Company: Fifteen Minutes Public Relations
Born: Flint, Mich., 1956
Education: B.A., journalism and psychology, University of Michigan, 1978
Most Influential People: His grandmother, Leah Wolin, and the factory worker parents of his friends in Flint, "who inspired me to do something I love instead of counting the days until retirement."
Personal: Lives in Los Angeles with his longtime partner
Hobbies: Hiking, collecting art and photography, spending time with his pets
A large man, well over 6 feet tall and with a personality to match, Howard Bragman is one of Hollywood's most well known public relations specialists. Bragman has handled media relations and crisis management for such high-profile clients as Isaiah Washington, Paula Abdul, Jim Lampley and Rikki Lake. After graduating with a journalism and psychology degree from the University of Michigan, Bragman began working as a magazine editor and in publishing in Chicago. A gay, Jewish liberal, Bragman decided to try public relations after his stint in publishing was about to land him a magazine job he did not want. Media work was a perfect fit, and he rose through the ranks and arrived on the L.A. scene as a vice president with Burson-Marsteller Public Relations in the mid-1980s. He began to make his mark on the media landscape in 1989, when helped found Bragman Nyman Cafarelli Public Relations and Marketing, which came to be known as BNC. The company became one of the nation's most recognizable PR agencies, with billings of more than $10 million annually and a client roster of celebrities, consumer products and events. BNC was purchased by Interpublic, one of the marketing world's largest holding companies, in 2001. Following that, Bragman founded a strategic media and public relations agency, Fifteen Minutes. He's expecting the young firm to bill more than $2 million this year. He lives in Los Angeles with his partner, Chuck O'Donnell, a horse trainer who until retiring last year rode the USC mascot Traveler at Trojan home game.
Question: You are known for your ability to get along with just about everybody. Why is that?
Answer: I always tell people that I empathize with the outsider because I grew up fat, Jewish and gay. I sort of understand what it's like to be a Martian.
Q: Did you ever struggle with the decision to tell others you were gay?
A: I knew I was gay all through college but came out to my family and friends right afterward. I wanted to be financially independent when I came out.
Q: As an openly gay publicist, what has it been like to represent actor Isaiah Washington, who got fired for homophobic slurs he directed at fellow cast member T.R. Knight on the ABC TV show "Grey's Anatomy"?
A: I adore Isaiah. Before any of this happened, a mutual friend said "You should talk to Isaiah," so I did. We talked on the phone for hours and met for breakfast for two hours. My biggest issue was that I didn't want to represent someone who is homophobic. His history, his life I've met his friends, his family this man is not homophobic. Somebody who's homophobic does not play gay in movies, does not have gay friends. I think Isaiah has more gay friends than I do. I do not think he is homophobic; I couldn't. I believe he really used the wrong word in a situation and he will acknowledge that.
Q: You went to college hoping to get into journalism?
A: I always liked to write, even as a little kid I liked to write these long stories. My parents would say, "Oh, you used to love to write as a kid," and then it was like, 'Well, why didn't you ever encourage me?' But nobody knew, the world just wasn't as sophisticated as it is today and that's OK.
Q: But you wound up in publishing?
A: I went to Chicago at the end of 1978. My first job was running a little book market and we sold mostly paperbacks and magazines. It was off Rush Street in the very upscale area of Chicago. Steve Martin's first book, which was called "Cruel Shoes," came in. I had this friend who was working around the corner and he said "Let's do a window!" for the book display. We did the whole display window in black plastic, we took a big platform shoe he had these big metallic platform shoes we put in the platform, and we took a whip and we laid it across the shoes. We hung the poster that came with the books and we put a stack of books in the window. It was cool, it was avant-garde had we been in SoHo in 1999. In Chicago in 1979, it wasn't so popular.
Q: So what happened?
A: It so happened that the head of the whole company, which was a magazine distribution company, happened to be going to Rush Street with his wife and some friends. They're walking down the street and say, "We own that bookstore." Then they looked at the window. That was Saturday night, and Monday was my last day. I don't know what they were so upset about I sold a lot of books. My boss said, "Howard you are a really good guy and this is the best window I have ever seen, but retail probably isn't for you."
Q: From there it was publishing?
A: I got a job with an awful little magazine called "Chicago Elite." If they tell you they are elite, watch out. The real story is that the publisher put out a magazine called "American Firearms Industry," which was a magazine for gun dealers. There were bullet holes on our office windows. I don't know if he upset some people or their advertising didn't go over well and people were mad. So I go in and I interview and the guy says, "I have a gun magazine but my wife likes to go to a better class of parties, so I publish this one, too." They hired me as an associate editor.
Q: How'd you get into PR work?
A: My boss came in one day and said, "Howard, I have bad news. We are closing the magazine. Would you like to work for the gun magazine? And I said no let me think, a gay Jewish liberal working for a gun magazine? Not so much. He said what are you going to do? And I said I want to go into public relations. All these people pitch me stories and they haven't even read the magazine you know what it's like. So I went to this tiny public relations firm in Chicago. At the end of the first week I knew I had found my calling, I knew I had found what I love to do.
Q: What brought you to Los Angeles?
