03.10.10

The D-List's Svengali

From an early start at Death Row Records at age 18, David Weintraub has gone on to create a lucrative business by funneling his damaged clients onto shows like Celebrity Rehab.

From an early start at Death Row Records at age 18, David Weintraub has gone on to create a lucrative business by funneling his damaged clients to shows like Celebrity Rehab.

One of Hollywood manager-producer David Weintraub’s philosophies about business is that if you throw enough against the wall, something will stick. Or, as Weintraub put it recently: “One of five—someone’s gonna pop.”

Weintraub, who is 31, was sitting outside a café in West Hollywood, nursing an iced chai latte. Having just come from a workout session with one of his clients, Nicole Eggert—the former Baywatch star who is reinventing herself as a TV comeback story on this season’s Celebrity Fit Club—he was wearing a bright red Puma track suit and a black Dodgers cap. As he talked, he kept his dark sunglasses propped up on his chiseled nose. A chunky, silver watch, studded with diamonds, hung from his wrist.

“Dr. Drew went from being this doctor that I could count on, and, like, if my client got sick or needed something, he’d be there,” David Weintraub said, “to being the TV doctor, who is like, ‘Make sure it’s the right angle.’ ‘Let’s make sure it’s the right look.’ ‘I don’t know if this is the right tone.’ And, I’m like, come on, dude.”

“Kari Ann Peniche popped,” Weintraub said, elaborating on his theory. As a result, “We’ve done a lot of shit with her… She did three shows— Sex Rehab, Celebrity Rehab, Sober House; made a deal at VH1; and she just put out a record.”

Weintraub, who starred on A&E’s short-lived reality show Sons of Hollywood, is the Professor Henry Higgins of Hollywood’s teeming subculture of broken and/or has-been porn stars, rock 'n’ rollers, or, in the case of Peniche, fallen Miss Teen USA’s—“an underbelly of good people with bad situations,” as he says. (Peniche had her title revoked after she was photographed nude in Playboy. More notoriously, she appeared in a “ naked tape” with actress Rebecca Gayheart and her husband, Eric Dane of Grey’s Anatomy.)

His stock in trade is taking these minor and minor-minor celebrities—in addition to Peniche, porn star Mary Carey; former Guns n’ Roses drummer Steven Adler; Sean Stewart (son of Rod)—and making them, if not major, then less minor. His usually methodology is getting them cast on reality-TV shows that delve into the darker side of the American Dream: Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, Sex Rehab, and Sober House—the last of which has its second season premiere tonight on VH1.

The shows are not about winning a singing competition, like American Idol, or about what happens when a bunch of young strangers live in a house together and craziness ensues, as on The Real World. Rather, they take a serious look at real problems, like drug addiction, and deal with them with the assistance of professionals. Craziness, naturally, still ensues, but there is an undercurrent of genuine pain and, often, actual healing.

Because of what’s at stake—people’s lives—it’s a volatile business, made all the more so by people who have more than their fair share of demons. Weintraub does not always escape unscathed—he has had ugly falling-outs with clients who charge him with caring more about making good TV than a good life.

Weintraub’s access and connection to “good people with bad situations” is such that he’s become the de facto supplier of participants for these shows, all of which air on VH1. When Celebrity Rehab debuted in 2008, Weintraub got two of his clients on: Mary Carey and Seth Binzer, aka “Shifty Shellshock,” of the band Crazy Town, whom Weintraub found “living behind an alley in Hollywood, smoking crack.” By the third season, which concluded last week, he’d gotten a dozen clients cast in the rehab “brand,” as he calls it. (In return for his services, Irwin Entertainment, which produces the shows, gives him a “packaging” fee.)

Recalling how he first proposed to Shifty that he go on Celebrity Rehab, Weintraub, who described his role as “making people’s dreams come true,” said: “I go, ‘Dude, you want this? You want to get sober?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah.’ I’m like, ‘But you gotta tell your story on TV.’ He’s like, ‘David, this is what I need. I need help. I just want to kick this crack…. And he just broke down. He needed money for his son, his wife. He said, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it.’ So I put him and Mary Carey in the show.”

Intertwined in salvation is, of course, fame, something that Weintraub—a former agent who grew up in Beverly Hills, where “Roseanne Barr was my best friend’s mom and Aaron Spelling was my other best friend’s dad”—understands all too well.

“Yes, recovery is great. But go recover not with a camera in your face, if you really want to do it,” he said.

Weintraub has always lived in the vicinity of what he calls “the fame monster,” and worked both sides of it. He’s starred not just in Sons of Hollywood, but Bravo’s Date My Ex: Jo & Slade, and has appeared frequently on Celebrity Rehab and Sober House as the manager/friend of clients such as Peniche and Carey. (Years ago, Weintraub dated Peniche; as for Carey, they once “messed around on the road.”)

He is a fast talker and a fast thinker who, when things don’t go where he wants them to, moves swiftly on to the next thing. At 18, while in college at USC, he spent half the week working at Death Row Records during its heyday, where he made $50,000 as “the white, little, Jewish kid” among gangsta rappers.

