The tycoon, the temptress, and a TV station in turmoil

Everybody agrees that the Electric Barbarellas can't sing. So what does the billionaire controller of MTV see in the band? And why is he so touchy about it?

Guy Adams
Saturday 31 July 2010 00:00 BST
The 92-year-old businessman said he wanted his daughter to decide on his treatment
The 92-year-old businessman said he wanted his daughter to decide on his treatment (AFP/Getty Images)

On the face of it, Heather Naylor is no different from any other bright young thing who dreams of reality TV fame.

The 29-year-old singer, who performs with an unsigned girl band called The Electric Barbarellas, is fond of lip-synching pop songs, wearing extremely revealing outfits, and titillating her Twitter followers with suggestive disclosures about her sexuality, such as: "I'm bi-curious!"

Her group's music, by all accounts, is execrable, its dancing is no better and its entire fan base can be counted on the fingers of its members' extravagantly manicured hands. Yet this week The Electric Barbarellas became the most talked-about new act in Hollywood. The reason? A new friend in the very highest of places.

He is Sumner Redstone, an 87-year-old media tycoon who has built a $2.4bn (£1.5bn) fortune in TV and film, and is currently ranked by Forbes as the 400th richest man in America. Today, he controls both CBS and Viacom, a conglomerate which owns, among other things, the film studio Paramount, the TV stations MTV, Nickelodeon and VH-1, and intellectual rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

No one knows how Redstone and Naylor first met, nor why the twice-divorced billionaire and the twenty-something would-be star hit it off. What we do know, though, is that at some point in recent months, Redstone decided to help The Electric Barbarellas kick-start their career.

All six members of the group were flown to New York, in some luxury, to show their demo tape to major record labels. Producers at MTV were also sent there, to shoot a pilot for a reality series about the band. And Naylor was given, by way of pocket money, a tranche of shares in Viacom worth upwards of $100,000.

That, though, is where the trouble started. After watching the pilot, and seeing The Electric Barbarellas perform – their act has been described as "a cross between the Pussycat Dolls and Spice Girls, except raunchier and not as musically gifted" – senior executives at MTV decided not to commission an entire series. Redstone overruled them. The project was duly given the go-ahead.

News of the controversy soon leaked to Peter Lauria, a media reporter for The Daily Beast website. In a lengthy report, Lauria called the tycoon "frisky" and revealed that the show, which is low-rent even for the station which airs Jersey Shore, was causing huge friction at MTV.

The report, published last week, also dubbed the tycoon an "ogling octogenarian" and a "dirty old man."

Redstone didn't get where he is today by taking that sort of abuse lying down. Instead, the Boston-born Second World War veteran – he worked in intelligence, decoding Japanese communications – responded to Lauria's broadside by attempting to employ some of the dark arts with which he had, over recent decades, successfully turned his late father's cinema chain National Amusements into a sprawling entertainment empire.

In a three-minute message left on Lauria's answer-phone, the tycoon tried to cajole the reporter into revealing the source of his scoop, promising that he would be "well rewarded and well protected" for surrendering the information. "We're not going to hurt this guy, we just want to sit him down and find out why he did what he did," Redstone declared. "We're not going to kill him. We're not going to fire him. We just want to talk to him."

Lauria refused to play ball and instead posted the entire voicemail on his blog. Over the past week, he has produced a series of damning follow-up stories about Redstone's connections, both with Naylor – "a tall, tan, fembot-like blonde, young enough to be his granddaughter" – and with a series of other elegant women who have had dealings with his business empire.

One such story alleged that Redstone had forced executives at his cable TV channel Showtime to find a job for Rohini Singh, "a veteran of the Los Angeles Party scene", a job in its PR office. Despite a supposed hiring freeze at the firm, Singh was given, in addition to her salary, $77,000 in Viacom shares. When Lauria called Singh, she denied knowing Redstone or his having anything to do with her job. When he asked about her professional experience, she said: "This is not my first job, but I can't tell you where I worked before. I have to go now." Then she hung up.

Another piece revealed that Naylor had sold $157,000 in Viacom stock in March. The company is supposed to have a tight policy on awarding shares and share options to its staff, and news that a bit-part player in a recently commissioned TV pilot had been given the tranche of shares is said to have gone down like a lead balloon.

Yesterday, meanwhile, Lauria reported allegations from Redstone's long-standing deputy Karen Zatorski, who has complained to CBS that the billionaire has verbally abused her, both in the office and on business trips.

Redstone's behaviour has therefore become the talk of Hollywood, with many observers wondering if his failure to keep a lid on inconvenient revelations may indicate that he's become dangerously cavalier in his old age. He nearly went bankrupt in 2008, and since splitting from his forty-something second wife, Paula Fortunato, last year, he has been taped by celebrity website TMZ romancing a string of younger women.

In public, though, he has seemingly revelled in the status of wealthy singleton. Sitting next to Larry King during a memorable Q&A session at the Beverly Hilton in March, he insisted on asking female questioners if they were married before he would consider answering their queries.

In light of the brouhaha, Naylor this week deleted her Facebook and Twitter accounts, and went to ground. Redstone announced that he "regrets" the voicemail message he left for Mr Lauria. There's no such thing as bad publicity, and recent events have certainly provided plenty of that, but it remains to be seen whether foisting The Electric Barbarellas on MTV will serve the interest of the company and its 87-year-old owner

Redstone's Rant

Excerpts from the mogul's answerphone message demanding to know the identity of a journalist's source:

"It is inevitable that with me involved this person will be found out. It is better for him if he lets you expose him instead of me finding out who he is... You may be reluctant, but we have to have the name of the person who gave you that story. We're not going to kill him. We just want to talk to him. We're not going to fire him...We're not going to hurt this guy. We just want to sit him down and find out why he did what he did. You will not in any way be revealed. You will be well-rewarded and well-protected...I'm only interested in one thing and that's the truth. Your story said the girls have no talent. Obviously, intentionally or not, the story was false."

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