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The ultimate behind-the-scenesters — publicists — don’t typically pen memoirs. But that’s just what veteran rep Dan Harary did in his just-released Flirting With Fame, from BearManor Media.
Rather than deliver a how-to-guide for publicity pros, Harary, who has repped everyone from Jay Leno to current client Musso & Frank, dishes on 50 years of run-ins with boldfaced names like Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Seinfeld and Bruce Springsteen.
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It’s not all sunshine and spin. Harary doesn’t mince words when it comes to Leno’s former managers (“the most despised, horrendous and horrific human beings not only in Hollywood, but on all of planet Earth itself”) and a tense autograph encounter with Arnold Schwarzenegger. “In 1996, I met him at a Friars Club event, and asked him for his autograph for my son, Jordan, who was 8,” Harary details to The Hollywood Reporter of an anecdote featured in the book. “Arnold wanted nothing to do with this request. He literally snarled and growled at me. I thought he was going to either kill me or eat me. However, I persisted, and he finally signed the photo. He never said one word to me, but I’ve never seen anyone so angry in my life for being asked to do something so simple.”
You describe yourself as “an ordinary Joe from New Jersey who made his way to Hollywood” and sustained a decades-long career as a publicist. Why did you write about “flirting with fame” as opposed to a professional how-to guide for navigating a career in publicity?
I wrote about my 50 years of countless encounters with celebrities because so many of my stories are funny, odd, unusual and unique to me and my personality. I realized, as I was approaching the age of 65 during COVID lockdown last spring, that I’d had so many truly novel interactions with so many very famous people since the age of 15 that I knew I had behind-the-scenes celeb stories no one else could possibly have. I’ve been entertaining my friends with these stories for decades and they always laugh, so I knew I was onto something.
I would honestly have no idea of how to write a how-to guide for navigating a career in publicity today because my PR career was never planned or dreamed of. In fact, I attended Boston University’s School of Communications, and PR was the one thing there that I did not study; I studied everything else. My PR career simply happened along the way through a series of very “karmic” moments, either meeting key players at key points in my life or having an epiphany when I turned 40 to start my own business. My path could never be duplicated.
You detail hundreds of celebrity encounters. First of all, your memory is insane. Did you keep a journal?
No! I’ve never kept a journal but I do have a good case of OCD, which I inherited from my father, literally a genius who invented technology that went to the Moon in the early 1960s. I suppose in my OCD-addled brain I’ve “video recorded” all of these celebrity encounters. I can pull them up into my memory banks, like a computer, and then watch them replay in my mind’s eye. When I was writing this book, I just “watched” these moments as though they were a film being shown against my living room wall. I’m either a genius or an idiot savant. Maybe both!
It’s clear from how you write and tell stories, that even though you worked closely with stars, you’re a fan at heart who loves artists. Where does that come from? From your parents?
When I turned 10 and The Monkees came to NBC, I fell in love with them and their music and became enthralled by “celebrity.” As I write in my book, from the ages of 7-10, I was a classically trained pianist but once The Monkees showed up in 1966, my life changed completely, and I became a drummer, which I am still to this day. For three years during high school, I was fortunate enough to have landed a job as stage manager and lighting director for The Sunshine Inn concert hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where I worked with the biggest rock bands of the ’70s including KISS, Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen — years before they became famous. I loved my parents very much, and for a few years, they were both in the same big band along the Jersey Shore. My mom was a gifted singer and my dad was a brilliant trombonist. used to watch them perform and beam with pride by how talented they are. I suppose I am a fan of talent.
Were you at all nervous about name-dropping so many celebrities?
No, because all these stories are true, even the most cringe-worthy ones. Also, as a publicist, if any of these superstars wanted to sue me for slander, I’d probably welcome that, given that it would make for great PR for this book, and probably increase sales overnight. Only kidding about getting sued!
Your stories about brushes with Bruce Springsteen as a teenager are great, especially the time you turned down an offer to be a roadie for him on tour. Any regrets?
If someone had told me back in 1973 when I first met and worked with Springsteen that, two years later, he’d become the biggest rock star in the world, I would have laughed in their face. When I used to see Bruce perform in the early 1970s at various bars and clubs in Asbury Park, I simply didn’t get it. I didn’t understand his lyrics or approach to rock music. At the time, I was a huge fan of Led Zeppelin, Cream, Mountain, The Who, Creedence, Yes and Emerson/Lake/Palmer. When Bruce was singing “Madman drummers, bummers and Indians in the Summer” from “Blinded by the Light,” I simply had no idea what he was talking about.
When Clarence Clemons asked me and my best friend, Steve, to become the road crew for the Bruce Springsteen Band in 1973, I responded: “Clarence, we’re only 16! We don’t even drive yet! And I’m pretty sure our fathers want us to go to college!” Honestly, even if Steve and I had said yes and wanted to join Bruce’s road crew in 1973, our fathers would have literally killed us, so there was never a chance of that happening.
Not a lot of people can claim that they’ve caught Barbra Streisand’s eye twice. Why do you think she zeroed in on you? What would you say to her today if you had the chance?
I honestly have no idea why Barbra Streisand stared at me the way she did on two different occasions. Once while I was bike riding in Santa Monica and she was coming out of a women’s clothing store, and another time in 1986 when I was walking around Warner Bros. Studios and she came out from a soundstage.
She was filming Nuts at the time. Of course, I was staring at her because I wasn’t expecting to see the great Barbra Streisand standing there either time. But the way she was staring at me was so odd. As I write, “She was looking at me as though she’d found her long-lost twin brother.”
The only way I can explain this two-time phenomenon is that perhaps she could smell the Brooklyn in my blood, like a vampire. She and both of my parents were Brooklynites. If I met her today, I’d ask her if she remembers my dear friend Mitch Zamarin, a fellow publicist, who used to work on her PR account, and used to take Barbra to Dodgers games while she was incognito.
In the press release announcing your book, you state that you had “numerous bosses who tortured and insulted me psychologically and spiritually and often made me do abhorrent work-related things that I personally objected to but had no choice as I had to support a growing family.” What was the most demeaning task you were asked to do?
Without going into any deep specifics, I had a boss who forced me to handle the PR for a variety of clients involved in the infomercial industry. Those clients repulsed me and I asked to be removed from those accounts, but that boss wouldn’t hear of it. Doing PR for those infomercial people was perhaps the low point of my PR career. At that time, I was writing spec sitcom scripts with a partner, as I was desperately trying to switch careers from PR into TV comedy. In fact, my partner and I came “this close” to selling a script to the executive producer of the TV series The New WKRP in Cincinnati. So having to handle PR for infomercials was literally the polar opposite of what I wanted to be doing in my life. Nauseating and abhorrent.
Knowing what you know now, would you have responded differently to any of those bosses?
The true answer is, yes, of course! As I write in the book, I had clinical/biological/inherited depression from the ages of 15 to 40 that was undiagnosed and untreated. It was during those same years, when I was struggling with that crippling depression, that I had to endure the slights of several bosses who insulted and took advantage of me. The great part of my story is that concurrent with my 40th birthday, I was diagnosed and treated with Prozac and became “un-depressed” almost overnight. As soon as that remarkable phenomenon occurred in my life, I “woke up” from a 25-year slumber and launched my own company a few months later. I made half a million dollars my first year in business. Given that I’ve been depression free now for 26 years, sure I’d respond 100 percent differently to those bosses today. I was simply unable to do so earlier in my life because of that illness.
What was it like working with Jay Leno when he first got The Tonight Show?
Funny story, I first met Jay Leno, side by side at the urinals at The Improv in West Hollywood in the fall of 1980, just a few weeks after I’d relocated to Los Angeles. I knew he was from Boston, so I said, “Hey Jay, I went to BU,” to which he replied, “Emerson. But I went to some great parties at BU.” Cut to seven years later, I became Jay’s West Coast publicist concurrent with him being named Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host. In fact, I wrote that press release and helped Jay get a ton of press for two years, from 1987-89, covering both his Tonight Show work and continued stand-up comedy shows, coast to coast.
I recall one afternoon in particular, when I was in Jay’s dressing room at The Tonight Show and he was in his underwear, while I was telling him about some upcoming interviews I’d arranged. He was always the nicest and most professional guy I ever knew. A few years later, I enjoyed the HBO Movie called The Late Shift, which covers Jay and David Letterman during their two-way battle to inherit The Tonight Show. I lived a bit of the early part of that story.
Coincidentally and just recently, my daughter and I bumped into Jay and his wife, Mavis, three weeks in a row at a Vons in West Hollywood. He remains as unaffected by his success today as he ever was, as far as I can see.
Your publicity career really got going with a PR gig at Playboy when you got promoted. You write adoringly about Hugh Hefner and your interactions with his team, including his daughter, Christie. What do you make of the A&E exposé Secrets of Playboy?
I watched Secrets of Playboy and, to be honest, I had never heard of any of those allegations during the years I worked at The Playboy Channel from 1983-85. I was dealing with the producers of the TV shows that aired on The Playboy Channel, and the programming and marketing execs of that network. While I attended several events up at Hef’s Playboy Mansion, I never saw anything untoward or horrific. But honestly, I certainly was not part of Hef’s inner circle.
