Tales from the publicity campaign trail: Sheila Johnston enters the twilight world of promotional parties

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NINE O'CLOCK on a Thursday night, and we are striding down a London street on our way to a party. We are here in response to a advert in the showbiz press seeking VIP guests for a book launch. 'Wanted,' it says, 'urgently required,' and promises money where its mouth is: sweeteners on a carefully calibrated scale from pounds 500 'for a major celebrity', down to 50 notes for 'soap stars and politicians' (excluding David Mellor).

You get a spot prize if you bare a nipple or punch a paparazzo, and a pounds 5000 jackpot if your surname is Windsor. A float of pounds 20,000 on the door awaits famous claimants. Alas, ladies of the Fourth Estate don't count (unless they're Tina Brown), but we have come anyway, lured along by the promise of free champagne. The evening starts here]

And le tout Londres has obediently turned up. There is Lord Sutch; there is a woman famous for wearing big hats, in a big hat; there is a man with a round, plastic badge boasting: 'I am a pounds 50 celebrity.' There is Mike Fabgear, a Sixties revivalist, posing in loons and Afro, and, oooo, isn't that Lionel Blair?

For this glittering turn-out we must thank the tireless publicity team at Beer-Davies. They have spent the best part of two weeks on the phone persuading people to turn up. 'We had to describe the concept to them,' they insist. 'Because this is a concept party. The whole idea of Viz (for it is they who are hosting the soiree) throwing a showbiz party is sweet in its irony.'

You have to understand that, Viz being a sophisticatedly sleazy magazine, yes, the occasion will be 'naff' and 'tacky', but only in a knowing, between-inverted-commas, post- modern sort of way. Fat Slags and Fading Starlets 'R' Us.

The problem, when the venue of your exclusive gathering has been advertised for all to see, is how to keep out those pesky gatecrashers. Terrorists for example. For - what is this? - even as we arrive, the party is spewing out all its somebodies and nobodies on to the pavement; they are drifting off into the pubs and down the sidestreets, police chivvying anxiously in the rear.

Champagne glasses clink in the gutter. The PR looks worried, as well he might: a number of guests, having pocketed their crisp pounds 50 notes, are now hoofing it (I can already see a large hat bobbing off into the shadows). Cordons flutter in the - we suddenly realise - decidedly chilly night air. We go off for a pizza.

IT WAS Andy Warhol who did for celebrity. At his 15-minute fame Factory, everyone was a superstar, even - in fact, most especially - those who'd done nothing to deserve it. In hip, downtown New York, ironic over-reaction seemed like the correct response to the corporate-capitalist, multi-media explosion of the Sixties.

London in the Nineties is worse; fame is a devalued currency. 'What we have to deal with here,' says publicist Eugene Beer, 'is a tabloid press of a size that few other countries have. In New York there is one tabloid. Here there are six. And they eat up people.' Nothing is harder than to assemble a glitzy guest-list these days, in London.

'It's harder than New York or L A, because no one's here. In the absence of a film industry, parties tend to be filled, not so much with movie stars as with social stars. There's a money and power circuit: people famous for what they are socially, rather than for making a cultural contribution.'

In London, TV soap stars are famous. Weathermen are famous. Freddie Starr. Wossername, the girl in the Volkswagen ads. Supermodels, the ultimate underachievers (famous for not getting out of bed for less than dollars 10,000). 'It's about peer group recognition. Every time Andrew Neil goes to a party he gets his bloody picture printed,' says Beer.

All publicists are far too discreet to confess to the existence of A- and B-lists. Each party, so they say, has its own ideal guest list, culled from the cutting edge: for a record company, it will be some newly happening pop group that the organisers rely on their kids to tip them off about. No one outside the inside track will have heard of them - indeed, it's a condition of their credibility. But, for Hello] purposes, PRs will have to aim broader, for those happy few with all-purpose celebrity. 'Yes,' says publicist Sian Davies, 'there are intergalactic superstars, like David Bowie, who cover the board from being hip to being famous.'

But these real superstars, now they are nowhere to be seen. 'Real celebrities don't need anyone; they walk about a foot off the ground. They don't want to rub shoulders with their audience - for them there's nothing worse.' To ensure a suitably lustrous line-up at his launch, a star will need to send out the three-line whip for his starry mates. The main incentive for coming is to notch up a favour in the favour bank: the reassuring knowledge that your mates will rally round for you in your hour of need.

Thank goodness, then, that there is a hard core of party faithful, the ones who won't let you down when the call goes out to report for duty at the opening of the envelope. 'Cynthia Payne will turn up to anything,' one film publicist says. 'She just loves going out. So does Linda Lusardi. Sally Kellerman came to one of my premieres and got so excited about being photographed she walked round the block three times. The paparazzi were going, 'Oh no, not her again]'

'Some of them will have two cameras with them, one with film, one not. There's a woman called Rosemary who turns up to everything. She's a tabloid favourite because she looks like a star. You can't say no.' The party faithful expect rewards for their devotion (if not necessarily in hard cash): 'Put it this way, darling, they don't bring their purses with them.'

Still, a few are happy with modest inducements - 'If you want Lemmy of Motorhead to come, you put a bottle of Jack Daniels on the door for him. You can print that,' says the film publicist, 'he's proud of it'. This is just as well, because all the signs are that the Lig City is closing down for the recession. 'Often you have to try and get drinks companies to sponsor you,' another PR says. 'People ask for receipts at the bar, or peer at the sponsor's posters behind it so that they know which brand of beer is free.'

AT 11 O'CLOCK, having eaten (and paid for) our pizzas, we return to the revelries. We find that the doors have been opened. And closed again: the hall is full. I push through a throng of angry party-goers, all with invitations in fists. A bouncer blocks my path. The real pros are already inside, of course. 'C'mon, do me a favour. There was no-one of any elegance whatsoever,' one of London's leading paparazzi will tell me comfortingly the following day. 'It was full of jerk-offs. All lefties and demonstrators. I came, I saw, I went. Simple as that.

'I had six parties that night. Afterwards I went to a very nice party at someone's house. I went to one given by Michael White's wife. That was very nice. One for Louis Vuiton. One for Hyper-Hyper.' The chi-chi dos, he explains, are the hush-hush ones. 'A party should have 150 tasteful people max.'

NOSE pressed plaintively to the window-pane, I can just catch a glimpse of a Vote Sutch rosette. I am struck by the fact that the champagne has stopped flowing and all the lucky, lucky people inside are now drinking beer out of the bottle. (The fizz, I hear later, had been taken as emergency rations by the first wave of evacuees.) Here outside in the cold, among the barbarians at the gates, the mood is turning bitter. 'We spent nine hours on the bus from Newcastle for this,' someone is shouting. 'Take your coats and go home,' comes the merciless reply. No two ways about it, it is time to make our excuses and leave.

(Photographs omitted)