As I stared at the e-mail, a unique mix of fear, anxiety and pure rage began to take over my mind and body. Breathe, I thought to myself, hands hovering over the keyboard.
“Sorry, sorry. Last week’s event went well. Bradley Cooper and Mary-Kate Olsen were there and Bradley drank one of our cocktails. I’m trying to get Page Six to run something and will follow up with the team as soon as I receive more feedback. Yes, we’ve sent them a bottle as a gift.”
I was so focused on the words jumping off my computer screen I had almost forgotten I was on the phone with a client.
Are you fucking KIDDING me, they read. YOU PROMISED ME ANOTHER YEAR. I don’t even know what to say to you, InHerHazelEyes. This is beyond unprofessional.
While I listened to the remainder of this call, the author of this lovely e-mail tried repeatedly to call my office line. NOT HAPPENING, I thought. The last thing I wanted to do was to discuss my resignation with her over the phone while she was in the midst of one of her of psychotic episodes. It was like trying to reason with a rapid dog gnawing on your arm.
As I sat at my desk in the garment district, my all white desk accented by a single pink organizer, I looked around at the place in which I had spent the past three years. The office’s desks, chairs and walls were all white. Nothing was to be under the desks, on or around the desks or on the walls. Place a picture of your dead grandmother next to your computer and get your head whacked for the unidentified object cluttering up the aesthetic of the room.
During my second year there, a girl who lasted no longer than 3 weeks at the agency carried in a box of items to put up on her desk, apparently unaware of the fact that the rest of the office looked like an alien operating room. She spent one entire afternoon unpacking this box which included photo albums, picture frames, stuffed animals, colored pens and pencils and one large ceramic muffin. And I will repeat, one large ceramic muffin. She had apparently mistaken her new job at a PR firm for that of the head office at The Babysitters Club. It immediately became a joke among the rest of the adult employees who spent time finding reasons to walk by her desk to see what new objects they could spot.
I think I just saw a stuffed dolphin next to her mouse.
Does that pen have tassels hanging from it?!
She’s got animal magnets. SWEET LORD, I think one winked at me!
Unfortunately, her and her magical treasure chest of sparkles were kindly shooed out the door shortly thereafter. I would have liked to have had more time to examine the origins of that ceramic muffin.
That afternoon as I sat on the phone, interns ran back and forth carrying pieces of clothing in and out of the showroom. A few girls stood at one desk discussing gift bags for an event. Liz’s glass office sat at the very end of our row of desks. This allowed her to walk up and down the floor at will and resulted in our nicknaming the space ‘The Runway’. My desk was positioned directly at the other end of the runway allowing me the ability to see her coming.
The partitions between our desks sported tiny holes in them which actually allowed me to see her charging forward without standing up. Pressing my face against the wall while squinting one eye might have looked crazy if everyone else wasn’t doing it too. It was like looking thru the peephole in your apartment to see if it was your mom or a serial killer. Personally, I would silently lock the top lock at the sight of either.
As a woman, Liz, who was one of two partners, stood no taller than I. At 45, she was small but didn’t seem to know it. She often sashayed into our 36th Street office in skin tight leather pants and purses that were worth more than my apartment. For her age? She didn’t look bad. She was usually well put together. And if she wasn’t, like the time she crossed the line by attempting to pull off a plaid skirt she obviously swiped from an Upper East Side middle schooler, she didn’t care. Her eyes reflected an intensity you rarely see in most people. Her demeanor equally intense. She was one of the first women I’ve known who demonstrated a complete fearlessness towards the world around her. If she had something to say, she was going to say it. And typically about 4 inches from your face.
Liz’s ability to be overtly direct and highly driven had resulted in the rise of a well-known, highly respected PR firm based in the fashion and entertainment industries. It had grown to three offices and from the outside looking in, any girl would KILL for your job. Only problem is, from the inside looking out, the ankle chain cutting up your leg and chaining you to your desk tended to get a little itchy. Also, you haven’t eaten in three weeks and having a cigarette crouched behind a UPS truck on the street doesn’t count. Shit, did she see us??
When I first moved to the city in 2007, I thought this was my dream job, and at the time it was. I was introduced to a world I hadn’t known existed. I was a sheltered Connecticut kid. This world of black dresses and high heels, celebrities and champagne, night clubs and expensive dinners was new. I was given the opportunity to network in an industry of people who seemed to make New York City turn. I was young and the glitter of the industry pulled me right in.
Along with parties and openings came work. Work in the morning. Work at night. Work in my dreams and more often my nightmares. Anyone who thinks publicists have it easy couldn’t be more wrong. They are typically functioning on no sleep, working on three clients too many and getting paid half of what they deserve. When you leave your office at 6pm their days are just beginning. If I left that office before 9pm any night of the week, it was a miracle. Or it more likely meant I would be there until 11pm the following night.
If I wasn’t at work, I was looking at my BlackBerry. Looking at the 3, 4, 6, 12 e-mails that piled in every 15 minutes. Did she just e-mail me 7 times? Did she just ask me to call her at 5am? No I am NOT reading you the Post over the phone. It was almost impossible to keep up. It was like a nervous tick that you developed over time. Check e-mail. Check e-mail. Check e-mail. I probably started to look like an actual crack addict to those around me while I twitched my way around New York dizzy from lack of sleep.
When I started there, I heard all the stories.
Have you spoken to “S” in L.A. yet? Did you hear about the time she threw a shoe at someone? Or the time she fired our receptionist over the phone? How about when she had her assistant stealing menus from restaurants for her book? Or when she called Liz the Pillsbury Doughboy?
