Cathy's World: P.R. Confidential

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   May 21, 2003 at 1:15 PM
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LOS ANGELES, May 21 (UPI) -- Why do they hate us? Celebrity publicists may be asking themselves this now that two new movies feature these characters as sleazy anti-heros.

In "People I Know," Al Pacino plays a sad-sack press agent who's wasted his education and, in fact, his whole life. In "Phone Booth," Colin Farrell is a hustling P.R. guy so obnoxious that a perfect stranger wants to kill him.

Press agents have always suffered from bad press, though. I came across a little news item recently reporting that 25 percent of publicists admitted they sometimes lie to journalists. So do the other 75 percent always tell the truth? Or are they lying when they say they don't lie?

This is like one of those maddening logic problems about gates guarded by people who either always lie or always tell the truth. Behind one of the gates is a pot of gold or something, but the others lead to the depths of hell.

So let's imagine three gates guarded by celebrity publicists. Behind one lies "access" -- as we say in the trade -- to the celebrity, which means (at least in theory) quick, easy money.

But behind the others lie ... well, let's look at some real-life examples from my files of writer-publicist war stories.

Open Gate No. 1 and here's Bruce Bibby (a.k.a. E! gossip Ted Casablanca) who once had an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger cut short when a bodyguard pushed Bibby up against an outdoor heating lamp and ordered him to get out.

Bibby's crime? Asking Schwarzenegger, a well-known Republican, how the actor's bloody shoot-'em-up films jibed with Republican criticism about Hollywood's mindless on-screen violence. Bibby quickly found himself blackballed from all press screenings organized by PMK, the P.R. firm representing Schwarzenegger.

Open Gate No. 2 and here's veteran celebrity interviewer Michael Gross, getting yanked off a Tatum O'Neal story for a British magazine because the publicist had vetoed Gross as the writer.

"It all clarified when some big account executive in Hollywood told me there was a list (of possibly difficult writers) and I'm on it," Gross told me.

Open Gate No. 3 and here's the one-out-of-four publicists who admits he doesn't always tell the truth.

"No one wants to say, 'I can't get hold of him, he's on the set, unless you want to stall," a publicist I know explained to me. "So sometimes it's easier to just say no."

Although he'd agreed to a lovely lunch at Pinot Hollywood (my treat), this publicist wouldn't allow me to name him or even to get any closer.

"You know, earlier in my career a journalist wanted to follow me around and do a story," he told me. "I said, 'It's like making sausage; you really don't want to see.'"

But in a media landscape where a famous face can magically transform newsstand browsers into newsstand buyers, is it any wonder the celebrity publicist is king?

I've never been in the inner circle of celebrity puffery, but I have done one or two of these perky profiles per year for almost two decades. Usually, my dealings with the publicists involved have been pleasant and unremarkable. But sometimes there are inexplicable displays of one-upmanship.

That's because the world-unto-itself of personal publicists can be confusing and perilous. One widely reported flap, still vividly recalled by celebrity profilers, happened a few years ago when Lynn Hirschberg lost her contract with Vanity Fair after writing a (positive) cover story on Jerry Seinfeld.

For some mysterious reason, Seinfeld's publicist at the time, Lori Jonas, faxed Vanity Fair what the magazine took as evidence that Hirschberg had shown Seinfeld the article before publication.

After that fracas, I remembered a dust-up I'd had with Lori Jonas after I'd interviewed her client for USA Weekend, an innocuous piece about Seinfeld's views on dating and hanging out in coffee shops.

Seinfeld had roared off in one of his vintage Porsches when the interview was over but Jonas and I stood around at the Farmer's Market at 3rd and Fairfax for about 20 minutes, chatting pleasantly about this and that.

So when Woman's World later bought second rights to the story, and I called Jonas to let her know and to do some extra fact-checking, I thought she'd at least begin the conversation with a friendly greeting.

Instead, there was a stony silence of several moments. "Uh, Lori?" I finally ventured. "Are you there?"

More silence. Finally she announced sulkily: "I don't WANT Jerry in Woman's World."

