Women break into the men-only A-list of after-dinner speaking

Joanna Lumley is rare in that she can charge as much as the top male speakers (that's £25,000 and all the rubber chicken she can stomach). Now more female celebrities want a piece of the action

A regiment of women is preparing to storm one of the last male redoubts of the social circuit: the boozy world of the after-dinner speaker.

A regiment of women is preparing to storm one of the last male redoubts of the social circuit: the boozy world of the after-dinner speaker.

The country's first agency exclusively for raconteuses is opening for business with a line-up of celebrities unafraid to make their presence felt when the port is flowing and the air turns blue.

The firm already has an impressive team of female personalities, including the former minister Edwina Currie, the singer and actress Toyah Willcox, author and campaigner Erin Pizzey, athlete Sally Gunnell, soprano Lesley Garrett and supermodel Jodie Kidd.

Speech-making is highly profitable, bringing sports stars, politicians and TV celebrities fees of up to £25,000 for half-an-hour's work. Appearances can include handing out awards and opening conferences as well as telling tall stories and bad jokes after dinner.

But women are barely represented on the circuit, and badly underpaid, sometimes earning half what men earn. The new agency hopes to close the pay gap.

Sylvia Tidy-Harris, the founder of the online agency womenspeakers.co.uk, said: "Some of my clients are experts in their field, particularly in business, but when we say their name nobody has heard of them. Women are not taken as seriously as men but also historically women have not put themselves forward to do this. Some have not had the belief in themselves and have not had the opportunities."

Speakers classed in the industry as "double A" grade earn more than £25,000 per booking, and include international sports stars, retired prime ministers and presidents. Bill Clinton is reputed to earn more than £130,000, while Margaret Thatcher has charged £30,000.

But it is in the lower brackets that wage discrepancies occur. Whereas the former England striker Gary Lineker is a category A - earning up to £25,000 per engagement - the Olympic and world athletics champion Sally Gunnell earns a maximum of £10,000.

The former Conservative Party leader William Hague is the most popular speaker on the circuit, again commanding up to £25,000. But Edwina Currie can only expect £4,000.

Much of course depends on the profile of the speaker and whether they have the necessary public speaking skills - a ready wit, a good anecdote or two, success and ability to engage with an audience.

But Ms Tidy-Harris, whose father is cartoonist Bill Tidy - who goes out as a public speaker for between £5,000 and £10,000 a time - said: "Most agencies won't sign you up unless you are an A celebrity. But you have to start somewhere. There are now more women setting up in business than ever before. People want to hear their inspirational story and to be inspired."

While traditionally after-dinner speaking has been a predominantly all male affair, political correctness has taken hold. "Women are being booked because what is asked for is no longer dirt and blue jokes," said Ms Tidy-Harris.

Erin Pizzey, who founded Britain's first refuge for battered wives, said: "In the past, I might have earned a few hundred quid speaking about domestic violence. I now hope to have chances to earn a few thousand talking about my wider experiences."

Broadcaster Frances Edmonds, one of the most successful women on the after-dinner circuit, said, "Women haven't had the confidence to ask for the same money as men in the past."

But Jeremy Lee, whose Jeremy Lee Agency is one of the biggest in the country with William Hague, Alastair Campbell, Joanna Lumley and Angus Deayton on the books, denies there is discrimination. "I applaud the idea of somebody encouraging women into the industry, but it is nothing to do with fees," he said. "We often think, 'I wish I could put more women up', but there are miserably few. A corporate audience is still likely to be 80 per cent male - though that's better than the 95 per cent it was 10 years ago."

Sally Gunnell

Why book her? Olympic gold medal hurdler with an earnest line in motivational speeches

What she charges: Up to £10,000 per speech, giving 40 to 50 a year

What she says: "A male coach told me I lacked both the size and the ability to be successful. That was a benchmark for me and made me more determined to prove him wrong"

Gary Lineker

Why book him? Sheepishly charming former England striker, now commentator

What he charges: Up to £25,000 per speech. A hectic schedule only allows for around 10 to 12 appearances a year

What he says: "Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans win"

Joanna Lumley

Why book her? TV star and former model, icon of ageing sex appeal

What she charges: One of the highest-earning women on the circuit, commanding up to £25,000 per speech

What she says: "Men don't like to be led by women. They don't mind being spanked by them, but they don't like to be led by them"

Angus Deayton

Why book him? TV host known for his dry wit and cocaine-fuelled fall from grace

What he charges: Up to £25,000 a speech

What he says: "When one door opens another one falls on top of you"

Edwina Currie

Why book her? Former health minister, famous for affair with John Major, now giving Gordon Ramsay nightmares in Hell's Kitchen

What she charges: Up to £5,000 per speech

What she says: "I wish my flat was filled with one big man in his blue underpants"

William Hague

Why book him? Former Tory leader renowned for quick wit

What he charges: Up to £25,000

What he says: "I agree with a lot of what the Prime Minister says. I too would not have a reverse gear if Peter Mandelson was standing behind me"

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