Q & A: Gene Simmons

The Kiss bassist on his ego, his Playmate, his surprisingly normal kids, and his very traditional parenting style
Kate Fillion

Kiss bassist Gene Simmons on his ego, his Playmate, his surprisingly normal kids, and his very traditional parenting styleFamous for onstage blood-spitting and tongue-waggling, the Kiss bassist and singer also appears in a hit reality show, now in its fifth season, with actress and former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed and their two children. Born Chaim Witz, he immigrated to New York from Israel with his mother, a concentration camp survivor, when he was eight. Today, his far-flung business empire includes comic books and a marketing company with international interests.

Q: Your public image is over the top, but judging by your reality show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, your kids, Sophie and Nick, are normal and well-adjusted. What’s your parenting philosophy?

A: Never negotiate with kids. They don’t have life experience, and they don’t have repercussions for bad decisions, they still get fed and housed. And most importantly: I’m bigger! Don’t hit, but don’t pander or give power to kids. They have to know where the power lies. Otherwise, why would they respect it?

Q: You’ve never done drugs or gotten drunk. How did you teach your kids to resist peer pressure, growing up in Hollywood?

A: If Sophie came home high or drunk, she’d find her Beverly Hills butt in the middle of the Arizona desert in a work camp. I’m deadly serious. The only jobs kids have are to do well in school, to be charming and polite, and be thankful. That’s it. I’ll house you, protect you, I’ll even give my life for you, and in return, you will behave.

Q: They’re both straight-A students. What if they brought home a bad report card?

A: The world would shake. Everything would stop. And they would have a short time to change that, or there would be repercussions.

Q: Doesn’t the family dynamic change when there are cameras filming you all the time?

A: Not at all. If cameras change what the family is, there is no family.

Q: Do you worry about the long-term effects of this sort of exposure for your children?

A: No. It’s their choice whether to participate or not. Sophie said she didn’t want to be a in few episodes, so she wasn’t. And they’re both grown up now. Sophie is 17 and she’s the captain of her volleyball team, arranging her own college applications. Nick is 20 and six foot seven, and his graphic novel, Incarnate, is in its third printing. They are their own people, though they certainly have their mother’s genes—they’re both beautiful—and hopefully they have some of their dad’s balls, where you grab life by the scruff of the neck and demand that it acknowledges that you’re here. Sitting on your butt and waiting for opportunity to knock is nonsense. You’ve got to do what a gorilla does: put your foot firmly on whatever is yours, beat your chest and yell out, “I’m here.”

Q: Humility isn’t one of your defining characteristics.

A: If you’re the greatest, it’s okay to say you’re the greatest. My suggestion to everybody is to be their own greatest fan. Weaker personas and personalities define that as egotistical or arrogant, but what it means is their self-esteem isn’t that strong.

Q: Why did you call your last solo album Asshole?

A: It’s a way to take away the power of somebody else using the word. If a fat comedian steps up on stage and says, “A big hello to all my fat friends,” it’s a way to immediately empower himself by saying, “Right, I am fat.” I’ve been called an asshole by all kinds of people in all walks of life. I used to feel the same, by the way, about Cassius Clay, which is what his name was when I first saw him, before he was anybody, yelling into the camera, “Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. I am the greatest.” I’m thinking to myself, “Who the f–k does he think he is?” But see, that’s profoundly, exactly, what it’s all about: who do you think you are?

Q: So you think you’re an asshole?

A: To people who don’t have a very good sense of themselves, yes. Or to people who don’t understand me—I think they’d like me if they got to know me—or who just can’t deal with what they call “the big ego” and what I call “a self-confident man.” But to people who understand? Oh no.

Q: Why do so many journalists have this idea that you lack a sense of humour about yourself and your image?

A: Because I enunciate and speak four languages. When I’m talking to a journalist—not you, necessarily—they’re not on my level.

Q: So they’re wrong.

A: Oh sure. I know I don’t look like Brad Pitt. Nor do I want to, because I don’t want to become popular in jail. That was a joke.

Q: Yeah, I got it.

A: But I’m also aware I can walk into a party and walk out with his girlfriend.

Q: Why? What’s your magical appeal?

A: Power. By which I mean charisma, inner strength. It’s nothing to do with genes. You can be really good-looking but then you’re just admired for having the right genes.

Q: You’ve lived with Shannon Tweed for 26 years, and you’ve slept with a lot of women—4,600 was the figure in one of your books, but that was a few years back.

A: It’s no secret. When we first got together, I showed Shannon photos. She was not a big fan of it, but so what? Welcome to earth.

Q: Why do you think she stays with you?

A: Well, that’s a good question. But I’ve only had three relationships in my life.

Q: The other two were Cher and Diana Ross.

