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.
“As far as I know,” says Dale Reynolds, a Los Angeles–based actor and journalist who founded a gay actors support group in the late 1970s, “he’s the only one doing this.”
Many gay actors aren’t signing on for Bragman’s services, which Jason Stuart, chair of the Screen Actors Guild Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Committee, believes is a little nuts. “I’m a working actor and comedian in Los Angeles,” says Stuart, who, after some soul-searching, came out on Geraldo. “As far as I am concerned, I’m a major success. To base your whole career and life on becoming a megastar like Brad Pitt is ridiculous.”
The publicist hasn’t brought out an A-list, gay male actor — yet. But Bragman says that day is coming, and after the first superstar decides to reveal himself, a fundamental shift in American acceptance of gay leading men may not be far behind. He’s currently working with a famous musician who’s still closeted from the public, but who will come out next year. And the manager of one major movie star approached Bragman a year ago and asked about his client’s possibly going public, but the actor still refuses to pull the trigger.
“I felt a little frustrated with that superstar,” Bragman says in reflection, “because it had to be ‘handled.’ ”
In 2009, this situation seems incredible to those who have watched the tremendous success of Neil Patrick Harris, who became a star on Doogie Howser, M.D. Harris came out nearly three years ago. His recent widely accepted and positively reviewed hosting of the Emmys seemed almost like a globally televised message from one side of Hollywood to another: It’s okay to cast leading men who are gay, so get over it, studio heads. Harris continues to win audiences over, playing womanizer Barney Stinson on the CBS hit show How I Met Your Mother.
Public-opinion surveys reveal that Americans’ acceptance of gays and lesbians has dramatically increased since the 1970s. Adolescent boys and girls are coming out during middle school in such places as rural Arkansas and Texas, far from the gay urban enclaves of San Francisco, West Hollywood and New York City. But the Hollywood machine — studio heads, agents and casting directors — is a surprisingly conservative entity. Its power players think Americans can’t handle gay actors in straight–leading man roles. Their greatest fear is not some sort of social upheaval but that audiences would be uncomfortable seeing a known gay actor like Cheyenne Jackson kissing or fondling Kate Winslet, and box-office earnings would nose-dive.
But the entertainment industry remains intensely schizophrenic on the topic. Only a year ago most of Hollywood was publicly appalled by Proposition 8, the anti–gay marriage ballot measure that passed in November. Heavy-hitter Pitt and Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg contributed $100,000 checks to the “No on 8” campaign, and dozens of Hollywood big shots, like Rob Reiner and Barbra Streisand, attended an A-list “No on 8” fundraiser at the Beverly Hills home of billionaire grocery magnate Ron Burkle. Yet the big studios and their mostly male chiefs — and the scores of socially liberal men and women who play key roles as casting directors and agents — have together created a kind of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which places enormous pressure on gay, male actors to remain in the closet.
“It kills your soul,” says one young, gay actor in L.A., who requested anonymity. “It’s an insane job [to stay in the closet]. I see the destruction of my close friends. It keeps them closed-hearted. But they get so wrapped up in their success, and they think it’ll make everything better. Then they get [that success], and they become very angry.”
Bragman, though, is there to give them an expert’s thoughts, a plan — and a nudge.
It’s late afternoon a few days before Labor Day weekend, and Bragman is in his neatly organized Hollywood Hills home, working at a large, antique wooden table in a room decorated with black-and-white pictures of his extended family. He stares at e-mails and takes calls from journalists, clients and his assistant, Jesse Danzig, who’s working several miles away, at Bragman’s business office near the Beverly Center. Dressed in gray slacks, blood-red leather shoes, and a brown and white–striped shirt, Bragman has been up since 5:45 a.m.
“I wouldn’t say anything, and not tip your hand,” Bragman tells a client, who replies. The publicist offers more advice — “It sounds a little esoteric for me, to be honest” — and soon hangs up. He relishes his role as a straight-talking public-relations whiz. “People are uncomfortable with the truth, and they don’t want to hear the truth. But they’ll always get truth from me. I figure that’s what they’re paying me for.”
