It’s midnight on a Saturday and a group of freshers are hanging over the balcony outside ReVA nightclub in Cirencester, camera phones at the ready. “We’ve only been here a month, so this is the first celebrity night we’ve been to,” says Charlie, 19. “Although Jacob Rees-Mogg did come to our campus and give a speech.”
The 500-capacity club – on the second floor of a shopping centre in the market town – is packed with locals and students from the Royal Agricultural University. (Or as one fresher calls it: “The poshest uni in the UK”.) Tonight’s a sell-out. Club director Dan Lafford says it’s ReVA’s biggest night ever: bigger than when Basshunter played, bigger than when S Club 3 performed and much bigger than when Judge Jules was here. The dance floor overflows with Superdry, Tommy Hilfiger and Gant. Girls in bodycon wave giant glow sticks to “Don’t Stop Believin’”. What looks like an entire men’s rugby team crams into a cage on a podium, the bars digging into their flesh like string on a cooked ham.
Sat in a back office, tucked behind 240 bottles of Hooch and Red VK, Paul Chuckle is waiting to hit the decks. The children’s TV star, who appeared in ChuckleVision with his brother Barry from 1987 to 2009, is here to play a 30-minute DJ set and do a meet and greet with clubbers. On the 72-year-old’s rider? A bottle of Bell’s for him and a bottle of red for his wife of 33 years, Sue. “I'm not a diva,” says Paul. He does have a slick stage wardrobe, comprising of a jacquard blazer and patterned shirt. Sue has his sunglasses tucked away in her Tory Burch clutch till he’s ready to perform.
Over the past decade, celebrity personal appearances have become synonymous with uni club nights. Pat Sharp, Chesney Hawkes, Coolio, Jazzy Jeff, Diva Fever from X Factor, Glyn from Big Brother, Tony from Hollyoaks, Zippy (the puppet) and Hodor off Game of Thrones have all toured medium-sized cities to take awkward photos with hammered almost-adults. In many ways, it seems we’re living in the golden age of the celeb club PA. But despite nearly every uni graduate having a story about someone sort-of-famous visiting their local club, the inner workings of the industry remain opaque.
Cultural historian and Kardashian Kulture author Ellis Cashmore says that the origins of celebrity PAs date back to the 60s – when paps started taking pictures of stars in Rome’s restaurants. “An image of Elizabeth Taylor would circulate around the world,” he says. “So the restaurateur would waive the bill to make sure she returned. The next move came from celebrities themselves: they offered their presence for a fee.”
By the 80s, talent agencies were supplying stars for events around the UK. Big Bang is one of the longest running. Its website – a takeaway menu of celebrity headshots – comes with reviews from club owners. (“Steve McFadden was announced today and it's gone mental. Within six hours, 42k reach!” writes the owner of Kuda York in 2017.) The agency is joined by newbie MN2S, which represents reality contestants up to Hollywood stars, and Loco Talent. The latter has whole Hollyoaks cast, Calum Best – “one of the most sought after males in the UK” – and Bez – “the man, the myth, the legend” – on its books.
Natasha Hill and Flora McCluskey run the talent department at MN2S. Flora says it was the rise of reality programs like Geordie Shore and The Only Way Is Essex that led to the highly competitive, highly structured PA industry we have now. “Club appearances and PR stunts go back as long as clubs have existed,” says Natasha. “You’ve got shows like Made in Chelsea that show millennial going out club culture, making PAs a natural fit. People want to go clubbing with the people off them.”
The average celebrity PA has a regimented framework. Most last an hour. Some stars will go on stage and do shoutouts, others will do meet and greets, and a lot of stars are teaching themselves to DJ to make themselves more bookable. They’ll get a VIP area to hang out in and a few plus-ones. Promoters will pay for exclusivity so that no other local venues can hire the same star in a certain time period. They also sometimes push their luck.
“We get weird requests all the time,” says Natasha. “There have been requests to judge kissing competitions and to strip on stage. We once even had a talent booked in a club and the promoter didn’t tell us that it was a foam party until they got there. The star was very, very precious about his hair and he was not happy.”
Natasha and Flora’s roles involve trying to rule out problems like these before they happen, sorting out the contract, the fee and security at the club. She says that new promoters don’t like working with agents because they think that they’ll make their lives hard. “The truth is that so many times we’ve had talent go direct and agree to an appearance and then they haven’t turned up but they’ve been paid and there’s no contract,” says Natasha.
They’re both elusive about numbers, but Dan from ReVA says that he’s paid between £1,000 and £8,000 for appearances. Paul’s cost him somewhere near £4,000 – 20 times what he normally spends on a DJ. ReVA won’t make any money from the night, but it’s worth it. As a small-town club they’ve got to put in the work to make sure students don’t go to Bristol, Oxford or Swindon instead. He adds that promoters need to be savvy with their bookings.
“Basshunter wanted us to pay for his flight even though he was playing another show in the UK the night before,” he says. “But largely, as an industry, everyone’s trying to look after each other. Especially with the nostalgia acts. Agents want to keep them alive.”
At the moment there are two types of celebrity cleaning up on the student night circuit: reality stars and throwback performers like Paul. For both, PA popularity can be fleeting. "Love Island stars normally get eight months of consistent work after coming out of the villa. Jamie Jewitt got offered five club appearances every single day when he left and it hasn’t really slowed down for him but that’s quite rare,” says Natasha, whose agency represents him. “For most people it starts to dwindle.” A new season of the show can either spell a former star’s expiration date or a new wave of appearances.
