So you want to hang out with the stars but don't know where to begin? Our man at the best parties, Nicholas Barber, offers some useful advice for would-be celeb-spotters
So you want to hang out with the stars but don't know where to begin? Our man at the best parties, Nicholas Barber, offers some useful advice for would-be celeb-spotters

afriend of mine, who will remain nameless, was in a Reading nightclub when he saw a girl he thought he knew from work. Work, or perhaps university, he wasn't entirely sure, so in the circumstances he was justified in employing a gruesome but in this case genuine chat-up line: "Don't I recognise you from somewhere?" he asked.

"TV, probably," she replied, with the rightful disdain of a soap actress turned pop starlet. "I'm Michelle Gayle."

It's not easy, chatting to the rich and renowned, which is why a guide has just been published in America, How to Meet and Hang Out with the Stars by Bret Saxon and Steve Stein. Tragically, there is no British equivalent, but Smash Hits magazine has a fortnightly "Search Out the Stars" guide ("an incredibly popular section," says editor Kate Thornton) which chooses a different big name each time and nominates the establishment where they can be found during a night on the town.

In the British Isles, the aforementioned town is usually Manchester, Dublin (the place to fly for the weekend, apparently) or, by a gigantic margin, London. Within a week of coming to live in the capital, I happened upon Greg Proops from Whose Line Is It Anyway? checking his hair in a shop window, Denis Healey plodding out of the Barbican, and Alan Bennett cycling through Camden, looking so Alan Bennett-ish, so owly and tweedy, that I assumed at first it was an impostor. In my home town, any of these sightings would make the front page of the local paper.

It's trickier to find the famous if you're actively seeking them. In a straw poll of showbiz publicists, paparazzi and club promoters, Brown's was nominated as the best place to begin. Brown's is a club just up the road from Covent Garden, and it's the ideal venue for a meaningful conversation with Michael Hutchence, Paula Yates, Bjork or Jarvis Cocker. Unfortunately, it's for members only, and membership costs pounds 500 a year - so start saving. If you're quick about it, you could swap plastic surgery tips with Michael Jackson after tomorrow's Brits.

A cheaper option is the Atlantic Bar in Glasshouse Street (at pounds 2 an orange juice, not that much cheaper). Unusually for Soho, the Atlantic has lots of room, and it also has lots of marble and frightening doormen, so its allure is understandable. When I visited, everyone there was glamorous enough to be a celebrity, but I recognised no one. That night's guests, I decided, would like to appear famous, but aren't. Under a chandelier the size of my bedroom, I asked the receptionist who they'd had in recently. Dolph Lundgren, Ace of Bass, and Richard Fairbrass from Right Said Fred, she replied. Sure enough. People who'd like to appear famous, but aren't.

Stringfellows was recommended by almost nobody, and even its publicist admitted that its fame quotient relied on a "a staple of Page Three girls and footballers". Peter Stringfellow himself tried to fob me off with "In Stringfellows everyone is a star." More accurately, in Stringfellows everyone used to be a star, or will be, they assure you, in the near future. None the less, there is a board of photos of Peter with his well-known chums: various EastEnders, Marad onna, Brian from East 17, Mick Hucknall from Simply Red. And the night I went along, a couple of weeks ago ... "Ladies and gentlemen," Peter announced to the toupees and the peroxides, "if you're looking for superstars, we've got a band in here who are at number two in the charts, the Bluenotes." Actually, it's the Bluetones, but close enough. And there they were, hiding in a corner of the restaurant. "We're just in here for a wind-up," smirked their lead singer, Mark Morriss. "When I phone my Mum tomorrow and tell her I've been knocking back free food and drink at Stringfellows, she'll laugh her tits off." The celebs do go to Stringfellows, it seems, but they won't admit it. So you're bound to strike up a successful conversation with an opener along the lines of: "What's a nice star like you doing in a place like this?"

The Groucho Club is always preceded in newspapers by the words "media haunt", and it boasts a reasonable assortment of literati, alternative comedians, Pet Shop Boys, and animal-bisecting artists. At least one member of Blur per night is more or less guaranteed. It's Members Only, I'm afraid, but it might be worth breezing past the reception desk muttering something about Will Self.

If you dine at the Ivy, in the heart of Theatreland, you can butt into an argument between Stephen Fry and Simon Gray. At the Blenheim in Maida Vale you may be able to discuss footie with Robbie Williams, Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit. Richard Young, king of the paparazzi, also recommends the Caprice ("A lot of table-hopping goes on there"), Daphne's and San Lorenzo: "She schmoozes all her customers - Joan Collins, the Princess of Wales, Sting, Selina Scott, any film star you want to name - that's why she's so successful."

