If visitors to Australian-born paparazzo Darryn Lyons manage to avoid tripping over his stuffed lion's head rug, their eyes will quickly be drawn to a big red leather chair that once belonged to a High Court judge. The Mohican-sporting boss of the UK's biggest ‘pap' agency, Big Pictures, clearly does not count understatement as a virtue.
‘The general standard of PR is quite weak,' he states as soon as we sit down. ‘Big Pictures has the power to get people in the press. You show me a PR agency that knows what's going on in the celeb world. Considering what PROs charge, celebs don't get value for money.'
Viewers of the BBC's fly-on-the-wall documentary Paparazzi will recognise this as typical of the forthright Lyons. A second series starring the flamboyant ex-Daily Mail snapper - worth a purported £32m - has just ended. It revealed the stalking tactics behind some of the biggest celebrity gossip stories of 2005 - including the first pictures of ‘Brad and Angelina', and shots of Michael Douglas's alleged plastic surgery scars.
‘Papers are under pressure. They want good, sexy images,' Lyons explains. Today, celebrity content is king, and Lyons - whose business makes £3m in annual profit - provides this in spades.
The image business
Lyons' relationship with the PR industry is fascinating. He is a celebrity PRO's headache, but can also be a practitioner's best friend. One might even class Lyons as a PR man himself: a major part of his work involves encouraging celebrities - or their near equivalents - to wear Chloe, Gucci and Burberry so he can photograph them wearing the brands on holiday, at the shops or in nightclubs.
‘We work with 15-20 top PR and management agencies: "Can you dress Jordan in this, can you get these boots on Keira Knightley?" they ask. I generate my income from such pictures - a market I created,' he says, proudly. ‘It's promotion without celebs having to say a thing. We spin the spin even more. We're number one in the collusion game, and Big Pictures is the friendly paparazzi agency. This has been reinventing the PR wheel.' Lyons' list of good PROs is very short: ‘Ian Monk; Phil Hall; that guy who used to edit The Sun.' David Yelland? ‘No. It'll come to me.'
It does not come to him, but maybe he was thinking of Stuart Higgins. What about Max Clifford? ‘I've worked with Max, but he doesn't really deal with the picture side.' Clifford offers PRWeek a polite ‘no comment' when asked about Lyons.
Hall, who runs Phil Hall Associates, is more forthcoming: ‘Lyons' photographers make the pictures look natural, so in PR terms they are more valuable than something obviously placed. He knows every editor on first-name terms and every one of them will take his calls.'
Lyons believes most PROs miss a trick when it comes to dealing with celebrities. ‘We have celebs coming to us from PR companies,' he says. ‘They come to me and I reinvent them: Faria Alam, Rebecca Loos, Daisy Wright [Jude Law's ex-nanny]. I'm a creator. You must keep the PR machine rolling and too many PROs fail to do that.'
Given they have helped make his fortune, Lyons is surprisingly ambivalent towards celebrities. ‘They think they are from another planet,' he chuckles. ‘The stuff they whinge about is funny; they think they're a master race. I'm their best friend on the way up, but more of them should say "thank you".'
Lyons, 40, was a newspaper photographer from the age of 17. He arrived in London in 1987 and later covered conflicts in places such as Bosnia - where he was kidnapped - for the Daily Mail. ‘I won awards, but they don't pay the mortgage,' he says airily.
The sea change in his career came a few years later. ‘I had a tremendous amount of foresight,' he says, without a trace of modesty. ‘I smelt the "celebrity" and knew it was going to be a phenomenon. I saw people weren't going to church and needed a new religion. People are obsessed: what they eat, wear, how they sleep. I saw the future.'
Titter if you like, but the relentless success of magazines such as Heat and Now is testament that Lyons was on to something. In 1992 - still a staff photographer - he set up Big Pictures from his one-bedroom flat. Today, the company is one part of an international Big brand that takes in property, limo and yacht hire. Now the pop svengali behind new girl band Mrs Robinson, Lyons' own profile is rising: he recently appeared as an entrepreneur on the Australian version of Dragons' Den. ‘I was the colourful one. They wanted to call it The Lyons Den,' he claims modestly.
Lyons is resolute about his company's place in PR - ‘we're very big in PR, without saying so' - but lacks the PRO's reticence about becoming the story: ‘I didn't expect people to clap me on the back and say "I love you, I love your style, mate". I'm probably the greatest invitee to a dinner party.'
Yet for all the bluster, Lyons is actually rather discreet. ‘I wouldn't go upsetting a client, I'm not silly.' He is also, he insists, ‘extremely aware of my moral obligations - we have pictures in our safe that would haunt celebrities. It has been my decision not to sell them'.
Lyons claims ‘the old days of shooting into gardens and windows have long gone', but viewers of Paparazzi will know that hiding in bushes is still fair game. However, it should be noted that not all of Lyons' work is fluff: one of his agency's freelancers was responsible for an iconic image of the 7 July London bombs - a man leading a masked woman to safety.
It would be easy to underestimate Lyons. For all his verbiage about being a creator and reinventing people, he is funny. A lot of what he says - but by no means all of it - comes with a wry grin.
His mobile phone springs to life (ringtone: If You Leave Me Now by Chicago). ‘Daisy Wright,' he sighs, clocking the incoming number. A short conversation follows: ‘I don't want to work like that... simple as that.' Hanging up, Lyons returns to his theme. ‘It's important for PR professionals to read this: I should be working with PROs. They must get more from the power of pictures. Thinking pictures is thinking Big.' He grins at the pun.
His autobiography, Mr Paparazzi, is due for release next year. So what is the best rumour Lyons has heard about himself? He seems genuinely stumped. ‘That's a bloody good question,' he muses. The pause suggests the volume of rumours through which his mind is sifting would fill gossip website Popbitch for a month.
Eventually, he admits, slightly crestfallen: ‘I haven't heard any. I'm not sure I'm that famous.'
CV - Darryn Lyons
Mrpaparazzi.com launches, where the public send in their photos of celebs for cash
Becomes a judge on Australian version of Dragons' Den
Opens a nightclub in home town, Geelong
Big Pictures opens in Edinburgh.
Acquires Australian photo agency Profile Press. Big Pictures opens in New York
Sets up Big Pictures
War correspondent, Sarajevo; kidnapped on tour of duty
Moves to London to work in Fleet Street