Andy Davies is a successful Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland businessman who is best known for his property development in Ponsonby, including the retail and restaurant spot Ponsonby Central and the new Auckland boutique hotel The Convent.
I found my attraction to guys harder to ignore. In London, I had always brushed it off, telling myself it was because I was on holiday or it couldn’t be anything serious because I was high as a kite and anyway, I always had a girlfriend. But Auckland was home and it felt more real, like there was more at stake; I wasn’t just playing around overseas anymore. There was a gay pub called the Empire, and I decided to go there for a beer one night, only it wasn’t just going for a beer, it was going for a beer at a gay bar. I drove around in anxious circles for about an hour before I finally got the courage to go in. I met some nice guys in there; we became friends and had some fun.
Everything changed when I met Chris, the handsome boy around town. We fell for each other and moved into a crumbling old villa in Grey Lynn. It was a great area, lots of Pacific Island people, music playing and drunks talking to themselves. It wasn’t chic but it was colourful and friendly. We kept two bedrooms fully made up to maintain for my family the fiction that we were just friends and certainly weren’t sleeping together. Of course, Mum suspected something was going on. She’d barge in and demand to know which bed Chris was sleeping in.
One night she came around and started forcing the windows open at one in the morning. We tried to barricade ourselves in, then Chris ran out the back to escape and tumbled down the hill into the next property. She was mad, you have no idea.
We renovated that Grey Lynn house, sold it and doubled our money. That didn’t seem hard, I thought, and so began my career in real estate. Chris and I broke up soon after and he left for Los Angeles. Anyone’s first break-up is tough, but we got through it and I’m grateful that we’ve remained best friends to this day.
I didn’t have to come out to my family because my sister Joan did it for me without being asked. She’d got so fed up with Mum constantly asking about my private life — ‘Has Andy met any nice girls lately? When is he going to settle down?’ — that finally she said, ‘When are you going to stop lying to yourself, Mum? Andy is gay. Who on earth did you think Chris was?’
I received a phone call from Joan saying, ‘Hi Andy, Mum’s just leapt up from the table and is on her way over to see you, and by the way, I’ve told her you’re gay.’ Mum marches up to my front door bawling her eyes out and demanding I tell her the truth. I’d always avoided the issue of girlfriends by saying I was too busy or I hadn’t met the right girl, and now, face to face with Mum asking me the direct question, ‘Are you gay?’, I cowardly did the same thing.
She left angry and distraught, saying I was lying to her. I stewed on it for a while until eventually I called and asked them to come over to talk. I could hear Mum crying before she’d even knocked on the door. Yes, I was gay and, yes, Chris had been my boyfriend, I told them. It was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry. He was usually very stoic but that day he was amazing, although Mum was a nightmare. Dad said, ‘I just want you to be happy.’ Mum said, ‘I’m disowning you, you’re out of the will.’
Two weeks later, she was on my doorstep again, this time brandishing tickets to Sydney. She’d booked me in for a month of gay conversion therapy with a Christian church group. ‘If one month’s not enough, we’ll pay for more. You can beat this,’ she said. There was no way I was doing conversion therapy; people who do that end up killing themselves with the guilt and trauma. I was 28 years old, happy with myself, and I wasn’t changing. After a while Mum calmed down and we began to talk every day, like we used to.
In the early eighties, we kept hearing about an illness called AIDS. Not much was known about it except that young men in big American cities were disproportionally affected. When Chris returned to Auckland from Los Angeles in 1985, he wasn’t well. A few months later he was diagnosed with HIV, just as the severity of the illness was becoming clear. It wasn’t a disease that people recovered from. He told Mum and me about it and Mum was so strong. She said, ‘We’ll fight it together, we can get you better.’ Chris changed his life, focusing on health, vitamins and wellness. He started working at one of Mum’s cafés so she could keep an eye on him. Against massive odds he stayed alive, and to this day he is one of the longest-surviving people with the virus I know. So many of my friends died of AIDS in the eighties — I really dodged a bullet; it probably helped that I was in a relationship through the worst years of the disease, but honestly it was also just luck. I was going to a funeral a week.
I was buying and selling houses through this period, and I also started a cleaning company called Busy Bees. Then things really took off when I started a company developing and investing in commercial real estate. Even though money was extremely tight in those early deals, I had the ability to walk confidently into a room, sign the contracts and go home for a good night’s sleep. The finance always seemed to fall into place; I didn’t see the need to carry a load of anxiety around. It was a lot of work running the company but life was great. Then the weekend of my fortieth birthday: the love of my life chose to leave me — a wonderful birthday present. I moved out of the house we shared into Mantells in Mount Eden, a Mediterranean-style events venue that I was renovating. No sooner had I moved in than a torrential downpour completely flooded the place; someone had poured concrete into the drains. The universe was telling me it was time for a change. I sold out of the real estate company and flew off to spend some loot and have some fun.
Mardi Gras, Sleaze Ball, Harbour Party . . . I was at them all. Then I started on the international circuit parties, a series of huge events that move around the world: the White Party in Miami, the beach parties in Mykonos, London Pride. I met so many people and had a mad amount of fun. Often the same crew would be at the next city on the gay party circuit. With most of my twenties and thirties spent building up my property business, this was a delayed phase that lasted for two years and we burnt through hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’d been to Paris five times before I saw the Eiffel Tower. We would land in these great cities and all we’d see were hotel rooms and sweaty dance floors. We’d leave the party a bit worse for wear and have to walk around London or Berlin in the middle of the day dressed as cowboys, as we tried to find our hotel. After a while the fun wore off. I suppose that was inevitable. The dance floors, hotels and pools all blurred into one and it started to feel vacuous and repetitive.
When you shut the door on partying, however, it creates a vacuum that can be scary. Because I came to it all later in life, perhaps it was easier to step away, but still, it left a space that needed to be filled. After those self- indulgent days, the need for a more balanced, healthy, fulfilling life led me down two main paths: the first, to a local SPCA, where I began to volunteer once a week, and the second, to try to have a child with a lesbian friend. Sadly, children didn’t come along and it’s my biggest regret — I would have loved lots of kids running around on the farm with the dogs. It was very disappointing. But I became more and more involved with the SPCA until I decided to build my own dog shelter on the farm I owned. I hired staff, the shelter grew bigger, and Last Lamppost Dog & Animal Rescue has now found new homes for hundreds of abandoned dogs.
With my property company, I’ve tried to create some elegant new buildings and rejuvenate dilapidated old ones. Not everyone will like them, but I can honestly say that my heart and soul have gone into each. The Convent Hotel in Grey Lynn was a derelict halfway house, best known for 24-hour drinking and fighting when I bought it and now it’s fully restored in its original Spanish Mission style, complete with Catholic paintings and artefacts. I sourced the furniture and fabrics from a trip to India.
When we built the Haka Lodge on Karangahape Road, I installed colour-changing neon lights that are visible from the city. They cost a hundred grand, but it adds a little sparkle to the environment. I like to be proud of what I do; I couldn’t just throw up cheap apartment buildings. I have my offices above Ponsonby Central, which is an ongoing development project, and I’ve become good friends with some of the people who run their businesses there.
Commercial real estate and construction may seem like straight, macho industries but everyone knows I’m gay and I’ve never had any discrimination or homophobic attitudes on the building sites. We should try to be ourselves, not apologise for who we are, and I think people respect that. The only person who’s ever had a real problem with me being gay was my mother.
30 Queer Lives, Conversations with LGBTQIA+ New Zealanders by Matt McEvoy, published by Massey University Press, RRP: $39.99.