EXPRESSING THE ESSENTIAL Nadine Johnson runs a New York public relations firm that caters to a select international clientele. With her impeccable media and celebrity contacts, Nadine Johnson & Associates Inc. has the acumen of years at the cutting edge of public relations.
Nadine you are Belgian, born in the Congo, and have been in New York for almost 30 years where you became one of the most well-known public relations people in the world. How come?
Public relations was never my life goal. I read a lot, because since I am a little girl I don’t like to speak with humans, so I hide in my books and learn about the world. I found communication to be difficult.
Is that coherent with public relations?
Like my grandfather said, “Life has a way to put you in the context that you abhor the most, because you are here on earth to learn something.”
What did you learn?
To communicate. (She laughs) So now I have to speak with thousands of people every day.
What is your background?
I was born in Zaire, the Belgian Congo, and came back to Belgium from Africa when I was 14. I was in Katanga and used to go to Rhodesia quite a lot, there were many English farmers there. My father was an engineer, and my mother’ father had shares in a company called Union Minière du Haut-Katanga. It was a geological marvel that, when walking on the road, you could find shiny green stones, pure malachite, which was there to be taken by the Belgian colonists.
Do you consider yourself a child of Africa?
Yes, a pied noir. I never went to school. We had the Belgian nun coming every day to teach my elder brother and myself how to write. It was a very pleasant lazy life, full of wonder.
Why did you come back to Europe?
Because they were about to give independence to the country and it was getting dangerous. My mother put me in a convent in Belgium where they didn’t know what grade to put me in because I didn’t go to school before. I had to wear uniform, brush my hair and wear shoes. It was traumatising, but I enjoyed it after a while. I graduated at 17 and went to the University of Brussels and studied political science and law, to which I was not attracted but I had noticed that all the hot guys were there in those classes!
Why did you come to New York?
After my studies I went to Iran and to Lebanon, I didn’t want to stay in Belgium. I was sitting in a store in the south of France on vacation, and somebody said you should come to New York and check it out. I went to see my mother and said, “I am selling everything and going to America.” And she said, “You don’t own anything!”
“I never had a mentor or somebody to tell me what to do, so I created my own way of doing what they call PR.”
Nadine Johnson’s birthplace, her beloved Katanga in Zaire.
What happened when you got to New York?
Luckily for me I had very good friends from Antwerp and Brussels who arrived mysteriously in the same year and the same month, and one day we found each other in New York and we all became friends for life. To make a living I sold diamonds for a friend from Antwerp. I also translated some speeches at the UN from Swahili and French to English. I had a lot of fun at parties, it was the height of the Eurotrash movement.
What kind of people were you meeting?
New York at the time was a special place, a big city that was extraordinarily open, like a Babel Tower or a magnificent beehive where you would meet. There was never a dull moment, whereas Europe was so slow.
How long did this non-specific life last?
I spent 14 years like that. I was very busy meeting a lot of artists, and I would sit in the library reading for the longest time. I remember the library of spiritual books called Samuel Weiser next to 8th Street, and I was living at Number One 5th Avenue where Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe lived, and then I fell in love with a man.
You had no love stories before?
I had flings, but some men come with an expiration date and you know it’s not going to last. One day a man came into my life and I knew it was not an expiration date. He came into a party late, in cowboy boots which I abhor in a man, and I was sitting on the floor eating. I turned to the person to my right and said very seriously, “This is the man I am going to marry,” and she said, “How do you know that?” I didn’t even know his name, but right on cue he arrived and sat next to us. We were never apart after that moment.
Richard and I got married. He worked as a journalist with Rupert Murdoch at The New York Post. One day we had a little fight. My husband is a minimalist, when he reads a book he throws it away, but I would never throw out books. He saw my piles of magazines and said it was clutter and they have to go. “If you like to read so much you should go into PR.” I said, “What’s PR?” He said, “You get paid to read magazines.” I thought that was a nice way to earn a living.
How did you start working?
I got lucky. I was around 35, and some of my friends were opening hotels or galleries. My first clients were Larry Gagosian and André Balazs. I did the press for the Chateau Marmont hotel in LA, and I opened the first gallery Larry Gagosian ever had, on North Camden Drive in Beverly Hills.
“A good public relations person will not leave any stone unturned.”
How did it go?
I just loved the work, because I never had a mentor or somebody to tell me what to do, so I created my own way of doing what they call PR. Since I read a lot of magazines I would pick the one I liked, and the journalist whose style I liked. I wanted to be independent and on my own schedule. I never had a boss in my life.
