Secret Agents

How do you manage to keep your illicit affair with a unwisely young runner secret in an industry that absolutely runs on gossip? You need expert media handlers – and some of the best in the business are YMU, formerly James Grant. How did they manage to keep Schofield safe all these years? Here’s a part of the puzzle…

Whenever a story like the This Morning clusterfuck breaks, the question is always the same. “If so many people knew about this, why did it take so long to get to the papers?”

It’s a decent question. Journalists are supposed to be the ones at the forefront of the news, feeding back stories from the coalface as and when they happen. Given that this story has been circulating widely on social media for years, is it really plausible that the relationship Phillip Schofield had with a young runner passed showbiz journalists by? It’s been plastered (to varying degrees of accuracy) all over Twitter, Reddit, TikTok and many other platforms. So why did it only get published properly in the papers in May 2023?

There’s an unglamorous answer to be given, which involves a rather dry discussion of the nature of news reporting and the legal hurdles that even the most scurrilous tabloids need to clear to spare themselves ruinous privacy claims and defamation suits. We won’t bore you with all that here.

Instead, we’ll give you one of the more tantalising answers. One which explains a decent chunk of the story, but by no means everything. The one that revolves around Phillip’s former talent agency: YMU.

Or, as it was better known for decades, James Grant.

The Showbiz Lobby

Think of the most overexposed telly presenter you can. Don’t worry if you’ve got too many flooding to mind. Stick your second, third and fourth names down on the list too. Chances are they’re all signed to YMU.

The agency is a media behemoth. Taking a quick skip through their client list, we see Ant and Dec. Amanda Holden. Ben Shephard. Claudia Winkleman. Davina McCall. Emma Willis. Fearne Cotton. Graham Norton. Richard and Judy. Rylan. Stephen Mulhern. Tess Daly.

Then there are the other omnipotent media presences on their books: Simon Cowell. David Walliams. Clara Amfo. Judge Rinder. Emily Atack. Amelia Dimoldenberg. Munya Chawawa. Tom Daley. Ruby Wax.

These are just a few of the names you’ll be overfamiliar with. There’s plenty more if you want to take a look.

There are two very notable omissions on their list though. Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. The two that got away.

Both were previously clients of YMU, but Holly parted ways with them in mid-2020 and Phillip got himself booted out last week after news broke of the affair he’d been having with a young runner he’d met when the boy was 15. The revelation came after weeks (technically years) of tabloid speculation about the state of Phil and Holly’s relationship.

In actual fact, the story of the Phil’n’Holly “feud” is neatly explained by the pair’s history with YMU, but we should probably explain the significance of the agency’s power roster first.

YMU is the the closest thing that primetime telly presenters have to a union. With so many big-hitters all in the same stable, they have immense collective bargaining power – a power that manifests itself in many different ways.

One of the most innocuous (and annoying) is ‘multipacking’. This is when YMU will make an A-list star of theirs available to a project only on the condition that producers also take a few of their lesser-exposed clients too. This sort of package deal is a common agency trick – not at all confined to YMU – which is why you’re forever seeing the same old faces paired up together on panel shows, podcasts, talent contests and the like.

The area in which YMU stands alone, however, is tabloid media management. This is where their little black book really comes in handy.

YMU are notorious in the industry for their threats to cut off access to the rest of their roster. Whenever an unflattering story about one of their clients is poised to break, the journalists presiding over it will find themselves faced with the prospect of being blacklisted by YMU.

It would be risky for us to pose a hypothetical example using a specific individual on their roster. The legal headaches it would cause us if we suggested one of their clients had been busted taking Class A drugs, or had conducted an extra-marital affair, or was once arrested for drink-driving simply would not be worth it. Suffice it to say, that these sorts of stories are exactly the type that James Grant/YMU have been very adept at keeping out of the press (and for at least one client, they’ve done all three of those).

But the exact details are not important. The point is that when one of their clients gets caught out doing something dicey, journalists are required to approach them for comment. This is when the agency kicks in to action, threatening to deny the reporter’s entire outlet access to their other clients’ work. That means no Britain’s Got Talent scoops, no I’m A Celebrity scoops, no Strictly Come Dancing scoops, no This Morning, Saturday Night Takeaway, Dancing On Ice scoops – all shows that are the lifeblood of tabloid showbiz columns.

