Jayjay Epega told us how she has started her career as an entertainment publicist and how media attention is changing.
Which is your type of journalism? What do you prefer?
When you ask what I prefer, actually, it’s also important to note that I kind of look at journalism from where I’ve come from, the entertainment background primarily, I’ve been a publicist in my career and I would say in the last 10 years, I kind of reared to much more work in the journalism field, and it’s been mostly for me in entertainment and lifestyle media. So that’s where a lot of my focus has been because I started off as the contributor. I was working at CNN International in London and I was working in the publicity department. But I also did an editorial for the CNN Entertainment SHOWBIZ. It was called CNN SHOWBIZ Websites. And those were the days,10-15 years ago, the internet was still growing and blogs and content work was still something that was in its beginnings in those days. And I’m only talking about 15 years ago, but it seems like a long time when you talk about digital media. So definitely for me, it was always a case of the entertainment field film, music, TV, classic film as well, because I also worked around Turner Classic movies, and that was just the celebration of films that have gone by in the last 16 years because there have been so many brilliant films that have been made. And we still want to talk about them. But it was always around entertainment, covering the Academy Awards or the BAFTAs in the U.K., focusing on talent. And it’s something that I’ve done in the work I do currently as well, so it’s very interesting and that’s where my focus has been quite strongly.
And which are the current issues in the publicist area of journalism?
Definitely, it’s the case of what one can pursue and what one can’t. It’s always been a matter of how your talent is represented, how people look upon talent in the business. It’s interesting when I look at it and see that there’s normally a lot of positivity around. If it’s something to do with a very high profile celebrity, for instance, you look at that and you see people are very aware of somebody like Brad Pitt. But the up-and-coming talent find it hard to have that focus on their careers. So I think the difficulty now is trying to get your new talent into the market. And a lot of people are using social media and doing Tik Tok or whatever, to get attention because it’s different. Now people can become celebrities, not just by being in the film. You can be a celebrity on a reality show like the Kardashians, or you can be a celebrity by your, let’s say, your Instagram posts. You know you have Instagram millionaires nowadays. They get a lot of money to just put a post up. Some people I have known and worked with, they get £10000-50000 just to put up a post. So that’s how the media has changed. And those are the challenges that we have right now to try and fit in and get through the crowd and the noise. There’s a lot of noise at the moment.
Can we say that back in the days, for example, 10 years ago, there were many journalists working for one idea or one mission and nowadays it’s only about freelancing?
Yes! You’re really actually taking the words out of my mouth, because a lot of the time now even what I do, I can go to different publications. I’ve done writing for HuffPost, I’ve done BuzzFeed, I have my own blog, I’ve contributed to BBC News, I’ve worked for MTV. I was there as an in-house worker. So yes, you’re right, it’s more like every man for himself, because everybody has an opinion. We all have social media as well. Your Twitter account could become your magazine because you could just publish your articles on social media and you don’t wait to be accepted or published. And also like I mentioned I was a contributor to CNN, which is really great. But then you are in your boundaries because it’s what your editor tells you to write that you write. But now, as a freelancer, one can write on their own. I do personal posts for clients and issues on Thrive Global. And you can convey your message now through writing up an editorial piece for one of these online outlets where you can really share messages that you wouldn’t have been able to. Let’s say you’re writing for the New York Times or the Times of London or whatever. There’s so much more that you’re able to do as a freelancer as opposed to being in-house in a company.
In relation to hiring, it’s about the personality and the interest of the journalist. It’s not only about what you can write.
You’re very right! It’s also a lot of the time you have people who are asked to write because they’re associated with an event or they’re related to a celebrity. It’s not only about being a brilliant writer, it’s who you know sometimes, if you were there, if you are associated with the event, they want you to write about it. So that challenge of, “Oh, who’s the best writer?” like we talked about 10-15 years, 20 years ago, in the old days before my time, 20-30 years ago when people were doing journalism. My late mother was a journalist. And in those days, she had enlisted in the 80s and the very early 90s. She worked for the Daily Mail in London, and she had to submit articles. And if they like them, if the writing was good enough, they would use them. And it wasn’t often she would get articles published, but it was like “Oh, this has to be really good”. But nowadays it is like that journalism will get it in there because they’ll help us push what we want in and I say it myself because I’ve done it for other clients and myself. So a lot of the time, it’s not your skill, it’s who you know. If you’ve got the right contact, if you’re related to a celebrity, the children of a celebrity or something, there’s always that way to get in. That wasn’t there before.
