A learning disabled celebrity booker on securing her charity's high profile ambassadors
Ciara Evans with Tom Jones and Bono
Thirty-three-year-old Ciara Evans from Surrey has a mild learning disability and has an unusually glamorous sounding job title: she's a celebrity research assistant. To add to this unusualness, she works somewhere you wouldn't ordinarily associate with celebs - Mencap, a charity for learning disabled people. This week they've been holding one of their regular showbiz events which needs someone with a bit of "lived experience" who can schmooze and represent them authentically when it comes to working with influential big names.
So what does she do in her job? I went to meet her at the gig venue, a church in Hackney, but she kept me waiting. And waiting. It seems that a last minute opportunity to meet with Olly Murs in a London cafe has made her two hours late for our interview.
When she arrived, she was bustled in by a PR person from the charity, said "hello", stroked my guide dog and quickly let me know she was ready for me to fire questions at her. In case I'd got the wrong impression, she told me straight away that her role is not all about glamorous meetings with popstars.
"My job is to find out about celebrities; who they are, what they are interested in and whether they have any connection with learning disability or any other disability." Ciara does this by reading through the newspapers and celeb magazines, using the internet and connecting with famous people on Twitter.
Ciara Evans with Gavin and Stacey's Mathew Horne
It's helpful to build relationships with famous people who already know and care about the subject. For instance, it's well known that Radio 2 DJ Jo Whiley has a sister with a learning disability. It was Jo and her sister Frances who came up with the idea for this evening's event. Former Steps singer Lisa Scott-Lee has two uncles who are learning disabled and Mathew Horne from Gavin and Stacy also has a connection. It probably goes without saying but family connections of this type can make artists more positively disposed to helping out. And having a celebrity on board at these events is invaluable to a charity keen to generate column inches or raise funds.
I discover Ciara has her own celebrity connection: she's the cousin of The Edge from international superband U2. The Edge was the first celebrity Ciara convinced to become a Mencap ambassador and he has since made a number of appearances for the charity. Later her manager suggests to me that this revelation wasn't entirely unhelpful in her getting the role.
The other part of Ciara's job is more office based. She explains it's about "writing to their agent, so that the letter asking for their involvement comes from someone with a learning disability.
"It's better that someone with a learning disability talks to the media. People like myself can talk about issues that are real and I can talk about experiences that I've had and that other people with learning disabilities have had".
It's that personal touch that takes the message out there effectively.
Ciara has told me that she feels well supported in her work and I'm keen to know more about that relationship, who does what and how she achieves office tasks. I tentatively ask whether she writes and sends the letters independently.
"I write the letter and then my manager reads it through. He helps me to make any changes I need to make, formats it a little bit and then it's done."
Said manager, Neil Alexander, told me that writing formally to people was the most difficult part of the job for her to learn, but that she concentrated really hard on everything he showed her how to do and that now, her "celebrity asks" need almost no additional editing.
Ciara Evans with Stacey Solomon
As we sit amidst a hive of activity back stage at the seventh annual Little Noise Sessions, Mencap's weeklong series of high profile fundraising gigs, Ciara tells me her employment history.
She's been a celebrity research assistant for six years now and has helped bring bands like Elbow and Coldplay on board for Little Noise and other events. She's been at Mencap for 13 years in total though. Her first role was office assistant, which, she says, taught her how to "behave" at work and what is expected of her in that environment. She went on to be a support worker, teaching work skills to other service users and accompanying them to work placements.
Ciara tells me it was this last bit of the role that was most rewarding: "It was amazing because at first the employers were like, no, we don't know if this is going to work out and by the end of it, the employers saw what a good job they did and their attitudes changed for the better."
After three years helping other people with learning disabilities to gain employment, she spotted the celeb research position on Mencap's website. It was specifically reserved for candidates with a learning disability. She says: "I thought it was a really great idea, so I applied for it with support. One of my work mates helped me to fill out the application form because it was a little bit confusing."
A support worker accompanied Ciara to the interview. Even though celebrity manager Neil Alexander had written the job description with another learning disabled woman in mind, he says Ciara was the one who excelled on the day.
Tonight, Ciara is volunteering as a Little Noise programme seller. She moves confidently around the auditorium, jauntily encouraging people to take one in return for a £5 donation. Someone else handles the money part of the transaction because Ciara has trouble with money and budgeting. Laughing, she says: "I'd spend every penny I have if I could but I know that I can't do that. My fiance Mark helps me with this, to make sure I pay my rent and bills first."
Mark does not have a learning disability. They met on a course at college and enjoy going to live music gigs together. They are due to get married in May 2013.
Ciara is very good at getting her point across. I ask her if people ever question whether she has learning difficulties. She says: "I've had a lot of that throughout my life. But I say to people, it's not about how I look, it's not about how I talk and it is not about who I am. It is something that affects the way I learn and it affects the way that I communicate sometimes. I always say to people, if you get to know me as a person, sometimes you'll see the areas that I struggle with and then you'll learn."
She went to a special needs school before college and says all her best friends have a learning disability: "My best friend works in a bakery, she gets to bake lovely cake, which I'm very jealous of. One works in a chemist and one in a supermarket".
As much as Ciara enjoys her job, she already has plans for the future, big plans.
"I'd like to be a musical theatre actress or, more realistically, I'd like to be someone senior in an organisation."
And then she starts to lay out her political machinations, something that neither I nor the charity's PR person with her, had expected:
"I think that if Mencap are the voice of people with learning disabilities, they should be led by people with a learning disability. My career goal hopefully one day is to be co-chief executive of Mencap.
"There are different sides to that job. You have to meet a lot of people and you have to look at finances quite thoroughly, so there are some things I might need support to learn and do but there are other things I could probably do quite well. But to be a senior voice within Mencap would be an incredible opportunity."
This year's Little Noise Sessions finished on Sunday 25 November. The concerts featured many top artists, including: Gary Barlow, Olly Murs, Richard Hawley, The Maccabees, Noah and the Whale, Amy Mcdonald and Keane members Tom Chaplin and Tim Rice-Oxley.