You’d think that the bigger, more powerful media organisations would be able to face up to this sort of threat but, paradoxically, they are the ones this threat bites hardest. Sister papers get frozen out. Sunday supplements get snubbed. You want a YMU client to appear on your radio arm or TV channel? Want to do a cheap cash-in Christmas book with them? Forget it. Every last division gets its plug pulled.

And so editors have a choice. One explosive story for six months in the sin bin? Or trade that scoop in for lots of happier, softer, client-approved material that fills many more pages, week after week, making everyone’s lives much easier?

By its very nature, it’s difficult to point to examples of where this has happened – because these techniques are highly effective at keeping undesirable information out of circulation. And it’s not as if the celebs themselves would be so stupid as to publicly brag about the specific occasions where their management made a scandal evaporate.

Unless they’re Phillip Schofield…

Officer Politics

To capitalise on the goodwill extended towards him after his momentous coming out on This Morning, Amanda Harris (head of YMU’s literary division) encouraged Schofe to jot down his life’s reminiscences.

The result was the late 2020 autobiography, Life’s What You Make It.

In among all the bits about how he just loves to tell the truth these days – plus the odd slice of advice he received from Jimmy Savile – Phillip unwisely (but not illegally) sheds a bit of light on the sort of extracurricular agency work that James Grant/YMU has historically performed for him.

One of the more interesting anecdotes came from the start of his time with the agency. He doesn’t give a date, but it happened back in his Radio 1 days, so it will have been the late 80s/early 90s. Around that time, Phil joined forces with Northumberland Police to help them promote a new public outreach campaign. Between him finishing up this campaign and its launch, Phil was caught speeding on the M1.

As Phil tells it, he was anxious that the story might cause Northumberland Police some embarrassment if their new campaign spokesperson was immediately uncovered as a lawbreaker. So James Grant (as YMU was back then) put in a call to the chief superintendent of Northumberland Police, who reassured them that he would look into the matter.

One week later, Phillip received a letter from Hendon Police – where the speeding incident occurred. It informed him that, because he was working with the police (and to prevent them mutual embarrassment) they would “overlook the offence” this one time.

An extremely lucky escape. Yet rather than breathe a sigh of relief and sensibly keep his head down, Phil decided to design a custom thank you note for his handlers at James Grant for fixing this little problem. He took the letter from the chief inspector and doodled a speeding car on it, with the word VROOM! coming out of the exhaust. Then he wrote the word “YIPPIE!” in capitals at the top and made ten photocopies of it.

He stuffed one in Russ Lindsay’s desk, then the other nine in his bag. He then went off to work at Radio 1.

Unfortunately for him, his studio at Radio 1 was burgled that same night. The thief made off with a number of employees’ wallets and bags, including Phil’s – with the nine annotated copies of the letter Hendon Police had sent.

Now not only was the speeding story at risk of breaking in the press again, the much more scandalous detail of the police intervening to fix a celebrity’s criminal fines was now on the board too. Phil’s doodles didn’t exactly smack of remorse either, compounding the embarrassment. So he sheepishly fessed up to James Grant (who he says “were becoming increasingly adept at putting out media fires”) and they took care of it.

Six months later, a third police force got involved. Officers from Chiswick Police knocked on Schofe’s door to let him know that they had apprehended the Radio 1 thief and had his bag to return. Most of his belongings were still present, except for his wallet and one of the YIPPIE VROOM letters. He could only count eight.

The officers explained that they had taken one of them. It was pinned to their office noticeboard.

A charming tale of chummy collusion between celebrity and copper – but there’s a lovely little cherry on top of it now too. The public outreach campaign that Phillip Schofield had originally been selected to front for Northumberland Police? It was to encourage young people to come forward to adults if they ever felt anything was wrong…


Once you know the client roster of YMU and are conscious of how this all operates, you’ll see examples of it all over the press.

As they’re the darlings of the moment, and provide a pretty decent control group, using Holly and Phil might be the most illuminating example.

Though stories of secret feuds on the set of This Morning have been waxing and waning since 2019 (notably, when the young runner that Phillip was shagging got booted off This Morning and onto Loose Women), this most recent wave of anti-Phil’n’Holly sentiment started in late 2022. The tide began to turn when they did their ill-judged Spin To Win energy bills stunt, but things really got critical with QueueGate.

