Was MAFS star misunderstood? Meet the real Mike Gunner
Misogynist at first sight? Misconstrued at second glance? Mike Gunner has a public perception problem and he knows it.
And he wants to do something about it. And change the world. And he'll damn-well do it at the same time, thanks.
The divisive "love-challenged" tradie from the Gold Coast is still reeling from a stinging attack on social media for the way he spoke to his "wife" Heidi on the TV reality series Married At First Sight, and for opening his mouth to change feet on the final episode two weeks ago.
"I seem to have ruffled feathers with my direct approach," he says, understating the fallout which saw him labelled everything from narcissist, misogynist, and douchebag, to a rather short but remarkably spiteful word starting with the letter C, delivered by a published author no less.
Of course, if he'd just keep himself to himself then it would all die down.
Reality TV "stars" usually just graze the zeitgeist as they shoot past, rarely making an impression beyond "ah, yeah, that bloke".
But Gunner's different. He's gunna try and put the brakes on that very evaporation of celebrity.
For what means? Well, even after chatting to him for an hour, I'm not entirely sure.
Love? Maybe. A job in radio or TV? Very possibly. Gender equality and world peace? Hmm.
To remain relevant, though, it will take a lot of ego, a lot of self-belief, and a fair bit of air time. Luckily, Gunner has all three. He intends launching a podcast series out of his loungeroom.
It's his way, I suppose, of blowing smoke up the ash of his quickly dying embers.
"I'd like to tackle some of the world's issues," says the 44-year-old electrician from Miami. "Can one man, in one podcast, change the world? Maybe. Maybe not. But I'd like to find out."
He presents as confident; his eyes sharp; and, on the surface, apparently unfazed by the inferno of negativity fanned by his comments on the bonfire of vanities that is MAFS.
He is tall, well-built, and as strong of will as he is of ab. His personality unbuttons itself and floods the dim surrounds of the private lounge in which we meet at The Gresham in Brisbane's CBD, as he splays his hands and reels through what he hopes to achieve with his podcasts.
"I'll interview people of interest to me - everyone from sportspeople to people in the media, academics, historians," he says.
"I want their ideas on things like politics and the way the world's headed, the economies of the world, nuclear proliferation, the environment, social issues, gender politics."
When asked if there's one issue in particular he wants to tackle, Gunner sits forward in the leather sofa that is as innocuously green as the olives you might expect to hear plopped in martinis in this heritage bar.
"No more than others, but one that seems to be rearing its head is feminism."
He stops. Smirks. "OK, you wanted to get there, didn't you?"
Of course I did, it's why he's still a topic of conversation at weekend barbecues.
In fact, it's probably the only reason.
But it's also what most of the country has been talking about ever since he "married" Heidi Latcham, 38, on MAFS; ever since the couple sort of fell in love; ever since he fobbed her off with an "I'm not your therapist" line when she was unloading her emotions during their beachside honeymoon; how their "marriage" took a no-return ticket to Splitsville; and how he enraged viewers in the finale by suggesting that because of "biological" reasons, groups of women can't handle pressure as well as groups of men.
"What I've noticed is men seem to resonate with what I'm saying," says Gunner who, at one point, reveals he's Googled himself ("You Google my name and it reads like a scandal!").
"I feel as though I've been accused of toxic masculinity. I don't believe that to be true.
"There's this double standard that occurs in society where men can't really say what they want, where it seems as though women can.
"Look, I'm all for feminism. Feminism to me represents the elevation of women for the betterment of all mankind, and I'm all for that. I love women and men equally. I just love people and everybody should be given a fair chance.
"And that is where my axe is to grind. I think that fairness has ceased to exist. It is very much leaning toward women at this point. So I'm not on a crusade to win back the balance of power to men, but I'd like the scales to be in balance. Equality is what I'm striving for."
But for whatever reason, MAFS viewers didn't catch on to the balancing act. For a while there it seemed Gunner was the most-hated man in the country.
"I don't know about that," he defers.
