The Great Interview Magazine Caper

In November, Fabien Baron was trying to collect $498,000 in back pay for his work as editorial director of Interview. The magazine’s owner, Peter Brant, was in Kentucky buying a $2 million horse.

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The Great Interview Magazine Caper
, New York Times

In November, Fabien Baron was trying to collect $498,000 in back pay for his work as editorial director of Interview. The magazine’s owner, Peter Brant, was in Kentucky buying a $2 million horse.

Soon after, the magazine hired freelance writer Brian Moylan to do a short piece on celebrity figure skater Adam Rippon.

He performed his services and never got paid. (His fee would have been $315 — “not enough for my rent but enough to buy a pair of shoes,” Moylan said.)

With folks clamoring for payment, it wasn’t that surprising when Interview’s employees were summoned to their SoHo offices in May and told the magazine was folding. Its parent company, Brant Publications, was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, with close to 300 unpaid creditors — including Baron, who earlier that month sued the company to recover his money.

Celebrity-focused print magazines have been on thin ice for a while now. Friends of Interview’s founder, Andy Warhol, acknowledged that if he were alive today, magazines would not likely be his focus. “He would have gone insane with the internet,” said Diane von Furstenberg. “He would never have slept.” Predictably, when it was announced that Interview was folding, tributes from Annie Lennox, Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Campbell came over Instagram.

According to Brant, who would agree to speak with The New York Times only by email, the magazine “could not survive the sea change in its industry.”

He said that Interview magazine is a “separate legal entity” from himself and added that he put $7 million of his own money into the magazine over the past decade alone — making him its “biggest creditor.”

But it’s difficult to separate Brant from Interview; it is effectively a family business. Brant first invested in the magazine in 1969, the year it was founded, with his cousin Joe Allen. From 1989 to 2008, Brant’s first wife, Sandra Brant, ran the business side. The editor at that time was Ingrid Sischy, who subsequently became Sandra Brant’s girlfriend and then her wife. In 2008, Peter Brant bought his ex-wife’s share. Two of his children, with Sandra Brant, have helped run Interview. His second wife, supermodel Stephanie Seymour, had a title there as a contributing fashion editor.

And the Brant family’s involvement with Interview may not be over.

On May 25, Interview’s chief revenue officer, Jason Nikic, released a memo that said Interview would rise from the dead under the ownership of an entity called Crystal Ball Media. The next issue, he said, would come in September. The new creative director would be Mel Ottenberg, a stylist who works with Rihanna. Interview, he promised, would be “as beautiful, as creative, and as visually stunning as ever.” The president would be Kelly Brant, Peter Brant’s daughter and the magazine’s digital director.

This was a strangely confident assertion. To assume ownership of the bankrupt magazine, Crystal Ball Media likely will have to earn the support of a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee. In all likelihood, Crystal Ball will have to outbid other prospective buyers.

But Baron was infuriated that a Brant might again run Interview when Peter Brant’s company ignored months of prodding to pay him his money.

In a statement, Baron’s spokesman, Zak Rosenfield, said: “Peter Brant has proven to be an exploitive and dishonorable businessman who considers himself above the law, with his stewardship of Interview magazine the most recent example. It is now abundantly clear that Interview was kept afloat for decades because of half-truths, unkept promises and his exploitation of the passions and pocketbooks of contributors and staffers, some with meager means, who were eager to carry on the Warhol vision.”

The Invention of Synergy

For a magazine whose paid circulation hovered around 230,000 at its peak, Interview had an outsize footprint. Warhol first published it in 1969 and used to stroll down Madison Avenue handing copies to passers-by. He threw parties for it at Studio 54. He carried a tape recorder in his pocket, which he used to supply Interview with content.

It was first populated with film reviews by college kids. But Warhol’s pop culture leanings, his ambitions to get fashion advertisers, and his interest in politics quickly seeped into the magazine.