A: I came out to L.A. at the end of 1986 and I immediately fell in love. When you grown up in Flint, Mich., and go to college in Ann Arbor, you go to Florida in the winter sometimes on vacation, but there's a part of your mind that doesn't feel like its real. And then you come out here. I just remember when I first moved here driving myself in my stupid little Volkswagen Rabbit with my sunroof open on Sunset Boulevard and thinking, this is good, this is really good.
Q: Is public relations different in Los Angeles?
A: The problem for a lot of PR firms is that they don't realize L.A. is very much its own market. For example, in PR a lot of the big firms like to bill hourly. Well, most L.A. clients like to have you on retainer, they don't like the hourly thing. Another thing, a lot of firms like to do strategic consulting, but most people who hire PR firms here want publicity work.
Q: You're viewed as a celebrity publicist. Is that accurate?
A: I do celebrity publicity, but I don't think I am a traditional celebrity publicist. A lot of my celebrity clients happen to be my friends, people like Rikki Lake. And I do a lot of crisis work. In the last year I have worked with Jim Lampley, who was accused of spousal abuse. I worked with Naomi Campbell, when she had to go to court. I worked with Paula Abdul and Isaiah Washington, so it's been an interesting year to say the least. The crisis part is challenging, strategic and comes at you fast.
Q: What have you learned from this year?
A: That the media has changed and the way the media changes. There's this myth out there among celebrity publicists that they can control their clients' image, and you just can't in this day and age. I call it the post-privacy era. There is no wall between public and private and what you can do is manage peoples' image, but you cannot control it.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: It has to do with the Internet, cell phones, blogs and just a general awareness of the PR business. We've gone from a 24-hour news cycle to a 24-second news cycle. Things are up on the Web within literally seconds. The metabolism of the media has sped up. I've tried to adjust to it and I've tried to get people here to adjust as well. Any publicist has to be real and deal with the new way the world works, whether they like it or not.
Q: What's with the obsession with celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears?
A: They'll be replaced. Right now, it's like a reality show, and it moves so fast. People like to follow it. The magazines like People and US and OK, they are really smart because they pick about a dozen characters Angelina, Brad, Jennifer, Britney Lindsay, Paris because people's attention is limited. And we continue to follow these people, in spite of the fact that we should be paying attention to other things and other people. And it will continue until the ratings go down, in whatever way.
Q: Have you ever had to lie for a client?
A: Of course I have. Any publicist, or any person, who says they don't lie is a liar. I try not to lie for a client, 99 percent of the time I'll say, "I think that's too personal to answer." If I do have to lie for a client it's to protect somebody's dignity. That's the time when I don't feel bad. Some of the media is so sleazy today that I have just ceased to have respect for them. I'll get calls from the tabloids like, "Your client did this. What do you have to say about it? And I will say "Die, tabloid scum." They usually print that I declined comment, so I'll call back and ask why? I gave them an answer.
Q: Have you had to turn clients away or fire clients in the past?
A: Absolutely. If a client doesn't listen to me, why should I take their money? I don't need to. I would rather be with a client who respects my opinion and is going to listen. If they won't listen it won't do either of us any good. Some clients want someone to hold their hand and listen to them; I am not so much that kind of guy. I want to have a strategy and get out there and work on their image.
Q: So it has to be a fit?
A: I have fired clients and I've had clients fire me. I have had a couple clients I had to leave because I thought they were going to die, overdose or had some serious problems. That's not going to happen on my watch. I refuse to be that enabler and can't watch someone destroy themselves. We had it happen at BNC. Chris Farley was a client and it was a really, really hard thing to see. We all knew there were problems, we had been to a premiere with him a week before. I never want to feel like that again, that I wish I could have dome something.
Q: Some people can't really handle fame, can they?
A: I think there are certain people who are addicted to fame the way some others are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some people are addicted to it and will do anything for it. I have a theory about fame. It's not an end point, it is a currency that can get you a lot of money, a career, respect or power to change the world. But just to be famous? You have to be known for something and hopefully something positive. It's common sense. It's relationships. It's respect and integrity.
Q: So how do you balance your frenetic work schedule with your personal life?
A: My partner, Chuck O'Donnell, is a horse trainer. He's best known for being Tommy Trojan, the USC mascot. He retired after the USC-Texas football game in 2006. His stepfather started that tradition. We are very different in every way except for our values and energy, which are the same. We are both workaholics, and by the time he gets home and I get home it's after 7:30 pm. We have a lot of animals. We own about a half dozen horses, we have two dogs, a cat, and African Grey parrot and turtles and fish in our pond.
Q: What do you do to escape from your work?
A: I am not a huge traveler; I am sort of a homebody. I like my routine. I wake up and usually work out, or take a hike every morning. I play with the pets. I ride horses; I have a beautiful white Andalusian who used to be Traveler, the USC horse. It's like somebody who's first learning to drive having a Ferrari, you know?
Q: Have you always been an animal lover?
A: My mother hated pets. She thinks they're dirty. I'll never forget, when my brother and I were older my mother said, "When I see how much you boys love your dogs, it makes me feel really bad that I didn't let you have pets growing up," and she was waiting for us to say "Oh mom, that's OK." And my brother said, "Yeah well, it's too late." It was the chance to give back some of the guilt.
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