A Conversation With Legendary Publicist Carol Ross
Carol Ross is one of the most successful entertainment publicists of all time. She’s worked with KISS, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Hall & Oates, and many other music icons. She was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about her remarkable career, and the discussion we had was enlightening, entertaining and educational. I hope you enjoy it.
How did you get involved in public relations?
I originally studied to be an actor/singer/dancer and I went to the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. I started taking some acting classes at NYU, and then I went to Lee Strasberg’s acting studio. After that I did summer stock theater and went out to California and did some acting out there.
When I came back to New York, I was in some meetings with people and they talked about the business end of the entertainment industry and I started to get interested in the business side of it as well. I thought the PR aspect of it would be good for me because I liked dealing with people. If I was going to stop performing, this seemed like the way to go.
I went to Temple University, and before picking my major I had no idea what public relations was. Did you have a similar experience?
I taught a course in PR at The New School and The Learning Annex in New York City, and many of my students didn’t really understand what PR was. So, I told them this: advertising you pay for, publicity you pray for. It’s our job as publicists to make editors give up the space that they would otherwise be using for advertising. It’s being able to sell without paying for it.
It’s more difficult because anyone can write a check.
Absolutely! That’s where the creativity comes in, and that’s where you need to do your homework and know what you’re talking about. You need to know the best way to reach these people, and the best way to go about it is doing your research on the reporters and editors you plan on reaching out to. You need to learn who they like and what they focus on, so you bring them clients and sources that are of interest to them.
When did you break into the business?
In the 1970s.
I had a female PR professor who worked in public relations back then as well and she told me that it was man’s business at the time. Did you have to overcome similar adversity at the beginning of your career?
It’s absolutely true, and one of my mentors, Connie, was a pioneer. Because of women like her, I was able to do what I did. Prior to Connie and women like her, if you were a woman and wanted to work on the business side of the entertainment industry, your choices were limited. You could be a receptionist or a secretary. That’s about it. It is very hard for you to move into an executive position. In the mid-1970s it all started to change because of pioneers like Connie. But we had to prove ourselves even more than a man going for the same position. It wasn’t easy but we managed to do it. So, women were finally able to get executive positions at record companies and get involved in promotions and marketing. It took a long time, and we never got paid the same. It took a while to climb the ladder. It’s still that way in some instances. That industry, the music industry and the entertainment industry, is still run by the good old boys and it’s hard.
When I had my own company and I had several women working for me, I made sure to tell them that, “ If you’re going into a meeting, I don’t want you wearing tight jeans or low-cut blouses or anything like that. It will distract or diminish your position. You need to go in as a professional, and you’re going to need to be even more prepared than the men in that meeting.” It was a whole different atmosphere for women to gain respect and be able to climb the ladder in the business.How did you start working with KISS?
I had a friend named Alan and he had a friend named Bill Aucoin. Alan asked me if I would come down to see a band that Bill was going to possibly manage and he wanted to get my feedback on it. So, I went downtown and I met Bill Aucoin. Bill, Alan and myself stood in the back of the theater and all of a sudden I see the sign blasting the name KISS and some of the lights are out. Then these four guys come on stage in costumes they made themselves, and it was like wow! (laughs) Bill turned to me and asked, “So, Carol what do you think?” I said, “ Well, it’s very interesting. The closest thing I’ve seen to this is David Bowie.” Then Bill said, “ I’m going to manage these guys and I know it’s going to be tough but I think maybe we can do something.” And he asked me if I would help do some PR for the band. At that time, I had just gotten my job at MCA records. I couldn’t really do anything for them but on the side Bill would tell me what he was doing and I would provide my feedback. After I left MCA records, I was made an offer to work for Rogers & Cowan, which is an international public relations agency. I was asked to run their music division in New York City. At this point, I know Bill was anxious for me to work with KISS so I accepted the position and brought the band in as my first client.
Bill really believed in the band, even when everyone was laughing at him and telling him he was crazy. Then he got Neil Bogart at Casablanca interested, and then everyone at Casablanca thought Neil Bogart was crazy. (laughs) Everybody was just so negative about it, but Bill, Neil and I felt very strongly that something big could happen with this band.
The dedication from Bill was just amazing. He charged everything on his American Express card to get these guys going. It was an interesting situation, to see how it evolved. I remember calling the media and having to pull the phone away from my head because I would hear laughter on the other end when I would try to pitch them KISS. They would say to me, “You’ve got to be kidding.” No sophisticated music journalist would go near them because they thought they were a joke. That just gave me the incentive to work harder and say to them, “You know, someday you’re going to be calling me wanting to interview them.” Of course, that happened but it took a long time. No one took them seriously. It was really the KISS Army that built them up. The fans were really there for them. It was an amazing phenomenon.
Knowing that reporters weren’t willing to cover KISS when the band was just getting started, how did you go about creating a compelling pitch that forced them to pay attention?
My philosophy is if you can’t come in the front door, come in the back door. Knowing that we weren’t going to get interviews for the band, we decided to create events. When you create events that are huge, the press has to cover it or they aren’t doing their job. So, this is what we did. We created events that generated press. Eventually we came up with events that turned a lot of heads, but it required a constant flow of ideas.
Once KISS made it and journalists wanted to speak with the band, how did you decide who should be the band’s spokesperson?
It was a very difficult situation. Gene was very affable. He’d talk to everybody and he was great at that. Paul was more reserved and shy. Ace and Peter were there and they were fun, but the press would ask for Gene when they wanted to do an interview. This created a difficult situation because I didn’t want this to cause a problem. It required some creative thinking on my part to convince the press to talk to Paul, Ace and Peter too. In the beginning, it was only Gene that everybody wanted to talk to.
We would try and get an equal amount of opportunities for all of them, but that’s never the way it would work out. However, there were journalists who were interested in Ace’s guitar playing and there were drumming magazines that were interested in Peter. But most of the personality pieces were focused on Gene.
Out of all of the great events you created in your career to generate publicity, what would you say is your proudest achievement?
I’d say the Cadillac Michigan event we created for KISS. We were approached by the coach of the Cadillac High School football team. He told us that his team wasn’t doing very well, so he decided to play music when they were practicing. He started by playing KISS albums and all of a sudden the team started getting revved up and winning games. So, he contacted our office to see if the guys would acknowledge the team in some way. I thought we could take this a step further, so I called Bill and said, “What if we went to the high school and we brought the band and we brought reporters with us? And what if we created an event not only for the high school, but for the whole town?” Bill said, “That’s great! Let’s do that.” So, I called the coach back and told him about it. There was silence for so long on the other end I thought he got so excited that he dropped the phone. (laughs) And so we worked it out.
The football team put on the makeup. The students, the teachers – everyone put on the makeup, even the local fire department and politicians. And we brought KISS in on a helicopter that landed on the football field. I brought in 22 reporters from New York. It was totally awesome. Just the most amazing thing! They had a big float and a parade. It was just absolutely amazing. To me, that was the turning point for the band. All of a sudden magazines like People were willing to talk to KISS and cover the band, probably because they saw all of these everyday people wearing the makeup. It made them realize that KISS isn’t that scary if all these people love them. We got a lot of mainstream press because of that, not just rock press.
Do any other KISS events stand out as memorable for you as well?
Well, when the band had a comic book coming out I came up with the idea for us to pour four vials of their blood into a vat of red ink that would be used to create the comic book. The band thought that was the greatest thing ever. (laughs) For everything they were doing, we took it one step further. The more outrageous the better.
How long did you work with KISS?
Up until the early 1990s. And I still keep in touch with them. It’s been an amazing journey. I was there for all of the band’s major transitions, including when Ace left and Peter left and when they took the makeup off.
What was it like handling PR for KISS when their popularity wanned with the release of Unmasked, Music From the Elder and Creatures of the Night?
The record company really gave Neil a hard time because KISS wasn’t selling enough records and they had put a lot of money and effort into these albums. It was not easy. They had their issues with the record company.
What was it like when Bill Aucoin and KISS parted ways?
Bill took on too many things after KISS. He spent too much time and money on other acts and KISS became a secondary interest for him. Since Bill was losing money, Howard Marks, who did KISS’ advertising, decided to step in. I felt really bad for Bill because we had a really close working relationship. But he wasn’t able to see what was happening to himself yet everyone else could. It was sad, very sad. But Howard Marks was there and it just evolved.
I assume it was a similar situation when Ace and Peter let drugs and alcohol take over their lives?
Yes, that was very sad too. These things happen and we tried to make the best of it. I still see Ace and Peter from time to time and I’m glad they’re both doing well.
Obviously, after Ace and Peter left Gene and Paul were the nucleus of KISS. However, in the 1980s did you get a chance to work with any of the other members of KISS? For example, Vinnie Vincent?
Yes, but not as much as Gene and Paul since they were my focus. The other guys, they were there. But it’s hard when you start off with four guys who you’re close to and two of them leave. I did my job for all of the other members, but I never developed close relationships with them the way I did with the four original guys.
