When David Bowie sang about the darker side of fame, what he forgot to include was the bit about loonies like me. You see I have a bit of a reputation for celebrity stalking. Not in a weird way – more of an opportunistic way. However it has resulted in a plethora of funny stories.
In preparation for writing this piece, I thought I’d write a little list. On first attempt I could list four celebrity occasions of note, but now that I’ve put my mind to it, I’m currently up to 14! I may not be able to get through all of them here, but we’ll give it a go.
My most infamous incident concerns Virgin boss Richard Branson. It was when I worked for The National Library for the Blind (circa 2003). I was on the early Virgin Rail train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston for a meeting with a funder, when a voice came over the tannoy. It told passengers that this train was the first fully tilting pendolino train to run at full speed on the West Coast Line. He told us what our top speed would be and our arrival time. He then walked through the carriages giving all the passengers a special certificate. Ever the PR professional, our announcer was none other than Mr Branson himself. I still have my certificate in my box of treasured ‘stuff’ along with my certificate for climbing Ayres Rock and ticket for Robbie Williams plays Knebworth (also 2003 – clearly it was a big year).
It all happened so quickly that he had been and gone before I could wrestle him to the ground, sit on him, and ask whether he knew that less than 5% of books published ever made it into a format that a blind person could read.
'Damn', I thought as he disappeared in a blur of teeth. ‘What kind of rubbish fundraiser are you?’ ‘There you are with a bag full of fundraising ‘case for support’ brochures and you sit there and do nothing. You don’t deserve to be paid this month!’
They kept all the other trains off the West Coast Line that morning, so it was no surprise when our train got into London early. Another cause for a pendolino PR celebration!
I got off the train and walked pass the press frenzy photographing Mr Branson at the front of the train with a bottle of champagne, a ribbon stretched across the track (crossing the finishing line) and four attractive ladies in Virgin Rail uniforms.
I couldn’t get close so I sloped off feeling thoroughly disappointed in myself for not having done better. I walked up into the main station, muttering to myself.
‘OK’ I thought re-grouping, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. Visit the cash point and then go back down to the platform. If he’s still there, then go and do it. If he’s gone then it wasn’t meant to be.’ With a firm nod of the head I made a pact with myself.
When I got back down to the train, he was still there. The press pack had dwindled and there were just a few left. ‘Bugger’ I thought ‘I’ve got to go and speak to him now or I’ll feel really rubbish’. At which point this weird Bohemian Rhapsody type argument started playing out in my head between the different sides of my brain.
‘Go and see him!’
‘But I’m scared!’
‘Go and see him.’
‘But I’m scared.’
But before Beelzebub could put a devil in a sideboard – for me, RB started saying his goodbyes and walking off along the platform.
Suddenly Beelzebub came back out of the sideboard, possessed me and before I knew what I was doing I was sprinting down the platform after him – in sling backs (clip, clip, clip), waving a National Library for the Blind fundraising ‘case for support’ brochure and shouting at the top of my voice 'Mr Branson, Mr Branson'.
Strangely, he didn’t run away! Instead he turned and flashed me (I could just stop the sentence there – that would make an even better story) the biggest smile, with the biggest, whitest teeth I have ever seen in my life. ‘Yes, can I help you’ he said.
Now was not the time to carry a watermelon, this was my moment, so I chose my words to billionaire Richard Branson carefully. ‘Can I give you this to read, it’s from The National Library for the Blind, I do hope you will be able to help.’ Instead of telling me to ‘Fuck off’, to his credit he smiled (again) and promised he would read it before heading off down the platform clutching my document!
‘YES, YES, YES’ I punched the air. I was the best fundraiser in the world. I was fearless and invincible. Hurrah me!
I phoned the office immediately. I was so pumped up you’d have thought I’d just won an Olympic weight lifting gold medal. I was a hero!
Of course he didn’t give us any money. When we phoned to chase it you the next day, his office told me that he did remember meeting me, and that he had passed my document through to the Virgin Foundation, who duly wrote back to us to say that sadly on this occasion they wouldn’t be able to support us. Despite the outcome, we were handled so nicely throughout and it was such a lovely ‘No’ I still have a positive impression of Mr Branson. When I think about it, he must get nutters like me harassing him all the time. However for me, it was a one off and I shall be eternally proud of myself that I didn’t wimp out and gave it a go.
One of the really great things about being a charity fundraiser is that you get to meet some amazing people. So in my portfolio I have the following:
I’ve played football with 1966 world cup winning footballer Geoff Hurst in Trafalgar Square (TV presenter John Inverdale was there to commentate).
I’ve met girl band ‘Atomic Kitten’ who spent most of the time in the toilet doing their hair.
Sadly I wasn’t at the photo shoot with BBC newsreader Jill Dando in 1999, the day before she was shot for real. But I’m told she was lovely – my friend Ginette had been speaking to her on the phone that morning before she was murdered on her doorstep. Freaky!
I met many authors while working at The Library – Michael Morpurgo, former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, Philip Pullman, Claire Francis and Anthony Horowitz all spoke at fundraising events for me and we actually auctioned off on e-bay Terry Pratchett (and his enormous hat), Charlie Higson (from the Fast Show) and children’s author Jacqueline Wilson. They were all charming.
