One-on-One with Michael Levine
by Tony Medley
Michael Levine is one of the best known names in the field of public
relations in the world. Referred to as the “Michael Jordan of
Entertainment PR” by the late Steve Allen, he has made his mark on the
public relations world through his books, television appearances, and
most of all through his extensive history of servicing the biggest names
in Hollywood and the world. The author of 17 books, including his most
recent titled, “Broken Windows, Broken Business” (Warner Books), he is
also the creator of the LBN E-Lert (Levine Breaking News), one of the
world’s premier online newsletters, feeding the latest insider breaking
news to approximately 168,000 “influencers” in all 50 of the United
States and 22 foreign countries including China, India, Japan,
Australia, Russia, England, Israel, Germany, South Africa, Mexico,
Canada and Korea
When I met Michael
Levine for lunch at Kate Mantilini’s at Wilshire and Doheny, he was a
long way from the penniless 18-year-old who dropped out of Rutgers
University with virtually nothing to his name. No Sammy Glick, what sat
down across the table was a dignified, distinguished-looking grey-haired
gentleman dressed in a conservative navy blue pin striped suit.
TM: How did the LBN
E-Alert get started?
ML: My friend,
Malcolm Gladwell, wrote a best-selling book called “The Tipping Point,”
in which he posited a theory – that there are certain people in the
world who are disproportionately influenced. They are the people who in
your social group are always the ones setting up successful operations
like E-Bay. They’re not necessarily the wealthiest, but they are the
ones who kind of influence others -- could be a maitre’d in a
restaurant, could be a hairstylist or a CEO,
or chairman of the board, or the mayor of a city. So these influencers
have a disproportionate kind of power, you and me for instance. People
come to you in your social circle and say “Was the Woody Allen movie
good or bad?” So, the purpose was to influence the influencer. Let’s
take you, you were getting the E-Alert. Have you ever told anyone about
TM: Oh yes, I have a friend who is a
federal judge to whom I recommended the E-Alert and he is on your list.
ML: So now we’ve got you and federal
judges reading it. So its purpose is to influence the influencer and
it’s been an overwhelming success. One of the most successful internet
e-mails in the world.
TM: But what I would like to know is how
did you actually get it started? What was your starting goal in getting
started – I mean that’s a gargantuan project. . .
ML: We started it six years ago – I
should also tell you that I’m not very technology savvy. We started
with 500 people on our first list.
TM: 500? How did you get the list?
ML: The influencers that I knew in
Hollywood and Washington, from politics and entertainment. Those are my
two passions. From that 500, we now have a circulation of 300,000
people everyday, seven days a week in all 50 states and 23 foreign
TM: So when you first started out, did
you write it – who wrote it?
ML: Never been written – it’s a news
advocator. We now have six people working with us and we have to, of
course, do it very fast, right? We send from Los Angeles to Boston
where we hire a company to send it out. We couldn’t send it out
ourselves. It’s too big. It would crash our server. It goes from L.A.
to Boston, out to the world 11 times over. We frequently beat CNN, USA
TM: Did you have any copyright problems?
ML: We re-aggregated, rewrite aggregate
stuff from news sources. I’ll see Tony and I’ll say “Hey Tony, I want
you to write 100 words on ‘Who do you think will win Michael Phelps or
Bart Flick.’” You write 100 words, no payment. Or I’d say to you
“Tony, what book are you reading right now”? I take the quote out and
TM: Do they know that they’re going to
TM: Where do you get the news? You have
a lot of news in there.
ML: We have a tremendous amount of
news. We aggregate it – people tell us stuff. We get about 1,500
e-mails a day from people like you; scores of news that has to be
checked. We get their information and write our own little blurb; 100
TM: How did you get started?
ML: I was born in New York City. I was
born about two and half miles north of Ground Zero. My mother was an
alcoholic, my father was a gentle and kind man, but he was weak and
passive. So I had a very poor upbringing. I was also slightly dyslexic,
but that wasn’t known at the time. That wasn’t spoken about at that
time, so dyslexia was unknown. I was a poor learner, was a visual
learner and I was always interested in the entertainment industry and
politics. So I went out – left the house at 17, never returned. Went
to college for six months and quit. So I’m 18 years old, I have no job,
I have no money, I have no education and I have no parents.
TM: You just wrote your parents off?
ML: I didn’t write them off – my mother
was an alcoholic, so she was a negative influence. I had to become
successful – if I had any chance of living in air conditioning, which is
something I really wanted to do because it was hot in the middle of
summer. If I had any chance, I had to self-educate. So I’ve been
self-employed since I was 19 years old. I didn’t work for anybody.
TM: What did you do – how did you find a
ML: I started promoting entertainment
TM: But how does a guy 18 years old with
no prospects and no background do this?
ML: Somehow. You know, if you’re
motivated enough in life, you do a lot of interesting things. You take
any person working here, any person here and stick a gun in their mouth
and tell them they’ve got an hour to do something creative, they’ll find
a way to do it
TM: So, what was your big break. How
did you get started in the first place?
ML: My big break was to take my fear and
my urgent necessity of wanting to eat and turn it into a kind of burning
maniacal rage to work in the entertainment industry. So, I started
managing rock groups, I started promoting midnight
TM: But how did you manage a rock group
when you were a nobody?
