When someone looks in on the PR world from the outside, it's usual for them to want to know more about the celebrities we often work with. Oh, the glamour of it all! they think. While the majority of my experiences with celebrities have been great, for every time a little gold dust sprinkles onto your shoulder when you rub it against theirs, there's also some shockers...
Way back in 1999 I was working on the Australian Hair Fashion Awards with Mark Cavanagh, the annual hairdressing night of nights held at Crown Casino in Melbourne. The star of the show that year was Naomi Campbell, who was in Australia to launch her fragrance (which funnily enough seems to have disappeared from the department store shelves). Her role on the night was simple: 4 walks down the runway followed by announcing the Australian Hairdresser of the Year.
So walk she did - looking fabulous, and creating a huge buzz amongst the 600 hairdressers who had flown in from around the country. However...4 walks later and just 20 minutes before the final announcement, Naomi had a little meltdown backstage. Apparently she was waiting for the lift to get something from her penthouse apartment when the lift took longer than usual. In response, to put it mildly, she threw all her toys out of the pram by going to her suite, removing all her makeup and refusing to come down.
You can just imagine the scene backstage - myself, Mark, the head of the Awards, the head of Wella and an assortment of sponsors all trying to work out what the hell to do. There were suggestions that we should tell the audience she wasn't feeling well...which was more than a little ridiculous given she was just seen looking like a million dollars. And well, she doesn't exactly have the most pristine reputation - so we were adamant not to treat the audience like fools. They had all paid good money to be there, and it was THEIR night after all - not Naomi's.
So we finally all agreed and sent out the MC Dylan Lewis to face the music. Being the goofball that he is, he went on stage with a poster of Naomi over his face pretending to be her. He then stuck his tongue out through the poster and told the audience that she'd spat the dummy. It was HILARIOUS. The audience booed Naomi but cheered Dylan, and we ended up finding a newsreader in the audience who announced Hairdresser of the Year. It was a great experience as I was able to witness how to turn a potentially negative moment around and make it work. And needless to say, we achieved brilliant press nationally with the story! Even though it's been 11 years it's still mentioned in Australian press whenever they write about her latest meltdown, usually involving a mobile phone and some poor staff member's head.
Another celebrity run-in happened to me again at Crown, back when I first started in the industry in 1997. I was just 20 years old and working on the huge Australian Reconciliation Convention, when John Howard famously refused to say sorry to the Stolen Generations. I was actually in the wings of the huge auditorium when the Aboriginal community one by one stood up in the seats and turned their backs on him...it was thrilling, historical stuff.
But onto the meltdown: it was my job to look after the 300+ performers who were taking part in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 4 day convention. Every big name Australian act was there, it was wonderful. When I was handling the initial approaches and subsequent contracts, I had to advise all performers that we would not be able to organise their riders given it was a government event with a limited budget (a rider is a performer request list which usually includes their favourites drinks, foods and amenities). I assured them there would be wine, sandwiches and other refreshments and all agreed and signed off.
On the night of the Closing Ceremony everything was going smoothly until I was approached by the management of the final act, Christine Anu, who had become a big star that year with her songs "Party" and ""My Island Home". Her manager, whose name I can't remember but will call Cyril Crankypants, came up to me in the Green Room with a shy Christine standing behind him, to demand where their rider was. I politely reminded him that while we couldn't cater to every performer's individual rider, we had an array of refreshments avaiable which I escorted them over to. Cyril then rudely shoved the rider in my face and declared Christine would not be going on if it was not organised. At this point she was due on stage in just 20 minutes. The list was mind-boggling: 3 different wines, 2 different kinds of scotch, vodka, specific soft drinks etc. When I said I couldn't possibly organise it all in the limited time, he said they were leaving immediately. I couldn't let this happen - my bosses were both in the sound booth and not contactable, so I had to sort it out then and there.
Shaking a little, I told them to wait as I ran into the bowels of Crown Casino looking for someone, anyone, to help me. I found myself in the massive commercial kitchen with chefs, waiters and busboys running around me in every direction. No one took any notice of little old me until one guy rushing past saw the quivering lip and the beginnings of a tear in my eye. He turned on his heel and asked if I was OK, bless him. I just pushed the rider into his face and said "HELP ME!!! I need to get everything on this list in the next 5 minutes or the show is over!" (yes I was suitably dramatic, but I most certainly wasn't faking the fear). He ran me over to the bar and we started grabbing every bottle we could...and then he asked me how I was going to pay for it! I promised that I would deal with that later, and although he looked very uncertain, thank God he trusted me. I'll never forget the two of us wheeling this huge trolley laden with stuff into the commercial lifts, around corners, running, running, running until we got back to the Green Room. I never saw this guy again but am forever grateful.
As I delivered it to Cyril, sweating and shaky, he looked at me, then looked at the trolley, opened a bottle of red, took one sip, then said "Christine will go on now". So she took to the stage, sang the 2 songs, and then the group left immediately after - not even stopping to enjoy a drink from their hard-won rider. The truth of this situation was, Cyril was just trying to pull rank and show off to himself, me, Christine, possibly the world, that he was someone with power. What a terrible thing to do to a young girl who was just trying to do her job! I remember feeling angry that Christine didn't do anything to stop this, but the truth was she looked just as young and scared and new to this whole world as I was! So I don't blame her, but I sometimes wonder whether celebrities really require their managers to be bullies, because in my experience so many of them are.
One of Sydney's leading PRs had his own story for me, which happened while recently working pro bono for an Australian charity with a top supermodel as its Ambassador. He was with the module - let's call her Ophelia Hoo-ha - at an interview with a leading journalist for a highly respected business magazine. Ten minutes prior to the interview wrapping up, the PR walked into the room to politely inform the journalist that he would need to wind up shortly, knowing full well how busy Ophelia's schedule was. For no apparent reason, Ophelia exploded into a rant about being interupted, startling both him & the journalist who looked on in shock. Put simply, it was rude and unnecessary and the PR chose to exit on the spot (I don't blame him when he was working gratis and she was not his client). No apology came from Ophelia afterwards....that is, until the article came out which described her lack of manners and bitchy attitude for all the country to read. Needless the say, a gushing letter from Ophelia to the PR soon followed.
Despite these examples of less-than-stellar meltdowns, I've had many wonderful experiences working with celebrities over the years. Generally speaking, the bigger the star, the easier they are to work with - if they've reached the very top of their game more often than not they are consummate professionals. Funnily enough, it's the new stars or small ones that have the biggest egos, ask for the most free stuff, and act like divas...go figure!
So I'll leave you with one of the nicer experiences I've had and that was with the always lovely Tom Williams. Tom was our ambassador for the Golden Slipper a few years ago and an absolute dream to work with. Not only did our first meeting involve him stripping down to his underwear in my kitchen to try suits on, but he also asked me to help him out with a drunk girl at an event who was hitting on him and being very annoying. What did he ask me to do? To drape myself on him and cuddle him so she would think I was his girlfriend and leave us alone. I did, and she promptly stumbled off. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.... ;)