I remember being pulled out of an internal meeting once because Mo Mowlem (a member of parliament who was pivotal in the Northern Ireland Peace process) was on the phone. I didn’t believe it at first, but yes, it was Mo on the phone - for me. We’d asked her to do something for us and she just wanted a bit of clarification, so instead of asking someone else to do it for her – she picked up the phone herself and called me.
TV Agony Aunt and author, Claire Rayner would frequently write to me. I like to think I helped!
We also auctioned off Newsreader Jon Snow one year at the Hay Literary Festival. I bumped into him and a weedy ginger chap in the town centre. I introduced myself and thanked him again for helping. The other chap was Andrew Marr.
I nearly wet myself when I went to Press Day at the RHS Chelsea Flower show and found myself admiring begonias next to Felicity Kendal.
When I went travelling around the world in 2007, I ended up in LA for a few days. Having come from the beautiful and laid back islands of Fiji I found LA polluted and a bit up itself. The highlight was however bumping into Brittney Spears in a boutique. It was a couple of weeks after her melt down when she’d shaved off all her hair. When I saw her she was fully wigged up.
Just that small glimpse into her daily life made it all too clear why she’d gone a bit mental. There I was marching down Sunset Boulevard trying to find something interesting to look at. It had been a very long hot walk and all I’d done was cross a lot of roads and been sworn out by idiots in 4X4’s with tinted windows. Suddenly I saw a crowd starting to gather outside one of the shops.
‘Who is it?’ I asked someone who I assumed was a member of the paparazzi.
‘Brittney baby’ answered the guy as more and more people joined the scrum. I strained to see inside and yes, there she was – long dark wig, headscarf and enormous sun glasses, rummaging through the clothes rails. Having been fed a diet of Brittney looking dreadful in ‘Heat’ Magazine I was expecting her to be a bit of a minger. But she wasn’t, she looked lovely. It was clearly a classic case of reverse air-brushing.
‘I think it’s terrible that she is hounded like this’ I said to the people around me as I pushed my way forward to take a photo through the glass.
As she left the shop through a back entrance which led out to the car park, the crowd started to move and jostle. The photographer I’d been speaking to earlier, in his panic not to lose her clipped me round the ear with his zoom lens. Fed up of being pushed about I pointed my finger at him and shouted with as much menace as I could muster ‘Hit me baby – one more time – eh!’ Well actually, I only thought about that bit after the event. But I think we’ll keep it in for the movie!
Once Brittney had zoomed away through the snapping crowds in a 4X4 with tinted windows, one of the paps turned to me and said ‘You know, Eva Longoria’s in the restaurant opposite.’ Hurrah, I was in with the paps and they were giving me inside information. I was hooked. ‘How very Hollywood I’ve become’ I thought as I camped out in the car park with my new best friends. But after an hour there was still no sign of her. Having invested so much time in stalking the woman it seemed a bit of a shame to give up, but by that time I was more desperate for the toilet than desperate housewife, so I reluctantly admitted defeat and slunk away.
My most recent episodes of celebrity chasing include ‘door-stepping’ former Brentford FC Manager Andy Scott while having his breakfast in a Sheffield hotel. Tris is a massive Brentford fan so when we spotted him tucking into his full English, after a quick ‘Bloody do it Alison, you’re a long time dead’ pep talk and with the memory of my previous Branson bravery I went over to say hello. He was very pleasant, shook Tris by the hand and they chatted briefly about lower league football. It was the highlight of his weekend.
Then there was my personal ‘Hello’ from F1 driver Mark Webber at Wimbledon this year. It was Tris that spotted him, but while everone else was being terribly polite, it was me who found herself yelling ‘MMMMAAAAAAARRRRRKKK’ at the top of her lungs in an attempt to attract his attention. It did the trick and we got some lovely photos.
However, there is a flip side to all this which is that a person is only famous to you if you watch, read or listen to their stuff. If you don’t then they are just a person that you pass in the street.
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to lunch in the BBC canteen at the new Media City development on Salford Quays. Signed in as a guest and with my BBC visitor’s pass I was on full alert, eyes everywhere trying to spot famous people across the sandwich counter. I drew a blank.
Afterwards, my friend Colin offered to take me on a tour of the CBeebies (children’s BBC) offices. When we arrived at reception, Colin spotted a tubby man signing the visitors register. They obviously knew each other and had a quick chat. I quickly became aware that the girls on reception were in a bit of a fluster. The development up in Salford is very new so I guess the receptionists are still coming to terms with seeing famous TV people on a daily basis.
‘Are you the man who does the signing on the telly?’ one receptionist asked him. He nodded. ‘My little girl loves you, you’re so talented’ she gushed. ‘I try’ he replied. By this point I’m looking at Colin with raised eye brows, shrugging my shoulders and looking puzzled.
Once we were in the lift, Colin said ‘You didn’t know who that was did you?’ ‘I didn’t have a Scooby Doo.’ I replied shaking my head. It turns out, had I been three years old I would probably have wet myself (depending on whether or not I’d been potty trained). I’d just failed to spot Mr Tumble!