This has been a busy week for retail squillionaire Sir Philip Green. On Monday he ran into Michael Jackson and took him for a midnight visit to Topshop, Oxford Circus. "It was no mad shop," he shrugged. "He just left with a couple of shirts and a jacket .... Inviting him was sort of a joke." On Tuesday he had a similar appointment with the Hollywood actress Lindsay Lohan. "She told me that last time she was here she spent thousands of pounds so I said, 'Why don't you save the hotel bill and just sleep there?'" He was becoming a personal shopper to the stars.
On Wednesday, he visited the World Music Awards where he was pictured schmoozing with the talent. Thursday was dinner at The Dorchester with fashion journalists. On Friday he headed home to Monaco on his private jet. He planned to keep his mobile phone on all night, as usual, and spend the weekend "relaxing" with his wife and children.
Viewed from a distance of a few billion pounds, Sir Philip's life seems dazzlingly extravagant. This is the man who spent £5m celebrating his 50th birthday with a three-day Roman toga party. His 250 guests included Jilly Johnson the glamour model, Michael Winner, Jeremy Beadle and Stirling Moss; they were entertained by Tom Jones and Demis Roussos. Among his possessions are a £20m yacht where he entertains Prince Albert of Monaco and Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, a solid gold Monopoly set and a £27m Lionheart Gulfstream jet.
It makes you wonder what his ambitions are. What does Sir Philip Green want? He wants to be normal, he says.
"This happens to have been a very, very unusual week," he patiently explains when I track him down at his office. "It's not really true that I spend time with celebrities. I'm not a networker. I like to think that I'm the same person I was 20 years ago. Whatever the definition of normal is, I want to be normal."
It is not for nothing that the fifth richest man in England, is keen to hang on to his man-in-the-street status. Over the course of a week he tries to visit each of his stores in Oxford Street, "seeing people, finding out what's going on, getting a feel for what is and isn't selling".
If the boss dropped into his flagship Topshop on Friday morning, he would have had plenty to cast his normal eye over.
In racks all around the multi-storey retail mecca were a cheerful pick'n'mix barrow, a make-up counter mirroring their sweetie colours and a baffling number of something called footless tights. A sign outside the changing rooms requested customers to leave the following at the door: coats, bags, accessories, underwear ....
"I regularly make changes," he says. "I'll say, 'That's the wrong ticket, that's in the wrong place,' whatever." He is obviously managing to keep one foot in the world of the teenage buyer.
Arcadia, the business best known for brands such as Topshop and Dorothy Perkins, was recently valued at "easily £2.5bn". So how does he keep his grasp on reality? According to several of his friends, you'd be amazed how shy he is. The film director Michael Winner has been a friend for years. "He is very shy," says Winner. "He's always in Barbados with the same group of people, mainly his family. But you always know you're going to have a good time when he's around.
"At Christmas and New Year I always thank God he's there. Last year, a copper tooth cap that had come loose was cutting into my tongue so I couldn't eat. I said, 'Philip, I've lost six pounds.' He said, 'Pity it didn't happen sooner then you wouldn't have been such a fat bastard', ha ha ha!"
One of his small group of confidantes is Ian Grabiner, who has worked with him for 17 years. "He's quite shy," he says. "And often shy people are perceived as being quite rude. Does he shout and scream a lot? Well yes, he gets frustrated. But he has a very dry sense of humour, he's very funny. We have a very amusing relationship, he likes to wind everyone up. What makes him laugh? His own jokes, mainly. No, don't write that!"
It is obvious that Sir Philip inspires great loyalty. He also upsets some people, and more than one business journalist has been on the wrong end of his strict work ethic.
"He phoned me late one night to have a go at me about something," says one. "I said, 'Where are you?' He said, 'I'm on a beach in Barbados.' I said, 'I'm in a cold rainy office in London. But if I were on a beach in Barbados I'd be enjoying it, not phoning me to give me a bollocking.'"
But his enemies are not the only ones to come in for the midnight call. "He gets annoyed with me if I don't answer the phone in the middle of the night," sighs Ian Grabiner. "He's worse when he's on holiday! He loves his family and he spends a lot of time with them but when you're so driven it's hard to switch off." In fact, Sir Philip says, he often has conversations in the middle of the night, and then forgets in the morning that they have happened. "I do business in my sleep," he says.
It is a good job that Lady Green is so understanding. But then as the legal owner of 92 per cent of the family's wealth, for tax reasons, it was to her that Arcadia made out a £1.2bn dividend last October - the biggest annual pay-out to an individual by a British company. But she has more to do than spend his money. She designed the flagship British Home Stores household shop opened last year in Chichester.
"It's not a hobby," she says. "I live it, I breathe it, I love everything about designing a home. This is my baby."
Another recent top signing is Kate Moss, who is currently designing a range for Topshop. "Go and talk to educated people in the industry and they'll tell you the proof of the pudding will be in the merchandise," he says defensively. "It's a logical step for her to take. I can't draw but I can tell you what will sell. She's good to work with, she's got a good eye, she's stylish. She's into it."
It's hard to imagine that Sir Philip Green would ever admit it if he had made a mistake. He is dismissive of his critics, and of the recent downturn in profits (a mere £20m) he says simply: "There's a difference between being concerned and being worried."
Even with Marks & Spencer, which his bid failed to win in 2004, he admits no regrets. "I could have had it if I'd paid the wrong price for it," he says. "It would have been very dramatically life-changing, in every way. Is it still an ambition? Absolutely not."
It is clear that he enjoys his money. He would probably agree with Winner's theory: "There's nothing sillier than a millionaire who tells you he's come on easyJet." But is that what drives him?
"I do it because I enjoy it," he insists. "I love it." And with that, he climbs back into his jet and sets off home to his wife. "I'm looking forward to relaxing and catching up on my sleep," he says. After the week he's had, he needs it.
GREEN AND FLAK
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT HIM:
Marco Pierre White, right: "Philip is one of the great people of the town, generous, impressive, supportive - a rare man."
Malcolm Storey, brand director at Dorothy Perkins: "Philip's very informal and engaging. He'll plonk himself down and have a fag and a chat."
Stuart Rose, M&S boss: "We're OK now. You know Philip, he likes to win, that's why he's successful. Me too, but we have different outlooks on life."
Allan Leighton, who helped build Asda and then sold it to Wal-Mart: "Philip is the most focused person I've ever met and the best merchant in the world."
Michael Winner, below, film director and friend: "He is a wonderful man - immensely witty, kind and very loyal. You always know you'll have a good time if he's around."
Alan Smith, chairman of Storehouse, who sold him Bhs: "He had a crystal-clear vision and strategy. He had the guts to do the deal, to make it work when nobody else thought he could."
WHAT HE SAYS ABOUT THEM:
Michael Jackson: "He was an absolute gentleman. The tour [of Topshop] was a bit of fun. I'm sure that the man could still attract the biggest audiences in the world." (A day later Jackson was booed off stage at the World Music Awards.)
"[Simon Cowell, right] always says, 'Tell me what you think' after the shows. And I might say, 'Why do you always smile when you tell them you're sending them home?'"
Stuart Rose: "He's a friend."
Kate Moss: "[Designing a collection for Topshop] is a logical step for her to take. Uneducated people will say, 'What does she know about designing?' I can't draw but I can tell you what will sell ... she's got a good eye, she's stylish."
WHAT HE SAYS ABOUT HIMSELF:
"I do have a short fuse - I don't have time to call a meeting to organise another meeting. Whatever the definition of normal is, I want to be normal."Reuse content