Surrey's king of spin Max Clifford on making headlines, The Beatles and Elmbridge
PUBLISHED: 00:19 03 February 2012 | UPDATED: 14:53 28 April 2014
Regarded as the undisputed 'king of spin', PR guru Max Clifford is the man who knows the secrets of a thousand stars. Surrey Life editor Caroline Harrap went to meet him at his spectacular home in Walton-on-Thames, to find out all about his life in the county and beyond
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2007
It's a beautiful Sunday morning, and I'm standing outside the imposing home of Max Clifford on the exclusive Burwood Park estate, just on the edge of Walton-on-Thames. The problem is, his formidable electronic iron gates are shut fast, and no amount of pressing the buzzer, or gazing imploringly into the security camera, seems to be doing any good.
Already wracked with nerves at the prospect of interviewing the undisputed 'king of spin', and now terrified I've got the wrong day, I rummage around for my phone and shakily dial his mobile.
"Hello," barks a gruff voice at the other end. "You're early..." And with that, a beautiful pale blue Bentley sweeps into view as those enormous gates start to glide silently open. "Sorry to keep you waiting," he adds, now peering through the half open window of the passenger door. "I'm so busy, you see, that I have to plan my diary right down to the last minute. We've been away in Spain for a couple of weeks so we've just been out to do the food shopping."
And so it is that, somewhat improbably, I find myself helping the world's most famous PR man, and his partner, Jo, to bring in their bags of groceries whilst we discuss the merits (or not) of various supermarkets. But, as I'm about to discover, that's Max Clifford to a tee. Granted, he may live in a swanky mansion and drive a Bentley, but that aside, he is impressively 'normal' and not above a trip to Waitrose.
Casually dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, and looking tanned and relaxed after his break in Marbella, where he also has a house, there's no standing on ceremony with Mr Clifford. "Go on through, love," he says with a wave of his hand towards the lounge as he heads to the kitchen to unload the shopping. "I'll be with you in a minute. Now what is it, tea or coffee?"
The lounge itself is decorated in tasteful browns and neutrals, with huge swathes of spotless cream carpet, big comfy sofas and some striking lily type flowers. It's a modern house so the clean, minimalist decor suits it. What surprises me, though, is the lack of personality stamped upon the room. No photos of celebrities or framed newspaper clippings; no awards or trophies; nothing at all, actually, to suggest the merest hint of an ego.
"We got this place about 18 months ago," says the 64-year-old, as he settles into a plush cream armchair. "Then we've got another house on the other side of Burwood Park where my daughter Louise lives. My brother Harold lives just down the road too, over in Hersham, which is nice. I've always loved it here in Surrey - I wouldn't live anywhere else."
Born in Kingston Hospital in April 1943, the youngest of four children, Clifford has lived in and around the county all his life. His father Frank, an electrical engineer, and mother Lilian, a full time housewife, brought up their young family in south Wimbledon. Later, after leaving home, Clifford went on to live in Morden and then eventually Raynes Park. He arrived in Burwood Park 12 years ago after the leafy estate was recommended to him by TV presenter Sue Barker who was living there at the time.
"I had a look round and just fell in love with the place," he says. "It's such a lovely area, and so peaceful. We are surrounded by beautiful countryside, have fantastic neighbours and, if all that wasn't enough, you can be in London in less than an hour."
He travels up to his offices in Mayfair once or twice a week. Sometimes he is driven there by his partner, Jo, who is a volunteer at the CHASE children's hospice in Guildford, other times he gets the train from Weybridge to Waterloo. On the whole, though, he works either from his office at home, or on the go. He's not a fan of e-mail, so as long as he's on the end of a mobile, that's all that really matters.
True to form, his phone hardly stops ringing during the course of our interview. With it being Sunday, the deluge of enquiries from that morning's papers is in full flow. Interestingly, he doesn't seem to screen his calls, answering every one, and remains unfailingly calm, relaxed and affable. Sometimes he leaves the room, other times he chats away in front of me. Either way, I cannot help but try and speculate who's on the other end...
"I've said it before and I'll say it again," he tells one caller, presumably a journalist on a national newspaper. "She has always maintained to me that she did not take drugs when she was pregnant." Later, I'm 99% sure TV star Simon Cowell is on the phone. The pair have been working together for several years now, and have become good friends. At one point, GMTV ring up to try and set up an interview with Mr Clifford himself for the following morning. They are told firmly but politely that if they come down to him, they will get their soundbite, but he's definitely not going to them.
