Schmoozing with the schlebs

By Josie McNaught

Amid revelations that SkyCity celeb ‘ambassadors’ get thousands in freebies, Josie McNaught joined the red carpet circuit for a night to see what goodies she could scoop up. But all she came away with was a hangover and a 50ml jar of shoe polish.

Colin Mathura Jeffree and Julia Crownshaw.
Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Colin Mathura Jeffree and Julia Crownshaw. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Ricardo Simich. Son of a former Parliamentarian. Director of his own boutique marketing agency. Man about town. In a previous life in New York and LA, he's hobnobbed with Gwyneth, Charlize and Matt Damon.

But this is Auckland. It's 5pm on a humid weeknight, and he fronts up at the Gow Langsford Gallery in Lorne St for the opening of a Bernar Venet sculpture exhibition. This is where highbrow meets the party set; where Metro's On the Townpages meet the Herald on Sunday's Spy.

Well-dressed folk cluster round, chatting. Simich, 39, heads to the open bar, collects a glass of chardonnay, then surveys the room. He chats with flamboyant real estate agent GrahamWall, nods at property magnate Michael Friedlander and conceptual artist Billy Apple, then wanders over and says hello to the gallery's owners.

But if you think being a celebrity in Auckland involves an endless round of glamour events, sipping champagne and hobnobbing with the rich and famous, then rest assured. Life in the celeb fast lane is more klunky than Kardashian, something Simich freely admits.

"Getting noticed and keeping your profile up is all part of the game, but the events really vary in terms of what they offer," he says.

It's not good enough to be famous for being famous. "If we do an event and it's product-related we'll target the right famous faces. If you are famous for achieving something in sport or business, then that makes a difference."

Gow Langsford Gallery is always going to be tricky for celeb-spotting. Your average jobbing actor or busty glamourpuss wouldn't normally get an invite, let alone try to gatecrash. Simich isn't put off though. He plunges in and - voila! - minutes later he's being photographed with Venet, fresh off the plane from France and bemused at the attention this well-dressed stranger is attracting.

Simich chats with Venet about the large sculpture businessman Alan Gibbs had bought for his Kaipara farm, joking that Gibbs' ex-wife Jenny would be jealous. Was the joke appropriate? Venet smiles politely, so it's fine.

A couple of air kisses later and we tick that event off the list. Result? Some good networking and Simich has picked up an invite to afternoon tea from one of the guests.

Simich has been around long enough to know discretion will always win and if you've heard this or that about a celebrity, it won't be from him. His business relies on keeping them sweet.

So how does this celebrity economy work? What do celebrities expect, even demand, to keep them sweet?

And what's in it for the businesses who shower them with gifts in exchange for turning up to openings and product launches?

Some, tragically, will turn up for little more than a few canapes and glasses of wine. But better known personalities can demand thousands of dollars for bestowing their blessing upon a bar, restaurant or art gallery by speaking or MCing.

Denise L'Estrange-Corbet of World knows of several fellow fashion designers who drive expensive European cars provided by car companies. One TV personality drove a Lexus, courtesy of the dealership, until he lost his high profile job and his star dimmed.

"I don't have a car, I have a bike," snorts L'Estrange-Corbet. "That's a whole lot of money, a big bloody car." But would she like one, were a generous dealership to offer? "Oh desperately, desperately. I wish I had a car because I'd be laughing all the way to the f***ing bank."

This week's Sunday Spy guest editor Sophia Nash, a model and editor of The Hotlist, says: "I have got a lot of friends that get freebies - cars, designer clothes, et cetera. But let's be honest, most of it is because the brands want to be associated with the celebs.

It's all just part of the marketing machine - if it's a win-win for both parties then great. It isn't necessarily fair but it is something that is common in the industry. I don't believe that people should feel ashamed to receive things for free, but sharing never hurts!"

It is social pages like Spy, of course, that feature the photos of celebrities at the bar openings and vodka launches. PR director Anna Hood says she actively seeks coverage in Spy for her clients.

"We recognise the value of social pages coverage and the way it can communicate brand values, so if our guests are familiar faces that attract social pages coverage then that is an added bonus," she explains.

Former model Aja Rock says she loves the experience of appearing at such events, especially for new and emerging venues or products. "I'm well aware that it does provide awareness and publicity that they would not normally get," she says.

But what happens when the invites stop? According to one event organiser, there is an A, B and even a C list-and some clients have a "no go" list. "People say to me, no Aja, no Sally and no Jaime because they think it might lower the tone of the event, so they can be quite picky about who they want to invite."

Conversely, she says, Dean and Mandy Barker are "in". They have "good currency", as does Colin Mathura- Jeffree, host of NZ's Next Top Model and the upcoming series of Hottest Home Baker. So too leading All Blacks such as Richie McCaw, and newsreaders.

