Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Unseen Side Of Celebrity

Star-struck. Awed. Nervous. Giddy. These are a few of the words that come to mind when I think back on my early encounters with celebrities. From the time I was six years of age, I have had the unique privilege and good fortune of a wide array of celebrity sightings. Some were by chance at restaurants, airports, a parking garage, and on the streets of New York City. Others were planned at autograph signings, and later at countless events that I organized professionally. I remember every one of them as if they occurred just minutes ago. But it is one extraordinary brush with an icon that forever changed my perception of celebrity mythology. One that humanized the whole lofty experience.

Lonnie Ostrow presents Jackie Chan with his postage stamps
          It was March of 1997. I was employed as the director of marketing and publicity for an agency that created postage stamps for governments around the world. A few years earlier, I had stumbled upon the phenomenon of placing living legends on legal tender for a handful of counties across the globe. It had become a worldwide media sensation. Already, I had the pleasure of working with such luminaries as Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone, Elle Macpherson and Bob Hope. Now, I was being courted by celebrity publicists on both coasts, seeking to honor their famous clients as the next living postal icon.

          My interactions with the stars I had worked with up to that point ranged from brief, goose-bump raising meetings to extensive and direct planning (and celebrating) with other heroes. Some were remarkably insulated by assistants and PR reps. Others freely shared private phone numbers and were surprisingly accessible. But in my mind, no matter how professionally I learned to act on the outside, there was always a twinge of giddiness at the thought of being in the presence of such beloved public figures.

Legendary publicist, Warren Cowan
          Warren Cowan was no ordinary celebrity publicist. When he first phoned me in January of ’97, he introduced himself as the “representative of Hollywood’s greatest legends.” And this was no hype job. Mr. Cowan had been publicizing the biggest names in entertainment going back to 1946. He was a founding partner of the powerhouse publicity agency, Rogers and Cowan. Some of his impressive list of clients once included Paul Newman, Danny Kaye, Ronald Reagan, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne (to name a few). In 1994 – two years after he sold off the agency – he was lured out of retirement by a handful of his celebrated clients. He quoted Elizabeth Taylor as saying: “Warren, it’s you that I want representing me, not the Rogers and Cowan name.”

          Within months of opening Warren Cowan Associates in Beverly Hills, Mr. Cowan again represented a vast majority of Hollywood’s most iconic names of yesteryear. They all gravitated back to him.

          It was Kirk Douglas that Mr. Cowan first approached me about for a postage stamp tribute. We were creeping up on the 40th anniversary of his landmark film, Spartacus. The veteran publicist called to pitch me on the idea. A month later, he was to be in New York for a pair of client events. The first was a book launch party at Le Cirque restaurant by the renowned author, Sidney Sheldon, to which he invited me. Two days later, he phoned my office, asking me to meet with him at his suite at the St. Regis hotel.   

          The sheer opulence of the hotel immediately grabbed my attention. I had previously been inside some impressive Hyatts and Marriots. Even once the Four Seasons for a meeting with David Copperfield. But the classic luxury of this chic retreat on East 55th Street was truly captivating. Up in the room, I was immediately led by one of Mr. Cowan’s staffers to a waiting area that resembled the most impressive living room I’d ever seen in person. I sat patiently (and rather comfortably) on a button-leather couch, next to a shinny marble coffee table beneath a huge crystal chandelier. Far across the room, I watched Mr. Cowan and his associates in action, pitching the news media on coverage for an event they had run the night before. For a young publicist like me, it was breathtaking to see their skills of persuasion on display.

          Mr. Cowan finally sat to join me and offered to order up some tea and finger sandwiches from room-service. Then we got down to business. For thirty solid minutes, we talked about his incomparable list of clients, trying to match them with my list of governments who might consider a postal tribute to them. He spoke about Paul Newman’s charitable work; Kirk Douglas and some playgrounds he was building for underprivileged kids. He even floated the idea of a joint postal celebration for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for their many co-starring projects. We were midway through our productive conversation when the unforgettable happened.

