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Power players: five gay and lesbian entrepreneurs who are making the world go 'round.

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THE DARK LORD FEELS THE HEAT

NICK DENTON built a fiefdom of blogs from the popularity of his snarky media gossip site Gawker. Then one day he realized he was 3 million page views down. Now loyalists are bolting as the Internet industrialist shakes up his world {BY TIME MURPHY}

"IF GAWKER WAS GONE TOMORROW," says Huffington Post blogger Rachel Sklar, "who would miss it?"

A bold question, particularly when you consider that Gawker, the must-read media industry blog launched in 2002, was once the place for a daily diet of tidbits on everything from Rupert Murdoch's latest dastardly deed to what the willowy girls at Vogue were (or were not) eating in the Conde Nast cafeteria.

But in mid-January, after dropping 3 million page views between October and December 2007, Nick Denton, the site's cagey founder, decided to do what entrepreneurs do best-take a risk. While Gawker once focused almost entirely on the foibles of an elite New York City media core, it would suddenly find space for the Tom Cruise/Britney Spears bits covered to death on countless other websites. Gawker was going mainstream.

Many viewed the change as a desperate effort to cash in on low fare like "pictures of Lindsay Lohan's vagina," as Choire Sicha, Gawker's former managing editor, jokingly put it. Sicha, who's also gay, quit the blog at the end of December--mainly, he claims, because he was burnt out. "I was tired of working 14 hours a day six days a week. I hadn't been to the gym since I started that job."

Denton didn't win any loyalty points when in December he announced he was tweaking how his writers were going to be paid. Rather than give people a flat fee per post, Gawker would augment writers' base salaries with bonuses generated by how many times people viewed their posts. Sicha and another senior blogger resigned.

Whether it was boredom or bravado that inspired Denton to shake up his business is anyone's guess. But what's important is that he appears to have unleashed on his own staff a bit of the signature bitchiness he used to aim at media moguls. Had the general turned on his troops? "There are certainly signs that Gawker ... is in the midst of a particularly intense period of turmoil," wrote Allen Salkin in a January 13 article in The New York Times. "As messy and mean as Gawker could be, it was an addiction to many journalists, obsessively clicking in search of the diversion that fresh gossip about colleagues and their bosses offered from the toil of reporting and editing the news."

NICK DENTON DECLINED TO BE INTERVIEWED for this piece--"I really would, but am so busy this month"--despite numerous phone calls and e-mail requests. "And everything is out there pretty much," he offered by e-mail. It wasn't a surprise. Like gay Internet potentate Matt Drudge, Denton rarely speaks to the press.

"He'll only talk to you if he has a message to get out," says Sklar. For example, when Denton announced that he would become Gawker's managing editor late last year (to fill the place Sicha left open) and would post items himself, he promptly got in touch with Sklar. "That first day, all of a sudden he was going pingping-ping to me," she says, mimicking the sound of instant messages arriving, "about numbers and this and that. He wanted me to write about stuff."

A British-born former Financial Times reporter who made a small fortune on an early Internet social-marketing venture before starting Gawker, Denton parlayed its initial success into a full-on armada of 15 blogs, each one fixated on a different niche. There's Valleywag for Silicon Valley, Defamer for Hollywood's entertainment industry, and Wonkette for Washington politics. Jalopnik covers cars, Gizmodo takes on gadgets, and 109 just launched to tackle your daily science-fiction needs. Altogether Gawker Media brings in an estimated $10 million to $12 million annually, according to New York magazine's back-of-the-envelope calculations last fall.

Although some of the sites attract millions more page views than Gawker, the flagship blog, with its addictive cocktail of news, smear, and innuendo, has earned Denton his "dark lord" moniker.

"He's got a big head-literally," says one leading media critic who's been zapped frequently by Gawker and won't go on the record for fear of reprisal. "He looks like Linus [from "Peanuts"], and he wears the stripy shirts to go with it. But he's not a huge personality. I think he likes being the man behind the curtain."

