Latin Talk-Show Host Jaime Bayly, Loathed and Loved, Is Dying
Jaime Bayly's Mega TV studio is a sparse, alien world. A pair of solitary white chairs sits on a slightly elevated stage. Two freshly poured glasses of water, sweating under the spotlights, are placed on a tiny table. The talk-show star's last name is spelled out in giant, glowing letters in the background, their neon colors changing during commercial breaks.
It's Thursday, December 2, 13 episodes into Bayly's triumphant return to the Spanish-language television station he left more than a year ago. María Antonieta Collins, a respected Mexican journalist and tonight's guest, sits just off camera. She shifts her legs underneath a high table and nervously looks around the cavernous Hialeah warehouse. Sporting violet eye shadow, pearls, and a tight blue dress, the perky former anchorwoman knows anything can happen on the show, which Bayly insists on airing live.
Suddenly, upbeat jazz music blares from loudspeakers above. A small audience of 30 or so mostly Cuban Americans claps on cue as the 45-year-old saunters out from behind a black velvet curtain. Dressed in a baggy suit, with shaggy black hair and a trademark grin, Bayly looks like an oversized child. His slightly asymmetric eyes shine out smugly from behind frameless glasses as he begins a quipping Spanish-language monologue in the manner of his idol, David Letterman.
But unlike Letterman, he discusses all the details of his personal life. He starts by describing the cradle-robbing details of his relationship with his 22-year-old fiancé, Silvia Núñez del Arco: "For the past five months, I haven't been able to have sex with her. But you have to show solidarity with your girlfriend while she's pregnant. She can't drink, so now I don't drink either. She can't smoke cigarettes, so I've given them up too. She doesn't feel like having sex, so I don't have sex with her. I have sex with other women."
When the monologue ends, Collins takes her seat onstage. "I am in shock, Jaime," she says. "Just imagine if someday someone shows these videos to your son. He's going to be tremendously hurt and confused."
"By then, I'll be dead," Bayly responds. "Besides, I hope my son isn't so solemn and pompous not to have a sense of humor."
"Behave yourself, Jaime," Collins scolds.
"When I make jokes, I'm not misbehaving. I'm trying to make people laugh," Bayly shoots back. "I'm fulfilling the principle role of television." After a tense 15-minute interview, the stage lights fade for a commercial. Bayly and Collins stand up and kiss on the cheek, but their microphones remain on. "Don't come here just to complain about my behavior," Bayly says angrily over the outro music. "And don't be so damned boring."
Bayly is a man of many parts. He's both Letterman and Charlie Rose; comedian and serious interviewer; straight and gay; shamelessly self-promoting and relentlessly self-deprecating.
After a one-and-a-half-year hiatus, he has returned to South Florida screens with his snarky and unsparing show — simply titled Bayly — that premiered on Mega TV in November. He is the LeBron James of the late-night Latino TV circuit: both fiercely hated and widely admired. In his native Peru, he is a political force. After years of failed forays into politics in that country — including a botched 2009 bid for the presidency — he has emerged as a deciding force in recent elections. Last September, he almost single-handedly destroyed a conservative candidate's campaign for mayor of Lima by leaking an audiotape in which the political aspirant said she didn't give a damn about the office. And a series of scandalous revelations stemming from a dinner conversation between Bayly and current President Alan García have thrown this year's presidential election into disarray. With 13 novels, a syndicated newspaper column, and prime real estate atop every tabloid in the country, Bayly is the fifth most powerful person in Peru, according to the magazine Peru Económico.
When New Times first approached Bayly, he declined an interview but suggested a good scene to start this story: "You can say in the article that we met, that you came to my house, that we spent some very pleasurable time naked in the swimming pool, and we drank a bottle of vodka each. You can color the interview with a little fiction."
But Bayly's life already reads like fiction: He's a rich boy who ran away from home, nearly destroyed himself with drugs, flirted with suicide, and came out of the closet with a bestselling book that made him one of the most recognizable faces in Peru. He has hosted a dozen popular TV programs but has also received death threats and broken off contact with nearly all his family and friends.