Indie people can be schmoozed in the Good Mixer and the Dublin Castle in Camden, and at the Water Rats and the Cross Bar in King's Cross. Soho's Madame Jojo's is frequented by Mariah Carey, Mick Hucknall and Michael Hutchence (again). And Disgracelands in Islington has a notorious lock- in on Sunday nights, attended by the Britpop aristocracy. "A lot of girls just hang out on the pavements outside," says Kate Thornton.

But where to go for wall-to-wall-excuse-me-Madonna-but-Liz-and-Hugh-have- just-walked- in-idol-rich situation? "There's nowhere at the moment that really pulls in the celebs," laments veteran club-runner, Andy Kooky. "Apart from Brown's, no club has a really tight door policy, so if stars want an exclusive night out, they'll go to parties."

Most of us throw a party in order to have some fun with friends on our birthdays. That's why we're not famous. If we were, we'd know that parties are the launch pads for films, books, records and careers. Meeting and Hanging Out with the Stars is their very raison d'etre. Raoul Shah of Exposure Ltd, the "marketing, communications and events management consultancy", says: "If someone's having a party, they want to feel that their guests are surrounded by people who are special, people they'd normally only see on TV. It gives the event talkability. And you can attract the Press a bit more - which gives the client more of a long-term benefit. It's good to invite anyone who's getting a lot of coverage at the time, anyone who the paparazzi will be interested in."

The bashes with the most mingle potential are award ceremonies: the Q Awards, the Brits, the Baftas and the rest. (Although don't limit your definition of "party". The biggest crowd of autograph hunters I've ever seen was the one mobbing Diana Rigg and Michael Caine outside Southwark Cathedral at Sam Wanamaker's memorial service.) If you're not on the guest list, you'll have to resort to gate-crashing. One of the organisers of a party for Lenny Kravitz recalls a noble example. "Two beautiful young girls with French accents came up and said. 'Allo, we met Lenny in Parees when 'e was over weeth Vanessa Paradis and he invited us to 'ees party.' I asked if they had an invitation, and they said, 'No, 'e just said to ask for 'eem.' This went on for a while and eventually, they went [in London accents], 'Look mate, just let us in, we've been standing here for an hour.' It was so funny I let them in. If you show a bit of cheek and creativity, that helps." At a party held by Exposure, someone got in by swearing he was in Pink Floyd. The bouncer believed him, even though he was only 18.

Otherwise, to get your hands on an invitation, you have to be in the media or know someone who is. In theory, anyway. "Whenever an event comes round we get letters from these mad teenage girls asking for spare tickets," says a Warner records publicist. "Or else someone will say they're a freelance journalist or they're from such-a-such TV company. If they're quite confident about it, you can't tell, and you don't always have time to ring the company to check." A less deceitful plan is simply to make friends with someone in the media. The best way to do this is to send him a letter saying that you've always enjoyed his rock columns, and enclose some cakes or chocolate, care of the newspaper.

Once your quarry has been identified in his or her natural habitat, follow Kate Thornton's step-by-step guide: "If you're going to gaze at them, keep out of their eyeline because otherwise it makes them uncomfortable. It's very rude to interrupt them while they're eating or having a conversation; it's best to catch them on the way to the toilets. Hang around the cloakrooms, or wait until they 'work the room', and then say 'Hi'. And it's best to wait until they've had a bit to drink."

At this crucial stage, don't make the same mistake as my friend Gordon (oops, I wasn't going to reveal his name) and act as if they are unknown. The experts advise that "the worst thing to say is that they're not as good as they used to be", and a close second and third are, "You're a lot smaller than you are on the telly" and the fatal: "Hey, aren't you ...?"

Instead, "be gushy". Or as master schmoozer Richard Young says: "It's simple. Always be complimentary. Always be polite. Even if you don't mean it." And don't forget Andy Kooky's advice: "The larger the star the less they're interested in all that. The minor ones prefer that sort of thing." He unkindly cites Naomi Campbell as one of "the minor ones".

But frankly there is only one place in London where Meeting and Hanging Out With the Stars is guaranteed. The entrance charge is extortionate, the queues are long, but that's what you'd expect. It's called Madame Tussauds. The celebs may greet your conversation with glazed blankness, but that's what you'd expect, too. Fan's fantasy: a word of advice for Hugh Grant (facing page); with Kylie and Chris Evans (above); a drink with Depardieu (right); and back to reality - Barber is refused entry at the Groucho (left)