"Look, the wider argument here is freedom of speech. What I'm saying, in that forum, that's my opinion. Does that mean I don't have a right to an opinion? Just because our opinions don't align that doesn't make me wrong, and that doesn't make you wrong. It simply demonstrates that we live in a free society. And I suppose you could argue that for the most part I'm not a people pleaser."
He's had time to reflect, as it were, on the decision to shine a mirror on his fellow MAFS pals. He was hauled over the coals for his statement that the women in the show imploded under pressure.
"I was asked my opinion in that moment and I had about a second and a half to think about it, and a lot of time to regret it," he says.
"It was a sweeping generalisation that spoke to the people in that room not women in the wider community. I fully understand that women are as empowered and as capable and as resourceful as men in any situation, but what I saw in that experiment was a lot of women falling apart while the men were rock solid.
"I was simply trying to express that. Listen, let's take innocent Bronson (Norrish) for example, if he spoke to her (Ines Basic) like she spoke to him, he'd be behind bars right now. You look at the way Elizabeth (Sobinoff) spoke about Sam (Ball) when he wasn't around, she absolutely tore him up, she teed off on him. And, yet, if a man behaves that way, he is seen to be some sort of misogynist … the whole way that society perceives the behaviour of men and women, there's an imbalance ..."
Talking of imbalance, behind him is a massive glass-fronted antique bookcase that runs almost the length of the wall.
I'm listening to Gunner, but have to break eye contact. I'm worried my expression is like the bookcase - glazed over.
It's a pretty nice piece of furniture, by the way, filled with an eclectic, masculine-looking collection of jars, toby jugs, leather-bound tomes and square-cut glass oddities.
Atop, on one high, distant corner, perilously looking down is a stuffed peacock.
"... I feel as if some people in the media see me as an easy target, but also a difficult target," he continues. (Nah, he couldn't have noticed I was looking at the peacock. Could he?)
"I've done some stuff with journalists and they've tried to corner me; and tried to break me. And I haven't. I won't. And they know that.
"I represent someone that, if you can take me down, then you have got quite the trophy for your mantelpiece. I don't know if that's me being immodest at all but I've seen them attempt it. And that's the difference between myself and maybe some of the other contestants, in general, on reality TV. I don't think they knew what to expect in me."
But for all his detractors, and there's plenty of them, Gunner has his fans. Actually, he met two when he went to the loo earlier.
"I walked past one guy who sprang out of his chair, and he said, 'Mike, can I please get a photo with you?' And I said, 'hang on, hang on ...why do you want to get a photo?'
He said, 'Do you know what, I really, really like you ... man, you speak exactly how I think'. And only then did I give him the photo.
Had he not given me a good enough reason … well, I'm not just going to be in your Instagram because you know someone famous. But he gave me this beautiful reason.
"And then, as I'm having this conversation, another guy with a bag full of tools, walks out of the bathroom and he came up and wanted to have a photo and we had this great conversation.
I feel like I resonate with men. And women.
Women who are - God, this could get me into trouble saying this - but women who know who they are; who aren't too judgmental; who can look outside of their narrow field of view.
I mean, I don't always necessarily fall inside your field of view, and that may make you uncomfortable, but knowing I'm coming from a place of honesty and sincerity …"
Sitting with Gunner now, I'm trying to look sympathetic, but there is a vortex of contradiction in a lot of what he's saying. For example, when we talk again about his need to keep a profile if he wants to change the world ...
"Look, being in the public eye isn't my motivator. It's really not," he says, "If you feel as though I somehow want to remain famous that's not my motivator, and that surprises people. And money's not a motivator either. Those things don't interest me in those ways. Real change does."
But to make real change, he's going to need a real platform. Unlike the semi-permanency of his recent scalp micropigmentation (OK, head tattoo), Gunner's MAFS platform is crumbling away quickly. A run at politics is not out of the question; but he sees his podcasts having more longevity.
"Politics? Yes, yes, I would most certainly enter it, because I love debate," he says, almost as if he was immediately on the hustings, "I'm fair. I represent the common man, and the not-so-common man, also, I think.
