Inside the Celebrity Wedding Industrial Complex: What's the Kardashian Effect?

By Alesandra Dubin November 9, 2011, 2:03 PM EST

Colin Cowie and Niche Media founder Jason Binn hosted a post-wedding party in New York for Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries and 1,500 guests on August 31.

Photo:  Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

If there’s one thing the wedding of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries did with exceptional ease, it was to underscore the nature of celebrity weddings as a business—and a big one, at that. News reports estimated the wedding would have cost $10 million and that the couple made $17.9 million. Plus, planner Sharon Sacks saw her name splashed far and wide. Now, even after the marriage broke up after only 72 days, and the divorce filing prompted considerable public disgust, event industry vendors are questioning what the impact will be on their work with famous clients. But many say the PR value of doing celebrity weddings is so massive, it's still worth working for considerably less than their normal rates.

Colin Cowie, who co-hosted a New York post-wedding party for Kardashian and Humphries to correspond with the launch of his online wedding magazine,, said he got more than 200 million digital impressions as a result of the party and a bump of 7,000 Twitter followers. There were 55 news crews on site. “What a great way to bring awareness to me in the wedding space,” Cowie said.

Rrivre Works, the company that designed the black-and-white Kardashian-Humphries wedding in August, is changing its post-wedding promotional plan. Melinda Cunningham of the company said that it will likely reinvent a planned contest to give away custom rentals from the wedding, for instance, “because who wants them?” But she said that Rrivre Works still gets great value from showing clients photos from Khloe Kardashian's wedding to Lamar Odom, which the company also worked on, and high-profile, low-paying event work is a reasonable marketing expenditure. “We learned some valuable lessons this year. But it's a great sales tool, and we would still do it again,” she said, acknowledging the challenges of such situations, especially when contracts (and tact) prohibit complete candor.

In an attempt to control the spin after the Kardashian divorce news, Rrivre Works posted a note on its Facebook page last week: “Publicity for the event was not quite what many believed it to be, but publicity pales in comparison to the satisfaction we get from a job well done. The Rrivre Works team poured heart and soul into Kim's Fairytale Wedding, resulting in what we feel was a magical environment with an aesthetic that was true to the wishes of the bride and groom.”

Wedding planner Sharon Sacks did not respond to an interview request for this story, but released a statement last week: “Of course if I said I wasn't sad I wouldn't be telling you the truth. It is always sad and very disheartening when two beautiful people so in love for many reasons realize that although they care for each other they are not destined to be life partners. This takes a lot of courage and I'm very proud that they were able to make this difficult decision. They were a joy to work with. What we created together was absolutely amazing, so unique and so special. My heart goes out to both of them.”

Even as many question the motives of the Kardashian wedding, vendors say working on such high-profile projects provides considerable value. This doesn't necessarily come from an instant barrage of phone calls or clients walking through the door—although it can be that, too—but from general name recognition and a boosted air of credibility. “The overarching mission is to create more of a household name for yourself, which allows you to increase your profitability because then you’re not working for your exposure, your exposure is working for you,” said Rrivre Davies of Rrivre Works.

Marcy Blum, whose portfolio of celebrity wedding clients includes Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, agreed that the value of the PR can’t be overstated. “It’s the only way to get on television, asked to do a speech, or get included in an article. You can’t blame people for trying to stay in business even if it costs them money,” she said.

Still, vendors acknowledge there are PR pitfalls, too—even if the marriage lasts longer than Kardashian’s. David Beahm, who designed the wedding of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, said, “It’s a double-edged sword. People are real happy for you, but it also scares some people away. Suddenly they just say, ‘Oh, well, I can’t afford you.’ Suddenly you’re in a different league. It got some people to come through the door, it got my name out there, but it also closed the door to others.”

He added, “I don’t think I would have worked on the Kardashian wedding. I’m just not much into circus. I believe in the sanctity of a marriage,” Beahm said—with a caveat: “But that being said, sometimes an offer of publicity is just too good to turn down.”

Planner and designer Jes Gordon, who has boosted her profile by appearing as the entertaining expert on the Bravo TV show Rocco's Dinner Party, agreed that notoriety doesn't always lead to business. “Honestly, my celebrity cachet has gotten me nothing,“ she said. “In fact, some of my clients could be possibly turned off by it because they don't want to feel intimidated coming to me or feel like they are the lucky ones to work with me just because somebody famous chose me to create their big day.”

