say hello! to the liggerati : Metropolitan Life

Want your party talked about? Lure a celebrity. They're camera- friendly, famous (sort of) and they're everywhere. Oliver Bennett reports
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ast month an irresistible notice arrived, courtesy of one Aurelia public relations. Headed a ''Celebrity Attendance Update Release'' it gave news of a party which a list of well-known names were to attend. There they were, ranged down two pages like a bizarre concrete poem: Tamara Beckwith, Tania Bryer, Valerie Campbell, Mogens Tholstrup, Tara Palmer Tomkinson ... On it went: James ''Squidgygate'' Gilbey, Mona ''Mellor'' Bauwens and Paula ''12 steps'' Hamilton (my additions, incidentally). Gosh, there were even some famous people: Bill Wyman, Paula Yates, Marie Helvin.

The purpose of this deathless assembly was to drink and publicise a brand of champagne at the Dorchester, but in doing so it offered a key list of today's liggerati. Of particular interest were those famous-for-being-famous ''celebutantes'': Beckwith, Palmer Tomkinson, Bryer. Sexy, young and mobile, this crowd represents a new breed of celebrity life.

"It doesn't take much to become a celebrity these days," says Terry Bodfish of the press agency, Celebrity Service, which supplies information about celebrity movements to the media. "There are a lot around now who haven't done anything much and are just socialites. But if the public wants them and they appear in print and on television, then they are celebrities." Celebrity Service was started by Earl Blackwell, in New York in 1939, and he offered this definition: "A celebrity is someone whose name doesn't need further explanation". But Bodfish is not sure "that is true any more".

"I get researchers ringing up from television companies asking for the number of some celebrity, then saying: 'Remind me, who is it'?" A spokesman for Rex Features, a picture agency broking many celebrity images, adds: "When we put out a celebrity photocall, nine times out of ten there are people you haven't heard of." And Caroline Neville, a public relations consultant specialising in running celebrity-laden events says: "Over the last ten years I have often seen photographers snap glamorous people at swanky events then turn round and ask me: ''Who was it?' " It now appears that one can be a celebrity without being famous.

In addition, it seems easier to acquire fame if one is unencumbered by the baggage of achievement. "The fundamental thing about those Tamara Beckwith-type celebrities is that they do absolutely nothing, except that they're all daughters of rich people," says a journalist on a glossy magazine specialising in celebrities. This may be missing the point because, nowadays, being a celebrity has surely to be considered an occupation in its own right. "It's a full- time job for a lot of people," says Kate Alers-Hankey of Tatler, who offers this enticing work description: "They get free clothes, go to fun parties and meet lots of interesting people." And in a roundabout way, they help to sell products, magazines, clothes, burger restaurants.

The celebrity industry is peaking. Following the success of Hello!, which is seeking to expand into television's gracious corridors, comes OK! and - two weeks old - Here! They all cover the same field: essentially, What Celebs Did Next. Also new but more sober are Insider and Dempster's, both of which eschew the exclamation mark and follow the example of the celebrity forcing ground, the newspaper gossip column. The rise of tabloid television has helped to soak up hordes of the semi-famous. Even media studies students do earnest disquisitions on the nature of celebrity.

With all this attention, more celebrities are needed than ever before, and it has become a competitive market. "We have difficulty finding fresh new people as, after a while, lots of people are asking: 'What's the fuss about?'," says Katie Alers-Hankey. This means, adds Caroline Neville, that press and partygoers alike are getting "picky about celebrities. Anyone who can bring along a major movie star and create a truly happening event is doing well."

This celeb overload is changing some of the certainties of fame and there is now a new approach: become famous for nothing, then do something. "Celebrity comes in many forms," says Caroline Neville, "but it's everybody's ambition to raise their profile so that they can then start dealing."

Max Clifford, the most prominent publicist in the country, distances himself from the celebutantes. "There is a higher turnaround of celebrities now and a constant need for new models," he says. "There used to be a little substance to celebrity; the main justification being that the people who were being gossiped about had been on television.

"Now they are celebrities first, then they hope to get on to cable television so they can extend their five minutes to ten. They party for a while, then they look for an occupation, so that the public can get hold of something. For instance, Liz Hurley can now say that she is a model: though, of course, she only got up there because of Hugh Grant."