You’ve almost certainly heard 50 times more than you wanted to about QueueGate at the time, but – to for the record – this was when Phil and Holly were accused of using their celebrity status to cut the line at the Queen’s coffin, fast-tracking their respect-paying by flashing their media credentials.

Whatever you feel about the merits of this scandal, it is undeniable that the pair of them were equally culpable in it. Yet the whole episode was covered with a curious weighting.

If you can’t read the small print there, it says: “Holly Willoughby is battling for her This Morning job amid claims she skipped the Queen’s Lying-in-State queue. A petition for her to go is gaining momentum despite an on-air apology yesterday. Holly called in lawyers…”

The only mention of Phillip Schofield on the entire front page is the picture caption, identifying him solely as her “co-star”.

Why did Holly get thrown front and centre as a flak-catcher for Phil? The Sun obviously had a bit of residual goodwill in the bank with Phil after he very generously tipped the Sun on Sunday off to his big coming-out reveal ahead of time (The Sun’s associate editor Caroline Iggulden was present behind the cameras on the day to get the inside story).

But part of the answer might lie in a small media-interest story that had been published two months previously.

Holly left YMU in 2020, a few months after Phillip’s decision to come out on live TV. But she didn’t just move to a rival; she became a rival, setting up her own talent agency.

Her extraction from the agency did not go smoothly. In fact, it resulted in a years-long million-pound lawsuit that was settled (in Holly’s favour) in early July 2022: two months before QueueGate broke.

Had she still been in the YMU fold, it’s highly likely they’d have strained every nerve to protect their client and keep her out of the firing line the way they managed with Phil. However, as she’d gone into competition with them and then rinsed them for a seven-figure sum, they were feeling a lot less charitable. Hence, Holly became the face of QueueGate.

Hanging her out to dry this way proved a useful warning shot to any other clients who might have dared to follow Holly out of the door – but YMU has a much more effective way of keeping their stars loyal.

Family Affairs

The original James Grant agency (which was later rebranded YMU) was established in the mid-80s by former Radio 1 DJ Peter Powell and his business partner Russ Lindsay. The name “James Grant” came from their middle names, Peter James Powell and Russ Grant Lindsay.

From very early on in the agency’s history, it blended professional relationships with personal ones. Peter Powell began dating – and eventually married – one of the agency’s earliest signings, Anthea Turner.

Representing your own wife is great when the going is good. Not only do you get to spend your working life extolling the virtues of your beloved spouse, you get paid to do it too. Things will inevitably hit a snag when your wife is lured away by the dual temptations of Grant Bovey and Cadbury’s Flakes – but it clearly taught Peter Powell an important lesson.

The whole divorce was so unpleasant and thorny that Peter realised no-one would put themselves through that sort of hell voluntarily. And so James Grant/YMU became infamous for locking its clients in through similar ties. Not just with contracts, offers of media protection and a practically guaranteed ITV primetime show – but with actual bonds of blood.

YMU makes a habit of hiring husband and wife teams, knowing that one won’t leave without the other – unless they suddenly want their spouse’s work to dry up. That’s why you’ll see Emma Willis and Matt Willis, Tess Daly and Vernon Kay, Richard and Judy, Stacy Solomon and Joe Swash etc. on the books.

It’s not only the front of house talent either. The overlap between YMU staff and celebrities’ families is significant – and not coincidental.

Declan Donnelly married his James Grant handler, Ali Astall, in 2015. Ant McPartlin married his James Grant assistant, Anne-Marie Corbett in 2021. Richard and Judy’s son Jack Madeley is one of the agency’s employees. Emily Atack’s sister Martha Atack is on their payroll.

Knowing that they have loved ones whose livelihoods are intertwined with their continued relationship with YMU keeps everyone tied close. One big happy family.

Except when it isn’t.

As Peter learned to his detriment, sometimes life takes over. When a personal drama explodes – like it has with the covered-up story of Phillip Schofield shagging a young runner, toppling dominoes throughout the entire ITV hierarchy – it makes the fall-out all the more complicated. Which Phillip is now finding out.

Being shitcanned by his agency and thrown to the wolves is one thing, but one of the people who is still left inside YMU is Phillip’s firstborn: Molly Schofield.