Jesse Nash was sitting in a cloud of his own Jil Sander cologne at one of the sidewalk tables at Nello on Madison Avenue. He wore a black Issey Miyake jacket with strange little bunched squares of black fabric all over it, black jeans, a white shirt and leather motorcycle boots.
Although the lunch hour had long passed, Mr. Nash couldn’t help checking out the thin crowd that sat on the other side of the restaurant’s front window. Nello was a restaurant that often attracted celebrities, and Mr. Nash was a guy who had achieved a certain low level of fame for himself by reporting on the comings and goings of the legitimately boldfaceable.
Featured regularly in the New York Post ‘s Page Six column as the “ubiquitous tipster” and known in some media circles as the junketeering journo, Mr. Nash criss-crosses the world attending all-expenses-paid film and travel promotion junkets, where he gathers bits of celebrity dross that he then passes on to his friends in the press (usually with his name attached). He has shared a $20,000 bottle of wine with Julio Iglesias, hot-air ballooned with Siegfried & Roy and gone on safari with Naomi Campbell and James Earl Jones.
In his 13-year career as a softball celebrity journalist, Mr. Nash has shilled for loads of famous people, but until now, he has never really had a vested interest in the horns he tooted, save for his own.
That all changed when Mr. Nash met an unknown actress from Beijing named Victoria Rong at a cocktail party last year. After a test run at the Page Six Fashion Week party at Guastavino’s restaurant on Feb. 9, Mr. Nash became Ms. Rong’s personal manager.
Wielding Ms. Rong’s resume (skills include “speedboat” and “footrace”), publicity stills and even Ms. Rong herself, Mr. Nash has been hondling the media types that he knows so well in an attempt to turn Ms. Rong–whose previous acting experience has been extra work in Random Hearts and The Thomas Crown Affair –into a celebrity worth building a junket around.
Mr. Nash’s new role seems to encompass parts of Henry Higgins, Kit Culkin, Sidney Falco and Rasputin. He convinced ancient designer Oleg Cassini to design his client a few dresses. He has taught Ms. Rong essential show-business phrases such as “schmooze.” And he has instructed her on the finer points of working a room. In recent weeks he has introduced her to Page Six editor Richard Johnson, actresses Anjelica Houston and Arlene Dahl, and even fatwah -ed writer Salman Rushdie.
Mr. Nash soon hit pay dirt. On Feb. 22, the New York Post ‘s signature gossip column ran a picture item of Ms. Rong that was captioned: “Welcome.”
Mr. Nash seems quite content with the job he’s done for his client’s career so far. “It’s all me, baby,” he told The Transom at Nello. He wore a Mephistopholean beard, a McDonald’s hash brown tan, and dual pinkie rings. “I’m taking a woman who was a talented actress, and who was nothing until Richard Johnson put her in Page Six. Then I got her this cover, and now, I’ve got her a movie.”
By cover, Mr. Nash means the cover of The Resident , the freebie community newspaper that’s published in the city. As Mr. Nash told it, he walked into Resident Editor-in-Chief Nelson Williams’ office with Ms. Rong and a copy of the Page Six clip, and “everybody came into his office. The whole place! They couldn’t believe her,” he said.
“That’s a Jesse Nash story,” Mr. Williams said. “Actually, only the art director was in here. We basically just looked at her book.” Mr. Williams did agree to feature Ms. Rong on the cover of the paper’s fashion issue. The accompanying interview was penned by–celebrity journalist Jesse Nash! It was a fluffy little piece that billed itself as Ms. Rong’s “first-ever U.S. interview” and cooed that Ms. Rong “scored a part opposite Ben Stiller in Edward Norton’s… Keeping the Faith .”
Although Mr. Williams didn’t seem to have a problem printing a byline by Ms. Rong’s manager, he did note: “I take everything Jesse says with a huge grain of salt. I think of him as a freelance journalist who basically skims freebies, not really as a talent manager,” said Mr. Williams.
At Nello, Mr. Nash backpedaled about the Keeping the Faith gig. “It’s probably a principal extra role. A bit part maybe . I have no idea,” he said. “It’s probably on the cutting room floor.” A representative from Disney, the studio distributing the film, said that Ms. Rong’s name does not appear among the 50-odd actors credited in the film.
Whatever . Mr. Nash claimed to have already scored his client another film job. He said that the director Michael Bergmann, who had made a 1997 film called Milk and Money with then-unknown Calista Flockhart, had agreed to create a film around Ms. Rong called Losing Sleep . (Mr. Bergmann confirmed this.)
Mr. Nash won’t say what kind of tithe he’s extracting from Ms. Rong’s earnings. Others have their suspicions. At the Page Six party, Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Nash, in a rather direct manner, if his relationship with Ms. Rong was more than strictly professional.
“He denied it,” said Mr. Johnson by phone. “But I’m still not believing him. If he isn’t, he’s working awfully hard for free.”
Yet Mr. Nash used a dating analogy to explain why he decided to manage Ms. Rong’s career.
“I’ve been approached over the years to manage people, but let’s face it, actors and actresses are not the most stable people,” he said, with a smile. “I’ve gone out with so many actresses and every one of them was a nutcase. This girl, however, is not from here. The Chinese people are very focused. They wake up everyday, work work, work, and they get their goal.”
Indeed, it was Ms. Rong’s singlemindedness that convinced Mr. Nash to become a junior Mike Ovitz in the first place. When he first met the actress, he said, “I wasn’t blown away right away.” But then, Ms. Rong “started seeing my name in Page Six and became aware of what I did,” said Mr. Nash. “She kept bothering me, so I said, ‘Let me take you to the Page Six party and let’s make believe I’m your manager there and let’s see what happens.'”
