By MICHAEL CIEPLY and BROOKS BARNES
LOS ANGELES — Not many years ago, the top players in Hollywood publicity called back when they were good and ready. It was all about access — or the refusal to give it.
Today, Kelly Bush smashes straight into the fray via videophone, social network, e-mail barrage and an all-in attitude. “We’re at the top of our game,” Ms. Bush says, “so bring it on.”
This could explain why her company, ID, which ranks with a handful of elite firms that protect and promote the biggest names in show business, counts as a prime client a children’s entertainer whose dazzling career had fizzled overnight after he was caught masturbating in a theatershowing pornographic films.
“I was told, ‘You might work again, but you’re never going to have a career,’ ” said Paul Reubens, who signed with Ms. Bush in 1999, years after the theater episode but before his 2002 arrest on charges, later dropped, of possessing child pornography.
When others might have counseled lying low, Ms. Bush pushed a reluctant Mr. Reubens to revive his Pee-wee Herman persona for a 2007 appearance on Spike TV. A rousing reception led to a Broadway run for “The Pee-wee Herman Show” late last year and a career revival that has him writing the script for a new Universal Pictures film, with Ms. Bush doing double duty as Mr. Reubens’s publicist and manager.
“She changed my life,” he said in an interview, acknowledging that he was “surfing on waves created by Kelly Bush.”
Ms. Bush, 44, is also helping change the business, playing into and sometimes tangling with a volatile, Web-driven, 24-hour media culture that has forced celebrity publicists to become less the cautious gatekeeper and more the frenetic multitasker. She’s in your face and sure of herself, and she has no filter.
Lately, she and her company have been rattling the clubby world of entertainment public relations with their agile efforts to stay in front of a culture that can chew up a client in an instant. Red carpets, photo shoots and tiffs with the tabloids are still the stuff of Hollywood publicity. But Ms. Bush has been pushing her company — which employs about 75 people in Los Angeles, New York and London — to use every tool in its kit.
That can mean playing the Internet fixer. Ms. Bush claimed in an interview that she knew how to get Google to make nasty, wrong headlines instantly disappear.
It can also mean writing Oscar skits and producing funny Web videos for clients like Ben Stiller, whose 2009 Academy Awards send-up of Joaquin Phoenix, a competitor’s client, was cooked up in collaboration with ID.
Or, it can mean actually managing an actor’s career, as Ms. Bush does not only for Mr. Reubens, but also for Ellen Page, star of “Juno” and “Inception” — a move that has been largely taboo for publicists in the past.
“A lot of publicists still see their job as blocking the press — when you call they either run for the hills or lie — and Kelly is smart enough, in the age of the Internet, to know that never works,” said Lisa Gregorisch, who runs the syndicated celebrity news program “Extra.”
Not that Ms. Bush is easy. “She’s a grizzly bear,” Ms. Gregorisch said.
Her manner is shockingly direct, though tempered by the occasional funny take-back. Asked about her ultimate goal for ID, Ms. Bush didn’t blink: “World domination.”
A beat later, she pointed to a reporter’s notebook and added, “she said sarcastically.”
Ms. Bush knows she’s a tough customer but prides herself on never resorting to one tool: the screaming phone call. “It’s O.K. to say no to someone, but you should do it with respect,” she said.
“I like crystal clarity,” Mr. Maguire said, “and that is always what I get from her.”
Success inevitably brings detractors. One common criticism is that ID has grown by cutting fees.
Nonsense, Ms. Bush says. Everybody on the list — Amy Adams, Josh Brolin, Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem — pays fees comparable with those charged by competitors. The most basic services start at $4,500 a month and escalate toward what she calls “the high six figures” annually for corporate clients, which recently have included Nintendo, Tiffany & Company, the Weinstein Company and Elle magazine.
Competitors also say ID has grown by being willing to take “problem” clients. While that is true to some degree, ID’s cluster of challenging clients might also reflect the company’s skill in handling trouble.
ID’s talent roster may not outshine that of, say, Slate PR. And 42West, based in New York, is especially strong among filmmakers and on the festival circuit. PMK/BNC, owned by the Interpublic Group, has said it is the largest Hollywood firm, at least by some measures, since it was formed in a merger in 2009.
But ID, like most large competitors, has been expanding its brand-related business, partly to stabilize income from sources more reliable than actors, who may pay a retainer only for a few months when they have a television show or a movie to promote. Growing departments now handle filmmakers like Zack Snyder and Jason Reitman; blockbuster movies like the “Twilight” series; and digital initiatives for Sean Penn, Alicia Keys and others. The company is owned exclusively by Ms. Bush, who said she financed its growth completely from cash flow. Mara Buxbaum, the president and chief operating officer, shares in profits.
The name, ID, is meant to connote “identity,” Ms. Bush said.
And the corporate identity is thoroughly entwined with her own out-of-nowhere story. As Ms. Bush tells it, she was born in San Francisco to a single mother who put her up for adoption, then decided to keep her. Growing up largely around military bases, she says she took up karate at age 8, getting a black belt as a teenager. “Now I’m a black belt of the mouth,” she said.
After high school, she found work selling memberships at a San Francisco fitness club, and in 1991, at 26, she moved to Los Angeles.
Her career in publicity was born with a referral to Susan Geller, who had handled some of the era’s biggest stars.
“She had this blind ambition, she’s fearless,” said Ms. Geller, who is now retired.
After less than two years, Ms. Bush left to start her own publicity firm, taking with her a prime client, Rosie O’Donnell. Within weeks, Ms. O’Donnell was back with Ms. Geller. But Ms. Bush forged ahead from her duplex in the Hollywood Hills.
Ms. Buxbaum left PMK to join ID 11 years ago. “It was a much scrappier feel,” Ms. Buxbaum said of the contrast between ID and established public relations companies of the time.
By 2007, when Starbucks signed on for help with its new music business, ID was big enough to need management schooling. Ms. Bush and Ms. Buxbaum ultimately formed a corporate culture that has lofty ideals — every publicist is supposed to carry a card with principles for dealing openly and fairly. (They also have fussy rules like no BlackBerrys in meetings, and pen-clicking is a pet peeve.)
The expansion led Ms. Bush to Warner, which hired her in late 2007 for a very specific job: to contain Nikki Finke, the Hollywood blogger known for cutthroat tactics. Ms. Finke’s Deadline.com had written bitingly of Jeff Robinov, president of the Warner Brothers Picture Group.
As Ms. Bush came on board, however, the tenor of Ms. Finke’s coverage started to change. Ms. Bush insisted that the studio work harder to engage Ms. Finke. Warner news started to show up on Deadline first. At Warner, which has since deployed Ms. Bush on multiple fires (including Charlie Sheen), the publicist has become known by a nickname: the Nikki Whisperer.
There have been collisions. One occurred in Oscar season, when ID was part of the team behind “The King’s Speech.” The company also represented several actors in “The Social Network,” a chief rival in the awards race, as well as Sean Parker, an Internet mogul who was portrayed unflatteringly in the movie.
When ID, at Mr. Parker’s behest, according to Ms. Bush, began circulating copies of a book that was being used to question the veracity of “The Social Network” — Scott Rudin, the film’s producer, confronted Ms. Bush. He accused ID, Ms. Bush said, of working to undermine his movie on behalf of “The King’s Speech.” (Mr. Rudin said, “I have nothing to say about Kelly Bush.”)
“The King’s Speech,” of course, won the best picture Oscar. Ms. Bush ended the run-in, she said, by sending Mr. Rudin a dartboard. “My note said I was glad not to be his target anymore.”