By Corey Scholibo
Originally published on Advocate.com August 19 2009 12:00 AM ET
"Chick lit" has traditionally been written by women for women, but Robert Rave's new book, Spin, proves that you don't need to be one to write for one. Rave was a celebrity, restaurant, and event publicist in New York in his early 20s, and though he had many different bosses, it was his two-year stint with tabloid fodder party girl Lizzie Grubman, and his subsequent book about a tabloid fodder party girl publicist named Jenny Weinstein, that has proved impossible to shake.
Spin is about a Midwestern boy named Taylor who moves to New York bright-eyed and ends up taking a job for the most horrible woman in public relations. When not fetching her drugs or covering up her sex scandals, he is manipulating his way to the top, and eventually finds he has become that which he most hates.
Rave originally wrote the story as a concept for a TV show for Sony Television, but when the show never got made, he turned it around into a novel and sold it to St. Martin's Press. The publishing house has given the book a Devil Wears Prada packaging and marketing campaign and is sending it out to bookstores this August for the fashionistas to read while tanning in the Hamptons. While the book is a work of fiction -- with a straight protagonist no less --one can't help but wonder if Rave intended it to be a thinly veiled tell-all.
Rave sat down with me at Hugo's restaurant in West Hollywood, where he now resides, to try and convince me that it is not.
You sort of fell into public relations?I did. I did this program in college called New York City semester and I interned at Good Morning America. It was the only position that was available, so I ended up getting a job with them and I really enjoyed it. When I graduated from Illinois Wesleyan, I knew I wanted to move to New York. I was from a [small town] and I was closeted in college, so I thought I had to move to the big city to be gay. I got an internship at a PR firm that eventually turned into a working gig. Then I started jumping around to a bunch of different firms.
So then did you start working with Lizzie Grubman?No, I had several other jobs before I worked for her.
In your book the protagonist gets a job with his boss when she fires someone near him and wants to prove the point that that person was replaceable with anyone. Was that how you got your job?No, I met Lizzie through a mutual friend. I worked for Anne Klein at the time and a friend of mine introduced me to her. He told her she should hire me.
Did you start as her assistant?No. I mean, I shadowed her for the first month I was there, but I wasn't her assistant. I would say I learned about her accounts for the first month or so, then I started getting my own accounts.
Did you like working there?I liked it at first. I think by the time I started working there I knew I was going to start transitioning out of PR at some point.
How old were you?Twenty-four. I knew I wasn't cut out for it because I knew I wanted to write. I was writing short stories a lot at that time, but at the same time I needed to pay my bills. I stayed because it was easy and it was a paycheck and sometimes you just do those things. I knew I couldn't just go start working at a bank.
But it was fun too?Yeah, there were fun elements. We did album release parties and movie stuff. As a publicist, though, you are working those parties. So it is not like you are in the thick of it. I went last night to the premiere of the new Ashton Kutcher movie Spread. And I told my friend when we were looking at the publicist, “I couldn't do this again.” Just that frenzied, nervous publicist face. For the first couple of years after I left PR, when I would go to events, I would just snap into that again.
It is a sort of heightened state, almost like kicking into a survival mode. A state of anxiety.Yes, a heightened state of anxiety would be a great way to describe it. Now I have gone to the opposite extreme. I still can enjoy going to events, but I would rather just stay home or go to dinner with friends. It maybe comes with age as well. I mean, I am 35 now, but it just doesn't mean that much to me anymore.
What do you think draws someone to want to be a publicist?I think initially it is about the excitement of it, and about going to the events and the parties and thinking, I'm going to hang out with this one and be a part of that world. But at the end of the day… you have to remember that you are working for someone and they are your client, whether it is a celebrity or a corporation. They are not your best friend and they shouldn't be. But a lot of times those lines get blurred.
And they never got blurred for you?Not so much. I kept a couple of friends from when I was a publicist like Billie Myers, the singer. She's one of those people where the line got blurred and we just became friends. But it never got blurred with like, "Send me free clothes," if I was working with a fashion house or something.
You mean you never took advantage of your comps?Oh, well, yeah [laughs]. I never did afterwards, but while I was there, sure. But the philosophy behind free dinners or whatnot was that I would sit down with the chefs and they would be like, "Tell me what you like, really. You're our biggest mouthpiece." So I wouldn't feel as guilty about that, and to be honest with you I didn't really take advantage of that.
When you were in it, did you feel the objective skepticism you have now, or at a certain point had you completely bought into the culture and started drinking the Kool-Aid?I think to some degree you have to. I think it becomes very transparent if you are pitching a product or a person you don't believe in. Also, for example, I worked with this one off-Broadway performer and I was invested in it, thinking, Look, if she doesn't get this press she isn't going to get the ticket sales, and if she doesn't get the ticket sales she isn't going to be able to afford her rent this month. So I would buy into it that much, but I never got that bug of like, "I'm self-important because I am a publicist." I was actually more like, "I could get fired at any minute." Publicists are very expendable.
