Lizzie Grubman’s Star Vehicle

Photo: Phillip Toledano

When Lizzie Grubman opens a newspaper, she doesn’t read it the way you or I might. “Everything in the newspaper, or in magazines like Us Weekly and In Touch—it’s all contrived,” she says. “I could pick up any magazine and tell you precisely what’s true and what’s not true. Because that’s what I do.”

Take, for example, a recent front-page flap that Grubman recounts in classic blind-item style: Which publicity-friendly celebrity, perhaps upset over the increased attention granted her recently engaged reality-show co-star, claimed to have had her electronic organizer hacked into and her celebrity contacts revealed to the world?

“I 100 percent don’t believe it,” says Lizzie, practically snorting and obviously referring to the Paris Hilton kerfuffle. “I mean, please. People are calling me all weekend, worried about prank phone calls. I tell them, don’t change your number yet. The FBI is looking into it? I don’t think so.”

This is the kind of insider dish that Lizzie Grubman loves, and loves to share. She knows the real story, and she wants you to know she knows. But the founder and owner of Lizzie Grubman PR is also savvy enough to understand that her livelihood’s built on relationships—the kind she doesn’t want to sour with flippant quotes in the media. So she toggles back and forth between on-the-record and off-the-record as though she’s bilingual and switching languages. To a lot of questions, she’ll give well-prepped, boilerplate answers, but when she gets going on a juicy topic, she gets animated. She shifts forward to perch on the edge of a long white sofa in her Upper East Side duplex, against a backdrop of top-dollar city views. The room is spare and the carpet is stained—she throws a lot of slumber parties, she says—and it feels like the home of someone who isn’t home very much. She tells me how she “made” several celebrities, from Tara Reid to the rapper Ja Rule. She says she engineered Jay-Z’s crossover into the mainstream, which took her all of four days to accomplish.

Not only that, but she invented hip-hop. Well, not invented, exactly, but she made sure middle-class white people discovered it. “No one believed in hip-hop but me. Everyone was like, ‘Lizzie, are you sure you’re going to be able to get this in the mainstream?’ ” She leans in. “But I would beat those reporters down, and look at it now. There’s nothing bigger. Everyone looks at me now and says, ‘You were so right.’ ” Then she sits back on the sofa and says, with an almost mystical lilt, “I can see things that nobody else can see.”

Of course, all this makes it hard to believe her when, later, she claims to be shocked—shocked!—about a paparazzi photo of her in workout gear, sprawled over an exercise ball at her gym, which appeared in that morning’s New York Post, under the headline THIN LIZZIE GETTING REALITY-READY.

“Can you believe they put this on page 3? Page 3!” she says. “I’m practically naked!” She’s not really that perturbed, of course; the photo, after all, is essentially a full-color plug for her upcoming MTV reality show, Power Girls. She shrugs. “I’m used to it. Besides, the Post would never hurt me. I’m totally in bed with the Post.”

On March 10, the day Power Girls premieres, Lizzie Grubman will start a new, remarkable chapter in her ongoing saga: She’ll get her own TV show. It’s an improbable twist, even by the debased standards of reality TV, given the events of summer 2001. You remember, right? The Incident at Conscience Point? When an SUV that Lizzie was driving slammed backward into a crowd of people at a Hamptons club, injuring sixteen—and generating a few days of mild interest from the press? At the time, some thought her business was ruined, and possibly her reputation as well. Clients such as Chanel left her firm, and longtime professional relationships, like her partnership with PR guru Peggy Siegal, dissolved. A Website allowed visitors to steer an animated Lizzie in a blood-spattered car as she screamed “Fuck you, white trash!” at unseen victims (Grubman strenuously denies ever having uttered the notorious phrase). She even became the butt of a David Letterman Top Ten list. Lizzie Grubman’s No. 1 complaint about jail: “You can’t, like, leave.”

At her apartment, I ask her if, during her ordeal—which she refers to unwaveringly as “the accident”—she ever thought of giving up PR, maybe retiring from the spotlight. She answers before the question’s even finished.

“Never. Not for a second. I would go into that office every single solitary day. Whether I closed that door and locked it and started to cry all day long, I was in that office every day.” It must have been hard though, I say, given that some people left her during her crisis—

“No one left. Who left?” she says, cutting me off. “I didn’t lose any clients. I lost maybe two clients. I had the most loyal clients in the entire world.” Then she calms a bit. She says, “Did people leave, in terms of employees? Yes. I lost two employees. If those two employees felt I wasn’t going to have a career or a business after that whole thing, it’s their loss. Because look what happened now.” She smooths her tweed skirt. “And I’m not saying that in an egotistical way. But they underestimated me.”