"I'd rather not spoil my beauty sleep," he says. "There's no way I'm going to trek into town at that time in the morning, but if they come to me then we can do the interview sitting in the garden. That's the great thing about where I am in my career; I can do things my way now."
He's certainly come a long way since he left school at 15 with no qualifications whatsoever. His first job was at a department store in Wimbledon, where he was "bored to distraction" and duly sacked. As it happened, his brother Bernard was working in the print industry at the time and managed to get him a job as a messenger boy at Hulton Press, the home of much-loved children's comic, The Eagle. Soon promoted to editorial assistant, this, in turn, gave him the step up he needed to go and work as a junior reporter on his local paper, the Merton and Morden News. From there, he went to EMI's publicity department - where his first assignment was to launch an unknown band from Liverpool called The Beatles.
"Out of all of them, I got on with John the best," says Clifford. "He had a great sense of humour and we had similar ideals. We also spent the most time together.
"It wasn't long, though, before things really took off for the band. I'll never forget flying into America, and George Harrison looking out the plane window at the huge crowds, and saying, 'look, there must be someone famous arriving...' Their success turned out to be a huge help to me, of course, because it brought me into contact with the world's media."
Clifford went on to look after many of the biggest names in music - Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix and The Beach Boys to name but a few - before deciding to set up his own PR company, Max Clifford Associates (MCA), in 1970. And the rest, as they say, is history. He soon expanded from representing clients in the music business and went on to work with everyone from Muhammad Ali and Marlon Brando to OJ Simpson. Over the years, he's broken more front page stories than any journalist in Britain - some 150 in the last year alone - and been responsible for such famous headlines as 'Freddie Starr ate my hamster'.
Now firmly regarded as the most powerful man in PR, his current client list reads like a celebrity Who's Who - aside from representing Simon Cowell, he's also working with business guru Peter Jones of Dragon's Den fame, Gillian McKeith from You Are What You Eat and former Atomic Kitten star Kerry Katona, among many others. And that's not to mention his numerous clients from other walks of life - such as private jet company Bombardia, currency exchange brokers H.I.F.X and various property companies.
"The job's changed an awful lot over the years," says Clifford. "The main difference being that when I started in the early 1960s, it was all about promotion. Now, in 2007, the biggest part of Max Clifford Associates - myself and the team - is protection. For every story that I've broken, I'll have stopped another ten from ever seeing the light of day. It's all about trying to control the excesses of the media, limiting the damage and anticipating problems...
"The best PR advice I could give to anyone is anticipation - anticipating a problem, and taking care of it, so it never becomes a problem."
When it comes to those who aren't his clients, however, and when he believes it is warranted, he has no hesitation in going for the jugular. Indeed, his kiss-and-tell stories of politicians, pop stars and footballers are the lifeblood of many a tabloid, earning him the nickname of the 'king of sleaze'. Not that it bothers him, mind...
"I pretty much created sleaze," he says matter-of-factly, referring to the period when he helped to bring down the Major government by feeding the media a whole string of unsavoury stories. "But the one thing I can't stand in life is hypocrisy."
Indeed, this may come as something of a surprise, but there's no doubt that Clifford has a conscience. Over the years, he's outed many a dodgy politician, frequently exposed corruption and broken many paedophile rings.
"I'm particularly pleased to have been able to expose Gary Glitter for what he was all about, Jeffrey Archer as he was in danger of becoming Mayor of London, and David Mellor because of his hypocrisy over family values," he adds.
In spite of all his professional success, however, Clifford has experienced his fair share of heartache in life. He lost his wife Liz to cancer in 2003, after 37 years of marriage, and their daughter Louise, now 35, has suffered with severe rheumatoid arthritis all her life. After enduring a total of 17 major operations, she now works at his PR firm in London.
"I'm more proud of my daughter than of anything," says Clifford. "The fact that she's so positive and full of life, after having so many operations, from her hips and knees being replaced to a kidney transplant, is a real inspiration. After all that time in hospital, she took herself off to night school and got her A-levels, then went off to Bournemouth University and got her degree. The fact that she's such a happy, loving-natured girl, despite the card she's been dealt, is amazing..."
After spending so much time in and around hospitals, Clifford is a passionate supporter of the NHS and has made no secret of his socialist leanings. He also believes strongly in the idea of "giving something back".
