True romance - or just a microceleb on the make?

Ann Treneman investigates a match made in tabloid heaven and finds that all is not as it seems
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THE village of Great Stukeley near Huntingdon, is home to John Major and not a lot else. Only the birds make much of a noise around here. Crime is low and you can see why: the only thing I can think of taking is a nap. But all of that changes when I start to ask a few questions about the former Prime Minister's son James, and his brand new fiancee, Emma Noble. Then, as Major senior himself would say, things got considerably more lively.

"News is created by the media and not by real people," says Bernard Crocombe at the Three Horseshoes pub. "Why don't you ask me about my son? What about your sex life? I think it's appalling that you are asking about their sex life!" I protest. I am not asking about anybody's sex life. Another businessman turns it into a privacy issue. "There is too much about people's private lives in the press and the media generates it," he states with a flourish. The landlord was jollier, but just as sure. "I'm sure the Sun is behind this. They are behind everything in Britain!"

Wrong. The story of Emma Noble and James Major is not about private lives, sex lives or even the Sun. It is about money and influence and the strange Nineties world of the instant micro-celebrity. The media is a player and a pawn in this game, but the strings are being pulled by a branch of the public relations industry called personal management. In this case the man who should step forward out of the shadows is Neil Reading. At 28, he may look like a schoolboy but no one (except he) would deny he has the Svengali touch. He manages many others too, including the likes of Michael Flatley and, yes, Melinda Messenger.

It has been a good week for him. Three months ago no one really knew or cared about James and Emma except friends, family and the odd patron of glamour calendars and TV game shows. Last week the two got out of a taxi and made the front page. The news? Well, James had on a velvet suit and Emma was wearing, er, not very much really. As the Mail said (over the picture): "That's a nice suit James." As the Sun said (over the picture): "Fashion or trashion?"

The answer, as it turns out, was haute couture actually. On closer inspection - it was that kind of picture - the dress was revealed to be a transparent vision by the design wunderkind Julien MacDonald. It cost pounds 2,500, was on loan for the night and the only other one that exists is on loan to Janet Jackson. The dress comes with a black slip, the designer's studio said, and the slip was definitely sent with the dress to Ms Noble. Somewhere - the rumour is, in the taxi - the slip got lost. So, when Ms Noble stepped out of the taxi, her G-string was showing. Was that couture too? No, said the studio, that was the model's own.

So how did this all happen? After all James and Emma only met each other on 19 February in the Green Room nightclub at the Cafe Royal in London. The answer to that has to be: pretty damn fast.

Emma, 26 and from Sidcup, left her local comprehensive at 16 to become a hairdresser, but quickly found that modelling (and particularly topless) paid more. She changed her hair. "I used to have dark hair," she said in 1995, "and would always get chosen for the sultry shots, but now I'm blonde and I'm trying to be sweet and sexy, not sultry. But I suppose you've got to stick with what you do best." Her breasts got larger. "My bust enhancement was my own personal choice," she told Hello! "There is no way I would change my body just for my career." She has been on the books at the Samantha Bond model agency for some eight years and, for the last three of those, has been a hostess on The Price is Right.

James, 23 and from Great Stukeley, was educated at pounds 4,500-a-year Kimbolton School, near Peterborough. He left with three A-levels to become a management trainee at Marks & Spencer. His parents never allowed any publicity shots of the family and, until Emma, Major Jnr's only claim to fame was his relationship with a woman 12 years his senior. He recently left M&S for a job at the Green Room. (It may sound out of character but, don't forget, this is the family of garden gnomes and trapeze artists.) He is a bit of a lad and very much one that likes and is liked by the girls.

And so, on 19 February, Emma met James and two worlds collided. "It was instant attraction over a glass of champagne," said one of those friends who always seem to talk to the tabloids. "They just got along." Within four days he had taken her to meet his parents. The Majors have said they liked her a lot. But then they would, wouldn't they?

Perhaps the most important factor in what has happened over the past few months is that at some point this year Ms Noble decided to leave her agency. "We think it was about four months ago. She wanted personal management and we are a model agency," said Mike Diamond, of Samantha Bond. I catch up with Neil Reading on his hands-free mobile and he says that Emma came over to him in January. So not after she met James then? "No," he says, "that is absolutely not true."

The first we saw of James and Emma was the "canoodling" picture at the pre-Bafta bash in early March. Neil denies managing this, personally or otherwise. "It was a slow week in Fleet Street and the whole thing went bananas. Let's face it, if there had been some proper news around it would have made a lead in William Hickey or Dempster and perhaps page three of the Sun and the other red-tops. But it's hardly front-page stuff."

But surely he made a phone call? (Photo agencies, PR and the celebrity mag and tabloid trade all work so closely that such things can take place almost by osmosis.) Neil protests again, perhaps a little bit too much. "I didn't even know they were going! The first I knew was when [the Mirror editor] Piers Morgan rang me at 8 o'clock that night and said: 'Neil, what is your client doing with James Major at Planet Hollywood?'" Right.

Neil Reading is not saying much about the nuts and bolts of his job. "I'm not going to tell you what I do," he said. OK, but what is the key factor with someone like Emma Noble? "It's not just a question of making them a household name," he says. "It's positioning them correctly within the media."

The past few months have been busy on the positioning front. Mr Major has decided to leave the Green Room to set up his own nightclub. Ms Noble has left The Price is Right. She wants to be a television presenter. So far she has presented one edition of Exclusive on Channel 5 and something is in the works with ITV. Her endorsement fees have reportedly risen from pounds 2,000 to pounds 7,000 for a few hours' work. She is in demand with "hundreds" of calls coming in. She has granted a few interviews and posed with bra and cat for Hello!

And there was also the little matter of a proposal. This took place at the Monte Carlo Music Awards in early May. The official announcement appeared in the Times on 14 May. The unofficial one appeared in the Sun on the same day. The headline was "Amazing Love Tory". It was a short courtship but such things do run in the family: after all, John Major proposed to Norma Wagstaff after knowing her just 20 days back in 1970. The occasion, in their case, was the GLC elections.

Neil Reading is hurt by claims that James and Emma's only true love is publicity. "There has been lots of bitching and sniping, saying the whole thing is a PR stunt and that the relationship was created. This is not the case." He says the wedding, when it comes, will not be public. I'm not sure I believe him. "If it wasn't that the two of them are so in love and such strong-willed people, the media could quite easily have split them up," he insists.

So you see how the media is to blame again. Back in Great Stukeley, the afternoon is wearing on. I find Martin Gross hammering a shed together in his back garden. He says Emma and James may be in love but they also certainly like the publicity. And the outcome? "Let me put it this way, I don't see a wedding."

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