Bragman, who wrote Where’s My Fifteen Minutes?, a somewhat philosophical look at PR, says he loves today’s 24-hour news cycles, where reputations decline and rise in a nanosecond. “Now, more than ever, I get to help people,” he explains. “It’s very rewarding.”
He’s never avoided controversy, becoming press adviser to Monica Lewinsky and her family in 1998 after the White House intern had an affair with President Clinton. He was the go-between with the media on behalf of Isaiah Washington after the actor caught bad press for insulting T.R. Knight on the set of Grey’s Anatomy.
Recently — and controversially within the gay-rights movement — Bragman took hotelier Doug Manchester as a client. The San Diego real estate developer was lambasted by gay activists for donating $125,000 to the campaign for Proposition 8. Since then, Manchester’s two hotels in San Diego — the Manchester Grand Hyatt and the Grand del Mar Resort — have been targets of a boycott backed by two major players in the gay-rights world, Equality California and Courage Campaign. Manchester somewhat boldly reached out to Bragman, and the publicist, feeling that the hotel magnate was genuinely sorry for contributing to “Yes on 8,” opted to help — for a fee. “I believed that this was a man who was not homophobic and wanted to make amends,” Bragman says.
Gay-rights activists have not been pleased, to put it mildly. Rick Jacobs, a friend of Bragman’s and founder of Courage Campaign, a national political-action group, writes in an e-mail to L.A. Weekly: “Howard is wrong in defending Manchester. Mr. Manchester gave $125,000 to the ‘Yes on 8’ campaign at the most crucial time: It was one of the largest donations that allowed the proponents of discrimination to get their initiative on the ballot. His offer up to now, namely, to give $25,000 to a gay charity and then $100,000 in credits for [gays and lesbians] in his hotel, is cynical, at best. The ‘Yes on 8’ people would not have been able to get on the ballot by using bar and room credits. They needed and got cash.”
Having read many times that people are more likely to accept gays and lesbians if they know one, “that always stuck with me,” Bragman says. After he helped Sargent to go public, he realized something else: “What I learned in Dick’s case was that it really made a difference in his career. He started getting movie offers and big magazine stories. Coming out can be used as a marketing tool.”
The phone interrupts him — it’s someone calling about one of his newest clients, Chaz Bono, daughter of Cher and Sonny Bono. Raised as Chastity, Bono is making the personal and public transition to becoming a transgendered man, and may become the best-known American woman to do so. Bragman has been working closely with Bono, advising her to disclose her gender reassignment, but says, “We’re keeping our powder dry until the time is right, and our time is not right yet.”
But when the celebrity-news Web site TMZ got wind of Bono’s transgender plans in early June, Bragman received a call from TMZ Executive Producer Harvey Levin, an openly gay man, who wanted to run with the story.
“I asked [Levin] for a little time,” the publicist says, “and he was respectful of that.”
A few days later, though, Bragman was sitting inside American Airlines’ Admirals Club at LAX when a call was put through to his cell phone — the National Enquirer had questions about Bono. Bragman usually follows a number of steps when bringing a celebrity out of the closet, and one is to pick a major media outlet that will be sensitive to the coming-out process. He made a decision.
“I didn’t want it to break with the National Enquirer,” Bragman says, “so I called Harvey and told him it was a go. He did it in the most respectful way.”
On June 11, TMZ ran a post at 3 p.m. titled “Chastity Bono — Becoming a Man,” in which Bragman states, “Chaz, after many years of consideration, has made the courageous decision to honor his true identity.” In a later post, TMZ reported that Bono was taking hormones, his mother knew about the transition, and he wished he had made the change sooner.
“Chaz still hasn’t said one word to the media,” Bragman now says. “It’s worked out really well.”
