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In 1991, Kelly Bush Novak headed to Hollywood from her native San Francisco and began working for famed publicist Susan Geller. Like today, the PR business was in the midst of seismic change. At the time, everything was being faxed or messengered around town. But it wasn’t just modes of communicating that were on the verge of transforming. “[It] was a shift from an old-school way of being a gatekeeper to being a bridge between your clients and the media,” recalls Novak, speaking on Zoom in May from her home office. “I needed to take a different approach.”
Two years later, she was ready to branch out on her own and founded IDPR (now ID), today one of the Hollywood giants and the only major agency owned by someone who’s openly gay. With a roster including Serena Williams, Christopher Nolan, Janelle Monáe, Seth Rogen and Patrick Stewart as well as studios, networks and A-list brands, ID maintains Novak’s original mandate — a more collaborative relationship between publicist and client. In the past year, she was involved with two epic stories — introducing longtime client Elliot Page after he began transitioning and helping push 100 top publicity firms to boycott the HFPA following an L.A. Times exposé that showed the Golden Globes group had zero Black members. Among her other feats, Novak managed to ride out the pandemic with no layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts for her staff of 100. The married mother of two (wife Linda Novak is a stay-at-home mom) spoke about turning down #MeToo men, Hollywood’s failure to act on trans issues and her frustration with 60 Minutes.
What were the behind-the-scenes machinations on the HFPA battle?
It was very clear we could no longer be complicit and participate in a process that was unfair to many artists of color. And the experience was so fraught, often, in the press conferences for our clients and many colleagues. Some of the stories I’ve heard since we came together were shocking. The HFPA now has the opportunity to remake themselves into an organization people will be proud to receive an award from.
Were there pockets of resistance?
There were people who initially didn’t understand. Sometimes it was generational, sometimes it was hidden bias. Some hadn’t had an issue [with the HFPA] because they were white and privileged and represented white and privileged artists, and those were the folks that were having no problem getting in the door. The resistance was temporary.
Why did it take so long to address?
We often complained to the president of the HFPA, whoever it was, about situations, comments that were made that would embarrass your grandmother. And we would try to have meetings with the HFPA and give them feedback. It often fell on deaf ears, and they were fighting hard to hold on to their system and their access.
With Elliot, what were those early transition conversations like?
It was something he’d been talking about at different times over the years. We’ve worked together for so long, so I wasn’t surprised at all. It was a conversation with me and other people close in his life, his mom. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I’m really inspired and extraordinarily proud of his work as an activist. His words will save lives. There are now over 100 anti-trans bills across the country. It’s the worst year on record for legislation targeting trans people. Our industry, which has the biggest microphone, should call this out every day, all day. And it’s crickets.
Is it surprising given Hollywood left Freddie Mercury in the closet in Bohemian Rhapsody because China won’t release a film with a gay protagonist?
You make less money. So, fuck China. Fearmongering about trans people only works because the vast majority of Americans think they’ve never met one. And we have a responsibility in our industry to include authentic trans representation in our projects and characters in all content and genres. The history of film and TV for LGBTQ people is appalling. And there are very few people who are queer and trans and of color making the decisions about what gets made. We don’t have a seat at the table equally.
What happens when you have a client on the other side of a #MeToo situation? Would you take on someone who has been accused?
We’ve been asked a lot to defend the men who weren’t clients. We said no every time. We have had clients accused of things — not anything felony-related. And if they’re a longtime client, and we believe them, we help them through it. I do think there has been too wide of a brush painted and some false equivalencies in certain cases. For us, it’s not about going for a crisis fee and supporting someone who did something harmful and disgusting. They can pay somebody else to deal with their mess.
How have PR strategies changed? Where do you take the big reveal stories now? It was Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. Now what?
We knew with Elliot we wanted to do a Time cover because of the global meaning of that. Each situation is about all the pieces. Who’s the writer, who’s the editor, who’s the audience, what are we trying to say, what is our goal with it? You’re looking at every pillar, every lever to pull, from podcasts to Instagram to a TikTok stunt to Oprah to 60 Minutes. Although I’m really mad at them right now because they just did a de-transitioning story. It’s so wrong. We called Lesley Stahl when we heard about it.
Does ID have anyone on its roster who is thinking about coming out, and how do you advise them about how to come out?
Yes. How you do it signals how much of your personal life is up for public consumption. That’s the part I try to protect people from. It’s fun to post selfies of you kissing your significant other, but that means people are going to feel like they have a little piece of it, both media and fans. Share your truth of who you are. I don’t think these days that worry about career ramifications exists.
Even for men?
No. By the way, if it does affect their career, they can hire me.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about Madonna?
Her sense of humor is on fire. She’s a great mom. She loves peonies. She gives good bouquets. I have been to every Madonna tour since the first one as a kid. And when I got some success in Hollywood in my 20s, I sought out Guy Oseary and said, “One day, if Liz Rosenberg ever retires [from working with Madonna], I’d love to have the opportunity to represent her.” And he was like, “Yeah, whatever, sure, kid.” Then it happened.
What’s the worst PR move you’ve seen in your career?
Lying. I’ve seen people do it. I’ve seen publicists do it on people’s behalf. It always catches up to you. You can’t get away with lying.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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