Throughout my long(ish) career in the entertainment business, I’ve often been fascinated by the disconnect between a celebrity’s public persona and the more banal but factual aspects of how they deport themselves, especially with subordinates. Perhaps no public person better illustrates the dissonance between image and reality than America’s favorite closet bully, Rosie O’Donnell. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that if you look up the word “oxymoron” in Webster’s Dictionary, there is a picture of Miss O’Donnell without her make-up and the caption “The Queen of Nice.” That was her sobriquet back in the gay 1990s when she ruled daytime television with her sycophantic worship of stars and endless product endorsements.
While I was not surprised when I recently read a RadarOnline item that Ms. O’Donnell’s failing daytime talk show on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network was being put out of its misery, it did make me sad because the piece also quoted a former staffer who described the show as “a fucking hellhole.” Damn! I had so hoped that being richer than Midas and, more importantly, becoming a mom, had had a palliative effect on the tortured comic and helped to take the edge off what can best be described as Rosie’s pathological need to destroy other human beings. The article added that several staffers were also very upset “when O’Donnell clashed with Oprah Winfrey’s longtime director Joe Terry. People thought she humiliated him when she scolded him in front of a live audience for using the wrong camera shots, suggesting he didn’t know what he was doing. She fired Winfrey’s stage manager because she felt like he was ignoring her and not doing his job properly.” Really? Rosie? Publicly humiliate someone? Like Maria says in West Side Story upon learning that Tony killed her brother, “Please, make it not be true!”
In these days of heightened awareness about bullying in school and the destructiveness that bullying behavior has on children, I think it’s relevant to mention that adults get bullied too. In the grown-up world, the power differential necessary to enable bullying behavior is, perhaps, nowhere more prevalent and enabled than in show business, where celebrities (who are frequently grown-up victims of bullying themselves—or, in many cases, not so grown-up) essentially have free rein to behave poorly and denigrate, demean, and diminish staffers, colleagues,and co-workers with impunity. But in the pantheon of spoiled singers, asshole actors, and pampered prima donnas that I have observed over the last thirty years, I have never—but never—seen anything like Rosie O’Donnell when she’s pissed.
I know whence I speak, for I too have been publicly “O’Donnelled” not once but twice in the mid-nineties. In the years that have passed I have heard similar horror stories anecdotally from many, many other people. After hearing about Rosie’s most recent spree of bullying on Oprah’s network, I have decided that something must be done: I propose we form a twelve-step group called “Rosie Anonymous,” where people who have been publicly humiliated or whose lives have otherwise been negatively impacted by this monster can share their stories and let each other know that they are not alone. I am anticipating that this blog entry may engender some antipathy from those who feel that perhaps, by writing my first-hand stories about Rosie, I am, in fact, doing the same thing to her that she did to me. To those people I say only this: the time has come to stop predators like Rosie O’Donnell. Besides, nobody would ever call me “The Queen of Nice.” The public, to the extremely limited extent that I have one, may refer to me as “that Queen,” or even “that Bitchy Queen,” and to those folks I simply say, “yes dear, how can I help?”
So my friends, here at last is a dollop of desiccated Rosie O’Donnell derision; a dish best served cold and undiluted:
Imagine if you will: it is 1995. I had just signed Billy Porter, an extremely gifted singer, to my fledgeling production company DHM. Though it was my first endeavor in artist management after several years working as a songwriter and at record labels, what I lacked in experience I made up for in commitment, loyalty, and a strong work ethic. I felt very sure that Billy was going to be the next Luther Vandross or Donny Hathaway; his voice was that kind of amazing and I was single-minded in my objective to make him a household name. I had originally heard about Billy through friends in the theater community as he had some major Broadway credits at that point. What he didn’t have and what he really wanted, was a record contract and I was working my ass off to make that happen.
At the time I first met him, Billy was in Washington, DC, with the revival of Grease which, as they used to say in the old days, they were about to “bring in to New York.” This production also starred Rosie O’Donnell as tough-talking Rizzo, who gets knocked up by Kenickie and sings the show’s big eleven o’clock number ” Are Worse Things I Could Do,” (the fact that Rosie O’Donnell could not sing a note was of no importance to producers Fran and Barry Weissler, who pretty much invented stunt casting and felt, I’m sure, that Rosie mauling the show-stopping number was a small price to pay to get asses in their seats.) Billy was very fond of Rosie. Rosie was very fond of Billy. I should mention that like most stars, Rosie could be very charming when motivated but, alas, she only managed “up,” meaning if you were rich or famous or gloriously talented Rosie would do to you what she did to celebrities on her show—she would redefine “sucking up.” If, however, you were just a regular person, or God forbid, a subordinate, she very well might ruin your life. Like a wild boar, if she sensed you were afraid of her, O’Donnell went for blood. In this sense, the future “Queen of Nice” was your garden variety schoolyard bully.