"People are always shocked to hear what Jaime has to say," says close friend María Celeste Arrarás, host of Telemundo's nightly news show Al Rojo Vivo. "At the same time, they admire that he's got the guts to vent his secrets and tear open his life every night on TV."
It's hard to overestimate the grasp Bayly has on the Peruvian psyche. Imagine a child of privilege like Bobby Kennedy Jr. but openly bisexual, prone to drug abuse, dying of mysterious liver problems, and intent on exposing all of his family's darkest secrets. Now envision giving him free rein on TV every night.
Jaime Bayly Letts was born in Lima in February 1965, the third of ten children. His father, Jaime Bayly Llona, attended college in London but returned to Peru to work as an executive at his father's bank. Later, Grandfather Bayly gave his son's family a mansion with domestic servants and vast manicured gardens in a tony suburb of Lima called Los Cóndores. It was about as distant a setting as you could find from the cramped, dirty callejones of downtown Lima where little Jaime would eventually find himself. But the beautiful landscaping hid a divided family. Jaime's father and grandfather shared a frigid relationship.
Jaime's family mostly declined to speak with New Times for this article. For his part, the talk-show host remembers his childhood as a bitter standoff with his distant father. They interacted, he recalls, mostly when Jaime Sr. would punish little Jaime for no apparent reason. After any impropriety, the father would call the boy into the bedroom and order him to strip naked. Then he would lash his backside with the end of a leather belt until it bled.
"It wasn't until years later, when I had grown up, that I remembered that and thought: 'What the fuck? That is a very strange way of punishing your son,' " Bayly recalls. "My father had a comfortable, even luxurious life, but demons and phantoms were eating at his soul."
Bayly's mother, Doris Letts, came from an equally wealthy and widely respected family. Her brother, Roberto, became a millionaire mine owner. But Letts never went to college, instead marrying Jaime Sr. when she was 21 years old. She became a stay-at-home mother but was almost as aloof as her husband. A member of Opus Dei, an ultraconservative Catholic organization, she would come to Jaime's room and pray with him every morning before school. When she suffered a miscarriage while Jaime was a toddler, she grew more fanatically Christian.
By age 13, Jaime could barely stand to be around his dad. One night, fearing another brutal beating, he sneaked into his parents' room and grabbed a handful of golden necklaces and crucifixes. Then he shoved them into a backpack along with some extra clothes and slipped out. He made his way to downtown Lima, where he walked the dimly lit streets and pawned his mother's jewelry for a fraction of its worth. Then he visited several seedy hotels that denied him boarding until he finally bribed a young woman to give him a key.
The cash lasted only a week, and he returned home. But the boy escaped twice more until, finally, his mother sent him to live with her parents across town when Bayly was 15.
Around the same time, Letts arranged for him to work after school at Lima's second-largest daily newspaper, La Prensa. The next three years were a golden age for both journalism in Peru and Bayly. In 1980, much of the press was returned to private ownership after more than a decade of military dictatorship. Staffs expanded, and Bayly quickly graduated from filing clippings to writing sports and economics stories. But the teen was best when picking apart Peruvian politicians. By age 17, he had his own weekly political column, called "Banderillas" — named for the darts bullfighters thrust into their oversized victims.
"From the moment he arrived, he was spectacular," remembers Federico Salazar, a colleague at La Prensa. The boy was quiet and respectful with colleagues but a fearless reporter who once jumped into a famous economist's car to get an exclusive interview. In the evenings, as editors prepared proofs of the mornings' papers, Salazar, Bayly, and the rest of the newsroom would go out for drinks. Those were fleeting moments of true happiness before fame closed in around him.
After a year of "Banderillas," the upstart journalist received a call from Genaro Delgado Parker, owner of Canal 5, one of Lima's most popular TV stations. He asked the then-18-year-old to appear as a panelist on a nightly program called Pulse. Bayly was perfect: tall and handsome, brilliant and irreverent. He soon had his own nightly show, and strangers began to recognize him on the street. They called him "el niño terrible."
