PR's 'Gay Guru' Helps Celebrities Come Out

Originally published on May 13, 2011 12:12 pm

Part of a series on the communications industry

Growing up in the Midwest during the 1960s, Howard Bragman was fairly convinced he was an alien.

"I was fat and Jewish and gay in Flint, Mich.," he says, "and that makes you a bit of a Martian because there's not a lot of peers, there's not a lot of role models to really look to."

Today, Bragman has made a name for himself in Hollywood as the go-to publicist for helping celebrities come out of the closet — they call him the "gay guru."

Bragman says he sees his work as a way to create the role models he never had growing up.

"These people are heroes because coming out is the single most important act any gay person can do," he says. "Because every bit of research that's ever been done says if you know more gay and lesbian people, you are gonna support our rights."

Like Calling In 'The Lone Ranger'

Bragman got his start in public relations after landing a job at a small Chicago PR firm with a huge client — Anheuser-Busch.

"I'll say really from the first week I was in PR, I loved it", Bragman says. "I loved PR because there was a bit of the Wild West — you could write your own rules."

When Bragman launched his own Los Angeles PR firm in 1989, one of his first pro bono clients was Joseph Steffan, a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman who was forced to resign after revealing he was gay.

Twenty years later, Bragman was brought in after word leaked that Family Ties star Meredith Baxter — who at the time was not openly gay in public — had gone on a cruise sponsored by a lesbian travel company with her girlfriend. Baxter says she was panicked.

"This was just so not fair," Baxter says. "I didn't know what to do ... And my manager said 'You need Howard Bragman.' This was kind of like, 'You need the Lone Ranger.'"

Bragman quickly booked Baxter an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show.

Baxter says outing herself on national TV was a terrifying experience, but she credits Howard Bragman with giving her the courage to do it.

"He said, 'As soon as it's done, you'll be free.' And we walked out the door of NBC studios in December and it was the most freeing thing I had ever experienced," Baxter says.

Howard Bragman, Smooth Operator

Over the years, Howard Bragman has worked with actors, athletes and musicians. And while Meredith Baxter was a case of quick crisis control, Bragman says he prefers to spend plenty of time with his clients, getting to know them like a therapist would so he can help them reach their goals.

So when former NBA player John Amaechi wanted to write a New York Times best-seller about being a gay sports star, Bragman made it happen by setting up a lot of interviews and personally prepping Amaechi for each and every one.

"My immediate memories are of a very cold and crazy New York where I was getting into a car that we had for the day," Amaechi recalls. "[Bragman] would be in there with two phones to his ears. He would hand me a third phone to do an interview while we were driving to another studio to do another interview."

It was chaotic, but it worked. The book was a hit.

'An Unusual PR Guy'

But Howard Bragman's moves aren't always smashing successes. He's come under fire for taking on clients that some say are anti-gay, like actor Isaiah Washington who used a gay slur to describe one of his Grey's Anatomy co-stars or the San Diego hotel owner who gave $125,000 in support towards California's ban on gay marriage.

It's puzzling because Bragman is himself married to another man.

Fred Karger is the founder of Californians Against Hate, a group that boycotted that San Diegan's hotels a few years back.

"He's an unusual PR guy," Karger says. "I thought well maybe because of Howard's background as an activist ... he would end this boycott by negotiating with the sponsors of this boycott — and that never happened."

Bragman counters that the hotel owner was truly sorry and made amends by offering money to gay groups.

"I sleep well at night because I've neutralized him," Bragman says. "I think that's a win."

And anyways, Bragman says he likes the challenge of working with all kinds of people and confronting the parts of their lives that are harder to deal with.

After all, that's what coming out is all about, he says — whether you're a politician admitting to an affair or an actor revealing a disease, like when actress Catherine Zeta-Jones recently went public about having bipolar disorder.

Bragman has become such an expert in these situations that he gets brought in as a consultant for ABC News to comment on things like Zeta-Jones' disclosure.

He's one of the few publicists you'll regularly see in front of the camera, but he says his favorite place is still behind the scenes. His next big project is to help launch a book and documentary about Chastity Bono, daughter of Cher and Sonny Bono, who recently became a man.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Hollywood is filled with publicists, but only one has earned the moniker "the gay guru." Helping celebrities come out of the closet is Howard Bragman's specialty. Alex Cohen of KPCC has the latest in our series on the public relations industry.

