Breakfast With Piers Morgan
Larry King's replacement is addicted to Twitter.
"I know what you did this weekend," I say, as I slip into the window seat opposite Piers Morgan at Asiate, the Mandarin Oriental's restaurant 35 floors above Central Park. "You bought and returned an overpriced Nikon D7000, watched the cricket and football on two laptops, and had a nice dinner with Jack Dorsey of Twitter."
I have not been stalking the slightly doughy man sitting opposite me in a blue V-neck sweater and open-collared white shirt. All of the 530,000 people who have signed up to follow Morgan on Twitter since he succumbed to the microblogging addiction in December have been treated to the same information about his spat with a camera shop, his attempts to keep up with English sports and his Silicon Valley dining companions.
After making my way through most of Morgan's 5,000-plus tweets, I'm concerned I will have nothing left to ask the man who replaced Larry King as host of CNN's nightly talk show in January. Back when his predecessor launched Larry King Live in 1985 there was still some mystique in the celebrity business. Now, I wonder whether the endless stream of mundane details from host and guests alike isn't in danger of killing the TV interview.
What purpose does his tweeting serve? "I'll tell you one story, then you'll get it," he says, recounting a day a few weeks ago when the troubled actor Charlie Sheen was worrying about coming off badly in an ABC News interview that had not yet aired. "I'd interviewed him once before and we'd had quite a laugh, so I said to him, 'Don't wait for it to come out, just walk into my studio tonight and I'll give you the hour live.'"
The star promised to do so but an hour before the broadcast, Morgan lost contact with him. "I'm at the LA bureau. We don't have a show. Five minutes before showtime he drove up and I went on Twitter: 'Breaking news. Charlie Sheen's in the building. Going live right now.' Half a million more viewers came in in that five-minute window than would have normally tuned in." Morgan used to think Twitter was "pointless". Now it is the centrepiece of his shameless strategy to reinvent himself. "My whole game plan was, if I'm going to do this I want to have the most followers in the world within two years. I only play anything to win." Back home, the 46-year-old former British tabloid newspaper editor has never quite escaped his image as a cocky chancer. In the US, however, he is becoming a celebrity as big as any he wrote about during his days as a gossip columnist. If he pulls it off, it will mark the biggest of his unlikely career leaps so far.
The youngest of four children, who lost his father as a baby, Piers Stefan O'Meara acquired the name Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan when his mother remarried. He grew up in a Sussex pub, and went straight from school to journalism training and then a local paper in south London. He started offering stories to Rupert Murdoch's daily tabloid The Sun and was eventually offered the Bizarre show business column. Murdoch liked what he saw, flew him to Miami for a walk along the beach and made him editor of the News of the World, the best-selling Sunday tabloid, at 28. Within two years, he had jumped ship to edit the Daily Mirror, The Sun's closest rival.
Morgan picked fights in his tabloid years but these have mutated into fabricated Twitter feuds with the likes of Lord Sugar, host of the UK version of The Apprentice reality show, over who has more followers. Morgan is ahead of Sugar but far behind Charlie Sheen, on 3.6m, or Lady Gaga, with more than 9m. Self-doubt is not part of Morgan's game plan, though.
The waiter arrives and I ask what Morgan recommends: "I know it all backwards," he says. "I'll go for the scrambled eggs on wheat toast with some grilled tomatoes and Tabasco sauce." I choose scrambled eggs as well, with bacon rather than tomatoes. Our choice of Asiate's "All American" seems as close as two expats in New York will get to a full English breakfast, though we order coffee rather than tea.
The Mandarin is Morgan's New York home. (In Los Angeles, he stays at the celeb-friendly Beverly Wilshire. He shuttles back and forth to the UK, where his second wife, journalist and novelist Celia Walden, lives, as do his three sons from his first marriage.)
"I love the Mandarin. I love it," he says, gesturing outside. "You wake up and see this amazing view through Central Park and this big neon CNN sign." The red-lettered logo has been shining a little brighter since CNN gambled on Morgan, a foreigner known in the US only for winning Donald Trump's celebrity version of The Apprentice and judging what he cheerily calls "piano-playing pigs" on America's Got Talent. But CNN was desperate to reverse steep declines in viewing figures during the ageing King's final year and prove it had not been drowned out by the more partisan voices of MSNBC and Fox News.
Morgan had a so-so start. His first show was a taped interview with Oprah Winfrey, which was upstaged by a more revealing piece the daytime TV queen had done shortly before with Barbara Walters on ABC. For a few weeks, his ratings were a middling return on CNN's heavy investment in publicising its new host. But then came Tahrir Square, Fukushima and the (since sacked) star of the hit show Two And A Half Men.
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT's media editor.
Photograph of Piers Morgan by Jason Merritt/Getty Images.