Confessions of a stuntman: Mark Borkowski on the fame game
The master publicist who promoted Jacko and Pavarotti and filled Selfridges with nude people is disturbed by the success of his profession – accusing it of promoting fake celebrity and soundbites that betray complex issues. He talks to Ian Burrell
Monday 28 July 2008
'It's not quite the Aleister Crowley-esque profession of popular legend, but the seeds of that are there," admits publicist Mark Borkowski at the conclusion of his new book, The Fame Formula. "There's an arcane thrill about the practice of publicity... it is a drug and as such must be handled with care, but the possibilities, now more than ever, are endless."
We live in times when everyone, seemingly, craves celebrity and Borkowski is one of Britain's most famous fame-makers, having represented Michael Jackson, Van Morrison, Eddie Izzard and Noel Edmonds, and in the course of his career he has learnt the skills, the tricks and ruses to transform unknowns into household names and to prevent stars fading from the public gaze.
Yet there is a cynicism around the role of public relations, well captured in a scene in Absolutely Fabulous when PR guru Edina Monsoon is challenged by her daughter, Saffron, to describe what she does. "PR! I PR things. People. Places. Concepts. I make the fabulous. I make the crap into credible. I make the dull into...," stammers Eddie before running out of inspiration. "Delicious!" says Patsy, helping her out.
And while Borkowski enjoys the adrenalin rush of feeding insatiable media hunger for celebrity content, he is conscious of the ephemeral nature of PR work and the sense that it is a business lacking in substance and roots.
That is why he has decided to put something down in book form, recognising the achievements of the pioneers of his craft, those master manipulators who dreamed up the first great stunts that generated column inches and prepared the ground for today's multi-billion PR industry. The Fame Formula aims to give a history and a place in the world to those who have worked in the shadows of the media. "What is my place in the scheme of things? How do I begin to understand the mechanisms that were born in me as instinctively as the urge of an animal giving birth to bite through the umbilical chord?," he asks in suitably theatrical terms at the start of the book.
In a health food café on London's Farringdon Road, he is in a confessional mood over his role in our celebrity culture. "We are creating a generation of future morons and I think I have a certain responsibility for that, which I'm not proud of."
He has detected a shift in values from "genuine talent to frivolous talent" which is "dangerous" for society, he says, citing the example of Abi Titmuss, former girlfriend of fallen TV presenter John Leslie. "She becomes famous overnight. She has good people around her, publicists and managers, and they manipulate that fame. After getting her clothes off in lads' mags and being a party animal, she gives up her job as a nurse. What does that say to people who want to join the caring professions?"
Having researched the history of the publicity business, Borkowski is convinced that it has undergone rapid deterioration. "Even into the Sixties you had genuine heroes, a real sense of achievement. Those heroes are now the David Beckhams of this world, deified overnight for a free kick and marriage to a woman who wanted to be as famous as Persil Automatic. We don't know how to make heroes out of real people."
Worse, PR can divert attention from – or even deliberately obfuscate – life-threatening health and environmental issues. "How long did it take for us to uncover how bad tobacco was? I see it with the energy industry now. What is the truth about energy? What's the truth about green issues? What's the truth about big drugs, food? Those industries will be paying big money to manipulate the reality. Is PR magnifying a truth, manipulating a truth or selling a lie?" he asks. "Complicated questions are being asked, yet we are living in a world that demands simple soundbites. That's got to change, but I'm not sure whether the PR industry is helping and I think I'm part of the problem."
It cannot be easy for Borkowski to say this, given that publicity has been "the heartbeat to my life", since he took his first job at a Swindon theatre in 1979 and, with a "blizzard of hype", revitalised the career of pantomime impresario Paul Elliot. Brought to London by Theo Cowan, founder of the Rank Charm School and publicist behind Diana Dors, Borkowski was asked to work on the West End revival of The Pirates of Penzance. He came up with the notion of hiring the Hollywood swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks Jr to give sword-fighting lessons to the cast, in the presence of the press. It was a wheeze, said Fairbanks, worthy of the great Hollywood "stuntsters".
In his book, Borkowski has recorded the work of the stuntsters, men such as Harry Brand, who persuaded Marilyn Monroe to pose wearing only a potato sack, and Jim Moran, who promoted the movie The Egg and I by sitting on an ostrich egg for 20 days, hatching it, and adopting the chick.
