The Termineater

  • @iburrell
The man who plugged the hole in Labour's finances presides over a restaurant empire worth $3 billion. Planet Hollywood boss Robert Earl, says Ian Burrell, has amassed his fortune by an ability to rub shoulders with the stars and a talent to persuade his clients that they can do the same.

He is Mr Eatertainment. A five-foot-five, squeaky-voiced north Londoner who has gone from waiting tables at The Savoy to become the king of themed restaurants.

Robert Earl's influence on Nineties global culture is such that the presence of one of his Planet Hollywood burger joints is now widely-regarded as a key credential for anywhere claiming status as a world city.

New York had the first back in 1991. Others have opened in Paris, London, Moscow, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Sydney, each with queues of people prepared to wait an hour or more to be seated.

Mr Earl's skill has been to recognise the unceasing public desire to spend their leisure time surrounded by the images and accoutrements of the rich and famous. He is able to provide them with this environment because of his own astonishing ability to ingratiate himself with the stars themselves. Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Demi Moore were all persuaded to become shareholders in Planet Hollywood and are almost guaranteed to turn up at the opening of any new addition to the chain.

The Planet Hollywood experience involves dining amongst such knick-knackery as Jayne Mansfield's swimsuit, Marilyn Monroe's underwear, or even the pump used by Alec Guinness to detonate the explosives under The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

Real aficionados collect Planet Hollywood T-shirts from the various branches around the world. Some will even part with pounds 195 for a PH leather bomber jacket.

The cocktail list is a further reminder of your famous hosts. The "Terminator" (pounds 5.50) is described as a cyborg's mixture of vodka, rum, gin, Grand Marnier, Tia Maria, Kahlua, sweet and sour, cranberry juice and draught beer that will leave you saying "I'll be back".

Though critics dismissed his project as "Planet Hype", Mr Earl, 46, has a long term view. He has already established new contacts with rising stars like Will Smith, Johnny Depp and George Clooney.

When he opened in Melbourne, two months ago, Aussie cricketer Shane Warne (another partner of Mr Earl's) arrived on a Harley-Davidson, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal rapped to the crowd, and athlete Michael Johnson glided across the red carpet before Sly finally arrived to the inevitable soundtrack of the Rocky theme.

No wonder Peter Mandelson turned to Mr Earl for help when he was looking to drum up celebrity interest for the relaunching of the flagging Millennium Project.

By 2000, Earl hopes to sit astride a galactic empire of more than 100 Planet Hollywoods. "I want to create the largest and most successful leisure company in the world. I want the recognition of that more than the cash but I see no reason why I can't make this group worth $20 billion [pounds 13 billion]," he says.

Aside from the big names of film and sports, Mr Earl has been able to attract the financial backing of some of the world's wealthiest men. Ong Beng Seng, the Singaporean billionaire, is one of his partners. Another is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the nephew of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

The billionaire Prince has joined Earl in another venture, the Official All Star Cafe, a sports themed restaurant chain backed by tennis stars Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. When the London branch opens at the Pepsi Trocadero next year Tiger Woods and Alan Shearer are expected to attend.

Earl is the son of a 1950s crooner and a mother who ran a clothing business. Now he has a home in Orlando, Florida and one in St John's Wood, London. As a catering student he cut his entrepreneurial teeth by founding a string of themed banqueting halls before the Rank Organisation recruited him to develop the international chain of Hard Rock cafes, which are now his main rival.

Among his other plans is a chain called "Chefs of the World", backed by some of the world's most famous cooks and incorporating a television channel and cookery school.

Last month it emerged that he was linking up with MTV, the cable TV network, to create a giant music and entertainment venue in the centre of London, called the Asylum.

The budget for the launch party, which Madonna is lined-up to attend, is pounds 1m - the same amount Mr Earl paid to bale out the Labour Party.