One current Gawker contributor, who spoke anonymously because "my job is on the line," says that working for Denton "has always been nerve-racking. But he knows what he's doing--or at least is good at making it up. He doesn't sell out his employees if he believes in them. Nor is he afraid to whip people into shape."

So it's hard to figure why he'd let Sicha and another popular Gawker writer, Emily Gould, walk away. Sicha's tart, brainy voice made him a popular blogger for the site, in addition to his role as managing editor. Surely his departure would put a dent in Denton's coveted hits, right? As Reed Phillips of investment firm Desilva and Phillips observes of successful blogs, "If the talent goes away, then presumably the traffic follows."

Sicha says that Denton tried to get him to stay, offering to relieve him of his managerial duties and leave him free to write. "He just wrote me the other day, asking, 'Are you going to write a column for me?'" says Sicha. An e-mail from Denton dated January 28 says: "You could write about anything you cared about, rather than cover the new bases--who knows, blogging could be fun." Currently freelancing for The New York Observer and the Los Angeles Times, Sicha says he's not going back--at least for now.

And while he won't quite condemn Denton's new payment system, saying it could yield high-quality content and allow talented writers (or nugget-finders) to make a great deal more money, he adds vaguely, "I just don't like systems. I don't want to get rich people richer."

"IF YOU ASKED NICK, 'HOW GAY ARE YOU?' he'd be, like, 'What?'" says Sicha. Yet Gawker has long been dedicated to covering people of interest to "the gays," as the site calls us. Case in point: Two days after the Times story, Gawker landed a major coup when it posted the now infamous video clip of Tom Cruise's crazed remarks for a Church of Scientology event. Despite the church's demands and threats of a lawsuit, Denton refused to take it down. Traffic exploded, catapulting January's number of page views higher than any month's in the previous year. The video has since been viewed more than 2 million times. And while that was perhaps Gawker's pinnacle of gay-interest coverage, countless items have been posted over the years that could easily have appeared on gay blogs like Queerty or Towleroad--posts like "Former gay-porn star and current GOP Marine mascot Matt Sanchez is, apparently, getting 'stalked' by a gay fake Marine" and blind items such as "Which legendary American TV producer of late night comedy has been constantly seen walking back and forth at St. Barth's Saline gay beach?" The site is especially cutting when it comes to celebrities widely believed to be closeted gays, such as Cruise, Anderson Cooper, and Clay Aiken.

"We would get a lot of hate mail from gay people saying we were homophobic," remembers Sicha. "Well, you're not the only ones with sexuality, so get over yourself! We got hate mail from the Jews too." (Gawker's writers--many of them Jewish, including Denton--mock "the Jews" as often as they do "the gays.")

But that bitchiness can feed on itself, creating a vortex of self-pleasure bordering on spiritual nausea. "My boyfriend guest-edited for a week in 2005," says Sklar, "and he was, like, 'Man, you just want to be mean, you can't help it. You feel that muscle developing.' It flees a side of you that you would share only with your closest friends. It coarsens the discourse."

One has to wonder whether the latest changes at Gawker are Denton's own expression of unstoppable meanness--not that there aren't already enough external examples. Earlier this year, Denton posted a picture of the scantily clad 25-year-old daughter of media mogul Steve Brill, which he'd lifted from her Facebook page, causing the networking site to threaten to bar Denton. It was just the kind of gambit for hits that makes some question whether Gawker's impresario possesses even a rudimentary sense of decency.

"A media columnist once described him to me as allergic to humans," says Jesse Oxfeld, a former Gawker staffer who claims Denton fired him without explanation two years ago. "I think [it's] in some way a fair characterization."

DENTON HAS SCOFFED AT PREDICTIONS of Gawker's demise post-Sicha, saying such doomsday chatter always accompanies staff turnovers. But after previous exits Denton wasn't writing his own posts, which are newsy, to the point, and not especially witty--in other words, nothing like Sicha's. And while the not-gay but gayishly bitchy Joshua David Stein had picked up some of Sicha's slack, he too departed at the end of January. The question remains whether that voice will be necessary if Denton can corral enough eyeballs simply by writing about Britney's new "manny" or Lindsay's latest arrest.