Bragman, whom Variety Managing Editor Ted Johnson describes as one of the best crisis-management experts in Hollywood, normally operates with a well-prepared game plan. He always tells his clients to first come out to loved ones. “You must tell your family,” the publicist says, adding that this shouldn’t be done on a whim. The celebrity should know what he or she wants to achieve — some people simply want to unburden themselves, others want to sell books. He prepares them for an antigay backlash, alerts the gay press and keeps them in the loop.
“You have to work your base,” Bragman notes. “You can’t just come out in Time or People. You have to be there for the gay press. You really want them to be on your side.”
Bragman also likes to use just one media outlet to tell the initial story. In the case of golfer Rosie Jones, the publicist worked with The New York Times so she could write an opinion piece in her own words in the Sunday Sports section. Jones, who was still playing on the LPGA tour in 2004 and didn’t want to be enmeshed in gay politics, thought it worked perfectly: The sporting press and fans received her with open arms.
“Howard took a unique interest in where I was in my career,” says Jones from her home in Atlanta. “He didn’t have his own agenda.”
For Mitchell Anderson, a regular on the Fox hit show Party of Five, things were very different. In 1996, Anderson was onstage at a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) awards dinner. Party of Five was at the height of its popularity, and Anderson played violin teacher Ross Werkman, instructing the precocious Claudia Salinger, played by Lacey Chabert. The handsome Anderson was considered a potential leading man in Hollywood, and friends often suggested that he be a kind of pioneer and come out. Anderson, who had previously been a regular on the show that made Neil Patrick Harris famous, Doogie Howser, M.D., was tired of the common wisdom in Hollywood. “I didn’t buy into the idea that an openly gay actor couldn’t play a straight role,” he says. Anderson, who lives with his longtime partner, Richie Arpino, in Atlanta, where he owns a restaurant called MetroFresh, recalls: “I was trying to bust those myths a little bit.”
It was 1996, the year before Ellen DeGeneres came out. Yet, as he stood up on that stage at the GLAAD ceremony, Anderson suddenly announced he is gay. “It was spontaneous,” he says. “I was onstage and thought it was a good forum.” But it generated media coverage he wasn’t ready for. “After it happened,” the actor notes, “there were a lot of congratulations, but there wasn’t a lot of help, except for Howard.”
Bragman called Anderson, offered to work pro bono, and helped him to fine-tune his public image. “The message I was trying to send was that I was a good actor, and I was a better actor because I wasn’t hiding anymore,” Anderson explains. “[Bragman] shepherded me through the situation.”
Bragman has a darker memory of what occurred once the unprepared young actor went public: “Mitchell Anderson was okay in the end, but in retrospect, he probably should’ve thought about it a little more.”
That all happened 13 years ago. Now, while much of the world has begun to move on, with even Middle America warming to gay rights and gay culture, the old, closeted approach still reigns in the entertainment industry.
Greg Hernandez, a former Los Angeles Daily News columnist who is openly gay, and who covers gay Hollywood as a blogger at GreginHollywood.com, says the entertainment industry still fears that American audiences will be turned off. And no one — not studio heads at 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal or MGM — wants to take a perceived risk in order to be proved wrong.
“Casting directors, many of whom are gay,” Hernandez says, “don’t want to rock the boat for a project, and the higher-ups [studio heads] don’t want to hurt their bottom line.”
Actor Dale Reynolds, who didn’t have a big-time publicist like Bragman representing him, came out to his agent in the mid-1980s, after he had founded a gay actors support group, Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Artists, a few years earlier. “We had actors come to us all the time and said the same three or four casting directors would never hire them,” he says.
With his dark features and manly good looks, Reynolds was considered a leading-man type and says coming out “hurt” his acting career. Gay friends who were casting directors, for example, refused to hire him. “For me, that was truly shocking,” he says, “that kind of betrayal.” He managed to land small, one-time roles on such TV shows as Knots Landing, Eight Is Enough and Remington Steele, but only a few casting directors, straight women not bothered by his sexual orientation, would regularly call him for work.
