“I needed him to feel safe when I gave him a hard push!” Tilton says coyly. “I like to be balanced. With one hand I stroke; with the other hand I smack.”
It’s the Lynn Tilton show—even more so when Sonnenfeld pops in the trailer of Diva of Distressed, the reality series based on Patriarch that is scheduled to air on the Sundance Channel this fall. In the pilot, Tilton appears in head-to-toe Gucci and a hard hat, striding around Old Town Fuel & Fiber, a Maine pulp mill she bought in 2009, talking about her plans to convert it into a producer of biofuels, playfully punching a potbellied worker in the gut. “It’s only men I strip and flip,” she tells the managers. “My companies I keep long term and close to my heart.”
Tilton ducks out of the room while the video plays—she worries she looks fat on-camera—but when the lights come up, she takes her seat next to the other panelists and looks out at the class. “What’s the problem?” she asks, her eyes lighting on a male student in the middle row. “You’ve got your arms all crossed and you’re radiating negative energy. So let’s hear it.”
The student, a twentysomething in glasses, answers in the uneasy tone of someone who sees no choice but to go for it. “I guess, the trailer is not to my liking? Because of the entertainment value that seems to be happening?”
“But I am entertainment value,” Tilton says. “It’s part of what allows people to follow me.” She isn’t doing the show for the fame or financial gain, she goes on to say in a long soliloquy that touches on spirituality, ideas of femininity, and her larger mission in life. “Women aren’t inspired by money,” she says. “I think we’re more sensitive. This is not just a business to me; it’s people’s lives. I came to create light in the world of darkness.” Patriarch’s work with distressed companies, she says, is “sort of like when someone takes a homeless person off the street and has to put them back into the workforce.”
“I think it went well,” she says later that evening, as she is being flown by helicopter back to New York. She’s surprisingly perky for someone whose day started with a slew of 3 A.M. e-mails, though the same cannot be said for her boots, one of which has slouched down around her ankle. John Bourne, a young employee, bends down to pull it up for her.
“That’s what I like,” she quips. “A man on his knees.”
A female billionaire—not to mention one who wears miniskirts, travels by helicopter, and parties at Berlusconi’s mansion—is a rare and curious thing. But few outside of finance had heard of Lynn Tilton until October 2008, when her outrage at the government’s $700 billion TARP program inspired her, she says, “to come out of my comfort zone below the radar.”
After the bill was signed by the president, Tilton stayed up late, writing a screed that railed against “the financial-market economy” and called for the creation of a federal lending facility to small and midsize businesses. She titled the essay “A Clarion Call to Rebuild America” and had it printed as an advertisement in the Times and the Washington Post. She built Patriarch a website and started a blog, Dust to Diamonds. In January, she was the subject of a flattering article in The Wall Street Journal, which sent Forbes scrambling to establish whether Tilton belongs on its billionaires list. Though fiercely protective of her image, she says she’s compelled to become a public figure. “I can’t change the world if I stay behind the scenes,” she says. “Right?”
Last year, she was introduced to Randy Jones, the dapper Southerner and founder of Worth magazine, who asked her to join him in a bid to buy Newsweek. Tilton agreed to finance it on condition that they redo it as a women’s magazine. She didn’t get the magazine, but she did get Jones, who joined Patriarch as the platform leader of Tilton’s media-and-entertainment division, designated cocktail-party mingler, frequent handbag carrier, and tireless promoter. “If only we had more Lynn Tiltons in the world!” he exclaims in the Diva of Distressed pilot.
Tilton’s daughter, Carly, who became her deputy last year after working for six years as a trader, isn’t happy about the publicity push, which she attributes to Jones. Or, as Carly calls him, “Him.” (Lynn says that as a child, her daughter once told her, “If it’s got a penis, it’s got a problem.”) Carly’s attitude is causing some friction. “I don’t like how antisocial you’re being,” Tilton said to her daughter during the visit to Yale, where Carly stayed close but out of sight, answering an endless stream of e-mails.
“Well, I don’t like how you put everything about yourself out there,” Carly shot back.