When Madonna shilled for Pepsi in 1989, the Catholic Church threatened a boycott of the soft-drink company. Fourteen years later, she’s flogging a new product-the Oxygen cable channel for women-but practitioners of her adopted religion, Kabbalah mysticism, will probably think it’s divine.
Certainly, the sight of Madonna crossing her obsessively toned arms in Oxygen Media’s new “Oh!” ad campaign has struck some fans as odd-if not a sign that the singer is running scared since the failure of her movie project, Swept Away , with her director husband, Guy Ritchie. But according to sources in both camps, Madonna’s participation in the “Oh!” campaign was connected to Oxygen’s commitment to produce a special on Kabbalah, the sect of Jewish mysticism to which she and Mr. Ritchie are devoted.
A spokeswoman for Oxygen confirmed that “we are doing a short on the Kabbalah, and it’s at Madonna’s request.” The spokeswoman said, however, that she didn’t know whether the Kabbalah spots were a direct result of Madonna’s agreement to shoot an Oxygen ad. “I know that we are doing them because Madonna asked us if we would do them,” she said, adding that “this is all part of a very nice relationship with Madonna that [the network] has had for a while. We’re very grateful for her interest and involvement.”
Another Oxygen source said that the cable channel-which was founded by former Nickelodeon honcho Geraldine Laybourne, Oprah Winfrey, and television producers Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach-had been pursuing Madonna doggedly even before its 2000 launch.
Madonna’s publicist, Liz Rosenberg, said that it was Madonna’s manager, Caresse Henry, who had a relationship with Oxygen executives and it would be a good idea for Madonna to shoot the ads.
“In the course of the conversations, we certainly spoke about Oxygen and the Kabbalah, and I said it would be great if they [produced the specials], but it’s not like that was the whole reason Madonna did Oxygen.”
In the ad campaign, which ran for four weeks in November and began again in January, Madonna joins a passel of almost-recognizable faces, including Curb Your Enthusiasm ‘s Cheryl Hines, The Sopranos ‘ Jamie-Lynn Sigler, David Alan Grier, Duncan Sheik, and Oxygen players Isaac Mizrahi and Candice Bergen.
There are several versions of the spots, each featuring a different mix of faces. But they all feature Madonna, who crosses her buff arms and says “Oh!” in her trademark “I’m not bored, just nasal” voice.
The ad was shot in Los Angeles in the fall of 2002, and one source claimed that the network had to fork over $10,000 just to have the Material Girl’s makeup done.
Ms. Rosenberg said that that figure sounded “like the approximate amount,” but noted that Madonna shot the Oxygen spots during her Swept Away press junket and so saved some costs on hair and makeup.
As for the nature of the Kabbalah program, the Oxygen spokeswoman said that it’s currently scheduled to be shot in five- and 10-minute versions that would run as interstitial programming between longer shows. She added, however, that the project was in its infancy and could change format at any time.
Ms. Rosenberg said that Madonna’s level of involvement with the project “is being discussed,” but that the singer is currently focusing on her new record, set to be released on April 22.
The “Oh!” campaign, which sources said cost the network $10 million, was the work of Dale Pon, who created the “I Want My MTV” campaign in the 1980’s. Oxygen, which has struggled with its identity over its three-year life, has found recent success with the hidden-camera show Girls Behaving Badly and with Oprah After the Show , as well as a frank sex call-in show called The Sunday Night Sex Show .
Whoopsy Daisy, Harvey!
The idea of Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein teaching a class at the Learning Annex sounds about as probable as Ben Affleck marrying Jennifer Lopez. But for a few heady hours on Tuesday, Jan. 28, Mr. Weinstein’s professorial turn sounded like a reality.
On that day, a breathless e-mail from Steven Schragis, national director of the Learning Annex, co-founder of Spy magazine and president of defunct Carol Publishing, was sent to 27,000 people on the Learning Annex’s mailing list.
“I first met Harvey Weinstein in 1989,” Mr. Schragis began, when Mr. Weinstein was “an important ‘player’ in the movie business,” but not yet “THE MOST IMPORTANT.”
The next paragraph read simply:
“Now he is.”
Mr. Schragis’ e-mail revealed that while he has “stayed in touch” with Mr. Weinstein over the years, the Miramax co-chairman has repeatedly resisted his attempts to woo him into teaching a seminar at his downtown center:
“I asked him in 2001, but he just didn’t have time.
“I tried again in 2002, he said yes-but we couldn’t lock in a date.
“I tried again this year-and we ‘clicked.’
“April 30th. 7PM. DO NOT MISS IT!”
After a more restrained précis of Mr. Weinstein’s career, Mr. Schragis let loose with the claim that Mr. Weinstein’s “track record is … UNBELIEVABLE. Perhaps the best in history.”
And so, according to the e-mail, April 30 will at last offer the “CHANCE TO ASK HARVEY WHATEVER YOU WANT …. ”
After covering details about the cost of the event, Mr. Schragis added a postscript, reminding readers that “Harvey Weinstein is absolutely and indisputably AT THE TOP of the Entertainment Industry. He’s speaking just once. April 30th. Don’t miss it.”
The Transom wouldn’t dream of it.
But Mr. Weinstein isn’t going to be there.
According to Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik, “The only lecture commitment Harvey has made is to Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang charity in fall of 2003.” Mr. Hiltzik would say only that “there was a misunderstanding” with organizers at the Learning Annex.
Mr. Schragis was more forthcoming about the nature of the misunderstanding.
