Publicist Scores With Rappers, Right-wing Politicians
Ronn Torossian’s friends in the hip-hop world landed him a coveted spot on the guest list for Janet Jackson’s album release party in New York last Monday.
“Very tough ticket to get — 400 people were invited,” Torossian noted.
But the 29-year-old publicity guru was unable to attend the pop singer’s exclusive soiree. Instead, Torossian was in Washington, D.C., with a different kind of celebrity: Israeli minister of tourism Binyamin Elon, a member of the right-wing National Union Party.
The roster of clients at Torossian’s firm, 5W Public Relations, stretches across all cultural boundaries. In addition to Elon, whose American touring he oversees, Torossian’s clients include both the Christian Coalition of America and Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group, the business arm of rap impresario Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’s hip-hop empire.
The worlds through which Torossian passes during his daily rounds are diverse, but in Torossian’s presence, the seams between hip-hop and conservative politics seem to disappear. Torossian calls himself “a Jewish bad boy from the Bronx,” and his fighting attitude makes everything fit together.
The political figures he works with tend to stand to the far right of the political spectrum — expressing sentiments consistent with Torossian’s own days as a rough-necked agitator in Israel, when he was escorting bulldozers into East Jerusalem to help force out Palestinian residents.
“You were one of those crazy militant guys, weren’t you?” Jameel Spencer, P. Diddy’s business partner and confidant, once asked him. Torossian just smirked at the fond memories.
Torossian’s scrappy determination is perhaps nowhere more evident than on the basketball court, where the 6-foot-2-inch player has won over many of his hip-hop clients.
Spencer vividly remembers their first meeting: “He was sticking to me so tight, and he was yelling, and he was hairy,” Spencer said. “You don’t want the hairy man to be covering you, and I was trying to get away from him. But that same thing you might not want to rub up against on the court is what you want on your team in the boardroom.”
Torossian honed these essential skills on the playgrounds of Riverdale, in the Bronx, where he spent most of his childhood afternoons. During Torossian’s teenage years, though, basketball had to jockey for attention with his growing interest in Israel, which was inculcated in him by his childhood rabbi, Avi Weiss, the soft-spoken but hawikish leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Torossian joined Betar, the right-leaning Zionist student organization, and rose to become the national president during his college years at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
“He is probably the greatest young Jewish political activist I have encountered in the last many years,” Weiss said while recalling a Shabbat evening he spent with Torossian in an Oslo jail after they protested Yasser Arafat’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.
After college, Torossian moved to Israel, where he got his first taste of his future career on the front lines of activism. He founded his own organization, Yerushalayim Shelanu, or Our Jerusalem, with two young friends, and discovered he had a knack for attracting media attention. The organization’s boldest stunt came when they led a phalanx of bulldozers to Har Homa to reclaim for Jews a disputed plot of land in a Palestinian area of East Jerusalem.
The motivation for the work was simple: “The PLO or P.A., or whatever the gangsters call themselves today, have no place in Jerusalem,” he said. “I feel the need to speak truth to power.”
Coming back to America after a year and a half, Torossian did not drop his convictions, but he left the picket-line work to others. Just last week, when an old Betar friend invited Torossian to a counter-protest at the Israeli consulate after the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Torossian declined. “Instead I told him, ‘Take one of my employees, and we’ll get you CNN and Fox News.’”
In his professional life, he is adamant that his focus right now is on the corporate clients — like Marriott Hotels and Bad Boy Productions — that make up about 85% of his business.
“Ninety-five percent of my employees don’t know the difference between Meretz and Likud,” Torossian said. “I don’t ever want them to know the difference. But they damn well better know when earning season is, and when the fashion shows on Sixth Avenue are.”
There is, though, no strict seperation between Torossian’s many lives. At Torossian’s wedding two years back, Benny Elon was dancing to Israeli music and American hip-hop alongside Jameel Spencer. Spencer said that he got particularly confused when “they were running around in a circle. I thought it was a track meet at some point.” Torossian was about the only one in the room for whom the mixture seemed natural.
To tame all these conflicting movements around him, Torossian remains perpetually in motion. At a Bush-Cheney fundraiser he organized for young Republicans last week, he buzzed in and out of the room talking on one of his two cell phones and impatiently waving his hands when one of the speakers dragged on for too long.
His aggressive style may not always be pretty, but the results speak for themselves. He launched his company 14 months ago with one worker: himself. Today he has 25 employees and an office in midtown Manhattan.
Despite his focus on corporate clients, his old political passions keep bubbling along. On top of the longstanding media work he does for right-wing organizations like the Zionist Organization of America, his interests in Israel have also gotten him involved recently in the Bush campaign — despite his quibbles with the Republican Party: “They’re old white guys from Texas. I don’t have anything in common with those people in suits,” Torossian said, fingering his own tight black T-shirt and slick pinstriped jacket.
Yet, as a small-business owner and a lover of Israel, Torossian says he has no choice but to back Bush: “I vote as a Jew, and I vote on Israel.”
In putting himself out there to make money for this and every other cause, he does not see himself as much different from many of his clients.
“My clients are the toughest, meanest, roughest men,” he said. “But at the end of the day, just like me, they’re interested in their families, their finances, and their people.”
Only a few sentences later is it clear that Torossian is speaking about the Bad Boy crew rather than the folks in the Israeli government.