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Beauty Contest

How far will these publicists go to keep a client -- or an employee?

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Free bottles of Dior perfume, gratis foot massages at Bliss, highlights that usually cost hundreds compliments of Frédéric Fekkai -- the life of a beauty publicist may not seem very hard. But at a time when the beauty industry has never been more profitable -- sales topped $15 billion last year -- the once-tight-knit sorority of publicists, editors, and beauty companies has become as brutally competitive as a Fendi sample sale.

"The whole business is going crazy," says P.R. veteran Maureen Lippe of Lippe Taylor, which represents companies like Procter & Gamble and Jergens. "The world of beauty has never been so cluttered or moved so fast." The industry shakeup began with the success of Parisian export Sephora, which stocks cosmetic lines from powerhouses YSL and Estée Lauder to small brands Alchemy and Tony & Tina, rarely found in department stores. And with the rise of small beauty companies comes the rise of boutique P.R. firms catering to clients who can't afford a Lippe Taylor.

Among the best are Shop, Siren, and Punch, whose top executives were trained by Nancy Behrman -- a power-suited, Vuitton-bag-carrying 40-year-old often called the Peggy Siegal of the beauty industry. "I upped the ante for women in this business," declares Behrman. "My epitaph will say beloved mother of two who took public-relations women and men and paid them what they deserve."

Behrman's fifteen-year dominance can also be attributed to innovative strategies such as prime placement of Kiehl's -- the favorite goody-bag stuffer from Sundance to AMFAR -- for which she has never even written a press release. "Getting the products into the hands of the influentials is important," says Behrman. But even she hasn't been insulated from the tremors shaking up the industry: When she and her longtime partner, 33-year-old Jacquie Tractenberg, broke up last year, clients like John Frieda jumped to the new firm. "It's the risk you take when you run a shop," says Behrman. "Jacquie and I still have a great relationship." That didn't stop rumors from swirling when Tractenberg's office was broken into a few months ago, but Tractenberg laughs off speculation as to why her hard drives and files were stolen. "Nancy so 100 hundred percent would never have done this," she says.

In such a volatile climate, some of the industry gossip is starting to sound like "Page Six" blind items: Which top exec gave her No. 2 the company card for a spree at Prada when the underling threatened to leave? Which publicist double- and triple-bills clients as a matter of course? Which made her assistant do her laundry and walk her dog? Humiliation isn't the only tactic that publicists are using to try to get employees to remain loyal. After several left to begin their own boutique agencies, Behrman decided to ask her employees to sign a contract that would prevent them from working at any other beauty P.R. firm for a year. "It's like The Firm," says an ex-employee. "You might get out alive, but you hear the words sue and lawyer so often that you're always terrified." Behrman fired one associate after she printed out her résumé on a company printer. "This is my philosophy," says Behrman. "If you're going to print out your fucking résumé, don't do it on my dime."

Behrman isn't the only one who has had to contend with fallout over departures. A whole new conundrum has sprung up now that beauty directors and editors at Glamour, Elle, Cosmo, and Vogue have left their print jobs in droves for new e-tailers. It seems the dot-com doyennes are still asking to be invited to promotional lunches at upscale restaurants like The Four Seasons or Daniel, where goody bags can include pashmina shawls and silver bracelets. But clients are unhappy when proprietary information about new lines that aren't being sold on an attending editor's site is presented at a lunch. "There have been occasions where we've wanted to say 'Don't come' to editors we would have been dying to break bread with before," says one publicist.

"Everyone in this industry is superficial and scary to the max," sighs another. She pauses. "Hon, can you hold on a nanosec? Cosmo is on line three -- they need help with a story about which color lipstick makes your lips look puffier."


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