How We Met: Andy Hollingworth & Johnny Vegas

'He's stuck my face on a piece of bread, and put me on a loo roll'

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The Independent Online

Andy Hollingworth, 45

A self-taught photographer, Hollingworth (left in picture) has taken portraits of some of the biggest names in comedy, from Steve Martin to Rowan Atkinson and Ricky Gervais. He lives in London.

I was putting together an exhibition of photos of comics when a friend said I had to see this guy at the Citadel [venue] in St Helens [Merseyside], in 2001. I'd not seen Johnny's stand-up before but I contacted him and he agreed to take part in a shoot after a performance.

On the evening of his performance I remember seeing this unassuming character walking around [the foyer] with a carrier bag. Then, at 8.30pm, he appeared on stage transformed into this monster, wearing a vile 1970s bellbottom suit and screaming at the audience.

I've since seen him at gigs where he'd vomit at the side of the stage he'd drunk so much, and having a go at hecklers badly – and people adored it. I saw a lot of it when I would go up with him to the Edinburgh Festival, where he could be Johnny by day and night. The Johnny Vegas you've seen on TV is not the stand-up Vegas – he's far more extreme.

I've got to love both sides of him – and I've witnessed how hard it was for him to dismantle Johnny Vegas. But what's struck me is how different they were: Michael Pennington [Vegas's real name] is earnest, quiet, focused, and more like me. But I'm nothing like Johnny: I'm not interested in performing, I'm there to document, and I'm also an introvert.

The whole concept of Johnny being the face of [the now-defunct] ITV Digital was hilarious. But for a short period of time it was the biggest thing he'd done and even now people still shout out "Monkey" at him on the street – that'll haunt him forever.

I always refuse to do wedding photos but for Johnny's second, I said, "I'll do some pictures as a mate, but bring along a photographer." People like Paul Whitehouse were there, but it had a family atmosphere and the people in the room were there for Michael, and I love the difference.

But then, he hasn't been Johnny for several years now; he does radio stuff, has a production company and he's done serious acting, too. He's not just an entertainer any more.

Johnny Vegas, 41

Born Michael Pennington, the comic entertainer made his name on the stand-up circuit in the late 1990s as alter ego Johnny Vegas. He has since appeared in sitcoms including 'Ideal' and 'Benidorm', and turned his attention to serious acting. He lives in St Helens with his wife.

Andy seemed like an obsessive fan when I first met him. He was a comedy aficionado and I didn't realise he was quite such an accomplished photographer. He was building a huge portfolio of stand-ups and he asked to take a few shots at the Citadel, where I started out compéring.

For his first shoot of me he came up with the idea of recreating that Christine Keeler pose, naked behind a chair. I think I said, "Those naked pictures, they're just for personal use, right?" He's come in and out of my life ever since. He has an inner peace that I envy. And he's unassuming in a way I'd like to think I am, but when I'm with him I can see I have a neediness that's not in him.

He's very experimental with his work. He's stuck my face on a piece of bread and put me on loo roll. He's just got an incredible understanding of the craft of comedy and I could sit in the pub all night with him discussing it.

I've always found shoots intimidating, as I've a fear I won't give photographers what they want. But with Andy it feels like a mate, so he gets something special out of me; I joke that only Andy can make me feel like having my soul milked.

Unlike Andy, a lot of people expected me to be Johnny all the time; if I had been, I'd be dead by now. Andy believes that me and Johnny are two totally different people, and I'd always thought Johnny was a character I'd created, too. But I've realised that Johnny was a lot of things that refused to stay bottled up forever, and it's only by looking at my past that's I've realised it wasn't something I could just switch off.

For the cover of my autobiography [Becoming Johnny Vegas], the publisher wanted Johnny Vegas back on that cover and I think I scared Andy a little when we did it, over at his house. The only way to coax that person out again was to drink and in the space of half-an-hour Johnny Vegas had taken over the shoot and it got a lot more confrontational and emotional then I was expecting. Andy was taking pictures but edging for the door.

Brief Encounters: Portraits from the Andy Hollingworth Archive will be at Leicester Railway Station throughout Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival, from 8 to 24 February. Johnny Vegas hosts 'An Ideal Night Out' on 11 February at Just the Tonic comedy club, Leicester (