With fame came money, drugs, and casual sex with men and women, Bayly recalls. Soon, he was snorting so much Peruvian blow that sleep wouldn't come for two or three days. His habit worsened when he also took a TV job in the Dominican Republic, jetting frantically back and forth between Lima and Santo Domingo every two weeks to tape the two shows.
Finally, after a Sunday spent coked out of his mind watching Italian soccer in his Lima apartment, Bayly dialed his parents' house just before midnight. His father answered.
"Dad, I... I'm thinking of killing myself," Bayly recalls saying while staring out over his balcony.
"This is no time to be calling the house," his father answered before hanging up.
"That's when I realized that I was actually doing exactly what my father wanted me to do: destroy myself," Bayly says. "I decided I wasn't going to be his drug-addicted son."
Just as Bayly was kicking his cocaine habit, a previously unknown math professor named Alberto Fujimori won the 1990 presidential election in Peru. For two years, Bayly ripped the populist on national television. But when Fujimori suddenly dissolved Peru's congress, courts, and constitution in 1992, a friend warned Bayly that his name was on a list of journalists who were already being rounded up and thrown in jail. The fearless journalist caught the first flight to Madrid.
He spent the next two years in Spain writing a novel, Don't Tell Anyone, a thinly veiled account of his life growing up gay and abused by his father. When the main character, Joaquín Camino, discovers his bisexuality, his upper-crust family and chauvinist father deny it; they even hire a hooker for him. But Joaquín drops out of school, tries cocaine, becomes a journalist, and eventually moves to Miami.
Don't Tell Anyone is still widely considered Bayly's best novel. It's a bawdy but angry book that reveals a racist, homophobic, and status-obsessed family threatened by a son's homosexuality just as Peru was shaken by popular unrest. It's also a window into Bayly's extreme loneliness and me-versus-the-world mentality. When his family members learned of the book, they pleaded with him not to publish it.
"That was the breaking point," he says. "Nobody was friendly or supportive. They were totally against me and at war with me."
After two years in Madrid with the novel still unpublished, Bayly ran out of money. He returned to TV in Lima, where he met a pretty, blond Peruvian-American woman named Sandra Masías at a nightclub. They moved to Washington, D.C., together and, with Masías pregnant and Bayly's tourist visa expiring, soon married. But the domestic tranquility existed only on paper. Bayly insisted on seeing other women... and men.
"She tried to make me a straight man," Bayly recalls of Masías. "But human nature, or my nature, is being in love with somebody but also allowing yourself the freedom to have sex with someone else if that is what is good for you. I've never believed in monogamy."
Still, his family provided newfound stability to Bayly's life. Don't Tell Anyone was finally published in 1994 and quickly became a bestseller in Spain, Peru, and much of Latin America. Of course, the tales of infidelity, incest, and drug abuse didn't sit well with Bayly's family members. Many still don't speak to him, even though emergency liver surgery in 2009 nearly killed him.
Standing in the plush lobby of Hotel Portón in Bogotá, Felipe Muñoz doesn't look like the head of the Colombian secret police. Instead, with dark, close-cut hair and chubby cheeks, the 40-plus-year-old looks like any one of the thousands of crisply suited bankers strolling the city's bustling streets. But Muñoz flashes his badge at Bayly and in hushed tones says he has a personal message from President Álvaro Uribe. "We believe that Hugo Chávez has hired hit men to kill you," Muñoz warns Bayly, referring to the bombastic Venezuelan president whom Bayly has lambasted incessantly since 1998. "For your protection, I advise you to leave Colombia at once."
"I'm dying in six months," Bayly replies, citing his liver problems. "So if Chávez kills me before then, he'll be doing me a great service. He'll save me some money on physicians."
It was early 2010, and Bayly was covering the Colombian presidential elections for Bogotá-based station NTN. He had jokingly dedicated his first episode in Colombia to Chávez, and he didn't buy the threat.
"I sensed that he was lying to me," Bayly says. "I was supporting the opposition candidate... So that was the reason the chief of the secret police tried to scare me."