Nostalgia stars’ fame is dependent on different factors. Samantha Mumba, Fat Man Scoop and the Sugababes all do well for MN2S. Top dog right now though? “Requests for Dani Harmer from Tracy Beaker have tripled this year,” says Flora. “She’s inundated. People who grew up with her are going to university. She plays a 90s pop music DJ set with a remix of the show’s theme tune.”
Paul Chuckle’s DJ set is not pop. It’s 30 minutes of dance bangers premixed on a USB stick: Darude’s “Sandstorm” follows DJ Sammy’s “Heaven”. Behind the decks, the Chucklevision star wiggles his fingers, fist pumps and lassos the air. He shouts “to me” down the mic and the crowd yells back “to you”. He chants “eat, sleep, rave, repeat” and they scream along. A girl gasps “oh my fucking god” again and again as he drops “Insomnia” by Faithless. An enormous lad scales the DJ booth to get closer to him.
“My wife and I have always gone clubbing,” says Paul. “We especially love a gay club. We go to Fuel in Hull. It’s fantastic. They play house, dance, drum and bass… Everybody’s out there to have fun. You get four or five guys wearing hot pants and on stilts, so you turn around and you’ve got a crotch right there –” he points to his face to illustrate.
Paul first started doing student club PAs with his brother Barry after they released comedy single “To Me To You (Bruv)” with Tinchy Stryder in 2014. While Paul was in his element, Barry wasn’t a fan. He’d started getting severe pain in both legs and put it down to ciatica. “It was only when I got a phone call saying Barry couldn’t get out of bed one morning that he told me it was cancer,” says Paul. The 73-year-old died in August 2019. “The idea that we’re never, ever going to be on stage having a laugh again is a killer. We always had loads and loads of laughs. We were just two big kids. And if it went wrong, we’d leg it.”
After the loss of the older Chuckle brother, Paul decided to learn to DJ. In the past year he has done more than 100 PAs around the country, playing the music he loves: “heavy dance music – anything that goes into weird noises or has good bass behind it”. Sue drives him to clubs and hangs out in the VIP area while he’s DJing. Paul says the sets are “a living” but also fun.
“When I was a teenager, I always dreamed of being in a heavy metal rock band,” says Paul. “I think this is the nearest you can get to it. You’re playing the music and it’s belting in your ears behind you.”
Not everyone enjoys PAs as much as he does. Chris Jammer spent years running student nights and his own music festival Strawberries and Creem, before appearing on the reboot of reality show Shipwrecked. “I was booked for quite a few student night PAs off the back of it,” he says. The 25-year-old got paid £1,000 a go for his hour-long appearances.
He says they were fun when he did them with friends but not when he was on his own. “I did one by myself and that was horrid,” he says. “I just went to get the cheque. You kind of go there, take some pictures... I didn’t want to drink because I was driving.”
Unsurprisingly, he didn’t do the PAs for long. “It wasn’t something I was putting on social media,” he says. “I was just doing it in the background because it was quite good money. I think they lower the tone a little bit.”
What he did enjoy though, was meeting fans. He says that the students who wanted pictures with him were often people who related to his story: his mum dying or him coming out as gay.
Paul also says he’s had heartwarming moments. “People say 'you made my childhood',” he says. “Some say that ChuckleVision is the only thing that cheered them up when they were getting bullied at school. It really hits you in a nice way.”
He says that he won’t leave PAs until he’s met every fan. He once did two and a half hours of meet and greets with Barry at 3,000-capacity club PRYZM in Leeds to make sure everyone got their turn. “That’s where on social media a girl was holding a drink and her arm looked like... something else,” says Paul. “Talk about a cocktail! I’ve never seen anything like it.”
At ReVA, the meet and greet is chaos. Clubbers swarm the VIP area, cramming against the red rope as they wait their turn for pictures with Paul. (They later make a news story in the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, the local paper.) Most fans are delivered to him like they’re on a conveyor belt. A bouncer pushes them into the bright glow of a photographer’s ring light and then pulls them back out again within seconds. At one point a shocked Sue exclaims that two boys have jumped the barrier to get to Paul and are being removed by security. It’s clear why not every celebrity has his meet and greet stamina.
Flora tells me that Jamie Jewitt from Love Island keeps that section of his PAs extremely structured. “We have to cap the amount of people,” she says. “He gets a bit shy with the girls who try to throw themselves at him, he doesn’t want it.”
She adds: “The audiences can be younger and might have had a lot of alcohol. Automatically it can be a clash. But they’re all professionals, they treat this as work. They’ve got thick skin and can deal with awkwardness.”
For Paul, it’s all in a day’s work. He’s racking up five gigs a week at the moment – including pantomime rehearsals and TV appearances – and sees himself doing these nights indefinitely. “There’s times when I’m at home,” says Paul. “And the phone rings you’re like: ‘Oh no, I’ve got a day off and I want to rest’. But you just go and do it.”
As students trickle out of ReVA, it’s clear that they appreciate the effort. “The music was bang on,” says Summer, 20. “And he looked amazing in his little shades.”
“He’s a hero,” says Glenn, 27, who’s staying with a mate who’s at RAU. “He was really living his life. Hashtag not playing games.” And with that, it’s time for Paul and Sue to go back to their hotel. They’ll be back on the road tomorrow.
“People who retire are on a downhill slope,” says Paul. “All these things keep my mind going. They keep me young... And I [do] sudoku as well.”