Some new celebs would go, adds Clifford, to the "opening of a fridge" and it is not a market which he has anything to do with. "I never go to these parties. For one thing, I don't drink; but I also find them as exciting as watching paint dry." Clifford believes that this spray-gun approach to celebrity can have a negative effect. "It depends on the event, but if it is full of nonentities - and there's a whole circuit of them - then it may well have the opposite effect." One wonders whether the House of Krug will sell more bottles as a result of their celeb-rich bash.

One of the great PR conundrums is how to get celebrities to attend your party. You can invite them and then if they don't turn up, as sometimes happens, "everybody gets very annoyed", as Neville puts it. "But if you're not paying them, what call do you have on their time?" Indeed, some celebs may be paid to attend parties and she admits that there "may be payment privately".

Celebs of stature may request a donation to a charity. But in any case, there is plenty of payment in kind. As well as swilling free fizz every night, celebrities often pick up free dinners, cabs, clothes. The much photographed Tara Palmer Tomkinson, for instance, has a contract with Ray-Ban and constantly sports its product.

The celeb payback is that they have to get out there, looking slim, shiny and happy. "Let's face it, as a celeb you know why you're being asked," says Neville. "On the other hand, some pay to keep out of the papers." Sarah Ferguson has taken this route with her new US publicist who has offered her the sage advice: lie low.

Some yearn, Norma Desmond-like, for the days when celebrities were truly big. The veteran press agent Hugh Williams, who organises film premiere events for charity, says: "In the old days a premiere was like a dinner party. You knew a lot of people, you invited them and if the event sounded good, they'd come. Now it is much more calculated and I can't help thinking 'thank God I'm not famous'. The press feeds on celebrities much more than it used to, and everything is personality-led. They build celebrities up then knock them down after a few weeks. A lot of people get damaged."

He believes a certain kind of celebrity gets caught up in a situation that they haven't created and then can't understand why they are being attacked. Even much-derided figures such as Ivana Trump deserve our sympathy, he says. "She was anonymous for many years as Donald Trump's wife, but was suddenly left wide open. She needed to bolster herself, hired PR people and it became a whirlwind." But one suspects that celebrity is in itself corrupting: "a mask that eats the face" in John Updike's phrase. And the fallen may never expect public sympathy, for celebrity is seen as a Faustian pact for which the famous are themselves responsible. Do the A, B and C-lists of celebrity lore really exist? "It's a bit more complicated than that," says Max Clifford. "Sure, Princess Di would obviously be on anyone's A-list. But the choice of celebrity is governed by what the party-givers are trying to sell."

Targeting is key, and Clifford is publicising a third world charity event taking place tomorrow, featuring weighty well-knowns such as Ben Elton, Emma Thompson and Jon Snow. "If I'm going to do something I'd rather it has a substance," he says. "It's more important than putting together a few Sloanes who can smile and turn it into a circus."

"One person's A-list would be another person's C-list," adds Neville. "Events have to be planned with the right sort of star." She recently asked Jane Asher to a launch in the country, and she was very well received. "High recognition factor," she trills. "Absolutely right." For constant goodwill, she says, Joanna Lumley is top of the list; and for glamour and excitement, Joan Collins is a major player.

The chatterers act superior about celebs: one of Angus Deayton's better jokes on Have I Got News For You was that their collective noun should be a "vacuum of celebrities". But there is a weird side to the public fascination with celebrity. At a recent engagement reported by The New Yorker, the critic Robert Hughes lamented the "poor depleted souls" who were queueing up to fork out for Jackie O's paraphernalia... they were "the ultimate victims of America's now psychotic cult of celebrity, trampling one another like 13th-century peasants trying to touch the withered bone of some saint so that they could be cured of scrofula or the pox." One public relations consultant spoke in hushed tones of the "celebrity touch" as if the famous were the heirs to the god-like status of the royal family in the Middle Ages. Chief conduit of this spooky transference is Lady Di, Queen of Hearts, whose metamorphosis from the chubby kindergarten teacher to numinous global healer is almost complete.

Many in the industry are reluctant to discuss the mechanics of celebrity in case they help burst the magic bubble. Yet others keep their head while all around them is madness. "We're not talking about brain surgery, are we?" says Caroline Neville. But celebrity for those without much in their portfolio is liable to be short-lived, high risk and utterly mercenary. As Katie Alers-Hankey puts it: "You're only as good as your last party." The celebutantes should watch their backs.

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