NEW YORK — Lizzie Grubman, the tank top-wearing publicist who went to jail for mowing down 16 people outside a Long Island nightclub, is back where all fallen women currently belong — on reality television. And while the ratings of her show, “PoweR Girls,” were lower than low, all of public relations have apparently been watching. “It’s a funny car crash,” is how one veteran flack put it, in a bit of choice wording.
On the show, which had its first season finale on MTV last week and a future that is in limbo, the cameras rolled as Grubman schooled four pretty junior staffers on the ins and outs of the p.r. business. We watched her disparage her own clients, plant items in the gossip columns and run out of the office before New York Fashion Week for emergency Botox injections. During each episode, some small mini-drama among the little helpers caused Grubman to fret solicitously that they lacked the “focus” to be in p.r., but unlike “The Apprentice,” no one got eliminated at the end of each episode and Grubman didn’t ever go so far as to lose her famous temper. Indeed, if there was anything to be gleaned from the show, it was that had chewing gum and Marlboro Lights only been invented sooner, the world might never have needed Buddhism. All this, and Grubman seemed to have turned into a master elocutionist.
“I think the problem is that they cleaned her up,” said her former employer, Nadine Johnson. “They obviously hired a diction coach to get rid of her ‘New Yawk’ accent, and now she sounds like an old socialite. It’s no fun.”
The p.r. people who work the same circuit as Grubman are hardly in a refined business, but even the most hard bitten of them were taken aback by the very existence of her MTV show and by her demeanor on air.
Meanwhile, p.r. people who consider themselves in a different business than Grubman were upset by how the show portrayed the craft of p.r. Entertainment p.r. whiz Bobby Zarem said that on “PoweR Girls,” as in real life, Grubman seemed to conflate event planning with real p.r. strategy. “The young girls that do parties today have not realized that this is just a tiny part of what a p.r. campaign has to be,” he said. “I don’t dislike Lizzie, but throwing a party for Ja Rule’s album is not the thing that makes him go to number one.”
This story first appeared in the April 19, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Still, few of Zarem’s colleagues wanted to go on the record.
“I cannot talk to you about this,” one prominent entertainment publicist said. Then she whispered conspiratorially into the phone: “My assistant says, ‘It’s an embarrassment to our entire industry.’ Don’t quote me!”
Several publicists said they preferred not to comment because of relationships between their clients and Allen Grubman, Lizzie’s father, who happens to be the goliath of New York entertainment attorneys. Others said they wanted to avoid piling on.
“The show’s going to be canceled,” one predicted. “Why bother?”
Plus, she added, Lizzie is “a friend.”
The same publicist then launched into a monologue about how the show was ludicrous, a “totally unrealistic” portrayal of what running an agency is like. “She’s going to the gym and buying dresses in the middle of the day before premieres? I can tell you that would never happen at my agency. When you have a big event you work in the office from 10 in the morning until well after midnight.”
Many of Grubman’s colleagues said they wouldn’t go on the record for exactly the same reason they thought she shouldn’t be doing the show: That a p.r. person’s job is to guard the spotlight, not walk into it.
“This is our business’ equivalent of when the inmates start running the prison,” said another well-known p.r. strategist. “My philosophy is step out of the frame. If you can get press, you get it for your client.”
Even Zarem, who consented to speak for attribution, agreed with that basic principle. He asserted that the entire point of p.r. is to make the client look like they don’t need p.r. — that they are so incredibly talented, having a mouthpiece is nothing more than a mere formality. “If you have class and taste and intelligence and you’re friends with them, you just don’t do [a show like this]. That’s why I didn’t write a book.”
Responding to her critics, Grubman said she thought her colleagues ought to get a sense of humor. “I think p.r. people are taking this way too seriously,” she said Monday. “We made a fun show for kids on MTV where we go backstage at fashion shows and show how parties are put together. We don’t show our many corporate clients. We don’t give away trade secrets.”
Nevertheless, another publicist, speaking anonymously, took specific issue with Grubman for an episode in which she called Page Six to try and peddle an item about a party thrown by a client. When Page Six didn’t bite, Grubman then tried to get ink for the event by ridiculing one of the guests — teenage starlet Lindsay Lohan, who had covered her head with her coat to avoid the paparazzi. Grubman told Page Six Lohan was being a brat.
“You don’t trash people who come to your events,” said her competitor. “It’s a fireable offense. She should have learned not to do that in P.R. 101.”
The day after that segment aired on MTV, Lohan’s publicist, Leslie Sloane, told the Daily News, “It was unbelievable to watch someone actually plant a nasty item.” Sloane vowed never to send any of her clients to a Grubman event again.
Amusingly enough, Page Six did not even run the item Grubman tried to plant. According to multiple sources in the p.r. industry and at the New York Post, Grubman had had a newsroom fatwa placed on her by Page Six editor Richard Johnson and New York Post editor in chief Col Allan after she told New York Magazine, in a profile on her last month: “The Post would never hurt me. I’m totally in bed with the Post.”
The sin was not in shacking up, but in talking about it. There was some truth to the statement — Grubman is a close friend of Page Six reporter Paula Froelich. According to people who should know, the p.r. princess is “a major source of gossip” for the Post, a Sydney Falco-like character who regularly barters nasty items about nonclients in exchange for favorable coverage of her own events and clientele. But just as every good reporter knows not to reveal his sources, good p.r. is knowing how to plant an item without it coming back to bite the p.r. person or the journalist. (Take, for example, the gratuitous not-for-attribution sources cited in this story.)
Last week, the folks at Page Six exacted their revenge for Grubman’s indiscretion. It did not take much work. On Tuesday, Grubman had attended a dinner in celebration of Froelich’s new book, “It! 9 Secrets of the Rich and Famous That Will Take You to the Top,” and arrived with one Chris Stern, an executive from Sean John, the clothing line owned by rapper-turned-clothing designer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. The following day, Page Six ran a fairly innocuous item on the party and quoted Grubman as saying of her guest: “Right now, MTV says I can’t have a boyfriend, so Chris and I are just best friends.”
The day the item hit, Page Six was deluged with phone calls. Did they know, inquiring parties wondered, that Stern was, in fact, the husband (perhaps separated, perhaps not) of one of Grubman’s employees? They did now. “Lizzie Cozy with Aide’s Hubby,” Friday’s Page Six headline read. Words used to describe her by a source in the piece included “disgusting” and “despicable.” Stern’s wife, reached in Grubman’s offices Thursday afternoon, “sobbed” as she told the Post: “I [only] knew they were friends.” Grubman denied being a “homewrecker.” Page Six said punishingly, “It isn’t the first time.”
As the metaphor suggests, there can be more than one kind of car crash.