The dichotomy between Hollywood’s claimed social benevolence and its actual practices was seen starkly in July, when prominent gay TV director Todd Holland publicly revealed a practice of his own, which is probably common in the L.A. and New York film and TV industries: He advises gay actors who want to succeed to “stay in the closet.”
Holland’s controversial career advice upsets a trailblazer like Anderson, who put his career on the line in the pre-Ellen, pre–Neil Patrick Harris 1990s. “He’s the person who should be telling kids they should live their lives,” Anderson says. “That makes me angry. Here we are in 2009, and we’re telling people this?”
In fact, the studio chiefs, directors and other power brokers appear to be operating purely from personal hunches. But the view that gay actors should essentially stay in the back of the bus if they want to get from point A to point B, a feeling repeated even by gays who have established a foothold in the business, feeds a vicious cycle, says Variety Managing Editor Johnson. “Actors see the landscape, and they see that so much is stacked against them. They don’t want to give casting directors and studio heads any reason to not cast them. It’s a matter of playing it safe.”
Sony Pictures Co-Chairman Amy Pascal, asked by L.A. Weekly to comment on the issue, released a prepared statement through spokesman Steve Elzer: “Across our company,” she writes in an e-mail, “we hire the best actors and actresses for all available roles. Sexual orientation has no place or bearing in the casting process.”
Other major studio heads declined to talk to the Weekly about the dilemma facing gay actors. Disney chief Dick Cook, who recently resigned, was “unreachable.”
Warner Bros. honcho Alan Horn did not have time to talk, and 20th Century Fox studio heads Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman said, via a spokesperson, that they would have to “pass on this one.” Just-ousted Universal Chairman Marc Shmuger was “just too crazed” with work to comment, according to his spokesperson (back in September). Calls to Paramount head Brad Grey and MGM chief Mary Parent have not been returned.
With such obvious fear reigning over Tinseltown, gay actors who have already hit it big dread the thought that if they come out, their careers will be devastated. “For A-list actors,” says Kirby Dick, an award-winning documentarian who looked into Hollywood’s gay closet when he was working on his most recent film, Outrage, about closeted politicians, “there’s a real fear of lost income for him and everyone surrounding him.”
A kind of paralyzing fear rules the day in Hollywood, and even prompts some gay movie stars to avoid Bragman altogether. The widespread paranoia confounds Bob Witeck, CEO and co-founder of Witeck-Combs Communications, a major public-relations and marketing firm that has conducted in-depth research on Americans’ attitudes toward gays and lesbians. Based in Washington, D.C., Witeck has spent years undertaking and studying public-opinion surveys about gay life in America.
“The data show there should be more boldness in Hollywood to hire gay actors in leading roles,” Witeck says. “Even among conservatives who are polled, the public’s attitudes have changed. They are ready to accept gays and lesbians.”
Witeck cites several recent polls to back up his analysis. Gallup, one of the nation’s foremost polling companies, has, over time, asked Americans if “homosexuals” should have “equal job opportunities.” In 1977, just 56 percent of those polled said yes. Thirty-one years later, in 2008, nearly nine out of 10 Americans surveyed (89 percent) answered in the affirmative.
“The way people view gays and lesbians in the workplace is a very strong indicator of acceptance,” Witeck notes.
Also in 2008, Harris Interactive, another highly reputable polling group, found in a joint survey with Witeck-Combs that “an overwhelming majority (79 percent) of heterosexuals feel that how an employee does his job, and not their sexual orientation, should be the standard for judging.”
In 2007, Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs deduced that if a gay athlete came out of the closet, 72 percent of the American public would not change their opinion of him, and 4 percent would have a “more favorable” opinion. Interestingly, Americans, much like Hollywood studio heads and casting directors, think that while they themselves are tolerant, other Americans won’t be. In the same poll, people believed 72 percent of the public would have a “less favorable” opinion of the athlete.
