A dedicated band of autograph-hunters

A dedicated band of autograph-hunters spends many hours a week outside the West End celebrity haunt The Ivy in the hope of accosting the famous. But why do they do it? And what response do they get?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A ruddy-faced man wearing a heavy overcoat and top hat stands territorially in front of The Ivy. It's Billy the doorman. Every now and then he steps out into the night to kick away an empty plastic bag that the wind has deposited in front of his patch. A group of customers arrives, the women in Joan Collins make-up and kitten heels despite the cold, clearly delighted that the table they booked three months ago is finally theirs. Billy opens the door. In his other hand is a list of celebrities - none of whom had to suffer the indignity of a waiting-list - who will be dining there this evening. Billy is keeping their identities to himself.

A ruddy-faced man wearing a heavy overcoat and top hat stands territorially in front of The Ivy. It's Billy the doorman. Every now and then he steps out into the night to kick away an empty plastic bag that the wind has deposited in front of his patch. A group of customers arrives, the women in Joan Collins make-up and kitten heels despite the cold, clearly delighted that the table they booked three months ago is finally theirs. Billy opens the door. In his other hand is a list of celebrities - none of whom had to suffer the indignity of a waiting-list - who will be dining there this evening. Billy is keeping their identities to himself.

On the other side of the road, huddled between two theatres, is a group of men, bundled up in anoraks and woolly hats. A regular sight outside The Ivy, they would dearly love to know who's on Billy's list. It would give them an idea of whether it's worth spending the next five hours in the piercing cold waiting for an autograph.

The evening isn't looking too promising. The only celebrities who have shown up so far are two Holby City actresses. A rumour spreads that Jenson Button, the 20-year-old Formula One racing driver, is on the list. Suddenly, a rather portly and barely recognisable Nerys Hughes leaves the restaurant with a young lady swathed in fake fur. Much to Nerys's delight - she clearly doesn't get much attention these days - the assembled paparazzi and autograph-hunters pounce. ''Stars who haven't been seen for a long time, and who are now old hags, sell very well,'' comments agency snapper Keith Butler.

Along the pavement swings David Hodgson on metal crutches. Measuring 4ft 6in, and disabled by osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis, the 38-year-old is one of London's most well-known autograph-hunters. Hodgson has around 6,000 autographs, and about 1,000 photographs of himself standing next to a celebrity. What seems to please him most is the two minutes of attention he receives while getting them. ''I get on really well with a lot of them,'' says Hodgson. ''I've been petted and cuddled by quite a lot of them over the years - Goldie Hawn, Daryl Hannah, Kylie Minogue and people like that. It's maybe because of my height. They don't find me offensive, and I'm always very polite. I enjoy being hugged. I come from a very awkward background - I was brought up in children's homes. I'm single, and I find it enjoyable that someone has time to talk to me, especially to give me a cuddle. I feel honoured to have met them.''

He stands outside The Ivy for three hours, three or four nights a week. ''If there's a big celebrity who I've never seen before, I sometimes wait until two in the morning for them to come out,'' says Hodgson, who puts his fascination for the stars down to his love of films. So far his patience has yielded encounters with Liz Hurley, Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Mick Jagger and Steven Spielberg.

Propping himself up with a walking stick, and dressed in a beige anorak with a bag slung across his shoulder is Larry Barton, 66, a retired security officer from St John's Wood, London. He too stands outside The Ivy three or four times a week. He's been refused autographs three times by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and has been told to "fuck off" by Jessica Lange, but still he persists. Barton started collecting signatures five years ago when his wife died. He was contemplating suicide, but was saved when he met a female collector. They began a relationship, and she was the inspiration for his hobby.

Eyeing his fellow collectors on the pavement, Barton leans forward and confides: "They tell each other diabolical lies. They might say so-and-so is at The Athenaeum, when he's at The Dorchester. I look upon them all as friends, but I wouldn't trust any of them as far as I could throw them.''

Barton has also been refused autographs by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks, but he remains philosophical. ''I've more or less met them. I won't lose any sleep over them. These guys will - if they think they've missed someone they won't relax for a month until they've got them. I've had quadruple heart bypass surgery. I'm a diabetic. I've had seven small strokes and one big stroke, so what do I care? To be honest I thought I would be dead two years ago.''

What gets Barton's goat even more than the duplicity of his comrades are professional collectors who sell autographs. ''I think that's despicable. I don't think you should make money out of someone's signature. They give it to you because they think you're a fan. I would never, ever sell an autograph. These people who sell them turn up with eight or nine big pictures, aggressively demanding that people sign them. And that means that my chance of getting one is reduced greatly.''

No doubt Aun Sayal, 18, who makes up to £2,000 a week selling autographed photographs to specialist shops, would make Barton spit. Aun spends one or two hours a day outside the restaurant. ''Sometimes I get tips about who's turning up from people who work at The Ivy,'' says Sayal, from Ilford, Essex. He says he has got ''everyone'', including Madonna four or five times while in America (earning him £300 each time), as well as the reclusive Michael Jackson. Unlike Barton and Hodgson, Sayal doesn't particularly like celebrities. ''Some are tossers. Leonardo DiCaprio is an asshole. He comes in and out of clubs with a jacket over his head. Most people I get, I hate,'' he says.

A young man and a long-haired woman come out of the restaurant, and stand by the door kissing for several minutes. They are ignored by the assembled autograph-hunters and six paparazzi who are standing around chatting. The couple get into a taxi. As it disappears from view the huddle suddenly realises the young man was Jenson Button.

Photographer Georgie Hollingshead, 21, can't believe they've missed him. ''He looked too young for Jenson Button, and we all stood here like a bunch of fucking idiots!'' she storms. ''He was standing outside snogging some bird in full view of everybody and nobody even looked. We all need the sack.'' A photograph of the kiss would have been worth £2,000, says Lee Jones, another agency photographer. ''I was looking somewhere else,'' he sighs.

Larry Barton isn't surprised that the paps missed their shot. ''I was here one evening about four months ago and there was about 12 or 13 of them. The door of The Ivy opened and out walked Dale Winton, and they all rushed across to take his picture. Quite unnoticed, a Hollywood legend comes walking out of there. None of them recognised her - it was Faye Dunaway. She walked round the corner. I followed her and got her, but the zombies - the paparazzi - who don't know what day of the week it is - were flashing Dale Winton. I couldn't believe it. Dale Winton!''

Director Mike Figgis and Twin Peaks actor Kyle MacLachlan saunter out of the restaurant and are pounced upon by the autograph-hunters. They willingly pose for pictures and sign everything offered to them. Figgis comments on how polite Barton is.

Rob and Geoff, two friends who have spent the evening in Soho, stop opposite the restaurant for a bit of celebrity-spotting. Ten minutes later the door opens, and an unknown woman totters out chewing gum. ''Is that it? Oh no, surely not, please,'' says Geoff. She blows a bubble which pops loudly. ''How common,'' he snorts. But Rob, a hotel restaurant manager, doesn't mind. He met the Queen at work today.

Comments