I'm trying to go to the ladies' room, but there's a giant man in my way. Two, in fact. "Could you wait just a second, please?" the even bigger one asks as I approach. A woman right behind me clicks her tongue and says, "How long will it be? I have a class starting in two minutes." The guy smiles. "Don't worry. Your class isn't gonna start without this person."
Right then, the sleek black door opens and out strides itty bitty Lizzie Grubman, star publicist/publicist's nightmare. She's here tonight, Tuesday, at the Le Parker Meridien hotel in New York to deliver a three-hour class called "How to Succeed in Public Relations and Image Marketing." And we have just learned P.R. Tip No. 1: Pee alone.
Still fresh out of the big house, and evidently still doing community service, the highly blond Grubman appears to be running a low-profile comeback tour. Tonight she's actually been hired by The Learning Annex -- no, not a winking name for a Hamptons nightspot, but yes, the dorky how-to emporium for the curious, driven and idle. Present this evening: a mix of willowy publicists, club guys -- party promoters? -- with satin shirts and Caesar haircuts, and the Lecture-Circuit Retired. The Learning Annex catalog promises "an expert in-depth look at what it takes to launch and maintain a successful P.R. career," including tips and strategies, essential skills and qualities of a top P.R. person, the importance of networking, "where the money is," and more.
Well. This so isn't the article I wanted to write about the evening before it began, while I was still waiting outside the bathroom. I wanted to write the one that says, Shut up all you meanies, girlfriend is a brilliant fabulous tragically flawed diva who actually has something to say! I didn't want to dismiss or insult Grubman; it's not nice, and it's too easy -- fish in a barrel with a velvet rope. But no. I know now where the money is -- The 200 people at the lecture who dropped $49 a pop -- and if you ask me, the Learning Annex should give it back.
The evening's moderator was awkward, fawning talent agent Michael Katz. He first asked Grubman -- who'd walked down the conference room's long aisle flanked by her bathroom-door-guarding foot soldiers -- to "take us on a trip down Mentor Memory Lane."
"My story begins in high school," said Grubman, sitting on a stool next to him in a black tank revealing some impressive triceps. "I was not the best of students. I went to four high different high schools, based on where my friends were. I was much more of a social person than a student," she said, reminding me of the way George W. Bush talks about Yale. Somehow she made her way to Northeastern University in Boston (for "about five minutes"), then somehow got a job helping promote New Kids on the Block. "All I knew was I was running around promoting the hottest band in the country. I was so psyched!"
From there it was a P.R. job at the Big Apple Circus -- where she "learned everything," she says. "I was like, I'm promoting the clown!" From there, she began taking on individual clients, then eventually launching her own public relations firm, out of her living room, natch. Lizzie Grubman Public Relations now has offices in New York and L.A., plus a one-person Miami outpost.
Asked to describe a "typical day," Grubman said -- insisting that she likes to be in bed by about 10:30 -- that she's up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. She reads newspapers and gossip sites online: "Things are a lot different now that we have the Internet. I find that really helpful." (How long was she in jail?)
Then the gym, then to the office, her entertainment reporting spot at WNEW-FM, "juggling P.R. stuff," then back to the gym for two hours. I'll type that again in case you missed it: back to the gym for two hours.
Asked to describe the essential traits of a successful P.R. person, Grubman -- glancing at her notes -- explained that you have to be a "people person," "handle pressure well," "think outside the box," and oh, that "organizational skills are a must."
More than once, Grubman cautioned the audience that P.R. is "not all about glamour -- it's really hard work," which I do believe, but at this point it's about as refreshing as hearing a model say she lives on cheeseburgers.
Every so often, her comments were punctuated by sudden, incongruous applause by someone up front. P.R. Tip No. 2: Hire personal clapper.
Within 45 minutes, I started looking at my watch. How, how, are they going to stretch this 'til 9:30? For the first time in my life, I was desperate to do some sort of Adult Ed class exercise.
When break time came, I figured I'd head back to the restroom. No bouncers this time, but, bizarrely and grossly, a smear of vomit on the floor in the far stall. Can we get an image consultant in here, please?
I talked to Veronica Castro, 25, who works for the wedding emporium Model Bride. She and her boss were there to learn more about promoting the store: luring celebrities, the "Sex and the City" crew, etc. Veronica showed me her single page of notes, which contained, basically, the title of the course, and the word "networking." Said Veronica: "There wasn't much to write down."
After the break, Grubman fielded the attendees' index-card questions. Katz made a point of asking only those that pertained to, ahem, "what we're talking about tonight."
Potentially useful tips and facts:
-- No mass press releases. Journalists toss them (mmhmm). Rather, "tailor your pitch" to each different media person. (Examples of "tailoring" technique not provided.)
-- Don't promise more than you can do in your proposal to a potential -- and thus potentially disappointed -- client. Some firms trot out 10 pages of impossible dreams; she does a "plain-jane" two-or-three pager.
-- Send résumés in the body of an e-mail, not as attachments.
-- Hold New York events during Fashion Week -- more celebrities are around.
-- Many clients -- corporate, other businesses -- are choosing P.R. over advertising. "A cover story in the Times Style section is worth $20,000 to $30,000 of advertising space."
-- "P.R. people should not be getting that much press."
Other than that, Grubman (now joined by her partner Brenda Lowery) refused repeatedly, almost combatively, to answer questions with any helpful specifics. I am not talking about questions like "On that little knob, which one is DRIVE and which one is REVERSE?" or "What were you thinking?" I am talking about practical what-people-came-for inquiries about how one might promote a comedy festival, a bakery, a home decorating expert, and so forth. Grubman's answers included: "Well, I'd need to know what kind of bakery," "Get the stars to go on Leno and Conan O'Brien," "I analyze it as a kinda three-month kinda campaign sort of thing," "What we're talking about today and what we really do are far apart," and "I'm not giving away my secrets unless you hire me."
P.R. Tip No. 3: I'm not telling.
Grubman also suggested that we make use of resources such as the Drudge Report ("I think it's a great news source"), the listings in Time Out New York (say, to promote a gallery opening), and Google. I'll type that again in case you missed it: She advised us to use Google.
Then Katz, who will never have lunch with Grubman again, let this one slip past the censors: "How does one deal with negative publicity and counterattacking negative buzz?"
Grubman totally kept her cool. "If you're talking about a client, you generally deal with lawyers, and make sure the lawyers are expressing what the clients should be saying. If you're talking about a restaurant, then it's their job to change things in the kitchen," she said. "It's a rebuilding process. You have to start from the bottom, and rebuild it."
Well, she's working on it. Precisely how, of course, nobody learned tonight. Overall, all I can fathom is that Grubman is a savant of sorts. She can do one thing -- sell an ice cream parlor opening to an Eskimo -- and she is a natural, befuddled genius at it. She can't explain it, she just does it. And if her fundamental gift is the power to create irresistible hubbub over absolutely nothing, then based on what I saw tonight, she hasn't lost it.