The Puppet Masters
Magazines are desperate to line up celebrities for their covers to compete on today's crowded newsstands. That gives the stars' publicists an enormous amount of power over the publications.
By Catherine Seipp
Catherine Seipp is a Los Angeles-based writer and a longtime observer of the local media scene.
HERE'S A TYPICAL skirmish from the Hollywood journalists vs. Hollywood publicists wars: Bruce Bibby, a senior editor at E! Online, used to write the Ted Casablanca column at Premiere. For his last column there, he was covering the opening party of the Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-'em-up "Eraser." At the time, Bob Dole was complaining about the Hollywood product's excessive violence and vulgarity. So Bibby asked Schwarzenegger, a Republican indelibly associated with mindless on-screen violence, what Dole would think of his latest action-packed vehicle.
"Five times he asked me to repeat the question," Bibby says. "Finally he looked at one of his bodyguards and said, `Who is this guy?' " Apparently that was the signal for some mindless off-screen violence, because next thing Bibby knew, the bodyguard had shoved him up against the outdoor heating lamp with instructions to get out.
Bibby immediately went up to the Warner Brothers public relations person, Vivian Boyer, to tell her what had happened. Boyer was sympathetic, but Bibby was no longer invited to Warner Brothers screenings after that. "That's the hypocrisy of this town I both love and hate," he says equably. "It's just an example of how used to puffery they are."
In any case, such events are fairly routine, and Bibby is back in Warner Brothers' good graces. "I let them have their space and then called and got back on the list," he shrugs.
The dance of mutual dependence between magazines and celebrities has long been a tense tango, with a media culture so carefully choreographed by publicists that celebrities can be shocked when they encounter a rare unpuffy question. It's the equivalent of getting stomped on by a clod trying to lead. But these days the tango seems to be performed by marionettes, manipulated from above by celebrity publicists. That's because stars and their handlers are less willing to participate in noncover stories and, in a glutted, increasingly homogenous market, editors are more fearful about risking covers that may not sell.
The setting for all this is today's celebrity-saturated newsstand, which lately has become so competitive that even fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar regularly feature actresses instead of models on their covers. Then there's the currently hot "lad" market of guys-being-guys titles (Maxim, FHM, Details), which has created a whole promotional landscape for busty starlets, as well as a slew of new magazines (Teen People, Cosmogirl) catering to the celebrity-centered fantasies of adolescents.
So on a stage where all eyes are fixed on one glittering object--the famous face that can magically transform newsstand browsers into newsstand buyers--is it any wonder that the celebrity publicist now controls every tiny detail of the scene?
"As the editors get more desperate, the publicists get more powerful," says Lisa Granatstein, Mediaweek's magazine industry reporter. Thus the recent assortment of who-he? young faces on Vanity Fair's last Hollywood issue. As James Meigs, editor in chief of Premiere, told Granatstein in her Mediaweek column: "We're defining celebrity down."
The publicists are now in fact so powerful they resemble the Puppet Masters in the Robert Heinlein novel--alien creatures that embed themselves into human spines and control their victims' every move. Even when you don't see the Puppet Masters themselves, you see their work in the magazines you read: the generically innocuous, limited-access celebrity profile, for instance, typically centered around a short meal at a restaurant.
Sometimes, in desperation to add atmosphere, bits of business are imagined by the editor and inserted into the scene: "...Lisa Kudrow said, toying with the last of her scrambled eggs," is an example that made one writer I know pull her name from her story. In this Puppet Master-controlled planet of celebrity journalism, the celebrity reveals little except liberal use of the word "amazing"--the favorite all-purpose adjective these days of people who can't be bothered to think of anything else to say.
The full force of the Puppet Masters, though, is felt in the unsaid but prickly question of what they would think--even when the subject at hand is so tame you wonder why anyone would worry about it at all. The new McCall's StarStyle is a publication that may give InStyle-"the publicist's friend" as it's called in the trade--a run for its money as most innocuous magazine on the block. The cover story in the February 23 debut issue featured "100 Get Glam Tricks" from Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and half-a-dozen other stars. Since the story relied on information from stylists and costumers, not the stars themselves, the magazine presumably didn't have to worry about dealing with the stars' gatekeepers.
