Over the course of his life he has dated Jamie Lee Curtis, partied with Mick Jagger, managed the UK's first all-black dance group, been personal assistant to Grace Jones, acted as a stand-in for Burt Reynolds, and provided the teeth for a Colgate advert.

Oh, and he started the UK's first gay building firm, too

He has been an actor, a manager, a singer, a model and even a television presenter, yet Devon Buchanon's most enduring work has been as a builder - it is a little more than 30 years since he met joiner David A'lee and set up Millbank Interiors, London's first gay building company. Welcome to Buchanon's colourful life story, in which partying with celebrities goes hand in hand with struggling to compete in the macho and often bigoted world of construction: a world in which Millbank has become one of the few builders that has direct access to the "pink pound" - the £70bn earned and spent by gay people each year.

Devon in his 1980s pomp
Devon in his 1980s pomp

Hiding photos from the builders

It was 1975, and the gay community was being liberated by the music and fashion scenes. "The gay movement erupted; people like David Bowie were breaking all the boundaries," says Buchanon, who continues, somewhat less persuasively, that his old mate Kenny Everett had a similar impact to Ziggy Stardust. However, construction was slow to get the news, and gay couples often had to hide photographs and have female friends pose as partners if the builders came round.

David A'lee did some work for Buchanon's family, and they were impressed by how he broke the builder stereotype: "We were astonished at the quality of work, the clearing up - you know, we were used to stories of builders who leave a poo in your toilet."

But A'lee suffered at work. Having drawn their own conclusions about his sexuality, colleagues wrote things about A'lee on walls and made snide comments as he passed. A'lee also annoyed them with his fastidious attitude to the "that'll-do people" on site, who did not work to his high standards. He recalls: "Now and again they used sexuality as an excuse to intimidate me."

Buchanon, who was by now his partner, was having a much better time, working for Anthony Price, the fashion designer who styled Roxy Music's decadent look. He was developing a vast number of gay contacts - the ones fed up with living a lie when the builders came round, and then paying them a fortune for the privilege. Buchanon and A'lee spotted a gap in the market: a building company that would be blind to sexuality and skilled enough to meet to the specifications of demanding celebrities.

So they formed Millbank, which is named after the Westminster street where A'lee lives, and which is now home to the Labour party. Buchanon would provide the upmarket clients from the entertainment, fashion and music worlds and A'lee the construction expertise.

The first difficulty - and the abiding problem until the birth of the internet - was the lack of places to advertise. "We really relied on word of mouth," says Buchanon. "There were no gay trade associations, no real magazines. Fortunately the gay community liked our service - we were new, clean, articulate and trustworthy. There was not a lot of that available in the 1970s."

The second was attracting staff. They could only find a handful of builders that were openly gay. One they did find was a carpenter and lesbian from New York called Dee. Buchanon reckons she was probably one of the first females employed in this trade in the UK. She had fled New York after some sexist, rather than homophobic, colleagues had dangled her by her legs out of a window, saying that she should resign as there were no toilet facilities for women.

And so she ended up working for the company with the most glamorous list of clients in London - among Millbank's early jobs were cabinets to hold Anita Ekberg's collection of antiques and home improvements for Bryan Ferry.

Taboos and Torso

In addition to their burgeoning building company, in 1980 Buchanon and A'lee decided to break another taboo: they founded Torso, the country's first all-black dance act. It was formed from a group of east London friends through a DJ at Maunkberrys, the basement nightclub Grace Jones once entered by motorbike (incidentally, Buchanon was to briefly become her personal assistant on a London tour later in the decade). A'lee is particularly proud of the troupe: "I have an eye for dancing - my family was very musical; my dad was a saxophonist. It was great because I could help with the musical side and also design and build the sets."

It was a highly successful act: Mick Jagger used to practise his dance moves with Torso before he went on tour with The Rolling Stones. Torso's big breakthrough was performing in the video for Adam and the Ants' Prince Charming.

