Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Gastonia woman who changed Hollywood

Happy belated birthday to Pat Kingsley, who turned 80 on May 7. Old-timers in Gastonia may recall her as Patricia Ratchford, but I’d guess none foresaw that she’d become the most powerful, influential publicist in show business.

Coverage of entertainers has gone through three stages in Hollywood. During the old-fashioned studio system, Paramount, MGM, and others controlled every public appearance by a star and quashed all negative publicity, even to the point of bribing the cops to cover up crimes.

In the 1950s, as studio power dwindled, independent publicists served as brokers between actors and media. Media held the upper hand, as stars hungry for publicity and no longer backed by studio machines competed for exposure. In 1959, Ratchford became secretary to Warren Cowan at Rogers and Cowan, a premiere press agentry firm.

Cowan urged his protégé to become a press agent, and she worked with the likes of Doris Day and Natalie Wood. She began her own company in 1971, then formed the groundbreaking PMK with Michael Maslansky and Neil Koenigsberg in 1980. Before anyone knew it, the third era had begun.

More than anyone else, Kingsley has gotten credit or criticism for reversing the balance of power between interviewers and their subjects.

She and her team negotiated positions in advance with editors: where stories would be placed, what subject areas might be taboo. Interviewers thought to be “unsympathetic” (that is, too edgy or probing) were vetoed. And because papers and magazines and online outlets proliferated like mad, her press agents won many such battles.

Kingsley (who took the last name of the husband she married in 1966 and divorced in 1978) was once quoted this way: “I don’t like interesting stories. Boring is good. Good reporting and good writing don’t help my client. New information is usually controversial. I don’t need that.”

That’s why stars felt safe with her. By the 1990s, her personal clients included Al Pacino, Richard Gere, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone and Tom Cruise. (The latter famously fired her in 2004, in favor of his Scientologist sister. A year later, he was known as the bouncing loony on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.) She retired from the business in 2007.

Kingsley was nice to me in our lone encounter: I e-mailed her in 2001, asking if I could profile her for The Observer the next time I took a business trip to L.A. (Little did I know: I would never take one again!) She said I was welcome to follow her around for a day to see what her life was really like. I’ve wondered ever since how that would have turned out….