"We wanted to report on her look," StarStyle Editorial Director Sally Koslow says of cover girl Aniston. "We weren't looking for cooperation."
Still, Koslow froze up when asked how StarStyle got the cover picture if Aniston didn't cooperate by posing for it. "I don't want to discuss that," Koslow said firmly. Why not? "Because I don't. It's private." From her tone, you'd think she'd been asked to divulge her medical records. "Sometimes," she added finally, "beautiful photos already exist."
Well, yes: The cover credit listed NBC as well as the photographer's name, so presumably it came from the NBC publicity department--hardly a shocking or unusual situation. Still, Koslow evidently felt nervous enough about the whole thing to send along a letter explaining: "I'm sorry I couldn't have been more forthcoming with you, but I'm reluctant to give helpful hints to the competition.
"Also, I regret using the popular term `write-around' (a piece done without interviewing the subject) in connection with our celebrity reporting," she added. "I prefer the term `profile.' "
The Puppet Masters' power is fearsome because of the celebrity-driven dynamic of the modern magazine market. "I don't know how much longer we can go on with it," says Lesley Jane Seymour, who recently took over as Redbook's editor in chief after a stint at YM. "I mean, Popular Mechanics had Jay Leno on the cover, which was clever. But when you have all these smaller magazines siphoning off celebrities, what's going to happen? I'm worried we're all going to look the same. Maybe we'll go back to models, and models will hopefully be more humble."
Celebrity publicists, meanwhile, don't have to be humble. "I had someone try to dictate what we could say in the cover lines," Seymour recalls. "I was just flabbergasted."
The assumption used to be that PR power couldn't possibly get any more iron-gripped. To cite one oft-repeated example from when the press really began griping about such things: A few years ago Pat Kingsley, the doyenne of the Hollywood ?ber-publicity machine PMK, asked freelancers to sign agreements promising not to sell their round-robin Tom Cruise interviews to anyone other than the publications they were representing at the studio-sponsored press junket. No signature, no interview--and maybe even no more invitations to junkets, the bread-and-butter of Hollywood coverage.
This summer, PMK's fist came down again with an elaborate consent agreement for TV access to Cruise in connection with publicity for "Eyes Wide Shut." Shows like ABC's "20/20" and "Good Morning America" had to agree that Cruise interviews would run only in their entirety and only for those particular programs, thus barring interview clips from being sold to archival-dependent shows such as E!'s "True Hollywood Story" or A&E's "Biography." The waiver, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, also specified that Cruise not be presented "in a negative or derogatory manner" and that unaired interview footage must be destroyed (with PMK provided "evidence of such destruction") if its client so requested. In other words, no "blooper" clips of Mr. Cruise.
Understandably, no editor wants to give examples of concessions he or she is making to publicists these days. But the honest ones admit it does happen.
"The game has changed so much," sighs Lori Berger, for most of her career an entertainment writer for magazines like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire but now editor in chief of the year-and-a-half-old teen magazine Jump. For one thing, handlers for teen idols like Claire Danes and Katie Holmes have recently decided they don't want their clients degraded by appearing in teen magazines. Instead they want them in Vanity Fair, which in its recent focus on the young and semi-famous seems to be courting the Teen People demographic.
"I remember years ago, when you were an editor, you had power," Berger adds. "But publicists are now making editing decisions, and I am just astonished by it. It used to be that you were selling the celebrity, but that was it. Now you're not getting the story you want, or the picture you want, or even the hair and makeup you want, because the publicist approves all that. I always say to publicists now: `I want your job!' "
A S A REACTION against such all-controlling tactics, People magazine began finessing the art of the write-around in the early '90s. This is the profile based on interviews with the subject's friends and enemies but not the subject. Lanny Jones, People's top editor from 1989 to 1997 and now vice president of strategic planning at Time Inc. in New York, says the write-around became necessary because without it, "we were no longer practicing good journalism. I don't want to name names, but there are big glossies that are compromised."
