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AFTER GRACING THE COVER of Esquire in a feature by Tom Junod, Kevin Spacey might feel like Chazz Palminteri at the close of “The Usual Suspects”: hoodwinked.

Junod’s decision to structure the story on rumor Spacey might be gay — a potentially career-altering designation made not by reputable sources, but by Junod’s 80-year-old mother — left other magazine editors drop-jawed and publicists looking to hide women, children and clients from the newly revamped Esquire.

It also left many feeling that a spate of celeb-scorching features indicates that the leverage once held by publicists is switching back to magazines and their star byliners.

After extensive access, Chris Farley was the subject of a lengthy “Special Report” in Us magazine headlined “On the Edge of Disaster,” which characterized the large comic as a ticking time bomb courting a premature demise like that of his idol, John Belushi.

Mira Sorvino, GQ’s August cover, hated her profile, with her father and others close to her complaining that writer Andrew Corsello, a college acquaintance of hers, had gotten even for some past campus snub.

AND LET’S NOT FORGET the highest-profile cover story dissection of the year, Lynn Hirschberg’s feature on ABC exec Jamie Tarses in the New York Times Magazine, in which the only thing about Tarses that seemed smart was her outfit for the cover photo.

In each case, the celebs were left feeling not only like they’d been robbed, but that they’d let the robbers in and helped them carry out the goods.

After a weeklong barrage from Spacey’s publicist, agent and media over the article and cover headline “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” new Esquire editor David Granger claims that “it’s the best profile written on Kevin Spacey,” and that the gay assertion is a red herring to the real story: Spacey is a movie star.

An “Esky” column in the same issue asserting celebs shouldn’t have private lives has been taken as a mission statement by celeb publicists, though Granger called it a humor piece.

Spacey and his publicist, Staci Wolfe Newman, are not laughing, left to deny what they felt was the mag’s implication that Spacey somehow acknowledged he’s gay. He has not.

They say Spacey was duped by promises that Granger cared about his acting, not his sexuality. In a statement, Wolfe Newman said, “Esquire has made it abundantly clear that they have now joined the ranks of distasteful journalism, and this mean-spirited, homophobic, offensive article proves that the legacy of Joseph McCarthy is alive and well.”

Granger said the cover piece stemmed from his love of “L.A. Confidential,” and he denied the mag tried to out Spacey. “If you read to the end of Tom’s piece, you can see he rejects the idea that Kevin’s sexuality is an issue, that it just doesn’t matter.”

DESPITE THOSE ASSERTIONS, several editors at national magazines used the word “appalling” in reference to the article, and publicists made it clear its memory would linger long after the next issue hits the stands.

“That first piece by the new Esquire team certainly put me on guard,” said PR high priestess Pat Kingsley at PMK. “I’ll take a wait-and-see attitude before our clients take part. No one wants to be party to leading the Christians to the lions.”

Editors have long decried publicists’ insistence that they scrutinize writers as though they were choosing plastic surgeons. But Kingsley felt the Spacey piece and certain others underscore why it has become mandatory. “If you’re not prepared to give (us) a writer the client is confident about, we skip the piece, with no hard feelings,” she said. “It’s not like the major client needs it; in fact, we usually have to convince them.”

Eddie Michaels, a partner of Spacey’s rep Wolfe Newman, felt the cover element should merit some goodwill: “Given the financial benefits of access to stars, it seems only courteous and right that magazines be upfront about their motivations.”

To GQ editor Art Cooper, the mag only has the obligation to be responsible. Cooper, who employed Granger until he bolted in a widely publicized defection, would not comment on the Spacey feature, other than to say he would not have published it. But he also rebelled against the notion of kowtowing to publicists who feel his mag’s an extension of their hype machine. “I don’t look at it as part of the marketing process,” he said. “They want the GQ cover, what I want is access, and I don’t mean a lead that says Mira Sorvino took a forkful of salmon and talked about blah blah blah at some lunch place. I’m interested in character, and a person reveals and defines character by what they do.

“NO WRITER KNOWS WHAT HE’S going to find. Several years ago, we decided to put Steven Seagal on the cover and Alan Richman, who was a big fan, did the story. He went out to Hollywood and what he found was a big jerk. He came back and wrote about it. He didn’t set out to do it, and Andrew Corsello had no agenda.”

Of the Sorvino piece, Cooper said: “Some might say it’s a really nasty piece, but I just got back from L.A., meeting with agents and publicists, and they brought that piece up as an example of a piece that was honest and accurate.”

Farley was devastated by the Us article, as was his family. He felt positives were downplayed and that he sealed his fate with reporter Erik Hedegaard by spontaneously flying to Hawaii with two women he’d just met, leaving the scribe hanging. Farley’s plan to sit for magazine profiles effectively began and ended with that article, say those close to him.

But Us editorial director Sid Holt said the mag’s primary duty is to report accurately, which they did. Another mag editor said it’s up to celebs and their handlers to decide whether or not they can withstand scrutiny from reporters.

ARE CELEBS POWERLESS when they feel they’re done wrong by a magazine? Not entirely. When writer-producer David E. Kelley invited an Entertainment Weekly reporter on the “Ally McBeal” set and felt a story didn’t match the effusive onset demeanor of the scribe, Kelley used his pen to square things, said sources. In an episode, McBeal — a lawyer whose inner thoughts can be heard onscreen — ended a jury summation wondering if she got through to the jury. “People are idiots,” she said, “they do read Entertainment Weekly.”