Interview: PR? Absolutely hate it now, darling: Lynne Franks became famous when Absolutely Fabulous portrayed her as a Buddhist-chanting hippie. How unfair. Now she's giving it all up . . . to find God - and herself - in Nature

Hunter Davies
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:16

Real journalists don't know any PRs. Real journalists don't admit they exist. Public relations, who needs it? Public relations officers, who are they anyway?

Lynne Franks has stood out from the faceless manipulators these past 20 years by becoming a face in her own right, better known than many of her clients, which is a bit of a nonsense if the purpose of the job is to push the client not the pusher. The television series Absolutely Fabulous has given her extra publicity, as she is assumed to be its model.

Last month she announced that she was standing down as chairman of her own firm, then leaving it for good in April. The news made the front page of the Daily Express, page two of the Evening Standard and page three of the Times. Well, it was a slack day.

Has she seen the light? I wondered. Will she repent for those years creating personalities, organising non-events, fabricating excitement? Anyway, it's bound to be a doddle, interviewing a PR. She'll probably send a car, lay on a big lunch at her fashionable home in London's Little Venice, give me the full treatment.

She was in California, hugging trees by the sound of it, but the message came back yes, she'd be interviewed on her return - but could I fax some of my past interviews. Moi. Bloody cheek. Then she said not in her home. Her home did not reflect her any more. OK, the office, might be good to see state-of-the-art PRs at work. Do they practise unctiousness? No, not there either. Then she twittered on about a photographer, didn't want one, didn't feel she looked good enough. Would I organise a make-up artist for her? On your bike. I have enough trouble getting my Tube fare out of the Independent.

Real journalists would have given up. Real journalists don't get messed about by PRs. We agreed on her kitchen, kitchen only, no peeping at the rest of her house. Funny woman. What can her problem be?

'For 20 years my brain has been too active, for 20 years I've lived on masculine energy, suppressing my feminine side, not being detached and balanced. When I lost an account or one of my staff wanted to leave it would seem like the end of the world. It was mostly stupid. I'm changing all that. I am laying myself open to you, agreeing to this, but I don't really want to expose myself. Asking for a make-up artist, that was to cover up - I'd had second thoughts. I don't even wear make-up, so that was stupid. I'm having my own internal revolution. It's like the chaos out there, in Bosnia and Somalia, but we don't have to go there, just to Manchester or Liverpool, kids are checking in their guns when they go to clubs, it's unbelievable, the establishment is crumbling, but thank God for that, it's time the class system and royalty and the City collapsed, but what happens is that we're left in chaos, all of us, in chaos . . . .'

No, don't go away. Written down, it doesn't do her any favours, as she well knows. But when delivering these assorted thoughts, which she does at breathless, husky speed, she manages to mock herself, while still meaning it, hitting the odd truth along the way. Hard to see her as an efficient business person - she doesn't know her own fax number or post code - but she must have been to build her little empire. Her strength, she says, was always on the creative side.

Daughter of a north London butcher, left school at 16, secretary to Eve Pollard on the teeny mag Petticoat, married at 21 to Paul Howie, a fashion buyer. At 23 she began her own PR firm with Katharine Hamnett, her first client, paying her pounds 20 per week. Husband Paul was a client, then became her partner. In 1986 they sold out 75 per cent of the business for pounds 2.6m. Her clients have included Lenny Henry, Annie Lennox, Lloyds Bank, Coca-Cola, Comic Relief, Amnesty International. Not a huge firm, employing 60 people, but influential, fashionable.

How would you describe the function of PR, Miss Franks, in simple terms? 'I don't want to talk about PR. I hate PR, I mean I hate talking about PR.' OK then, why do you think journalists despise the PR business? 'I'm liked by journalists, despite being a PR. It's a power struggle, that's the reason PR is a tool, connecting the client with the public, but it will have to change, become more responsible and beneficial to society. Women won't take the shit any more. You must market a product with truth, plus a bit of wit and humour. I liked the creative part of PR, not so much dealing with clients or the media. My intuition is strong. I plug into what's happening before it's happened. I had that gift at 15 and I still have it.'

How about your reputation for being pretty tough, a Mrs Thatcher of the PR industry? 'What are you saying? I abhor Mrs Thatcher. She was a bully. I'm not. I'm a warm person. I lived for my job, I killed myself for the job and yes, I did expect others to work as hard, but I had some loving relationships. How do you think I kept my staff all these years? I was a workaholic, but I like to think I was always sensitive to people.'

She regrets now that she didn't see enough of her children when they were young - Joshua, now 17, and Jessica, 15. For 10 years, she never cooked a meal for them. 'They used to say why can't we be a normal family, but they didn't realise in their class at school there were few normal families. I think Paul and I were about the only proper parents.'