And the voice could be inappropriate if Denton's goal of breaking hard news on the site comes to pass. In fact, he's already running Gawker as a news site, says Sicha. "He has people putting pitches on his desk in the morning, and he'll nix stories. He's a tough boss for reporters."

But other Gawker gawkers are skeptical about whether the site can break anything substantial beyond leaked internal e-mail or IM exchanges from, say, Viacom. Standard Gawker practice is to follow up by urging readers-many of who toil for such media giants--to contribute whatever they know about the story. It's a kind of collective real-time bitchfest of reportage played out publicly over hours, days, or weeks.

Journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis, who penned aNew York magazine story assessing Gawker's cultural impact, doesn't think Denton has or wants to invest in the kind of resources that produce comprehensive fully reported stories at more traditional outlets. "Everyone knows a little something if you're connected with a bunch of mid-level journalists," she says. "But that's not the same as having people who are totally dedicated to reporting."

That doesn't mean he won't try. If anything is clear about Nick Denton, he's not about to bow out. With his blog empire worth as much as $15 million by some estimates, it's not about the money for Denton. "He's the dark overlord," says Sklar. "He's got an in wherever he wants to go."

Whatever that next move, Nick Denton is likely to surprise. Says Grigoriadis, "He's certainly not someone to be underestimated--as we've all found out."

DAMON WOLF

Poster Boy

AS A SOPHOMORE at Louisiana State University, Damon Wolf was already done with college. "My mother tells me that upon entry to kindergarten I was ready to graduate high school," says the 36-year-old advertising executive behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Lost in Translation. Itching to get on with life, Wolf and a friend hit the road for California with a couple hundred dollars between them. "I didn't know what I wanted to do," he remembers. "I mean, really, the weather took me here."

After sleeping on friends' couches in Los Angeles for a while, Wolf landed a job as the receptionist at Frankfurt Balkind advertising agency, a boutique firm (now called Bemis Balkind) specializing in print advertising for major motion picture studios. "l always assumed that the studios had done [the advertising] themselves," he says. "I didn't know there was a huge industry around it." Or that selling blockbusters would eventually become his multimillion-dollar future.

Wolf was no stranger to success (back in Louisiana his family owned Wolf Baking Co., which made Sunbeam bread), but he always knew he wasn't conventional. When he was 19 he came out to his family at a Christmas-party. Yet even as a Southern boy he says he never worried about being ostracized. "We're from Louisiana," Wolf explains. "We put our eccentricities out on the porch and we let everybody see them."

This may explain why as a receptionist Wolf was no small personality. At Frankfurt Balkind he quickly developed a strong rapport with the firm's clients. "In my opinion, the receptionist is the most important person in the company," he explains. "They know all the clients--they know everything--and they really are the face of the company. And let me tell you, I was the best receptionist ever--everybody in town knew me." It was while Wolf worked the desk that Randi Braun, an old Frankfurt employee who became MGM's senior vice president of creative advertising, called and offered the firm a campaign: the 1997 Richard Gere film Red Comer. With one stipulation: Braun said Wolf had to be her account executive. And just like that Wolf became an ad man.

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After heading up his own accounts for a couple of years, Wolf decided--at age 27--to start his own company with his friends and coworkers Charles Reimers and Jack and Jennifer Cain. "Youth and stupidity will get you everywhere," Wolf says, laughing. "It just didn't seem like that big of a risk."

The four formed Crew Creative out of a small duplex in Los Angeles's Larchmont Village neighborhood in 1999. They worked on print campaigns for small independent and Canadian films with one overarching philosophy: "Our goal is to drive people into seats opening weekend," says Wolf. "That is it. That's what I do."

