Why they buy the Max factor

He works in the world of mirrors and smoke, where fact and fiction are adapted to suit. His name, Max Clifford, celebrity PR. He talks to Peter Popham about the lying game

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The stage is ablaze with lights. All eyes are on -----, the legendary, the one and only, the big, big star who fills the house night after night, who makes us all laugh and cry and sends us home happy.

Because of the intensity of the light, there is an area in front of the stage that is deeply, softly, all-absorbingly black. We can think of that darkness, that proximity, as a good metaphor for the world of public relations.

Who shapes and controls what we know of -----'s personal life? Who has dictated which interviews she gives, and under what conditions? Who knows every dirty little secret that could backfire on her and has moved heaven and earth to keep them secret - and whose expensive services are for that reason alone indispensable? The murky figure clad in velvety black in the shadow of the stage, that's who: the celebrity public relations advisor.

Most people in the industry believe that they work best when they are out of sight. Fortunately there is an exception to this rule, one man who doesn't mind letting his tongue wag and getting his picture splashed about, with the result that he is a considerable celebrity in his own right. Max Clifford is glad to be interviewed, and lays down only a few restrictions on what may be quoted. But while banishing the darkness and mystery with one hand, Max instantly re-admits it with the other. Because - and he's repeated it so often that he's got to be sincere - Max tells lies.

Example, the famous one: Freddie Starr never did eat that hamster. It was just a good line.

Example, equally famous though hypothetical: American star comes to Britain, Max knows he's gay, the world at large fondly believes him to be straight; so Max ensures there is a glamorous actress on hand to steer him around, looking besotted.

The first is a plain lie, the second a cunning deception. Max is a master of both. The problem this frank acknowledgment creates is that it scrambles the ground rules.

On entering his dingy, poky top-floor office above a hair salon on London's New Bond Street, one's eye is arrested by a framed front cover of the Daily Mirror, bearing the headline JAGGER AND JERRY SPLIT. Aha: Clifford must have been the one who told Jerry to go and see Diana's divorce lawyer, then spill the beans. Max, however, denies this flatly. Look closer, he says: there on the same page is a picture of himself with Antonia de Sancha, the woman who helped to finish David Mellor's ministerial career.

So Max has nothing to do with Jerry Hall. But if he did have, what is the likelihood he would admit it? Where in this hall of mirrors does reality start?

"I'm not looking to try and baffle you," Max says in a kindly tone when we are settled in his cosy back room on the diminutive three-piece, Seventies retro without the chic.

"You ask me anything and you'll get it exactly as it is. If there's a mystery, I'll tell you there's a mystery, and I'll explain why it's a mystery." That's reassuring - until he adds, "but I won't explain the details of it because then it's no longer a mystery".

So how does Clifford go about preventing unhelpful information about a client reaching the media? Others in the business talk about pleading, threatening, bargaining to keep negative stories as low key as possible. Max Clifford's approach, however, is proactive. "I normally have three or four or five major things up my sleeve ready to break. So, if I get a sudden call saying so and so has been caught out and is about to be so and so'd by such and such a paper, I would get hold of the editor as quickly as possible and say `right, I can give you this instead'. I don't mean to say it's going to work - I've got to come up with something that's an even bigger splash, haven't I." Pause for dramatic effect. "Pamela Bordes was a cover for a much bigger story."

The even more dramatic approach - again a trademark Clifford strategy - is to stop the story before it starts. Max gives a vivid illustration of this, spoiled halfway through for me when I remembered I was in the company of a self-confessed liar.

"I'll give you another hypothetical situation, though this actually happened to me. I had a client who was a major star, married. The wife had said, `If you ever stray again it's finished'. We'd been doing a television interview at his house, the wife was meant to be away, I was downstairs, he was upstairs, `entertaining' in the bedroom. I saw the wife's car pulling up - she was almost getting out of the car as it pulled up.

"I rushed upstairs, and by the time I'd got to the top of the stairs I'd virtually taken all of my clothes off; by the time I'd got into the bedroom I was stark bollock naked. I pushed him into the wardrobe, and I then jumped into bed and seemed to be having sex with the woman in it when the wife burst through the door catching me in bed. Now that saved him pounds 50 million for a certainty.

"The wife chased me out of the house, called me a disgusting pervert for using her bed, how dare I, and she was very upset that the star continued to employ me - he said Max knows too much about me, could be dangerous. That man is still my client to this day. So that's public relations to me."

Max Clifford is nostalgic for the way things were in Britain 20 or 30 years ago, "when people cared about people, it was far friendlier, far safer, and people could go out and leave their doors open".

Yet from his humble office, he may be more responsible than any other single individual for the diet of surreal pap served up by the tabloids, one of the defining features of the present age. Antonia de Sancha, Bienvenida Buck, Pamela Bordes, OJ Simpson on the Richard and Judy Show - all these twilight figures, famous for nothing memorable, catapulted by Max's genius into the headlines - a genius for the tall tale, but also, he insists, for friendship and truth.

"I've looked after some of the people I'm involved with for 25, 26 years. And if you wanted to make money from exposure you could sell one of those stories and retire, with pounds 1m in your bank, because you know more about them than anyone - because if you don't have that knowledge you can't protect them.

"But they trust me - because 10 years go by and no one knows. That's the beauty of it." He sounds happy. But he's not smiling.

Tomorrow: the fourth tenor.

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