Celebrity Monsters Terrorize Magazines

It wasn’t so long ago that celebrity publicists and managers were afraid, very afraid, they were losing the battle to control what glossy magazines could say and do around Hollywood’s anointed-the stars whose private lives the publicists are sworn to guard and manage and preserve in a cone of gleaming, glamorous, two-dimensional repose. All that flew out the window with Tom Junod’s high-concept outing of actor Kevin Spacey in the October 1997 issue of Esquire … which came right on the heels of Andrew Corsello’s gleeful evisceration of Mira Sorvino in GQ , and Lynn Hirschberg’s methodical deconstruction of ABC-TV executive Jamie Tarses in The New York Times Magazine . Hollywood’s bright youngish things were dropping like flies. To those in the publicity business, it seemed like the gloves were off. Even Variety got in on the act, whispering in September 1997 that “the leverage once held by publicists is switching back to magazines and their star byliners.”

Not anymore. Whatever leverage the magazines unwittingly gained back in the never-ending battle to put stars on their covers and hope they sell, sell, sell, seems to have been lost, lost, lost. Instead, as the Oscar-fueled silly season takes off again this year, magazines have become like that mythical nude blonde who supposedly popped up in Leonardo DiCaprio’s hotel room-determined to land their celebrity quarry at any cost. And the cost, by the way, is the death of anything meaningful in magazine journalism.

With more magazines out there interested in putting celebrities on their covers, the competition has become more intense. In response, more and more magazines have added so-called “celebrity wranglers” to their staffs. These people usually have a title like “special projects editor,” or in the case of Vanity Fair ‘s Jane Sarkin, “features editor.” Only they don’t edit features. Their job is to be the liaison between the editor in chief and the community of Hollywood publicists who act as gatekeepers to the stars.

“With so few celebrities available for covers, they’ve literally become commodities,” said former Spin editor Michael Hirschorn. It’s gotten to the point where “the sheer amount of sucking up that you have to do is so extraordinary that you have to hire someone to do it,” he said.

Enter the sucker-upper. The pre-eminent celebrity wrangler, most agree, is Ms. Sarkin. Hired by Tina Brown 14 years ago when she was editor of Vanity Fair , Ms. Sarkin is said to have basically invented the job. Since then, she has produced 14 so-called “Halls of Fame” for the magazine and 170 covers, including the brand-new April Hollywood issue. Ms. Sarkin has two assistants and a West Coast counterpart. But the fact that you’ve never heard of most of the 14 young stars on the April cover-five of whom are handled by one publicity firm, Baker Winokur Ryder-shows that even Ms. Sarkin’s machinelike professionalism is running into some tough times in this celebrity climate.

With the big stars either off-limits or so tied up in attached strings that magazines have to sign contracts pledging to not ask this or that question just to guarantee their participation, younger stars are in higher demand. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are any fewer strings. Eager to please, so as to maintain the requisite “heat” and “buzz” that advertisers crave, magazines are increasingly put in the position of kowtowing to publicists’ every desire.

So, the celebrity wrangler is the mirror image to the publicist-making sure that nothing embarrassing, unseemly, uncouth or, in a word, real gets into a piece. “I don’t edit. I don’t line-edit. I’ll read something over to make sure there’s nothing wrong or anything,” said one celebrity wrangler at a major glossy who requested anonymity. “I’m protecting everybody. I try to protect the celebrity and I try to protect the magazine.” Which means, before the magazine goes to press, “I’ll go down and say, ‘No, take that out.'”

Now, it may be that trying to squeeze any kind of meaning out of the old celebrity profile is a fool’s errand to begin with. But in a media world increasingly governed by multinational conglomerates such as the Walt Disney Company and Time Warner Inc., it’s become hard enough for glossy magazines to maintain even the appearance of independent, critical thinking, let alone actually engage in it. To use a now tired and totally unironic phrase, the tail truly is wagging the dog. Magazines have to bow and scrape before the likes of Leslee Dart, Pat Kingsley and Lois Smith, the triumvirate that rules PMK, the publicity firm that controls access to an inordinate number of celebrities.

Thus, Rolling Stone was forced to give away photo approval to Madonna to get her on the cover of its 30th-anniversary “Women in Rock” issue back in October 1997. The agreement, drawn up by her lawyers at Grubman Indursky & Schindler, covered almost every aspect of the shoot from “what happened to Polaroids to layout,” said one editor there who had seen it.