A: And we remain friends and stay connected. I think it’s pathetic that women and men treat each other worse than we treat our pets. It’s love or hate. When you’re in love and lust with each other, everything’s okay. If love or lust disappears, everybody sues each other, hates each other, it’s Jon and Kate [Gosselin]. If you were once lovers, why can’t you at least be friends?

Q: You’re currently touring with Kiss. Do girls line up at the stage door every night?

A: Oh yeah.

Q: Aren’t groupies boring after a while?

A: Well, you’re a woman, so you don’t understand the psyche. It’s like a vegetarian asking a carnivore, “What’s the big deal with meat?” Look, you only drop two eggs a month, and in your middle years you stop dropping them completely. We manufacture hundreds of millions of sperm every day. We even make sperm after we’re dead.

Q: If you’re saying it’s a biological imperative to sleep with groupies—

A: A biological urge. The urge to merge.

Q: Then why stay with Shannon?

A: This is the hottest woman on earth. And she’s an alpha female. She doesn’t talk about whether the vacuum cleaner works or not. Doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Has a strong moral centre, no drugs, no booze. No whining. No bad hair days.

Q: Is it okay if she sleeps with other men?

A: People will do whatever they want to do. So it’s best to just relax and hope for the best. Get a hobby.

Q: It’s clear on the show that your kids love their mother very much. Does it bother them that you’re not monogamous?

A: Who said I’m not?

Q: Well, you do. Don’t you?

A: No, not necessarily. And I’m not sure Bill Clinton or anyone else should be talking about those areas to strangers. Aren’t you ever going to ask me about Kiss?

Q: Why are you stalling?

A: Look, it’s the 21st century, and the thing women have been clamouring for is finally upon us: you’re free. You’re no longer indentured slaves. You no longer have to be in the kitchen, or leave the smoking room so the men can talk. And the greatest asset Shannon has is that she’s a modern woman. Besides being stunning, six feet tall and, of course, a Newfie, I worship the ground she walks on. But part of the relationship is that it’s no-nonsense. We don’t call each other “honey” and “sweetheart” and all those clichés. That’s television talk, just a paint-by-numbers relationship. When I talk to her, it’s straight ahead, like an equal partner, and she to me.

Q: A tape surfaced on the Internet last year, of you having sex with another woman. Were your kids upset?

A: We talked about it a little bit, but they understand. It was made a long time ago, and not with my consent. But . . . move on. Why do people care?

Q: How do you talk to your daughter about all this?

A: Hopefully, the one thing I gave Sophie was the clear information that she should never define herself by men. Women’s magazines are ego-destroying, the worst piece of trash you can read. Here’s why: they feed the insecurities and weaknesses of women. There are always lists: “10 things he likes about you,” “10 things to look younger”—this endless self-torture. Men’s magazines never, ever talk about what women want. Men don’t care.

Q: So would it bother you if she said, “I’m going to be like you, Dad, and have thousands of sexual partners”?

A: Once Sophie becomes a mature woman, it doesn’t matter what we think or say, these will be decisions she has to make and live with. But of course there’s a double standard.

Q: Okay, Kiss: you have a new album out this week, a massive tour, and your own reality show is a hit. How many thousands of Kiss licences are there now?

A: More than 3,000. After Sonic Boom comes out, every Wal-Mart in North America, and soon the world, will have four Kiss corners, where you can buy T-shirts, Kiss Mr. Potato Heads, and of course Kiss M&Ms, with our faces on each M&M.

Q: How is it that 35 years after your first album, you’re bigger than ever?

A: I kiss the ground of the country I landed in, the United States of America. In totalitarian states, or religious states, or even in Europe, there are limitations, culturally and in other ways. The same guy, me, with the same talent and ambition, in Iran or Africa—it wouldn’t work. So it’s the right thing at the right time in the right place, and the rest of it is luck and hard work. I approach everything I do as if it’s the only chance I will ever be given and the alternative is complete destitution.

Q: Your Wikipedia entry says, “When Simmons was young, his mother’s long absences while working two jobs in order to make ends meet left emotional scars that gave him a strong desire for wealth.” Is that accurate?

A: I would urge all kids to see a single parent who not only provides but is thankful for the opportunity to provide. Emotional scars? That’s a point of view, not a fact. The person who wrote that is going to be wrapping fish next week. It’s a crime that Wikipedia lets anyone go in and alter information.

Q: Does being 60 feel the way you thought it would?

A: I don’t mean this to sound cornball, but I don’t really celebrate birthdays. I mean, yes, I eat cake—God help me, do I eat cake—but I celebrate every day above ground as the best holiday there is. I don’t wait for the calendar to tell me to celebrate. But I will tell you that it’s surprising how fantastic 60 is.

Q: What’s so fantastic about it?

A: I’m the king of the world. Are you kidding?