By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006
Michael Jackson is going to call -- from wherever he happens to be at the moment, which is a bit of a mystery. He's going to talk about Raymone Bain, the Washington publicist who has just become his general manager.
But no . . . he's not going to call. A personal assistant delivers this news on a patched-in transcontinental phone line. Jackson would rather converse through a different type of technological apparatus -- one that doesn't require actually speaking.
Jackson wants to talk by fax.
But no . . . the fax machine is broken. So two days later, Jackson's assistant e-mails his answers to questions posed to him by The Washington Post. Questions about why he's decided to put Bain -- a woman who'd been mysteriously fired and then rehired in the midst of Jackson's 2005 child abuse trial-- in charge of his new company.
"I was impressed by her professionalism, her strategic thinking, and honesty," the e-mail reads. "I watched from afar the work she had done for other clients, for example how she ushered her clients to new levels, she helped diversify their interests from politics, to charitable events, to the world of fashion. One could not pick up a newspaper or magazine that did not feature Babyface, Boyz II Men or Serena Williams . . ."
Uncannily, this sounds exactly like a press release from Raymone Bain.
That's how good she is.
* * *
Bain, she of the micro-minis and the waist-length weave, knows how to spin a crisis, whether that crisis is Jackson's trial or Marion Barry's unfortunate encounter with a surveillance tape or Mike Tyson's staggering bankruptcy. She's a master of the care and coddling of famous folk, especially those who happen to find themselves in exceedingly hot water.
She's flashy of dress, but surprisingly reticent about herself. ("Why would anyone want to do a story about me? I'm so boring. All I do is work.") She insists she's not a public figure, and yet the camera always seems to find her, walking the red carpet in Tokyo with Jackson -- "my boss" -- or escorting him into the courtroom during his trial.
She is, after all, a professional who has made a career out of managing perceptions, zealously guarding both her clients' images and her own, a political junkie who got her start toiling in Jimmy Carter's White House, a Georgetown law school grad who never practiced law. She's a small-town girl who has represented some of the most glittering names in African American entertainment and sports: Muhammad Ali. Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Tyson. Boyz II Men. Serena Williams. Deion Sanders. Janet Jackson . . .
Like Condoleezza Rice, Bain is a product of the South's black middle class, a boomer raised on ballet and the Bible at a time when comportment, education and manners were used as weapons to blunt the effects of Jim Crow living. She is poised and manicured -- "prissy," according to her friends -- measuring her words with soft-spoken formality. Then again, she's not above picking up the phone to administer a verbal beatdown.
"Any time there was major press, she was hands-on," says Babyface, a 10-time Grammy Award winner. "You feel like you have your sister working for you. Nothing was going to go by, nothing negative was going to be said about you without her coming at [the person who said it] hard. And I mean hard ."
Last year, Bain, 52, went from being the force behind the scenes to the glammed-up face in front of the camera, serving as Jackson's spokeswoman during his trial. She strove mightily to paint a picture of normality for her notoriously eccentric client: "He's pretty strong. He's relying on his faith in God and his faith in the judicial system." After Jackson infamously showed up one day in pajama bottoms, she told Katie Couric: "He's embarrassed, having had to wear his pajamas in court, but under the circumstances, I would have . . . done the same."
But not long after, Bain was summarily dismissed on the Jackson Web site with a terse, "MJJ Productions regretfully announces the termination of Raymone Bain and Davis, Bain & Associates. We thank you for your services." But within days, with no real explanation of what happened, she was back on the job. This summer, in a major overhaul of a troubled entertainment dynasty, Jackson tapped Bain to helm his ship, naming her general manager and chief operating office of the Michael Jackson Co. Inc.
Is she up to the task?
"She's almost like a Columbo," says Cathy Hughes, Radio One founder and chairman, a longtime business associate. "She comes off like she's seeking your advice; there's a naivete about her that makes you comfortable. It's a facade, a veneer. She's probably one of the smartest, shrewdest people I've ever seen."The Pull of Public Service
Trying to set up an interview with Bain is an exercise in persistence. She demurs and deflects: Now's not a good time. There's nothing to write about. Maybe a few months down the line . . . She makes a phone call up a reporter's chain of command to plead her case. Finally she relents. And then e-mails a list of friends, clients, colleagues and pastors for The Washington Post to call -- and requests the reporter's schedule so she can set up the interviews.
This is a woman accustomed to being in control.