From 1975 to 1983, Interview was edited by Bob Colacello. Although Colacello eventually went on to work for Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, one of his biggest pet peeves is reading that she created “the mix.”

“She mainstreamed it, but the truth is that we invented it at Interview,” he said. “It was a reflection of Andy’s social life, which in any given week might include encounters with Bianca Jagger, Nelson Rockefeller, Valentino, Roy Lichtenstein and on and on and on.”

“We would go to Madison Square Garden, and the cops treated Andy like he was a king,” said Susan Blond, who worked there during the 1970s and became one of the music business’s most successful publicists. “Everyone I ever introduced him to remembered it their whole lives.”

Robert Mapplethorpe took pictures. Fran Lebowitz wrote a film column for $10 a review. André Leon Talley answered the phones, styled shoots and warded off advances from Warhol.

“He was constantly trying to grab my crotch,” Talley said. One day he and Warhol and Azzedine Alaïa went to the movies. “Andy was on one end and I was on the other, with Azzedine in between us. So Andy slowly snakes his hand across Azzedine’s leg and onto my lap. I jumped up and screamed. Azzedine could not stop laughing.”

Ultimately, Talley also came to find it amusing. “It was not a Harvey Weinstein moment,” he said. “Andy was a charming person because he saw the world through the kaleidoscope of a child. Everything was ‘gee golly wow.'”

Warhol said this “10 times every five minutes,” said Furstenberg. Others found that phony. Lebowitz said she stayed distant because she was convinced he was “not a good influence on the young.”

Warhol used celebrity portrait gigs to obtain cover subjects, and used cover interviews to pitch himself as a for-hire portraitist. “He invented synergy,” Colacello said. “This was not ethical journalism.” Warhol could also be deeply cynical. Blond owns a May 1986 copy of Interview with Tom Cruise on the cover. Warhol had drawn a penis dangling from his mouth.

She’d save it, wisely. Others were not as careful. From 1978 to 1981, Lebowitz was paid entirely in art. “Let me assure you — it was worth nothing then,” she said. “I sold all my Warhols two weeks before he died for virtually zero. And I believe that’s why he died.”

‘Pay When the Lawyers Call’

When people gossip about Peter Brant, and they have been doing that for more than 30 years, a few incidents come up repeatedly.

In 1986, the U.S. Polo Association banned him from play after he reportedly challenged an umpire to a fist fight. He filed a $30 million antitrust lawsuit against the organization and lost.

In 1990, he paid the government hundreds of thousands of dollars after being convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to keep adequate tax records. This included billing personal expenses such as silk sheets, massages and scalp treatments to his newsprint companies. He spent 84 days in jail, which was surprising to Lebowitz only because “most rich people don’t pay their taxes and manage to avoid going to jail.”

In 2009, Brant and his second wife, Seymour, got into a messy and public divorce battle, in which they traded accusations of infidelity and substance abuse.

Hearings were set to determine how their assets should be divided, but the day they were to begin, Brant and Seymour waltzed into court hand in hand and announced they were reconciling.

Brant grew up in the Jamaica Estates section of Queens. His father owned a paper empire, and one of his close friends at Kew-Forest School was Donald Trump.

Trump and Brant ventured into Times Square together, and bought stink bombs, hot peppered gum and plastic vomit. Around the time they finished seventh grade, Fred Trump found his son Donald’s switchblade and sent him off to the New York Military Academy.

While Brant was in college at the University of Colorado, he met his first wife and began using his family’s money to buy art. That led to a meeting with Warhol and an investment in his magazine. For a while, Warhol and the Brants were close. They traveled to Paris and shopped for art deco furniture together. Sandra Brant took a job at Interview as its advertising director.

“They were unique among contemporary collectors in that their interest wasn’t just about art,” Colacello said. “It was architecture, landscaping, decorating and fashion. They really had an aesthetic approach across the board. They were a great couple. And they had great taste.”