Whether or not the plot to kill Bayly was real, it marked a turning point. The talk-show host had transformed from a flippant provocateur into a serious political player. The road there started in 1996, when he secured a job as an anchor for 24-hour news network CBS Telenoticias. Hundreds of thousands of people across the hemisphere began to recognize his handsome face.
Then in 2000, when Fujimori resigned in disgrace after scandals involving human rights abuses and bribery, Bayly left CBS and returned to Peru. It was an important moment for journalism as the country shook off a decade of censorship. And Bayly once more took full advantage. He started a new show on network Frecuencia Latina called El Francotirador ("The Sniper"). On it, he ridiculed the various candidates poised to succeed Fujimori. He also pushed the envelope of good taste, accusing front-runner Alejandro Toledo of refusing to recognize an illegitimate daughter. When he began to advocate policies including gay marriage and legalization of drugs, his tirades took on the character of stump speeches.
During the presidential election of 2001, Bayly ran a high-profile campaign urging voters to cast blank, protest votes. "The result was terrible," says Peruvian TV critic Patricia Salinas. "People were throwing eggs at him in the street." Even worse, only 3 percent of Peruvians cast a protest vote in the decisive second round. Toledo won comfortably.
"Bayly has always been very popular here but never loved," Salinas adds. "He achieves what he wants to — grabs people's attention, makes himself known — but he doesn't win over people. The proof is that for years, he never convinced people to support a single initiative of his."
Soon, Bayly grew tired of working in the Peruvian TV industry. From 2003 to 2005, he focused on writing, cranking out several more sex- and scandal-filled novels. Then in 2006, he began a three-year stint on Mega TV in Miami. The show, Bayly, drew steady ratings, but serious health problems and an on-air fight with the station's vice president led Bayly to quit in 2009. After recovering at his friend Shakira's house in Uruguay, Bayly moved back to Lima and announced he would run for president.
At first, he was courted by the right-wing party, Cambio Radical. But when he outlined his libertarian platform — ending state subsidies to the Catholic Church, legalizing abortion and drugs, and dissolving the armed forces — and then criticized Cambio Radical's candidate for mayor of Lima, the party dropped him. As an independent, Bayly initially polled well, pulling in 8 percent of votes. But he lacked the hundreds of thousands of signatures required to run. Without a party or a real campaign office, people soon understood that his candidacy was mostly a publicity stunt. His poll numbers fell to a few percentage points. By 2010, he had dropped his bid for office.
"I think he took the joke as far as he could," says Fernando Vivas, a TV critic for Peruvian paper El Comercio. "But actually running for president was a magnificent public relations stunt by someone who has never lost his ability to command an audience on television."
Since dropping out of the race, Bayly has won back popularity — or at least legitimacy — in Peru with a series of devastating political reports on TV. This past September, only a few weeks before the October 3 mayoral election, he aired an audiotape of conservative candidate Lourdes Flores saying her critics could "stick the mayor's office up my ass." Bayly was questioned in court over how he obtained the tapes, but the damage to Flores was done: She lost to the candidate Bayly endorsed, center-leftist Susana Villarán.
Then Bayly picked a fight with Peru's current president, García, who had been elected for a second time after weathering past accusations of human rights abuses and embezzlement. Shortly after the September election, "The Sniper" set his sights on García in a column that ran in newspaper Peru21. This past December 6, Bayly described a dinner with García in which the president urged him to run for office. When Bayly protested that the job paid too little, García allegedly said: "Don't be an idiot. The money arrives on its own." In the column, Bayly also claimed García's comments were a "subtle and deceitful way of saying that the money arrives under the table, in suitcases, in bribes, and secret accounts."
According to Bayly, García also threatened to use the army to stop Ollanta Humala from taking office if the leftist candidate wins in 2011. García has since said his comments were taken out of context, but it's too late. This year's election has been thrown wide open.
"Those two revelations have caused a minor scandal here," says Vivas. "So even when he's not on TV in Peru anymore, he can stir things up with his newspaper columns. And his columns have started ringing much truer than in the past. Before, they were more works of literature, but recently, his columns have become more of a settling of personal accounts."