In person, Bain is all warm smile and firm handshake, offering up tea and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. She's a curvy woman, dressed for business in a fitted navy blazer and designer denim, pebble-size diamonds studs and silver hoops crowding her ears. Her platinum micro-braids are raked back in a ponytail, while a large, diamond-studded cross dangles from her neck. It's hard to reconcile the modern-day glamazon with pictures of the fresh-faced, fluffy-haired young woman in the decades-old pictures in the library.
When she was first starting out, remembers longtime friend and businesswoman Cora Masters Barry, Bain was "naive," a "golden girl" unaccustomed to the cutthroat shenanigans of the sports and entertainment arenas. Still, Masters Barry says, in time, "she did more than adapt," even going so far as to stock her closet with two wardrobes: a relatively conservative one for her political life and a blinged-out one for the entertainment folks.
"She became very successful," Masters Barry says. "I used to describe her as the steel under the velvet."
Bain usually rises at 3 a.m. to take calls from Jackson, who, after hopping all over the globe, is now living in Ireland. Bain used to keep offices on 30th Street NW, but she figured that if she's going to work until the wee hours, it's better to do so from the comfort of her Georgetown split-level.
Her house, like Bain herself, feels formal, as if the real living is done somewhere else: subdued neutrals, an abundance of silk flowers, framed lithographs of iconic African American art. An electronic baby grand -- she studied piano as a kid -- stakes out a corner of the living room. Past a staircase trimmed with faux holly are framed platinum and gold records, a legacy of her work with R&B stars. In the library are pictures of Bain with Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Babyface, Jackson.
Downstairs there is precious little adornment, save for a glass wall overlooking the back yard. In one corner, piles of letters and packages, all from Jackson fans, are stacked, ready to be shipped to him.
Two men work at a large folding table. A pair of women who look eerily like Bain -- deep brown skin, extravagant manes of honey blond hair, jeweled crosses and French manicures -- work the phones, as does another woman, who, with her silvery hair and sweatshirt, clearly isn't adhering to the uniform. Wandering about, sniffing at ankles, is Mikey, a Yorkie with a baby-blue ribbon in his hair. He is Bain's constant companion, her baby, his name dropped into e-mails with a casual "Mikey says hello."
For the interview, she settles into a chair in the library upstairs, wagging a stern finger at Mikey, who begs to be let up onto her lap. William Marshall, one of the men from downstairs, enters the room, armed with a legal pad and pen. He plops down on the couch next to a reporter. And proceeds to take notes.
"He's my media guy," Bain explains.
Control is a word that crops up frequently in her conversations, as she recounts the days of the Jackson trial and her 12 years as an agent for boxers such as Hector Camacho and Thomas "Hitman" Hearns. She never planned on making public relations a career, she says; it just sort of happened. She thought she'd be a criminal trial attorney, maybe even run for political office. Then she figured she could make a bigger impact being the woman behind the curtain.
"As I got older, I realized you can effectuate change in so many ways," she says.
Effecting change was something that was instilled in her early. Her father, an insurance executive, died of a heart ailment when she was 6. Her mother never remarried. Her grandfather filled in, cocooning her in an atmosphere of love and discipline in their Augusta, Ga., home. ("He used to say, 'You have a lot of book sense; I can't wait until you get some common sense.' ") Between Brownies and dance lessons, between bowling and Catholic school, she was taught that to whom much is given, much is expected. The civil rights movement was in full sway, and it was hard to ignore its pull: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Bobby Hill, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson . . .
"Back then," she recalls, "people really stood for something."
She majored in political science at Spelman College in Atlanta, signing up for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign her junior year, thanks to a professor who introduced her to Carter and told her that the campaign trail was the best classroom. So Bain hit the road, studying between debates and news conferences and recruiting celebrities to endorse Carter. After graduation in 1976, she began work as a special assistant in the Office of Management and Budget. Even then, politics and entertainment worked hand-in-hand. Together with Martin Luther King III, a young Bain organized voter registration drives at Earth, Wind & Fire concerts.
It was an exciting time for those who fit W.E.B. DuBois's criteria of the Talented Tenth, a time when, if you were young, gifted and African American, the possibilities seemed endless. The worlds of black business, politics, sports and entertainment were often linked, and for someone like Bain, unafraid of burning candles at both ends, it was easy to flit between them.
