Hollywood’s High-Powered Image Machine : In Pat Kingsley’s Tough World of Celebrity Publicity, Less Is More, and Too Much Exposure Can Be Fatal

<i> Michael Cieply is a Times staff writer who covers the entertainment industry. </i>

(Beep.) Paaat?


Sally Field on 1.

I’ll call back.

The clock ticks. Ninety minutes pass. Pat Kingsley still doesn’t call back, even though Sally Field is a friend and valued client--proving there is truth in the lore that Patricia Kingsley, celebrity publicist, can be a very difficult woman to reach.

Of course, she doesn’t see it quite that way. “It’s a bum rap,” snaps the sharply featured 56-year-old, keeping just enough Southern lilt in her voice to mask the impatience.

Never mind the grousing studio executives who say they can’t get Kingsley to return their calls, even when they’re paying PMK, her high-powered publicity firm, $6,000 or so a month to plug their films.


Nor, for that matter, the mock People magazine cover her staff once gave her. It promised stunning revelations, including “actual photos of Pat Kingsley returning a phone call” and “interviews with some of her clients who’ve never met her.”

Anyone who can’t get through, explains Kingsley--waving a wad of pink message slips, more unreturned calls--isn’t “somebody really high in the pecking order.”

“I know I have that reputation, but not with people who count.”

And make no mistake. In today’s Hollywood, Kingsley herself is one of those people.

As America’s obsession with celebrity has grown in the 1980s, so has the power of the personal publicist. Kingsley and others like her, once shunned by the studios as nuisances, have become fierce guardians of that most precious commodity: access to the stars. Simply put, they decide who gets through to a celebrity and who doesn’t--and their control often extends beyond star-hungry journalists to politicians and even studio executives.

Thus Kingsley has become politically important. A liberal activist with anti-nuclear and pro-environmental leanings, she helped unleash a flood of contributions from celebrities and Hollywood executives with her early endorsement last year of Democratic presidential contender Michael S. Dukakis. “It was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” says Francis O’Brien, a Dukakis political consultant.

When it comes to career decisions, Kingsley also has a say. “I hesitate to say that Pat does my public relations. It’s way beyond that,” Sally Field explains. “I send her material, the scripts I’m thinking about doing or developing. And I’m not the only one who does. Jim Brooks, Goldie Hawn--a whole bunch of people ask her about scripts, about writers, about almost everything.” That sort of intimacy has broadened the role of the personal publicist even in an era when many stars are surrounded by entourages that routinely include agents, business managers, personal managers and lawyers.

Mostly, however, Kingsley matters because she has perfected a hard-edged, minimalist approach to PR that says less is more, and too much can be fatal. “The people get used to you awfully fast,” Kingsley advises her clients. “You never want them to get too much of you.”

PMK, which she founded in 1980 and co-owns with two partners, is not the largest publicity firm in the movie business, but it may have the most clout. It’s impossible to measure something as intangible as a publicity firm’s leverage, but several newspaper and magazine editors say PMK’s superstar client roster--and its cautious view of publicity--has given it unusual weight. “I would say they’re the most important,” says Peter Travers, a People magazine senior editor who has dealt extensively with PMK.

When they want publicity, as they did for such recent movies as “Broadcast News” and “Moonstruck,” PMK publicists go all out. But stars such as Chevy Chase, James Garner, Debra Winger, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks, Woody Allen and about 60 other top names rely on the agency in many cases because they want to avoid the media, except during that brief window when they have a movie or TV program to sell.

“I’m not interested in publicity. I only consider it part of a business, to push a product I’ve done,” says actress Teri Garr, a Kingsley client who approves of PMK’s policy of exalting an actor’s art while discouraging attention to the details of his or her personal life.

That style has created enemies.

Marketing executives from several studios, none of whom agreed to be identified, complain bitterly about some practices of Kingsley and her cohorts. They say personal publicists--often retained by a movie company to hype a particular film--sometimes put the interests of a star client above those of the studio and may even wall the stars off from the media and studio executives alike.