The bottom line, I have to say that I do believe the women who appeared on the Secrets of Playboy series, and I feel bad for the heinous experiences they had to endure. Hugh Hefner was a hero to me — I was a guy who was painfully shy with women until the age of 25. But if he and his cronies did some of the terrible things it was alleged they did, they should have been confronted — and legally charged — with those alleged crimes at the time they were taking place, not so many decades later, after he’d passed away.
When I’m asked about celebrities, it’s typically the same two questions: Who was the nicest celebrity you’ve ever met? Who was the worst? How would you answer those two questions?
Easy. The nicest celebrity I’ve ever worked with was actress Dee Wallace. During the very early 1990s, I was the publicist for her TV show The New Lassie. At that time, my wife, now ex-wife, was pregnant with my daughter, Anjuli, and was remarkably sick in bed with morning sickness for many weeks. I happened to tell Dee about that situation during a lunch break on the set of New Lassie. She told me that when she had been pregnant with her daughter, Gabrielle Stone, Dee had employed a gifted acupuncturist who’d cured her of morning sickness. That night, when I was home, Dee called to say she would be sending her acupuncturist — at her expense — to my home for several weeks to try to help my wife’s illness. The guy came, treated my wife several times, and she was cured. My daughter was born healthy a few months later. This was, by far the nicest thing any celebrity could ever have done for me.
Worst would have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 1996, I met him at a Friars Club event and asked him for his autograph for my son, Jordan, who was 8. Jordan was a huge fan of The Terminator so I asked Arnold if he could sign a photo, which I’d brought, of him as that character. Arnold wanted nothing to do with this request. He literally snarled and growled at me while I stood there, hoping for the autograph. I thought he was going to either kill me or eat me. However, I persisted, and he finally signed the photo. He never said one word to me, but I’ve never seen anyone so angry in my life for being asked to do something so simple.
Aside from navigating tech advances — phone calls to fax machines to emails to text messages to social media — what has been the biggest challenge in sustaining a career this long? Was it the bankruptcy and downsizing after the 2008 recession?
Technology, of course, has been the biggest change in the PR industry, without question. The biggest challenge in sustaining a career in PR for 40 years, I’d have to say, comes down to two things: luck and PR talent. Ever since I launched my own agency in 1996, I was gifted and blessed by the powers that be in the universe with incredible luck. And during the past 26 years, I’ve handled PR for many hundreds of companies, people, films and events. I don’t think you can plan on luck — it either happens or it don’t.
But the real answer is, most likely that, for whatever reason, I happen to be a gifted publicist. My talents and skills in this field include my natural abilities as a writer, my outgoing personality, my true enjoyment of show business and Hollywood, my media connections, built up over decades of time, and an innate creativity in conceiving new and novel ways by which to promote the accomplishments of my clients, many of whom are award-winning artisans in their fields. I suppose without both luck and talent, a publicist won’t last for 40 years, given today’s industry restraints.
With the rise in social media and influencer culture, there are more famous people now than ever. As someone who has been close to fame for 50 years and published a book on the subject, what’s your advice for someone who wants to be famous today?
In my opinion, the last person I can think of who became famous — and rightly so — has been Lady Gaga. She’s been around now since 2008. I can’t think of one other superstar, today, who became famous since her because the heyday or golden era of “fame” in Hollywood is pretty much gone, in my opinion. I recently worked the red carpet for the 2022 Vanity Fair “Young Hollywood” Oscar party. There I saw dozens of beautiful women and men walk the carpet, and I hadn’t heard of any of them. Today, people consider social media performers with huge numbers of followers as “stars.” To me, social media has cheapened the notion of what fame is and who a star is. If everybody’s famous, then no one’s special, right?
Last question: Has it been easy to promote yourself with this book or are you a tough client?
Believe it or not, I actually hired a PR firm out of New York to handle the national PR for my book. (Laughs.) I felt it would be too awkward for me to pitch myself to media, coast to coast. So far, they’ve been doing a great job. But, for local L.A.- and Hollywood-based media, I decided to “PR myself,” given that I have had so many longtime great relationships with wonderful media members.
I’ve been a sweet client to my New York PR team, as I know they are trying hard to get me exposure, and I know what it’s like to have difficult, overly demanding, and unrealistic clients hocking you to death. The bottom line: For 40 years, I’ve been promoting the accomplishments of others. Finally, at the tender age of 66, I’ve allowed myself the rare opportunity to finally PR myself. (Laughs.)
Harary is scheduled to appear at book signing events on July 30 at Edmunds Bookstore and on Aug. 10 at Book Soup in West Hollywood.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.