When my cell phone began persistently buzzing by my bedside at 3am, I instantly knew the source of the trouble—Christie Brinkley. The supermodel had been known to give me fits at Condé Nast Traveler over what I considered were outrageous demands about a thank-you trip she was “gifted” for her appearance at the magazine’s celebrity-studded Readers’ Choice Awards. Before the event, I had explained to her reps that the trip was for her and a guest to the Four Seasons Bahamas, round-trip airfare included. After the fact, her agent insisted that I “clearly” offered a private jet for her family to ski in Idaho. The ensuing negotiations were not pretty. And yet somehow, despite that nasty run-in, I had actually suggested—and pursued—Christie as a spokesperson for a publicity stunt I was managing for my first big project at a top public relations firm where I had gone to work after Condé Nast Traveler. The stakes were high not just for me—I needed to prove to the agency they were getting their money’s worth—but also for Christie—it was the first “official” public appearance since the nasty tabloid break-up with her soon-to-be ex Peter Cook. I couldn’t afford to screw this up, but according to the voice screaming at me on the phone, I clearly had my work cut out for me.
“There’s no way Christie’s doing this. No fucking way,” her agent yelled.
This man had been removed from all project negotiations until now. Three hours before show time, he was threatening to pull her from one of the most important stunts in my professional career.
My big client Hyatt Hotels, the first account I secured for the agency, was launching a new wake-up call service. With this program, a loved one could record a personalized greeting to help a traveler rise and shine while out of town—a perfect way for road warriors to stay connected to their family. Cute idea, but not nearly cute enough to guarantee publicity. That’s where I stepped in. My crazy idea was to get a celebrity to help us launch the program by recording a message that any consumer could use. To bring it all to life and give us a great photo-op visual, on the day the service launched, the superstar would “surprise” guests staying at the Grand Hyatt New York with a personal wake-up call—bringing the traveler a tray of coffee and croissants. I say “surprise” because following along there would just happen to be cameras from Entertainment Tonight and a posse of paparazzi. Nothing like a celebrity spokesperson to add sizzle to a ho-hum idea.
Unfortunately for me, no famous face was interested in lending their image to the project. As the weeks raced by towards the wake-up call launch, I scoured the newspaper for any news of celebrities whom I thought might need a little staged publicity help. News broke of Christie’s very ugly break-up with Peter. It was a long shot, but if we convinced Christie to make her first public appearance on our behalf, then I was convinced every media outlet from coast to coat would show up at the Grand Hyatt. We would score a public relations home run.
All along, the negotiations for Christie’s participation were difficult. There were the typical exorbitantly expensive hair and make-up requirements, as well as press concerns—she wanted all media questions vetted in advance. Most importantly, there were financial concerns—she wanted a whole lot more money. When the client agreed to pony up a quarter of a million dollars, no joke, I knew this whole thing was no laughing matter. I had to make this work and make it work big time. So the night before the launch, the idea that the agent might actually pull Christie from the project nearly had me hyperventilating. But I needed to stay calm.
“What exactly seems to be the problem now?” I asked.
“Christie is concerned about how it will look for her image if she’s filmed knocking on some random businessman’s door,” he said.
“I’ve been over this with your team a million times. That’s the deal—she knocks on the door and wakes up a guest—whom we’ve planted—and who happens to be a friend of mine,” I said.
“Then that’s a deal breaker.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s three hour until launch.”
As soon as I uttered those words, I knew he held all the cards in this corporate poker game.
“Christie would feel more comfortable if the business person she were waking up was a woman.”
“A woman? Now why in the world would a woman want to wake up to Christie Brinkley?”
“Millions of women around this country are inspired by Christie.”
This guy was drinking a little too much Christie Kool-Aid. At this time of night, where was I supposed to conjure up a woman who would agree a stunt like this—and moreover looked like the kind of gal who was traveling on business and staying at the Grand Hyatt? On second thought, I knew just the lady.
“Tell Christie I’ll see her in three hours waking up a female executive. And that I’ll have that $250,000 check for in hand. Sweet dreams.”
I threw down the cell phone and looked over at my partner Chef, snoring. He had this irritating skill, or superpower, of sleeping his way through everything from screaming airplane jets to screaming talent agents—nothing interrupted with his forty winks. I tugged on some pajama bottoms and tip toed up the stairs to the apartment on the 4th floor of our building where I could hear an insomniac shuffling about. Jim had been cast earlier in the role of the Hotel Business Person awakened by Christie—think easygoing attitude of John Goodman with the nerdy charm of John Turturro. I gently rapped on the door.
“Oh hey JP, what’s up?” he whispered.
“Well, it’s about Christie. I’ve got some bad news and good news. Ultimately, she had final approval over your casting, and well, for many reasons, that have nothing to do with you, she passed.”
I could tell he was a little disappointed about the lost walk-on role. Obviously he was looking forward to bragging about his supermodel moment to his Cisco Systems buddies the next day.
“But, the good news is that clears the way for Angela to take on the role. You think she’d be up for it—up for call time that is?”
For several years now, Jim had been dating and basically living with my best friend Angela—think Southern charm of Lady Bird Johnson with the fierce determination of Madeleine Albright. While Angela had been a regular on my sitcom life for over two decades, it was just now dawning on Jim what kind of hijinks came with having a role on my show. Angela poked her head outside her bedroom door.
“Packed and ready to go with two pairs of laundered and pressed Ralph Lauren pajamas in pink and powdered blue,” she announced. “Wanted to make sure I had options to complement whatever Christie will be wearing.”
Angela is the kind of person you’d want in your life raft of the sinking Titanic. Her survival skills have been honed from a heavy dose of inspirational books with titles like “100 Life Threatening Situations and How to Avoid Them.”
“Besides, you think I would let Jim go alone and be woken up by Christie Brinkley? Oh, she’s inspiring all right. There’s a reason that woman is soon to be on her fourth marriage!”
Although Christie Brinkley delivered the wake-up call—and mountains of press—without a hitch, I couldn’t help wondering how I was back in a job where celebrity antics were keeping me awake at three in the morning. Didn’t I leave that all behind when I said adios to Condé Nast? But it was more than celebrities weighing down my ability to survive in the agency world. There were loads of mind-numbing administrative duties that reminded me of working for a law firm—like making sure my employees turned in their time sheets, and encouraging them to keep up their billable hours. At Condé Nast, we barely even had budgets, let alone accounting practices that had to adhere to something called “Sarbanes-Oaxley”—a federal law that kept public companies on the straight and narrow I was told. Luckily, just when I would start to feel myself drowning in this unfamiliar world, a ray of glamour would appear—mostly thanks to Absolut vodka.