          A door at the far end of the living room swung open. It connected to an adjoining suite which I hadn’t noticed previously. In walked an older woman in a white hotel bathrobe and a pair of matching white slippers. Her short-cropped curly hair was white and tussled. Her naked face was heavily lined and marked with age spots. Slowly, she approached the leather couch and paused at the foot of the coffee table. “Oh, Warren dear,” she said in low voice with the hint of an English accent. “Sorry to interrupt. I didn’t realize you had company. We’ll catch up later.” She raised her hand, flashed a brief smile and casually strolled back through the connecting door to her suite.

Elizabeth Taylor in 1997
          There was nothing glamorous about this brief intrusion. The woman from next door wore no makeup, no jewelry, or fancy clothing. She could have been anyone’s grandma, having just rolled out of bed in the early afternoon. But there was one unique detail that failed to elude my attention. As she turned around to head back in the opposite direction, I noticed her eyes. They were shining a deep blue, almost violet beneath the overhead chandelier. There is only one woman I’ve ever known to have such eye pigmentation. And she just happened to be the one whose fundraising event Mr. Cowan and his staff had hosted just the night before. Elizabeth Taylor.

          “Was that - ” I attempted to ask, before being hastily cut off by my host.

          “Yes,” he confirmed without uttering her name. “But she was never here and you saw nothing,” he insisted. “This didn’t happen.”

          Elizabeth Taylor was always synonymous with glamour. Many consider her to have been the most beautiful actress that Hollywood has ever known. She was a style icon, always decked out in the most exquisite gowns designed by the biggest names in fashion. She was forever covered in diamonds and colorful jewels from her many husbands and suitors through the decades. Even her signature fragrance was called White Diamonds. And yet here she was, just steps away from me, appearing as plain and imperfect as any woman her age (65 at the time). It was both mind-boggling, and yet oddly reassuring. She was human.

          Most of my interactions with celebrities have taken place in public settings. Never a hair out of place. Always impeccably dressed and camera-ready. Even during private meetings, it was rare for me to encounter any of these stars as anything less than what you would expect them to look like. Image consciousness is like a sixth sense to them. So to my utter surprise, here was my first time crossing paths with the world’s queen of glamour. And she appeared as ordinary as could be imagined.

          In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, I do my utmost to portray both sides of celebrity. The myth vs. reality. My protagonist, Johnny Elias is a young man who has been seduced by the concept of music stardom since childhood. From his vantage-point as a fan, there is nothing more glorious than the life of a rock star. And then he hits the big-time… and hastily discovers the demands and responsibilities of life in the public eye – nothing at all like he envisioned. Sure, he experiences the loud ovations and a taste of privilege. But media intrusions and pressure from his record label and tour promoters threaten to swallow him whole.

          In reality, the life beyond the red carpet and the press conferences are vastly different than many imagine. Yes, there are some major perks that come with stardom -- wealth and admiration being two of them. Then again, even the highest paid entertainers are constricted by life’s limitations. They may be blessed with exceptional talent, but aren’t granted superpowers or immortality. Like all of the non-famous population, celebrities still need a decent night’s sleep, a healthy diet, and stable companionship at home. They may have stylists, publicists and fitness gurus to help sculpt their public persona. Then they step off-stage. Real life for them presents the same challenges that we all face every day. Aging, health, taxes, family and maintaining a home. They too have to figure out how to balance it all over the course of 24-hour days.

Paul Newman with Warren Cowan
          Just after Elizabeth Taylor tiptoed back to her suite, Warren Cowan shared with me a handful of incidents in which he encountered many of his most famous clients in less than flattering situations. There was the night he schlepped a case of tissues, cough syrup and gallons of chicken soup to the home of one of his actress clients who was battling the flu. He recounted an early morning when he had to run out and hand cash to a famous actor stranded at a gas station after discovering that he’d misplaced his wallet. And then there was an award-winning actress who he helped to move out of a hostile living situation under the watchful glare of her soon-to-be ex-husband. “Like you and me, they all have everyday problems. Theirs are just more magnified when the public catches on,” he explained.