Was it more difficult to pitch KISS to the media in the 1980s because the makeup came off and they looked like every other band?
Yes, it was. But people were still interested in them. They had become part of the foundation of their style of music. I didn’t have to develop anything more. People understood who they were and what to expect. It wasn’t a hard sell anymore. I was simply promoting anything interesting that they were doing, including albums and tours.
Did you set up the event on MTV where KISS unveiled themselves without the makeup?
Yes, that was interesting. It took several months of conversations for Gene and Paul to make the final decision to take the makeup off. That could have been a disaster. They were taking a big chance, and we did it. It was accepted. But the fans wanted the makeup. They wanted them to be those larger-than-life characters. Now without the makeup they were just another band. And, eventually, they decided to put the makeup back on.
What were the last albums and projects you worked on with KISS?
Revenge and Alive III, and then we kind of fizzed out. Everything was changing. Howard Marks passed away, and the band decided to manage themselves. It was a difficult time. They didn’t feel the need to keep this thing going on a formal basis. We had meetings and conversations and they told me they were going in a different direction and that was it.
You worked with Dennis DeYoung at one point, correct?
Yes, I love Dennis! I love the music. The most important thing is loving and respecting the people you work with or what’s the point? If I’m not excited by an artist, how can I excite someone else about them?
Dennis was delightful, such a talented guy. I worked with him in the 1980s, when he released his first solo album: Desert Moon.
You also worked with Hall & Oates, who I adore. What was that like?
I worked with them in the 1980s as well, back when they were managed by Tommy Mottola. Tommy called me and asked me to come and work for them and they were great. I got closer to John than Daryl. John Oates is very open, gracious and nice, while Daryl is very reserved and cautious. So, I had to keep this in mind when deciding which reporters to pair them with for media opportunities.
I’m also a huge fan of Dionne Warwick, so I was excited when I read that you also worked with Burt Bacharach. When did you represent him?
This was back when he was working with Neil Bogart at Casablanca records in the early 1980s. Burt was with Carol Bayer Sager at the time. He was very nervous, very edgy…but really a terrific guy. He was down-to-Earth and willing to talk to anybody. However, he had a lot of trepidation. He was very nervous, so I used to have to calm him down.
What was he nervous about?
I don’t know. If he was going into a meeting or about to do an interview, he was revved up. So, I’d calm him down. I’d say to him, “Burt, you’re going to be fine. You’ve been in this business a long time.” The longer you work with a client, the more you realize what works and what doesn’t work with them. That’s how you deal with them.
You also worked with Bette Midler, right?
I did, for a very short period of time. What a hoot! I loved her. She’s a terrific lady. We were in Chicago for a radio promotion and we had such a good time. She was a terrific lady. Funny, funny, funny. Loved talking to people and very gracious. Very smart.
Did you work with Bette after Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester were no longer in her band?
Yes, Barry Manilow was also a client of mine.
Yes. As a matter of fact, he thanked me in the liner notes of his 1977 album: Barry Manilow Live. He was living in New York at the time. I remember going up to his penthouse apartment for meetings. He was absolutely great. It was so sweet of him to mention me in the album notes. And he’d send me Christmas cards saying, “I miss you.” Just really a terrific guy. Never had a problem with him. No ego problems. Nothing. It’s always nice when the people you like personally live up to your expectations professionally.
I’ve met Barry Manilow a few times, and he’s one of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever met.
He’s an absolute gentleman. No ego. That just makes it so much easier and it gave me the incentive to want to do more for him. I’ve kept the Christmas cards. He was just lovely.
Do you stay in touch with any of the numerous artists you’ve represented over the years?
I’ve stayed in touch with Gene and Paul. I haven’t spoken to Barry for quite some time. I recently saw Paul McCartney. I’m going to see Billy Joel in a couple of weeks. It’s nice, from time to time, to stay in touch with people I’ve worked with over the years.
I assume you’re going to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!
I damn well will! Absolutely! She’s so great.
Is there an artist you worked with that you look back on now and you’re particularly proud of how they turned out?
Yes, Blondie. Not Debbie; she was always easy to work with. The rest of the band was difficult. They did not like media. They did not like press because they had been given a bad rap in the beginning. So, once they made it they’d say, “Why do we have to be bothered with these people?” So I had to have a few conversations with them to turn that around. That could have been disastrous. Debbie was great, but I had to work with the band a lot. Finally, they got it.