At the same time, Jones had become frustrated with what he saw as "the complete lack of trust between publicists and magazines, and the mind-set--on either side--that they're all wrong and we're all right. The whole atmosphere had been filled with razor blades because of the rise of tabloids and tabloid TV." Jones organized lunch meetings of West Coast editors doing business with Hollywood. About a dozen regulars attended, representing magazines that included TV Guide, Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek and Playboy, among others.
Since many there had complaints about publicists' demands, one or two hardliners suggested presenting a united front of resistance against PR power, recalls attendee Stephen Randall, executive editor of Playboy. This notion was quashed by the second meeting, however, when Jones read a statement from Time Warner attorneys.
"Apparently we'd be in violation of the RICO statutes," Randall says. "It was akin to antitrust." Actually it wasn't quite that colorful: "We were advised by lawyers it wasn't a good idea," noted Jones, who says the idea was never seriously considered. "Not because of RICO--that's gangsters--but because of restraint of trade."
Still, I haven't heard of any similar rebellions since. So have things improved?
Jack Kelley, People's West Coast bureau chief since 1990, says that, contrary to rumor, there are no publicists who refuse to work with the magazine.
There was a flurry of reaction after People ran a cover story detailing the breakup of Robin Williams' first marriage and the actor's subsequent romance with his nanny-cum-second-wife. But Kelley noted that this happened more than 10 years ago, and "Robin's talked to us at least three times since then."
Because of People's mass audience (plus the fact that the magazine has the dreaded write-around down to a science), Kelley says he hasn't had much difficulty dealing with celebrities and their publicists these days. The only outrageous anecdotes he could think of happened years ago. One was when Annie Potts, at the height of her "Designing Women" fame, was getting married for the third time and her publicist offered People an exclusive on the story for $500,000. The other was when Michael Jackson was marrying Lisa Marie Presley and his representatives wanted complete approval of everything from cover photos to inside text. "We just said, `Thanks, but we'll wait for the divorce,' " Kelley recalls.
"For A-list celebrities, we will occasionally bend the rules," he adds, "but for 95 percent of the cases, it's our way or the highway." That means: a "hometake" (People jargon for a photo taken at the subject's home, usually with the family) and no questions off-limits during the interview.
But People, a news-driven weekly magazine, has enough circulation and resources that publicists can't afford to completely alienate it. The situation is different for the typical monthly glossy, which relies on the quick and friendly freelance-written interview. The type of time-consuming profile that Gay Talese wrote for Esquire in the '60s--such as "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," which evolved over a leisurely expanse of time hanging out with Sinatra--just isn't affordable anymore, either for magazines or for writers.
In a glutted market, it's the ordinary writers at ordinary magazines who acutely feel the new iron-fisted reign of the personal publicist. "In my opinion, it's gotten worse in the past five years," Ivor Davis says heatedly. Davis, who is English, is a veteran Hollywood freelancer for various foreign publications. He and his wife, Sally Ogle Davis, wrote a rant against the power of Hollywood publicists for Los Angeles magazine in the early '90s. Ivor Davis is still invited to junkets but feels the fallout, even when it's misdirected.
"I tried to do an interview with Jon Favreau"--(Who? Exactly.)--"he was playing Rocky Graziano in a Showtime movie," Davis continues. "And the publicist said, `Yes, I remember you. Weren't you involved in litigation with Geena Davis?' " Actually, no; the publicist must have been thinking of another entertainment journalist, unauthorized celebrity biographer Frank Sanello, who got in trouble with Geena Davis because of an article he wrote about her for Woman's World. No matter: interview denied. "Now here's a young actor who presumably wanted publicity, and she's using this against me, which will only hurt him," Ivor Davis says, his voice rising in outrage.
M OST ACTORS WANT to sit down and have an exchange," says Annett Wolf, partner in Wolf-Kasteler Public Relations and a high-powered Hollywood publicist. But despite the litany of complaints writers have about arrogant, ignorant publicists, it seems publicists have some legitimate complaints about arrogant, ignorant writers. "A lot of these writers are people in their 20s and 30s" with little knowledge of film history, Wolf points out. For instance, she says, if the topic is a new war movie, "sometimes the actor will bring up some scene from `Apocalypse Now' or `The Deer Hunter' and there's dead silence. The writer has no idea what he's talking about. And then the client tells me later, `So why am I doing this again?' "
Thus the "surfeit now of the kind of snapshot celebrity reporting, where someone just sits down with the person over salad and then just kind of regurgitates it," as People's Kelley describes it. Of course, there are some who have raised this sort of thing to a fine art. "It might be that I have a particularly charming group of writers, but we don't seem to have problems with access or time," says David Granger, editor in chief of Esquire for the past two years and GQ executive editor before that. "But then, I've seen someone like Tom Junod do wonderful things with just two or three hours spent with John Travolta."
