Wandering into Judith Regan’s downtown offices, I notice there’s no receptionist’s desk. I walk past a row of cubicles to find an underling who directs me to “Judith” (no last name needed). After a short wait, Regan, whose trademark long brown hair has grayed slightly, joins me in a conference room, wearing a clean-pressed pantsuit and platforms on a chilly Manhattan day, carrying a stack of her latest proofs.
In the late ’90s, there was no bigger name in the publishing world than Regan. And no one more controversial. The hyper-aggressive queen bee of the printed word dominated the bestseller list with a steady stream of celebrity tell-alls, including Jenna Jameson’s “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” and Howard Stern’s “Private Parts.” But in 2006, after nabbing what should have been her biggest coup — O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It,” a pseudo-murder confession — Regan was promptly fired from HarperCollins.
She eventually sued and won $10.75 million for defamation, and in an ironic twist, the O.J. book was released by the family of victim Ron Goldman, and became a best-seller. But the damage was done. Regan, 62, has spent years trying to claw her way out of literary jail and is re-aiming her sights on Hollywood after a failed attempt a decade ago to peddle her salacious titles to the town.
Her imprint, Regan Arts, which had a soft launch in 2013, is now in full swing. The company, part of Phaidon Global, has a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster. Regan Arts’ list ranges from Khloe Kardashian’s tabloid-friendly title “Strong Looks Better Naked” to “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” The question facing traditional publishers like Regan is whether they can adapt to the digital age and get people to plop down dollars for physical copies of books.
“The book business is very challenged,” Regan acknowledges. “People read a tremendous amount online, and they expect things for free. Online book-selling makes it harder for people to discover things,” she adds. “We are competing with every other imaginable source of information, and that includes the internet. We have to razzle and dazzle them more.” Regan joins a litany of other publishers — including Random House, Condé Nast, Vice, Refinery29, even BuzzFeed — hoping to draw money from Hollywood. And she is anxious to take another stab at pitching her projects to the industry.
Regan is approaching her latest acquisition, “The Curse of Beauty,” like a studio executive. She has enlisted journalist James Bone to write a book on a story she discovered about Audrey Munson, a turn-of-the-century model who became a darling of the society crowd. At 40, Munson was institutionalized after an enraptured suitor killed his wife to be with her. Regan plans to shop the movie rights, and thinks Jennifer Lawrence should play the lead. “There was murder, mayhem and madness,” Regan enthuses. “She was the Kim Kardashian of her day.”
Regan, who executive produced A&E’s “Growing Up Gotti,” also wants to get back into the reality TV game. She’s developing a series with stylist B. Akerlund and her offbeat cookbook author Christine McConnell, whose latest work includes recipes like Serpentine Spice Cake and Santa Claws Cookies.
Regan is still as crude as ever. She confides that after a failed marriage and two kids, she’s not interested in dating. “I could care less if I see another penis again,” she tells me. Her genius has always been in tapping the zeitgeist, which she says she can still do — take her new partnership with the Kardashians. And her dream author? Michelle Obama.
But even in her latest venture, Regan remains a big personality, an outsized figure — à la Harvey Weinstein or Tina Brown — trying to reinvent herself for a millennial audience. She has a relatively small following of about 3,000 on Twitter, but she’s not above tweeting at authors, and asking them to reach out to her to talk about ideas.
The old Regan used to book herself on magazine covers. The new one comes across as more humble, admitting she couldn’t carry a talk show — a failed venture she once launched. “To go on television as a 62-year-old woman, I can’t even imagine anyone would want that,” she says with laugh.
Katie Van Syckle is a freelancer whose writing has appeared in New York Magazine and Rolling Stone.