In her heyday as First Lady of Flackage to Hollywood’s A-listers, Pat Kingsley was known informally as “Dr. No” and “The Suppress Agent” — both names of her own gleeful devising. Others less witty and more bilious dubbed her hard as nails, a control freak and a bully, though her clients more affectionately think of her as a mother hen. Either way, or both, this 75-year-old grandmother — chatting in her roomy Pacific Design Center office at PMK/HBH, as the company she co-founded with Lois Smith in 1980 has been known since it went corporate in 1999 and merged with another Hollywood PR firm — has other strings to her bow. For one thing, she’s a baseball nut, with batting averages tripping off her tongue, who used to attend games regularly with “that tomboy” Doris Day. In her teens in the conservative South, Kingsley demonstrated on the steps of Woolworths — an open discriminator against blacks — and campaigned for Adlai Stevenson. Today, she’s doing political work for Hillary Clinton: “Maybe I’m bad luck,” she murmurs.
Had things shaken out differently, Kingsley would have become an archaeologist (“but only on an important dig”) instead of an “unambitious person,” who started her own publicity business in 1980 because she was newly divorced with a child to raise. Her daughter — now a school psychologist in Santa Monica — cut short a summer internship with the company because she didn’t like her mother’s professional persona. “I had a temper in those days,” Kingsley admits, serene with an unassuming blond bob, and wearing a functional houndstooth jacket.
For someone whose job for three decades had been to restrict access and information, Kingsley herself is beguilingly open and direct. Either that, or she’s a smooth manager of an interviewer unaccustomed to the wiles of celebrity publicists — a more cunning breed than the placid flacks who work on mere movies. For all her mild manner, I have the sense that you only go so far with Kingsley, and that this isn’t going to be a conversation about her notorious dismissal of rival Leslee Dart in 2004, or any other internal PMK power wars.
When I summon the courage to ask about Tom Cruise, who famously fired Kingsley in 2004, she’s scrupulously gracious — “He’s a great father and really a good guy, and he was doing the right thing for him” — but then, she can afford to be generous. Of their long partnership, Slate magazine wrote in 2004, “There may never be another flack quite as powerful as Kingsley or a star quite as inscrutable as Cruise,” shortly before Cruise became all too scrutable, using Oprah’s couch as a trampoline and rapping Brooke Shields on the knuckles for taking antidepressants for postpartum depression.
Whatever you think of Kingsley’s methods, for someone who began her career as a planter in the celebrity columns, she really knows when and how to pipe down — and when to get both her clients and the media to do the same. That makes her an anachronism these days, when publicists are desperate to keep their stars in the news, even — sometimes especially — for philandering, drugs and divorce. Having gotten into the business not long after the studios lost control of their stars, Kingsley belongs to an era when publicists ruled. And as queen bee of a burgeoning empire of personal publicists, she rewrote the rules to wrestle power from magazines like Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire and Vogue. She grew notorious for demanding covers in exchange for interviews, approval of writers and advance lists of questions. “That’s called negotiating,” she says, sweetly. (When I remark, self-righteously, that the Weekly doesn’t guarantee covers, Kingsley flashes me a shrewd look, grins and says, “Okay.”) She denies demanding approval of the finished article, though admits, “If I could have gotten it, I would have asked.”
In her prime, Kingsley shaped and controlled the public narrative of all her clients. But times have changed. With the demand for infotainment booming on and off, the Web, magazines and newspapers — not just the tabloids — create their own stars and spin their own gossip, propped up by the paparazzi, for whom Kingsley (who was working with Dodi Fayed at the time he and Princess Diana were killed) has nothing but contempt. All of which makes her close-to-the-chest style decidedly old-school. If her insistence on celebrities’ right to privacy sounds almost quaint, it will be a fine irony if a publicist with a reputation as an industry shark goes down in movie history as a voice for ordinary decency.
Last September, Kingsley stepped down as CEO of PMK/HBH. Doing PR work for corporations like AMEX and AOL was “too far afield for me,” she says. “I like the movies.” She loves working with long-term clients like Candice Bergen, Jodie Foster, Sally Field and Will Smith. Ever the pro, she adds hastily, “I hate to start naming names, because the others might say, ‘She didn’t like me.’” Kingsley also enjoys training new publicists, and in between she spends time with her family, “as much as they’ll let me. They have their own lives, unfortunately.” With her son and daughter, she regularly attends the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine temple in Pacific Palisades, though she can’t quite get the hang of meditation, even with help from one of the world’s most improbable Buddhists, Oliver Stone. She travels less with clients these days. Best of all, she hasn’t been to the Oscars in two years, which, she says, “have been the best two years of my life.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon