"Vanity Fair sells illicit pleasure," Brown said in a "60 Minutes" interview. "My job is one of seduction. I'm about entrapping the reader."
But Brown didn't get to where she is today by working only one side of the street. Along with the celebrity chitchat, Vanity Fair runs hard reporting on every imaginable subject. There have been articles on corporate corruption, African dictators and clinical depression; interviews with Manuel Noriega, Claus von Bulow, Moammar Kadafi. Vanity Fair, Brown insists, shouldn't be judged by its cover.
"Part of the magazine's identity is the electric, modern, alive feeling that a celebrity cover gives it. It's a great wraparound," Brown says. "but inside you're going to get something completely different. . . ."
Somehow it all works, although not always without complications. When Brown bumped movie star Ellen Barkin off a 1990 cover in favor of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Barkin threatened to sue. "It seemed like the right thing to do when we did it," Brown says of her decision to go with Gorbachev, adding that Barkin's suit, which never materialized, would have been a bad career move for the actress.
It's hard to blame Barkin for being upset. There aren't many movie stars who wouldn't kill for a Vanity Fair cover shot. Features editor Jane Sarkin gets 50 letters a day from publicity agents promoting their clients. But Sarkin isn't impressed. "We know what we're looking for," she says. "The hottest of the hot." Every now and then, though, a Farrah Fawcett or a Jessica Lange cover seems to challenge that rule.
Still, there are those occasional personalities who require special persuading. A case in point involved Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz, president of the hugely successful Creative Artists Agency, whom Brown herself tried to land for an in-depth profile in 1988. Her letter to Ovitz turned up verbatim in Spy magazine last year. In it, she praised his "gifted sense of . . . timing and taste," compared his "extraordinary business acumen" to that of the sainted movie legend Irving Thalberg and even promised to assign a writer to the story "well disposed toward CAA" if Ovitz agreed to cooperate.
He declined, but, as Spy pointed out, the letter more than paid off. Seven CAA clients were on Vanity Fair covers the following year. In turn, Ovitz raised Brown's Hollywood profile by hosting a series of intimate dinners in her honor and by stocking Vanity Fair's Los Angeles benefit last year for Phoenix House with many important movie stars.
Tina doesn't really have \o7 friends\f7 in Hollywood, says one intimate. "There are people she calls, like Barry Diller (president of Fox) and Michael Ovitz, to find out what's going on. But I wouldn't say she's really close to anyone in the movie business."
"She goes to L.A. because it's her job," says another insider, "not because she likes it."
VANITY FAIR'S OFFICES ARE bright, busy and, like everything else connected with the magazine, "totally Tina." There isn't a dress code, but there does seem to be a concerted effort on the part of women staffers to be as chicly attired as Brown, the measure of all things at Vanity Fair, from story length to skirt length.
Brown's inner sanctum in the Conde Nast building looks more like a before ad for a maid service than a high-concept command center. Papers and books are scattered everywhere. One wall and part of another are decorated with Vanity Fair covers, beginning with Brown's first in May, 1984, with Daryl Hannah holding two Oscars. The attention-getting headline, "Blonde Ambition," could easily be applied to Brown herself. Dressed in a smartly tailored suit and wearing a string of pearls the size of seedless grapes, the petite-ish Brown is the picture of a woman at the top of her game, and presumably her game plan, a favorite subject for gossip in New York and Los Angeles. For instance, there are persistent rumors that several Hollywood studios have approached Brown with executive job offers, but so far she's reportedly turned them all down.
The same talk has been floating around the offices of Variety for years, according to one editor, who says she stopped listening to it a long time ago. So, apparently, has Brown. "Who would want to run a movie studio?" she asks, chuckling, denying any desire to work in show business. She's a journalist, she says, who happens to be doing exactly what she likes best. "Why would I give this up?"
Money is mentioned as one possible reason, and Brown laughs again, as if to let you know she can't be tempted.