Dressed in a dark sport jacket and button-down shirt, Cheban could pass for a member of the Strokes if the Strokes were a little older and from Europe. He's sporting a tan from a recent vacation in Aruba.
"I hated it," he says over the Nobu din, shaking his head and smiling. "I couldn't wait to get home. I told my mother I'm never going out of the country again. I need to be connected at all times."
Jonathan Cheban, in his SoHo office, works both sides of the velvet rope -- bringing together celebrity clients and product-placement clients to create a publicity windfall.
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
At the moment, he's connected through a cell phone, which beeps throughout the meal. Terrified of the "name-dropper" brand, he won't say who is calling. But as he explains it, he knew people like Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton long before they were famous. He started clubbing in New York way back when he was a high school kid from Fort Lee, N.J., and he's now out almost every night of the week, chauffeured these days in a black Denali, a GM-made SUV with seating for nine.
"I met Paris when she was regular Paris from uptown," he says. It was at one of his birthday parties, maybe at his 25th -- these parties start to blur together. "I loved her energy. She grew, as we all grew, into what we're doing now."
What exactly is Cheban doing now? A few months ago, he teamed up with Manhattan's semi-notorious party princess, Lizzie Grubman, best known for backing a Mercedes SUV into a crowd in the Hamptons, hitting 16 and earning her a brief spell in the pokey. The pair are now partners in Grubman Cheban PR, a company with a niche of its own making. Essentially, they're middlemen in the wary, never-ending tango between stars and the media that cover them; many of their clients are new restaurants and clubs in need of a big opening night or some chatter in the right places.
But the company doesn't merely party-plan. As Cheban and Grubman work both sides of the velvet rope, they're also finessing corporate clients into the tableau. The paymasters end up with press that is a bit like actual endorsements, only much cheaper.
It's a variation of "celebrity feeding," the colloquial tag for the endless flow of freebies, from soap to Cadillacs, that wind up in the clutches of the stars. Cheban is the only guy in this line of work who refuses to stay out of sight during the transaction. His competitors tend to be resolutely low-profile.
"We make it a practice never to go on camera and speak about our clients," says Doug Scott, a senior vice president with BNC, a New York brand marketing company. "We also make it a practice not to trade on our relationships for personal gain."
But it's Cheban's willingness to trade on his relationships, plus a whole lot of charm and chutzpah, that bring in clients.
"It costs $50,000 to get your product in a rap video now," explains Ryan Berger, the head of "buzz marketing" at a company called Euro RSCG Worldwide, the same firm that handles Evian. "That's why Jonathan is so crucial. He makes it okay for Paris to hold that Evian bottle."
This week, Berger is betting heavily on Cheban. He's hired him to fly to the Sundance Film Festival and bestow the penumbra of chic on something that sounds utterly chic-proof: Lean Cuisine. Yes, Cheban's mission impossible is to somehow finagle frozen dinners into the arms of some bold-faced names, and then immortalize that moment in the pages of Us Weekly, or one of its rivals.
The tough part is that Sundance is essentially the Mall of America during the festival. Cadillac, Nautica, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, Heineken and dozens of other companies -- they're all going, too, trying to sideswipe a celebrity long enough to generate an image that can be "serviced," as it's known in the biz, to the press.
"The dream would be to have a Hilary Swank or a Will Smith get hungry at midnight, when all the restaurants are closed, and order 10 boxes of Lean Cuisine to their condo," Berger says. "Then have Jonathan deliver the Lean Cuisine with a deliveryman and a photographer and get a shot of that. It would totally transform the way people think about Lean Cuisine."
If you're not the sort of person who cares about Lindsay Lohan, Cheban's guerrilla marketing tactics won't work on you. Instead, those tactics will seem ridiculous. But that puts you in the minority. Millions of Americans will buy what celebrities buy, even if celebrities don't actually buy it. Newspapers and magazines are happy to play along, well aware that it's an illusion.