Jaime Bayly may be a good journalist, but he's a fickle friend and phlegmatic lover. He has built a career out of criticizing anyone and everyone, but he rarely forgives even small slights. The double standard stems from his romanticization of writing. Any good artist, he argues, is ultimately self-loathing and alone.
"I was always the kid at the party who still wasn't totally comfortable being there," he says. "A writer is always an outcast, a menace, a party pooper — the guy who is in the party but afterward tells all the secrets he saw or heard. That's my life."
The secrets Bayly has revealed haven't nailed just politicians. They've also hurt friends and family. In 2008, two years after his father died of cancer, Bayly interviewed his mother on El Francotirador in Peru. During the hourlong show, Letts admitted that her son's first novel had stung her and her family.
Bayly has also burned many in the journalism world. The night after his testy interview with María Antonieta Collins — who had appeared on his show several times before — Bayly called her "an annoying old lady" and said she had "the IQ of a bird, but not a crow, because they are actually quite smart."
In September 2008, Bayly was nearly fired from Mega TV after complaining on-air for 18 minutes about the temperature of the television studio. The signal was cut when he claimed the station was violating his contract. An on-air makeup with Mega TV Chief Executive Cynthia Hudson the next night saved his job. While some viewers took the fight as a publicity stunt, Bayly says the tension between the two contributed to his leaving the station in 2009. He returned only after Hudson moved to CNN en Español. (Hudson declined comment.)
Then there's José Manuel Rodríguez, a close friend at Mega who helped persuade Bayly not to quit over the spat with Hudson. When Bayly was in the hospital for a week after undergoing an emergency liver operation in February 2009, he accused Rodríguez of trying to steal his show. Bayly now calls Rodríguez a "backstabber" and a "traitor" because he cohosted in Bayly's absence.
"[Rodríguez] thought I wasn't coming back, that I was going to die," Bayly claims bitterly. "He thought: This is my chance to become famous. Of course, he failed, and they fired him because he did a lousy job. But it was painful for me to see someone who I consider a friend taking advantage of my bad health and trying to be me on TV.
"Fucking son of a bitch," Bayly adds. "He didn't even come to the hospital."
But Rodríguez says that he did visit Bayly at the hospital and that after the show — which he says he was asked to help with — he sent an email wishing Bayly a happy birthday and telling him what had happened. "That was the last time I spoke with him," Rodríguez says. "I never heard from him again. I never even had a chance to explain myself... After that, he sent emails to Cynthia and other people saying that I wasn't really his friend."
After an unsuccessful attempt at hosting his own show, Rodríguez left Mega and now works in advertising. "It was sad that after years of friendship, he treated me like that," he says. "I wouldn't say I've forgiven him."
For years, Bayly balanced his job as provocateur with that of being a kind and dedicated father. Even after his 1997 divorce from Masías — the mother of his two teenaged daughters, Camila and Paola — he would frequently fly to Lima to see his children and shower them with gifts.
But Bayly's relationship with Silvia Núñez del Arco has exploded his family life. Even for Bayly, who says he enjoys losing friends and making enemies, the feud has been painful. "Suddenly everything has turned upside down," he says. "When my daughters learned that I had a fiancée and that she was pregnant, they and their mother... declared cold war on me. They don't talk to me anymore, they don't answer my emails, they don't want to see me."
In late November, however, Bayly wrote a column titled "Señora, Please Move," in which he said he was tired of Masías' demands for more money and asked her and his daughters to leave his house in Lima. In the article, he accused his ex-wife of calling Núñez a "prostitute" and a "mutt." He also claimed that Camila, 17, burned a gift from Núñez, took a photo, and uploaded it onto Facebook with the caption: "Burn, shit." Then she pelted the young girlfriend's apartment with eggs and spray-painted "Silvia Whore" on the wall.
For her part, Masías says her ex-husband creates conflict only to write about it. Bayly, she says, is an introverted man who has created an extroverted persona that has come to dominate his life.
A pivotal moment for her — and others — came on November 15, when, during Bayly's first show on Mega, he kissed Núñez's four-month-pregnant belly. For Masías, it was yet another on-air slight from her ex-husband.
