If you want to conquer Sydney, you need two things: wealthy parents and famous friends.
That’s the key — though perhaps not unexpected — takeout from Blonde Ambition, the newly released biography of Sydney PR queen Roxy Jacenko, by Daily Tele gossip hound Annette Sharp.
It’s not often you see a book on a Sydney celebrity published through Melbourne University Press. But Jacenko is rather more interesting than most publicists.
She has, in several ways, broken the mould of public relations in Australia. Hungry, lean, shameless, and very, very social media savvy, she’s provided the Sydney establishment with an unending source of gossip, censure and scandal ever since she burst onto the scene in 2004. Whether it’s handing out her business card at functions held by rival PRs in front of their very noses or building social media profiles for her children, filled with sponsored posts, effectively turning her toddlers into adorably tiny brand ambassadors, Jacenko has ruthlessly and shamelessly built her business into a powerhouse of fashion PR. In this time, she has carefully guarded her own narrative — at least, as far as she can. In the thousands of interviews she’s given the media in over a decade in the public eye, the iconoclastic founder and director of Sweaty Betty PR likes to talk of herself as self-made.
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It’s undeniable that the publicist has worked her arse off. One business was never enough for Roxy, who is described in the book as always having various entrepreneurial ventures on the go at any one time, beginning when she was still a teenager, hawking self-made jewellery on the sidewalk.
Jacenko has never stopped working. Sharp’s book relates one particularly gruesome incident when, less than a week after the C-section birth of her daughter, Jacenko turned up to work drenched in blood. The “manic, insuppressible Roxy” had opened her surgical wound in her rush to get to work, an incident Jacenko’s employees mused could have been the work of her Aston Martin’s celebrated ability to go from zero to 100 km/h in under five seconds.
But the role of inherited wealth, which allowed Jacenko to throw herself into her work in the manner she has, hums along in the background of her exploits. Her parents were successful and wealthy rag traders in Sydney — migrants who built a fortune (now embroiled in a messy divorce) through manufacturing and property investment. Jacenko was the beneficiary of this. She was chauffeured every morning using a Silver Service cab to exclusive girls’ private school Kambala on the other side of the bay from when she was 10.
Jacenko’s introduction to PR came when she worked briefly for Mark Keighery and Theo Onisforou, who ran fashion house Marcs. She started out as a receptionist but moved into the PR team to work for Diesel. Soon she was pitching herself to manage Diesel’s business herself through a new agency — she was unsuccessful in this but set up Sweaty Betty soon after. She was just 24.
Sweaty Betty opened its doors in 2004 out of a building owned by Jacenko’s parents. She used the family accountant and lawyer in the early days. The lack of expenses allowed Jacenko to operate as few others.
Most publicists in Sydney at the time ran demure, polished firms. There were enough high-end clients around to sustain two or three dozen businesses, without a need to be too aggressive about it. Jacenko didn’t get the memo. She relentlessly went after the clients of her rivals. The frequent allegation, which Roxy denies, is that she was so keen to sign on clients, she often offered to work entirely for free. Particular publicists accuse Jacenko of systematically going after every client on their roster, which they had helpfully listed on their websites.
Jacenko has also masterfully used the media to catapult herself to fame. Jacenko has worked hard to build rapport with key journalists and has rewarded those who show loyalty. This, in turn, has helped Jacenko’s clients, who could be assured of positive mentions.
Jacenko has always been happy to divulge a juicy tip, Sharp writes. She would, for example, tip off the gossip columnists when one of her celebrity clients happened to visit another of her celebrity clients. And Jacenko always managed to swing it so the resulting write-up was mutually beneficial — “cosy cross-pollination that worked for all”.
Even Jacenko’s private life wasn’t immune to media manipulation. Sharp relates how, fearing her now-husband Oliver Curtis was spending time alone with Lara Bingle, Jacenko called a tip into The Daily Telegraph, which papped his car outside Bingle’s house. Curtis came running back to Jacenko, which, Sharp suggests, was the whole point of putting in the tip. Curtis, the son of Lynas Corporation’s Nick Curtis, is currently in jail after being found guilty of insider trading.
Part of Jacenko’s usefulness to the media has come from her close personal relations with a string of public figures. Jacenko spends little time with nobodies. And she was just bloody helpful. Sydney reporters describe her as an always-on pro who could turn around a quote in 20 minutes. Sharp writes:
“Roxy, the evidence suggested, believed gossip was like manure. It too was a thing to be used as fertiliser for her business. By distributing it carefully she would make herself utterly indispensable to some sections of the Sydney media. if it happened to help her and hurt a rival, that just made it the sweeter.
“After a few years in business, Roxy had worked herself into the epicentre of Sydney’s notoriously superficial and obsequious social secene. Should there be any unkind gossip floating about concerning Roxy or a client, she would learn of it early thanks ot her media connections and was able to batten down the hatches with her network of new media friends”.
For all Jacenko’s success though — the marriage into an old money family, a PR company she’s previously shopped around for $10 million, a reported 12 Birkin bags, highly followed Instagram accounts that can net her $650 an ad (according to a recent rate card) and stint on a reality TV (she’s aiming for more) — Sharp’s book is underlined by a sense of pathos. It opens with Curtis’ trial. Soon after, it relates the fight in 2004 between Jacenko and her sister, which took place at a party organised by Sweaty Betty in front of attendant media. This event foreshadowed future familial strife. It led to a split between Jacenko and her mother, as well as a rift between Jacenko and her only sibling. This year, Jacenko’s father, Nick, began dating designer Lisa Ho. The way Sharp describes it, fear for her inheritance was what led Jacenko and her mother to confront Nick Jacenko and Ho on the sidewalk one afternoon. A nasty physical altercation followed, with Ho and Nick Jacenko filing a police report claiming they’d been struck repeatedly.
Jacenko didn’t talk to Sharp for her book, and she has been conspicuously silent about it since. For the most part, the book doesn’t suffer for this; Jacenko has given enough on-the-record interviews for Sharp to find relevant material to give her take on every episode. But what we get is Jacenko’s boosterism, rather than any sense of introspection. The reader is left uncertain what the point of the work or the fame was.