Do you think it’s a sustainable model to send publications to editorials like newspapers or a magazine and get paid only if they are accepted?
I don’t believe so. Well, I don’t think it is because now you have social media platforms. Not everyone, unfortunately, is going to read your publication. They’re going to go via Twitter. They’re going to go via Instagram to read your platform.
And what about freedom of speech in general?
In journalism freedom of speech is governmental in the sense that it depends on where you are because every nation, every country has different rules and regulations. And we would say in the western world, there’s a little bit more freedom to express yourself. I’m looking at countries like Africa, South America, and even Iran. I’ve seen it, some people could be killed for expressing rage about society and things that are not moving in the right direction for women or children or any issues that one wants to raise. So freedom of speech and freedom of expression I’ve found in all these years of working in and out of journalism that it’s always dependent on where you are because in America, they’re very strong about it, very vocal. And people should have that even though you have sometimes, for example, I just saw something in the news where Donald Trump is suing his niece for $100 million because she got his tax expenses exposed to the New York Times, and he didn’t want it revealed to the press. But they have a right to talk about his taxes, and he doesn’t want them to have the right to talk about his taxes. And that shows you the power because he is using his powerful position as a former president to silence the journalists from letting people know the truth. And you have that where even though it’s the Western world, it almost reminds me of the Third World, a dictatorship where somebody in power can have a problem with you because they don’t like what you’re saying. And that is where people get locked in prison. We can’t get out of it and we need to watch what we say, because then you’re not really doing your job as a journalist to be able to relate and tell people what’s going on in reality. It’s so important that every journalist is able to speak out even in the Middle East. There’s that issue as well, where like, somewhere like Saudi Arabia, one has to be careful what they say because of the royal family. And you know, I have a relative that’s lived there for the last 30 years, and they have to be very careful how they conduct themselves within the country. So that’s not the kind of freedom that you have. So it depends on where you are. It really does.
I totally agree with you and I think you gave the best example of freedom of speech in the current times. We are talking about cancelling and not allowing freedom of speech, but do you think people are kind of becoming weak minded and easily offended by the journalists?
I believe it’s a whole different situation. They go on about this as “woke effect” when people talk about issues that we’ve been talking about for the last 40 years and now it’s we can’t say this, we can’t call this person that. I’ve had it before when I’m filling out an application form where they say “What’s your gender?” And there are more than 8 different choices. And I remember saying to my daughter, I made a joke, I said, I don’t know which one to choose. There’s so many, you know, because the new words I’ve never seen normally and maybe I sound a little bit old fashioned when it was male and female you just text and go along. But now you have about 8 to 12 different choices. And when you write your articles as a journalist, you have to be careful. And it’s almost like walking on eggshells because you have to make sure you’re not offending this person or offending that person. So there’s a lot of self-defense in journalism. Now it’s OK. I’ve got to be careful what I say. And one cannot really express themselves as one would in a natural circumstance. Things have changed so much that people get easily offended in any aspect of things. And you can’t every single step of the way be offended by everything, because there’s so much to be offended by.
Starting in the creative industry, what was your first internship?
Interestingly enough, I went to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, I had been in boarding school in the UK and my sister actually went ahead of me. She went to university in Washington, D.C., but I wanted to go to the West Coast of the sun. It was much nicer weather and I applied to two universities, Pepperdine in Malibu and the University of Southern California, which is in downtown L.A. And when I was there towards the end of my degree, which was in Communications and Journalism at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC, I was asked to do an internship and it was just we had a list back in those days, talking about the 90s. We had the list of companies and I saw I actually wanted to work as a diplomat. Oddly enough, because I was interested in languages, I studied Spanish, French and colloquial Arabic, and I thought I could work in the diplomatic service. But being in Los Angeles, there wasn’t any diplomatic work. I should have gone to Washington like my sister. It was all entertainment. And I saw that there was this communications company and I thought, well, that looks all right. I didn’t think anything of it. And I applied and I got to have my last semester as an intern with Michael Levine Communications, and he’s based in Beverly Hills and he’s been a mentor to me to this day. He has been a mentor who really helped me garner experience. I was an assistant to his assistant and he represented in those days and he looked after people like David Bowie, Michael Jackson. Barbra Streisand. We had very big clients. The late Charlton Heston, big Hollywood names and I wasn’t aware. But being that you’re in L.A. and you’re working for communications in Beverly Hills, you’re going to be working with very interesting people through him. I got to have my first job in the UK when I came back after my graduation. I was working for his office in London with a gentleman called Alan Edwards, who also looked after David Bowie in those days. And that was how I got into the entertainment business because from there I went to work at MTV and all the other companies. So, yeah, my first internship was with Michael Levine in Los Angeles, and it really carved out the path for my career.
So meaningful for you like a predestined career path, before you entered the entertainment industry. But how did you create EpegaMedia?
Well, having worked in the music industry because after I worked at MTV, I worked at all the record labels I worked at Sony, Virgin Music and also at Universal. I went on to work for George Michael just prior, actually when he started touring again. You know, this is obviously before his death. This was like 2007. I started working on and off for him in the press office. I also looked up to the Versace and with that gave me a lot of experience working directly with talent because we were dressing talent for events through Versace – for all the Academy Awards, BAFTAs, Globes, the Met Ball in New York, you name it, any high profile, any of those high profile events were dressing a lot of talent, but got to know very closely a lot of talent and their representatives and also working for George Michael, working with press on that side, doing his tours. You went all over the world, Europe, you went to South America, you went to the US, Canada. So that kind of got me doing more. And I was freelance in the sense that I did a contract with him and I started looking at representing more talent one on one basis. So that helped me kind of build up EpegaMedia because I was working on a contract basis and I opened up. It was just me to start with and work as a freelancer and then bringing on board people and then starting to represent people I already knew in the business and they say “Look, I need help with this project or that project”. So it started off like that. So I joined forces with my brother Baba who has an event company called emc3, and he did a lot of events where they needed celebrities. So I had really good contacts with companies like his company. I worked with them to bring together celebrities for events, and that’s how I kind of thought I better start doing this on my own because I started getting a lot of work and requests so that formed EpegaMedia, I would say by 2009-2010 and it really took off on its own and I am still working on the George Michael account as well with his main publicist. So yeah that’s how it kicked off.
That’s great! And I think this is my final question: Can you give any advice to a fresh graduate who wants to become an entertainment publicist?
I think it’s vital that you watch what’s going on in the business. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people. I did that even in the dark days before Twitter and Instagram, I would write and look up people who are publicists now. Ask them to be your mentors, ask them to help you with your career approaches, to be their intern. Ask if there is anything like an event you can help with. Is there any advice they can give you? Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from anyone in the business that you admire. Look at the agencies. I got to know agencies back in the day by looking at the talent I liked and thinking, who is their agent, who is their PR and reaching out to them in that way. And that kind of nurtured the relationship and helped me grow. Never be afraid to have a mentor in this business. It’s so important. I’ll tell you a very quick story. Back in 2014, my brother’s business partner asked me to give some advice to a young actor who was his nephew. His nephew wanted to be an actor, and I mentored him and went through his CV giving some advice on how to have this career. And I’m really proud to say that young man is the actor Regé-Jean Page, who was in Bridgerton, the Duke and all. Everyone’s gone crazy about him, but I mentored him because I was mentored in my career and never pushed that aside, because that helps you grow, and that gives you kind of support because he also had other people that mentored him along the way. But back in 2014, it was a case of OK, go out there and do it and good luck. And I spent about two years very closely with him exchanging ideas and looking at what he was doing and sort of giving him advice and encouragement as he went on in his career. Somebody did that for me, and that was Michael Levine. He helped me with my career, so I always look for a mentor in the business. That’s the bottom line.