Warren Cowan with Sophia Loren
          Throughout the course of my twenty years in working with celebrities, I’ve come to experience many similar incidents. I’ve booked emergency dentist appointments, arranged cleaning services, driven them to events and provided early-morning wake-up calls. And I’ve witnessed them in private moments of triumph, sadness, anger and hilarity. The same range of emotions that we all experience in our “real lives.” There’s a line a former employer of mine often used about celebrities; about how just like us, they put on their pants each morning “one leg at a time.”  Or, in the case of the late, great Elizabeth Taylor, we all roll out of bed each day equally disheveled and imperfect. It’s a common trait that bonds us as ordinary humans – some a bit more renown than others. 

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Unavoidable Landmark Albums

Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette

It was the summer of 1995 and the voice of Alanis Morrissette was everywhere. A little-known Canadian female singer had emerged from total obscurity to become the reigning queen of the FM airwaves, MTV and VH1. Everywhere you went, another angst-filled anthem blared from radios and CD players. My office receptionists, Rachel and Toby, knew every word. Ironic. Hand In Pocket. Head Over Feet. You Learn. If you lived through that time… well, you oughta know. 

          Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morrissette was undeniably one of the most successful mainstream debut albums in pop music history. The CD sported a quartet of top-ten singles, and a handful of other radio hits. Technically, Ms. Morrissette had recorded a trio of teenage pop albums released only in her native Canada. But Jagged was her first adult effort, and her debut international release. It became one of the bestselling recordings of the 1990s.

          Other artists have scored more hit songs from a single album through the decades. Born In The USA by Bruce Springsteen, Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson and Thriller by Michael Jackson have all spawned seven top-10 hits. George Michael’s Faith album generated six hit songs, as did Katy Perry’s recent smash, Teenage Dream. And six disparate artists have enjoyed five hit songs from a single album including Madonna (True Blue), Paula Abdul (Forever Your Girl) Lionel Ritchie (Can’t Slow Down), Whitney Houston (Whitney) and Usher (Confessions). However, from this impressive list, only Paula Abdul’s album was a debut effort.

Fictional Album Cover for Poet Of The Wrong Generation
          In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, my protagonist, Johnny Elias emerges on the pop music scene with a debut album that generates a remarkable four (4) hit singles, plus another that is released simultaneously on a film soundtrack. His album - which also happens to be the book’s title – is released in 1992, during a serious dearth in quality of popular music. An era when rap, grunge, boy-bands and computerized instrumentation ruled the airwaves.

          Unlike the majority of the popular artists from the early ‘90s, Johnny Elias recorded an album of lyrically driven songs. Songs of heartbreak, alienation and social consciousness. A folky throwback artist – so unlikely successful- in perhaps the most shallow era for quality songwriting in pop music history. The wide range of musical styles and topical themes help our fictional pop-star to garner radio airplay on a variety of stations, turning him into an overnight success.

          Throughout the pop music era, I can recall a few other examples of extraordinary albums that have dominated the airwaves for an extended period. U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987) won the Grammy for best album, and lifted the Irish rockers from stars to superstardom. It featured a trio of top-ten singles including With Or Without You. Their songs and videos were everywhere.

In 1985, British Rockers, Dire Straits were the darlings of MTV and the FM airwaves with their monster album, Brother’s In Arms. Three hit singles cracked the top-20, including saturation video play for the #1 chart-topper, Money For Nothing. They even managed to make red headbands stylish for a summer.

The summer of 1977 was dominated by a pair of landmark albums. Rumors, the chart-topping album by Fleetwood Mac was a radio juggernaut. Four hit singles ruled the airwaves that season, including the # 1 smash, Dreams. The popular film, Saturday Night Fever, was powered by an unforgettable disco soundtrack, written primarily by The Bee Gees. The album held the # 1 position on the Billboard charts for 24 consecutive weeks, and produced an unprecedented FIVE #1 singles including Stayin Alive, Night Fever and How Deep Is Your Love. It also included hits by other artists including Tavares and KC and the Sunshine Band.

AM radio was still dominant in the early 1970s. And no album epitomized the early 70s AM sound than Carole King’s Tapestry. Although Ms. King’s songwriting skills had yielded hits for other artists throughout the ‘60s, it was her landmark solo album that made her a household name. The album generated five top-40 hits including the chart-topping I Feel The Earth Move and It’s Too Late, which won the Grammy for Record of the Year. You’ve Got A Friend won Song of the Year. And Tapestry, which topped the album charts for 15 consecutive weeks won Album of the Year. It remains one of the bestselling albums of all time. 

Oh, and as for the most successful debut album in pop-music history. Well, that distinction belongs to the rock band, Guns N Roses and their 1987 release, Appetite For Destruction. That record yielded seven singles (three of them top-40 hits) including the #1 song, Sweet Child 'O Mine. It remains the bestselling album for Geffen Records, and one of the bestselling titles of the 1980s.

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Fable Of Stardom’s Rewards

I’ve always been mesmerized by the concept of fame. As a kid growing up on Long Island, I was forever in awe of the talents and popularity of my great musical heroes. From my vantage point, there was nothing better than having a hit song on the radio and getting the chance to play it in front of thousands of screaming fans. Musical stardom had to be the pinnacle of all achievements.

          In my teens and twenties, I became one of those screaming fans, using babysitting money to buy concert tickets to see my favorite artists. Sitting in darkened theaters and arenas, I could imagine no grander moment than the one where the star walks out on stage into the bright spotlight, soaking in the adulation. Goosebumps and shivers on a nightly basis. Absolutely mind-blowing!

          An interesting and most unexpected encounter with a real-life music legend began to alter my perception of the whole celebrity mythology. It was June of 1992. I had just graduated college and was spending a summer afternoon with my cousin, Mike down in Greenwich Village. We were standing in line at a Häagen-Dazs stand on West 8th Street when the guy in front of us reached the service window. “I’ll have a vanilla ice cream with chocolate sprinkles,” announced the curly-haired gentleman in a whiny yet familiar voice. The attendant quickly fulfilled the order, handed a cone to the man and then turned his attention to us. “Next please.”

          The man in front of us hadn’t yet paid for his order. He stood in place with one hand in his pocket. “Um, excuse me. How much for my ice cream?”

The counter attendant flashed a smile of recognition. “It’s an honor to serve you. We love your music. Have a great day.” He then turned back to us and asked, “So what are you guys having?”

          Now growing irritated, the customer with the vanilla cone interrupted. “Hey, I said, how much for my ice cream?”

          “Really, sir. It’s on the house. Please come again. I’m a big fan. We all are.”

          “I said, how much for this ice cream?” the man insisted, now pounding a hand on the metal counter, his frustration mounting.

          “Okay, fine. It’s a dollar fifty,” said the worker in the Häagen-Dazs hat from behind the glass window.

          My cousin and I watched intently as the guy with the familiar, nasally voice reached into the pocket of his jeans for a pair of rumpled dollar bills. He slapped them on the counter and walked away muttering. “Everywhere I go I gotta be that guy. Everywhere I go. Can’t even pay for my own ice cream!”

          Incredibly, this would be my first and only encounter with perhaps the greatest songwriter in pop music history, the incomparable Bob Dylan. But more importantly, it would offer a unique lesson on the concept of stardom and public recognition. When not on stage, even the biggest of celebrities often yearn to be treated as just another face in the crowd -- if only this were possible.

          My career in marketing and publicity enabled me the unique privilege of meeting many of the stars I grew up admiring. And with each encounter, I was impressed to discover how even the world’s biggest superstars are very much regular people who just happen to occasionally walk red-carpets, perform to sold-out venues and have and a stack of 8 x 10s to autograph when they get home at night. They may live in spectacular mansions, date other beautiful celebrities, and eat in the world’s best restaurants. But more than anything else, I found that the one thing the world’s biggest superstars share in common is that they crave something that they rarely can enjoy. Normalcy.