But what if you were a complete stranger like I was the first time I got “O’Donnelled?” We were backstage after some benefit or another in the Mike Todd room at the Palladium, a big nightclub on 14th Street. I was standing with some friends from Atlantic Records and I noticed Rosie a few feet away speaking to a few people. Billy Porter, my client, was also present but standing nearby speaking to someone else. At the appropriate moment, I broke in and politely introduced myself to Billy’s dear friend Rosie in front of a group of people that included Atlantic Records personnel:
Me: (warmly, but professional) Excuse me, Rosie, I just wanted to take a second and introduce myself. I’m David Munk, Billy’s manager. He’s spoken so highly of you and I just wanted to say what a pleasure it is—
Rosie: (like a Cobra striking ) —OH. YOU’RE THE MANAGAH. So tell me what the hell you’re doin’ fa him and what’s goin’ on with his record deal?
Me: (confused by her combativeness, but with a laugh) Well Rosie, I’m so glad you’ve taken such a strong interest in how we’re doing. As a matter of fact, we just cut a few new demos and I’ve started meeting with several labels and I’m getting very positive feedback. (This must be a joke, don’t seem defensive) It’s very early, it’s only been about three weeks actually, since we finished re—
Rosie: (sensing fear, growing) —Yeah, well who ya played it for?
Me: Wow—well, um…several people—actually, I had a meeting up at Warner Bros. and—
Rosie: —Warner Bros.? Who?
Me: My friend Carl Scott is the head of—
Rosie: —Neva heard a him. You know what? Let me give you some advice because it’s obvious ya need some: you ain’t thinkin’ big and if you don’t start thinking’ big you’re gonna fuck this up is what ya gonna do. With someone as talented as Billy ya gotta think big or ya gonna fuck it up. Why don’t you call David Geffen? You called Geffen?
Me: (staring blankly at her—dumbfounded)
Rosie: WELL WHY DON’T YOU CALL GEFFEN, THEN?
Me: (Billy is hearing all of this and I am now shrinking; yes, I am the Incredible Shrinking Young Manager) You know what Rosie? I don’t know David Geffen personally but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that you probably do know David Geffen so if you’re really interested in being helpful, I suspect he’ll take your call before he’ll take my call so why don’t you pick up the phone and show me how ya get David Geffen on the phone! Excuse me, I see a friend, pleasure to have met you.
At that point, I did what anybody in my position would do: I went to the bathroom and threw up. And not for nothing, but in 1995, though one of the richest men in show business, Geffen had virtually nothing to do with music and was, ostensibly, focusing on his year-old film studio Dreamworks SKG. But that didn’t matter to Rosie as the point was not to be helpful but to beat the shit out of me in front of my client.
Overall, I thought that I actually handled the situation pretty well, but I was truly traumatized that Billy heard me spoken to so disrespectfully and with such harsh criticism of my judgment. Having a major star verbally attack me in public and especially within his earshot was not something that I was prepared for. How do you prepare for something like that anyway? Pepper spray? Tazer? Raw meat? A stool and a whip?
Having had a long history of being bullied as a child, I found this experience to have, perhaps, even more of a negative impact than it should have. I talked about it a lot to a few close friends and with my therapist and I started to get my confidence back as things slowly returned to normal. I did, indeed, get Billy a record deal with A&M Records within six months of being “O’Donnelled”—maybe less—and I started feeling better. We got Billy’s version of the Denise Rich/Peter Zizzo/Tina Shafer song “Love Is On The Way” (later recorded by Celine Dion) placed as the sound bed for the montage sequence of a major film, The First Wives Club—a major get. Billy’s own CD was, by that time, almost finished and we were beginning to talk about marketing with the label. At that point, I felt that my work on Billy’s behalf was fairly unassailable, that is, until it happened again:I got publicly “O’Donnelled” a second time. I still feel queasy just remembering it.