Then one day Warner Bros. came calling with a little movie called Eyes Wide Shut. It turned out to be the firm's big break. In eight years Crew Creative has gone from a shoestring operation, putting together their presentations at the Kinko's up the street, to a company that has a staff of about 175 and expects 2008 revenues to be $40 million.

Wolf built his empire while balancing a 10-year relationship to Ignacio Valdes, an ob-gyn at Glendale Memorial Hospital in California. The two broke up last fall and now share custody of their two sons, Maximilian, age 6, and Samuel, age 4. Wolf makes it all look easy but describes his success with characteristic Southern modesty: "If all this went away tomorrow," he says, "I can still bag groceries. I can get a job."--Corey Scholibo

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DAVID BOHNETT

Do-gooder

THERE'S NO OBVIOUS SIGNAGE on the red brick building on South Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, just a little nameplate that reads DAVID BOHNETT FOUNDATION below the intercom at the iron gate. It's modest and low-key, like the technology entrepreneur and philanthropist himself.

Indeed, Bohnett, the founder of GeoCities (a precursor to Facebook and other social networking sites) that he sold to Yahoo! for an estimated $260 million in 1999, is not one to talk to the press. But "if there's a benefit to being visible that helps further the things we're trying to do with the foundation or the things we're trying to do with these start-up companies"--he also runs the venture capital firm Baroda Ventures--"I'm more than willing to do that," he says.

Bohnett's foundation currently boasts over $30 million, started with proceeds from the GeoCities sale. You may have experienced his most famous philanthropic gesture to date: the creation of computer labs--the David Bohnett CyberCenters--at LGBT centers and universities nationwide. It was a program, he says, that never existed before.

"Cyber centers are needed for the same reasons gay and lesbian centers are needed," he says. "People need a place to go for the kind of social services the gay and lesbian centers provide, and the cyber centers provide a place for people who don't have access to a computer to apply for a job, apply to school, and communicate with friends and relatives. It's providing a resource to help people seek out what they need to improve their lives."

Much of what informs his philanthropic work comes from his time as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where he received his MBA in finance in 1980. "I was volunteering through the gay student union," says Bohnett, who later went on to volunteer at Los Angeles's gay and lesbian center. "Michigan was very progressive, and it was one of the early schools that had organized and university-supported lesbian and gay campus activities. That was the beginning of my activism."

These days Bohnett's activism doesn't stop with handing over grant money or helping fund Internet start-ups (prior beneficiaries have included NetZero.com, Stamps.com, and PlanetOut, which owns The Advocate). He also seeks to change the political system through targeted donations to gay-friendly candidates on the state level. "If someone is interested in marriage equality, they're much better off focusing on state battles than giving money to the national parties," he says.

Bohnett lives with his longtime partner, television and radio personality Tom Gregory, in Beverly Hills, where the two men sometimes hold political fund-raisers in their home for Democratic candidates. "If money equals power, we would have been a lot further along than we are new, given all of the money the gay community has spent" on campaigns over the years.

In the meantime, Bohnett keeps working to make a difference. Says the philanthropist: "I really have a longtime vision of social change and social justice, what it takes to change people's attitude--and what it takes to make the world a better place."--Patrick Range McDonald

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HOWARD BUFORD

Adman

GROWING UP IN OHIO in the '60s, the son of a surgeon dad and a social worker morn, Howard Buford adored the familiar characters who hawked products in TV commercials--Mr. Whipple for Charmin, Madge for Palmolive, and Mrs. Olson for Folgers coffee. "I was always interested in advertising," he says, "in crafting messages and influencing people."

But one commercial he remembers not so fondly was for a facial tissue promising "skin as soft and white as snow." As a black person, he was irked by the assumption that all skin was white. "Who wasn't on TV, and why, and what that meant" preoccupied him.

Buford, 49, went on to graduate from Harvard College and Harvard Business School, then became one of the few African-Americans to climb the ranks of Madison Avenue in the '80s (where he told colleagues he was gay "when they asked--but they didn't really ask"). But those early memories partly explain why, in 1990, he started his own ad agency, Prime Access, one of the first to target people of color, lesbians, and gay men. Today, the agency employs 44 people, and it billed $71 million in 2007.