"But I find politics a bit dry and I think that the future of the world won't be led by houses of parliament, I think it will be an online presence.
"If you look at someone like (Canadian psychology professor and vocal critic of political correctness) Jordan Peterson, who I'm a big fan of, he's never set foot probably in a house of parliament in any country, yet he's making incredible change - changing hearts and minds - with his lectures and his online presence. I suspect that going forward in society, that change will be more influential than any government."
As Gunner talks, he absently twists the ring on the second finger of his right hand; a ring personally made for him years ago during his time working in a restaurant in Mexico.
It is a Corona crown on top of a broken heart.
A fellow waiter, after hearing his seemingly endless tales of lost love, had declared: "Miguel, you are the King of the Broken Heart!"
By his own admission, Gunner has left a trail of broken hearts since his 20s when a wanderlust saw him earning "quick cash" in Australia as a sparkie to fund extended trips to England, Sweden, Mexico, Colombia, Thailand and more.
He was raised in Castle Hill in Sydney's greater western district, attending Oakhill College, "among other schools".
"I had a rather tumultuous relationship with my education," says Gunner, who moved to the Gold Coast about two years ago. "I always wanted to be that kid playing in the sunshine. I didn't want to sit inside of a classroom.
"I didn't want to go to university so I went out and became an electrician, and then I lived in London. I worked as a - ahh, I shouldn't tell you this - but I worked as a beach boy back in my 20s. I would run around and serve drinks on the beaches and take towels. That was in the Greek islands, on my first trip there.
I used to do the runway modelling thing. I worked as a teacher in Central America, that's where I learnt Spanish.
And I've worked in animal welfare and rescue facilities. I'm an animal liberationist and an ambassador for the RSPCA. And that's one of my life's goals, to free animals from cages."
No surprise then that he's a vegetarian. Nor that he surfs daily, and keeps a board, a set of golf clubs and a queen-size mattress in the back of his van.
As he jiggles the celery stalk in his bloody mary, all the pieces that is the Mike Gunner jigsaw start to make some sense, sort of.
Converse to his liberationist attitude, his other life goal seems to be to lure a female beast into the cage of marriage.
"Marriage probably means different things to different people," he muses.
His parents, Bob and Michelle, have been married 53 years.
"The nuclear family, the idea of having a mother and a father and children, I like that. I was born in the '70s and that's the environment I grew up in. And I think that's best for children to have parents that are still in a functional, respectful relationship, and we seem to be moving away from that a little bit. I would like to bring that back in any way I can."
Gunner and onscreen "wife" Heidi went their separate ways in December, but kept their situation secret as the TV series played out. He describes his relationship with her now as "frosty".
"That's probably unfair. I don't have one (relationship). Heidi just doesn't speak to me. I have made a couple of attempts, probably up to about over a month ago, now I don't have any communication with her at all," he says, adding later though, somewhat alarmingly, that the sexual attraction he felt for Heidi hasn't waned.
"If she walked in here now my knees would go weak, such was her effect on me. I mean, I'm only a man. As long as I have blood coursing through my veins I will probably always find her attractive."
But there is a new woman in Gunner's sights.
A 30-year-old who works as a mines machine operator and is studying for a psychology degree, whom he met on his way home from a gym and sauna session.
He saw her on her balcony. She recognised him. They chatted. She asked him up for a cup of tea (no, seriously, that isn't a euphemism). They've been dating now for about five weeks.
"I'm learning that nobody's perfect and I'm refraining from holding too high of a standard of my partner. I think I might have been guilty of that previously," he says.
"I'm a lot softer and gentler with this girl, not through necessity, just that's how I want to be."
Will peace in his private life go some way towards changing public perception? Maybe. Although the stuffed peacock gazing down at him remains unmoved.
"I'm hoping that soon enough I can change hearts and minds and I feel that people have a soft spot for me," he implores.
"I feel like they do, they must, because I'm a soft guy. I really am."