A case study on Bollywood PR legend Dale Bhagwagar – The King of Spin
The charming and gorgeous Shilpa Shetty has always been a sort of enigma to many. What impressed the world, is the way she zoomed to enormous popularity with the media and public alike, when she participated in Celebrity Big Brother in the United Kingdom; the world’s most controversial reality show.
Handling all her media activities then, was a PR guy called Dale Bhagwagar, nowadays commonly referred to as ‘The Bollywood PR Legend’ or ‘The King of Spin’ by Indian media. Here’s going back in time and tracking the spin techniques his mind engineered and orchestrated to nurture Brand Shilpa Shetty.
Controversy queen in the making
As we pieced some of the publicist’s statements on the actress that we sourced from various articles on the internet, this PR’s media game-plan unfolded before us. This guy knew what he was doing, he knew how to do it, and he did it. In the process, he carved out an all-new brand image for Shilpa Shetty.
Although Shilpa had been Dale Bhagwagar’s PR client for five years, it was only during and after the Celebrity Big Brother reality show in UK that the publicist took extra interest in her branding, and that too, at an international level. Appearing on television in the UK and gaining media coverage worldwide for the racism she encountered, played an important role in her rise to global fame. However, no one can ignore the calculating methods used by her ex-publicist to keep Shilpa in news 24×7 and brand her as a ‘controversy queen’.
It seems, Dale realized the potential of the Celebrity Big Brother hoopla at a very early stage. Even as the reality show was in its third week, the PR man predicted Shilpa’s “glory” through a Press Conference (mind you, he organized a whole Press Conference to announce her expected brilliance).
PR took full advantage of his freedom
Apparently, Shilpa had given Dale a free hand at imaging in the past, and he used this freedom to his advantage at the time she suffered verbal onslaughts from the now-infamous late Jade Goody in the Celebrity Big Brother House. The Mumbai-based publicist had been closely following the show’s developments through the daily news and video capsules put up on the Channel 4 official website. He was also in touch with his friends in UK and a media-rep he’d appointed a few days ago to track the developments for him in London.
We got in touch with a disgruntled ex-staffer of the publicist, who revealed that on an average, Dale received 10-15 calls from top-of-the-line UK journalists and TV reporters and addressed each and every major channel and newspaper in UK, while Shilpa was in the Big Brother House (And all this without her knowledge. Remember, he was given a free hand).
“He just went on and on and on, either tom-tomming about Shilpa or giving scandalous quotes,” says his ex-staffer. “He was on an untiring trip to prove to the world that he could play with the media. In real life, this guy is a split-personality and thinks he can do anything. Such people can be dangerous to society as they can end up shaping thoughts of millions their way, just because of their reach in media.”
“Like in Hindi films, the hero, with all his goodness, comes out victorious in the end, I have a very strong feeling, Shilpa Shetty too, will meet the same fate in Celebrity Big Brother by the time it ends,” Dale had said in a column he wrote in Mumbai’s DNA newspaper about Shilpa’s progress on the international reality show.
Believe it or not, Dale had so much faith in Shilpa that while she was in the House for a month, he catered to the entire print, television, radio and internet media, holding SIX Press Conferences (four in Mumbai, one in New Delhi and one in Kolkata) to address various controversies she was facing in the House.
Some scribes even joked that he was attempting to become more famous than his celebrity client. True or not, Dale did end up becoming a celebrity of sorts amongst PRs.
He broke norms about publicists being background people, faced television cameras with his now-famous characteristic flamboyance, addressed media meets, did innumerable interviews on Shilpa and was even ‘chased’ by the media during those days.
A rookie TV reporter we spoke to said, she had waited for Dale a full 45 minutes below his residence just to get a byte with updates on Shilpa’s fate in Celebrity Big Brother while the actress was in the House. “He was too busy giving telephonic interviews to foreign news agencies and sent an assistant to offer me tea and biscuits in a garden below his building. I waited under the sun till he finished his other interviews. Only after that was I able to enter his house for my news bytes,” she recounts. “But when he spoke, he spoke like a man possessed. My editor just loved his quotes, though I felt he said a lot of things just for effect.”
Defending Shilpa tooth and nail
At one of the Press Conferences the public relations specialist organized at that time, he was asked how he managed to defend Shilpa so well, in spite of the fact that he didn’t even have a briefing from her, as she was inside the reality show House.
He remarked, “It’s almost been five years we have been working together. I know her well by now. If she was in my place here, she would have said more or less the same words.” That was some statement! It also shows the rapport the duo must have shared.
When journalists asked him about the much-talked-about incident where, a troubled Shilpa cried in the House on Michael Jackson’s brother Jermaine Jackson’s shoulders, Dale confidently shot back, “If I know Shilpa well, she is not the kind to give up. This would be a temporary low. Trust me, she has it in her to fight back and I believe she will.”
That was typical PR talk. But in the end, all of Dale’s words came true and Shilpa did fight back, emerging the unanimously-voted winner of the show, and an anti-racism icon for the world to look up to. Come to think of it now, Dale had given those strong statements, even while Shilpa was very much in the House; completely unaware of the raging racism controversy going on in the outside world.
Mind-reading PR clients
“I delve into the psyche of every client to understand how their minds function. It’s something very important for any publicist, as every client is a different individual and needs to be understood as a separate entity. Once this is accomplished, its cakewalk to vibe,” he has said in one of his interviews to a feature agency.
