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Stars in their eyes: Working with showbiz royalty

Three Belfast-based promoters who work with the top showbiz celebrities give us a glimpse of life behind the scenes of the red carpet and stage

By Una Brankin

Published 23/05/2015

Cathy with her son Jamie and Dolly Parton
Cathy with her son Jamie and Dolly Parton
Caroline Shanks
Cathy Wilson (third left) with Westlife and the Aiken team

Behind every star and VIP, there's usually a hard-working, media-savvy mover-and-shaker. Publicists, agents and public relations advisers are essential for a successful showbusiness career in today's image-obsessed world, securing bookings, organising events, handling media coverage and offering a shoulder to cry on when the going gets tough. Here, three leading Belfast-based promoters give a glimpse of the busy life behind the scenes of the red carpet and the stage.

Cathy Wilson has been working with Aiken Promotions for 20 years. The Belfast-born fortysomething started out covering administrative duties in the well-known music agency's office, but worked her way up to management level, overseeing the organisation and promotion of high profile concerts and tours. Cathy lives in Belfast with her husband, Gavin, an engineer, and their children, Jamie (20) and Euan (17). She says:

When I was young I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but I left school after A Levels. I did English, French and Spanish, and I took typing lessons at the same time, which came in handy.

I worked in retail and administration for a while, then I ended up with Aiken by accident. My sister Dawn was working there then - she went on to become the stage manager for Cirque du Soleil - and when they were looking for someone to cover admin in the office, she suggested me.

It was supposed to be for two weeks but here I am, 20 years later. I learned a lot about the business from Jim [the late Jim Aiken, the highly respected agent] and Peter [Jim's son and company MD]. Jim was a gentleman and the best mentor ever. He had a great rapport with people. He taught me the biggest problems could always be sorted; there was always a way round them.

The Garth Brooks gigs were an exception. I'm still in shock about that. It all started off with a simple plan for two shows; then it got to five and developed into something huge. It couldn't have fitted into anywhere else but Croke Park in Dublin. I'll never forget standing on the stage he played on, in Central Park in New York, when about a million people turned up. To see that many people was incredible.

I have a very real passion for the entertainment business and I can keep calm under pressure; I always could. It takes a lot to phase me. You have to be very organised and plan ahead, and make sure the paperwork's done. You do need patience at times but we're quite lucky to have had fantastic people to work with. There have been no real divas. The artists come as part of a well-oiled machine.

This year, we've already had the X Factor tour, Michael Flatley, Olly Murs - he was great - and it's going to be a very busy summer. I go to most of the gigs we do. Sometimes there are two on the same night so you have to delegate. It can be tiring if there's a lot on all together, but my kids are grown up now and they help out sometimes, as crew. They mightn't admit it but I do think they think my job is cool!

I'm looking forward to seeing Ed Sheeran again this summer and One Direction. That'll be three nights of total screaming, but I love going to gigs. Niall always says hello - he's an absolute dote. Harry's a lovely guy too and he does have charisma.

The artist I've been most in awe of over the 20 years, though, is Bruce Springsteen. I'd hurt my ankle and was sitting with crutches watching him in the RDS in Dublin and he was amazing. I rarely get to see a whole gig like that. The atmosphere was electric. I was with Jim and Bruce signed a photo for me, which I have on the office wall along with the set list.

I also worked with Westlife from the beginning, when they were supporting Boyzone. I found their last gig here very emotional. I still hear from Nicky and Shane Christy Moore keeps in touch, too. I love him.

Westlife stayed very down-to-earth despite their success. They wouldn't pass you in the corridor without saying hello. Stephen Gately from Boyzone was the same; he'd go out of his way to talk to you and would always remember your name.

I suppose one bit of a disaster was the time I gave Mark Feehily from Westlife a lift somewhere in my Corsa and backed into Andy Williams's tour bus. That shook him up a bit! He's a nice guy, though.

I work late hours, what with the gigs and dealing with people in LA, which is eight hours behind. Afternoons can get very busy but I don't mind. I also travel a lot with the job and I take the Press to shows all over - Berlin, Copenhagen, America.

I took some of them out to Dolly Parton's house in Nashville and she was absolutely lovely. The airline had lost our luggage so we were standing there in the same clothes we'd worn for 48 hours and, of course, Dolly was dressed up to the nines, but she was so welcoming. She had laid on a spread of treats for us. She's tiny.

I love what I do. The best part is hearing the artists say "that was a really great show" - that confirms you've done your job right. I'm happy where I am; we're like a close knit family.

Things have gone on as they were before Jim died, which is what he would have wanted. I do miss him standing beside me at gigs. I can visualise him standing there - you just have to put your head down and get on with it, doing everything just as he taught us to do it.

Caroline Shanks (50) is a agent at David Hull Promotions, which represents famous broadcasters, musicians and showbusiness personalities. Clients range from Eamonn Holmes and Andrea Begley to May McFettridge. Amicably divorced from drummer Stevie Shanks, who plays with the popular Queen tribute band Flash Harry, Caroline lives in Belfast. She says:

I was always interested in science and studied physics and biology, as well as all of the general subjects. I was pretty good at English and my reports often said that I had "an excellent imagination; spelling and grammar need to be improved". But I hated girly subjects like typing and shorthand and always wished I could have done metal and woodwork like the boys in school!