"That was before many of us grew our hair long and could wear designer clothes," remembers Democratic operative Donna Brazile, who met Bain when the two were lobbying to make King's birthday a national holiday. "We had a passion for public service, a commitment to civil rights. We were young; we were vocal. And we were restless in a way."
Jesse Jackson remembers her as "young and bright and ambitious." She went to law school at night, finishing in December 1983. Instead of taking the bar, she accepted an offer to represent Hector "Macho" Camacho in a contract dispute with boxing promoter Don King, he of the outlandish do and the famous temper. It turned out to be a momentous decision. She says she never looked back on her would-be law career.
Before her first meeting with King, she got some pointed coaching: "I told her that basically, there was going to be an awful lot of drama," says Masters Barry, who was then serving on the boxing commission.
As Bain recounts it, there was drama aplenty. There she was, the only woman in the room, trying to get King to pay up, surrounded by his minions, who didn't take kindly to a woman telling them what to do.
"They yelled, they screamed, they threw a pitcher of water in my face," she says, with just a hint of relish at the memory. "Don King was . . . trying to intimidate me."
Her legs were shaking, she says, but she walked out with Camacho's check. For the next 12 years, she represented boxers in various ancillary capacities: Ali. Hearns. Hagler. Olijade.
In the '80s, women were an anomaly in boxing management. Radio One's Hughes, a big boxing fan, remembers that Bain was "inconsistent with what I'd imagined a woman manager of a boxer to be like. She was wearing a waist-length weave, she had all these braids all the way to her waist, a light-colored suit. I said, are you sure that's not the girlfriend rather than the manager?"
Boxing taught Bain to fight -- even if that meant scrapping with her own clients, like "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, whom she sued for $9.9 million for breach of contract. (The case was settled in 1990 and both are bound by a gag order.)
"Boxing prepared me," she says. "I'm not intimidated. When you're cursed at, screamed at . . . That builds your resolve. I've got a strong spiritual resolve. No matter what happens, whether it's good or bad, God is ordering my steps."Tough but Tender
One bad thing involved her defaulting on her law school loans to the tune of $67,000, including penalties and interest, for which she was sued by the U.S. government in 1999. She fields questions about this patiently, giving Marshall pointed looks as he scribbles notes.
(She says she paid the loans off through a third party who claimed to be representing the government in 1988, and after 10 years, had thrown away all the records and canceled checks. Because of this, she says, she decided to settle with the government and is still paying off the loan.)
She bristles when asked for comment on how some reporters during the Jackson trial found her frustrating to work with. That afternoon, she e-mails a list of about 20 journalists for The Post to interview, including Katie Couric and Larry King.
Later, she calls to back out of the story. "I'm not interested in participating in a hatchet job of me," she says. She describes how The Post should approach her profile: Talk about how she "inspires" people with her risk-taking in business, about her transition from publicist to business manager.
Three days later, she's standing at the door, holding out her arms for an embrace.
"I'm sorry I was so difficult," she says.
Friends and colleagues talk about her toughness and her loyalty in the same breath. Says comedy promoter Walter Latham, who worked with Bain during the "Kings of Comedy" tours and documentary, "There's constantly conflict. I've yelled at her, she's yelled at me . . . But at the end of the day, we've never lost respect for each other." They describe a woman who'll do anything for her friends, whether packing a carload of clothes after Katrina for Brazile's family in New Orleans or going to the hospital every day, always bringing food, when Masters Barry suffered a long illness in the '80s. But they also describe a woman who remains single and childless, a woman so focused on work that she often has to be dragged out to play, a workaholic who drops everything to be with her mother .
"I always tell her, 'Raymone, do you even look at a guy?' " says Jamie Foster Brown, publisher of the entertainment magazine Sister 2 Sister. "But she doesn't think about it."
Instead, Foster Brown says, she's constantly networking. Early on, Bain told her that they needed to get behind "this governor from Arkansas." Soon, Foster Brown says, Bain was helping Clinton out on the campaign trail, getting football players and comedians to endorse him.
She successfully wooed Babyface as a client some 15 years ago, memorizing his lyrics, showing up at events where she knew he would be. Soon, Bain convinced the press-shy singer-songwriter to get involved in political causes. In time, Babyface was attending Clinton fundraisers and spending the night at the White House, uniting Bain's two great loves: politics and pop culture.