Recall Lizzie Grubman in the spring of 2001, pre–Conscience Point. She had surfed the notoriety from a 1998 New York Magazine cover story—from which her new MTV show borrows its name—to an intense, if localized, fame. She was a “Page Six” staple, seemingly out at a new club every night. She ran with Paris Hilton and Tara Reid. She was known as the Party Princess, a plugged-in publicist who clinked glasses with Sean “Puffy” Combs and Britney Spears.

Now behold Lizzie Grubman in 2005. Ever since November 29, 2002—the day she was released from the Suffolk County Correctional Facility, having served 38 days of a 60-day sentence (she got time off for good behavior) after pleading guilty to reduced charges of third-degree assault and leaving the scene of an accident causing serious bodily injuries—she’s been carefully rebuilding her business, and her image. She’s retained several clients, such as Combs, and even the nightclub Conscience Point, the site of her infamous crash, and she now does work for HBO, DreamWorks, and the MGM Grand. She’s also started a new partnership with fellow celebrity publicist Jonathan Cheban. Her rivals still whisper, as they did before the accident, that she’s only a minor publicity player whose client list is bolstered by the connections of her father, powerful entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman. “Listen, her business is not thriving,” says a publicist who worked with Lizzie, pre-crash. “It’s just her father who’s keeping it alive.”

For Lizzie, who’s already a celebrity, the goal of ‘Power Girls’ is to help people forget how she got so famous in the first place.

Lizzie’s also been slowly and strategically reinserting herself into the limelight: She’s quoted in the papers as a PR expert; she’s appeared as a pundit on shows like The O’Reilly Factor; she had, for a time, a gig with radio station WNEW as a Hamptons party reporter. With Power Girls, however, she’ll stop flirting with the spotlight and step back to center stage. The MTV show follows Grubman and four of her comely real-life assistants—Rachel (the small-town girl), Ali (the brain), Kelly (the California blonde), and Millie (the black Manhattan-born diva)—as they plan parties, corral celebrities, and generally enjoy what’s portrayed on the show as the go-go, jet-setting, red-carpet-and-velvet-rope lifestyle of the young and glamorous New York publicist. Lizzie is the indisputable star, acting as a tough but fair Trump-like mentor to her young apprentices.

MTV has had great success with similar projects, like The Osbournes and Newlyweds, that promise a warts-and-all treatment of celebrities but also act as a kind of long-form infomercial for their stars. For Lizzie’s girls—and though they’re all in their mid-twenties, they’re invariably referred to, even by themselves, as “Lizzie’s girls”—the show promises a chance to step out on the red carpet, after loitering at its fringes. For Lizzie, who’s already a celebrity, the goal is different. She hopes the show will help people forget how she got so famous in the first place.

If you know Lizzie Grubman primarily from her summer of infamy, then a few things about her might surprise you. For starters, she’s tiny. She has the proportions and the styling of a movie star: wasp-waisted, well dressed, with blonde hair and bleached eyebrows, and as small and fragile as a bird. She’s also friendly. Charming, even. This shouldn’t be shocking; it is, after all, her job. She holds eye contact. She nods with interest. She touches your arm, repeatedly. At the slightest hint of a joke, she’ll loose a peal of laughter and, if you’re sitting close enough, rub up against you like a cat.

She’s also become, both despite and because of Conscience Point, a kind of rock star. On a Saturday afternoon during Fashion Week, I met Lizzie and two of her Power Girls at the launch of UPN actress LisaRaye McCoy’s lingerie line. When I arrived, Rachel and Kelly were checking in guests at a table by the entrance of the Altman Building on West 18th Street. About a half-hour before the show’s start time, a commotion broke out by the door. From across the room, a crown of white-blonde hair peaked out above the cluster of crouching paparazzi. The photographers chanted—“Lizzie! Lizzie! Lizzie!”—over a cannonade of camera flashes. “I have to do the press and paparazzi thing,” she said, once she arrived at our table, having navigated an obstacle course of squealed hellos, hugs, and air kisses. “I’d rather not, but—you know.” She widened her large eyes in a “What can you do?” expression.