Anyway, I ended up qualifying in nursing and, many years ago, worked at as an occupational health nurse at Harland and Wolff, which was an incredible experience.

I met David (Hull) through my ex-husband - he played in a band and David was their agent. David asked if I would like to work in the office and as I was looking for a change in career, I agreed to give it a go. I hadn't a clue what I was doing and I'm pretty sure I made lots of mistakes but the staff in the office were very patient with me. Now, all these years later, working in the office is like working with my best friends - I couldn't ask for a better place to work.

My job changes almost on a daily basis - we all have specific things we have to do in the office but there are many, many occasions that you do things that could never be on a job description. I think it's the nature of the business we are in - entertainment is an ever evolving industry and you have to evolve with it.

You do need confidence and the ability to meet and talk to people for this job, but it's not that simple. You also have to be able to take each day at a time, be prepared to think on your feet, sometimes jump in at the deep end, be able to manage strange and unusual circumstances - and be slightly fearless!

The talent we represent is amazing - there are so many great broadcasters, comedians, singers and musicians in our small country, many of whom have been around for a long time.

I work with so many different types of artistes, all of whom have terrific strengths. I think those who choose showbusiness as a career are truly unique - no matter who I have come in contact with, whether it's someone just beginning their career or a seasoned professional, they all have the same thing in common: it's in their blood. They love the business, and no matter how hard a gig or an event is, they always want to keep doing it. I suppose that's why we see so many of the superstars of years gone by still gigging away. Entertainment is part of their soul.

My work is so varied it's difficult to pin down highlights. One came about, though, with John Linehan, aka May McFettridge - it was an honour to have been around to see him in his 2,000th pantomime when he received the bust of May McFettridge at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Another highlight was being part of the Flash Harry and Ulster Orchestra show at the Odyssey Arena in the city. Having been part of that band's journey from some of their earliest pub gigs, to see them fill the Odyssey was amazing. Another highlight, although with a sad ending, was working with the late Sean Crummey, who was the voiceover star of The Folks on the Hill. He was a true gentleman who is still sorely missed.

Some days crisis management is all I feel I'm doing - although don't tell the boss! The office is constantly busy and it often feels like there are not enough hours in the day; in one respect, this is great because the days fly in and the work is so varied and interesting, but on the other hand, you tend to sit back and think 'Where have the last six months gone?'

There are funny moments, too. I got a call at 9am one Saturday from my boss to tell me that John Linehan had contacted him to say that he was sitting at Belfast Castle waiting to launch an event and there was no one there! It turned out that I had sent John to the venue on the wrong date and poor John had got up, dressed as May McFettridge and was left sitting in the car park early on a wintry Saturday morning. I had lots of apologising to do to John, who was completely lovely and laughed it off.

My ultimate ambition would be to write a novel though whether or not I ever sit down and do this is a whole other story. I suppose I could write The Life and Times of an Entertainment Agent, but I'm not sure this would be a good idea, as I'd like my clients and the many wonderful people I work with to remember me with some element of fondness!

Naturally, I watch many of them on TV and listen to them on radio. When I'm not doing that, I have a Honda Hornet 650 motorcycle and like nothing more than heading out around the coast with a few mates. I also love photography and try to take as many photos as is humanly possible. I have five of the best and closest friends a person could possibly have and love spending time with them. One of them is my little sister Kristal - she's 15 years younger than me and is totally amazing; she has the most quirky sense of humour of anyone I know.

Out of office hours though, I could be looking after a show, attending an event, or sitting back watching an artiste. It never feels like overtime, but then my job isn't really a job, it's more a way of life.

Cathy Martin (42) has been managing director of her own companies, CMPR and CMPR Talent, for the last 10 years, and is the organiser of Belfast Fashionweek. Recently separated, the public relations expert lives in Holywood with her daughter Valentina (3). She says:

As a child, I wanted to be a teacher, a nun in Africa (yes really!), a doctor, an air stewardess … An overriding desire when I was younger was to have a job involving travel - and I did that for almost a decade, and loved it.

I did marketing, international business, international economics, law and languages at university and, later, journalism training at the BBC - I think PR and promotion marries writing, marketing and legal studies quite well. Initially, I worked as brand manager for Bushmills and Jameson whiskeys in Italy for two years and then for two more back here at home. Then I worked as marketing manager for the Irish linen industry body, which took me around the world before all production was moved off-shore.

In between I've had a great variety of jobs, most involving people skills, some fun and a heck of a lot of graft. I was a TV presenter for two series of cookery shows on RTE, back in the 1990s, and I've also been everything from a waitress, a model, a beach doughnut seller and a temp receptionist, to a weekend DJ in a nightclub for six months, while studying at Aix-en-Provence in France.

