Brain behind the brand: Confessions of a Bollywood star publicist
A celebrity's publicist doesn't just Google for their quotes. They often manage their relationships and egos as well. Eight years into the industry, a PR manager talks about what it's like to be in her shoes
Last week, it was reported that actress Shilpa Shetty's publicist who owned up to finding Animal Farm when searching the net for a book that ‘teaches you how to care for animals’ has been fired. Even as #ShilpaShettyReviews continued to trend on Twitter, Shetty took to the social media site to say that she had never read the George Orwell book. "So recommending them to kids is out of the question! Obviously some misunderstanding."
I had been interested in celebrities ever since I did a media course in college. After graduating, I joined a firm which manages celebrities and also works on promotional projects for films. That was eight years ago.
It's been quite a ride and I had a bumpy start. I still recall with great clarity the first time I went on field — on field in our industry means being around a celebrity during an event. It could be a party, a television appearance or, as was in this case, an interview for promoting a new release. And, the actor I was in charge of was someone known to be controversial. There was hardly an interview of hers that didn't make the news for all the wrong reasons.
As Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone took their success war to Hollywood, their publicists took to the press with articles on who took home a fatter pay
That day, we were at a hotel, and the actress was promoting a two-heroine movie she was a part of. The journalist, who was from a top TV channel, asked her about her equation with another actress (there has been rumours about the two not getting along), and my client blew her lid.
She attacked the channel, called their line of questioning tacky and stormed off the sets. It was ironic because she had been asked if she handled catfights maturely. What did the firm that represented her, and I worked for, do? Nothing.
Some sections of the media hinted that the spat between Hrithik Roshan and Kangna Ranaut was orchestrated by publicists
That's what this actress was famous for — throwing tantrums. We realised she was doing this for her own publicity, and that it didn't make sense to go into damage control. The channel, in turn, got back with a story on the tacky films the actress had done.
I had been attracted to the profession by the idea of moving around the famous. It never occurred to me how busy my life was going to become. But, I soon realised that a celebrity publicist, needs to keep their phone handy all the time.
Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma got into a sticky situation with the entertainment website, Pinkvilla, in October this year. Kapoor got upset at being asked to verify his cousin Kareena Kapoor's statement that he read Pinkvilla "five times a day", and resorted to saying that he only read it as it published s***. He then challenged the website to carry that video. Pinkvilla not just published the video but carried a rejoinder which talked of how celeb’s publicists beg for positive stories.
Around the release of a movie, we accompany the star everywhere — events, interviews and even to the airport. We handle their communication too, even sending emails and messages for them. Most of the bigger stars in the industry need someone to whet the interviews for them. We do that job. I handle a few "superstars" and, ahead of every release, of the requests they receive, they accept only three. It's we who help them decide which three.
Life is a bit more relaxed when a film release is not around the corner, but that means little because we still have to be available 24/7. A star may want you any time. I have found actresses to be more needy than actors, as they require constant validation of how they look — if their dress is fine, if their hair is right. They also like being seen with an entourage.
So, if they have to go for an event, and don't have a friend to go with, they will take the publicist along. It's 'embarrassing' to make it alone. It's no wonder that you develop a bond with the star. It becomes second nature for us to always think about them, even putting them before us, our own personal life. For example, if a movie releases during a festival, which they often do, we are off promoting the movie instead of being at home with our families.
The bigger stars don't need as much attention, as they get press no matter what, It's the newer stars that are tougher to handle. You have to make sure you get them to various events, where they can be seen and photographed. You have to get them into magazines and newspapers, even if it means half-inventing stories they can be part of. You develop a business acumen doing this job. What that means is you become an ace at barter. For example, I may tell a journalist that I will make sure a certain celebrity is on the cover of their magazine, if they do me a favour and carry an interview with a new actor. It doesn't sound right but that's how it goes.
It's the relationship with the journalist — and that can be a precarious one — that we tend to a lot. Here are the things we do, which perhaps we shouldn't be doing: Sometimes, a publicist may give a journalist a story about their client, without the celebrity's knowledge, just so the journalist owes them a favour later. Often, 'who's-dating-whom' stories are leaked by the actors themselves, and later, they could feign ignorance. This is done in compliance with the newspaper/channel/magazine. For example, an actor couple may leak pictures of themselves on vacation, and in another interview speak of the media not giving them their space.
Actors think we control this stuff, when that's not true at all. They ask us to dictate headlines and determine which photographs will be published. We are pulled up when the truth appears in the press, and are asked why we didn't stop it. Many a publicist has lost the account because the celeb got bad press. Actors also think they can control movie reviews. But readers are way too smart. The stars do it anyway, and the publicist becomes the go-between in this 'doctored' publicity.
That is still part of the job. Often we end up handling work that is not even remotely related to our job. We end up negotiating financials for a star when on a shoot — how much will the driver or the make-up experts be paid. This is also because the star is embarrassed to do it personally. So we sit down with the magazine staff and sort out everyone's payments – right down to what lunch will be ordered. We also sometimes have to plant stories about the client's rivals — things we have heard on the job, that are usually true. I have even heard, though not encountered, of stars getting the publicist to manage the lover; reaching out, fixing a date. You can't say, no.
Have I ever wanted to quit? Of course, several times. The job is stressful and gets repetitive. It's also tiring to think up story pitches. Hence, most end up as silly ideas. For example, you may tell a journalist that an actress has a foreign director pursuing her. But the director may never have heard of her. Or, you may try and sell a story that two actors didn't get along during a shoot, when in fact, things were fairly polite. At the end of it all, it's your love for movies and glamour, and the professional attitude of a handful of stars that keeps you willing to stay in the game.
A walk through Mohammed Ali Road's Khau Galli