S was the company’s other partner. She made Liz look like a tiny kitten in a sparkly tutu. If you thought Liz was direct, S was not only direct but also flat out mean… “fucking” being one of her preferred adjectives. One of the first phone conversations I ever had with her entailed her asking me where the prior receptionist was and then announcing that, “Liz must have been on drugs the day she hired that girl so I hope you’re better than she was. She answered the phone like a fucking grave digger.” This was followed shortly after by her being so kind as to let me know that “this company is not a fucking bank. I am not a fucking bank. Watch how you use UPS.” Alright, thanks for that lovely and absolutely necessary tirade. I’ll be sure to ride my bicycle to LA next time I have a package to deliver to save you 20 cents.
When you’re 23 and don’t have much figured out, this lifestyle seems like a gift. You’re constantly meeting new people, most of them your age and you get to do so in places you wouldn’t normally have access to or could afford without your job. You learn who’s who in the city, who can help you and then New York starts to seem a lot smaller, not so overwhelming. You embrace the stress like it’s a privilege. Like it’s a privilege to be barked at daily, to live with a perpetual knot in your stomach, to be told you need to do more, more, more. This is how entertainment PR is run. If you are fired or quit, there are ten more 22 year old girls waiting for your spot, thinking it’s what they want. Ten more fools lining up to be slaughtered.
There are many things I learned within the confinement of those office walls. First was not to include semi colons, the words ‘fashion forward’ or ‘objectives’ in a deck you were creating for S. As she told one of my close friends, “I don’t ever want to see a fucking objectives page in a deck you send me. And ‘fashion forward?’ What does THAT mean.. that’s not even a fucking word.” And let’s hope you wrote down these corrections with one of the company’s trademark orange pens and not a black marker. Use a black marker on anything going out of that office and take the chance of having her actually assault you. Her 1990s style wedge sandals and all.
Second, don’t ever leave a message on behalf of Liz or S unless you want to be publicly humiliated. A few months before I quit, one of the interns (she wasn’t too bright to begin with) called a director for Liz and left an unnecessary message to call her back. This resulted in Liz walking over, tapping on her head and asking the poor girl if she had anything in there. She was then promptly told to “get the fuck out” while the rest of the agency watched. Pretty sure the girl burst into tears right there on the spot.
Third, use your gender to your advantage. While I was completely turned off the first time Liz told me to flirt a little with a client to push him on something, there was a very tiny bit of usable knowledge in that incredibly distasteful and inappropriate statement. No, don’t go on dates with clients. No, don’t sleep around to get what you want. But you’re a girl and you have access to some great things. Make use of it. Don’t be afraid to make your presence known. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. If people want to assume you’re some ditsy girl in a cute outfit, let them.
Now these may seem like silly lessons but you learned very quickly what you could handle. After a few years there, people couldn’t intimidate me. I’d put up with being yelled at and harassed by the best of them. I’d made it a point where I could fight back when I needed to in order to prove my worth and confidence. As a result, I could walk into interviews knowing I could handle whatever they threw at me. Literally or metaphorically. Words or objects.
My years there have created an effect much like Stockholm syndrome. I have become grateful to my captors. Don’t get me wrong, I would move to Alaska and bury myself in a ditch before ever working there again BUT, I wouldn’t take that time back. I couldn’t have had a better first job. I couldn’t have learned more anywhere else. I look back on it almost like a boot camp for life. I made some great friends and memories along the way.
Spending 12 hours days around people is a fitting way to make close friends. Two of the girls I worked with remain some of my closest friends today partly as a result of our sorority/cult like experience there. It was like coming home from a war still intact and with stories to tell.
The final straw for me was a fashion client who, despite all our advice, was insistent on planning an event around Thanksgiving week. If you know anything about PR, you know the media are not around on holidays. And the last thing they want to do the day before Thanksgiving is go to another event after spending the fall going to about 3,208 of them. If you’re a publicist, this perfect little storm creates a scenario in which you are on the phone begging reporters to come to your event.
I’ll give you a gift card. No? A free dinner? A car? A house? A new born baby? PLEASE JESUS CHRIST, JUST COME!
I remember the conference call that sent me over the edge like it was yesterday.
Agency: We need a good celebrity presence if this event is going to work. And we need someone who is younger to hit your demographic but within your budget range. Let’s pull up the recommendations we shared with you yesterday.
Client: We haven’t looked at that yet. We don’t know how to read. What about Justin Bieber? Where is Justin Bieber? Can somebody locate Justin Bieber?
Agency: You cannot afford him and he’s most likely not working in New York the day before Thanksgiving. Please pull up the e-mail we sent you yesterday.
Client: What? What is “e-mail?” Justin Bieber? PLEASE LOCATE JUSTIN BIEBER. PLEASE LOCATE JUSTIN BIEBER. J-BIEBS! J-BIEBS! J-BIEBS!
It was like talking to gang of Justin Bieber-obsessed parrots. No matter what advice we gave, they just repeated themselves over and over and over. One day I long to be a client so I can throw my brain into the ocean, never to be seen again. I actually laid my head on the desk and began to hope our office building might spontaneously collapse at that very moment. If the windows of the office had been open that day, I very well may have jumped to my death.
Almost 3 years later, I can think of these memories and laugh. Because of therapy and medication, I no longer shudder when e-mails pop up on my computer screen. I can wake up in the morning and breathe a sigh of relief that I don’t have 4 events that week. I can leave work at a normal hour and not spend the evening talking to people I don’t particularly like. And most importantly, I DON’T HAVE TO DISCUSS JUSTIN BIEBER WITH CLIENTS. This is a gift more valuable to me than money or jewels or gold. Justin Bieber doesn’t cross my daily path, and I don’t cross his. We now have an understanding.