Ultimately I wanted a change from my role with Irish linen but couldn't see any relevant jobs at that time in Belfast, so I just stuck my head out and started my own thing by doing an event for Terry Bradley, the artist. I took a massive leap of faith because I had no partner at the time to help pay the mortgage or bills. I lived on my credit cards for a few months, while I developed my business from my dining table. Thankfully, it came quickly and I started Belfast Fashionweek, which has been a big part of what I do day-to-day for over a decade.

These days I run a few companies - CMPR, which is a PR and events company; Belfast Fashionweek, which is a twice yearly event; Fashion Pharmacy, an agency of make-up artists, stylists and creatives, and finally, CMPR Talent and CMPR Models, which is our people/talent arm of CMPR, which involves telling our clients' stories as well as managing commercial work for them.

With CMPR Talent and CMPR Models, I get to work with so many industry colleagues from my original world of PR and marketing, and although the media in general can be seen as a competitive industry, I have many, many friends who share my job title and role and I really do love the industry I work in.

My job takes flexibility and determination, as well as great negotiation skills and a certain amount of diplomacy. I have all of those skills to a degree, but not always as much as I would like. I look after a wide range of clients, including actress Seainin Brennan, singer/actress Niamh Perry, singer Jason Clarke, Cool FM presenter Rebecca McKinney, food and fitness blogger Tiffany Brien, BBC TV presenter Jo Scott, former Miss Ireland Rebecca Maguire, presenter Katie Larmour, former Big Brother housemate Ashleigh Coyle, international model Lauryn Greer and comedian Diona Doherty.

Seainin Brennan (best known recently for The Fall) is very precise, knows what she wants (and, importantly, what she doesn't want), and understands what I do, with realistic expectations. She is also a friend. We're also working with Niamh Perry at the moment and she is on a global arena tour with Mamma Mia right now, due in Belfast at the beginning of June. She's super humble and very nice to work with. It's not so much that she's easily pleased but there's just a lovely way about her.

For a successful, long career in showbusiness, beyond talent, you need tenacity, flexibility, grace, transparency, dignity, adaptability, a sense of humour, and intelligence (although unfortunately I suppose the latter is not always true - or necessary - these days!).

I met Victoria Beckham last year and was a teeny bit star-struck. I'm normally pretty unfazed by celebrity but she had a presence about her, which I loved. I also enjoyed doing one of the after-shows for the MTV awards in Belfast, which was fun and allowed some great access to the show and the stars. I was pregnant at the time, but I got to DJ for 10 minutes and there are pictures of me with headphones on and my big tummy bump!

There have been a few blips - when I was driving James Nesbitt around in an old Clio, we were having such a laugh we almost crashed. Twice!

I like to get the job done, whatever it takes. And that's what I'd like my clients to remember - that is, that I got them out there and helped bolster their careers.

I always try to watch them in whatever show, play or event they're in. And we usually Tweet or post across all our social media platforms for any talent we're working with and the projects they're in. Away from work, I enjoy the theatre and eating out, but mostly just spending time with friends and family.

Before being a mum I would have often worked non-stop until 9 or 10pm, but now I leave the office at 5.30pm to pick Valentina up and we enjoy a couple of hours for dinner, bath and bedtime. When she goes to bed, most nights I open my laptop again and get stuck into the emails which arrived in while I was in afternoon meetings. I am a night owl so many clients will often get 1am or 2am emails from me. I have always seemed to work well at night time and no one seems to put out by my crazy hours!

The Hollywood starmakers who look after showbiz royalty

While NI's agencies have impressive lists of clients, their companies are only a fraction of the size of their Hollywood equivalents. Top US promoters include:


Founded: 1975. Directors: Four; male. Top talent: David Beckham, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Will Smith, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey. 2010 Oscar nominations: 35 including all five best actor nominees: Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Morgan Freeman and Jeremy Renner. Best actress: Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep. Best director: Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron.


Founded: 2009. Head honchos: Two; male. Top talent: Martin Scorsese, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Wahlberg, Danny Boyle, Russell Crowe, Larry David, The Killers, Britney Spears. 2010 Oscar nominations: 14, including Matt Damon (best supporting actor, Invictus), Jason Reitman (director, Up in the Air), Lee Daniels (director, Precious) Quentin Tarantino (director, Inglourious Basterds).


Founded: 1991. Head honchos: One female; three male. Top talent: Owen Wilson, Harrison Ford, Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, the Coen Brothers, Judd Apatow. 2010 Oscar nominations: Nine, including the Coen Brothers (best director) for A Serious Man, newcomer actor Gabourey Sidibe for Precious and director Wes Anderson for Fantastic Mr Fox.


Founded: 1975. Head honchos: Two; male. Top talent: Megan Fox, Beyonce Knowles, Jon Stewart, Claire Danes, Mickey Rourke, Al Pacino, Paul Giamatti, Steve Buscemi, Jon Hamm, January Jones, Diane Kruger. 2010 Oscar nominations: Eight, including Christopher Plummer (The Last Station) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds).

Belfast Telegraph

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