At least partly to keep a star from getting bigger than a film, Walt Disney Studios virtually never uses PMK or any outside publicity firm, and MGM, which does use them--particularly when a star insists--has a policy of communicating directly with its actors and actresses despite any agency efforts to insulate them, according to one MGM executive who declined to be identified.

But other movie executives dismiss such complaints and say they admire Kingsley’s effectiveness. “With Pat, there’s a publicity plan at work with regard to a particular movie. She’s a strategist. You can’t say that about every publicist,” says Laurence Mark, a producer who has worked with her as an executive at Fox and Paramount.

On the media side, the antagonisms occasionally run much deeper.

According to several reporters and editors, PMK and other outside PR firms increasingly infringe on the supposed independence of journalists by pressuring them about how a story will be played, what aspects of a star’s life it will deal with and who will write it.

“There’s been an incremental increase in the power of outside agents vs. the studios in the last five to seven years,” says Analynn Swann, editor of Savvy Woman magazine and a former Newsweek editor. “It’s made life difficult for journalists. I know several who are getting out. They’ve finally had it. You can’t get cooperation where you once could.”

One frequent complaint is that PMK often tries to shut out writers who have dealt irreverently--the press agents might say “unfairly"--with clients.

“We’ve lost interviews because (PMK hasn’t) liked a writer we assigned, and we refused to reassign the story,” says Ellen Edwards, deputy editor of the Washington Post’s Style section.

For instance, Edwards says, PMK recently quashed Post interviews with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon out of distaste for staff writers assigned to the stories. In the case of Sarandon, starring in Orion’s “Bull Durham,” the agency “had been very hot for a story,” Edwards says. “But when told who the writer was, they suddenly said no prints of the film would be available for review, and Sarandon wouldn’t have time for an interview. And this was in the same conversation that started with their wanting it!”

“Unfortunately, that happens sometimes,” Kingsley says. “Sometimes it’s a matter of our looking for chemistry. Not a puff piece--but the best, most interesting and open exchange with the client.”

Edwards and others may regard PMK’s attempts to control the “chemistry” of a story as an improper intrusion on the reporting process. But many editors and TV producers are reluctant to tangle with the agency because they feel that they need access to its stars--perhaps even more than the stars need publicity.

“Sure, I’ve had some arguments with Pat Kingsley,” says Ellen Sanger, a talent booker who has worked for “Good Morning America” and other celebrity-oriented TV shows. “But you have to remember that an ‘A'-list booking is awfully hard to get. There are 10 million third leads in the world. But an ‘A’ booking is tough.”

Kingsley agrees that the proliferation of celebrity-oriented magazines and TV shows may be increasing publicists’ leverage with the media. “Now you can mount a successful campaign in more than one way,” she says. The biggest stars, for instance, may focus almost exclusively on a few interviews with powerful magazines such as Esquire, while others may blitz the morning shows and even work local radio and TV heavily to push a film or TV show.

From her viewpoint, the publicists’ clout is less worrisome than unfair practices and broken promises by reporters, who are increasingly ravenous for access to stars who sell magazines or get ratings. “The magazine business is so competitive, they seem willing to promise almost anything to get what they want. It’s a matter of survival,” Kingsley says, relaxing on a couch, shoes off, during a rare interview in her cluttered, deskless office near the Beverly Center.

As Kingsley sees it, her job is simply to exert maximum control over the way a client is presented to the public--and woe betide the journalist who defies her.

“They promise they’ll give you a cover, and then they don’t. Or they try to put your client on the cover when you don’t want it. . . . But you get caught. It’s automatic. There’s no way you won’t get caught.”

BY HER OWN ACCOUNT, Kingsley became a publicist by default.

She was born in Gastonia, N.C., in 1932, to a family that moved up and down the Atlantic coast with her father, a civilian attached to the Army’s quartermaster corps. Kingsley attended Winthrop College in South Carolina, but quit after two years. “I figured I was just gonna get a job until I got married and had a child,” she says now. “I had no ambition.”

For a year, Kingsley lived with an aunt and uncle in Reno, where she found work “vaccinating cows” for the disease eradication branch of the Department of Agriculture. But Reno was “too cold,” and, at 21, she moved on to Miami Beach. There, a high school girlfriend helped her land a job in the publicity department of the newly opened Fontainebleau Hotel.