Consequently, in addition to his gruelling work schedule, he is a formidable campaigner for charity. As well as being a patron of the CHASE children's hospice in Guildford, which he was introduced to by his partner Jo, he is also involved with Oasis, a charity in Cobham that takes care of children from broken homes, and the Royal Marsden in Sutton, to name but a few.
"I like to do whatever I can to help, but the CHASE children's hospice is particularly close to my heart," he says. "I took Simon Cowell there the other day, so he could meet all the kids, and it gave them such a lift. It's the most wonderful place, and they do so much for so many people, particularly in the Surrey area. It sounds ridiculous but it's a happy place full of love and laughter. They need £3million a year to keep going and yet they only get a pittance from the Government.
"A lot of my time goes into those sorts of activities because I'm in the very fortunate position that I can give a lot back - and that's hugely satisfying."
I wonder, given his ridiculously manic schedule, how he ever manages to unwind. So what's his secret then, a big glass of wine in the evening? "No, I don't drink or smoke at all," he says. "Not because I've got anything against drinking, by the way, but just because I've never enjoyed it. I just try and look after myself really.
Making a splash...
"I swim most days, as we're lucky enough to have an indoor swimming pool at the other house, so I get on the bike and cycle round, which takes about eight minutes, do 25 minutes in the pool and then cycle back again. I also play tennis up at St George's Hill, just around the corner in Weybridge, two or three times a week. It helps to compensate for all the food that I eat!"
And so we move on to the other great passion in his life - eating out with friends. Funnily enough, he doesn't really hang out with celebs in his spare time, preferring to spend time with 'real' people here in Surrey who aren't in the business. Consequently, you'll often see him out and about in the county, trying out one of the many fine restaurants in the area.
"One of my favourite places is Shere," he says. "We often drive out there to this pretty little restaurant called Kinghams where we'll sit outside on a summer's evening. There's also a great place there called The Lucky Duck where we go for lunch.
"Our other regular haunts include the lovely Toby Cottage in Ripley; La Terraza in nearby Hersham Road; a great Indian called The Gaylord in Weybridge; The George in Esher and Il Camino in New Malden.
"Oh, and then of course there's Cafe Da Vinci, a fantastic little café in Baker Street, where we go for coffee and scrambled eggs - or porridge if I'm trying to be healthy!"
On the rare occasion when he does get a day off, he enjoys nothing more than a walk on Epsom Downs, which he has been visiting all his life.
"I used to fly kites up there as a little boy," he recalls. "I remember we'd always get the bus over there to Tattenham Corner. The views are just spectacular. I love views you see. Jo and I will often go and have an icecream and literally just enjoy the panorama. We even considered buying a house there at one stage, purely because of the views across the Surrey Downs. We really are so lucky to live in such a beautiful county."
'Lucky' is a word that peppers his conversation frequently - lucky that he got that first job in publishing; lucky he got to work with the Beatles; lucky that even now he can't wait to get up in the morning and start work.
"I've never had a masterplan," he admits. "It's always been a case of one door opened, then another. This was never something I looked to do - it came to me. I just happened to stumble into a business, a career, a way of life, that I absolutely love. My only plan now is to continue getting away with it for as long as possible."
My Favourite Surrey
Going out: "I don't drink, so I'm not a big one for pubs, but I do love going out for dinner."
Eating out: "We eat out with friends several times a week - everywhere from Kinghams in Shere, which we love going to in the summer, to a fantastic little café just round the corner in Baker Street, Cafe Da Vinci, where we go for coffee."
Food shopping: "We don't have a particular favourite but we usually go to either Waitrose or Sainsbury's."
Clothes: "I buy most of my clothes in Spain, but if I do need something here, I normally go to George Whitehead in Cobham or David Steel in Guildford."
Days out: "I don't get much spare time, so it's not often I get to go to a National Trust property or anything like that. The one place I do always like to go though is Epsom Downs - there's nothing better than sitting up there with an icecream looking out at the amazing views. I also love Shere - especially in the summer."
Friends: "I have very few friends who are celebrities. Most of my friends are 'real' people here in Surrey - like Bridget Turner, for example, who runs the CHASE children's hospice in Guildford. We'll often go out to dinner with Bridget and her husband."
Keeping fit: "I swim most days, as we're lucky enough to have an indoor swimming pool, and I also play tennis up at St George's Hill, just around the corner in Weybridge, two or three times a week.
The county in general: "Surrey is a fantastic place to live - we're surrounded by beautiful countryside and lovely views, and yet you can be in London in less than an hour - I wouldn't live anywhere else.