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Behind the limelight

There's another side to celebrity. Holly Thomas talks to the people behind the people

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Everyone wants to be the star. Who cares about the backing singers when Beyonce's on stage? How many people know the names of Obama's bodyguards- compared to the millions worldwide who listen to his speeches? No-one wants Robin if Batman's available.

But we need the Robins. The music and literature industries are brimming with names recognised the world over, the Rowlings, the Jacksons, the Timberlakes. They are giants in their fields, and justifiably so. Yet they are the tip of the iceberg, their fame the face of a world teeming with a largely unsung population of sidemen, of supporting acts, choreographers, and ghostwriters. These people are the glue, supplying much of the talent for which the rich and famous are lauded, and in many cases laying the foundations for their own future stardom in the process. But is it actually preferable to remain in the shadows? If you are doing what you love, perhaps it is better to do so almost anonymously, free of the scrutiny and accompanying pressures which are the main (only?) downside of a life in the spotlight. On the other hand, an 'apprenticeship' as the shadow to another's celebrity can be a step on the ladder to success in one's own right, one which serves to develop a creative artist. Prior to her own meteoric rise to fame, Lady Gaga wrote respectively for Britney and the Pussycat dolls. Now she dominates the charts independently, with the conviction of an artist who has served her time outside the limelight. Below are the voices of a lead guitarist and backing man, a ghost writer, and a choreographer. Their careers are exemplary of the advantages gained both behind the scenes and centre stage.

Andrew Gross wrote six books as a ghost writer for mega author James Patterson. Patterson ranks second in the world only to JK Rowling in terms of book sales and has sold about 150 million books, making him about $50m a year. Gross is now a bestselling author in America, Australia, the UK and Singapore in his own right.

"Why does anyone who's a successful businessman end up a thriller writer? They get fired. That's sort of what happened to me. I just came home one day without a job (Gross had previously worked in women's sports clothing as the president of le coq sportif , a French company). I'd left a little too much blood on the field to go back to it, and I'd been harbouring the idea for a political thriller. So I came home and said to my wife 'give me a year to execute this'. The year turned into two- I had to go through the process of getting an agent and finishing a manuscript, and it basically got rejected by twenty people. I was sitting feeling sorry for myself when, like a bad melodramatic novel the phone rang, and the person on the other end said "Would you be willing to take a call from James Patterson?". Out of the blue, that call literally changed my writing life. I went in at the deep end.

The reason Patterson found me, so to speak, is that this manuscript that I wrote which didn't get published was passed on to him with a note attached to the cover that said 'This guy does women well'. This has been my way into the business I guess. I seem to write with a sensitivity towards that side, and strong heroic women populate my books with Patterson. I don't know that that [writing women] would be his strongest suit, but it's something I do naturally. I guess it's just part of your creative DNA, some people do spies well, I do women well. The man who I have as an ongoing character is probably an idealised version of who I would like myself to be......

It was difficult playing 'second fiddle' to Patterson. During my time with Jim there was no getting out at all. My face, my presence brought up questions that he didn't really want to deal with- who's writing etcetera.... And at the time I was the only person really doing that kind of thing- now people are much more open about their relationships and the process. Back then, people didn't really want attention drawn to it. I feel, and think Jim would feel, that I did have a good hand in those books, to make them better books, and I'm sure that had a good effect on his career. It was frustrating not to be at the front of the market.

[That said] I was in love with the job. Having spent two years in the wilderness the urge wasn't ego for me, it was feeding my family, and feeding it pretty damn well, doing something that I really liked. A couple of years before I couldn't even get my book published, so for me it was a great opportunity, a great gig and I would have continued it indefinitely. And for Jim I know that it was incredibly convenient 'being' Patterson because who knows who's doing what on his books. I would say that every book I wrote with Jim came from his idea, his central concept, and he certainly gave me a terrific launch in my own career. Everyone assumes that he's taking someone's book and stamping his own name on it, making millions of dollars at someone else's expense, but it's not like that at all.

He [Patterson] was a staunch believer in outlining books in advance, chapter by chapter. He would present me an outline, I would change a lot, and he was very flexible towards me. Certainly by the end of the seven years he was just vetting the things I was saying, and I would go to town and do most of the work. He had the final draft, but the majority of it was just speeding it up, making it tighter. That was his way of standardising the brand, so to speak. I would advise any writer to take this gig because it was extremely remunerative too, in some cases into seven figures. I think those days are gone though, even with Patterson, I had the advantage of being his first, maybe closest [ghostwriter]. And for the degree to which you can look at it as an apprenticeship I think it's really worth doing- learning where to drop clues, build suspense.
[Going it alone] was just sort of an accident. I went to a dinner party. This couple had come in his n her Ferraris, talking about all this glamorous travel they were doing. Then a month later in the New York times I read that this very same person had been arrested for money laundering to the Columbians. Out of that came the outline for The Blue Zone. I found an agent within an hour that I wanted, and within a week four publishers were bidding for it. I got a three book deal from this outline. Of course by that time my resume included six number one bestsellers, and there was the curiosity out there as to what I would do.

[On whether Patterson is now his 'ghost'] I do hear his voice, yes. In a default situation I do always revert back to what he would say- when I'm thinking whether or not I'm going to kill someone, put people into bed together.....and I do usually obey the voice! When I look in the mirror I see his face behind me a little bit."