          In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, I transferred my youthful fascination of rock stars onto my protagonist, Johnny Elias. Johnny attends concerts with his friends and frequently imagines the absurdly happy lives these musical icons must be living off stage. But when a song he writes lands him a recording contract and suddenly climbs the pop charts, he quickly discovers that stardom is vastly different and more demanding than anything he ever imagined as a fan. Instead of mind-blowing happiness, Johnny’s life begins to buckle beneath the weight of his own unlikely celebrity.

          One of the great musical heroes of my generation (and one who figures prominently in my novel) is Paul Simon. This past summer, in an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Simon said of musical stardom: “I’ve seen fame turn into absolute poison when I was a kid in the ’60s. It killed Presley. It killed Lennon. It killed Michael Jackson. I’ve never known anyone to have gotten an enormous amount of fame who wasn’t, at a minimum, confused by it and had a very hard time making decisions.” And this coming from a man who has spent more than half a century as one of the world’s most beloved singer/songwriters.

          In the 1990s, Alanis Morrissette went from being an obscure Canadian teen singer to an overnight superstar with the worldwide success of her album, Jagged Little Pill. Fame brought her riches and wild popularity. Yet she wasn’t prepared for such a bright spotlight as she explained in 2014 to Oprah Winfrey. “My head spun around 360. I just remember having been the person who loved to sit and watch people... and then I immediately became the watched. That was really disconcerting. I remember looking down a lot. I didn’t laugh for about two years. A lot of self-protection. There was a lot of invading of boundaries. On some level, I think becoming famous and wanting fame, there’s some trauma. The traumatized person — in this case, me — gets traumatized by the very thing that I thought would be the balm.”

Rock music legends who died at the age of 27
          The list of legendary music stars victimized by fame is staggering. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse are just a handful who struggled with celebrity and turned to drugs and alcohol as self-medication – vices that heavily contributed to their demise before the age of 30. Certainly there is no blueprint for the rock star to live by. Fame is undoubtedly not the key ingredient in lasting happiness. 

          British songstress, Adele rose to worldwide superstardom in 2009 after winning Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards. Proud as she is of her success, she seems to have a realistic approach to celebrity. "Fame is not real. And I don't want to live a fake life. Sometimes I have my moments, but not that often,” she told BBC Radio in 2015. "I find fame quite frightening and I find it really toxic… It's very charming and it's very persuasive but it doesn't last so why would you want to get involved in something that you will miss so much when it's gone - and it always goes."

          In 1999 I spent an afternoon with the Bee Gees as part of a postal tribute by their birth nation, the Isle Of Man. When I asked Maurice Gibb about the ups and downs of his long career he explained why he far more embraced fame in the later years. “I think you just appreciate it differently once you’ve hit bottom. You can’t really grasp the concept of stardom when it first happens to you. Everything moves so quickly and you have no perspective or appreciation, other than the cheers. But once you’ve been humbled a few times and realize that the fans are still there, it gives you that much more gratitude for the success you’ve achieved.” 

Of course, not all rock stars and celebrities succumb to the pressures of fame. Many artists including Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, The Who, Neil Young, Frankie Valli and the aforementioned Bob Dylan are still performing with much fanfare well into their 70s. For some, it may be about the money to maintain a certain lifestyle. To others, it could be about the addiction to adulation that never wanes; not even with age.

Sylvester Stallone and his Rocky Stamps
Back in 1996, I helped organized a postal tribute to Sylvester Stallone on 20th anniversary of the first Rocky film. Not a rock star, mind you, but a man who knows a thing or two about adulation and celebrity. I got to meet the actor in a private room at NY’s Planet Hollywood just before hosting the official ceremony. He provided a most unexpected and refreshing answer when I asked him what the honor meant to him.

“When you’re successful; when you have all this popularity, you really can go out and do whatever you want. You can buy the fastest cars, the biggest houses, take vacations anywhere. But the one thing you can’t buy, no matter how much money you earn is respect. Recognition that your talent and creativity is still appreciated.”

Respect and long-term appreciation are attributes that almost certainly get obscured in any initial rise to fame. But for those who survive the perils of the intense spotlight and the rock and roll lifestyle, it can often be the reward that awaits once the artist come to grips with their unique achievements. That, and the benefit of time and perspective balanced by a degree of normalcy. 

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.