But the numbers show otherwise.
Witeck says that “trends are clearly in the right direction” for gay actors to come out of the closet and for studio chiefs and casting directors to shake off their erroneous views. For example, Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs found that 82 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 — the audience Hollywood targets — believe gays and lesbians should be legally allowed to marry or enter into domestic partnerships.
“When the public isn’t forced to make moral judgments in the polls,” says Witeck, “they are very accepting of gays and lesbians as people.”
In fact, the mounting data suggest something far more revealing about Hollywood than about the U.S.: Tinseltown has long been criticized as an isolated subculture that holds itself in excessively high regard, viewing everyday Americans as behind the times. There is every possibility that Hollywood is projecting its old biases about America, without learning how the public really feels.
Witeck sees an entertainment industry that’s surprisingly brittle and outmoded, “behind on cultural change,” and which is, despite spending huge sums on audience surveys and marketing, still not able to properly “calibrate” its audiences the way professional pollsters do. “The world has changed,” Witeck says, “and Hollywood needs to catch up.”
On the day the documentary crew’s cameras started rolling, and the young producer started with a question about a gay slur, Howard Bragman had already been pondering the difficulties facing gay actors who stay in the closet. He figures it’s becoming increasingly impossible to live a public life that’s separate from a personal one.
“Clearly, we live in a very different time,” the publicist says. “You can bet that if you’re a gay actor and show up at a gay bar, someone will blog about it or Twitter it.”
To wit, in 2006, blogger Perez Hilton was first to report that Neil Patrick Harris is gay and, of course, TMZ revealed (with Bragman’s cooperation) Chastity Bono’s plan to become a man. Hilton regularly blogged about actress Lindsay Lohan and her relationship with Samantha Ronson, which eventually led to Lohan’s public confirmation in 2008 that she was dating Ronson.
“If you look at many of the cases of people coming out,” says Michelangelo Signorile, a gay writer who became famous in the 1980s and ’90s after outing entertainment mogul David Geffen and gossip columnist Liz Smith, and who now hosts a weekday talk show on Sirius/XM with a gay take on current affairs, “it’s happened because of the Internet.”
Signorile says that in the past he was only “reporting” a “truth” that mainstream media were either ignoring or actively distorting by claiming a gay man was in a serious relationship with a woman when that was not the case. “At the time,” says Signorile, who made big news when he claimed magazine mogul Malcolm Forbes is gay, “you had people outright lying. Journalists have to treat gay public figures the same as straight public figures. I called it reporting, not outing.”
TMZ’s Harvey Levin says he doesn’t try to find out if someone is gay. “We’re not bedroom bullies,” says the executive producer. “Celebrities do have zones of privacy. There are limits.”
Asked if TMZ has ever perpetuated the myth that a gay actor is straight, Levin says not to his knowledge. But he doesn’t think that “bold statements”— the kind that Bragman practices — are always best, and suggests that TMZ’s daily coverage allows the public to better connect with gay — or straight — actors as real people. “We show the day-to-day life of people over years.”
Kirby Dick, the documentary filmmaker, doesn’t necessarily see it that way. “A gay celebrity has more impact on the culture than a gay politician who comes out.” He calls such an event a “real boon” for gay rights.
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By contrast, Signorile, author of Queer in America, about the power of media on gay life, says that when actors stay in the closet, “it puts out this idea that gay people in Hollywood don’t exist.”
Unless famous gay actors seek out Bragman, Hollywood will never dismantle its closet, says journalist Hernandez. “It’s up to the actors to do it. They have to not care about professional repercussions. They have to believe in their talent and be willing to possibly lose some jobs. They can change the system, and they have to come out to do it.”
Perez Hilton, who recently encountered a huge backlash from the gay community when he posted sex photos of Dustin Lance Black, the openly gay, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk, offers up an even more dramatic vision of the future: “If every single gay celebrity came out at the same time,” Hilton says, “it would rock this world.”
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.