NEW YORK — This may be the best endorsement Justin Trudeau doesn’t know he’s gotten: Shep Gordon likes him.
That’s good for the Canadian prime minister. When Gordon sees something in someone, it could be (or become) star power. He saw it in a guy named Vince Furnier. (You know him as Alice Cooper.) He saw it in a personable chef in New Orleans. (You know that guy as Emeril.)
Gordon is a talent manager who has spent the last half-century – starting during his time at the University at Buffalo – treating both reality and fame as pliable materials. That is, he can create reality and, by doing, mold someone into a celebrity.
He is not – by design – a political guy; Gordon says he has avoided getting involved in politics ever since he left Buffalo in 1968. Until now. When he thinks about the presidential race, he asks himself, What the hell is happening?
He calls Donald Trump “the Kim Kardashian of politics. He has no foundation. He has no craft.”
Regarding Hillary Clinton, he wonders this: “A person that 60 percent of the country doesn’t like – vehemently doesn’t like – is the only other choice? It’s insane.”
Gordon was talking politics as he settled down for lunch last week at Maialino, a trendy eatery at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan. He grew up in the New York City area, but now lives on a beach estate in Hawaii. Gordon doesn’t get back here often, but he’s in New York for a couple of weeks promoting his autobiography, “They Call Me Supermensch,” which will be released Sept. 20.
In virtually every interview he’s given to promote the book, Gordon has shared his frustration with the state of American politics. Which is how a simple small-talk reference to Canada produced this laudatory review of Canada’s young, handsome, still-glossy-out-of-the-box leader.
“They sure got a great guy leading them — Trudeau,” Gordon said. “I wish he had a brother.”
Gordon is a nice guy, with a warm, punchy laugh his friend Alice Cooper likens to a barking seal. He has gentle eyes and ring of gray hair around a mostly bald head. His close associates range from the Dalai Lama, whom he brought to the University at Buffalo 10 years ago, to the actor Michael Douglas, who calls him “my Jew-Bu,” my Jewish-Buddhist friend.
Though Gordon meditates, he isn’t technically Buddhist, but that’s not really the point. What Douglas and the rest of Gordon’s “vast, weird, wildly eclectic extended clan of close friends” – to quote the TV chef and host Anthony Bourdain – will tell you is this: Shep is a nice guy. He’s zen. He’s man who strives “to be in service to others,” said his friend, the comedian Mike Myers, whom Gordon met when Alice Cooper made a cameo in Myers’ legendary comedy “Wayne’s World.”
Notice the name-dropping? Michael Douglas — Gordon has been his friend for 35 years. The Dalai Lama — Gordon serves on his Tibet Fund board. Mike Myers — he made a documentary on Gordon’s life in 2013. Anthony Bourdain — he published Gordon’s coming book on his HarperCollins imprint.
Name dropping is what happens when you tell the story of Shep Gordon, because the man knows everyone the rest of us want to know, and more. He even knows the guy he’s criticizing, Donald Trump.
Except is he really criticizing him?
“I know him,” Gordon said. “He’s a good father. There are plenty of good qualities about him. But he’s a reality TV star, and he’s a good one. He’s really great. And that we are allowing him to take over our lives is our fault. Not his. He’s doing what he does.”
Yeah, Gordon isn’t exactly whacking Trump. He’s whacking us — including, and perhaps especially, himself.
* * *
Gordon grew up in the New York City area and came to UB in 1963 on a Regents scholarship. “Buffalo wanted to be the Berkeley of the east,” he writes in his book. “It was all very laid-back and hippie and non-traditional.”
This was perfect for Gordon; it allowed his personality – and the business instincts that would shape his career – to emerge. He developed a large circle of buddies and, with his some of his closer friends, got entrepreneurial. He ran a weekly poker game with a 5 percent stake, and found he could really cash in by selling pot.
Running a gambling enterprise and a drug business proved lucrative for a college kid, but he knew he needed a cover. A friend suggested that since Gordon was Jewish, he could pretend to be a music manager, and so he did.
Though Gordon didn’t at the time suspect he’d become a real manager one day, he was unknowingly honing the skills he’d need. Running the poker game taught him customer service. Selling drugs taught him to deal with a shifty marketplace.
Gordon also developed a keen sense of his special power — and the dangers inherent in it: One night, he was sitting with some guys who were cramming for a biology exam. They came across a reference to the reproductive organ of a fern — the “thallus of a marchanian.”
Thallus of a marchanian, one of the guys joked. It sounds like the head of a country.
Someone else piped in: What if the “Thallus” made a royal visit to Buffalo?
