Three Weeks Earlier
BASICALLY, I AM A THIRTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD GLORIFIED BABY sitter. The elegant business cards I carry read: SOPHIE ATWATER, PERSONAL PUBLICIST, but really, it boils down to the same babysitting skills I began honing in the seventh grade. Only now instead of making sure homework is done and bedtimes are observed, I arrange "playdates" with my celebrity clients and the media. And trust me, knowing how to wrangle the occasional spoiled brat or princess still comes in handy.
Don't get me wrong—I love my job and its enviable upsides. It can feel exciting and glamorous to be in the know—even surreal, like when I'm at a checkout line and know for a fact where the line of truth falls on a tabloid cover. And no day is ever the same, so I can't get bored. I'm not the type of person who could handle sitting behind a desk all day, shuffling reports and getting excited about the 4 P.M. microwave popcorn break. I get squirmy just sitting in a theater seat for more than a couple of hours. Plus, you certainly can't dismiss the really cool perks, like when high-end or über-trendy designers send over free samples of clothes and makeup hoping to get them in the hands of our highly visible clients. Or simply court favor with us gatekeepers. With clients' closets often overstuffed, I'm happy to carry home what's left behind or "re-gifted" to me. Who would refuse "free?" Although, lately the reflection in my dressing mirror has been somewhat sobering ... and now I find the trendiest looks better suited to fearless twenty-somethings.
But the very best thing about my job is that I am in charge of my own destiny. After starting as a lowly assistant—where fetch, copy, and collate were the sum of my responsibilities—more than seven years ago, I'm now pretty successful in my chosen field, and there is a certain satisfaction in knowing I worked damn hard to earn my status and reputation. And I work for Bennett/Peters, one of the most elite boutique PR firms in the industry. The boldfaced names you see regularly on "Page Six" or Perez Hilton? We represent most of them.
And it certainly isn't a downside that I get to work with gorgeous men all day, and tell them what to do.
Someone just kicked me softly in the shin under the conference room table. I look up to find my assistant, Tru, Hello Kitty notepad at the ready, giving me wide eyes.
Elle, my boss, is seated at the head of the table. From the tone of her distinct New York accent, it's safe to guess this isn't the original query.
"Yes?" I reply confidently, tidying my notes as if I had been strategizing instead of zoning out as a couple of junior agents exhaustively detailed their upcoming events. Every Wednesday morning the entire department gathers around the long table with bullet-pointed lists and venti-sized Starbucks cups in hand for a major staff meeting.
"I wanted to be sure you are free first thing tomorrow morning," Elle continues, "because I've set up an important meet-and-greet with a potential new client: Billy Fox."
Now she's got my complete attention.
Mind you, I already represent more celebs than anyone else at my firm except Elle herself. But it is a compliment that she thinks I can secure this particular client better than any of the other publicists.
Billy Fox is a star.
Taking the Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise route, Billy seduced audiences and critics alike with his brief yet undeniably charismatic debut as a sweet-talking, golden-haired con man in a Quentin Tarantino ensemble heist film. Since his breakout role (and Golden Globe nomination), Billy has gone on to become a versatile leading man in films ranging from a high-grossing romantic comedy to a high-adrenaline legal thriller to a surprising choice of role in a risky indie costume drama. After just a half dozen films, Billy Fox is widely considered one of the elite, bankable A-list actors—and fodder for women's fantasies across the globe. Signing him to Bennett/Peters would be a major coup.
I knew his former publicist, an amazing woman. Really, a Norma Rae in the PR world. But she retired, incredibly wealthy and on some tropical island from what I hear, and now he and his manager are looking for another firm to represent him. Obviously, Bennett/Peters wants this account and wants it bad. Elle wants this for the firm, for her career. I want it, I mean him, I mean this account for her, for the company, but also because it would totally cement my reputation with the firm for literally ever.
"Definitely," I say. "Count me in. I'll prepare for the meeting this afternoon. And thanks. You won't be—"
"With all due respect," interrupts my coworker Priscilla Hasley, in her smooth, Gwyneth Paltrow–like inflection, "don't you think I'd be the most appropriate choice? His prior publicist and I run in the same social circles. It might aid the transition."
No she didn't. Unbelievable. As if I'd be booking Billy while getting pedicures and deep-tissue massages at exclusive country clubs.
