Some guys have all the luck. In the late 1980s, an anonymous lawyer and real estate developer named Steven Schragis became a mini-celebrity overnight when he donated $2 million to help launch the satirical SPY magazine. Unlike founding editors Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, Schragis lost his social clout after they sold SPY in 1990. But SPY alums have a knack for reinvention, and this spring the 44-year-old Schragis is back in the spotlight as the executive director of the Learning Annex.
The Learning Annex, an adult education outfit founded 21 years ago in New York, is exactly the kind of cheesy enterprise that the now defunct SPY would have lampooned. The school teaches skills that range from the professional—”How to Be a Player in the Sports Industry,” “How to Land a Spot on Reality TV,” and “How to Get Your Pet Into Showbiz”—to the very personal—”How to Ride a Bicycle,” “How to Get Even With Anyone,” and “How to Pick Up Women.” (Sample catalog tip with regard to the last: “Another man’s wife or girlfriend. . .easy pickins.”)
“I didn’t realize how high-profile this job would be,” says Schragis. When his appointment was announced in this month’s catalog, he says, “I got e-mails from people I never dreamed of, saying, ‘I saw your picture.’ So many people have said, ‘That’s so perfect for you,’ and it is. It’s the most fun job anyone could have.”
The Learning Annex now offers more than 200 courses, half of which he says are “repackaged with new twists” and half “brand-new.” (One new course, “How to Make and Market Your Music Demo,” includes advice on “how to take a mediocre vocal and make it shine through the mix.”) The company also runs schools in Toronto, San Francisco, San Diego, and L.A.
As executive director, Schragis is a bit of a factotum, with duties that include hiring teachers, designing catalog covers, and overseeing registration. But his most bankable skill appears to be publicity or, as the skill is described in one course offering, “How to Create Buzz & Attract Media Attention.” Since he took over on June 11, Schragis has been acting as a one-man PR team, and he’s not above calling gossip columnists himself. “They know I can give them the legitimate, newsworthy angle,” he explains.
For example, look at what Schragis has done with a popular seminar featuring Jerry Lewis. This spring, so many people were signing up that he twice had to find bigger venues—a factoid that made its way into George Rush and Joanna Molloy’s Daily News column on May 25. Then a fan showed up at the seminar with “a totally ironic” Jerry Lewis tattoo on his shoulder—an anecdote recounted in a New Yorker Talk of the Town story that hit the stands on July 2. On July 4, the News‘ Mitchell Fink ran an item about how Monica Lewinsky backed out after Schragis asked her to pose for the cover of the summer catalog.
Ever humble, Schragis says there’s not much to the art of PR: “When you have interesting news, you call a newspaper and give ’em the facts.” But when pressed, he admits that “I think I had a knack for this in the beginning. I learned a lot at SPY and learned more as a book publisher for 10 years.” Apparently one of the tricks he picked up at SPY is an appreciation for logrolling: Around the same time Fink ran his plug for the Learning Annex, the catalog announced that Fink will be teaching a seminar this fall titled “How to Break Into Celebrity Journalism.”
That sounds like a course Schragis himself could teach. While he was always rich—his family owns the Doral Hotel chain—he had to hustle for his entrée to the media business. His big break came in 1986, when his friend Jay Kriegel introduced him to Carter and Andersen, who were raising money for their new magazine. After meeting the two editors for breakfast, Schragis offered to kick in first $200,000, then an additional $1.5 million, in exchange for which they gave him the title of publishing director. (When SPY was launched in 1986, Carter, Andersen, Schragis, and Tom Phillips Jr. were general partners. Limited partners included media mogul Carl Navarre, then owner of Atlantic Monthly Press; and Stephen Graham, one of Katharine Graham’s sons.)
SPY was an overnight success, and Schragis got his money’s worth. He recalls that in six months, “I went from someone who always hoped to be in the media to someone who was a name in the media. It was a lot of fun. It was amazing to go from sitting around a breakfast table discussing an idea for a magazine to watching CBS reporting on who was in the ‘SPY 100.’ It just snowballed.”
While Schragis recognizes the value of having worked with Carter and Andersen—”SPY will be the first paragraph of my obit”—he says the magazine was never “meant to be forever.” In 1990, according to The New York Observer, the sweet-natured investor was put off by the mag’s increasingly savage tone and told his partners to seek other financing. By year-end, SPY was sold to two European investors, Charles Saatchi and Jean-Christophe Pigozzi, who some believe ran it into the ground.
“After we sold it, people went their own ways,” says Schragis. Carter rose to become editor of The New York Observer and Vanity Fair, while Andersen did stints at Time, New York, and The New Yorker before launching Inside.com. Meanwhile, Schragis concentrated on book publishing. Back in 1989, he had assumed control of three imprints—Lyle Stuart, Citadel, and Birch Lane—under the umbrella of Carol Publishing, named after his mother. Post-SPY, he kept a hand in the hype machine.
Schragis explains, “I never spent a penny on advertising at Carol. I had a big PR staff, and we’d come up with new ways to promote things.” Carol was best known for its lowbrow celebrity bios (think Sharon Stone, Calvin Klein), which Schragis says accounted for 10 percent of the business and 90 percent of the publicity.”We built our company from publicity,” he declares.
After Schragis sold Carol for $2.5 million in 2000, he consulted for Cahners Publishing and taught law in New York and Chicago. It was a dark phase during which he says “I was not happy,” so when he was asked to interview at the Learning Annex, he jumped. He wanted the job badly enough to work as a consultant for three months. The low point for his public image may have come when The New York Observer referred to him as the Learning Annex’s “booker.”
Laugh all you want. In his new gig, Schragis may have even more visibility and patronage than he had at SPY. The only thing he finds odd is that he’s not the boss; he reports daily to an “ownership group” in California. But he has no trouble selling the product: “In many ways,” he says, “the Learning Annex has emerged as a cultural barometer of what’s hot and what’s not.”
If nothing else, Schragis is living up to one of the rules of buzz advertised in his own catalog: “Develop a winning attitude, persona and image—then market that for all it’s worth.”
Press Clips will return in two weeks.