What does he love most about his job 18 years later? "Providing opportunities for folks to create messages that might not be created," says Buford, who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his partner of nearly nine years, Jeffrey.

Those messages are proudly displayed in the lobby of the Prime Access offices in New York City. Ads for the anticholesterol drug Zocor, cast with middle-aged couples who are black rather than white. A Hyatt ad featuring two hot shirtless men embracing under a waterfall. The ad that broke Volvo into the gay market, featuring a racial rainbow of gay and lesbian couples, some with kids and dogs. And the ad for season 1 of Queer as Folk: "Showtime leads you where American TV has never gone before."

Before he went solo, Buford distinguished himself in-house at Procter & Gamble (working on big products such as Tide and Cheer), then at Young & Rubicam, where he worked on the Jell-O campaign, which featured Bill Cosby's iconic commercials. As one of the few high-placed blacks in advertising, he was all too familiar with the industry's bottom-line-driven racism. "Someone would suggest having a main character be African-American," he says, "but there was so much second-guessing of whether the client would accept it, they'd finally say, 'Let's just cast it nonethnic, general market'--all those words that mean 'Let's use white people, please.'"

Advertising to both people of color and to gays and lesbians has grown so sophisticated since then that it sometimes blurs with mainstream advertising. But Buford doesn't think that Prime Access will bill itself into extinction anytime soon. "We didn't have women of color in [mainstream] makeup ads until the late 1990s," he says. "I think it's going to be a while" before gay couples show up matter-of-factly in mainline ad campaigns.--Tim Murphy

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ILENE C. SHANE

Chocolatier

OCCUPYING A SPARTAN WHITE FLOOR of a discreet building in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, SweetBliss lacks the flowing cocoa river and OompaLoompas of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Yet it does boast a wonderful Wonka in Ilene C. Shane, who spends her days concocting uber-decadent indulgences like the Black & White Moo--a hockey puck-like Belgian chocolate shell packed with homemade vanilla marshmallow, caramel, and graham cracker--the banana pecan fudge Bliss-on-a-Stick, and chocolate Poppin' Lips.

Shane, a gregarious woman wearing a grass-toned Chef Works coat, hands me the latter to sample and I quickly learn where the "poppin'" comes from--Pop Rocks are embedded throughout the dark chocolate lips. My face registers surprise, and Shane grins ear to ear.

"For other chocolatiers, maybe it's all about the chocolate and not about people," she says. "I want to see somebody take the first bite of a Moo. I want to hear the crackle of the shell, see the sugar-rush thing, the eyes get brighter and bigger. I guess I like shock value."

Born in New York in 1955 to a big-band musician father and healthy-cooking homemaker mother, Shane started her culinary career as Ralph Lauren's personal chef. During her eight-year tenure with him she expanded her cooking repertoire, met the occasional icon, forged valuable connections, and was ultimately inspired to create her own company.

In 2001, Shane did just that. She and her life partner, Iris Libby, pitched SweetBliss products to Bergdorf Goodman, and the store's buyers were blown away.

Within three months, a 13-item line was launched, and within six years SweetBliss transitioned from an operation run in Shane and Libby's 2,200-square-foot apartment to a 10-employee factory producing an ever-expanding line of Moos, clusters, brittles, and crunches. "They're the anti-bonbon," says Shane of her sweets. "They're indulgent, big, and not just pop-in-your-mouth bite-size. I like to have the indulgences be naughty."

Out since age 21, Shane feels that being gay has made her braver but says her sexuality is irrelevant to the business itself. "I introduced Iris to Martha Stewart as my partner. Ralph had her as a guest. And I'm always happy to hear someone's gay when I interview them."

As for the chocolates themselves?

"The most lesbian thing about my chocolates?" she muses. "They like to get eaten!"--Larry Ferber
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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 11, 2008
Words:3830
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