ML: I went to all the nobodies and I
said I can manage you. And I was audacious and determined and I’d work
100 hours a week if necessary. In particular, I’d work 100 hours for
free. Just give me a chance. I’d go into somebody at a company and say
to them “look, let me work for two weeks – let me work for a month for
free and show you what I can do.” Very few people will say that. Very
few people. In fact, most people don’t want to do that because they
don’t want to work. But I didn’t have anything to lose – I was happy to
TM: Who did you go to?
ML: The first thing I did was work for a
local rock group in New York and New Jersey. Then I went to local movie
theatres in New York
and New Jersey and I rented them and paraded midnight movies. This was
1972 and 1973 the idea of showing Marx Brother movies at midnight hadn’t
really been done.
When you’re 18 and have no money and
you’re scared, you’re audacious. You’ll do anything. You’ll call
people – you don’t know any better not to. In 1972, movie theatres
aren’t making any money with the Marx Brothers. But you offer them 100
Let me give you another example, after I
did the midnight movies, I asked the movie theatre what they did when
they started their first show on weekends. He said, “We start at
2:00.” I asked them what they did with the theatre until 2:00? They
said “nothing, we clean it.” I said, “what if I wanted to rent it at
11:00 in the morning, how much would that cost?” Then they would ask me
“what do you want to do?” And I said “none of your damn business, just
what would it cost to rent?” And so, he’d say “we’ll rent it to you for
$200.” And I’d say “Okay, I’ll give you $200 and I have the theatre
from 11:00 – 2:00.” Then I got the Yellow Pages out and I’d look at
them and there was no internet then, so I’d look at the Yellow Pages and
I’d look under “Children’s Entertainment.” I found a bunch of magicians
and animal acts and all kinds of stuff. So I called up a couple of
magicians and a couple of animal acts and I said “If you came to this
theatre at 11:00 in the morning, how much would you charge me to do your
magic act?” Then they would tell me “$100.00” And I say great, come to
the theatre. Then I’d promote a live children’s show at the theatre and
I’d hand $100 to the magician, $200 to the theatre, that’s $300, and I’d
charge $2.00 a seat and I’d get 500 kids to come, that was $1,000.
TM: How would you get 500 kids to come?
ML: Create flyers, give them out to
parents the night before, work tirelessly, go to every damned door.
TM: How did you open the PR Firm?
ML: First of all, I moved to
on September 16, 1977 because I wanted a new canvas. I was doing well,
TM: So you had a growing business back
in New York and walked away from it?
ML: I took my entrepreneurial experience
and expertise with me, moved out here, didn’t know anybody and in June
of 1983 started a PR firm. It grew to one of the three largest
entertainment PR firms in the world. I’ve represented more celebrities
(as a publicist) than any human alive. I’ve represented many, many, many
hundreds of very top rated celebrities including: Michael Jackson,
Barbra Streisand, Charlton Heston, Nancy Kerrigan, Demi Moore, Michael
Fox, Sandra Bullock, David Bowie, Prince, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, John
Voight, Fleetwood Mac, Cameron Diaz, John Stewart, David Chappelle,
Suzanne Summers, George Carlin, Sam Kinison, Sydney Sheldon, Sandra
Bernhardt and a whole host of others.
TM: But how did that happen? You’re out
here alone, you don’t know anybody.
ML: It happened largely through the
burning maniacal rage of desire and the desire was to be something,
TM: But how did you start?
ML: Started by going out and trying to
get clients, by talking to people, by trying to figure out how other PR
firms did what they did, and then seeing who would be the logical
candidate for a PR service. Among my first clients were Joan Rivers and
David Brenner and they were big stars at the time I had them. I worked
cheap, and I worked hard and I was very motivated. When people are real
motivated, they learn fast.
TM: But, how did you contact the big
stars? You’re a nobody, why would they pay attention to you?
ML: I went out and learned to manage an
agent’s firm and I wrote directly to celebrities. I did anything I
could to get myself started?
TM: And they responded? Joan River
ML: First of all, you have to be at the
right place at the right time. Right? If you walk down the street and
it’s raining and you’re selling umbrellas. You might just sell a bunch
of them. Joan Rivers and David Brenner were touring together and I
approached them at a low price at the right time and they decided to
give a kid a chance.
TM: But how did you get in to see them?
ML: I met an agent who pushed me in
their direction and he recommended that they hire me and I must have
talked well at the time because I got the job and I charged about a
quarter of the price of anyone else. Again, if a company charges $1,000
to clean your carpet and a company comes in and says it will clean it
for $100, you get a lot or work. You have to work hard.
TM: Didn’t you have to have a lot of
ML: I had at the time after 10 years a
modest understanding of how to promote things because I promoted my own
TM: So when you started your firm, it
was just you?
ML: On a borrowed desk, smaller than
TM: Where was it?
ML: In Sherman Oaks, California above
what was then called “The Beehive Hair Salon” on the corner of Ventura
and Van Nuys.
TM: And this was in 1982?
M: 1983. And I stayed there about 6
months and then I got an offer. And by the way, another reason that I
won, besides good timing and hard work is that I was blessed with
recognizing my competition. I wasn’t stupid and lazy.
TM: You don’t mind me quoting that?
ML: Right, don’t be stupid and don’t be
lazy. Most people are stupid and lazy.