To ease the strain, she took up Buddhist chanting, going through her rituals several times a day, for spiritual help, but also to land a new account or find a parking space. The chanting was used by Jennifer Saunders in Ab Fab, which she says rather hurt. 'Jennifer is in denial now, saying it wasn't based on me, but of course it was. They were both in my house, kneeling down in front of my Buddhist altar, muttering: 'French and Saunders, French and Saunders'. Actually, I thought it was quite funny at the time. The original for the show was a sketch they did with a very straight daughter and her hippie mother. That was me. They saw it happening in real life. I was into acid house parties, off my head, an aged hippie, African dancing, Gawd, what did I not do? I laid myself open, and took the consequences. I didn't know she was doing the series. I would have liked to have been in on the joke, not the joke being at me. We're not such good friends any more. It did hurt me.'

But it gave you an extra dose of fame. Don't they say all publicity is good publicity? 'Yes, it added to my profile. It's not done me harm in some ways. Would've been nice to have had a piece of the financial action.'

The caricature is now out of date. Her Tibetan Buddhist phase is no more. 'I won't be aligned with one religion or belong to one party. I'm not a belonger any more. Nature is my religion, and I can go out and see God on my own . . . .

'When we sold the business, which was my husband's suggestion, I felt bereaved. I'd put every ounce of energy into it for 20 years. But it was the best thing I ever did. It broke the attachment. For years I had this fear of being alone. I went to this workshop in California, in the hills, with the trees, and I was alone for 24 hours. I'd never been alone in my life for 24 minutes. I started breathing.

'Now it's time to get out completely. God's been clicking his fingers at me going, click click, you're filling up your life again, filling up your diary, time to move on. PR is not where I'm at. It's not who I am. The past 20 years in PR have been a training for my real career . . . .'

Right, so what's that going to be? 'Dunno,' she exclaims, wide smile, big open eyes. You mean you've jacked it all in, to go nowhere? 'My mother thinks I'm mad and all my Jewish girlfriends say I'm off my head. I don't think it's stupid, or particularly brave. God said: 'Listen, Lynne, you ain't got no choice. Now is the time to go OFFFF'.'

She was in a consortium for a women's radio station, Radio Viva, but it didn't win the franchise. Then she started planning a TV production company, till she found herself getting ready to hire 30 people, before the office had even opened. 'I dropped that idea. Stupid. I'm not going to run a business ever again. I don't want power or money. I've been a do-er, now I'm going to be a be-er. I'll say to the universe I'm here, I've done my training, now I want to be of use. Perhaps I'll work in an old people's home two days a week or just go travelling. Dunno. I might live in California. Everything's collapsing here, but then the whole world is collapsing, that's why we all need spiritual help. At the same time, I need to earn some money.'

Till the heavens open, and the call comes, she's taken on a couple of small jobs. She'll be an adviser to Random House on spiritual books and write a New Age column for Elle magazine, raising people's consciousness. She also plans to write her autobiography. 'Only the first paragraph will be about my life in PR. The rest will be my spiritual journey.'

The phone rang. Some Australian chum. 'That's wonderful, fabulous, keep in touch . . . .' I poked around the kitchen, admired the country green Aga, tried to see the rest of the house. In the end she took me round. And it's fab, overlooking Regent's Canal, amazing decor, great garden, now reduced from pounds 2m to pounds 1.6m, hurry hurry. She'll be sharing the proceeds with her husband. They recently separated.

In the posh dining-room, the plates were laid out for family dinner parties that will never take place. 'Neil Kinnock sat there, Janet Street-Porter, Lenny Henry.' There were photographs of Lynne and her husband, in their happy married days. Mementoes from all over the world. She hurried me through. All too sad. So this was why she didn't want me to see the house. She wants to move on and forget.

You won't get married again, will you? 'Yeah, of course. I hate living alone. I've had several relationships since we parted, but not this week. I say yeah because the 50,000 psychics I've seen all round the world can't be wrong. They say I will marry again. I feel comfortable in a partnership, even though at times Paul and I were a bit too competitive. All relationships involve power. You start with romance, go into the power struggle, then you end in the dead zone. Next time, ah ha ha, I'll break those patterns, be open, go for win-win situations.'

Some people might suspect you are a spoilt rich girl, selfish and self-obsessed. 'Do you think that? Tell me honestly? Well you're wrong. The whole point is I'm trying to be a nicer person. I'm trying to find myself, then pass on the message. I'm not sitting around looking up my own backside. Is being happy selfish? I realise I'm lucky. I've had a great career, been to some great places. I've got two lovely kids. I've got my freedom. But I've been given my freedom for a reason. The only thing is, I don't know what the reason is yet . . . .

'You're typical of the cynicism in this country. Oh yes, we're known for our wit and humour, and I love all that, but when people are sincere, the first thing we do is take the piss. The lack of respect for spiritual people in this country appals me. I know you'll take the piss. That's what worried me. But after all, if anyone tells a journalist they are sincere, they must be a bit suspect . . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

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