October 24, 2005

Celebrity Publicist Talks Hollywood

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“These paparazzi – you can call them stalkarazzi, that’s my term – are completely out of control – These are stalking lunatics who are jumping out of trees, tailing in cars celebrities all over L.A.” Ken Sunshine ’70, a publicist for celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Ricky Martin, Jay Z and Ben Affleck, has had plenty of harrowing experiences with what he calls the stalkarazzis.

On one occasion, when Sunshine and a client were in the men’s room, they discovered an overzealous photographer hiding in the bathroom stall. Sunshine had to block the photographer from taking pictures so his client could relieve himself.

Last Friday afternoon, Sunshine spoke to a handful of students about his unique career path, his perspective on the entertainment industry and his involvement in politics as part of the House Professor Tea series. He and the students were guests of Prof. Ross Brann, the dean of Alice Cook House and the organizer of weekly tea discussions among speakers and students at his apartment.

Sunshine, a graduate of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, has worked in numerous occupations and for numerous employers, including many notable politicians, in his 35 years since leaving Cornell.

After bouts in social work and the education system, Sunshine said he “very quickly got sucked up by the Democratic Party.” He became a district delegate for Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) and went on to work for notable officials and candidates, including former Attorney General Robert Abrams (D-N.Y.), Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and President Jimmy Carter (D). In 1989, he became Chief of Staff for Mayor of New York City David Dinkins after helping Dinkins with his campaign.

“My wife said politics is like crack for me,” Sunshine admitted. “I’m hopelessly addicted – “. A year or two later, he founded his own company, Ken Sunshine Consultants, whose first clients included Barbara Streisand and the Democratic National Convention. The boutique public relations company grew over time to represent notable music and movie celebrities as well as organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Greater New York Hospital Association and the Transport Workers Union Local 100.

As a publicist, Sunshine said he serves as the “link between clients and media in cases where there are legal problems or problems in public perception.” He explained that although he has a long list of recognized clients, there are actually others whom Sunshine advises quietly and without any publicity.

In addition, contrary to some popular notions about publicists, Sunshine said he actively tries to reduce media exposure for some of his bigger clients.

“I think there’s a place to get exposure for what you want [where] you can still be left alone,” he said, citing Meryl Streep and DiCaprio as great examples of famous celebrities who still have private lives.

Sunshine also noted that people in the entertainment world cannot take themselves too seriously. Using client Ben Affleck as an example, Sunshine recalled that many critics wrote scathing reviews of Gigli, a movie starring Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. Affleck, instead of trying to downplay the criticism, went on the Jay Leno Show and along with Leno read aloud the most biting reviews of Gigli they could find.

The world today is “meaner, more trivial, more celebrity-obsessed,” Sunshine told students. From paparazzi stalkers to Paris Hilton mania, the demand for celebrities is stronger than ever and troubling in its implications.

“People need to have other levels of fulfillment than read about celebrities,” Sunshine said. “I think there’s something weird and not good for society about it.”

When asked how he handles such a wide array of clientele, from famous celebrities to hospital staffers, the public relations consultant responded, “I thrive on going from one thing to the other.

Everyone in my office works on a variety of clients. I keep mixing it up to make it even more incomprehensible.”

Calvary Hospital, which treats patients who are terminally ill with cancer, is among his favorite clients, Sunshine said. His role for the hospital is to fight the insurance company. Another client is the NY Organ Donor Network, for whom he tries to increase the number of organ donors each year. “My sanity is kept by other people I represent besides celebrities,” Sunshine said.

As for the students of his alma mater, Sunshine has two pieces of advice. “Don’t worry about your long – term careers,” he said. “Don’t be so consumed with the need for material gain and success right away; think about the greater good and greater society and about what really makes you happy and fulfilled, as opposed to making money.”

Sunshine’s personality was refreshing for some students. Simon Frid ’08 said, “I like the way he had a lot of character, he wasn’t very PC like a lot of the other professors.

Brann added, “I also think it’s very important for undergraduates to get a sense of the many opportunities out there. [Sunshine] is in more than one world at once.”

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Senior Editor