up as me. They told me they loved me. And at first I thought, these guys are making fun of me. But they're not. They're really not." He says quietly. "They think it's retro and cool."

We go into the kitchen. A potbellied pig snuffles at the door to get in. A cockatoo called Peaches squawks in a cage. Hayley says a cheerful hello. He is grateful to her family, he says, for putting up with a lot of press intrusion, particularly her parents – "they're like little hobbits" – who made him feel so welcome in Wales. "I love adventure," says the Hoff, and tells me about the time he hired a car and drove to Mumbles on the Welsh coast.

As a favour to Hayley's sister, Hoff attended the Greggs Bakery Christmas party last year ("I think we were the thinnest people there") and almost caused a riot. "Can you image walking into a room of 500 people and everybody got up and started coming at me like the Night of the Living Dead, holding their cell phones?" For an hour he worked the tables, signing autographs and posing for photos. He was, I imagine, happy as a clam.

"If I could be James Bond," he says, "great. And if not," – a good-natured shrug – "I'll just see what comes along."

David Hasselhoff performs at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 21-27 August. edfringe.com


Emma Brockes

The GuardianTramp

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