Some people thought it was strange to encounter two people in their 20s with an ownership stake in a magazine. “But to tell you the truth, I’ve never really understood what owning Interview means,” Lebowitz said. “It didn’t make any money, and everyone lied about the circulation. I know that because when I was really young, I used to drive the magazine to the printers. I got $50 for it. The sales they were telling people was like five times the print run.”

Peter Brant pressed Warhol and his colleagues to keep costs down. “He would question why we paid our bills so quickly,” Colacello said. “I said, ‘We pay everyone within 90 days.’ He said, ‘No, no, no. You pay when the lawyers call.'”

A rift developed. “He was a tough businessman, and Andy wanted control,” said Vincent Fremont, who worked for Warhol and later for Peter Brant.

In 1975, Warhol was struggling to finance the film “Bad.” Brant agreed to provide $1.2 million and give back his ownership stake in the magazine. (It was supposed to go to Warhol’s close aide, Fred Hughes.) Then, Brant decided he would invest only $1 million and made that contingent on Warhol putting in $200,000 of his own money — perhaps not an unreasonable demand to anyone who’s seen one of Warhol’s films.

Warhol refused, so Hughes stepped in and gambled his savings on the film. It lost a pile of dough and everyone felt burned. Brant began auctioning off his Warhols.

“I had to meet Peter Brant for lunch at the office,” Warhol dictated for his diary in 1981. “He was just awful. He picked out some prints, and now we’re all settled with him on the money he invested in ‘Bad’ and he never has to come back. Good.”

‘A Series of Misunderstandings’

When Warhol died in 1987, Interview was on hard times. Two years later, Brant bought it at auction for $12 million. His cousin Allen couldn’t believe it. “I thought he was nuts. I said, ‘Why would you want to do this,’ and he really didn’t answer,” Allen said.

But Brant is also the “type of person,” Allen said, “who will give you his wallet and then get in a fight with you over a quarter.”

And ultimately, Brant didn’t spend $12 million on Interview.

Instead, he wrote a check for $4.9 million, signed a guarantee for the rest, and then did not pay it. The Warhol Estate sued him. Eventually, the parties settled for $10 million and Brant — who described these events as a “series of misunderstandings” — said they had a good relationship after that.

The Brants first big move as the magazine’s new owners was to install Ingrid Sischy, previously of Art Forum, as its new editor. Soon after she was hired, Brant went to jail. His marriage also ended.

He started seeing Seymour, and Sandra Brant took up with Sischy, whose gifts as a social connector earned her a reputation as a modern-day Gertrude Stein.

Sischy, who died of cancer in 2015, didn’t just rehabilitate the magazine and bring it into profitability. With her contributing music columnist, Elton John, she staged an intervention with Donatella Versace. (She went to rehab.) Sischy also palled around with Karl Lagerfeld and Nicole Kidman, who shot pictures together for Interview and collaborated on Chanel campaigns.

Peter Brant was occupied with his paper empire and his art holdings, which came to include freshly commissioned works of his wife by Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente and Maurizio Cattelan. (The sculpture Cattelan built in her honor was actually a legless, dead-eyed mannequin he referred to as “Trophy Wife.”)

In 2003, Brant was accused of tax fraud in a civil suit by James Comey, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Art dealer Larry Gagosian and Brant, the charges said, set up a shell company to buy and sell art. After earning $17 million, the men declared the company bankrupt. Brant wound up contributing to a $9.1 million settlement with the government.

Outwardly, Sandra Brant and Peter Brant enjoyed a progressive divorce. But there were tensions, according to friends of the couple.

Peter Brant didn’t always love being in business with his ex-wife and her girlfriend, while Sischy and Sandra Brant grew tired of Peter Brant’s drama. Seymour got bored in Greenwich as Sischy and Sandra Brant traveled the world with designers whose ad campaigns she’d once appeared in.

