Taming the wildest Hollywood beasts

When stars go wild, who keeps them in line? Their publicists.

One of the high points of Howard Bragman's career as a Hollywood publicist came at this year's Oscars, when his client, "Crash" producer Cathy Shulman, accepted the award for Best Picture.

Mr. Bragman not only coached Ms. Shulman on her speech and red-carpet etiquette, he helped her pick out a black Michael Kors gown and made sure she appeared at the right postceremony parties. "That's about as fun as it gets when you're the publicist for a client who wins an Oscar," he says.

On the other hand, Bragman's 25-year tenure as a founding partner of Bragman, Nyman, and Cafarelli, a publicity firm that has represented celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, has included more lows than he cares to count. Among the worst was watching an up-and-coming actress spiral out of control with a substance-abuse problem, despite his pleas with her that she was damaging her career.

In a month when the antics of Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan are the talk of tabloid magazines, TV news channels, and dinner tables everywhere, Hollywood publicists say it's harder than ever to shape the images of their clients. For one thing, the market for tabloid media has become saturated with global demand for celebrity stories. Furthermore, publicists complain that they no longer have control over coverage as cellphone cameras and websites such as TMZ.com and Perezhilton.com foster an "anything goes" environment.

"There is an element to our job now that's protecting as opposed to publicizing," says Leslee Dart, whose clients include Tom Hanks and Woody Allen. "Information is spread like wildfire in a matter of a minute or two, and back in the good old days it was at least 24 hours. It requires you to think more quickly, react more quickly, and respond more quickly."

Even as Mel Gibson's publicist, Alan Nierob, works round the clock to address questions about his client's alleged anti-Semitic comments following his arrest for driving while intoxicated, some observers point out that details of Gibson's arrest never would have been so widely publicized a decade ago. Video of Gibson taken earlier that evening by cellphone has also been published on the Internet.

"Because of the Web becoming all gossip all the time ... publicists have very little power, and that has changed the game," says Richard Laermer, a New York-based publicist and author of "Full Frontal PR." "They now have to work really hard to create and craft an image for their clients."

Thirty or 40 years ago, studio publicity departments dictated what journalists could or could not write, notes Henri Bollinger, a former president of the Publicists Guild who has represented Ernie Kovacs and David Niven. "If an actor got involved in exactly the sort of thing Mel Gibson just experienced, they could have kept all of that out of print. That power no longer exists today."

"There was a very very different sense of control" in the 1940s and 1950s, says Allen Coulter, director of the upcoming film, "Hollywoodland," which is set in the 1950s and includes a character based on Howard Strickling, MGM's head of publicity at the time. "The studios are not in control of the town as they were at that time. It also meant that everyone had to be a participant in that control. There was a certain sense of, 'You don't say those things, you don't write about those things.' "

That doesn't mean the days of orchestrated media coverage are over. Publicists are still often able to arrange magazine covers, sit in on interviews, and keep journalists from asking about controversial topics such as a divorce or weight changes.

"As long as there are magazines, publicists will have some influence, because we have clients that the magazines want to put on the cover. It's a give and take in that regard," Ms. Dart says. In a related example, she recalls working on the Oscar campaign for "Syriana" last year and trying to get The New York Times to do a story in advance of the film's release. The paper ended up running a story about movies with multifaceted plots, including "Syriana," with an opening paragraph that called it "one of the season's most eagerly anticipated movies."

The paper got an exclusive interview with director Stephen Gaghan, while Dart and her team were able to create some early buzz about the complex film. "We started out with a big, big piece that sort of set the tone for the movie," she says.

Stephen Farber, a freelance film writer who wrote the piece, recalls that Dart's office was "helpful in setting up and facilitating" the interview with Mr. Gaghan, though he says the story had been in the works before she contacted the paper.

Restricting reporters from addressing specific topics is another way publicists sometimes try to control coverage, according to Bruce Bibby, who writes a gossip column for E! Online under the name Ted Casablanca. At a press event promoting the Grammy Awards, Mr. Bibby says that he was warned by event publicists not to ask Madonna about her marriage to director Guy Ritchie. Instead, Bibby asked her a softball question about her fitness routine, then followed with an indirect one about romance that got him the answer he wanted. No one chastised him about it.

"To be a working member of the press in Hollywood, you have to choose your battles, and sometimes you have to be a little creative about it," he says.

The majority of today's entertainment publicists tend to be young and female with college degrees in public relations. Though the job often requires round-the-clock availability, many say they are attracted by glamorous perks such as accompanying a client to movie premières and A-list parties. "There are a lot of people in it now to perhaps get famous themselves – and who do live vicariously through their clients," says Bibby.

A small number even succeed. Hillary Swank thanked her publicist, Troy Nankin, in her Best Actress acceptance speech at the 2005 Oscars. Sarah Michelle Gellar asked her publicist-turned-manager, Nicole King, to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. In one of the more famous examples of publicists making news themselves, Tom Cruise announced two years ago that he would replace PR powerhouse Pat Kingsley with his less experienced sister, Lee Ann Devette, then saw his public approval ratings dip as he talked more openly about fiancée Katie Holmes and his practice of Scientology. Earlier this year, he changed his strategy again by hiring Paul Bloch of Rogers & Cowan.

A decade ago, people barely knew what a publicist was, says Bragman. "We are in the era of spin, and perception has become much more important than just about anything else," he said. "When Tom Cruise fires his publicist and hires his sister, it's big news. It's news all over the world."

For Dart, who also made headlines when she was fired by powerhouse publicity firm PMK last year and went on to start her own company, the job has always thrilled her, no matter how much the media environment has changed. "It's definitely not a formulaic job. You're always evaluating and maintaining some flexibility to react to current events or attitudes and perceptions," she says. "I find it to be immensely rewarding."

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