“I can’t decide what is OK and what’s not OK, you know what I mean?” Amanda Silverman said over the phone on March 1, six days into Russia’s war on Ukraine. Discussing geopolitics was not the intended purpose of the call; Ms. Silverman’s life as a celebrity publicist was. As Vladimir Putin shook the world order, she had clients to manage.
“I have clients launching tours, this and that. Am I supposed to say, ‘Don’t go on tour?’” Ms. Silverman asked. “I’m trying to think of what was going on in the arts around the beginning of World War II.”
Indeed, as frightening invocations of World War III circulated, one of Ms. Silverman’s clients, Rihanna, was in the midst of a high-fashion baby bump tour at Paris Fashion Week. A video of her arrival that morning at the Christian Dior show, wearing a sheer black tulle nightgown that revealed her pregnant belly and almost everything else, had already gone viral. After an onlooker shouted, “You’re late,” Rihanna responded, unfazed, with an expletive-laced dismissal.
Ms. Silverman wasn’t worried about how such spectacle would play against the broader cultural moment. “That is certainly not a publicity nightmare,” she said. “That’s funny.”
What about when your superstar client strides onstage at the Oscars and brazenly slaps a presenter in front of an audience of 16.6 million television viewers?
That’s a question for Meredith O’Sullivan, Will Smith’s longtime publicist and one of Ms. Silverman’s partners at the Lede Company, a public relations agency. But it went unanswered because Ms. O’Sullivan and the Lede Company declined to comment on Mr. Smith and the nature of their jobs as publicists when such situations arise with their clients, who include Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams, Emma Stone, Amy Schumer, Penélope Cruz, Charlize Theron, Hailey Bieber, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry.
Ms. Silverman, Ms. O’Sullivan, Sarah Levinson Rothman and Christine Su head up the agency they opened in 2018, after the former three left 42West, a legacy Hollywood P.R. firm, and took a majority of their clients with them. They brought on Ms. Su, who worked at Converse, where she was vice president for global communications, and who now represents the “brand” pillar of the agency.
In addition to handling personal publicity for some of the most famous celebrities in the world, the Lede Company has fashion, beauty and lifestyle divisions. It represents Rihanna, as well as her Savage lingerie and beauty lines, and Ms. Grande and her beauty line R.E.M. It represents Mr. Williams and his brands, the skin-care line Humanrace, the Adidas Pharrell Williams line and Billionaire Boys Club, the streetwear collection he founded by with the Japanese designer Nigo in 2003.
Lede represents Mr. Smith’s media and entertainment company Westbrook as well as Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine. Other clients include Maserati, the cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss and Illumination, a film and animation studio.
In the last year, Lede signed the fashion labels Isabel Marant, Altuzarra, Thom Browne and Kenzo. The firm is working with Humberto Leon and Carol Lim on the 20th anniversary of Opening Ceremony, their cult retail and fashion label that went quiet in 2020. During New York Fashion Week, Lede oversaw the fashion show for Proenza Schouler and assisted with Coach’s show.
So, why do all of these celebrities and brands entrust their public-facing images to Lede?
“I don’t think we could sit here and give you two lines on what our brand is, which maybe isn’t so good,” Ms. Silverman said, sitting at a conference table at Lede’s New York offices in early February. “That’s the headline, by the way.”
Ms. Silverman’s quip might indeed make an amusing opening to an article about powerful publicists struggling to articulate the ethos of their company, cheekily named after journalistic parlance for the enticing beginning of a story. They’re not used to being the story, and perhaps it is unwise in their line of work to become the story.
Ms. Silverman, Ms. O’Sullivan, Ms. Levinson Rothman and Ms. Su all have 20 years of experience. Their professional reputations are based on their ability to identify the appropriate outlet for each client’s desired message and the tenor the story will take, and their efforts to control and manipulate it to suit the needs of their client.
The blaring beacon at the Lede Company is its access to major celebrities. For decades now, celebrities have dwelled in the land of fashion, beauty, liquor and cars, endorsing brands in ad campaigns, as paid ambassadors and representatives, appearing in the front row at fashion shows and wearing specific labels on the red carpet in pay-for-play opportunities.
Lede Company clients include, clockwise from top left, Halle Berry, Lady Gaga, brands by Pharrell Williams and Ariana Grande, and production companies owned by the Obamas and Reese Witherspoon.Credit…Associated Press (3); Getty Images (3)
But for just as long, there was demarcation between these worlds behind the scenes. Celebrity publicists handled celebrities. Fashion publicists handled designers, design houses, fashion shows, fashion press and the surrounding hoopla for a very particular, insular world. That was the case even when celebrities became designers, as have Victoria Beckham and Rihanna. Now Lede has brought everything under one roof.
Personal celebrity P.R. is very different from traditional fashion and beauty P.R. But there are certain universalities to the relationship between P.R. and the press, which can be symbiotic, parasitic and antagonistic. Journalists and P.R. people often have to work together, ideally for many years — it’s all a relationship business.
“It’s definitely a challenge to interview publicists,” Ms. Silverman said after a second interview for this article yielded a series of evasive answers about her work.