"She likes to win," Foster Brown says. "She likes the smell of the hunt."Trouble Is Her Specialty
Bain says she's not attracted to people in trouble, it's just that "sometimes when I start working for them, unfortunately things happen." Nevertheless, her six-page bio declares that "Crisis Management and Damage Control are specialty areas of expertise for Ms. Bain."
She and Marion Barry had never worked together when he was arrested for smoking crack in 1990. But she came to his house, he says, and sat with him. Comforted him. Prayed with him. Advised him on how to handle "a very dramatic situation for me, and the family and the city, too."
Just what Bain advised him to do on that day back in 1990, Barry won't say. "That's very personal," he says, "not intended to be put in the public domain." But he will say this: Throughout the years, through "all the controversy, she was always cool and calm. Whatever spin that we tried to put on it, that is what she did."
After all, he says, with a bit of a chuckle, "every story has two or three sides to it. That's what Tony Snow does with Bush."
The day Barry entered prison in 1991, Bain signed on as his spokeswoman.
"I told her she was crazy," Hughes says with a laugh. "I was like, 'Are you out of your mind, why would you take him on as a client? It's not like it's alleged. It's on video , girl.'
"She said he was really a brilliant man who loves this community and she felt an obligation to help him. She said, 'He has a terrible weakness and made a terrible mistake.' "
And Bain stayed with Barry, serving as his press secretary during his 1994 mayoral campaign and, following his reelection, as his press secretary at City Hall -- all the while continuing to run her own public relations business.
For friends and clients both, she's a fierce mama lion protecting her cubs. "She's the kind of person who will back you up if you fall down, and get in someone's face if you're in a fight," Donna Brazile says.
Her biggest challenge thus far: managing Michael Jackson. She came on board at a time when he was ensconced in Neverland, awaiting trial on child molestation charges, surrounded by members of the Nation of Islam. She was the latest in a long line of Jackson managers, crisis handlers and official spokespeople.
Says one former Jackson adviser who asked not to be identified for professional reasons, "Someone becomes close to Jackson and becomes his end all and be all, and then it's just a matter of time before they're moved out. . . You're not dealing with a stable individual."
The trial shoved Bain in front of the klieg lights, responsible for rehabilitating Jackson's image and managing the requests of 3,000 news outlets during a chaotic time. Besides the pajama incident, Jackson shopped Wal-Mart in a ski mask right before the trial. Then there was the circus outside the courtroom: the fans, the protesters, the people jockeying to make a buck.
"It was like Jesus at the temple," Bain says, "total chaos and confusion. It was infuriating me. This man's life was on the line."
Journalists covering the trial accused her of lying to them, including FoxTV.com columnist Roger Friedman, who blasted her for "misleading statements" about Neverland remaining open during the trial. Now, Friedman says, "I think she came in to Michael's situation without the necessary knowledge or tools. Because Michael lies to everybody. . . . At a time I might have been criticizing Raymone for disseminating misleading information, she might have been getting bad information from Michael."
To this day, Bain says she doesn't know who fired her during the trial. She got a call from a reporter asking if she'd been fired. An hour and a half later, someone slipped a letter under her hotel door confirming it, and that's all she knows.
Still, she has her suspicions.
Was it Randy Jackson, as has been widely speculated? (Through a family representative, the other members of the Jackson family declined to be interviewed for this article.)
"No one will step up to the plate and acknowledge" who wrote the letter, she says.
No matter, she says, Michael Jackson himself called to tell her the verdict was in and to ask where she was, saying he needed her by his side. She was happy to comply.
Now, she's trying to consolidate the 21 old businesses that make up the new company, coordinating the many lawsuits Jackson faces, including breach of contract suits brought by his former managers and a custody suit brought by his former wife, Debbie Rowe, which was settled last week. She's putting out fires in the press: No, Jackson won't be opening a leprechaun theme park in Ireland. And trying to resuscitate the singing career of a man once considered the world's greatest entertainer, a man who is at least $270 million in debt. (Bain declines to discuss how much she is getting paid by Jackson.)
She says that Jackson has been writing music since the trial and will be heading back to the studio in a few days, where he'll be working with some of the hottest producers in the industry--Babyface, Will.I.Am, Rodney Jerkins and Sean Garrett.
"Michael Jackson is a good man," Bain says. "He's very brilliant, very sensitive. And it's unfortunate what's happened to him over the years. But he's going to take care of it.
" We're going to take care of it."
Staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.