Mathura is flattered to be "in", and the invites might be flowing into his agent's inbox, but he says it pays to be a bit fussy about what you do and don't attend. You wouldn't know it: he seems to be at every big party in town.

This week he was meant to be filming Hottest Home Baker, day and night, but he managed to squeeze in an appearance at the movie launch for The Hunger Games. "We don't want to get a reputation for turning up to everything," he insists.

"That is so desperate. I could be out every night of the week if I accepted all the offers. I've been in the modelling, fashion and now TV worlds for a long time, and you start to be more strategic about the events you attend."

Those offers can run from a few drinks at a product launch, to trips, opening nights, clothing and a full banquet dinner. Mathura-Jeffree had seven changes of outfits in one day at Fashion Week last year, but it was all borrowed and strictly for the cameras. Even the once-stodgy NZ Rugby Union has adopted a strategy of inviting celebrities to the launch of the Super Rugby season.

It's part of a carefully managed marketing strategy to broaden the demographic, according to NZRU marketing and relationships manager Todd Barberel.

"The Super Rugby season launch last year was a glamorous cocktail function at the Auckland Museum," he says. "We create a media event that appeals to all so we approached the television companies and offered invites to actors and TV presenters. We get a wider reach in the media if we do because we want to make Super Rugby about entertainment sport rather than just sport itself."

David Higgins of Duco Events has just come out of a bruising encounter with Gordon Ramsay, whom he had threatened to sue over the chef's nonappearance at a charity event.The case was resolved out of court with gagging orders all round, but Higgins still has plenty to say about celebs in general.

"I definitely target celebrities to events," he explains. "We will sell a table for a premium if we can guarantee a celebrity will join that table." It sounds like soft exploitation but he insists the celebrities he invites to his $300-a-head banquets know the deal from the start. "We don't have contracts or any-thing, but the celebrities get a free ticket. For a charity event, they can really help the fundraising by donating a sports jersey or a service for auction," says Higgins.

Mathura-Jeffree has done some Duco Events and he thinks inviting celebrities to support an event works well. "I'm always really happy to go along, sit at a table and do my bit. It's all very clear why I'm there and I actually really enjoy those events because you meet some great people."

If celebrities go to Duco and NZRU events with their eyes wide open, then SkyCity's mysterious "Ambassador" scheme is the polar opposite. Stories about approaches from the company to celebrities and media personalities are rife, but a SkyCity spokeswoman insisted the Ambassador scheme was not an official activity at the complex. "Chief executive Nigel Morrison has a drink sometimes with a couple of key people, but it's not an official arrangement."

As sponsors of the Breakers basketball team, SkyCity occasionally invites the players to one of the bars and cafes within the complex, but the casino will not confirm whether it targets other famous faces.

"We might have a celebrity make a guest appearance and they have an unofficial relationship with us, but there is no contract or anything like that," says the spokeswoman. "The celebrity might just get noticed enjoying themselves in the complex and that's fine."

Back on the celebrity circuit it's 6pm, when Simich and Sally Ridge find each other at an Art and Object auction. The event has money and influence to offer (and some decent wine), but it's hardly the stuff to fill the social pages. Ridge is there for one reason only: she's an avid art collector .

After a bit of air-kissing and a chat, she obliges with a photo and then takes her seat, waiting for the action to start. If anyone notices her, they aren't showing it. The auction ends and she's off. Is it to a glamorous A list party?

Nope. This is celebrity New Zild style and she has a function at oneof her younger children's schools. Ridge and Simich were caught up in the Degas to Dali opening debacle at Auckland Art Gallery a few weeks ago, when they were invited to attend free of charge, while gallery supporters had to pay $75-only no-one told the celebs.

Higgins didn't go to the opening, but he thinks the gallery's idea was right in principle, given it doesn't have a huge promotional budget and itwanted to get the word out about the exhibition.

"Getting Sally Ridge along and having some photos published in Spy would have been worth the cost of the free tickets. It's a cheap way to generate media coverage," he says.

But for his events, he always makes sure his celebrities are aware that the other guests have paid for their tickets. Soothing the feelings of gallery supporters may be a little tricky, he says.

"But, after all, they got to support the gallery financially and that's what they set out to do when they bought their tickets. Whether the media coverage the gallery received will translate into increased visitation to the show, who knows?"

Advertising guru Howard Greive agrees that using celebrities is a good wayto increase awareness for an event. "Celebrity endorsement is very successfulwhen you marry the aspirations of the brand, the celebrity and the audience," he says.