“The e-mail was not supposed to go out,” said Mr. Schragis. “A high-level executive at [the Learning Annex] who was only supposed to look at it to approve it-because it’s a big deal-forwarded it to the people in California who send it to our mailing list, and they sent it out. So we have egg on our face.”
Mr. Schragis maintained that Mr. Weinstein’s gig was close to a reality. “It was in the works, but we were going to confirm certain things. Most of the proceeds were going to go to charity. April 30 was understood to be a working date; we worked so hard to set it up. Some overzealous people went too far. This was a bad morning. You know when three or four things all go wrong at once? That’s what happened this morning. I feel pretty terrible.”
Mr. Schragis said that he hopes to set things right. “This is really the first sort of blowup that we’ve had-and boy, is it the wrong person. Because he’s someone we’ve really been trying to get. We got Donald Trump about a year ago, but after him, it’s just been Harvey that we’ve been wanting the most.”
The Learning Annex may not have been able to close the deal with Harvey Weinstein, but, hey-they’ve got Jean Doumanian! And the irony police are having a good laugh over it.
An e-mail sent to the Annex’s electronic mailing list of 27,000 subscribers advertised: “Woody’s Producer … Helping YOU.”
The bulletin referred to a Feb. 5 class called “Learn How to Get Your Play or Movie Produced,” taught by Woody Allen’s former film backer, Jean Doumanian.
Those with short memories may recall that Ms. Doumanian became Mr. Allen’s “former” backer in no small part due to a recent, bitter lawsuit with the Annie Hall filmmaker, who accused Ms. Doumanian of pocketing part of the profits from the films they made together.
But Mr. Schragis’ e-mail made little mention of any of these accusations. Instead, he reminded the e-mail recipients that “The New York Learning Annex is about meeting the right people.”
According to Mr. Schragis’ e-mail, Ms. Doumanian is “a thriving professional producer who is at the top of her game in the industry.”
Ms. Doumanian may not be Harvey Weinstein, but according to Mr. Schragis’ email, she is “a bona fide hit-maker” and “A legend!” Recapping her résumé, Mr. Schragis wrote: “There is no one more qualified to teach this seminar-you will be learning from the very best.”
Though the e-mail did acknowledge that Ms. Doumanian made seven films with her “former friend and collaborator Woody Allen,” it went on to encourage prospective screenwriters to sign up and pitch to Ms. Doumanian.
“Her ‘Yes’ means YES. It doesn’t mean ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps,'” wrote Mr. Schragis, adding, “I want to get the word out that we have Woody’s producer teaching.”
Mr. Schragis, smarting from the whole Harvey Weinstein debacle (see above), waved off questions about his references to Ms. Doumanian as Mr. Allen’s producer.
“Yes, she’s coming, and we’re excited that she’s coming,” said Mr. Schragis. “These are promotional e-mails, and [‘Woody’s Producer’] is a moniker, and I now realize that it is not technically right, because she no longer is. But this is an e-mail to the 27,000 people who are regular Learning Annex students, and they’re meant to be sort of personal. I’d say ‘Woody’s partner,’ and that’s the tone of the e-mails.”
Pussycat Dolls: Secret Squares
Watching the Pussycat Dolls perform at Irving Plaza on Jan. 22, The Transom finally understood their role in American popular culture. They are the 21st-century answer to Hollywood Squares : a steady gig for those fin-de-siècle celebrities who have exhausted the regimen of Playboy pictorials, Details profiles and Us mentions that go hand-in-hand with minor celebrity today. But instead of spouting one-liners dreamed up by Bruce Vilanch, these new Squares are letting their well-developed breasts, navels and haunches do the talking. Like most pop-culture modernizations, the need for writing is eliminated.
The list of potential Pussycat Dolls is mind-numbing. Carmen Electra and Cris Judd could welcome to the fold Tia Carrere, Christina Aguilera, the Opera Babes, that bonehead from The Bachelor , the host of Fear Factor and Britney Spears-not to mention the less fortunate members of all those boy bands-and no one would cry “Sellout!” Someone in the audience might yell “This sucks!”, but no biggie: That’s exactly what happened at Irving Plaza.
Older Than She Acts
Despite coming of age on Dec. 2, 21-year-old Britney Spears is still being carded. A source at the Sundance Film Festival was at the HBO party on Wednesday, Jan. 22, when the blond singer and her entourage tried to get into the fête, at Harry O’s on Main Street.
According to the partygoer, Ms. Spears was turned away at the door after a verbal confrontation. She returned later with identification and was allowed inside.
There was no word on whether Ms. Spears was trying to get in to see former swain Justin Timberlake or eager new flame Fred Durst.
Ms. Spears’ publicist did not return calls by press time.
The Transom Also Hears …
Our friend, ex-columnist and novelist Michael Thomas wrote in to tell us: “Recently, I was waiting to meet a friend at Papaya King on East 86th Street. Just as he arrived, so did another old friend, Sheldon Tannen, famously of ’21’ who now heads an investment group that purchased a majority interest in Papaya King from its founder. Sheldon bought us lunch: two with mustard apiece, curly fries, medium papaya drink. A ten-spot covered the tab. Considering that my friend and I were once ’21’ habitués, and Sheldon once co-owned the joint-well, only in New York, kids, only in New York.”
Added Mr. Thomas: “Oh yes, the food was better than what I ate at ’21’ in December. The crowd was infinitely better-looking, too.”