At the Fontainebleau--then a booming resort and a favorite stop for the Sinatra set and other celebrities--Kingsley learned two things.

One was the power of a publicist’s pencil. “What we did was run around signing checks for people. If a press person was there, maybe in one of the lounges having a drink, I’d go, ‘Whoa, let me pick that up,’ and got my pencil and signed.”

The other was the art of war. The Fontainebleau’s principal owner, Ben Novack, was locked in a blood feud with the neighboring Eden Roc hotel. Kingsley was deeply impressed to discover that when Novack put an addition on his building, he made certain that it blocked the sun from the Eden Roc pool. “And there were no windows,” she says. “People (at the Eden Roc) looked at a blank wall.”

She made a brief stop in New York to work as a secretary for the publicity departments at NBC and Ziv TV, an early syndicator. Kingsley then moved to California in 1959 and landed her first movie job as secretary to star publicist Warren Cowan.

Cowan pushed his protege to become a press agent, which she did, working for the Rogers & Cowan firm in both Los Angeles and New York on a client list that included Natalie Wood, Samantha Eggar, Doris Day and other leading movie lights of the ‘60s. Kingsley noticed that stars, very nervous people on the whole, seemed to feel comfortable with her. “Maybe it was the voice or the attitude,” she says. Kingsley has never let go of her Southern accent, an oddity in Hollywood, and she projects an air of intelligence, certainty and, occasionally, humor that seems essential to her charm.

Kingsley also noticed that she felt distinctly uncomfortable with the gossip-column plant, still a favorite press agent’s tool, although movie publicity was already becoming more sophisticated (see Page 12). “Hedda (Hopper) and Louella (Parsons) were still there, and getting the lead in one of their columns was vitally important,” Kingsley recalls. “But when there would be some news item or a gossipy item, I would almost never think to call up a columnist. . . . It was the funniest thing. These things never had much to do with anybody’s career .”

That aversion to the personal side of publicity could be called Article 1 in PMK’s credo.

In Kingsley’s words: “We’re only interested in doing articles that help the career. The personal side is strictly the personal side of the client, and we don’t do that kind of publicity.”

The typical PMK client, as she sees it, is more actor than celebrity. “There are stars and there are terrific actors. We go after the terrific actors,” she says.

Article 2 appears to be: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Kingsley and her cohorts clearly believe in the efficacy of cover stories, preferably in magazines that sell movies: People, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Life, Esquire, New York Times Magazine. They want their covers at just the right moment, usually as a movie approaches its first big weekend. And if they can’t have a cover, they would sometimes prefer no story at all.

(A PMK press agent recalls having once warned an editor: “If the story doesn’t run as a cover, that’s one serious problem. If you run it without a cover, you will never hear the end of this.” The story didn’t run at all.)

It isn’t clear when that cult of the cover took root. The first cover Kingsley remembers feeling “happy” about was a 1960s Life story on Candice Bergen, the “activist actress.” One of the covers she worked hardest to get was Time’s 1970 story on Raquel Welch. Having heard that Time managing editor Henry Grunwald was intrigued with Welch, Kingsley called his office and mentioned that the actress happened to be stopping in New York. Would he care to have lunch?

Grunwald made it a dinner date instead, and Kingsley called Welch--who didn’t happen to be stopping in New York at all--and had her fly in. Welch ended up on the cover of Time, even though the magazine had recently featured her in a three-page story.

(Today, Grunwald says he did commission the cover after dining with Welch. “But,” he adds, “to say that we put her on the cover on the basis of one meal is preposterous . . . a press agent’s fantasy.”)

Twice, Kingsley has put a client on the cover of both Time and Newsweek. The first was Liza Minnelli, at the time of “Cabaret”; the second was Redford, starring in “The Great Gatsby.”

Once, she shocked even herself with her avidity to win cover space.

The year was 1972, and Kingsley was sweating out an expected Life cover on Raquel Welch in connection with “Kansas City Bomber.” Somebody walked into her office and said, “George Wallace has been shot.”

“I threw my pen across the room and said, ‘There goes the Life cover,’ ” Kingsley remembers. “And then I thought, how terrible. I was so ashamed. . . . It’s a very sick reaction.”