Borkowski has perpetrated many of his own stunts down the years, including Ian Botham's epic 1988 trek across the Alps with elephants, in the style of Hannibal, in aid of leukaemia research. Sadly, the pair fell out when Borkowski displayed a fear of flying in small aircraft (a diversion so the cricketer could be interviewed by Terry Wogan). "He said, 'You're frightened of flying aren't you? What sort of man are you?' I spent most of my time sitting with the elephants out of the way," says the publicist, who still gives Botham his due. "People said it was a cynical stunt for himself, but that guy was committed to that charity, I saw the blisters on his feet."
Latterly, Borkowski has gift-wrapped a helicopter to publicise Harrods, created a chocolate billboard to promote Thornton's, and filled Selfridges with 650 naked people, choreographed by Spencer Tunick.
In the book he claims that fame tends to last for 15 months rather than Andy Warhol's 15 minutes, but that a good publicist can lengthen this period. He has also offered his company's services free for 15 months to a competition winner (with some observers claiming Borkowski will have egg on his face if he hasn't created a star in that time).
The offices of Borkowski PR reflect the theatre background of the firm's founder. Everywhere are velvet curtains and stripped floorboards, though he shifted the focus of his business some years ago to work more closely with brands (such as Virgin Mobile and DaimlerChrysler).
His country home in Gloucestershire is filled with client memorabilia; an autographed cigarette packet from Damien Hirst, tins of Ralgex signed by Michael Flatley after the Lord of the Dance danced on, despite spraining his ankle on a first night.
Not that Borkowski lives in the past. He is an energetic blogger and huge online networker, whether on Facebook, MySpace, Linkedin or Twitter. "A number of people who I respect Twitter me about trends, particularly in America," he says, name-checking the Fred channel, a YouTube hit featuring 14-year-old Lucas Cruikshank. One of Borkowski's most successful ruses was creating a wave of online support for reviving the Wispa chocolate brand on behalf of Cadbury. The campaign was reported as if it had evolved naturally online.
Love of the internet doesn't stop Borkowski bemoaning the state of modern PR. Companies are not beyond using dirty tricks to win new business, he claims. "One two-man outfit pitching for a big account hired a bunch of out-of-work actresses to look pretty and sit around the office. They had another bunch of people ringing in, so all the phones were ringing and the client came in and said, 'This is really buzzing.' They were rumbled later when somebody spotted there were only two of them."
He claims to have turned down "a lot of money from tobacco companies" for his work, but says others in his business are less scrupulous. "The biggest money out there is for unethical ideas, from big food, big tobacco, drug companies, energy, dodgy governments. The biggest money is usually in the dirtiest things that need a lot of laundering. I don't have a Chinese laundry," he says, before admitting to his own trickery. "There are certain things I have done that I'm not happy with... peddling half stories and [half-] truths – but there's always been a point, always a sense of fun. As the great Jim Moran said, 'There's nothing more dismal than a fact.'"
He tells how he promoted the French alternative circus group Archaos. "People will tell you now that they saw these people juggling chainsaws! They never juggled a chainsaw in their life, I made it up! I thought that made them exciting. I used to ring [councils] and say, 'I have seen this chainsaw-juggling circus in France and they're very dangerous,' and they would always get their licence refused, so you'd have to fight to get the licence. It made great stories," he says, justifying his actions on the grounds that he was encouraging the public to have a great night out.
Young PR practitioners sometimes see their work as a lifestyle rather than a job and take a better car home than the stars they promote, complains Borkowski, adding that, "Since the Eighties, it has grown as a craft, but it has also got more ugly."
That's why Borkowski, whose work is based on a belief in the value of word-of-mouth publicity, would like to see more respect for the legacy of stuntsters such as Harry Reichenbach, who promoted the first Tarzan movie in 1918 by letting apes and lions loose in New York hotels. "Reichenbach was earning $2,500 a week in 1912," he says, slapping his hand on the table.
Mark Borkowski has many showbiz PR stories, but when asked for a favourite he is self-deprecatory. It was 1996 and he was promoting the Three Tenors concert at Wembley. Despite the publicist's lengthy preparations and pre-conference warnings to writers and photographers, he could not prevent a journalist from asking Pavarotti about his new young girlfriend. The singer stormed out, and his team cleared the room. "The first person that got thrown out was me," laments Borkowski. "I got thrown out of my own press conference." For once, it wasn't a stunt.
'The Fame Formula' by Mark Borkowski is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, price £16.99
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