Somewhere in the world there are four celebrity couples living out sham relationships, duping the media and presumably an adoring public into thinking they are for real. How do I know? Because Max Clifford told me, as he explained how he provides a "protection" service to the stars that is all about guarding their reputations rather than shredding them. It works like this: a famous face, often a gay or lesbian, may be about to be exposed by the slavering red tops, and turns to Clifford for help.
He lines them up with a "partner" of the opposite sex, they meet, they adopt the appearance of an "item", and the tabloid pursuers back off. On four occasions, says Clifford, he has done this – for three US stars and one British.
This is the kindly Clifford, the one the public does not see. The common perception is probably of a man mired in sleaze, surrounded by a bevy of kiss-and-tell beauties, partying until dawn but never far from the phone and a call to the newspapers. In fact, he says, he lives in a £1m-plus house deep in the Surrey stockbroker belt, has been happily married for years, and lives a quiet suburban life.
As I listen, I have to remind myself that Clifford is the consummate media manipulator. Again, while most people imagine he makes his living from peddling stories to tabloids, public relations accounts for three-quarters of his income. And what an income. I ask for a figure, which he gives me off the record. If true, it puts him among Britain's very highest earners. There is, though, no reason to doubt him as he rattles off a list of 22 clients, from Mohamed al-Fayed to health clinics, leisure complexes and even a major Swiss bank.
Yet the very mention of his name elicits disapproval from some. They will have felt vindicated by the claims in the High Court last week of Clifford being paid thousands of pounds in cash stuffed into a brown plastic bag, of taking a secret cut for himself and not putting it through his books.
That case, brought by Mandy Allwood, whose story he sold when she became pregnant with octuplets, shed some light on Clifford's world. He arranged an exclusive story with the News of the World for which Allwood was paid £50,000. Afterwards she gave interviews to other sections of the media, earning £140,000. Clifford told the court he took his usual 20 per cent cut from Allwood's earnings. She claimed that after one German TV appearance, she received £39,000 in a plastic bag. When she got back to Britain, Clifford turned up at her hotel, counted the cash and put £8,000 in his pocket. Clifford admitted receiving the money but maintained that it was declared in his company accounts. He accused his former client and her partnerof bouncing cheques and driving away from garages without paying. The action, he said, was no more than an attempt by Allwood to damage his reputation.
This was his second court appearance in a few days. He also told the Lord Archer perjury trial that he made £30,000 selling the story of the author's alleged false alibi to the News of the World. Ted Francis, the source of the story, was paid £19,000.
Then there was the story of Michael Barrymore's party, the one where the body was found in the swimming pool, courtesy of the TV star's former boyfriend. The story of the agony facing the parents of the conjoined twins as one had to die in order that the other could live, including last Sunday's exclusives? Clifford again – for £500,000. Sophie Wessex? Clifford introduced the News of the World to an ex-employee who knew how to sting her.
But, he wants you to know, flogging such tales is not his main concern. "People come to me for protection. The public and celebrities in general don't feel comfortable dealing with the media direct. They've been doing something which harms nobody but if it comes out would harm their image and career."
He has been in the news for profiting from the misfortunes of others. He shrugs. "I've upset a lot of people but I'm very happy at the people I've upset." He doesn't cause the pain to the wife and children – their recalcitrant husband and father is to blame. Take David Mellor. The Tory MP presented himself as a family man; Clifford, thanks to Mellor's one-time actress girlfriend, knew different; the rest is history.
He cannot stand hypocrisy in public life, and in particular lying politicians. Once his targets tended to be Tories; now they can be Labour as well (Ron Davies's adventures on Clapham Common netted Clifford more money). His phone never stops. He does not advertise; people know where to find him – in the phone book or by letter. Some even arrive addressed "Max Clifford, England", such is his fame.
There are stories he turns down, he insists, which involve no cheating; where someone behaves badly but the public is not misled; where what he or she does is entirely their own affair. Max Clifford as moral guardian? "I'm going to look arrogant if I'm not careful and I've never been arrogant, but it's true. I'm turning down things all the time which would harm a lot of people and damage reputations. Just because a man or a woman has been playing away I won't damage them. Most of the finest, hardest working people I know get up to a lot of this and a lot of that, but I'm not interested. I'm not running a moral, ethical department for Great Britain, I'm running a small PR business which is hugely enjoyable."
He is a socialist, in the sense, he says, that he gives a lot of money to charity and believes people should do more to help others. He loathed Mrs Thatcher.
He admires Tony Blair, but that admiration did not stop Clifford tipping off the Mirror that Cherie was pregnant. Ever the opportunist, he made sure a PR client also got a plug. When the story broke and the other press started feeding on it, he claimed that he had told the Mirror editor over dinner at a restaurant in Clapham. The restaurant is a client; there never was a dinner; it was good publicity for the place.
He gives me a lift into London. On the way, his phone rings constantly, "I feel like I'm in the middle of 12 chessboards at any one time, where I'm playing one against 12 and I've not got an hour to move but three seconds. Chess is a good comparison because like what I do, the moves can be up, down and sideways."
1943 Born to electrical engineer and housewife at Kingston Hospital in Surrey
1958 Leaves school with no qualifications
1963 Works for EMI; his first task is promoting the Beatles single 'Love Me Do'
1969 Marries Elizabeth
1970 Sets up Max Clifford Associates
1973 Daughter Louise born
1986 Gets 'Freddie Starr ate my hamster' story on front page of the 'Sun'
1992 Exposes MP David Mellor's affair with Antonia de Sancha
1994 Refuses to strike scandalous deal with James Hewitt, former lover of Princess Diana
1999 Sells story of Jeffrey Archer's alleged false alibi
2001 Sued by former client Mandy AllwoodReuse content