The Transom asked how Ms. Rong’s English was coming. “Perfect! She speaks fluent English,” said Mr. Nash. He paused a second. “She’s got a slight accent. But when it comes to learning her roles, she’s there. Listen, when they interviewed Salma Hayek at the Academy Awards, her Mexican accent was thicker than a tortilla! But when she’s up there with a teleprompter, she has no accent.”
Mr. Nash has a slight accent, too. His is of the Bellmore, Long Island variety. That’s not all that he has in common with his client. Ms. Rong changed her name from Rong Shi when she came to the states two years ago. In the early 80’s, Mr. Nash was Jesse Wasser. His surname change was prompted by his enlistment as a guitarist in a band called Ruby Nash, which took its moniker from a Bronx pickle company.
By 1987, Mr. Nash had put down his ax for a pen. Nonetheless, he remains rather vague about where he publishes other than Page Six. Mr. Nash explained that most of his work appears in magazines in countries other than the U.S. and that he has a syndication business where he places other journalists’ work in foreign publications.
In the city, however, he is best known as the “tipster” who’s name appears in New York gossip columns next to quotes from movie stars, such as Rod Steiger babbling about how he wants to die while having an orgasm.
Page Six’s Mr. Johnson told The Transom that he gets no end of abuse from his colleagues for using Mr. Nash’s celebrity tidbits. “Everybody asks me, ‘Why do you keep mentioning this idiot?'”
When Mr. Johnson does use Mr. Nash’s items, he sometimes refers to him as the “ubiquitous tipster, Jesse Nash.”
“Ubiquitous! I love that! Ha, ha, ha!” Mr. Nash said, throwing his large head back in laughter. It hit the glass window of Nello, frightening a woman dining on the other side. “It just means I’m everywhere. Which is true!”
Just then, a photographer whom Mr. Nash was expecting pulled up to the curb. “Hey there’s Philip Jean! Hey, baby. Phil happens to be the best photographer in Manhattan,” said Mr. Nash.
Mr. Jean sat in his Hyundai hatchback, speckled with rust, and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. A Rip Taylor mustache and four days growth of beard sprouted from his cheeks. “I gotta put my pants on,” Mr. Jean called out.
The silver-haired Mr. Jean pulled himself out of the little car, and stood on the sidewalk in a white T-shirt and denim shorts. He carried an unusually large beer gut.
The photographer sat down at Mr. Nash’s table and pulled out black-and-white contact sheets of shots he had taken of Ms. Rong at the New York Academy of Motion Picture’s Oscar-night party at Le Cirque 2000.
Mr. Jean, it turns out, was something of a plant. Mr. Nash had convinced him to show up at the party, to take a few shots of Ms. Rong, which, according to the scheme, would inspire a frenzy among the paparazzi. “The idea was to get it going,” said Mr. Jean. “Hit her, and split. [Make the other photographers] think I’m going to get the shit into the newspaper.” But the ruse didn’t work. When Mr. Jean split, no one took the bait.
Mr. Jean ordered a cappuccino and Mr. Nash tucked a $20 bill into the pocket of the photographer’s jacket. Then he went inside the restaurant and paged Ms. Rong.
Twenty-five minutes later, the actress appeared and Mr. Nash got up to embrace his client. Then Ms. Rong, whose mobility seemed impaired by a very tight red cocktail dress, climbed over a chair to sit next to Mr. Nash. She wore a black print hat with beige elephants on it, pulled down low on her head, and an orange scarf wrapped around her neck.
Ms. Rong smiled incessantly. “Jesse sees inside of me,” she said. Mr. Nash sat next to her and nodded at every endearingly mangled phrase she spoke as though they’d gone over it all 1,000 times before. When Ms. Rong said she refuses to do nudity, but “bathing suit okay,” Mr. Nash wore a serious look. She said she expects that Mr. Nash will make her into a movie star within a year’s time, and that the only thing standing in her way is Ally McBeal co-star Lucy Liu. “Who else really be in the acting field for Asian actor?” she said.
Ms. Rong then went on and on about Pierce Brosnan, whom she met on the set of The Thomas Crown Affair , but whom she had admired since watching Remington Steele reruns in Beijing. “He so charming, you know, the whole show; the dressing, the shiny hair. My girlfriends, everyone, thought he most handsome western guy in the world. When you little you always dream you meet your white horse, someday in your life. He is a typical white horse.”
Ms. Rong looked at Mr. Nash as if maybe he were her white horse, and then they both crumbled into laughter.
The Transom Also Hears:
At a dinner following a screening of the Australian film Me Myself I at the new restaurant Commune, producer Michael Mailer was crammed into a booth with sweatshirt-clad theater scion Eric Nederlander and actor Merrill Holtzman. Mr. Mailer was talking about his latest production, Black and White . One day on the set, Mr. Mailer said he spent a good three hours in the trailer of Mike Tyson, who played a small role in the film. Although the pair have a common bond in the late boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, who schooled both Mr. Tyson and Mr. Mailer on the finer points of the sweet science (Mr. D’Amato was a friend of Mr. Mailer’s father, author/boxing enthusiast Norman Mailer), Michael Mailer said that what Mr. Tyson really wanted to talk about was Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment , which he read in jail.
“He had obviously been profoundly moved by that book,” said Mr. Mailer. “Yeah, Dostoyevsky’s huge in jail,” deadpanned Mr. Holtzman. “He’s also become a big fan of Carol Burnett,” added Mr. Holtzman before giving his ear a good long tug.