LONDON — When Great Britain's Minister of National Heritage was caught having an extramarital affair with aspiring actress Antonia de Sancha two years ago, Max Clifford was there to help De Sancha convert her sudden fame into a small fortune.
Last year, when the owner of a London gym created an international uproar by installing a hidden camera and selling pictures of Princess Diana working out, Clifford surfaced as the gym's PR man.
And less than two months ago, when Britain's top military figure, Defense Chief Sir Peter Harding, was forced to resign after his former mistress, Lady Bienvenida Buck, sold her excruciatingly detailed story to a tabloid newspaper, Clifford came forward as the agent who put the lucrative "kiss and tell" deal together.
"My business is to get the best from the media for my clients," says Clifford, 50, sitting in his small office above a hairdressing salon on London's fashionable New Bond Street.
"It's not different from a game of chess where you're sitting in the middle of a half-dozen chessboards and you're moving all the time. And sometimes you're trying to get things into the papers, and sometimes you're trying to keep things out of the papers."
Clifford makes a living, a very good one, packaging scandal. He is a broker whose best-known commodity is revelations so startling and so juicy that tabloids and TV shows will pay his clients huge sums to tell all.
He negotiates media deals on behalf of whistle-blowers, ex-lovers and an assortment of loose-lipped connivers. He calls it "directing traffic."
At Britain's tabloids, the primary market for his stories, Clifford is resented for getting to news sources first, but respected for delivering the goods.
"He's a middleman who we desperately wish wasn't there," says Jan Jacques, a feature writer on Britain's biggest-selling paper, the tabloid News of the World. "If it wasn't for him, people would come directly to us."
She is currently dealing with Clifford on a tale involving a pop star in a vice scandal. "He's really a sweetie," she says. "But by the nature of what he does, he's a pain in the butt."
Sunday Mirror Editor Paul Connew says that in all his years of dealing with Clifford, "I've never known him to produce a totally fabricated story." But he says Clifford has a tendency to embellish his tales, so "sometimes you have to investigate the story behind the story. The Caesar salad is there, even if the fancy dressing is a little too liberally applied."
Clifford is considered the best at what he does--which makes him, in some people's view, a PR genius, and in others', a rat. Former Heritage Minister David Mellor, who resigned after Clifford guided unemployed actress De Sancha through a calculated whirl of interviews and PR stunts, calls him "a sleazeball's sleazeball."
Regardless of how he is perceived, however, Clifford is very, very busy. The phones rarely stop ringing at his desk.
The walls are covered with framed tabloid front pages, mementos of his biggest scores. "Chief Of Defense In Sex And Security Scandal," reads the headline on the most recent addition to the collection.
Another front page contains a photo of Clifford escorting De Sancha to a celebrity-studded movie premiere. And nearby is one of Clifford's handiest bits of work: His effort to generate a little publicity for a comedian client about to go on tour resulted in one of Britain's most famous tabloid headlines--the compelling "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster."
"Over the last 10 years," Clifford says, "I've become more involved with, if you like, the controversial stories, the headlines which in turn have made me better known. So these days, when people have any kind of a story, whether it's to do with a major building society fraud"--the British equivalent of a savings and loan--"or government departmental wrongdoing or kiss and tell, they tend to phone me up."
Today, he's working on a bit of everything. Besides handling negotiations for two separate whistle-blowers, he says: "I'm dealing with someone who had the love child of a major rock star 25 years ago and suddenly wants to reveal to the world the whole story--with the blessing of the rock star. The rock star is quite happy for it all to come out now."
(This turns out to be, as the News of the World later reports, Who singer Roger Daltrey, whose daughter has a toddler of her own).
And Clifford is still milking the Lady Buck scandal for all it's worth.
"I'm dealing," he says, "with the Spanish media, who want Bienvenida, that is to say Lady Buck, to do more and more television and newspaper interviews over there because, of course, she's Spanish."
He estimates that by the time the money-earning power of this scandal is exhausted--Lady Buck demands a fee for all interviews, photos and appearances--she will have earned about $300,000, of which Clifford will get 20%.