10.11.10

How Mel Is Winning the Media War

While Mel Gibson is keeping mum, his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva is on a publicity tear. Nicole LaPorte on why it’s hurting her image and, potentially, her legal case.

She’s certainly no Elin Nordegren. Unlike Tiger Woods’ ex, Mel Gibson’s former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva is anything but silent in what’s become an ugly and protracted battle with Gibson over child custody and domestic-violence charges.

Over the last few weeks, rather than retreat from the spotlight and let the drama unfold in the courtroom, Grigorieva, who’s been in the hands of a revolving door of publicists, lawyers, and advisers, has been a ubiquitous media spectacle. She’s on this week’s cover of People magazine. She scheduled an Oprah Winfrey interview, which was then canceled. She was in talks to do a Dateline segment. And she’s been photographed by the paparazzi, dropping her car off at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

Stephen Jaffe, Grigorieva’s publicist, said the strategy is an attempt to combat the vast difference in resources and name-recognition between his client and “the actor, the celebrity, and the Academy Award-winning director”—a “popularity contest,” Jaffe said, in which Gibson “wins out.”

But is Grigorieva’s PR approach hurting her?

“She’s gone from a stage of, ‘This is a serious issue of domestic violence,’ to the Octomom stage,” said Ross Johnson, head of strategic communications at the public-relations firm PMK-BMC.

“It’s a dangerous game,” Johnson continued. “The judge wants legal cases litigated in the courtroom, where it should be litigated. After a certain point, if your PR campaign is too obviously playing out in the media, it can hurt you in the courtroom.”

It is unclear at this point whether Grigorieva will, in fact, hinder her legal position—she recently claimed a victory, when her child support was upped to $20,000 a month. But many lawyers and PR experts say that by talking to the press while her case is still being investigated, she is opening herself up to the possibility of saying something publicly that can be used against her in court.

“The more she does, the more it backfires,” said Robin Sax, a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, who briefly counseled Grigorieva, though Sax was never paid or on contract. “There’s more opportunity for inconsistent statements. At this point, it’s just, ‘Shut up and let the case speak for itself.’”

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As for the status of the Gibson/Grigorieva case, the L.A. district attorney is determining whether or not to file domestic-violence charges against Gibson. Meanwhile, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department is investigating extortion charges against Grigorieva and is expected to turn over their findings in about two weeks.

Over the past several months, as Grigorieva has been on prominent display, Gibson has remained out of sight and uncharacteristically mum (even if his camp has been as aggressive as Grigorieva’s in leaking to TMZ.com). As a result, he’s miraculously managed to staunch the flood of negative press that began when the tapes of him ranting at Grigorieva like a deranged, and very dangerous, animal, were leaked back in July.

Led by a mega-watt team of half a dozen lawyers and PR veteran Alan Nierob, all of whom seem to understand that when Gibson opens his mouth it’s a public-relations disaster, their client has been behind a strict wall of silence. Gibson has also been quiet on the career front, with no talk of future film projects. As for his recently completed film, The Beaver, it is still unclear if and when Summit Entertainment will release it.

“You’re talking about big egos, and Oksana is terrified of not being represented, so she’ll do whatever they say,” says Robin Sax, of Oksana Grigorieva’s relationship with her new, pro-media lawyers.

No such discipline exists within Team Oksana, which is a virtual circus of coming-and-going players with conflicting agendas. Last month, Grigorieva, whom one source described as “hot-headed,” fired and replaced her lawyers. At one point, PR honcho Howard Bragman was brought on, but stepped down with 24 hours, “because he didn’t think he could control her,” said one source. (Bragman would not comment for this story.) Most recently, Sax came and quickly went.

Sax told The Daily Beast that she was “sought out” by Grigorieva and spent two weeks counseling her every night, but ultimately refused to represent her, because of the “discontent among the team.”

At the heart of the conflict is a difference of opinion between Grigorieva’s new family-law attorneys, Sorrell Trope and Anne Kiley, who want their client to keep quiet, and Daniel Horowitz, her criminal-defense attorney, and Martin Garbus, her trial lawyer, who are pushing for more press. Recently, Horowitz and Garbus, who are frequent commentators on news networks, appeared on the Today show to discuss Grigorieva. And Horowitz sat down with TMZ founder Harvey Levin for a chat on TMZ Live.

Sax explains their hold over their client by saying, “You’re talking about big egos, and [Grigorieva is] terrified of not being represented, so she’ll do whatever they say.” They are also feeding into the fact that Grigorieva herself has been eager to tell her story: The reason that Bragman quit was apparently because she gave an impromptu interview to reporters in a parking lot.

None of Grigorieva’s current lawyers responded to messages left by The Daily Beast.

Also weighing in, until recently, was Grigorieva’s bodyguard, Kristian Otto Herzog, a twice-convicted felon whom Grigorieva trusted as her closest adviser and who, according to Sax, “shamelessly” courted the press and was “wreaking havoc.” Recently, Gibson’s lawyers successfully pushed for a restraining order to keep Herzog away from Lucia, the ex-couple’s 1-year-old, due to his criminal background.

“She has been 100 percent under his direction,” Sax said of Herzog, who “was pushing her” to talk to the media. (TMZ has reported that Herzog has also been the one encouraging Grigorieva to fire her representatives.)

In People, Grigorieva said that she was “withdrawing any communication” with Herzog.

But even Sax, who now says that the best thing for Grigorieva to do is zip it, appeared at one time to be aligned with the pro-media faction in the Oksana camp. According to a knowledgeable source, while Sax was counseling Grigorieva, she reached out to Dateline to arrange for an interview with Grigorieva, but the talks fell apart.

When asked about Dateline, Sax said, “I am not going to discuss that.”

However, the would-be interview with Oprah Winfrey was the most prominent—and puzzling— example of mixed messages from Grigorieva. After all, a sit-down with the talk-show queen is the ultimate platform for a wronged woman to air her story. The producers had gone as far as taping the at-home segments of the show, designed to demonstrate, according to a source at a competing network, that Grigorieva is “a musician and a mother, not a gold-digger.” (Hence, lots of shots of Grigorieva at the piano.)

But in a slightly unbelievable development last week, considering Oprah’s clout, TMZ reported  that Grigorieva had canceled the interview, on the advice of her press-shy family lawyers. (The source says it was actually Winfrey who pulled the plug, though it’s unclear as to why.)

The Daily Beast called Winfrey’s company, Harpo Studios, regarding this matter, but received no response.

The confusion, the manipulation, the tit-for-tat TMZ leaks: Like it or not, this is the petty soap opera that controls public opinion. Even when the dispute is about domestic violence and custody of a toddler. And even when the charges are against a man who “went into the kitchen to grab my keys and he’s pulling a gun out of his shorts,” as Grigorieva told People. “He’s starting to wave it. He said, ‘I’m gonna effing show you how to effing leave here.’ I thought he would kill me.”

Jaffe, for one, resorted to a disaster metaphor to describe the saga, which shows no sign of abating.

“It’s like the Titanic,” he said. “This is a ship that’s taking on water.”

Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks .