Robin Leach, engaging host of TV’s ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ dies at 76

FILE – In this Oct. 17, 2013 file photo, Robin Leach attends the Food Network’s 20th birthday party in New York. Leach, whose voice crystalized the opulent 1980s on TV’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” has died, Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Robin Leach, a British-born TV personality and unapologetic practitioner of “Jacuzzi journalism” whose long-running show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” ogled the world’s most conspicuous consumers consuming conspicuously, died Aug. 23 in Las Vegas. He was 76.

His family announced the death in a statement. He had two strokes in the past year.

With his thinning hair, paunch, elfin grin and tendency to speak in a quasi-Cockney tongue at carnival-barker volume, Leach was few people’s idea of an urbane sophisticate or a blow-dried television host. He called himself “the most unlikely star in the world.”

Yet as a veteran gossip writer and son of a London vacuum company manager, he understood better than most the success-obsessed middle class and, in his exclamatory catchphrase, their “champagne wishes and caviar dreams!” He offered voyeuristic access to the decadent playgrounds of the 1 percent, from Hollywood to the Riviera, and he packaged it as a veneration of free-market, up-by-your-bootstraps capitalism.

“What Robin Leach presented is an incredibly seductive batch of cultural catnip,” said television and pop-culture scholar Robert Thompson. “However much you may think it’s terrible to feature people with way more than their share of the resources of the Earth, it is really fun to watch how incredibly luxuriously it is possible to live as a human being.”

“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” began its 11-year run in syndication in 1984. It was picked up by more than 200 stations, and such was its penetration that, in some markets, it was broadcast seven days a week, often multiple times a day, beaming garish displays of Croesus-like wealth into millions of living rooms.

Leach spent his early career as a tabloid scoop artist and flourished as a cheeky guest on TV entertainment programs. He joined the nascent celebrity-interview show “Entertainment Tonight” in 1981 but, after a few years, complained to producer Al Masini that the focus was too much on actors bloviating about their latest work and not enough on beautiful people enjoying their trappings.

“I became frustrated,” Leach told the Chicago Tribune. “We’d go into these houses and we’d talk to these blond-headed bimbos who’d talk about how they wanted to stretch by doing Shakespeare-in-the-park. They were nothing more than jiggle queens and I’d say to myself, ‘I don’t want to see anything more than you taking your clothes off and stepping into the bubble bath.’ From that gem of facetiousness came a TV show.”

Over 60 minutes – later reduced to 30 – Leach interviewed actors, models, industrialists and anyone else with a net worth above $50 million (the minimum cutoff). He delivered bromides in breathless tones, promising “Lifestyles” viewers “another journey with the most envied people in the world” and admission to “the homes of the world’s elite . . . where winning at the top is the ultimate victory.” He repeated “glamorous,” “exclusive” and “success” loudly and ad nauseam.

“I believe in talking in 96-point,” he told the New York Times, referring to the font size of banner tabloid headlines. ” . . . I love cliches. I love alliteration. On television, you can wrap your tongue around cliches and aggressive verbs.”

Cameras lingered worshipfully over the rococo and the vulgar. In the $10 million home of the Vegas animal-act duo Siegfried and Roy, Leach marveled at their replica of a section of the Sistine Chapel over the bar. One Australian business magnate had a dining room with a wall that opened to reveal a private bullring. Another episode featured a 120-foot-long limousine modified to fit a hot tub and a helicopter landing pad.

The show traded skin-deep access for celebrity brand-building, letting supermodels present themselves as relatable homebodies and showcasing the profanely rich as humble. A segment on Adnan Khashoggi, the checkered Saudi arms merchant and notorious playboy, described him as “a pure monetary force, the golden artery feeding the world’s biggest deals” and “a surprisingly private family man.”

Television critics feasted on what they regarded as a cultural carcass ripe for picking. “The onslaught of the superficial is reaching absurd proportions,” Times reviewer John J. O’Connor wrote, noting how the success of People magazine had helped spawn imitators in print and on air. But “Lifestyles,” he concluded, dispatched the competition with its “almost fanatical preoccupation with money and/or power.”

There were a few exceptions, namely dictators like the Duvaliers of Haiti and the Marcoses of the Philippines. “We turned them down cold,” Leach later said. “We felt their wealth was based on exploiting people in horrible ways.”

In addition to the flagship program, Leach served as commentator on spinoffs including “Runaway With the Rich and Famous” and “Fame, Fortune and Romance.” His distinctive voice was used to move merchandise: He did voice-over narration for TV ads featuring Bud Light pitch dog Spuds MacKenzie, as well as commercials for Honda, the California Lottery and Meineke discount muffler shops.

He was name-checked in rap songs as a byword for showy affluence. He endured so long that two “Saturday Night Live” comedians – Harry Shearer and later Dana Carvey – satirized him.

Leach said he was not amused – but only because the lampoon didn’t go far enough. It “could have been rougher and ruder,” he told The Washington Post. “I mean, if you’re really going to savage me, savage me. I mean it’s a perfect thing to parody, isn’t it? It goes with the territory.”

“I would love to do a show called ‘Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown,’ ” he added. But “nobody would watch it. Because there is this thing, this innate curiosity that’s born into us, that we want to know about the person who is better than ourselves, not the person who isn’t.”

Robin Douglas Leach was born in London on Aug. 29, 1941. In his teens, he wrote feature stories for the Harrow Observer in his northwest London neighborhood and discovered that readers responded to hyperbole. Covering a garden show, he told the Tribune, “I’d go to find the largest cabbage or the biggest squash or the yellowest yellow corn. I knew everybody loved to read about the largest, the biggest, the best, no matter what it was.”

He became one of the youngest reporters on Fleet Street, then moved to New York in 1963 and sold shoes at Lord & Taylor while trying to break into American journalism. He started a short-lived rock-and-roll magazine called Go, spent years as show-business editor at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid Star, and did freelance gossip and entertainment writing.

Survivors include three sons from a marriage that ended in divorce. A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.

After “Lifestyles” went off the air, Leach parlayed his association with the luxe life into work promoting a Florida-based travel service offering “dream vacations”: “Bahamas cruises” that in reality were a day-long ferry ride with “Las Vegas-style” bingo. In 2000 Leach settled a lawsuit brought by attorneys general in a dozen states who accused him of participating in deceptive advertising practices.

Leach subsequently became a Vegas Strip habitué. With his ever-present cigar and goblet of white wine, he haunted casino nightclubs, hosted charity auctions, and promoted hotels and restaurants. He appeared on local entertainment TV shows, wrote columns for Vegas papers and became a blogger.

Leach said that his defining legacy – “Lifestyles” – was meant as a paean to the rewards of hard work, although it opened the door to even gaudier displays of opulence, including on MTV’s mansion-touring show “Cribs” and anything starring the Kardashians. On reflection, he told the Times in 2014, his show seemed almost quaint and restrained.

“Now you have Kim Kardashian having her private area waxed on camera,” he said. “Disgusting.”