Now admittedly, even in the world of housewife magazines, Woman's World isn't exactly aimed at the intelligentsia. It's not even one of the Seven Sisters; it's more like the ugly stepsister, the one who lives in a trailer park and spends every spare dime on collectible dolls from Franklin Mint and who the rest of the family doesn't really want to talk about.

Woman's World tends to have budget-saving tips like "not supersizing your fast food meal." A typical coverline: "I Lost 73 Pounds and Fit Into My Wedding Dress!"

Still, it may not be pretty, but it's America, and when you get down to it these readers are the people who stand in line for movie tickets and boost TV ratings.

Besides, how much classier, really, is USA Weekend, with its own telltale collectible doll ads? I hadn't pretended my original assignment to interview Seinfeld had been from GQ. Why was his publicist?

Perhaps because one of the delicate tasks of a P.R. person's job is balancing the ego needs of clients -- who like to be in magazines they and their friends read - with the tacky reality of the mass market.

In one infamous incident a few years ago, Pat Kingsley, doyenne of the Hollywood uber-publicity machine PMK, asked freelancers to sign agreements promising not to sell their round-robin Tom Cruise interviews to any publication other than the one they were representing at the studio-sponsored media junket.

But that sort of strong-arming actually hasn't become par for the course, or we wouldn't still be seeing that staple of glossy magazines, the celebrity round-up.

These quick bursts of chatter are as popular than ever, because (a) they lend themselves to catchy coverlines ("Gwyneth Paltrow on her First Love!") that sell the magazine, and (b) they cater to that current magazine obsession: readers with the attention spans of gnats.

The way round-ups are produced now is something of an object lesson in how times have changed. In the old days, the publicist cooperated with the publication doing the round-up, then basked in the warm glow of a successful plant. Now these pieces normally have to be done under the publicist's radar.

The frustrating thing is when the publicity can't be anything but positive anyway.

"It would have been easier, and less painful, to put my head in a vise and crank," said Hollywood Reporter columnist Ray Richmond about his celebrity round-up book, "My Greatest Day In Show Business."

So then how do these celebrity round-up features - still a staple of puffy magazines - get produced?

Well, normally, the A-list (or B-list, or even C-list) stars whose mugshots you see adorning those pages of blurby quotes didn't exactly mean to participate in the story. Typically what happened was some junketeer got in officially as the representative of one publication, but came armed with a year's worth of questions for future round-up assignments from others.

And a celebrity stuck at a junket all day answering silly questions anyway is usually happy enough (or maybe just comatose enough) to answer another one about, say, keeping fit.

But even the bland and friendly round-up can bring on the wrath now of P.R. micromanagers, who object not to the story per se but that it was done out of their range of vision.

"We've had a couple of publicists call up and say, 'How did YOU get THIS?" an editor of a teen magazine told me.

Ray Richmond managed to get about 80 anecdotes from stars like Chris Rock, Melissa Joan Hart, Penn & Teller, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Priscilla Presley and Jack Lemmon for his book.

My favorite was from Victoria Principal, who told Richmond her Greatest Day in Show Business came early in her career, when she got a personal phone call from the late director John Huston telling her she'd been cast in "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean."

"I let out this blood-curdling scream of unbelievable joy and surprise and hung up the phone on him," as Principal tells it in the book.

First Huston, and then Principal's agent, tried to call her back and became worried when no one picked up the phone.

So finally, the agent drove over to Principal's house, knocked on the door, and broke a window to get in when no one answered. He found his young client standing in the bathroom staring into the mirror.

"I explained that I'd never been better," Principal recalled. But that phone call had been the most important moment of her life so far. And, well, her first thought was to run to the mirror to see if this life-changing event made her actually LOOK changed.

So there she was, standing in the bathroom staring at herself "waiting for the physical change to occur."

I'd say this example of what can happen when a celebrity opens her mouth -- unsupervised! -- on the record goes a long way to explain why publicists work so hard trying to keep their clients' mouths shut.

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