Just asking: Which famous actor of stage, screen and TV didn’t want to comment for this article? Which gregarious talk-show host wouldn’t go near it? And which publicist told us, “NOBODY’S going to want to go there!”
It’s not easy to get famous people or their handlers to talk openly about Page Six, the famed New York Post gossip column now enveloped in scandal. There is surely gloating aplenty from those who’ve been burned by the column’s searing typeface. But the gloating’s being done in private.
Call it Page Sixenfreude, a particularly New York version of “schadenfreude,” that unique word that means enjoying another’s misfortune. Page Six has dished it out for years, and for some targets, it’s gotta be fun to see the paper squirm. And yet nobody wants to crow out loud. After all, they know Page Six will live on to catch them the next time they engage in some extramarital canoodling, to use a Six-ish phrase.
And really, who would want Page Six to disappear? Probably not the vast majority of celebrities — in entertainment, business and politics — who get mentioned. If no publicity is bad publicity, it would follow that the only thing worse than being singled out by Page Six is NOT being singled out by Page Six.
“Without columns like this, celebrities’ luster, their presence in the public awareness, would disappear,” says Bobby Zarem, a legendary New York publicist who’s been dealing with Page Six for decades. “And nobody wants that.”
The scandal — oh yes, the scandal! In a nutshell, a freelancer for Page Six is accused of trying to shake down a billionaire in exchange for good press, or lack of bad press. The reporter, Jared Paul Stern, claims he was set up by the billionaire, Ron Burkle, who says that’s ridiculous. Stern also says he’s the victim of a tabloid war between the Post and its archrival, the Daily News, which has been basking in front-page Sixenfreude since last week.
The story has shocked even veteran publicists who spend long days on the phone trying to get good items into Page Six — and keep bad items out.
“I’m flabbergasted,” said Ken Sunshine, whose clients include Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and Barbra Streisand. “I’m absolutely shocked. I’ve had hundreds of calls about this over the last few days.” If it’s true, Sunshine added, “it’s a complete aberration.”
Some publicists didn’t even want to go as far as to be quoted by name for fear of retribution. “You’re going to have a tough time — nobody’s going to want to go there,” said one who represents a frequently mentioned actress and socialite.
Alec Baldwin, whom the column dubbed “Bloviator” a few years back because of his escalating weight, declined comment through his assistant. “The View” host Star Jones, whose wedding to Al Reynolds was chronicled detail by detail, did the same.
Aberration or not, the scandal has shed some light on the interdependent world of gossip columnists, celebrities and the publicists who zealously manage their coverage.
“I’ve been dealing with Page Six since it started,” says Sunshine. “They drive me crazy on a regular basis. And yet, people like me are employed on a regular basis largely because of this type of thing.”
Zarem, who has represented Dustin Hoffman, Cher, Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas and others, said that although details of the current scandal were stunning, there has long been a delicate dance between the column and its subjects. One thing publicists often do to get desired coverage of clients, Zarem says, is to provide unrelated tips along the way.
“You give them items not at all about your clients, just to be able to get items in about your clients,” he says. “Just to keep the door open. If you’re intelligent, it’s not discussed.”
“But nothing’s automatic,” says Zarem. “I often have to beg for an item about a client. Literally — I say, I’m begging you.”
Such a thing as bad press?
As long as there have been gossip columns, there has been fear of bad press. Louella Parsons, whose column for the Hearst newspaper chain was followed religiously beginning in the 1930s, was feared as much as any critic. Hedda Hopper, of the flamboyant hats, became her archrival and is said to have called her Beverly Hills mansion “The House That Fear Built.” Both wielded huge influence in for several decades, as did Walter Winchell, whose widely syndicated gossip column had the power to destroy careers.
These days, in our ever-more-celebrity-obsessed world, with so many Web sites and blogs dedicated to gossip, it has gotten even meaner, some in the industry say — because it is so competitive.
“Gossip columns should be fun,” bemoans Sunshine. “They shouldn’t be full of made-up stories and defamatory information. What exists in these columns is not something we as a society should be proud of.”
There certainly are some proud people over at the Daily News, though. Lloyd Grove writes one of that tabloid’s gossip columns. Not surprisingly, he calls the Page Six scandal a “fabulous story.”
As for all those celebrities whose alleged misdeeds have been chronicled in that column, he can just picture the Sixenfreude.
“There are certainly many people who have felt abused,” Grove says. “And I’m sure they are saying quietly to their friends: ‘There is a God.”’