In truth, I shouldn't have been surprised. It's typical Priscilla. I hate the way she speaks—especially because her polished voice, chic auburn bob, and ridiculously perfect body disguise her total ineptitude and appalling work ethic. Not only is Priscilla a lousy publicist, she is a complete and utter bitch. I consider myself to be a pretty open-minded person, but having seen Priscilla in action for three-and-a-half years now, I think I have enough to base my judgment on. Though she's never crossed me (other than just now boldly stepping on my toes), I've observed how she treats the assistants and junior publicists. Just last week she took a long look at one of Tru's more colorful ensembles and snidely asked aloud if we'd taken on Barnum & Bailey as a new client. I couldn't help but notice that usually confident Tru wore her jacket inside for the rest of the day. And Priscilla infamously sent a former assistant she felt had crossed her back to the drugstore to return a defective yeast infection test—which was humiliating enough for the poor girl without it being in used condition.
Now all of us in the room seem to be holding our breath, awaiting Elle's response.
Elle is by general consensus a great boss, except when it comes to Priscilla. She is completely blind to how inept Priscilla is. Everyone knows Priscilla got the job only because her dad is the publisher of a very snazzy magazine. So far I have managed to steer clear of her, but her attitude of superiority grates on my nerves. The weird thing is, she is Elle's "pet project."
For the most part, everyone tries to ignore it when Priscilla gets great assignments or fun responsibilities like managing the "loot locker," the storage room of random gifts—from luxuries to personal electronics to board games—we routinely receive from companies or events, for our clients. But there are the inevitable eye rolls when Elle dismisses obvious mistakes Priscilla makes or covers for her by buying into Priscilla's attempts to pass blame to someone else in the department.
Thankfully Elle is clearheaded today. "I appreciate your enthusiasm, Priscilla, but Sophie is the best fit and my choice for Mr. Fox. Moving on ..."
It takes all my adult self-control to refrain from smirking.
As soon as the meeting wraps, Tru and I regroup in my glass-walled office. I wish I could brag that it's a super-stylish workstation, but in all the years since I graduated from a cubicle, I still haven't gotten around to decorating it with many personal touches. Yet after so many long hours hosting my ambition, it comfortably feels like home. And besides, my job is just as much on the road anyway, whether it's shuttling clients to the gated studios and backlots of Burbank or Hollywood, attending press circuits (aka media musical chairs—new face, same short list of questions) in plush hotel suites, overseeing corner-booth interviews at West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, or dodging the "Fashion Police" on red carpets when a client's wardrobe choices were annihilated the year before. "For tomorrow's meeting," I instruct Tru, "we need to research everything Billy Fox. I'm talking career, press, personal life ... the works. Get Googling."
My quirky yet highly capable assistant of the past eighteen months may not look like the usual blond and polished LA publicist, but I wouldn't trade her selfless Midwestern drive and resourcefulness for anything.
Hours later I'm sifting through an impressive pile of clippings—from deals and box office numbers in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety to far more gossipy items in TMZ and Star magazine. Entertainment Weekly gushingly crowned Billy "Hollywood's Next Golden Boy." And with that notoriety, his personal life has been equally public. He'd been dating this pop star for a while, actually, especially by Hollywood standards, and their breakup saw major tabloid coverage for weeks. In fact the pop star's latest single is rumored to be a thinly veiled critique of their relationship.
That's got to suck. Breakups are bad enough without the court of public opinion.
After checking off another day's to-do list and gathering my notes for tomorrow, it's time to hit the road home. Pulling out of the office's underground parking, I wave good-bye to the familiar, rotating security guard (tonight it's Latin-Big-Flirt-with-Soul-Patch on duty) and ease into the evening traffic. In some cities families are already clearing the dinner dishes, but here in LA, seven-thirty is still peak rush hour. As long as it's just the usual crawling traffic ahead, the commute from Century City to Brentwood should get me home by eight-fifteen or so. My iPod lights up as I blast the new Killers album through my BMW's stereo system. With the office shrinking from sight in the rearview mirror, I take my first deep breath of the day.
I can't lie, I am a little stressed out. The days are rewarding but draining. There are a lot of egos, overbooked schedules, and periods of necessary hand-holding—and that's just over lunch. Yesterday, for instance, I half-listened to a nineteen-year-old actress client (one of Nickelodeon's fresh-faced ingénues) babble on and on about how the show's director insisted everyone's lunch break be shortened to forty-five minutes to help pick up the schedule. "But it's called a lunch hour for a reason," she vented to me over the phone as I tried to ignore my own stomach's growling. "Do you know how long it takes to prepare 'raw'?! It's not just slicing up carrots, you know." Never mind that I rarely find fifteen minutes to duck out for a bite or must ask Tru to pick up some sad salad for me to scarf down as I mute my end of a conference call.