IN 1971, Kingsley formed her own firm, Pickwick Public Relations, with Lois Smith and Gerri Johnson. Johnson had a baby at age 40 and left. Pat Newcomb joined as a partner but then left to pursue another career, as did Smith in the late ‘70s. In 1980, Kingsley--who by then had married, had a daughter and divorced--merged her company with rival Maslansky, Koenigsberg to form PMK.

Michael Maslansky eventually suffered a debilitating stroke, and Neil Koenigsberg left to become a personal manager. But Lois Smith returned; today she’s a partner in the New York office, along with co-owner Leslie Dart.

As the firm evolved, the client list grew less by aggressive recruiting than by word of mouth among the star community. Sean Connery and Teri Garr were referred by Creative Artists Agency, with which Kingsley has close ties, while Woody Allen was passed along by ICM’s Sam Cohn, with whom the New York office is allied. (Talent agencies routinely refer clients to various prospective publicists, leaving it to the star to choose one.)

Occasionally, Kingsley’s distinctly liberal political stance also becomes a drawing card. “She gets us out of the vacuum of Celebrityville,” explains Garr, who was arrested with Kingsley earlier this year during a disarmament protest at a Nevada military base. Handcuffed and bused 150 miles to remote Tonopah, the protesters were released after a stern lecture from an imposing female guard.

“Now, are there any questions?” the guard demanded.

“Yeah, who does your hair?” asked Garr, according to Kingsley, who still giggles over the incident.

Others are attracted by what they say is Kingsley’s sometimes brutal honesty in dealing with clients.

Sally Field, who had never worked with a personal publicist, recalls having met Kingsley, whom she had recently retained, on the set of “Absence of Malice” in Miami. “Back Roads,” in which Field played an ex-hooker opposite Tommy Lee Jones, had been finished but not yet released--and Kingsley committed the unthinkable sin of telling Field that the movie simply didn’t work.

“That’s unheard of,” Field says. But she chose to stay with Kingsley largely because the publicist’s air of confidence overcame what she calls an “ostrich"-like part of herself that wanted to hide from everything frightening in the movie industry.

“With Pat, a sort of safeness came over me I’d never felt before.”

THE COCOON THAT creates such safeness for stars is still much smaller than Rogers & Cowan, which has branched heavily into corporate work since all-but-inventing the business of celebrity PR in the 1940s. PMK has just 38 employees, 18 of whom are full-time publicists.

The Los Angeles office is headed by Kingsley. The New York office is headed by partners Smith and Dart.

Most of the firm’s “press agents,” a seemingly old-fashioned term that publicists often use for themselves, are in their early 30s. They are tense, smart and sharply focused, and roughly two-thirds, by Kingsley’s estimate, are female. "(Publicity) is a very satisfying career for women,” Kingsley says, “because so many women work in the magazine world they’re dealing with. It’s easy to communicate.”

Some of the agents are college-educated. But others started as secretaries or in other low-paid positions in the movie hierarchy and moved into publicity as a way of getting onto the professional ladder.

Most are intensely proud of their work. “I think sometimes public relations is just brushed aside as fluff to a certain extent, or as something extremely self-serving,” says Danish-born Annett Wolf Blach, a PMK vice president who studied PR in extension courses at UCLA. “But I see it applied on so many levels to so many issues,” ranging from the arts to social causes.

In addition to personal publicity retainers, the company collects fees from studios, which have slimmed down their in-house PR departments. Recently, PMK was behind publicity campaigns for “Big,” “Willow,” “Colors” and “The Milagro Beanfield War,” among others. In promoting “Big,” says an executive involved with the film, PMK and Fox agreed to launch a high-profile campaign, in effect pretending they had no worries, even though the studio was worried about the movie’s similarity to other recent comedies. PMK shopped for cover stories and helped set up lavish publicity parties on both coasts. It worked.

Often, star clients ask the studio to retain PMK on their films--a tactic that helps the client control how his or her image will be affected by the selling of a particular movie. Can that mean saying no to studio executives, who are paying the bills and may want to maximize exposure for a movie without worrying about individual careers? “Absolutely,” says producer and director James Brooks, who asked Fox to retain PMK in marketing “Broadcast News” and “Big.” “It would be wrong to take away anything from Fox. But Pat represents (my production company).”