Billy told me one day that Rosie had gotten her own daytime talk show and she had asked him to be the musical guest on the very first episode. Well, actually, it wasn’t the first episode, it was a safety they were taping in advance of beginning the live show a few days later. The record label was concerned that Billy was just considered a Broadway singer and they wanted him to sing something from the new record, which was a more mainstream pop collection. I spoke to the talent coordinator on the show and we had a few friendly conversations because the show (or Rosie) had wanted him to sing something more theatrical—but we worked it out in what was, at least from my end, a few completely normal and always professional series of phone calls.
We showed up on the appointed morning at 6:00 am for the taping. We were bleary-eyed and, of course, I was a bit nervous, in light of my previous “O’Donnelling.” I was sitting on the set, drinking a cup of coffee while Billy talked to the musical director, John Mc-whatever-the-fuck-his-name-was. Suddenly, there she was, with no make up which is, to be kind, not a great look. I flashed on the scene in Godzilla when when the monster suddenly emerges in Tokyo Bay. I sat there quietly praying while Rosie spoke to Billy, trying to be both present and invisible in the hopes of fullfilling my professional necessity to be there without drawing any undue attention to myself. It was posture that was unsustainable. She looked up and saw me. I figured that I may as well meet her gaze, greet her warmly, and hope for the best.
Me: (meekly) Hi Rosie.
Rosie: Who are you?
Me: I’m Billy’s manager, David Munk.
Rosie: (pouncing, like when a big cat sees a gazelle on a nature show) Oh, you again! WHY THE FUCK DO I HAVE TO HEAH FROM MY STAFF THAT BILLY PORTER’S MANAGAH IS CAUSIN’ PROBLEMS?
Me: (Stunned; I experience that vertiginous sensation like that shot in Goodfellas when the foreground and the background begin to change places) Um…I’m not sure what your staff—
Rosie: (growing) THAT BILLY PORTA’S MANAGA IS A PAIN IN THE ASS AND WON’T LET BILLY SING A BROADWAY SONG ON MY SHOW. ARE YOU AN ASSHOLE? DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS CAN DO FA HIM AND I HAVE TO HEAH THAT YOU’RE DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH?
Me: Okay Rosie, I’m not sure what your staff told you, but I promise you there was nothing unprofessional in my conversations with your people. There were a few phone calls back and forth and we worked it out. The record label didn’t want him to sing a show tune and it’s my job as the manager to run interference and do what’s in Billy’s best interest. I would be glad to speak with whomever on your staff spoke with you…
There was more, but I’ve blocked it out—a blur—like the Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Suspicion. I just kind of mentally blacked out at that point. Even with my personal history of managing such encounters, there is only so much ignominy you can take before the switch gets turned off. Besides, I was out of practice. It had been more than ten years since I left East Brunswick and, apart from the occasional comment on the street, I had banished such feelings of humiliation beneath a landfill-size mountain of grandiose ambition and fuck-em-all revenge fantasies, just like practically every other person I’d encountered in the music business. We were, all of us, overgrown adolescents trying work through craters of insecurity and repair the pockmarks of our personal trauma with attention, power, position, money, and the endless admiration of everyone. Rosie was just an extreme example of everything I hated most about my childhood, squeezed like a sausage into a pantsuit and droppin’ her “g’s.”
The worst was still to come. Billy did end up firing me about a week before the first single was released from the album. As usual, I was naive and dreamy. I thought my love for Billy Porter, respect for his talent and the fact that I had produced results meant that we would be a team forever, but that is usually not how it works. I really should have had other clients. I should also not have spent my 401K from Time Warner acting like I was a big shot so Billy would feel properly cared for: paying to take Billy on trips; to concerts; paying for recording sessions and never billing back for anything—extremely unprofessional. We’ve since had some closure, though it took a good many years.
I’ll never know for sure why Billy felt he needed to move on, but I have always felt that Rosie O’Donnell may have been pressuring Billy to “think biggah!” He was even younger than me and we were both under a lot of pressure. Rosie, however, is another story. As you can see, toward her I still harbor plenty lots of rancor. How about this: how about in these democratized days of the Internet, we have a “Stand Your Ground” policy that permits the use of deadly Internet force whenever we feel threatened by Rosie O’Donnell and bullies of her ilk? Let’s speak up and speak out and let people like Rosie O’Donnell know that being famous is not a privilege that allows you to act like Marie Antoinette, or, in Rosie’s case, Godzilla.
I would like to hear from other people who have Rosie stories. As they say in recovery, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” And as for the erstwhile “Queen Of Nice,” I would like to recommend a career in wrestling or the roller derby or, even better, just go back to Tokyo Bay and wait for the sequel.
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