For instance, when asked about her part in Rihanna’s evolution from cute girl with a catchy song — Ms. Silverman started working with Rihanna shortly after she released “Umbrella” in 2007 — to mega-celebrity presiding over music, beauty and fashion brands, Ms. Silverman gave the credit to Rihanna and her manager, Jay Brown. “It’s just about how we put it out into the world,” she said of her own role. Asked what are the biggest challenges of working with celebrities, Ms. Silverman said, “Just the amount of work, how busy it is.” Asked how she and her partners advise their clients on messaging against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis like the war in Ukraine, she said: “It’s particular to each client. It’s different with everyone.”
Perhaps the clients could shed light on what it’s like to work with Lede?
Mr. Williams met Ms. Silverman 20 years ago through Loïc Villepontoux, who oversees all of Mr. Williams’s collaborations.Surely in the course of two decades, there have been memorable moments of ace P.R. strategy and personal loyalty.
“Here’s the thing, I wish I could single out one thing,” Mr. Williams said over the phone from Abu Dhabi, when asked to recount a moment when Ms. Silverman set herself apart. He went on to describe her as a “true Leo” and noted the “estrogenic force” at play at Lede.
After repeatedly being asked to provide examples and anecdotes that any seasoned publicist would know were required for an article like this, a representative from Lede sent a bullet-pointed list of accomplishments. One example: “We brought air purification brand Molekule to Joseph Altuzarra, where his show was the first ever to have its air physically cleaned and filtered, allowing guests to literally breathe easy, and prompting headlines like ‘Everyone in Fashion is Using a Molekule.’”
Last summer, Pendulum, a financial and advisory firm run by Robbie Robinson and his wife, D’Rita Robinson, took a minority stake in Lede. Focused on brands and businesses owned by diverse entrepreneurs, Pendulum’s portfolio includes the fitness platform Aarmy and the creative and influencer agency Crown and Conquer. In 2017, Mr. Robinson became a financial adviser to former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama,and now Pendulum is a strategic adviser to the Obamas on projects, including their production company Higher Ground.
Who does publicity for Higher Ground? Lede.
Asked what impressed him about Lede, Mr. Robinson spun a dizzying word salad of marketing speak about “values,” “transparency,” “trust” and “showing up in the marketplace.” Pressed to name an example of what Lede has accomplished that made him want to invest, he said: “Nothing in particular, to be honest with you. I think they are more than just a P.R. firm.”
Most publicists interviewed for this article refused to comment on the record. But Marcy Engelman, the founder and president of Engelman & Co., and Julia Roberts’s longtime publicist, said: “Amanda knows how to play the game. She is very well liked, so she must take care of people.”
But what do the noncelebrity clients get out of working with Lede? The obvious answer is the firm’s network, the potential forbasking in the glow of association. “When you handle big celebrities, you have connections everywhere,” Ms. Engelman said.
While Lede can’t promise that Rihanna will exclusively wear, say, Proenza Schouler to an event, or turn up in the front row at its fashion show, the firm can at least bring it that much closer to happening. Proximity, after all, yields potential.
Last year, Nigo was named the artistic director of Kenzo, the French fashion house owned by LVMH. Lede now represents Nigo and Kenzo. Did Lede help orchestrate the deal between Nigo and LVMH? “No, no, no, no, we did not do that,” Ms. Silverman said. “But there are times when we’ve been able to partner brands and talent.”
Asked for an example, Ms. Silverman said, “I can’t think off the top of my head.”
It could be that the main attraction at Lede is not just the possibility of basking in the glow of celebrity but the hope of becoming one. This seems a particularly potent narrative where designers are concerned. The trajectory of Michael Kors via “Project Runway” and his company’s $3.6 billion I.P.O. in 2012 still looms large in the American fashion industry’s imagination.
Mr. Altuzarra signed with Lede about a year ago after he was cast on “Making the Cut,” Amazon’s “Project Runway”-like show starring Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum, who helped make the original series a hit. Mr. Altuzarra’s entertainment manager Michael Baum introduced him to Lede.
“Ten years ago, you were so careful about what brands you were associating with and were trying to remain as pure as possible,” Mr. Altuzarra said. “That has changed so much with social media. The pace of how quickly people move on from something is so different and so much faster. I probably would’ve never done a TV show before because I would’ve been afraid that people wouldn’t have taken me seriously as a designer.”
It’s a legitimate fear. Increased fame comes at a cost. Just ask Mr. Altuzarra’s peer Alexander Wang, whose reputation as a celebrity began to eclipse his reputation as a designer a few years ago — and not in a good way. Mr. Wang was caught up in a barrage of sexual assault accusations, and his brand has been relatively quiet since. That is, until last week, when he announced a runway show and event celebrating Asian American culture to be held in Los Angeles on April 19. Overseeing the whole shebang and its surrounding publicity, which will inevitably include questions about Mr. Wang’s recent past — the designer has denied the allegations, saying he has “never engaged in the atrocious behavior described” — will be Lede, his agency of record.
Between Mr. Smith’s slap, Mr. Wang’s comeback show and, as of the celebrity gossip news cycle last week, emergent rumors that Rihanna and ASAP Rocky were breaking up ahead of the birth of their child, the women of Lede have their hands full. And their lips sealed.