Every PMK client has a publicist in Los Angeles and New York. And one morning each week, each office holds a meeting to sort out problems with clients, the media and each other. At sessions on both coasts, the publicists and office staff swap tidbits and make plans under walls lined with movie posters and plexiglass-framed versions of magazine covers brokered by PMK.

At one of the L.A. meetings, for instance, the publicists decide that they like Lear’s, a new magazine directed at women over 40, because the pictures “aren’t airbrushed out of recognition.” At a meeting in New York, however, they are cool toward what they see as a power grab by USA Today’s forthcoming daily TV talk show.

“They want exclusivity over the morning shows, talk shows, everything,” a publicist declares to general assent. “They want it first. They want big names. . . . There’s no way we can play that game.”

In Los Angeles, the publicists discuss an uncomfortable squeeze PMK is caught in between two newspapers. A big studio’s publicity department had promised to let one L.A. paper interview a certain star, but PMK put the deal on hold while pitching the story to The Times instead. The Times was slow in deciding, and an angry reporter from the smaller paper had threatened never to work with PMK again “if we don’t deliver.”

The staff discusses how to wring a decision from The Times. (In the end, neither paper did a story, and it still isn’t clear if the spurned daily will make good on its threat.)

Client business at both meetings is routine but sensitive. In New York, the publicists are upset with a client who wanted exposure, then turned fussy after doing a few TV spots. “Now he doesn’t want to do anything that’s not national,” one publicist comments.

In Los Angeles, a group opposing Lyndon LaRouche’s AIDS initiative (which was defeated in the June primary) is looking for a star to make a political video to be shown in clubs and bars. The agents are game for this--but they veto a particular star after determining that her image might not be helped by a video playing the largely gay club circuit. “It wouldn’t be right for her,” one says. The rest agree, without discussion.

PROTECTING clients isn’t always so simple.

There was the time, for instance, when Pat Kingsley went to war with celebrity photographer Helmut Newton. Newton, interviewed by phone from his Monte Carlo home, remembers how “that lady” descended on him after he shot Debra Winger for a 1983 Playboy “20 Questions” interview.

The pictures revealed too much of Winger. Kingsley wanted them back and claimed that Newton had promised the actress photo approvals.

“There were no approvals. I don’t give approvals,” maintains Newton, who adds that the shots were “totally innocuous, not very interesting.”

Kingsley adamantly refuses to discuss the incident, other than to say: “He did, in fact, promise Winger she could approve the pictures.” In any case, Kingsley got them back from Playboy--the sort of feat at which lesser publicists have failed.

Then, there was the problem with Rolling Stone.

Kingsley declines to discuss it. But Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and other sources recall an explosion that occurred in 1986 when the magazine didn’t put Goldie Hawn, then starring in “Wildcats,” on its cover.

In one version of the story, Wenner had promised the cover if PMK would also deliver Hawn for its weaker sister publication, US. Supposedly, PMK delivered. But Wenner vetoed the Rolling Stone spread when “Wildcats” wasn’t a hit, unleashing the wrath of Kingsley, who threatened to withhold clients from both magazines in retaliation.

“I don’t think we promised,” Wenner says now. “She was going to boycott the magazines. But how can she go back to her clients and say, ‘I can’t get Rolling Stone’? She’ll go out of business before I’ll go out of business.”

Kingsley says that PMK doesn’t currently enforce agencywide boycotts but that individual publicists may enforce their own rules. Other PMK agents clearly continue to work with Rolling Stone, which recently featured clients Tom Hanks and Lisa Bonet on its cover. Interestingly, Kingsley hints that the agency might have resisted Bonet’s nude shot in Rolling Stone if it had been consulted. The agency helped set up the story while representing Bonet’s TV series, but was taken off the account for a seasonal hiatus just before the photo session. “I don’t think those kinds of pictures are necessary,” Kingsley says. “I’m a prude.”

Perhaps the sharpest conflicts have been with People.