Granger adds that he doesn't have much of a problem with publicists blackballing writers--perhaps because he tends to use writers who don't only interview celebrities. This doesn't mean he isn't asked to submit the writer's clips for approval. Take the profile of Robert DeNiro that writer Mike Sager did for Esquire a couple of years ago. "DeNiro's sort of famously picky, and the publicist wanted to see everything [Sager] had ever written," Granger recalls. "But they ended up being very comfortable with him."
For his part, DeNiro's publicist, Stan Rosenfield, says: "We ask for writer approval because, A, we can get it, and B, why should I set myself up with someone who is not a good writer or has a reputation for being `balanced,' and you and I both know what that means. We have to protect the client's best interests."
Those who break the rules of the game can find themselves blackballed, albeit in a smooth way. A Hollywood journalist told me: "One day, Pat Kingsley took me to lunch, casually mentioned some other journalists and said, `You know, we just take people like that off our list.' And I am off the list. I realized I hadn't been invited to a screening of `Celebrity.' So I called up Miramax and they said, `PMK handles that, because it's Woody Allen.' I just thought, `Oh...' "
Sometimes you're not off, but on a list, which can be worse. Michael Gross, who contributes regularly to New York magazine and GQ, and who wrote the first Madonna cover for Vanity Fair back in 1985, was assigned by a British magazine in the mid-1990s to do a cover story on Tatum O'Neal. "A PR person came to the shoot and said Tatum would not be doing the shoot if Michael Gross did the article," Gross says. "The magazine asked if I minded and I said I didn't, and to their credit the PR firm, Baker Winokur Ryder, sounded abashed. I did make the point to them that they were interfering with a contract, but I've had good dealings with them later. It all clarified when some big account executive in Hollywood told me there was a list and I'm on it."
The irony is that the Tatum O'Neal assignment wasn't meant to be anything but a puff piece, and that's what Gross would have delivered. But because of his reputation for digging up dirt on stars, he's been involved in intricate games of strategy with publicists. For his 1997 interview with Alec Baldwin for New York magazine, the first thing public relations firm Wolf-Kasteler asked was if he planned to go ahead with the article even if they didn't grant him an interview.
"Then there was this whole six-week-long dance," Gross recalls. "They weren't obstructive, but neither were they helpful. When you operate as a journalist instead of as part of the entertainment marketing machine, you won't get the cooperation the tame writers will, but you'll get some, because it provides a way for them to keep track of what you're doing. Finally with Baldwin, on the Sunday night before I was going to write the piece, I had an interview."
Gross continues: "The last celebrity profile I wrote before Baldwin was Richard Gere for Esquire. The first thing I did was call PMK. No one called me back, so I dropped off a letter to Gere's doorman. In 24 hours I had Pat Kingsley breathing fire down my neck." Gross never got an interview with Gere, although he did get an off-the-record lunch with him and access to the actor's friends. Gere and his publicist never agreed to a photo shoot, though. So Gross casually mentioned to Gere's agent, Ed Limato, "Oh, by the way, your boy lost the cover." Limato immediately yelled to an assistant: "Get Gere on the phone!"
"Somehow," continued Gross, "the next thing you know, Gere's in Greg Gorman's studio, and somehow, the pictures got to Esquire." Result: a cover story, without any uncool appearance of cooperation.
But these days Gross has shifted his attention away from celebrity interviews to concentrate on books. "I respect Pat Kingsley," he says, echoing a common sentiment of the entertainment press. "The people I don't respect are the so-called journalists who think they're on the same side of the fence as Pat Kingsley. I think it's institutionalized now. These glossy magazines only do hard, critical journalism on people who are dead, dying or out of favor. They only bare their fangs at signs of weakness."
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