GAVIN DEBECKER, Hollywood’s security guru, has written a new book in which he doles out advice about the art of celebrity self-protection. I’ve seen DeBecker’s salesmanship on display from time to time, and his act is impressive. A star can merely mention the fact that he’s seen a suspicious-looking person, and before he knows it, DeBecker has sold him a million dollars in electronic security and a phalanx of round-the-clock guards.
But the continuing perils-of-Pauline saga of Jamie Tarses has led me to ask the following: Are public figures obsessed about the wrong kind of self-protection? It’s easy to write a big check to DeBecker, but the fact remains that a surprising number of people seem to have no idea whatsoever how to guard other aspects of their lives. Such as their credibility.
Look at Michael Ovitz. How could anyone that savvy make so many bad judgments when it comes to his public persona? Look how Kathie Lee, newly sanctified on the cover of TV Guide, has handled her marital dilemma.
But for a textbook example of public self-betrayal, Tarses takes the cake. Here’s a seemingly intelligent, highly presentable 33-year-old who careens along the track like a runaway caboose, missing all the red warning lights.
An array of subtext is scrawled across her story, to be sure. Was she predestined to failure because of the machinations of the “boys’ club”? While pretending to sing her praises, were the “guys” furtively plotting her demise? Or, as some now suggest, were her actions so inept that she managed to self-destruct without the help of anyone?
These questions were brought to the fore thanks to the article by Lynn Hirschberg appearing in last week’s New York Times Magazine. A dogged reporter, Hirschberg had been following Tarses around for some months, confiding that she was planning to write a felicitous story about this attractive young star executive of the TV world. And Tarses was giving her full access.
SOMEWHERE ALONG the way, however, Tarses became a target, not a subject. Hirschberg’s recitation of quotes and incidents made Tarses look not like an inspired young executive who would elevate the medium, but like an utterly miscast victim of the Peter Principle.
One could well ask, why did Tarses, new to her job, give any reporter this kind of access? Anyone who reads the magazines surely is aware that Hirschberg is no pussycat. Dragging Hirschberg to all your meetings is like waving a flag that says, “I don’t plan to live here, folks, I’m just visiting.”
But then, as I said before, Tarses tends to ignore the warning lights. I noticed this some months ago when I sat across from her at one of those dreary award dinners. The CapCities and Disney hierarchies were in attendance that night — indeed, it was the last public occasion when both Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz were seen sharing a speaker’s podium, albeit awkwardly.
And awkward would also describe Tarses’ demeanor that night. In a maze of kissy-face salutations, Tarses was withdrawn, if not downright unfriendly, as though overwhelmed by the occasion. “This woman just landed a dream job, but you’d never know it,” my wife observed, after we had both made unsuccessful efforts at casual conversation.
On the other hand, maybe her uptightness signaled that she was already ignoring some warning lights. Consider the list: She had been recruited by an embattled Ovitz, not Eisner or Robert Iger — surely that was warning light No. 1.
IN ORDER TO EXTRICATE herself from her NBC contract, all sorts of churlish rumors of sexual harassment involving NBC’s West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer, had to be ventilated — warning light No. 2. Since her boyfriend, Robert Morton , a former David Letterman producer, helped make the initial connections to ABC and Ovitz, he was rewarded with a much-criticized $ 2 million production deal — warning light No. 3.
Meanwhile, agents and fellow ABC executives had already seemed reluctant to carry out her directives, inducing her to use her feminine wiles, variously described as “girlish, feline and flirty.” When colleagues and the press start using words like that to describe your behavior, that’s no longer a warning light — that’s a neon explosion! Yet Tarses kept roaring along her track, oblivious to the derailment that lay ahead.
Some friends no doubt were tempted to summon Gavin DeBecker to surround her with security guards and prevent her from talking to anyone until she wised up. But Gavin doesn’t do that sort of thing. He just protects celebrities from outsiders, not from themselves. And as the Tarses catharsis reminds us, we are often our own worst enemies.