But honestly, it comes with the territory. I wouldn't trade my career—and it isn't just about the hot guys and the swag. I appreciate the challenge of raising someone's profile or working out a campaign for a client's new independent film. Photo shoots, press junkets, launch parties, premieres ... nothing is more exciting for me than taking a hardworking actor and turning him or her into a star. At this stage in my career I have earned the right to pick and choose my clients. So, for the most part, though they can be demanding, I really like and admire the people I work with. Celebrities are generally fun to hang out with because when you're with them they treat you like you're their best friend, and your opinion is gold. It's those damn managers you have to watch out for—they can be so bitchy. One wrong move and they'll yank your star client right out from under you. But that hasn't happened to me in a long time.
Outside Hollywood—or "the business" as it's aptly called in LA—people may not know my name, but they certainly recognize my clients. And that's in large part due to my hard work in getting their names and faces out there. I've even been mentioned in the gossip columns. Okay, well, not by name, but when you read "so-and-so's representative was not available for comment"—that's me! And the "unavailable" part? Completely untrue. I am always available for work. But sometimes the best defense for a client's sticky situation is to pretend it doesn't exist and wait for someone else to screw up and grab the spotlight.
Thank you, America's short attention span.
I hear my BlackBerry pinging from its perch on the passenger seat and resist the urge to pick it up. Okay, so I am a BlackBerry addict. I know that's a cliché even by LA standards, but I admit that I get a bit shaky if the little black box isn't within my line of sight. I've burned through the keypads of two BlackBerrys already. The tech guys at Bennett/Peters didn't even know that was possible until I came along. After the first incident (where I practically had a panic attack), I keep my I.T. person on speed dial. BlackBerry #3 was in my restless hands within only a few—but seemingly infinite—hours. This may seem a bit workaholic psycho, but to me, it's normal. It's business. Sophie Atwater is available by email or cell phone 24/7.
It will probably say that on my tombstone.
Not that I can't take a vacation when I want to ... but the few times my boyfriend, Jacob, and I have tried to go away for weekends, to Santa Barbara or San Diego, I was still returning calls and constantly emailing people. Jacob likes to half-joke about throwing my BlackBerry out the window as we sit in traffic on the 101, but he would never really do it. And it's not like he can talk. He brings his laptop everywhere, and his nose is always buried in the newspaper. And not just the Los Angeles Times—he reads all of them. I'm talking the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and even Washington and Chicago papers. At first I was impressed. I bragged to all my girlfriends how intelligent and informed he was (he doesn't even skim the Entertainment section). But like discovering news-ink stains on your fingers, it is pretty annoying to find stack upon stack of previously read papers in your breakfast nook. I own a less than sprawling one-bedroom condo. I'm lucky to have a "breakfast nook," and I don't always feel like pushing aside a foot-high pile of last week's news just to sit down while I power through my bowl of Cheerios.
At a red light on Wilshire (home to the longest red lights on the planet), I sneak a look at the incoming emails—nothing urgent—and get in a quick text to Jacob to say I'm almost there. As you might have guessed by his non-Variety or Hollywood Reporter reading habits, he's not an actor. That is always the first question people ask me. I suppose given that I spend seemingly twenty-three hours a day with actors it is an obvious assumption. But dating clients is strictly forbidden at Bennett/Peters, and for anyone with an ounce of common sense, not a good idea.
Nope, Jacob R. Sloane is not in the industry at all, actually. He's an investment banker. Don't ask me what that means because, honestly, I have no idea. Except that it does have a sexy, grown-up sound to it. He's gamely explained to me a couple times what he does, and I go out with him and his work buddies occasionally, but when they're talking about "lenders" and "portfolios" and whatnot, I can't help but tune it all out. And inevitably, I have several pending emails I should be replying to anyway. Sometimes I sip my wine and scroll through my inbox and let Jacob's low, growly voice wash over me, trying to ignore the occasional frown I see on his forehead when he catches me discreetly, or not so discreetly, tapping away on the keyboard.
Excerpted from The Star Attraction by Alison Sweeney. Copyright © 2013 Alison Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
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