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CHARACTERS WELCOME: Remy Stern loves characters. If they’re rich, powerful or an occupant in a tony Park Avenue high-rise, he’s profiled them on Cityfile.com, a Wikipedia-style encyclopedia on New York’s 2,000 or so most powerful people. “It’s taking this occasionally invasive look at the city’s power players, but also bringing some news value,” said Stern, who previously worked at New York magazine and Radar.com. Though it aggregates news stories from other sites, one such news story Cityfile broke has been the romance between Vanity Fair contributor Michael Wolff and intern Victoria Floethe. The site exposed the tryst in late February, and by March, mainstream outlets hopped onto the story. By the end of the month, Wolff confirmed to the New York Post that he and his wife were splitting, and now both he and Floethe are scrambling to defend their side of the story. Floethe penned a personal essay in The Spectator UK, and Wolff is supposedly penning one for Vanity Fair.
Aside from the daily news feed on activities of New York socials, the site categorizes its players into piquant classifications, among them “gun license,” “puppy killer” and “Zulu speaker” (Andrew Robertson, chief executive of ad agency BBDO Worldwide, is that category’s lone member). Launched last summer with a “low-six-figure investment, mostly borrowed from friends and family,” said Stern, Cityfile.com is now averaging 1 million page views a month and 300,000 unique visitors, and just hired an ad sales executive to sell advertising on the site (it had used an ad network to rope in advertising since the launch).
This story first appeared in the April 10, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
While Cityfile.com is one of many Web sites devoted to the lifestyles of the rich and famous — aside from the plethora of information available on Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia and Google — Stern argues his Zagat-influenced listings provide more researched data. Cityfile’s listings include ethnic lineage, sexual preference, physical handicaps, board memberships, marital history and where the subject owns a pilot’s license. Where does he get his data? He and two staffers scour court documents, criminal records and other legal databases to gather information. “He’s a real old-school journalist,” said Radar founder Maer Roshan. For example, Stern recently waded through New York State Cosmetologist License files to see if there were any $800-per-cut stylists who had failed to renew their credentials. “You’ll be happy to know that Sally Hershberger and Frédéric Fekkai have all paid up their N.Y. State license,” Stern pointed out.
Gotham players aren’t the only personalities Stern follows. In his recently released book “But Wait… There’s More!,” he takes a look at the wacky personalities of the infomercial business, and muses on the rise of the multimillion-dollar business that has birthed the Ab Roller, OxiClean and the Snuggie.
Stern’s obsession with infomercials led him to delve into the world in which Sean “Puffy” Combs is a beauty expert, Eric Estrada is a real estate pro and Los Angeles-born Youree Dell Harris can read your future for $3.99 a minute as a Jamaican psychic named Miss Cleo. In the book, Stern reveals the strategies behind the TV sales pitch, including verbal, psychological and visual tricks manufacturers use to persuade TV viewers to buy while supplies last. There’s a reason Proactiv products were displayed against a background of running water — since most consumers believe acne products dehydrate the skin, placing the product near water conveys the idea of hydration, Stern writes.
He also profiles infomercial kings including Bill Guthy and Greg Renker, founders of Guthy-Renker, the company that introduced Proactiv to the world. “There’s an overlap between the porn and the infomercial business,” said Stern, who has purchased “as seen on TV products” the Juiceman and Proactiv. Infomercial celebrities and porn actors “never really made it big in their industry; they never find Oscar glory. They’re both the ugly stepchildren of mainstream entertainment,” he said. The production teams that film the ads often work in sets for X-rated films, he contends, and both have industry conventions and Oscar-style awards shows: “There’s a trophy. The winners thank God. It’s their attempt to bring that Oscar kind of glam to an awards show honoring garden shears.”
BOOKING IT: Though silver linings are hard to come by in recent media and overall economic news, not every upheaval marks an end. Take fashion reporter Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, who left the Wall Street Journal last month after the dismantling of the retail and luxury goods group and the Heard on the Runway blog, to which she was a contributor. She recently signed a deal with Voice, an imprint of Hyperion, to write a book called “A Tiger in the Kitchen,” about a year she spent learning to cook in her native Singapore. The book will be part memoir, part culinary anthropology.
“I was always a fashion writer by day and a foodie by night,” Tan told WWD, but during her upbringing in Singapore, she was more “career focused.” She has the next year to make up for it, with a plan to spend it shuttling to Singapore and blogging about her food experiences at atigerinthekitchen.typepad.com.
— Irin Carmon