"Mr. Bayly is a public figure and writer," she emailed from Lima. "He has to entertain the public with his stories. I don't. In order to have a 'cold war,' you need two parties. There is no such war when my life and my daughters' lives have taken a different course than Mr. Bayly's... Nevertheless, he will always be the father of my children."
Bayly isn't so charitable: "She's going to be fucking ecstatic when I die. I think she will love to inherit part of my little wealth."
He also had a very public falling-out with Argentine boyfriend Luis Corbacho. The two met in a Buenos Aires hotel in 2002, when Corbacho first interviewed Bayly. They were lovers until last year. But when Corbacho learned that Núñez was pregnant, he sent her an anonymous email that, according to Bayly's column, read: "The curse that you put on me is gone and now the spell is on you and your rotten belly, shitty whore."
In an article in El Comercio, Corbacho wrote that he regretted sending the email but added that Bayly had never told him about his relationship with Núñez. He learned of it by reading her blog. And when Bayly kissed Núñez's belly on Mega, the Argentine flipped out. Just when he had calmed down, Bayly canceled plans for Corbacho to visit him in Miami this past December.
"I couldn't understand how Jaime could have become something so perverse and manipulative," he wrote. "Now I know that it's not his fault. I know that he is very sick and his deliriums come from a madness that has taken him over, the product of years of consuming exorbitant doses of sedatives, psychotropics, and antidepressants."
It's almost midnight on a Friday, but Jaime Bayly is still happily posing for photos with audience members after his show. When the last admirer leaves, he walks slowly from the empty set to a small, bare white room nearby. He thuds his large frame onto a small plastic chair and slaps his monstrously large dress shoes on the carpet. An assistant brings him a fruit punch that stains his lips blood-red.
"I'm dying," he volunteers abruptly. "I'm 45, and I've had a good life. When I was young and living in Peru, I enjoyed life as much as I could. I did a lot of drugs. I loved cocaine. It was really good for me and good for my mind. Years later, you pay the price."
According to Bayly, that price is that his lungs and liver now barely function. (He refuses to be much more specific.) He declines almost all interviews in order to save his voice for his show. He says his doctors have told him that without a liver transplant, he has less than two years to live.
"I don't see myself waiting for a new liver," he says. "You have to get on a list and wait for some teenager to get crushed in an accident, and then you get the liver. I think that lacks dignity. I believe a writer should live and die the way he was born, with his natural vital organs."
But Bayly is not going without one last fight. He ends most shows by holding up a copy of his newest novel, You Will Die Tomorrow. Like his 12 others, the novel is a thinly veiled take on his own life. Unlike the others, it's about revenge. It is the story of a writer who learns he has only a few months to live, so he sets about murdering those who have wronged him.
"I just hope that I'll be able to survive my traitors," he says. Then he wanders off into one of his signature monologues. "I won't kill them, you know. I'd love to, but I'm too lazy. [Then again] it might be worth it. I'm really excited about trying that before leaving the scene. I would love to."
As always, it's hard to tell if he's serious. Maybe it doesn't even matter. After a long and scurrilous career, "The Sniper" is going out guns blazing, one way or another. He doesn't regret his choices: the scandals, the questionable ethics, the tabloid love affairs. In fact, he sees himself as one of the only honest men around.
"In Peru, people are so fucking cowardly about saying what they really think or what they really are. There is so much hypocrisy and moral duplicity: one public behavior and one private behavior. And I just hate that, you know? I've seen it all my life, especially among rich, well-educated people. They are such fucking liars.
"I've made my life, my books, my public demeanor a way of challenging that."
He pauses, as if to weigh the careers he's ruined and friends or lovers lost. "I don't think that they will cry when I die, but I think that maybe they will miss me for a little while. Very few people cry when you die. If you get to five people crying over your death, hey, you've been a good man. But I don't think that I'm going to make that. If I die tomorrow, I think that, in the best case, three people are going to cry. Well, maybe my mom. But even if she cries, we're still stuck at fucking four."
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