Of course, there are all kinds of things that can go wrong even before the writer has gotten anywhere near the subject. “It’s a game of Hollywood chicken,” said GQ editor in chief Art Cooper. “A publicist will say, ‘This star really wants to be on your cover.’ You say, ‘What we want is exclusivity, hang-out time … we don’t do at-lunch-with. We want a week in the life of this person who wants to be on the cover.’ And then they say, ‘So-and-so is available at the Grill for two and a half hours.’ And you say, ‘That’s a good introduction.’ Then they say, ‘Oh, no, only that.'” So they have to start all over again.

Which is why, more often than not, the celebrity profiles aren’t that interesting. “They’ll find some guy, put him on the cover and what-are you going to put him in a suit, take him out on a date?” asked one former magazine editor. “And the poor contract writers have to drag something out. That’s the emasculating thing about it. They [the publicists] take everything back.”

“[The publicists] get mad at everything,” said one wrangler. “Really, there’s always something.” Sometimes, the “star feels they’ve shared too much. They want story approval.” Other times, “it would come down to hair and makeup negotiations, photography negotiations, writer negotiations.”

Leslie Sloane, who works for Baker Winokur Ryder and represents last year’s starlet Gretchen Mol, said, “There’s rules and you have to play by the rules. I pretty much abide by what they [the magazines] ask me to.”

Still, the endless jousting can cause massive outbreaks of jealous envy in the wrangler ranks. Consider the Time Inc. fashionable celebrity vehicle, In Style . In the words of one talent agency executive, “They’ll do anything to please. They’ll do a full article on a dinner party, a premiere. As long as there are a lot of pictures of celebrities.”

” In Style is like the death of us all,” said another wrangler. “This magazine is like the nicest magazine to all the celebrities. It’s just made my life hell.”

And don’t think it’s not appreciated. “They don’t take potshots at you,” said Ms. Kingsley, head of PMK, who represents Charlize Theron, as well as such established entertainers as Robert Redford, Woody Allen and Tom Cruise. “They’re a perfect example of showing that good news can sell. And it doesn’t have to be biting.”

This puts everyone at a disadvantage, especially second-tier magazines such as George (“I get calls from them all the time. They’re always freaked out at the ninth hour,” said a source at a major Hollywood talent agency), and even Esquire , when it was trying to put together its extremely worthy March cover story on AIDS. Esquire ended up corralling Madonna, Tom Hanks, Lauryn Hill, Sharon Stone, Chris Rock, Grant Hill and Natasha Richardson. “But at the end of the day, they were trying to get celebrities, any celebrity, on the cover,” said the same executive.

When asked why she and other publicists insist on locking magazines into constrictive agreements when it comes to writing about generally vacuous celebrities, Ms. Kingsley blamed what she sees as a kind of tabloid fever in modern journalism. Journalists “tend to follow what the National Enquirer and the Star do,” she said, in terms of gossip and what publicists consider to be negative information. “Just because a story is positive doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting. They’re always using phrases like, ‘We have to balance it out,'” she added, referring to journalists’ rationalization for including the perhaps unsavory details that often constitute the other side of any story. “I don’t understand why.”

In some cases, from the editors’ point of view, the question regarding wranglers can become, What the hell do these people do? “These screenings are during the day, or they’re going out to lunch,” said a former editor at one men’s magazine. “Every morning they come in, they’re talking about the party they went to last night … if you’re a senior features editor, you’re not on the list.”

As Elizabeth Shulte, Details ‘ special projects editor, put it: “I can’t describe my job. It takes like 20 minutes to describe what I do. I love it. You get paid to see movies, talk to celebrities and talk to publicists.”

Wheeeeeeeeee! It’s like climbing on a big celebrified media merry-go-round! GQ has one: Patricia Becker. Allure has one: Beth Altschull. Harper’s Bazaar ‘s is Maggie Buckley. Vogue ‘s is Deda Coben. Esquire ‘s got Lisa Hintelmann, who cut her teeth at PMK. Talk ‘s got Tom Piechura, a former Miramax publicist, and Carolyn Graham, whom Ms. Brown brought over from The New Yorker to be her eyes and ears in Hollywood. Most other magazines have an editor who does it part-time.