Early in the magazine’s history, Kingsley enforced a one-year agencywide ban against it because a People editor had, by her account, broken a promise to give Mary Tyler Moore approval of pictures for a cover story.

The boycott ended when editors changed. But trouble erupted again several years later, when PMK refused to deliver Goldie Hawn for a cover story on Malibu and the magazine put her on the cover anyway, using photos purchased from an outside agency.

“Pat was very, very furious,” says People senior editor Travers. “She said, ‘Goldie won’t speak to you again, and my clients won’t speak to you.’ That kind of threat happens quite frequently.”

The hatchet is buried again, but Kingsley says her agency now requires ironclad agreements limiting the use of photos and interviews.

(Currently anathema at PMK are similarly unauthorized celebrity covers on many magazines aimed at women. “It’s not a happy thing when that happens,” says one deeply offended PMK publicist. “I mean, we’re paid to stay in control.” One veteran celebrity journalist counters that PMK’s stingy posture in doling out stars for just the right covers and no more “is like the French theory of orgasms. Everybody’s only got so many, and every one granted is a little debt.”)

Some movie journalists say they prefer such precision to the vagaries of some other agencies. “They say no a lot,” Premiere senior editor Chris Connelly says of PMK. “But I think they’re professional and very smart. I think they do what they do as well as or better than any agency, and they’re not unreasonable in their demands.”

People’s Travers agrees. But he also maintains that excessive fussiness by PMK and other agencies dulls the edge on celebrity stories, ultimately cheating the stars themselves.

“They make it so difficult to do a story that readers will accept as legitimate,” Travers says. “First, they will come in and say, ‘We don’t want you to take pictures. We’ll give you some.’ Second, they’ll say, ‘Tom Hanks doesn’t do pictures at his house.’ Third, it’s ‘Tom won’t talk about his wife.’

“When they say, ‘Tom won’t talk about his personal life,’ I pass. If other editors do the same thing, suddenly people like Tom Hanks aren’t as big as they could have been.”

ONCE, Michael Dukakis almost crossed Kingsley. It probably would have been a mistake.

On the eve of a Kingsley-arranged party for Dukakis at Sally Field’s home last fall, the candidate’s staff abruptly tried to cancel, explaining that a scheduling conflict required his presence that day in the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Kingsley hit the telephone and lit into Dukakis’ staff, gloves off. “Everybody was saying, ‘Who the hell is Pat Kingsley?’ ” Dukakis adviser Francis O’Brien recalls of the ensuing confusion.

As it happened, O’Brien knew who Kingsley was. A former movie press agent himself, he had brokered Kingsley’s first meeting with the candidate more than six months before as part of a strategy calculated to win financial support from the star community at a time when Gary Hart was still Hollywood’s darling.

On O’Brien’s advice, Kingsley had become Dukakis’ first Hollywood connection. The consultant had assumed, correctly, that the publicist would approve of the Massachusetts governor’s skeptical stance on nuclear power and might swing crucial early commitments his way--but only if she liked Dukakis on a personal level.

With the help of Massachusetts Rep. J. Edward Markey, whom Kingsley describes as a political “mentor,” O’Brien arranged two private dinners on the West Coast, one with Kingsley and the candidate, another that included Field and her producer-husband Alan Greisman.

Markey agrees that the dinners were critical because of Kingsley’s tendency to review politicians before passing them on to Field, Bergen, Lily Tomlin and the other liberal activists on her client list. “She’s very protective of her clients,” Markey says. “She would not want to put them in a situation where the politician would be potentially embarrassing to the client.”

Kingsley now says that “instinct” warned her off Hart long before the Donna Rice scandal. “He wasn’t my kind of person. I just didn’t care for him,” she says.

But she liked Dukakis after an hour’s conversation, and settled on the Sally Field party as a way of introducing him to Hollywood’s big spenders--Barry Diller, Michael Ovitz, Frank Wells and the rest--without forcing him into a demeaning pitch for cash.

Horrified to learn of the near-cancellation (“Can you imagine somebody trying to cancel anything on Pat?”), O’Brien stopped the governor in his tracks: “I said, ‘Trust me. This matters.’ ”

Dukakis decided to stay. The party went on.