Since many of you are returning viewers and have found something engaging about this blog, I may be preaching to the choir here. But I wanted to share with you a curious rejection I received from a literary agent who was considering representing my humorous memoir Alphabet City. She writes:
“I’m fearing that, while ‘meeting famous people’ is something of a hook, ‘publicist’ is a career that too many of us never really interface with for this to get a wide audience.”
Granted, the Muppets on Sesame Street never sing, “a PUBLICIST is a person in your neighborhood.” But in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture it’s a little hard to believe that regular readers of US Weekly don’t know who’s calling the behind-the-scenes shots. In fact, this past weekend’s New York Times magazine cover piece on Megan Fox has frequent references to the starlets’ publicist team including Dominique Appel—her dog has a play date with Frida at the L’Ermitage Beverly Hills in an Alphabet City’s Episode 14.
I’m not convinced that the public has to be familiar with a career in order for a character to become a crossover hit. After all, when my role model Mary Richards burst onto the scene, not many of us regularly interfaced with an associate producer of local TV news. We still don’t. Well, publicists do. But that’s beside the point. We all still love Mary.
I was hoping that this mysterious cloud surrounding the life of a publicist was finally dissipating because I’ve been dealing with it for years. In Alphabet City’s Episode 12, I try to explain to my Southern mom what I do for a living. Enjoy this excerpt.
Things got off to a rough start on that very first call when she announced her visit. I explained that I would be sending a car and driver to pick her up on arrival at Newark. Her reaction was a mix of Southern shock and comic guilt—think sing-song pitch of Rue McLanahan with the timing of Betty White.
“What kind of son doesn’t meet his mother at the airport?” she asked.
“It’s not like Texas, Mother. People just don’t do that here.”
“Well I’m not talking about ‘people.’ I’m talking about my son. I never complained about picking up your father no matter what time it was.”
It was pointless to argue. Mother’s own airport shuttle service was legendary. When I was six, my father arrived early one morning on a flight from Japan. The day before, Mother loaded me in the car at 4am to conduct a practice run. She was concerned that she might miss the highway’s exit to Dallas’ newish airport. Never mind that we had been there many times and that the freeway dead ended at the terminal. Mother was a worry wart.
A few weeks later, I was standing at Newark’s baggage claim to greet Mother. She yelled as soon as she spotted me.
“Paul, just look at you!”
“Thanks Mother. But I go by Jon Paul, now.”
“Oh Paul, quit trying to be so fancy.”
Barely five feet tall, she looked me up and down, taking notice of the red strip peeking out from the heel of my expensive loafers.
“Would you look at your shoes! Do they light up or something?”
“No, Mother. Their Pradas.”
“Well, they sure are some New York shoes!”
I was guessing that ‘New York’ was a euphemism for ‘gay.’ This was going to be a long visit indeed. And I just got more flustered in the car on the way to the apartment, when Mother began questioning me.
“Tell me again what kind of a job you have that gets you into all this trouble,” she said.
“I’m a publicist. We pretty much have something to do with anything you read in the newspaper.”
“You work with Erma Brombeck? Her column keeps me in stitches!”
“No, Mother. I don’t work with Erma. I actually think she passed away.”
When I moved to New York, she offered to loan me her well-worn copy of the famous humor columnist’s book If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I doing in the Pits?
“Tell me you don’t do the horoscopes. I’ve always hated those.”
I paused for a moment thinking how I could possibly explain my job to my Baptist-raised-turned-later-in-life-Methodist mother. Then it hit me.
“Okay, think of it this way—even Jesus had a publicist!”
Mother gasped, but I soldiered on.
“Think of me like Paul from the Bible. He wrote all those letters telling everyone about Jesus’ life. I do the same thing writing press releases!”
“Don’t be smart with me, young man.”
Maybe I wasn’t being entirely fair to my mother. She wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand what it means to be “in PR.” At New York parties, get-to-know you questions begin with “how much do you pay for your apartment?” and end with “what do you do?” Whenever I answered public relations—not easily understood fields like advertising or banking—the inquisitor stared blankly—then nodded knowingly.
“Oh, you throw parties.”
That reply I found exhausting, if not just a little true.