"Degas to Dali is a blockbuster show that comes with significant costs. The only way to recoup that cost is by marketing the show beyond a core arts audience. It has to have a populist appeal. Hence the idea of celebrity endorsement."

It's a quiet night, and our celebrity haul stands at one red carpet regular (Ridge) and one artist (but he's French). But Simich checks the iPhone and we're back on track, headingdowntown to a "gentlemen's event" atWorkshop clothing store on High St. We've had plenty of wine, butnofree food yet, and it seems unlikely now, given we're going to a whisky tasting.

Quizzed on why he likes to spend an evening tearing from one event to another on an empty tummy, Simich is pragmatic: "It's about work, about keeping up with people, keeping myself out there-and I'msingle." So a gentleman's event might be just the trick. Except the doorman is adamant: this is a female-free zone and I can't come in. Simich swings into action, calls the host and within minutes

I'm entering the inner sanctum: a room of badly dressed men, none of whom have tucked their shirts in, except for Simich and the one guy in a suit. Simich works the room, grabs the host Chris Cherry and a couple of bottles of sponsor product. Wine is found for me and a series of Goklookalikes look on shyly at our little photo performance.

The kids in sloppy T-shirts and 80s glasses look like they've escaped from the nearest skate park, but I'm reliably informed they are DJs and advertising gurus who qualify as key influencers embodying theWorkshop brand. We're having a lovely time, but the small gathering is thinning and, given it's only 8pm, Simich is keen to keep moving.

First, though, we're given our best haul of the night - a 50ml jar of shoe polish courtesy of Gemmells shoe repairs, who've been offering shoe shines along with the whisky.Wow. We pocket our booty and head to the offices of Denizen Publishing who are launching "something"and Simich says he can get us in.

The Design Folio magazine launch party is over by the time we arrive. The sprinkling of guests left are fromthe design and architecture worlds, famous only in their own bubble. But Simich seems to know most of this crowd, by far the evening's best-dressed and labeled (Prada, Chanel and Louboutin all make an appearance). Simich has to admit this is the end of the night of the long parties. So he heads off to meet friends at a Mexican restaurant.

By the time he gets there, they're ordering tequila - and he can't face it. He heads home, exhausted. And that, perhaps, is the real price of the celebrity circuit.

Star does more than 'go out'

Colin Mathura-Jeffree gets hit on regularly by men - and discreetly by women. It's a reflection of his deliberate ambiguity when it comes to labelling his sexuality, and his mass appeal in an industry famed for praising you one day, damning you the next.

"I've been in the business for 20 years and I'll be 40 this year. It still excites me and stimulates me, but I decide who I'm friends with and what I do, and yes I know when people are trying to get close to me, simply because they want to benefit from my position."

He's currently holed up in a studio in Auckland under contract to Eyeworks, Julie Christie's TV production house. He's sworn to secrecy about the show he's working on, though he was photographed this week at a movie launch with Julia Crownshaw, a fellowjudge on Hottest Home Baker.

During a quick break from filming, he tucks himself in a corner to conduct an interview. It's breaking the rules, but he is probably one of the best-qualified people around at the moment to talk about being famous for, well, being famous. Except he vigorously refutes that label.

"If you are in the spotlight you have to do something apart from just going out. I have a career now in fashion and television, and I always have other projects on the go."

Mathura-Jeffree's Anglo-Indian good looks come from his late British father and his Indian mother. He attended Mt Albert Grammar where he ended up a prefect "but not in the First XV" despite his tall physique.

As well as the chiseled cheekbones and ability to wear clothes with elan, his parents provided him with an educated upbringing where a wel lstocked mind and good conversation were important.

"People seemepouting in a photo at some party and they think that's all there is to me. If you are going to recognise yourself as a celebrity or famous person, you have to have some depth."

His potential as a model wasn't recognised in New Zealand, though, and he was told he would never get work here - not because he was Indian, but because he looked so different." Luckily that was just the look they were after overseas."

His international modelling career developed his taste for the quality things in life - he can spot a pair of cheap shoes or acrylic posing as cashmere from a mile away. He chooses his friends carefully. "I've become close friends with some other 'celebrities' but others I'm just civil to, because we come across each other all the time at various events.

"We definitely need to develop a thicker skin in this country. I'm an easy target for criticism, I accept that, but if anyone tries to take me down a peg or two for the sake of it, I'll square off with them." And, make no mistake, if he's at an event, it'll be business and he'll behave accordingly.

"I hate it when well-known people just hide in the corner and talk to each other. I work the room, sign autographs, talk to people and I genuinely enjoy it because you never knowwho you will meet-frompoliticians to business people to artists." He tries to not burn bridges. One day, he says, he may need those people. Some may call this schmoozing.

He calls it basic civility.

- Herald on Sunday

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