Howard Bragman, the Hollywood publicist who has worked with Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Monica Lewinsky and has been variously described as a “PR star,” “Hollywood spin doc” and “PR guru” by such shows as Entertainment Tonight and E! News, is sitting in front of the cameras again. Known for saying exactly what he thinks, Bragman is often asked to appear on celebrity gossip shows and cable-news networks, where he offers sometimes remarkably honest analyses of celebrity controversies.
“You can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting a red carpet and a charity event,” Bragman once said live on Headline News. “Get off your ass, Paris [Hilton], and show up somewhere!”
But on a warm afternoon in late August, the topic is a little more serious than Hilton’s failure to give back to society. In the cramped back patio of the comfortably disorganized home of filmmaker Daniel Marc Dreifuss, Bragman is being interviewed for Dreifuss’ documentary about the impact of the slur faggot.
Bragman represented actor Isaiah Washington after Washington faced public criticism for reportedly calling his Grey’s Anatomy co-star, gay actor T.R. Knight a “faggot” while on the set. “When you’re a PR person,” Bragman tells the documentarian, “your life is about words. ... They can do great damage and great good. I think it’s a disgusting word, and it shouldn’t be used.”
Bragman, a tall, goateed man in his early 50s with the physique of a linebacker and the personality of the favorite uncle who cracks naughty jokes at family reunions, sits on a wooden bench with a fuzzy boom mike hanging above him. Two men point high-definition Sony cameras at Bragman as producer Dreifuss asks questions. Bragman is dressed neatly in wrinkle-free, tan slacks, a pressed blue-collared shirt, and shiny brown-leather shoes. Unlike many top Hollywood PR types, Bragman is not slick-looking or concerned with status symbols — he drives a baby-blue 2007 Mercury Mariner — which befits his Midwestern upbringing in Flint, Michigan, and his no-nonsense reputation.
Bragman, who’s legally married to the prizewinning horse trainer Chuck O’Donnell, handles the interview with an easy confidence: His parents were “tolerant and accepting” when he came out of the closet in his 20s; Proposition 8 was “extremely painful”; gays and lesbians need to “call people on their shit.”
Dreifuss, a youthful-looking 30, asks Bragman if he has had any “personal experiences” with homophobia. The PR man initially goes around the question, then gets to the nub of who he is, and the role he increasingly plays: “In Hollywood,” Bragman says, “most publicists keep their clients in the closet. And I’m the guy people tend to come to when they want to come out of the closet.”
This is no empty boast. Since 1991, when Bragman helped actor Dick Sargent — who starred opposite Elizabeth Montgomery as the second Darrin, the irascible but loving husband in the hugely popular 1960s and ’70s family show Bewitched — come out to a somewhat stunned American public on Entertainment Tonight, the publicist has assisted numerous gay and lesbian celebrities in navigating this tricky and, for decades, risky terrain.
During one high-profile stretch involving top sports figures, Bragman brought out NFL defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, LPGA star Rosie Jones, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes and retired NBA center John Amaechi, all of whom remained closeted until after they consulted with Bragman, sometimes working for months on their coming-out plan. The publicist has also brought out former Party of Five regular and one-time leading man Mitchell Anderson, Married ... With Children co-star Amanda Bearse — who played Marcy, the Bundys’ straight, tough-talking neighbor — and 1980s TV character actor Tom Villard, a cute, button-nosed talent who appeared in We Got It Made, Taxi, The A-Team and The Golden Girls before dying of complications from AIDS in 1994.
“What [Howard] was really good at,” says Amaechi, who, in 2007, came out as the first openly gay pro basketball player but didn’t want to be turned into a poster boy for the gay-rights movement, “was that he made sure I stayed authentic to myself. I couldn’t imagine it being done better.”
Anderson, who wanted to make a statement to the entertainment industry that gay actors can play straight leading-man roles, says, “Howard helped me focus on the message in a way that I wanted to deliver it.”
Although Bragman made his name founding a major entertainment public-relations firm — Bragman, Nyman, Cafarelli — and his new boutique firm, Fifteen Minutes, caters to Ford Motor Co., Mandalay Entertainment, and heartthrob actor and Extra celebrity host Mario Lopez, the publicist has also created an unusual, if not remarkable, niche. He is not merely helping gay actors to form sensible plans for going public. The gay guru of Hollywood, Bragman is in fact facing down the U.S. film industry on its insistence that gay actors remain in the closet.