I work for ...Phil Collins: Annie Callingham is PA to the rock star

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The Independent Culture
Although Phil doesn't remember it very well, the first time I met him was in a club in the Sixties, when I was a dancer and he was in his first band, Flaming Youth. I got to know him properly when my husband began working for Genesis in the Eighties as a sound engineer.

In 1990 I quit my job because I was sick of commuting to and from London. Phil lived 14 miles from me and I was asked if I wanted to work as his secretary part time. I still don't know whether it was Phil's idea or not; God knows how anyone famous chooses someone to work for them. The first day at work was funny. I asked Phil what he wanted me to do, explaining that I hadn't worked as a secretary before, and he replied, "Well, I don't know either, I've never had a secretary", so we sat at his dining-room table and just made it up as we went along. We devised a system which we still use.

I don't deal with his business queries; that's left to his manager. But I get all the fan mail, since Phil doesn't have an official fan club, having decided to take care of it himself after someone started one up unofficially and then disappeared, disappointing the fans. We get loads of letters asking him for sponsorship of one kind or another. We get a lot of requests from kids trying to raise money to go to stage school. We even get people writing to say that they are seriously in debt. I can usually catch the phoneys. I'm very good at recognising handwriting and remembering names and addresses, so if someone writes in twice under a different pretext I usually know. Everyone who writes gets an answer, and I always tell them the truth. Phil reads through the letters and sometimes writes an amount next to them; it can add up to quite a few thousand by the end of a session.

When Phil moved to Switzerland in 1994 to be with his girlfriend Orianne, I was worried because I didn't want to live there. But in fact it works well, because at least once a month I go to see him. I get picked up at the airport at about 12.30pm by Phil or his assistant, and we have lunch together before getting down to work. Phil then disappears for a few hours to sign photos and various other things like drum sticks or drum skins - he's always said that if he ever found someone forging his signature he would fire them. It's a pretty exhausting day, because I usually return home in the evening. Sometimes I join him on tour; recently I went to work with him in Barcelona, where we worked by the pool, getting sunburnt. Next year he says that we are going to work on his boat on a lake. I can't wait.

Phil is involved with quite a few children's charities and one of the most rewarding parts of my job is organising his meetings with young fans, some of whom have disabilities. He's very gracious with them. Recently he invited 20 of his old primary school friends to a concert, and he's started working again with his old friend Ronnie, with whom he started his first group aged 15.

I get angry when I hear incorrect stories about Phil, because he's such an amiable and easy-going man. He's a bit of a workaholic, but since he's been with Orianne he's started to mellow out. When I ring him I sometimes hear him working on his piano. At the moment he is composing the new Disney soundtrack to Tarzan, and I know not to bother him when he's "Disneying it". Sometimes I won't speak to him for four days; at other times I speak to him throughout the day. I've learnt when to disturb him and when not to. He's a perfectionist and very tidy, quite the opposite of me - when he visits my office he often rearranges my desk.

I miss not seeing him as much as I used to, both because the work tends to pile up, and because we get on so well. We share the same sense of humour; we both love Terry Thomas and Tony Hancock, and I got him the Frank Muir autobiography for Christmas. We are both easy-going, and Phil's not demanding to work for; if anything I'm the demanding one.

It's not as glamorous a job as people might think; I work from a barn at the bottom of my garden in Surrey. The walls are covered in pictures, some of Phil, but mostly photos and paintings sent in by kids. I would never throw any of it away. I like the fact that Phil is the only person I have to answer to, and that I don't have to deal with office politics, sniping or bitching. I work my own hours, arriving late and staying late, very rock'n'roll, but I don't get lonely and there's always Radio 4 and the cats to keep me company. Having no qualifications, I think I'm lucky to be here. I feel sorry for people who've been to secretarial college and are now in dead-end jobs. But I've known musos for so long that famous people are just part of the job. When I was backstage at the Montserrat concert with Paul McCartney, Sting, Elton, Mark Knopfler, Phil and Eric Clapton, I was aware that many would kill to be in my position, but to me they are just normal people doing their jobs. If you were star-struck you wouldn't get any work done. I have a joke with Phil that he will end up as an old crooner and I will still be working with him then. After all, where do you go from this?

Interview by Katie Sampson