Apart from British publications such as The Times, Guardian, The Independent, The Mail, Daily Mail, Mirror, Daily Star, The People, Marie Claire, newspapers all over the world, including USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, International Herald Tribune (France), Pravda (Russia) and Gulf News featured Dale’s quotes on Shilpa. He has in fact gone ahead and added an entire list of such publications in his profile on his PR agency Dale Bhagwagar Media Group’s website.
As the TV journalist rightly said, he always spoke like a man possessed… possessed about building an unshakeable brand out of Shilpa Shetty. According to our analysis, one of the reasons why the publicist would have gone into such a PR overdrive could be the fact that he was himself getting fabulous mileage out of this whole Shilpa hype.
The Shilpa Shetty-Richard Gere controversy
Just when things seemed to settle down, Richard Gere clasped and kissed Shilpa Shetty at an event in New Delhi. The Pretty Woman-fame Hollywood star was there to promote AIDS awareness, and ended up being talked about for all the wrong reasons.
This turned out to be another golden chance for Dale and he made sure it was exploited to its fullest PR potential. How? He organized a huge Press Meet, exclusively for all national TV channels, where he had Shilpa come before the media and strongly defend Gere, while Dale repeatedly blamed the media for unnecessarily hyping up the incident, harping that “three pecks on Shilpa’s cheeks don’t deserve national attention”.
What everyone failed to realize is that Dale almost shouted this from rooftops for weeks, and gave multiple TV interviews, making sure each and every channel, radio station and newspaper in India continued to talk about it for months at end.
He actually managed to turn the controversy into an issue! An issue so big, that some political parties hit the streets, burning effigies of Shilpa in protest of the incident, while the spin doctor might have smiled from his air-conditioned office. It was like a mission accomplished. Shilpa Shetty had got loads of free worldwide media mileage all over again! “I’m an image manipulator. It’s my job,” Dale later said in one of his interviews. God! We’d rather term him a smooth schemer!
Apart from sending out press releases to his media list almost every day during that entire year, he set up media reps in New York, Colorado and London, and lost no opportunity to turn every minor incident and achievement of the actress into so-called ‘news’ and ‘gossip’.
It was as if he had invented some kind of PR factory for her. Shilpa became a name well-known to a major part of the world, and was termed ‘the face of Bollywood’, a position Aishwarya Rai had held for years. Dale ended up receiving the Best Crossover Publicist Of The Year award for his Bollywood PR efforts at an international level.
Praised and how
The who’s who of Bollywood as well as the media industry praised Dale for his work. “You have done a remarkable job for Shilpa Shetty,” Vineet Jain, Managing Director, Times Group told him.
Prabhu Chawla, currently the Editorial Director or The New Indian Express and former host of Seedhi Baat on Aaj Tak called Dale “one of the most efficient PRs in Bollywood.”
Sudhir Chaudhary, currently the Editor-in-Chief of Zee News, who hosts Daily News And Analysis (DNA) aired on Zee News, praised Dale while he was interviewing him live on Live India channel. “Dale, you are a very good publicist,” said Chaudhary, to which Dale cheekily replied, “Thank you very much, I am.” Chaudhary laughed at his smart-alec rejoinder.
Max Clifford, most famous and scandalous international publicist the world has ever witnessed, called Dale “the best PR to go to in India.”
India’s spiciest columnist, author and novelist, Shobhaa De wrote about him in The Week magazine, calling him “an on-the-ball (well-informed) publicist.”
“I have read Dale’s press releases. They are interesting,” mentioned Arnab Goswami, currently Managing Director, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Republic TV and former Editor-in-Chief of Times Now.
The brutally honest narcissist
While most Bollywood publicists tend to play it low-key and are seldom referred to by the media, Dale became quite a vocal publicist and spokesperson. Quoting the Bollywood PR guru again from one of his interviews on the web, he has said, “I thoroughly believe in the work I do. If I can publicize my clients well, why shouldn’t I do a little for myself too?”
As they rightly say, modesty and this publicist don’t go together. He is not as subtle as the others in his profession. Instead, he is blunt and sounds brutally honest. “Is it a crime for a publicist to think he too can be written about? If yes, let’s please bend the rule a bit; let’s please change the trend a bit,” he said in an interview.
Well, you see, even if he is honest, there’s no denying, he ‘is’ manipulative. No wonder he made sure Shilpa stayed on the top of news all the time. By the way, all this hard sell also gave Dale Bhagwagar thousands of entries on Google search. That’s some feat, as his contemporaries don’t seem to have even crossed 200 such entries.
Then, the unexpected happened! One day, we received a mail from the publicist which read: “A few days ago, Shilpa and I have parted ways. She is a wonderful person and I thoroughly enjoyed handling her PR. We have been a great team and I wish her loads of success in future too.”
When we wrote back, expressing our utter surprise over the break-up, Dale got philosophical in his reply (though he never gave us the reason): “Life can be summed up in three words… it moves on. Rather than think of the parting, I smile as I look back on the great times we shared and the great work we did while the good times lasted. I am looking forward to more good times with newer clients now.”
Indeed, this guy can talk the talk. As his ex-staffer had warned, we might need to beware! Wonder who his next Shilpa Shetty might be!