Do you still talk to Lizzie?No
How did it end for you with her?I quit in 1999 after two years with the firm, and at that point I didn't know what I was going to do. Unlike in the book, I quit in person. It was terrifying for me to do it, but she was fine with it. Then I wasn't sure what I was going to do. If I was smart I would have parlayed that into a corporate job with one of my clients or something, but at that time I knew I wanted to write.
So you were writing almost 10 years ago?Yes, but not this story. There were incarnations of PR stories, but not this particular one. But around 2001 or 2002 I wrote a treatment that I ended up selling to Sony Television. I thought, Yes, this is going to happen. And then like everything it didn't happen. But I still wanted to tell the story, so I took elements of that and blew it up even more into this book.
When did you start on this book?When I actually sat down to write it, 2006 or so.
So this was after TheDevil Wears Prada was released as a book and the same year it was being released as a film. Were you influenced by that story?Um, no, not really. I mean, I loved the book and the movie. I thought Devil Wears Prada had a happy ending and I wanted to show this guy's descent into darkness. For me in the book, Taylor gets sucked in and ultimately by the end of the book morphs into the Jenny character. I mean, I would love to have the success that Prada did, and naturally since it has sort of the tone of that story it is going to be characterized in that way.
Your publisher seems to be packaging your book in the sort of "chick lit" aesthetic. Were you influenced by that movement at all?I wasn't influenced. The funny thing is I just wrote it and people are going to categorize it or market it the way they see fit. The main character is straight, but at the same time I don't know that straight men are going to pick up this book.
Why is the main character straight?I really wanted to play with the idea of having a big diva boss be in control. I love my divas, so I had so much fun playing with the Jenny character, and I thought Taylor could be so rich, and instead of going for the obvious and making Taylor gay, because I knew so many gay publicists, I thought, What if I flipped it and told it from a different perspective? But I wanted to include gay characters because obviously in New York and especially in the PR landscape it is what makes up so many people's lives.
Most of the pre-buzz about the book is that it's a roman à clef about Lizzie Grubman, and obviously you must have known that it would be perceived as such when you wrote it.To a degree. I didn't know that it would take on this life form that it has. The reality is that I think this book could have been the biggest masterpiece of this century, but because I worked for Lizzie it was going to be naturally that. I so, so get it.
I mean, even the ending is, shall we say, torn directly from the headlines of the life of Lizzie Grubman. I mean, literally.Yeah, but I wanted an outlandish way for the main character to get some comeuppance. So I took it to that level.
Yes, but if you really wanted to avoid the comparison…No, no, of course. But at the same time I don't think that is the meat of the book. And to be honest I debated leaving the epilogue in or not. But I wanted a cliff-hanger if I was going to do a sequel.
Obviously Lizzie must know of the book's existence, but do you know what she thinks?Haven't a clue. And I don't have anyone in my life that is in any way connected to her.
So, so far no backlash?Someone sent me the piece that they posted on Gawker.com announcing the book, and honestly what upset me the most is that the ending was revealed. My sister sent my parents the link and my dad was going through and reading me all the negative comments, thinking I know these people.
Do you expect her to do anything?I really don't. She is living her own life now and I don't think she will do anything.
How much of it is really based on her.It is honestly -- and I see you already starting to laugh -- it is such an amalgamation of the people that I met. I have so many people coming to me with outlandish stories and I just took this to a new level. I wouldn't have the patience that Taylor does in this book. I would have said "Fuck you" long before.
So you never had to score cocaine for any of your employers?[Laughs] No, I never did that. Wow. No.
Are any of the events in Taylor's life based on specific events in your life?No. Obviously there are elements. He is from the Midwest, I'm from the Midwest. I don't have the family he does, [and] the people he met aren't my friends.
One of your characters, Louise, finds it difficult to be married while working in PR. When you were a publicist were you able to have a relationship?I had a five-year relationship in New York during that period and the person I was with at the time was so annoyed that my phone would ring at all hours, for what he considered the most silly, petty things. But I was like, "You don't understand, if I don't get this done in the next 20 minutes I am going to lose my job." That kind of thing. But at the same time the partner I was with loved to go to all the events. There were a couple of friends I would have falling-outs with because I would invite them to an event I would work on and all they would do was complain about my client or that I was working, time and time again. And I was like, “You know what, don't come to the events.” And then I was like, "Why am I even caring?" But PR is about creating that illusion and after a while that can be very taxing and you wonder, Who am I?
Did you get involved with drugs?I stayed away from it, thankfully. Through other friends it was very much around me, but it never became a problem or anything.
Was that your Midwest upbringing that kept you grounded?I think so, yeah. With parents like mine calling to tell me negative comments on Gawker to keep me in check….
What's next for you?I have another book, Waxed, that is also with St. Martin's Press, coming out next summer. It's about three sisters that own a high-end bikini waxing salon in New York. And again, I don't want to give away too many plot points, but there is a transgender child, a 5-year-old, in the book and another prominent gay character. I really try to incorporate the landscape of New York into my books.
Even though you still write about New York it seems you are an Angeleno now.To some extent. I read a lot of New Age books and I am meditating. It sounds so cliché, but not while you are in it of course. Then you look around one day and say, Wow, I guess I am that person.