Vendors agree that the value of the PR from working on a high-profile celebrity wedding comes down to the details of the contract. The business of celebrity weddings is just that—a business—and vendors who put faith in unwritten agreements won’t see return on investment from the project. “A handshake means nothing,” Beahm said.

For the Kardashian-Humphries wedding, Davies (who couldn’t disclose full details of the arrangement, but described it as a “conversation”), expressed disappointment in the exposure after the event, when the People magazine story named his company in one caption and gave only shared credit for the design role.

Davies said vendors can attempt to avoid such disappointments by shortening the list of people involved with the contract, known in cases like this as a trade-out agreement. “A trade-out agreement is, ‘I’m doing this event [that would typically call for] a $500,000 design budget, but I only have $230,000 [to spend on it]. Are you interested?’ And we say, ‘We’d love the exposure. What are you willing to give us for the discount?’ And so the negotiations begin. Sometimes they’re given freely and graciously, and other times they’re not. The impact of the publicity really depends on how much credit you’re given for work, and the lesson that I’ve learned is that to get a true trade-out agreement, you must deal with the celebrity’s agent directly or the production company.”

While there might have been too much distance between Rrivre Works and the production company that worked on the Kim Kardashian's Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event special that aired on E!, Davies said that he works directly with David Tutera’s production company when working on events for his My Fair Wedding show, and that Tutera’s team takes pains to credit vendors properly. “For each episode we do, we have a distinct agreement based on what they’re providing for that episode. Because that’s the blood, sweat, tears, and dollars we’re putting into it,” he said.

Mindy Weiss, who has said that her celebrity wedding and social event business is driven by word of mouth among clients in those circles, as well as their business managers and agents, said that she works with paying celebrities and doesn't write publicity into contracts with clients. “I never ever demand things from my clients in exchange for planning their wedding. It's not my style,” she said. “My hope is my client has such an amazing experience that they want everyone to know they worked with us, which may include crediting us in magazines, mentioning us on their blog or TV shows, et cetera.” However, if there is a TV show involved—for instance, Tamera Mowry's wedding on the Style Network's Tia & Tamera—then there is a contractual agreement between Weiss and the network to ensure her brand is appropriately highlighted and credited. Heidi Klum and Seal, Lala and Carmelo Anthony, Nicole Richie, and Hilary Duff are all among Weiss's paying customers.

While nondisclosure agreements in various forms are standard fare, a fair contract means the celebrity host can’t have it both ways, and the vendor must either get the chance to publicize his work—or a check in a fair amount. “The vendor can either lose horribly or win fabulously,” Cowie said. “Celebrities don’t want to pay for anything. They’ll ask you to do something for nothing, and they’ll also ask you to sign the [nondisclosure agreement] asking you not to speak about it, which now means you’ve lost everything.”

Cowie said a vendor can, and must, get everything in writing—except for a guarantee regarding the tone of the publicity. “You can’t guarantee the coverage will be favorable. So you have to make sure it’s in the contract that you’ll have three minutes of air time, that you’ll have the rights to use those images on the Web site—spell it out. It’s a business. The reason you’re not charging full is because you want some of their celebrity to rub off on you. Otherwise what are we doing it for?”

But even with an airtight contract, vendors can’t control what happens in a marriage after the wedding is a wrap. Some vendors voiced the opinion that it’s irrelevant to their business whether a couple’s union endures or not. “As a team we know we did everything we could to make that day as magical as people who participated in it wanted it to be. The divorce doesn’t detract for me what we did for that day. It was a spectacular event,” Davies said of the Kardashian wedding. “Once the wedding is over, it’s our responsibility to present what we did in a positive light. And we might change the way we market it a little bit, but I truly believe that there are marketing opportunities for us, and our contribution is still worth something. Had they stayed married, might Kim have had the time to reflect on the day and written a blog about us? Yes. But I think we’ll be fine. I’m still very content and happy that we participated.”

For her part, Blum thinks it does matter to the vendor if a marriage lasts or not—and moreover that the fast failure of the Kardashian-Humphries marriage could sow the seeds for an upcoming overhaul in the business of celebrity weddings. “It diminishes the value if the couple does not stay together. In this case, when it seems that it’s a huge joke-slash-publicity-stunt, it’s possible the vendors were hurt a bit. I do think this might create a change. I can see some celebrities throwing a big extravagant wedding and paying for every penny of it. I think Star Jones’s [sponsored wedding] decimated her career. Similarly, maybe this will put the kibosh [on future spectacles]. Maybe we’ll have more of a collective presence where we’ll say, ‘After you’re married for five years, come and talk to me about sending you a partial discount.’”

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