Barbara Charone is thoroughly enjoying a game with PRWeek, in which we read out words the media have used to describe her, and she says whether or not the description is accurate.
‘Formidable? I’ll take that,’ she chuckles, her Chicago accent still strong despite the decades she has spent in the UK.
‘Always on the side of the stars I represent? I am also on the side of the newspapers quite a lot when a star doesn’t want to do an interview or divulge something.’
How about ‘music’s Alastair Campbell’? Charone is delighted. ‘I’ll take that, that’s great,’ she hoots. ‘Except I support Chelsea.’
Like Campbell, Charone began as a journalist before moving into PR and has reached the very top of her chosen profession. On the way, she spent two years with the Rolling Stones writing Keith Richards’ biography. She has represented Madonna since the star was virtually unknown.
But unlike Campbell, who can often appear cynical, Charone is so infectiously enthusiastic that she appears younger than the 50th birthday front cover from The Sun on her office wall reveals her to be. She sparkles as she talks of her love of cricket – ‘Lords is the most beautiful place in the world,’ – and her Anglophilia. ‘I grew up loving British music and everything British. My parents took me to England for a trip and I loved it. I related everything to music – Waterloo Bridge from The Kinks song, Liverpool in the time of The Beatles.’
Like Campbell, however, she is fond of the odd profanity – her wallet has ‘Fuck It’ written on it – legendarily tough, and fiercely loyal to her clients, many of which are written about by the tabloid press on a daily basis.
Charone does not buy the argument that anyone who courts the public eye, must be prepared to accept endless intrusions into their private life. ‘Just because someone is famous you do not have the right to write anything you want about them,’ she insists. And she will stand up for her charges’ right to a private life. In 2003 Madonna complained to the Press Complaints Commission about an incorrect ‘world exclusive’ in Heat magazine that claimed she was pregnant.
‘There are some things you cannot complain about, but this was not one of them,’ states Charone.
Another client, Christina Aguilera, did not ‘admit’ she was pregnant until she was five or six months into her pregnancy. While one can understand journalists’ frustration at a refusal to confirm or deny the hottest showbiz story around, ‘it is her prerogative,’ argues Charone. ‘When you work with Madonna or Christina, it is up to them. Madonna and Guy, Madonna and adoption – it is up to her. She has that right, and you have to respect that.’
For Charone, it is not about celebrity and a rock and roll lifestyle. Even when on the road with the Rolling Stones, one of the most debauched experiences a person can have, Charone says: ‘It was fantastic, but even then what I loved the most was the music. It was not about the lifestyle for me. Being there when they recorded a new song though, that was amazing. That’s still the way I am. When people come into the music business there is a big difference between wanting to work with music and wanting to work with celebrities.’ The latter are shunned by MBC PR, the agency Charone co-founded with Moira Bellas, her former boss at Warner Music.
‘She remains, first and foremost, a passionate music fan,’ agrees Music Week talent editor Stuart Clarke. ‘Her enthusiasm, above all else, is infectious. You are always going to hear the positive spin – but what you don’t get from her is the bullshit.’
Paul Rees, editor-in-chief of Q magazine, adds: ‘She has never once been made aware of the words shy or retiring. The music world would be dull without her.’
It is clear anyone capable of dealing with the multitude of challenges the world of the super-celebrity can throw up must be made of stern stuff. But Charone is matter-of-fact when asked how she copes with the celebrity ego.
‘I wouldn’t say I deal with huge egos,’ she says. ‘And it is not just the artists, certain writers have egos too.’ Presumably her own ego must be fairly well-developed to deal with the balancing act of deciding which band member speaks to which writer, in which order? ‘I would say my own ego is pretty healthy,’ she grins. ‘I don’t think I throw hissy fits. But when I turn up to a gig I do not want to stand in a queue.’
Not that she would ever have to. ‘There aren’t many true legends in the music business but BC – and you have to call her BC – genuinely deserves this title,’ says Conor McNicholas, editor of NME. ‘There are few in the world who can match her.’
Barbara Charone’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Career wise, probably as a 17-year-old convincing the music editor of the Chicago Sun Times to let me write for the paper. It led to Rolling Stone doing the same. PR wise, taking a job at Warner Music working for Moira Bellas, as a writer then doing press.
Have you had a notable mentor?
Not really. As a writer, I wrote for school papers and it morphed into something bigger. As a PRO, just instinct and gut feeling. Certainly being a journalist first, and working with PROs, showed me what journalists do and do not want.
What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?
Read the papers and magazines, know your stuff, know the writer’s tastes and style. If it is a specialist area, such as music, it is crucial to like music and have a good knowledge of it. And do not take ‘no’ for an answer.
What do you prize in new recruits?
Passion first and foremost – a passion for music and for journalism. Too many young people want to work with celebrity and want the lifestyle, but they do not want to do the hard work.
2000 Sets up MBC PR with Moira Bellas
1981 Staff writer, then head of press, then director of press, Warner press office
1977-79 Writes authorised biography of Keith Richards
1974 Staff writer, then deputy editor, Sounds magazine
1974 Moves to UK