Here’s a short list of the numerous successes George Lois takes credit for in $ellebrity: My Angling and Tangling With Famous People, his lusciously illustrated memoir of his time on Madison Avenue: the rise of iffy-at-the-time enterprises MTV and USA Today, the political fortunes of Bobby Kennedy, and even the 1985 prison release of boxer Rubin ”Hurricane” Carter.
That he makes a fairly compelling case in each instance is no surprise. After spending nearly 50 years as one of America’s most dexterous ad men — cajoling (and conning) celebs to subvert their image for the greater good of consumer awareness — George Lois can sell George Lois as well as he can sell Maypo. $ellebrity is his career-capping cocktail party, with the author dropping anecdotes and dirt with effortless bluster.
Lois’ most revered work began in the early ’60s, when he designed Esquire magazine’s seductively smart covers. The images favored clarity over clutter, communicating startling juxtapositions, such as Andy Warhol being sucked into a giant Campbell’s Soup can or Muhammad Ali posing as arrow-pierced St. Sebastian.
Shifting between publishing and advertising, Lois always maintained his love of unlikely scenarios — pairing Yogi Berra with a talking tabby for cat food, or presenting an unlikely ”before” and ”after” cosmetics ad in which frumpy Bewitched star Alice Pearce miraculously becomes a come-hither Joey Heatherton. Not all his work was cheeky: He lobbied hard through ads and events to overturn Carter’s wrongful conviction for a triple homicide, and his political campaigns were far more subtle than today’s smear-’em-all approach.
Once the book moves into the TV-saturated late ’70s, the celebs grow increasingly less iconic, and the man who once garbed Frank Sinatra in an Off-Track Betting sweatshirt finds himself haggling with a cranky Lisa Ling (one of the many stars Lois disses in his spirited, image-by-image commentary). $ellebrity is a compelling reflection of the ever-shrinking exclusivity of fame, and a reminder of an era when celebrities were truly celebrated.