Working for a speaker bureau I’m often faced with the same question: who’s the most famous celebrity speaker you’ve ever met? At which point I’m forced to lie and end up telling a fantastical story about how Neil Armstrong and I once made paper aeroplanes together on a train ride to a conference in Hull – Neil joking about how this was the most inhospitable place he’d ever visited. I don’t just tell this story because Neil is dead and therefore has no right of reply; I mostly tell it because meeting the first person to climb to Everest’s Base Camp whilst wearing a onesie isn’t nearly as exciting. I haven’t met that celebrity speaker either. I’m a fraud.
The thing is, Neil Armstrong was a celebrity speaker. He spoke a number of times for JLA – the company I work for – and although he famously shied away from the public eye, he didn’t make any bones about the fact he did take money to speak at corporate engagements. I think this may be down to the fact he was American. In the UK there seems to be a slight distrust of the celebrity speaker. Woe betide the BBC presenter who dares to moonlight as an awards host once their shift has done, at absolutely no cost to the British tax payer. When such august publications as The Daily Mail get even the merest whiff that a celebrity speaker is earning what the market will bear for their time, then they are up in arms quicker than you can shout “asylum seekers cancer threat”. It’s always nice to bash the Daily Hate – I’m sure Alastair Campbell (another celebrity speaker) would agree – but the sad fact is that, unlike Alastair, most celebrity speakers think of their second income stream like they would certain late night internet searches: I enjoyed it at the time, but now I hate myself and I’ve turned over every mirror in the house.
You see, all I really want is for the celebrity speakers of the world to come out of hiding and stride hand in hand, shouting in one voice, “We are paid handsomely to entertain and inform. It’s certainly lovely to be rewarded monetarily for one’s expertise, but hey, that’s the economic system we’re operating in and we are NOT ashamed” – or perhaps something more pithy. It’s a work in progress.