Of course, the questions everyone really wants to know about Lizzie are, Does she regret the accident? Is she sorry? Has she changed? She can’t address issues of responsibility or the details of what happened. While she’s settled fifteen of the sixteen civil cases brought against her by people injured that night, there’s one case still outstanding (typically, the plaintiffs can’t talk about the terms of their settlements, but most of them are reportedly pleased). What she will say is this: “My car accident was a period of my life that I wish never happened. No one feels more horrified about it than myself. And every day of my life, for the rest of my life, it will be with me. But I have to move on.” She says she rarely goes out now, never drinks, wakes up at 5:30 a.m., and exercises three hours a day. She works all the time, and when she’s not working, she claims to stay home watching TiVo. As for Lizzie’s famous party lifestyle—“That was a misconception that I created,” she says. “I allowed the press to think I was this party animal because it was good for my business. Quite frankly, it came back to bite me.”

In the months running up to her plea bargain and jail term, when Lizzie was in the eye of the media maelstrom, she says she would sit up all night in her apartment and surf the Internet, reading every clip, every article, every mention of her on the Web that she could find. “I wouldn’t sleep. I’d beat myself up. My punishment was to read everything. I was crazy,” she says. It’s easy to suspect that Grubman offers this information to elicit sympathy. But maybe for a distraught Lizzie, watching her story unfold like this, out there, beyond her control, was a kind of self-inflicted purgatory.

In August 2002, as part of her plea agreement, Lizzie received a 60-day prison term, to be served at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility. She also can’t talk about the events that led to her sentence, but a source close to her legal team says that, although some of her advisers believed she could win an acquittal if her case went to trial, she wanted a deal that would include jail time. She thought that, if she didn’t serve a sentence, the story would always be, Rich girl buys her way out of trouble. She knew the people wanted to see her punished.

Lizzie doesn’t like to talk about the details of her term, which she describes as “personal and private.” In 2004, though, a source credited as Lizzie’s “friend” told Joanna Molloy, a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, about Grubman’s life at Suffolk. Grubman was kept in solitary confinement because of her celebrity. “Lizzie had freedom for only one hour a day,” the friend said. “She was in 23-hour-a-day lockdown. Imagine sitting in your bathroom 23 hours a day. That’s how big her cell was.”

When Grubman was released on Friday, November 29, she wasn’t met at the prison by friends or family; she was picked up by a security team and whisked home. “There were 60 camera crews camped out all night, so getting me out of there was a bit of a circus,” she says. She stops to pour herself some water in a plastic cup—her hands are visibly shaking. That weekend, her father hosted a post-Thanksgiving party where hundreds of guests welcomed her home. She said hellos for a while, she says, but then she locked herself in the bathroom. “It freaked me out to be around so many people.” For Lizzie, there was only one remedy. On Monday, she went back to work, and that night, she hosted a party for the shoe company Cesare Paciotti.

When Lizzie was serving her prison sentence, she’d fantasize about a new life: She wanted to open a bakery. “I love to bake,” she says. “It’s like my therapy.” It’s tempting to imagine Lizzie living out her days in a quaint kitchen, far from the spotlight, industrious as a monk in a cloud of flour dust. But that’s not exactly the plan. The bakeshop is just one arm of what she envisions as a Lizzie Grubman empire. “I’m an entrepreneur,” she says. “This show is the first thing. I’ll open a bakery down the road. I have offers to do a clothing line.”

Of course, Lizzie will never escape the incident. It will always be, as the saying goes, the first line of her obituary. But the final irony of Conscience Point is that the notoriety from the accident, far from ruining her, has actually given her a career boost—and a fresh chance to spin her story.

Before meeting with Grubman, I paid a visit to the MTV office of Power Girls’ producer, Tony DiSanto, in Times Square. The room was filled with gadgets and toys, and a poster of the cast of Laguna Beach, an MTV reality hit about pretty teens in Orange County, was propped against a window. From the corner of DiSanto’s desk, Lizzie Grubman’s famous face stared out at me from a snow globe.

The globe is a promotional trinket, sent out to announce the coming of Lizzie’s show. On one side there’s a picture of the four Power Girls, standing shoulder to shoulder like a quartet of backup singers, the Supremes to Lizzie’s Diana Ross. On the other side is a photo of Lizzie posed against a fantasy backdrop of bowing palm trees and a tropical pink sunset. Shake the globe, and she’s engulfed in a sudden, incongruous blizzard. But eventually the snow settles, and there’s Lizzie, smiling out from a tiny, hermetic world where no one asks, no one tells, and it’s spring 2001 all over again.

Lizzie Grubman’s Star Vehicle