Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul fondly recalls PageSix Richard Johnson’s role in his early career.
News broke yesterday that Richard Johnson, the cheeky editor of legendary gossip column PageSix for the past 25 years, is loading up his truck and heading to Beverly—Hills that is. While many have been reluctantly caught in his inky crosshairs over the years, I have a fondness for Richard—he gave this young flack a break when I was struggling to climb the ladder of celebrity publicity. Thanks to him, I’ve ended up as a Bold Faced Name in the column on at least three occasions—a mark of pride in the Big Apple. Back in February, I sent him a copy of Alphabet City and marked the stories of our encounters. He immediately contacted me to thank me for portraying him and PageSix in such a nice light, and ran a slightly sensationalized excerpt about Tyra Banks the next day that spun out-of-control across the Internet gossip land. Even in this day and age of online celebrity rumor mills, PageSix—and Richard Johnson—set the pace for coverage. Best of luck in the land of swimming pools and movie stars.
Here’s an excerpt from Alphabet City’s Episode 4: And Nothing But the Truth
For a few months now, I had been struggling to master the duties required to be a junior celebrity publicist. Other than a brief and almost disastrous encounter with Whoopi, so far my primary job had been escorting the firms C-list clients to be the third guest on NY-filmed TV talk shows like Rosie. These clients usually played the sitcom’s whacky next-door neighbor but had a dramatic movie-of-the-week to promote. As a favor to the firm’s heavy-hitter publicists who promised to deliver their headliners, talent bookers slotted in our low-wattage names in the last few minutes of a show.
Each week, my responsibilities were explained long distance by my boss, BusyB—think blonde highlights of Ryan Seacrest with the easy attitude of Neil Patrick Harris. He was Greasy’s partner in the firm, headed up the celebrity division, and had a reputation as the nicest and busiest entertainment publicist in the business. BusyB was responsible for teaching me the public relations two-step dance I call “Spin and Cover.”
First, I mastered the art of spin. A few days after my job interview-date with Greasy, BusyB called with my first assignment—a very important daily mission involving Liza Minnelli. By 7am, I was to read all the daily gossip columns, cut out and paste up any that mention Liza, and fax them to her manager, assistant and head publicist by 7:30am. No earlier or later.
Liza’s entourage seemed awfully high maintenance, but that was fine by me. As cliché as it is for a gay boy, I have been completely devoted to Liza ever since I was six years old and my father took the family to The Venetian Room at Dallas’ fading Fairmont Hotel for a live performance by the diva. It was the waning days of 70’s hotel cabaret but I dressed as if it were the second coming.
For weeks, I pranced around the living room with a top hat and cane found in my stash of dress up clothes singing along to the cassette recording of Cabaret. I was perfecting a heart-wrenching rendition of “Maybe This Time.” At Liza’s performance, I quietly mouthed the words as I sat enraptured by her every word, note, gesture and sequin.
Twenty years later, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be traveling in her orbit. Which is why I was so unnerved when after a few weeks of successful gossip column faxing, BusyB assigned me a more critical Liza task.
“I need you to call Richard Johnson at PageSix and deny that Liza is back in rehab,” he said.
“Richard? He’s the most powerful columnist around. I’ve never spoken to him. Why me?”
“Because I’ve spoken to him a million times. He won’t believe me.”
“But I wouldn’t even know what to say.”
“Anything. Make something up. Like she’s going into the hospital to have a procedure. Her knee or hip drained, something like that. It’s called spin.”
Spin sounded an awful like lying to me. Didn’t Greasy say something about my integrity landing me the job? With no other options, I called Richard, but he wasn’t buying what I was selling.
“You’re honestly expecting me to believe some junior flack telling me that Liza is having her knee or hip drained?”
I paused, and then just tried to be as honest as I could.
“I know, but give a kid a break. I’m in over my head here, and my boss is telling me I have to feed you this story.”
I could hear Richard typing away on his keyboard.
“That’s the most honest thing I’ve heard all week,” he said.
Next day, PageSix ran with the Liza-back-in-rehab story. But Richard included at the end of the piece an obscure line about Liza’s reps claiming she was having a medical procedure. I was heralded a hero in the LA office. Greasy had told me the key to this business was keeping my integrity in tact, and surprisingly that is what charmed the most important gossip columnist.