The juices were flowing, with the aid of a pill called “black beauties” that the guys were taking to study. They concocted a plan: One of the guys would have a friend in New York send a wire from the Western Union office at the United Nations to the mayor’s office in Buffalo. The message would inform the mayor that the Thallus of Marchantia – an oil-rich country in Africa – was making a royal visit to the United States. And since the Thallus had relatives in Buffalo, he was choosing the Queen City as his first stop.
Would the mayor be so kind as to meet him at airport?
It turned out the mayor would — and many more people, too.
The mayor’s office informed the Buffalo Evening News of the visit and, by Gordon’s recollection, the paper ran a story the next day. Arrangements were made to reserve the top floor of the Statler for the Thallus, who would be greeted at the airport with a red carpet arrive.
This was working — Gordon and his buddies were giddy. Of course, now they had to make the Thallus actually appear, so they pooled their money and sent a friend named Artie to New York. In New York, Artie turned himself into the Thallus by dressing in flowing bedsheets and towels, then got a flight to return to Buffalo for the “royal visit.”
To Gordon, this still wasn’t enough. In a dynamic that would play out continually during a career he didn’t yet realize he would have, Gordon wanted to make a splash. One of the best ways to do that is by creating conflict. So Gordon and crew called the local B’nai B’rith and inform them that the Thallus is anti-Semitic.
“B’nai B’rith fell for it,” he recalled during lunch last week in New York. “They had a thousand people at the airport picketing with signs: ‘Go home Thallus,’ ‘Anti-Semitic,’ ‘Jews for America.’”
When a sheet-wrapped Artie arrived as the Thallus, the huge crowd was waiting and angry. Gordon remembers the B’nai B’rith crashing through the windows to get to the tarmac, and people screaming “Kill him! Kill him!”
Meanwhile, a botany-minded radio reporter realized what a “thallus” of a “marchantia” actually was, informed the authorities, and Artie was carted away. (Gordon remembers him working out a plea deal for a misdemeanor.)
The ploy got national attention, though Gordon and the rest of the Thallus-conspirators were never named. Still, the experience gave him a healthy scare.
“No one got hurt, but they could have,” Gordon said. “I realized the power of what I was able to do, and that I better be careful the way I use it. I never, ever crossed the line again after that. It was always entertainment.”
* * *
After graduating in 1968, Gordon found his way to Los Angeles and rented a place at hotel where he hung around the pool with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and a handful of other emerging rock stars. He was still pretending to be a manager while actually selling drugs.
During that time he met a young guy named Vince Furnier, who was around 19 or 20 and part of a band called Alice Cooper. Gordon started representing the band, and when he eventually dropped his drug business and decided to focus on music management for real, they became his first actual client.
Furnier’s band also became the focal point of Gordon’s Thallus-like creative efforts — and they were plentiful. He helped the band hone its vampire-like drag image. He helped convince them that one person should be spokesman, which led to Furnier becoming known as “Alice Cooper” rather than the entire band.
He tried to create buzz. Sometimes it worked: When Gordon put a chicken onstage and Cooper, not expecting the bird, threw it into the crowd, the wild audience tore it apart — and triggered headlines.
When Gordon concocted the idea of shooting Cooper from a cannon at a concert venue, using a dummy, the plan fell flat. Or more specifically, the dummy fell flat out of the coffin. But Gordon made it work, putting that actual Alice Cooper – who was perfectly healthy – in a wheelchair. He performed the show from that wheelchair, seemingly injured and brave — and triggered headlines.
“I never let reality get in my way,” said Gordon, who was also good at taking a reality and strategically amplifying it. One of his longtime clients was the R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass. He wanted to emphasize Pendergrass’ “amazing sex appeal, in a field full of it.”
“But you can’t say, ‘I have sex appeal,’” Gordon said. “You’ll lose your sex appeal in one second.”
Instead, Gordon developed a plan that emphasized it: He set up Pendergrass to do a series of concerts where only women were let in the door. Inside, the women received chocolate lollipops molded into – what else? – teddy bears.
“We got the point across: Teddy and thousands of women screaming and throwing panties,” Gordon said. “After that concert he was always referred to as the ‘Black Elvis.’”
He differentiated clients too. He wanted to position another handsome, smooth-singing black client, Luther Vandross, as romantic.
“Teddy was pure sex,” Gordon said. “Luther was romance.”
To reinforce it, Gordon set up a series of radio promotions where fans won the opportunity to have Vandross marry them on air.
“There’s nothing more romantic than getting married,” Gordon said. “It really drilled the point home.”
