"Hey, Why Wasn't I Invited?" (If You Have to Ask, You're Not on the Party A-List)
Every night in NYC, there are fabulous events, flashbulbs and a flock of the social scene's anointed as event planners and publicists break down the brutal algorithm behind who's considered "in" — and who's never considered at all.
This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On the day before Presidents Day, exactly 1,000 guests hand-picked by Lorne Michaels filed into The Plaza hotel for a three-story, SNL 40th anniversary afterparty. Space was so limited that celeb flacks and media, the usual working crowd, were not even considered for the list. Heads of studios and power players (Brad Grey, Bryan Lourd) squeezed in beside such attendees as Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken, spotted belly-laughing together, and Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Jay Z and Beyonce, who were seen huddling in a corner booth. "I usually see what I call the 'inner sanctum' at a party when there's big stars," notes one guest. "This room had 15 to 20 inner sanctums. It was spectacular." The party raged from Sunday into Monday. As the clock ticked toward 6 a.m., a guest noted of the hour, "This party could have never happened in Los Angeles."
Not every New York party has an alpha gatekeeper like Michaels — or Anna Wintour, who presides over the Met Ball (EL James has reportedly lobbied for an invitation). This leaves room for gaming one's way onto some of the city's best guest lists — if such things are admitted to even exist or if one even cares, or pretends not to. "Listen, to be mean, we say we don't make a list," confesses Peggy Siegal, a veteran planner of movie premieres, TV screenings and literary releases. "Or we say we make up the list, but the studio has to approve it. We can put anyone on, but if we don't have a good reason besides they are our weekly crush, they're not getting in."
What makes someone fall into the opportunistic "crush" category (right now including socialite Derek Blasberg, Paddle8's Alexander Gilkes or Whiplash's Damien Chazelle)? Good looks, style and press ink (or pixels) help one's case: Siegal's office scours WWD's Eye page, Vogue.com and "the columns" daily and saves best-dressed lists for up to 10 years. "Sometimes I go stalking people on the streets," she says. "Sometimes it's weird because I ask who the cute girls are. I say to my team, 'Go get her email.' "
Another way besides being paparazzi bait or landing on Page Six involves accident by birth: "There's the children of the greats," says Siegal, acknowledging that these people get bumped up on lists despite their little-known status. "The minute they're born of great lineage, they're put in" to Siegal's database.
James Cagney's great-granddaughter Fiona Cagney is Andrew Saffir's latest addition to the roster of his marketing firm, The Cinema Society. "The movie lover in me was completely enamored with her pedigree, so Fiona is newly in the mix," says Saffir of the aspiring actress. "She's cute, she's in, she's a bona fide member."
And being distinguished in a field beyond entertainment might afford one an easier nod. "What I love about New York is the whole mix of people," Saffir says. "Unlike L.A. — where you've got actors, agents and filmmakers and that's kind of it — here we've got this incredible pool of actors, musicians, models, artists, social people, media people. Because actors don't just want to be with actors, and directors don't want to be with just directors." Adds Saffir, who throws events like Magnolia Pictures' screening of Serena with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and a Boom Boom Room afterparty: "It's fun to mix up Howard Stern with Donna Karan, Martha Stewart, Madonna, Salman Rushdie, Debbie Harry and a new bright, young starlet. That's more interesting than just one box of people." Nadine Johnson, prominent publicist for such clients as Amy Sacco and Marina Abramovic, likes a range along the lines of "Henry Kissinger to Kate Moss."
Who's not included in the mix? "I'm not so big on reality stars," says Saffir politely. Other event planners agree that with the exception of Kim Kardashian, unscripted talent is a no-go, along with a few former big boldfaced names, such as Lindsay Lohan. "Scandal is no longer having a moment," says one publicist. "Drama is on the back burner. A-listers do not want to be around it, unless it's of the most dignified variety."
While not one premiere planner would cop to B-listers begging to get on their lists, Saffir assented that persistence can win out: "If people ask enough times and if there's room, there are enough parties that I'll eventually find a place for them." Those names said to come to the opening of an envelope (cough, E.J. Johnson)? They'll continue to be invited — as long as party size warrants it. Because for all the top listkeepers, the No. 1 priority is pleasing the studio or sponsor, buzz be damned. "The title of 'influencer' means nothing," says Nadine Johnson. "Early adopters, influencers, VIP means nothing unless it's relevant to the client."
Compiling high-profile contacts may "not be brain surgery," says Saffir, but navigating rivalries can require finesse beyond inviting the Winklevoss twins to an entirely separate series of parties from Sean Parker. Says a publicist: "No one would ever be stupid enough to invite Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise to the same event or Ron Perelman and Ellen Barkin. It's a game of exes."
If you're receiving an invitation from Saffir, chances are it's coming from his personal AOL account. Much of his work is done by his own hand, including the making of his lists, invitations and follow-up, a unique practice that allows his contact lists to be even further under lock and key. He claims there is no hierarchy. "There's not an A-list 100, B-list 200," he insists. Johnson agrees: "We never use the same guest list. I know the people who are fun, the people who are not and the people who sing for their supper." In other words: Being an entertaining guest can mean a nudge up the list.
In Johnson's office, a Chelsea townhouse with 40 employees, she has two nameless Princeton grads hired specifically to lord over her database. "I know the people who always come, the people who come 50 percent of the time. The algorithms are confidential," she says. All of her contacts are personally gathered, and none are purchased from marketing agencies (as rumored of rivals). The database is split into categories and subcategories — guarded by Johnson — which she rolls out depending on the party. "It's very unusual to go to a B-list — every 50 parties or so."
Connections built from going out seven nights a week are the backbone of Siegal's business; she drops names she's "known for 35 years," like Barkin and Barry Levinson. Her database is coded by a person's primary affiliation: actor, art, media. She also has categories for "people who want to be on the list because they can't get enough of themselves, people who just do it for business, and people who wouldn't dream of showing up," like Paul McCartney, she says.
How effective is it to be with the entourage? "We call that the mishpucha list," scoffs Siegal, referencing the Yiddish word for family. "We let the studio handle it. We have a problem with trainers and dog walkers coming to events. If the star of the film wants to invite mishpucha, that's their business." Despite such vexations, Siegal continues to always be hunting for her next crush and new database contact. "It's a very important, serious part of the promoting business," she says. "It begins and ends with the list."