"If he told me that the sun was hot, I'd try to keep in mind that the sun was paying him to say that," says Timothy McDarrah, an editor at Us Weekly, of Cheban. "Is he a self-centered narcissist staring at himself all day in the mirror? Yes. Is he a name-dropper who checks his pager all the time? Sure. But it works for him."
"We're not tricking anybody," Cheban pleads. "It's a service for consumers because they want to know. Average people want to know what's hot. And I only will do things that are classy and high-end. If a cheap water came to me and said, 'Can you make this hot?' I'd say no."
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)
On the Defensive
There's a somewhat defensive tone in Cheban's voice these days. The New York Observer recently described him as "one of those Zelig-like creatures, a friend of the famous, who's somehow managed to break into the most celebrated echelon of our social caste system." He hates the idea that he's canoodled and speed-dialed his way into some inner sanctum of fabulosity, almost as much as he hates the idea that he actually shills on behalf of clients. If you ask him, he'll just tell you he's close to some celebrities, okay? The business thing is separate.
He grew up in circumstances he describes as "very comfortable," the only child of a dad who is a diamond dealer and a mother who is in real estate. He started in PR right out of college, interning at a firm in Manhattan, then spent 11 unhappy months in Los Angeles, in the motion picture division of another PR firm. He high-tailed it back to New York and wound up in the employ of Peggy Siegel, the city's PR doyenne. By then he'd squired models to galas and organized a bunch of movie premieres and knew he'd found his calling. By the age of 25, he and two partners had started their own firm. He and Grubman merged after the two hit it off roping in starlets and generating ink for the Star Room, a club and restaurant in the Hamptons, where people like P. Diddy hung out.
"We thought this is really fun," Cheban says of their collaboration, "we should do this all the time."
The offices of Grubman Cheban PR are on the seventh floor of a building on Lafayette Street in SoHo. Until a week ago, and since the summer, the place was hosting a crew from MTV, which was taping the first season of a reality show called "Power Girls." It's about the work and social life of Grubman and four lovely underlings. That's why the walls in the office are all painted vivid shades of pink and blue.
"They say it looks better on TV that way," says Grubman. She's sitting next to Cheban on the massive white sectional sofa in her office, sipping a caffeine-rich energy drink and checking e-mails. She's friendlier and more candid than Cheban, who can be a little coy about his methods. To hear her tell it, there is no mystery.
"We'll ask our friends to come to a party that we're having and they'll come to support us, as our friends, and within that event we'll make sure that all of our clients are covered. We'll have the water company sponsoring the water, the ice cream company sponsoring the ice cream, okay? We'll surround the event with our products, so when all the photographs are taken, our clients are most likely going to be in the picture. You don't have to say, 'Do me a favor, hold this. Photographer, come over here.' It's going to happen anyway."
Is it weird to mix the personal and professional like that?
"Everyone is benefiting off of everyone else, period," she insists. "It's not exploiting. Everyone's happy in the end -- the venue, the clients, the celebrities. It's win-win."
Talk turns to Cheban's upcoming Lean Cuisine job. How exactly is he going to pull off this miracle?
"I can tell you exactly what he's going to do," Grubman interrupts. "He's going to walk around in the afternoon and stick Lean Cuisine in everyone's hand." She's laughing now. "I'm so glad I'm not going to be there because he'll be like, 'Here!' "
"No," groans Cheban. "It's going to be at a spa, so people will be eating it after they get their facials."
"What if they don't want to eat it?" teases Grubman.