Writerly research: meeting the rich and famous

In my day job in the legal profession, my firm occasionally has the super wealthy and/or celebrities as clients. Observing these mythical creatures up close makes for excellent character study and the writer in me loves it.  To mix with moneyed and larger than life humans is rather like being in a zoo full of beautiful and exotic animals and I have to struggle to ‘act normal’ around them.  Recently in one court case we had an A list celebrity client.  The insight into his world of fame was fascinating – and good research no doubt for a character in a novel somewhere down the line.

Let’s take the super wealthy first.  Oligarchs, captains of industry, royalty, old money and even organised crime figureheads.  Hand stitched suits, bespoke cologne, quiet authority: these people ooze money and confidence from every pore. (I am excluding in this a certain oligarch who looks more like an unshaven tramp than a multi-billionaire!) The women sport gobstopper jewels and expensive suntans that speak of year round access to a yacht – and are usually stick thin.   Such enormous wealth carries with it an air of entitlement and privilege.  The part of me that champions a classless and egalitarian society is secretly thrilled when they have to queue up for the same court loos as the rest of us commoners, or tolerate the bad machine coffee.   Several years ago, a court case in a British overseas territory saw everyone queuing for the one very basic cell toilet which had no lock on the door.  It’s a great leveller to have the Attorney General holding the door for you while you have a wee, while a woman who graces the Sunday Times Rich List waits her turn.

But what are these otherworldly people actually like?  They vary as much as any other human being.   Yes, there are the arrogant and the ignorant who slam doors in your face and treat everyone with contempt. But then there are the wonderful ones: one household name billionaire had boxes of £100 hand crafted Swiss chocolates flown in his private helicopter for everyone in the court after he felt he had caused inconvenience by requesting we worked late.  And he came round and thanked us all personally.  Others remain aloof, conferring only with their large entourage of staff and do not deign to speak to anyone else.  I once had the terrifying task of informing a Greek shipping billionaire that he couldn’t have the password to our wifi for security reasons. This man had never, ever been told the word “no” in his life, by anyone, and he was astounded. Luckily, he was very charming about it.

So what of celebrities? They are frequently in court and along with my colleagues, I have a considerable list of those I have worked with.  Familiar as we are with their larger-than-life presence on screen and in the press, many are diminutive in the flesh. Some are absolutely tiny.  All are surrounded by an extensive and expensively retained entourage of ‘yes’ people, lawyers and general hangers-on.

Once again, their personalities are variable.  Some are charming, modest and always in celebrity mode: happy to oblige with autographs for court staff and make small talk.  Some believe their own hype and are obnoxious and bad tempered. A few remain cloistered within their huddled group of legal advisers and won’t engage with anyone, hiding behind dark glasses and their minders

Again I refer to the court toilets as a good leveller, although I was struck in my recent case with a very famous TV personality how, such is his fame, he was unable to even use the gents without a member of the press sidling up next to him, or a fan wanting an autograph.  He took all of this with good grace and charm and won many new followers.  It’s not always like this.  I’ve gone off certain celebrities instantly having witnessed the ‘real’ them.   You can judge a man by how he treats his dog, so the saying goes, but you can also judge a person by how they treat those working for them.

So what have I learned from these encounters?  You can keep your celebrity and money for a start: the super rich are always suing or being sued.  And fundamentally although united by money, they are as varied in temperament and personality as any other person.  Fascinating as we may find them, they are simply human beings at the end of the day.

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