When Gordon started representing a Canadian singer named Anne Murray – a young woman with a pure voice and pure image – he used one of his favorite fame-making tactics. He calls it "guilt by association:" Put the non-famous person next to a celebrity or two in front of photographers. He pulled favors with Cooper, John Lennon, Micky Dolenz and Harry Nilsson to take a group photo in L.A. with Murray. The resulting image — innocent Anne with older, edgier, excess-embracing rockers – generated the buzz he wanted. People started talking about Anne Murray; even Rolling Stone wanted to interview her.
“That picture has had more mileage than any other picture that I have had taken in my career," Murray said in Mike Myers' 2013 documentary on Gordon's life, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.”
Myers' film captured decades' worth of Gordon's fame-creating escapades.
“Shep is an artist whose medium is the careers of other artists,” Myers said in an email to The Buffalo News. In “Supermensch,” Myers refers to Gordon as if the media scholar Marshall McLuhan, music producer Brian Epstein and cartoon character Mr. Magoo had a baby.
“The Mr. Magoo part refers to the fact that Shep ‘bumps into’ great artists,” Myers said. “He doesn’t seek them out. His direct impact is that he reminds us that great work comes from being safe-averse, and not risk-averse. “
* * *
Last Monday in New York, Gordon hosted a thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner party at the Chelsea Piers Lighthouse on the Hudson River. The event was a fundraiser for the Culinary Institute of America and honored the great, late French chef Roger Vergé. Like many of the chefs in attendance, Gordon – himself an enthusiastic cook who has a kitchen with 12 burners at home in Hawaii – considered Vergé a friend and mentor.
One of the chefs overseeing the dinner was Emeril Lagasse, the TV personality of “BAM!”-spicing fame. During the cocktail, Lagasse stood with Vergé and recounted their first meeting many years ago in New Orleans.
“Before he was Emeril,” Gordon said. (Translation: Before Gordon got ahold of Lagasse and made him famous.)
Here’s how it went: Gordon and a few friends walked into Commander’s Palace, a famous New Orleans restaurant with an open kitchen. It was a busy night and a table wasn’t available for 50 minutes.
Lagasse noticed Gordon eyeing the action in the kitchen, approached him and introduced himself. The chef then told the maître d he was taking Gordon’s party upstairs to table 50 – the “best table in the house.”
“You don’t need to see a menu,” Lagasse told Gordon’s party. “I’d love to cook for you.”
Lagasse – who had no idea who Gordon was, or what he did for a living – brought up every course himself.
“Every time he left the table, we were saying to ourselves, ‘Who the hell does he think we are?’” Gordon said. “But we better not ask him because he’ll stop bringing us the food!”
At the end of the meal, Lagasse sent Gordon’s crew off with paper cups of cognac and a note on a napkin for a manager at the music club Tipitina’s, asking him to let Gordon’s party into a sold-out Neville Brothers show.
They formed a bond that lasted for years. In “Em,” as Gordon calls him, he saw “a great human being who just wanted to make people happy. It was amazing.”
And why did Lagasse go out of his way to cater to Gordon on that first night?
“Here was a guy who I saw and I knew in his mind he was into it, and I could tell he was a genuine person,” Lagasse said. “I just wanted to make him happy.”
It worked out for all: Years later, as Gordon embedded himself in the culinary scene as a personal pursuit, he realized that talented chefs would make good TV personalities. He also knew that putting those chefs on TV would allow them to cash in by marketing products. He decided to start representing them, and Lagasse “was the first call,” he said.
Gordon’s instinct that cooking talents would play well onscreen essentially invented the concept of the celebrity chef.
“There probably would not be a Food Network without Shep, really and truly,” Legasse said.
But here’s another question: Without Gordon, would we have Donald Trump squaring off with Hillary Clinton in an election that – in theory – should be devoid of show-biz grandeur?
It’s too simple a question to answer directly. But Gordon has his suspicions — and “I try not to think about that,” he said with a laugh.
* * *
Gordon, who once had 25 employees representing dozens of celebrities, retired more than a decade ago. He got married for a brief time and calls it “the greatest five years of my life, other than Buffalo.”
He dealt with some health scares, but has pulled through. Nowadays, he awakens at 5:30 a.m. on his compound in Maui, has coffee and deals with email, and fills his day with beach walks, swims, golf, mind-clearing dips in his Jacuzzi, setting up hotel and restaurant reservations for friends, dealing with whatever project is in front of him (he still reps one person — Cooper — and is promoting his book), and hangs out with his adopted kids, who are grown, and grandkids.