He and Randy Spelling then started a record company (funded by Spelling’s dad), but after the first three albums flopped, Weintraub switched to agenting, working first at William Morris, then at the United Talent Agency, where, besides bringing in Paris Hilton to be signed (he knew her because “Randy took her virginity at our senior prom”), he got the idea to make a reality-TV show about the kids of famous people.

“The celebu-spawn business wasn’t big then. We helped make that business,” he said. “Those kids come to me because I was the one… that actually had a real day job and could deliver them gigs. And we’re talking everyone from [CBS Corporation CEO] Les Moonves to Rod Stewart, and all these big, powerful families. Their kids were kind of like knuckleheads, but characters. And we capitalized on that.”

Sons of Hollywood, which starred Weintraub, Spelling, and the sweet but troubled Sean Stewart (Moonves wouldn’t let his son participate), didn’t make it past a single season, but it defined the business strategy that’s at the core of DWE Talent, the management-production company he formed 2008.

Among his other clients are rappers like Scarface and Too Short; former American Idol winner Taylor Hicks; and Eggert, who credits Weintraub not just for getting her on Celebrity Fit Club, but on the cover of People last week, and shows like Extra and The Tonight Show. Eggert’s appearance on Larry King Live last night, to talk about the death of Corey Haim, her one-time boyfriend, was also Weintraub’s doing.

“He works his buns off,” Eggert said of Weintraub. “He just brought a new energy back into everything. He just has a better game plan.”

The engine that has been driving DWE, though, is people like Peniche, who reliably behave sensationally in front of cameras—one moment she’ll have a fit about being awoken for group therapy; another, she’ll throw a tantrum over whether her cigarettes are in a hard or soft pack. Reformation does not seem to be in her immediate future.

But not everyone is Peniche, who, Weintraub said, “calls me every day and thanks me for what I’ve done for her.” In some cases, the process of shedding bad habits can lead a client to no longer see Weintraub as a vehicle to celebrity, but a darker force.

This happened with porn sensation Penny Flame—whose real name is Jennie Ketcham—whom Weintraub got cast in Sex Rehab. At first, Ketcham saw the show as a “marketing scam,” she said. But when she began to benefit from the therapy, she decided to give up her career as an adult entertainer. When she shared this with Weintraub, he was “sincerely shocked,” Ketcham said. “He wanted to continue on the big joke that we had planned—that’s what he wanted and expected from me.”

Weintraub recalled saying to her: “Dude, don’t destroy all your relationships. Because you can have a good relationship with your past work and still monetize the past work while also embracing this new world of TV and getting these opportunities.”

He denied telling Ketcham not to leave porn, but said, “She shouldn’t have talked negatively about the business.”

Peniche, meanwhile, was a more ideal client in her telegenically trainwreck ways. And Ketcham said that Weintraub “was definitely encouraging [Peniche] to keep acting the way she was acting.”

When Weintraub heard Ketcham’s accusation, he exploded: “That is an insane statement! All I do are the business deals, and Penny Flame is lucky that she got to be in the room with me… I would never encourage Kari Ann. I told Kari Ann, ‘Do you. Be you.’”

If Weintraub is manipulating the game, he’s not the only one. In his view, 70 percent of the rehab shows he works on are contrived, all the more so as the series have become more popular and its stars more famous.

“Dr. Drew went from being this doctor that I could count on, and, like, if my client got sick or needed something, he’d be there, to being the TV doctor, who is like, ‘Make sure it’s the right angle.’ ‘Let’s make sure it’s the right look.’ ‘I don’t know if this is the right tone.’ And, I’m like, come on, dude.”

(Dr. Drew Pinsky declined to comment for this story.)

Yet however enmeshed Weintraub is in the DNA of these shows, he’s ultimately a service provider, not the one orchestrating the drama, and, as such, even he can end up as a victim. His appearances on Sober House, he said, were edited to make him look like “a villain.”

And there was nothing he could do when, he says, the producers on that show suggested a story line for Carey that called for her to remove her breast implants.

“They took Mary Carey, they put her in a room, and they said to her, ‘Your story’s shit, Mary. Your story sucks on this show. We just paid you a lot of money, and your story sucks. Here’s what you need to do to make our show better. We call Dr. Fisher, he’s gonna remove your breast implants on the last week of the show, and you’ll recover in the Sober House, and we’ll show this complete transformation of you leaving porn behind by removing your boobs. And we have you set up, you’re gonna manage a Starbucks.’”

Weintraub says that when Carey refused, and immediately called Weintraub in hysterics, the producers edited the footage so it’s not clear what, exactly, Carey is hysterical about.

John Irwin, the show’s executive producer, declined to comment for this story. But whatever conflicts he and Weintraub have had have been ironed out for the sake of keeping a lucrative business thriving.

“We have a love-hate relationship,” Weintraub said. “He knows that I deliver talent, and I always get him the people that he wants and the great, salacious, crazy world of pop-culture celebrities that are willing to do these shows.”

Later in the conversation, he said, putting his fists together and then pulling them apart: “We’re like this, then we’re like this—then we go to the bank together.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.