Last week, PR man Ken Sunshine went on Anderson Cooper's little house of 360 right after Larry King's interview of Paris Hilton to help dissect it all. Sunshine was an interesting choice for the program, since Paris Hilton is just the kind of client Sunshine seems to avoid!
Sunshine made his name as former Mayor David Dinkins' chief of staff, a job he held from 1990-1993, and started his own firm when Dinkins lost to Giuliani in 1994. To this day, he continues to draw on his background in left-wing politics, representing local unions like the huge SEIU-1199, the healthcare union; and Transit Workers Union Local 100 (he helped them emerge in a relatively good light after the strike in December 2005, for example).
Some of his most prominent clients—like Michael Moore—are also notorious for wearing their political affiliations on their sleeves. (He also reps big old liberal softie Barbra Streisand, who was one of his first clients.) Other celebrity clients include Leonardo DiCaprio, John Mayer, and Ben Affleck. Today, the firm is called Sunshine/Sachs Associates, after Sunshine promoted his longtime underling Sean Sachs to partner.
"People in the industry think he's a mastermind," says a journalist who covers Hollywood celebrities. "Mainly because his clients tend to be pretty well protected. He handles them really well."
When we spoke to Sunshine by phone, he was vague about his tactics. "We pride ourselves on our anonymity," he told us. "There are too many people who do this kind of work to get exposure for themselves—that's the antithesis of the way we work. There have been many situations over many years involving high-profile, crisis-oriented situations with celebrities, that no one even knew we were working on."
Last May, when New York Magazine put together its list of the city's most influential people, the magazine noted that he's been called "the Madonna of PR"—and that "Sunshine's credited with making stars change their behavior so the tabs won't find them."
Indeed, that strategy largely entails helping them avoid what he calls the "stalkerazzi"—and trying to keep their names out of tabloids and those oh-so-reckless celebrity blogs. In a CNN special last year about the paparazzi called "Chasing Angelina," Sunshine said, "We've never had so much media that it seems to be desirous of printing or covering every possible aspect of so-called celebrities' lives. I think the world's gone a little crazy."
Sunshine has something like no respect for tabloids. He said, "These people just lie. Standards are so low everywhere. Among many journalists, it's anything goes. The paparazzi-tabloid game makes me so crazy. It's a joke. There's no modicum of fact-checking or sourcing. Or they just blatantly make it up!"
Mainstream outlets also might tread carefully around a Sunshine client. In that same "Chasing Angelina" show, People executive editor Peter Castro said, "If you piss off Ken Sunshine, not only are you not going to get Ben Affleck, you are not going to get Leo DiCaprio. You're not going to get Justin Timberlake and so on and so on." That's the way that publicists have operated for decades, but the number who can still pull that sort of thing off is dwindling.
Then again, it's not like Sunshine takes on clients who are notoriously difficult—you don't see him repping Lindsay Lohan, or Britney Spears, or Paris Hilton, after all. On the other hand, he does rep someone like John Mayer, who went off and had that weird thing with Jessica Simpson for, like, a year! He couldn't have been very happy about that. Of course, neither were we.