Gordon takes dinner seriously. “Dinner, for me, is a celebration of my life,” he said. “Dinner is really important. I don’t do any toss-away dinners. I really think about them and treat them very special.”
This is true whether he’s cooking for himself or hosting a large party. When he’s alone, Gordon will tend to make mixed veggies and chicken in a wok, Buffalo steak, or “a great omelet” with shaved truffles.
He loves hosting gatherings. He recently held a party for former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (the man who revealed Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded) and his wife Valerie Plame (who was outed as a CIA operative). For that, he cooked some of his “hits:” a Jamie Oliver chicken cacciatore recipe, Italian sausage with peppers and onions, mashed potatoes with pureed pears instead of butter and cream, and Peking duck.
The actor Douglas, who’s shared many dinners and golf outings with Gordon, describes his friend as a man who is “good of heart, has a great sense of humor, likes quality of life, loves good wine, good food.
“I think he wants to make the world a better place,” Douglas said. “He wants to leave here feeling like he’s added something. He brings the best qualities out of people. I guess sort of a manager’s psyche is taking care of people.”
Gordon wants to see people take care of themselves, too, which is why he’s speaking out on politics as he promotes his book. He thinks back to his days at U.B., when the Kennedy assassination pulled everyone together.
“I’d love to see people out on the streets with pitchforks screaming in the middle of the night,” he said. “Truly. We did it in the '60s and we did it in Buffalo. I remember being with all my friends, burning all our draft cards in the middle of Allentown.”
But Gordon knows this: His accomplishments since those days play into the reality-world political scene we’re seeing now. Myers told the News, “It’s the sheer volume of culture that Shep has had a hand in shaping that leaves one speechless.”
One of the spinoff effects, though, is our obsession with celebrity.
“It’s a very dangerous line, how I earned my living,” Gordon said. “A lot of my living was earned by manipulation of the press and creating history.”
Gordon points out a difference between his form of manipulation and the political version of it: His was show business – “nothing but entertainment,” he said — whereas molding political truths like clay can have real consequences.
“If there’s no respect for truth, what is it?” he said. “Where are we going?”
Why you know him: Gordon was the manager for dozens of celebrities, mostly musicians, including Alice Cooper (who’s still his client today), Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross and Anne Murray. He also produced films and represented chefs and is widely credited with creating the concept of the celebrity chef.
Career: After graduating from the University at Buffalo in 1968, Gordon decided to move from his hometown of New York to Los Angeles. At first he made most of his money selling drugs while pretending to be a music manager as a cover. Soon enough, he switched strategies, dropping the drug dealing and becoming a music manager for real, and then expanding his reach into other areas of show business.
Residence: Maui, Hawaii
Family: Gordon was twice married. He has no biological children but helped raise the grandchildren of a former girlfriend, and considers them his adopted kids.
WNY Roots: Gordon grew up downstate, where most of his childhood was spent in Long Island. After graduating high school in 1963, he enrolled in the University at Buffalo. He calls his nearly five years in Buffalo “the greatest” of his life, matched only by his five-year marriage at age 60 to raw food chef Renee Loux.
Supermensch: The actor Mike Myers, who met Gordon in 1991 on the set of Myers’ movie “Wayne’s World,” long wanted to make a movie about Gordon’s life. Gordon resisted for a long time but eventually gave in, and “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” was released in 2013.
Supermensch again: The release of Myers’ documentary piqued interest in Gordon’s life, and the TV chef Anthony Bourdain recruited him to write his autobiography. “They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock’n’Roll” will be released Sept. 20 on Bourdain’s HarperCollins imprint.
Anthony Bourdain on Gordon: “Shep has been there at so many titanically significant moments in cultural history (and he's been in many cases, responsible for them): the birth of theatrical shock rock, the demise of the exploitative 'chitlin’ circuit,' the celebrity chef phenomenon, some really great indie films, and so much more. There’s no one like him. He knows everything and everybody. He can walk through walls. And he’s the most loved guy I’ve ever known.”
Mike Myers on Gordon: “His contributions are a result of his expert ability to nurture artists, find out the essence of their attraction to an audience, then facilitate, and ultimately monetize, the artist’s work. His artistry is the ability to Lamaze birth other artists’ artistry. Like Christo, Shep’s work can only be truly appreciated from a helicopter. It’s the sheer volume of culture that Shep has had a hand in shaping that leaves one speechless.”
Michael Douglas on Gordon: “His history (with) Alice Cooper — I think being his first client, and his last, is sort of a reflection of the kind of guy that he is. Very bright, street smart and got a wicked sense of humor.”