Phil Manzanera is the lead guitarist of Roxy Music, the seventies super group which along with Bowie represented the arty, fashion-conscious end of glam rock. He has since enjoyed a highly successful solo career, written for Pink Floyd, and with artists such as Brian Eno, Tim Finn, Robert Wyatt, and David Gilmour. He owns his own recording studio where artists such as Annie Lennox have worked.

"When I joined Roxy they'd already been going for a year.. In fact, I'd been in a band at school, at exactly the same time Bryan Ferry was forming the embryonic Roxy. The first time I auditioned I failed the audition, but I remained friends with them all. The person they originally got turned out to be not quite right after a few months, and so they asked me to join. I was four years younger than them, they'd all been through university and seemed quite grown up. Bryan Ferry and Eno were teaching in fact. I did feel slightly intimidated, but not in a bad way, I was in awe. They had friends who were very talented, and they were very talented. But after the first album my own creativity came into play.

In those days you joined the navy to see the world, and it was like that. I was twenty one, I wanted to travel, and I had no long term thoughts about my career. It was like Christmas every day. That period was very exciting because it was all so new. When we first appeared on Top of the Pops people couldn't believe it- we were so different, no one had seen anything like us before. People thought we were from another planet. We we interested in fashion, the whole history of Rock and Roll is about image. Image without music is a waste of time, but when you get the two together you get Elvis with his fantastic quiff and gold suit, the Beatles with their Beatle haircuts and Beatle jackets. It's the entire aesthetic.

I would say I had more of a creative connection with Brian Eno [than Bryan Ferry]. After he left the group I continued working with him for another four years, and then through all my musical career really. Before I joined Roxy I was going to avant garde music concerts on the south bank and stuff like that, and I'd bump into him.

Right from the beginning people started doing solo projects. Bryan did solo stuff, I started doing solo albums... but Roxy as a beast is quite 'different' in the way we work as a band, we're always doing a million things at once.

You learn how to work the system. If you play as Roxy music, you can probably seat ten thousand. If you're Bryan Ferry, then you don't book more than probably two or three thousand, if you're me then not more than a couple of hundred...I'm joking. All my live stuff has some connection with me personally though. Unlike the rest of Roxy I was brought up in South America, in Cuba during the Revolution, Venezuela, then sent to boarding school in England. Much of my music reflects that. Roxy had a very distinctive 'look', you can hang a lot of visual imagery on a band, my stuff is much more personal."

Clare Turton is a professional dancer and choreographer who has worked with acts such as Take That, Pink, Ricky Martin, Cher and the Spice Girls. In 2000 she auditioned for Tina Turner's live show, and has been with her ever since. She is now Tina's 'dance captain', and performs with her as her lead dancer.

"I've been with Tina since 2000, doing corporate gigs and shows. I was working as a dancer and Tina was promoting the single 'When the Heartache is Over'. I sent in my audition tape, she looked at all of the tapes and chose three of us. I've been with her [on and off] ever since.

I've never had the loyalty she shows from any other artist. When she brings you into the camp and allows you into the family, it's such a beautiful thing. Other artists are wonderful too of course- I'd been devastated when Take That split, because I really wanted to dance with them growing up. So when they reformed and I danced with them it was surreal, they're really sweet guys. Tina spoils you though, a lot of artists you work with are very insular onstage, they do their job but never interact with anyone else. You're just the backing dancers. Tina's very engaged, she'll give you a cheeky smile, share a moment with you, and those moments are so precious.

Lots of people are sceptical. They think the dancers do the hard work. But there's never any inconsistency in Tina's performance. Every single night she gives the same level of energy and professionalism. So when you're working with someone like that and witnessing that, it pushes you a little bit harder. Even if you feel tired, and you're muscles are sore, you think well she never takes it easy, so you don't either. It's so much fun. There's so much camaraderie, and that comes from Tina as well. She's a really cool boss. She's a perfectionist and rightly so, and that filters right down the crew, so everyone is very particular about their role. She's hands on with everything, from the set, to the choreography, to the music. Everything is reported to her because she knows that even the smallest thing is a vital element in the whole show.

It's normal for artists to come in for rehearsals and go at half pace because they're saving themselves for the show. But as soon as Tina comes in she's singing and doing the dance routines full on, all the time. She has such a vitality for life and it's so inspirational. Nothing gets under her skin, she's so matter of fact about everything.

You get some women in the audience who are really supportive and love us straight away. Then you get women who are a bit tentative. You see them nudging their husbands, "What are you looking at?". In the hot pants and bras we can't hide, you've got to have tough skin to repel the death stares! But then they come round and everyone ends up having a brilliant time.

[Sometimes it's when things don't go to plan that you can tell a real star] One night, her shoe came off. These are the moments when I look at her and I think, you're so amazing. Her shoe came off and no one really noticed, because she still stood there, talking to the audience. Then one of the guys onstage placed the shoe in front of her, like a Cinderella moment, and she slipped her foot back in and carried on with the show. Pink does that sort of thing all the time, forgetting the words, laughing, and starting again.

Tina's so relaxed, I have no idea how she does it. I'm trying to work that one out. And when I find out I'm hoping to apply that to myself!"

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2 Comment

mark Posted on Friday 20 Sep 2019

This article is so interesting and on point. I have been a fan of Tina's for years and i know we share the same philosophy about being a perfectionist and treating people kindly that works for you and with you. i have always gotten this sense from watching her perform that she is really a laid back calm person even though her stage performance says differently. it must be an honor to have worked for someone like her, she is truely a real person and a legend. You are so lucky, i know you are counting your blessings.

Mark...

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jane Posted on Friday 20 Sep 2019

you are so lucky i wish i was u

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