Pulling power

Jo Jordan is a nice English girl, with two young children. So what, BRIAN VINER asks her, is she doing in the cut-throat world of US television, booking guests for the David Letterman show?
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This is an unusually busy week even in the increasingly frenetic life of Jo Jordan, 35-year-old mother of two and founder and chief executive officer of Central Talent Booking, the increasingly influential New York-based company that brokers celebrity appearances in magazines and on television. Jordan's most prestigious client is Late Show with David Letterman, the CBS institution that runs each weeknight. Late Show eats celebrities voraciously, and Jordan's is the hand that feeds it.

In the course of an average 60 phone calls a day (outgoing) and 300 daily e-mails (incoming), with an eye on next month and even next year as well as next week and sometimes next day, Jordan, perennially aware "of who Dave likes and who he doesn't", lines 'em up. And since this is the week of American television's "up-fronts", when next season's shows are unveiled, the phone lines in her office are even hotter than usual.

The office is in her apartment, where Mulberry Street meets Canal Street in the heart of Manhattan's Little Italy. It is a curious place for a middle-class girl educated in Eastbourne to wind up, but then she is herself a curiosity; shrewd, tenacious and indefatigable, yet warm and infectiously jolly. It is not just her accent that is a hybrid of genteel England and pushy New York.

She is blonde and tall, her height accentuated by stiletto heels, which click across the polished wooden floor as she comes out to greet me. She is chipper, she says, because she has just booked Jodie Foster on Letterman for the first time. In her office she shows me her "cheat sheet", a list of literally dozens of showbiz agents, publicists and film reps, most of whom she speaks to every day.

Jordan strikes me as a less neurotic version of Paula, the talent booker in The Larry Sanders Show, HBO's sublime spoof of a late-night talk-show. But when I mention Larry Sanders she rolls her eyes. "I could never watch it," she says. "It was too close to home. In fact, when we had Garry [Shandling, who played Sanders] on Letterman, we found ourselves thinking so carefully about what we said. There are a couple of things we always say to guests before they go out, and that night we didn't."

Jordan started working life as an au pair, graduating to junior secretary in a London stockbroker's office. She seemed less cut out to be a mover and shaker than a pourer and stirrer. But after a spell as a secretary on Today newspaper, sheer force of personality propelled her into television, where she briefly worked as a children's presenter – "the worst," she says, "in the history of the world".

She then landed a job finding guests for Channel 4's The Word, and did it so well that the Clive Anderson and Ruby Wax shows hired her, too. Eventually, her reputation crossed the Atlantic. She was talent executive on Late Show with David Letterman for five years, before setting up on her own – with Late Show as her first client – two years ago.

The highlights of her career, she says, have been the crises. Crisis management is her forte. During the 1998 Winter Olympics, for example, she booked the American freestyle skiing gold medallist Johnny Mosely to appear on Letterman. "He was this charming, all-American boy, fanatical about Dave, and we had this great idea. When he came back to America, we would set up a ramp on 53rd Street [outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Late Show is taped every weekday afternoon for transmission that night], and get him to do a jump." Mosely was booked for the Friday, but on the Monday, a rival late-night show (Jordan declines to say which, but I assume she means Jay Leno's Tonight Show) announced that Mosely would be a guest the following night. Cue much gnashing of teeth in New York.

"The normal situation with most of the publicists we deal with," Jordan says, "is that we never have guests in the same week as another show. It's an unspoken agreement. But this had been done through a small sports PR, who didn't know."

On Tuesday afternoon, Jordan finally got hold of Mosely on the phone. He was about to leave San Francisco for Los Angeles, to appear on the other show. She explained the problem. "Jo," he said, "this is such a moment for me, I need to milk it." Jordan told him she understood. "But we've set up this huge event on 53rd Street," she said. Meanwhile, on Mosely's other cellphone, the host of the other show was urging him to stick to plan A. "Come on, they'll still do it [the stunt]," he said.

The ace up Jordan's sleeve, as so often happens, was Mosely's admiration for David Letterman. When he told her that he had decided to go ahead with the rival show, she said "fine, then we can't have you on Letterman". Mosely literally gasped, and told her he'd call back. When he did, he said, "I'm actually sitting on the tarmac at the airport, and I've just told them [the rival show] that I'm not going to do it."

Jordan concealed her elation. "Go to the American Airlines desk," she said. "In five minutes, there'll be a first-class ticket to New York waiting for you. Johnny, I promise you, we'll make you Tom Cruise."

She then ran up to Letterman's office. "I told him we'd make him Tom Cruise," she shrieked. And did she? She laughs. "Well, that show won an Emmy."

The story reminds me powerfully of the shenanigans backstage at The Larry Sanders Show, I tell her. Is she, like Larry's booker Paula, energetically wooed by publicists desperate to get their client on Letterman?

"You know," she says, "I've been doing this so long that I know every manoeuvre, every little blackmail, every game. But when we get a call from Danny DeVito, who has produced Out of Sight with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and wants us to book a song from the soundtrack, then sure, we make sure that Dave Letterman knows that Danny DeVito is asking."

And the "bumping" of guests, such a rich source of comedy on The Larry Sanders Show, when a B-list star is removed from the line-up because an A-list person becomes available at the last minute? "It doesn't happen much," she says. "But I was recently offered four major A-list stars on the same day, Sean Connery, Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta Jones and Kevin Costner." And? "And we took Sean, but Hanks could do it the following night." She pulls a face, a combination of a grin and a grimace. "The other two we had to turn down."

Jordan's two-year-old daughter is ululating outside the door. She has to go, she says. There is just time to ask about her husband. "He's French. Works for Credit Suisse First Boston [the investment-banking company], and he doesn't know who anybody is. I was telling a friend that I was going to be late because I was doing all this stuff with Winona, and, can you believe it, he said 'who?'."

'Late Show with David Letterman' runs on week nights on ITV2. Times vary