After the first two who were your clients?
One was Richard Meier, the architect. He did a church based on a mediaeval castle in suburban Rome as part of the Holy See’s strategy to rejuvenate parish life within Italy, and it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. It’s a very rich environment, public relations.
In which fields did you work?
I worked with everybody. I did a big opening for Lord of the Rings the movie because I knew the producer and he came to me. I did a lot of fashion, Chanel, Moncler, Stella McCartney….
How do you get your clients?
It is word of mouth, and I am very lucky, people think that I do good work. We never had a website or a business card until 5 years ago. My clients made my success and now 30 people work here.
What kinds of clients do you have?
We have four departments: art & culture, architecture & design, hospitality, real estate and events. We do big events all over the world: the guest list, the media relations, the logistics, the entertainment. We did several events in Russia, including a big party for Larry Gagosian, an event for Cy Twombly at L’Hermitage on the occasion of 300 years of St Petersburg. We did a big party for Chanel in Las Vegas with Karl Lagerfeld. We did the opening of Jumex Museo by David Chipperfield in Mexico City. We don’t really work with individuals, but we do work with artists, like Marina Abramović and Daniel Arsham.
When people want to work with you what do they expect?
I help people. They come to me and say I am opening an hotel, or I have a new line of skateboard. I only take the clients that I feel have a great chemistry with my company and have a level of expectation that is reasonable. I prefer to under promise and over deliver instead of the opposite.
How do you make the right noise around a product, a location, an hotel, an art fair?
First you have to understand the personality and the DNA of that person, that location, that fair. I do a lot of research, I look at the competition, the potential red flags. Has anybody said anything bad about that person, location or fair? And when I did my due diligence I come out with a plan that expresses the essential talking points in a few words, three or four sentences that say everything about that particular client or project.
What do you do?
Media strategy to craft a message about a client is what I do really well, all over the world. I know a lot of reporters, in China and in South America, and New York is the media capital of the world.
Nadine in Kenya with her son Jack.
Lupo is the office mascot at Nadine Johnson & Associates Inc.
Nadine with Larry Gagosian, the art dealer who owns the Gagosian Gallery chain of art galleries.
A daytime view of the atrium entrance to The Mark Hotel, New York City’s most boldly lavish hotel and a favorite of Nadine’s.
Nadine on her way to the Vanity Fair party at the Oscars in February 2007. Photo-Billy Farrell/PatrickMcMullan.com ©Patrick McMullan
Nadine with the American abstract artist and architect Richard Meier.
“New York is the media capital of the world.”
Has your job changed a lot since you started?
Yes, tremendously. The internet allowed us to communicate with more people, and faster. The attention span of the world got smaller and smaller and smaller. Now The New Yorker magazine that I love is like a beautiful special retreat for someone who loves the written word. It’s almost like a museum now.
Because people don’t have so much time to read?
An Instagram message is a full story told in one second. I love to reinvent the way we communicate, and it is all so much faster now. It almost goes so fast that paradoxically I have more time to think.
Is celebrity and gossip still important?
Celebrity is a distraction, icing on the cake. I idolise some celebrities. An actor like Daniel Day Lewis, I adore him, and I love William Dafoe. The “shiny people” have a very important function because they bring dreams to people with no dreams, that need dreams to survive.
What do clients expect you to do now?
The power to influence has been diluted, but still a good public relations person will not leave any stone unturned. With the multiplicity of media forms the cream rose to the top, and the whole world feeds on the stories of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. I don’t pay for advertising, I approach reporters to write about our client. This is how you create value. I still read a lot so I know what story to give to exactly which journalist on which day. I make sure that it is given with the right image, the right angle, and I know what that journalist likes and tends to emphasise.
What is your schedule?
I stay at the office until 1am, I go to bed at 3am, I sleep 4 to 5 hours a night. I wake up between 6 and 8am, I read the papers. I get to the office around 10.30, I touch base with the team, department heads to see where they are at. I don’t do lunch, but people come here, and I have to go out with people if for example there is a big fair. I love what I do. There is no routine. There is always something else. I am good at putting little pieces together that other people would not necessarily see. I have that intuition, which brings joy and value.
How do you calculate your fees?
I have a very good Russian accountant, who is the only person I am afraid of here.
Are you very expensive?
New York, 2018
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