As a curator of events and conduit to boldface names, Peggy Siegal has become a fixture of both the New York media scene and Hollywood’s awards season. But her longtime association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein is generating fresh scrutiny after his July 8 arrest on charges of sex trafficking and trafficking a minor. On July 18, Epstein was denied bail, with a judge refusing to allow the high-flying financier to await trial at his Manhattan mansion.
Siegal helped facilitate Epstein’s return to elite social circles after his conviction through private gatherings she organized at his Upper East Side home, as well as numerous events she hosted for studio clients as one of Hollywood’s most formidable gatekeepers.
The 72-year-old publicist — whose central role in the annual film awards race, hosting intimate screenings and dinners with stars of the films she represents, provides her with social capital that money can’t buy — explained to The New York Times on July 13 that she’d seen no reason to shun her friend after he completed his 13-month sentence for solicitation of prostitution, despite his post-release status as a Level 3 sex offender with a severe risk of re-offense. (He’d been charged with one count of molestation and four counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor.)
“The culture before #MeToo was — ‘You’ve done your time, now you’re forgiven,’” she contended, asserting that he was a low-key presence at her screenings, showing up last-minute, seating himself in the back and skipping afterparties. Siegal added: “He said he’d served his time and assured me that he changed his ways.”
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Siegal stressed her belief that it “just wasn’t common knowledge” that Epstein had molested children prior to The Miami Herald’s reporting late last year. “Had I known that he had been accused of abusing underage girls, I would not have maintained a friendship with him.” Referencing his notoriously favorable work-release deal, she added, “I did not believe that the charges were very serious because I knew he was allowed to work from his office every day.” (Allegations of child rape against Epstein became national news beginning in 2006.)
Three former Siegal employees, who requested their names not be used for fear of retribution, shared their recollections of the relationship between Siegal and Epstein and provided THR with contemporaneous internal office communications and other documents that corroborated their accounts. They describe a symbiotic relationship wherein Siegal would receive gifts from Epstein, including substantial travel expenses, and that she at times kept her studio clients in the dark about her friend’s attendance at their events. (Virtually every Hollywood studio has worked with Siegal at one time or another, and during the busy Oscar season, she may be responsible for as many as five or six gatherings in a given week, collecting five-figure paychecks per gig. Sources with ties to several studios say they don’t recall seeing Epstein’s name on Siegal lists.)
Siegal declined to be interviewed for this story, but she acknowledged in a prepared statement that she received funds for travel from Epstein. However, she insists through her attorneys at the Clare Locke firm and Matt McKenna, a crisis PR consultant, that this financial arrangement ended by 2010, when Epstein was released from prison. She did not clarify why she no longer accepted support after his release.
Siegal is known for her “list,” a series of bifurcated rosters segmenting key tastemakers in various categories, both voting members of the Academy as well as, primarily, New York society types she deems suitably influential — Hamptonites, the downtown crowd, media figures, etc. (There are also outer-orbit names, deemed of lesser importance, to fill bigger rooms.) Her job is to curate and wrangle a certain group for her studio clients, which is subject to their approval.
But if Siegal has a favorite who doesn’t make the cut, she has at least one known work-around. A 2017 communication with a client, obtained by THR, provides a window into her approach. “Academy members are permitted to bring a guest,” she explained. “If one friend of mine wants to come, and it is important to me, I will make sure that one person is a plus one of an Academy member.”
For decades, Siegal has utilized her singular professional perch to ascend into a rarefied social circle not frequented by other top publicists or event planners. “If she’s personally P.R.’ing you as a friend, you’ll wind up at the right hand of God,” the socialite Anne Hearst told Vanity Fair in 1998.
For her part, Siegal tells THR, “generally speaking, I would submit a guest list to the studios for pre-approval. Those lists regularly changed from their approval by the studio to the date of the event, as celebrities and other guests would come into town after the studio approved a list. I know that this happened at least occasionally with Jeffrey.” She adds, “Regardless, I don’t recall a studio ever voicing an objection either before or after he attended an event.”
Epstein, often described as private and rarely photographed, publicly resurfaced on Siegal’s circuit two months after he completed his detention in Florida, at an early screening of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in a Southampton mansion, where he reportedly caught up with finance friend Leon Black, chatted with current Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and sat near Rudy Giuliani. (“I don’t know whether Jeffrey was pre-approved to attend the Wall Street event, as I don’t have records dating back that far,” Siegal tells THR.) As recently as March 2016, Epstein’s presence attracted attention when she introduced him to guests at the New York premiere of Warner Bros.’ Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Siegal’s awards season events target Academy members but often embrace other prominent people. “Part of her thing was also New York society,” says one of the former employees. “She would sneak her plastic surgeon onto the invitation list.”
Epstein, despite the conviction, remained among the prominent people on the Siegal circuit. “He was always calling her and trying to hang out with her,” another former staffer explains. “He wanted to go to every party.” Adds a third: “When he was in town, she made a point of inviting him to things,” noting that when he wasn’t, including during his house arrest in Palm Beach, “Peggy would send him screeners and keep him in the loop. Peggy was his connection to the entertainment world.”
As part of their duties (and as is typical in Hollywood), some of Siegal’s employees were tasked with being on her calls and reviewing her emails. In the past decade, some also communicated with each other during the workday via Gchat, memorializing in real time her interactions with Epstein. One ex-employee shared with THR screen shots of a chat with a colleague from July 2010, in which this staffer overheard Siegal talking on the phone with Epstein. “OMFG Jeffrey Epstein,” the employee typed to her colleague. “She’s like, ‘You’re not dating anyone, right?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I am, but you know, she’s very young.’ And she’s like, ‘Stop!’”
Another employee believes Siegal, who primarily employs young women, was aware of Epstein as an ongoing risk. “She said to me,” this person asserts, “Make sure you stay away from Jeffrey at that [upcoming firm-hosted] party.’”