As the marriage between Seymour and Peter Brant turned into what one friend called a “mansion on fire,” Sischy and Sandra Brant decided it was time to gain some independence.

They approached various publishers about buying Peter Brant’s stake in Interview. But ultimately, they sold themselves: In 2008, Peter Brant gave them $15 million for their stake in the magazine and Condé Nast hired them to be roving international editors.

With their departure, bills stopped getting paid on time. Allen said it was more likely inefficiency than malevolent intent. “Sandy ran a tight ship,” he said.

The Road to Bankruptcy

Peter Brant picked two people to replace Sischy. He turned to Glenn O’Brien, a longtime Interview editor, for the words and to Fabien Baron for the visuals.

Baron had spent the previous decade working with Carine Roitfeld at French Vogue, turning it into a commercial and critical success. He also runs a creative agency, Baron & Baron, which directs ad campaigns for major fashion brands. (There is no other Baron.)

But Baron and O’Brien, who died in 2017, didn’t do well sharing control.

Just a year after being hired, Baron left the magazine (with $527,389 owed to him, according to 2009 emails from his office to Brant Publications.) Peter Brant’s son Ryan took over as Interview’s president. He had little experience in publishing and was also on probation, having pleaded guilty in 2007 to backdating stock options at a video game company.

The Brants booted O’Brien and courted Baron to come back, telling him he would have a salary of $450,000 a year and creative control. They also promised to pay him the remaining balance they owed him. (On his way out, O’Brien talked openly about Interview’s debts, including telling The New York Post that the magazine owed money to “everybody — retouchers, printers, photographers, writers.”) Meanwhile, Peter Brant was having problems of his own, including a 2010-11 bankruptcy at his paper and newsprint companies. Being a paper magnate is not what it once was.

Over the next few years, high-end photographers came aboard because of Baron. Celebrities followed for edgy pictures, the kind Condé Nast didn’t generally publish in the United States. Baron quietly told colleagues to insist on being paid in advance.

Sometimes that worked.

In 2016, Interview’s president, Dan Ragone, sued for $170,000 in unpaid wages. In 2017, associate publisher Jane Katz followed suit, demanding $230,000 in back pay. Those cases remain unsettled.

In July, Sandra Brant’s daughter Kelly acknowledged that Baron was owed more than $498,000. She wrote in an email to his representatives that a “significant” payment would be made to him in August, and that the remainder would be paid by October.

The payments never came, and the bill grew by $100,000. In February, Interview was thrown out of its SoHo offices temporarily over unpaid rent.

Not So Fast

“I do not have a history of not paying my debts,” said Peter Brant in an email to The Times, adding that he feels badly “for anyone that lost money due to Interview Inc.'s bankruptcy.” “In the last 10 years, I loaned Interview Inc. in excess of $7 million so that it could continue to pay its employees and the costs of its operations,” he wrote. “I never took out money from the business.”

He blamed his creditors for the magazine’s demise. Because people who hadn’t been paid were suing to be paid, Brant said, he was left with “no other option but to liquidate” Interview’s assets. “There was no buyer that would take on the debt and liabilities of the business, and therefore no possibility that it could devise a plan to become profitable again in its current structure,” he wrote.

Bankruptcy laws don’t require owners to assume responsibility for debts at declining businesses — even when those owners live with their supermodel wives on giant Greenwich estates, surrounded by modernist masterworks. “The purpose of having a corporation is to insulate against personal liability,” said Susheel Kirpalani, a partner at Quinn Emanuel who specializes in bankruptcy and who was not involved in the case.

But those circumstances do provide added opportunity for outrage. “To announce plans to relaunch the magazine free of that debt in three months, with his daughter at the helm, is not only sinister, but a premeditated sham,” said Rosenfield, the representative for Baron.

Lebowitz simply shrugged. “I don’t have as much faith in rich people as other people seem to have,” she said. “Morals and aesthetics are not related. Surely you’ve noticed.”

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