Sometimes less really is more ’ Daisy Prince on the perils of publicity
Sometimes less really is more – Daisy Prince on the perils of publicity
I was a teenager when I first realised my great aunt was a celebrity of sorts – her name, CZ Guest, was constantly in papers and magazines – and I was even more thrilled to learn, as I had just become obsessed by his books, that Truman Capote had been a good friend to her.
It proved a remarkable friendship, as he never fell out with her the way he had done with so many of his other ‘swans’. The reason for this was simple. Aunt CZ always kept him at arm’s length and managed never to say anything to the flamboyant journalist that could ever be used against her later.
Even though I cannot remember any significant period of time passing without the constant appearance of her photograph in the pages of periodicals, she was never caught giving too much away.
And she certainly never profited from her visibility; celebrity garnered her globally syndicated gardening columns and successful books – there was even a mosquito repellent that bore her name! It is rare to find someone who can manipulate the press as well as she did.
Nowadays, there are plenty of girls who are attempting to imitate her act – some of the younger American socialites have even gone so far as to try to have themselves dubbed ‘swans’ – but I would be surprised if they will have the same self-control that great aunt CZ exercised with the media.
In the not-so-distant past, there was a simple adage about the amount of publicity one should receive. You should be in the papers only at your birth, marriage, and death. Any more public attention and you would have been considered to be ‘doing it the street and frightening the horses’.
Certainly, there still are a few people who will avoid publicity like the plague, though far fewer, it seems, than 50 years ago. With the pursuit of celebrity being the new religion, high society individuals are more and more willing to allow themselves to be photographed and interviewed for magazines and newspapers, occasionally with disastrous results.
Anyone who enjoys the idea of seeing themselves in a glossy spread needs look no further than the cautionary tale of the fall of the Hollinger International media tycoon Conrad Black (Lord and Lady Black of Crossharbour).
After Lady Black admitted to American Vogue that ‘my extravagance holds no bounds’, one of Hollinger International’s sharp-eyed major shareholders decided it was time to scrutinize the accounts a little more closely. Her simple admission eventually resulted in a protracted lawsuit against her husband, and his subsequent prosecution in the US.
Another example of pursuing publicity with mixed results is the case of Jamie Johnson, director of Born Rich, a documentary about what it’s like to grow up affluent in America. Jamie, heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, became the temporary toast of New York, but also lost a few friends when the documentary came out (as well as the trust of his interviewees, one of whom sued).
Even seemingly innocuous articles can often go very badly for those involved. Amanda Hearst (heir to the Hearst magazine fortune) and Tinsley Mortimer (an American socialite married to Topper Mortimer – whose grandmother was Babe Paley, another of Truman Capote’s ‘swans’) were both made to look fools in an article that calculated how much it costs for an American girl to be in style.
They didn’t realise that when the journalist was adding up every single haircut and dress they’d bought for a year that their costs would total over $100,000, which made them look, in Amanda’s mother’s words, ‘extravagant to the point of decadent’. I doubt those girls will allow themselves to be duped again.
Of course, if you have something to sell, the rules are a little different. I have always held the belief that many attractive women go into business so that they will have a legitimate excuse to court the press.
But it works! The New York Times reported that Tory Burch cold-bloodedly decided to become a socialite and used her new-found ‘celebrity’ and Park Avenue princess style to sell a clothing line. Further consider Tamara Mellon of Jimmy Choo: she is one of the biggest success stories of her day, having earned £50 million from the sale of her company.
Tamara’s glamorous image is partly responsible for the success of the company – she is a highly visible person. However, even she, I would bet, wish that she had been a little less famous when her marriage to Matthew Mellon fell apart. That’s the difficulty with fame: you can’t just shut the press out of your private life.
Indeed, the peril of the press – and publicity – is that you cannot control it. If you are a big enough star, you can try to get copy and photo approval, but almost no magazine or newspaper will grant either.
If you have a nice interviewer, you can hope for a flattering piece, but there is always a chance that when their copy is filed to an editor, it will be rewritten and ‘spiced up’ without the writer’s knowledge or consent. Publicity is more of a high-risk gamble than most people realise, because journalism is inevitable concerned to expose something someone else wants to keep private.
My aunt CZ certainly knew this, but she always had the upper hand with journalists – they always needed her more than she needed them. How many others could say the same?