ALEX COHEN: Growing up in the Midwest during the '60s, Howard Bragman was fairly convinced that he was an alien.

M: I was fat and Jewish and gay in Flint, Michigan. And that makes you a bit of a Martian, because there's not a lot of peers, there's not a lot of role models to really look to.

COHEN: Bragman says things finally started to come together for him when he moved to Chicago, where he landed a job at a small public relations firm with a huge client - Anheuser Busch.

M: I'll say, really, from the first week I was in PR, I loved it. And I loved PR because there was a bit of the Wild West. You could write your own rules.

COHEN: In 1989, Bragman decided to launch his own PR company in Los Angeles. One of his first pro-bono clients was a guy named Joseph Steffan, who was kicked out of the U.S. Naval Academy for revealing he was gay. Howard Bragman says helping people come out of the closet has always been a priority. He sees it as a way to create the role models he never had.

M: These people are heroes, because coming out is the single most important act any gay person can do. Because every bit of research that's ever been done says if you know more gay and lesbian people, you are going to support our rights.

COHEN: But coming out isn't always easy, especially for those in the limelight.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE "THE TODAY SHOW")

M: She's one of the most beloved TV moms of all time. Meredith Baxter starred as the matriarch of the Keaton family...

COHEN: In 2009, Meredith Baxter went on a lesbian cruise with her girlfriend. Word of it leaked and, the actress said, soon the tabloids came calling. She panicked.

M: This was just so not fair. And I didn't know what to do, and they were going to run with some of their own story, apparently. And my manager said, well, you need Howard Bragman. This was kind of like, you need the Lone Ranger.

COHEN: Bragman booked Baxter an interview with Matt Lauer on the "Today Show."

M: I'm interested about your comfort level in talking about this on national television...

M: Well, I have to admit to a certain level of anxiety. I am a very private person...

COHEN: Meredith Baxter says it was terrifying outing herself on national TV, but Howard Bragman gave her the courage to do it.

M: He said as soon as it's done, you'll be free. And we walked out that door of NBC studios in December, and it was the most freeing thing I had ever experienced.

COHEN: For example, former NBA star John Amaechi wanted to write a book that would land on the New York Times Bestseller List. Amaechi says Howard Bragman made that possible, by prepping him for each and every interview he set up. And Bragman set up a lot of interviews.

M: My immediate memories are of a very cold and crazy New York, where I was getting into a car that we had for the day. And he would be in there with two phones to his ears. He would hand me a third phone to do an interview, while we were driving to another studio to do another interview.

COHEN: But Howard Bragman's moves are not always smash successes. He's come under fire for taking on clients that some say are the opposite of gay. Like actor Isaiah Washington, who used a gay slur to describe one of his "Grey's Anatomy" co-stars, or the San Diego hotel owner who gave $125,000 in support of California's gay marriage ban. It's puzzling, considering Howard Bragman is himself married to another man.

M: He's an unusual PR guy.

COHEN: Fred Karger is the founder of a group called Californians Against Hate. A few years ago, they launched a boycott against the hotels.

M: I thought, well, maybe because of Howard's background as an activist that he would end this boycott, by negotiating with the sponsors of this boycott. And that never happened.

COHEN: Howard Bragman counters that the hotel owner was truly sorry and made amends by offering money to gay groups.

M: I sleep well at night because I've neutralized him. I think that's a win.

COHEN: And, Bragman says, he likes the challenge of working with all kinds of people, confronting parts of their lives that are tough to deal with. After all, that's what coming out is all about, he says, whether you're a politician admitting to an affair or an actor revealing a disease - like when Catherine Zeta-Jones recently went public about having bipolar disorder.

U: So Howard, do you think that now that this has come out, now that she has...

COHEN: Howard Bragman has become such an expert in these situations that he's become a consultant for ABC News, where he praised Zeta-Jones for her honesty.

M: Crazy isn't limited to Hollywood. And when somebody that public talks about it, it's a wonderful thing for the disease.

COHEN: For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.