To have a celebrity wrangler “frees up your time,” said Michael Solomon, the features editor at Mirabella . However, Mirabella doesn’t have a dedicated wrangler so he has to do it himself. “I suppose they’re looking out more for the celebrity than the reader,” he said, speaking of the wranglers who aren’t editing copy. “I think the trick with dealing with celebrities is just having a big bottle of Advil on your desk.”

Ilene Rosenzweig, deputy editor of The New York Times ‘ Styles section, used to do it part-time at Allure . “It just takes so much baby sitting and perseverance,” she said. “It’s like extreme rodeo. Unless you’re a really big fan, you burn out … you have to assume that the first five things you do will fall apart.” On her watch, she came nose-to-nose with Friends star Jennifer Aniston, who was unhappy with her photo shoot. That also meant an unhappy Steven Huvane, her publicist, who an editor at the magazine said stopped talking to Allure for a while to punish them. Mira Sorvino also threw a fit over what she felt was an overly creative photo shoot with outré photographer David LaChappelle, Ms. Rosenzweig said. All of which put Ms. Rosenzweig in something of a bind. “It can’t not work out,” she said. “Something has to work out.”

When she left last fall, she was replaced with Beth Altschull, who used to be Ms. Sarkin’s assistant at Vanity Fair . Ms. Altschull labors full-time on the project of changing Allure from a model-driven to a celebrity-cover magazine. One more person to duke it out for the same people.

This is part of why, in the last few years, even Vanity Fair has started running pictures of pre-stars, people you haven’t really heard of yet but who (they hope) will be stars pretty soon. As the editor of one of the most formidable fame-appreciation apparatuses around, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter allowed that the fame game may be getting out of hand. Going after the same stars, he said, “puts too much power in the hands of several stars and publicists. If the pool is 100 stars, it opens up the power.”

In other words, goodbye, Demi Moore, hello, Charlize Theron, Vanity Fair ‘s fur-swaddled January cover girl. (Even around the office she was jokingly referred to as “Charlene Tilton.” Think Lucy Ewing Cooper on Dallas .) The danger of this strategy is nobody knows who these new young “stars” are. Remember Gretchen Mol back in September? “They just absolutely, to their chagrin, picked the wrong person,” said an executive at a Los Angeles talent agency. “She’s talentless. But she is pretty to look at.” Still, it sold decently (390,828 on the newsstand, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations).

“I read the Rounders script and I knew she was going to be in Celebrity ,” said Mr. Carter, before perhaps assuring himself, “Gretchen’s going to be around for a while.”

But a competing wrangler had another spin on that cover: “Everyone in L.A. was like, Oh, they got snowed. That’s the mark of the good publicist.”

Ms. Mol was also on last year’s celebrity juvenilia round-up cover for the Oscars issue. “I just sort of go on the odds that they’re going to be right more times than not,” Mr. Carter said of his star picks. In the new April issue, he defends the system as being a sort of farm team for people like Ms. Mol. “Nearly 40 percent” of the group-shot cover subjects from the last five years “have either commanded their own Vanity Fair cover or are scheduled to appear on one in the near future,” he promised. This might be a self-fulfilling fame-production machine, but are this year’s cover subjects Julia Stiles and Leelee Sobieski really on the same level as Nicole Kidman and Sarah Jessica Parker were when they loitered in their underwear on the cover in 1995?

That competitiveness-the willingness to give it away to get the celebrity (because if you don’t, someone else will)-is what’s driven the cover-economy to its current dizzying heights. While Condé Nast sister magazines like Details , Mademoiselle and Allure compete to a certain extent with Vanity Fair to put celebrities on the cover-not to mention their competitors in the fame game at Elle , George and Mirabella (Hachette Filipacchi Magazines), Esquire and Cosmopolitan (Hearst Magazines), Entertainment Weekly and Time (Time Inc.), and independents like Rolling Stone , Spin and Vibe -now here comes Talk , itself created by the notoriously press-aggressive Miramax Films Corporation. Since its editor, Tina Brown, pretty much midwifed the celebrity wrangler into being, she’s expected to take the concept a step further at Talk .

The downside of Vanity Fair ‘s youth strategy is that it puts even more power in the hands of junior stars. “These kids don’t want to do anything,” kvetched one wrangler. “It used to be [Robert] De Niro and Tom Cruise would turn down [coverage]. Ryan Phillippe and these young guys are like, covers only. It’s like, are you kidding me?”

“Everybody needs everybody in this business,” said one wrangler. “It all comes around again.” Just wait till next year.