The workforce surrounding celebrities is far-reaching. Behind every star is an army of PAs, nannies, caterers, cleaners and other staff, so it is unsurprising that they are periodically involved in some of the UK’s estimated 70,000 claims made against employers per quarter. As everyone who works in HR knows, employment tribunal cases are traditionally biased towards the employee. So why do tribunals concerning the employees of celebrities repeatedly come out in favour of the employer? In each of the following recent cases, there seems to have been a ‘celebrity effect’, which led the disgruntled employees to exaggerate their claims about the supposed evil-doings of their celebrity employers, leading in turn to the collapse of their cases.
Stella English won The Apprenticein 2010, but resigned after a series of roles working for Alan Sugar in 2011, unsuccessfully suing him for constructive dismissal in 2013. English claimed that she had been reduced to the role of Sugar’s ‘glorified PA’ and had been variously humiliated by him. English claimed that Sugar said she ‘was a nice girl but didn’t do a lot’, that he would remark dismissively that ‘the cameras have stopped rolling now’, and that he openly said he ‘didn’t give a shit’ about her development under him. Significantly, all this sounds identical to the hard-nosed business persona Sugar adopts in The Apprentice itself. Whatever the realities of working for Sugar, English seems to have appealed to the famous persona in painting his misdeeds, while, conversely, making her own case seem risible to the court precisely because of its overlaps Sugar’s own self-representation on the show.
In 2010, Heather Mills was sued unsuccessfully by her former nanny, Sara Trumble, who claimed that Mills had demanded naked spray tans and had forced Trumble to work unreasonable hours. As with the Stella English case, the court found that Trumble was simply seeking to extort money from Mills, hoping that she – like other celebrities – would prefer to make a settlement to avoid embarrassing allegations in the public arena. Most recently, the celebrity chef Stephen Terry was accused of allowing a young trainee, Chloe Maisey to be subject to sexual discrimination. Maisey claimed to have been locked in a freezer, to have had a mouse thrown at her, and to have been slapped with a sea bass. Once again, the court found that Maisey ‘lied and wildly embellished’ whatever legitimate complaints there might once have been.
It is tempting to explain the disproportionate success of celebrity employers in such employment tribunals by a sort of starstruck favouritism towards the famous. But this doesn’t quite ring true. Heather Mills is not a popular public figure, and when the roles were reversed and the horse racing pundit John McCririck brought litigation against Channel 4 in 2013, his status failed to convince a tribunal of age discrimination. It seems more likely that the fantastic and exaggerated lives of celebrities invite a strain of fantastic exaggeration in the stories their employees bring against them in complaint. In each of these cases, the temptation to try for yet more of what is imagined to be a bottomless reservoir of compensation money, alongside the ease of muddling celebrity personas with the rather more mundane goings on of workplace reality, has been both solicited by the fact that the case concerned a celebrity, and ultimately the reason for the case failing.