06/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An A-List Publicist's Take on Fame: Less is More and Other Words of Wisdom

There's a good reason why we aren't hearing from Sandra Bullock these days. "It's impossible to just say a few words," says veteran public relations strategist Kathie Berlin, " People don't allow for that - she can't come out with just a brief statement saying she's terrible hurt and shocked and needs time to figure out what to do next. It's not possible, they'll want more. When you can't win, you win by saying nothing."
(Something she thinks Kate Gosselin has yet to learn. "Every time that woman opens her mouth she gets into more trouble.")
Berlin, former President of Rogers and Cowan Public Relations, Executive VP of production and marketing for MGM and currently a consultant for A-list films (most recently Precious, Up in the Air, The Lovely Bones, How to Save your Dragon) says Sandra Bullock is one of the consummate professionals.
"I really, really like her. I know for a fact that the minute there is ever a crisis- Katrina, Haiti, the big tsunami in 2004 - she gives the Red Cross a million dollars and never lets her agent release that information, it's just a fact. And believe me, there are others who make SURE it gets in the paper." She adds, "And there she is at the Academy Awards and says her husband always has her back, because of him I've become a better actress and then days later there are these horrible stories. I was truly sick to my stomach for her - she'll never get to enjoy the time she got that'll end up in a back closet somewhere."
Berlin, who represented Paul Newman, Marlo Thomas, Norman Lear and Bette Midler, among others - left one-one-one star management some years ago.
"It's a different time now," she says, "And a different business. No one star guarantees a big opening for a film- no Julia Roberts, no Tom Cruise, no Denzel Washington, no Harrison Ford - I'd say Will Smith is the only real star today."
She adds, "These new kids are stars for a moment - and yet they demand private planes, $5000 a day hair dressers and makeup artists and hotel suites for the nannies and assistants and you end up negotiating where they'll sit on Jay Leno's sofa."
Her own 'aha' moment came some years ago as she watched a veteran publicist holding the door for a top celebrity and thought to herself "Oh my God, I'm not going to be 60 years old and opening doors and holding jackets and taking their wine glass out of their hands so nobody takes that picture...leave it to the younger ones who are still star-struck."
Today it's the strategy of publicity that intrigues her. "Take Precious - I was able to involve Barbara Bush - it shocked people but she hosted a screening and wrote a piece for Newsweek and talked about the film. Barbara Bush has been promoting literacy for years. As she put it so beautifully, 'you can save a Precious, once she knew how to read she could protect herself.'"
Kathie Berlin still works with the big stars and sees many of the more talented ones really struggle with the price of celebrity. "I think there is a big push/pull for them between what do I owe back once I've given my performance....some of them say leave me alone, I did what I was hired for, I gave a really good performance. I did the interviews I said I'd do, I went to premieres - enough!"
She adds that Paul Newman found being a star embarrassing and difficult. "Paul Newman did not live in Hollywood, he lived in Westport, Connecticut and owned two suits and three ties and didn't even know how to tie them - he kept them already tied and slipped them on," she says, "He didn't take his fame seriously until he realized what kind of money he could make for charity with his face on a bottle of salad dressing."
She says similar efforts by megastars like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are not only a smart way to use their fame for a greater good, but "I think it also saves their souls."
Friend and former client Marlo Thomas continues her father Danny Thomas' legacy of St. Jude Hospital for children. "She has seen parents standing in the rain outside a Broadway show waiting to meet her - holding the x-rays, medical records and photos of their child," says Berlin, "And she knows this is what her job is, that she represents a hospital and her father and she does it with warmth and grace. She is literally saving children's lives."
But not all celebrities are angels. Berlin remembers one Oscar-winning actress stealing couture outfits after a photo shoot and denying it for years after, another big name inviting a pretty young girl to entertain him in his limo en route to the airport to fly home to his wife who was giving birth to their child at the time and this gem:

"A big male star, known for playing biblical and historical roles was in town for a press tour. We had a Mike Wallace interview for CBS radio and I had called up to his room a few times. Finally I went to his door, it was open, he yelled out for me to come in. I called out, 'we can't be late for this!'

He comes into living room, NAKED, and gives me the towel and says" wipe my back." I am standing there, with this 6 ft 4inch biblical figure, stunned. I turn him around, wipe his back and say get dressed. He did. But I noticed his fly was open. And I think, f--- it! I say nothing. He is immediately recognized on the street. Fly open as we walk four blocks to CBS. Wallace greets him, and then gestures that his fly is open. He zips up and turns and glares at me. I just smiled."