Adam Ant was a one-time beau of actress Jamie Lee Curtis and, through one of the Torso dancers, Buchanon was introduced to the "scream queen" - the nickname she picked up for her work in horror films such as Halloween. Buchanon, who is bisexual and had split up with A'lee (although they still ran Millbank together), ended up dating Curtis for a short while. He attended the BAFTA awards with her in 1984, when she won best supporting actress for Trading Places. He says Curtis had "the most fantastic personality, really hilarious", but the relationship ended soon afterwards.

The mid-1980s was a high point for Buchanon. He had become good friends with Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes, attending his wedding and drinking in Parisian bars with him, Sting and Jagger. This web of celebrities did Millbank no harm, winning the firm work with Rhodes and developing a list of repeat clients such as Lulu, who only recently re-hired the company to do masonry work on the exterior of her home. Michael Douglas and Hans Zimmer, the composer of the Top Gun theme music and later the score to Gladiator, were clients - Millbank built units to house Zimmer's music collection.

Buchanon had left Anthony Price by this time to concentrate full-time on Millbank. The gay client base was also expanding as their disposable incomes were increasing. "A lot of gay people take pride in their homes," Buchanon says. "And in the 1980s homes became a reflection of how successful you were."

The firm was not just working for gay and celebrity clients, though. Women were keen to use the company: "A lot of women wanted gay builders as they knew that they wouldn't get harassed."

The workload was increasing, but the pool of labour remained small. Millbank decided to start employing "gay-friendly" builders, typically heterosexual men with families. Millbank made clear a code of conduct for its employees and subcontractors - no bigotry, and cleanliness in word and deed. As it was still an essentially a word-of-mouth business, it relied on its fastidious reputation more than most.

Avoiding collapse

As the economy went into collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Millbank suffered badly. Home repairs were one of the first cutbacks people made, and Buchanon had to do something he never thought that he would - get his hands dirty. "It was horrible. I had to leave the office and get the paint brush. I was helping David until 2 or 3am, cutting up material for the joinery."

Devon believes that Millbank's survival was down to its niche position - there were few, if any, rivals, so if the market was shrinking, at least its dominance in that area remained. A'lee says that the company really pushed the gay, rather than celebrity, side of the business at this stage. "When everyone else was not spending in the recession, gay people still had disposable income because they didn't have big families and children," he says.

Millbank was also about to solve its greatest problem - the lack of advertising opportunities. The advent of the internet revolutionised this, with people able to type - "for whatever reasons," laughs Buchanon - "gay builder" into their search engines and find Millbank. Also, directories, such as gaytoz.com, gave Millbank other places to list their services. Today, 90% of the firm's work comes from the internet.

Devon Buchanon
Devon Buchanon

Coming to a screen near you …

The recent introduction of civil partnerships legislation means that the gay building market could be about to boom - Buchanon believes that more same-sex couples will buy properties now inheritance and tax laws are in line with their heterosexual peers. But this has brought a surprising threat to Millbank - straight builders. Having seen the growth in the market, traditional firms are targeting work from the gay community, presenting themselves as clean, tidy and focused on detail - very similar to Millbank's pitch 30 years ago.

The expansion of the European Union is also having an impact, as gay Turkish, Polish or Latvian builders are often trying to escape societies where their sexuality is still a stigma. "At one stage we couldn't find people to work for us, but now we're getting contacted from all over Europe," says Buchanon.

Now that Millbank has finally established itself in the hetero construction world, though, Buchanon and A'lee have turned their minds to other things. They would like to sell to an entrepreneur, who would then expand the company into a nationwide business.

Not that, at 53, Buchanon will stop working. He will almost certainly continue his acting career, which has seen him stand in for Burt Reynolds in a Dolland & Aitchison advertisement, help sell shoes in a Shopping Channel featurette and order a "McRib" in a McDonald's campaign, as well as flash his pearly whites for Colgate. It seems unlikely, as his life embarks on its next eventful chapter, that Buchanon will stop smiling just yet.