It’s a bustling night in Las Vegas, and Sugar Ray Leonard is ready for the main event. In his suite high above the Strip, the legendary boxer, boyish and ebullient at 66, sports a gray T-shirt, black running pants, and gray sneakers. A silver crucifix bobs around his neck. “Vegas is my second home. My major fights were here,” he says, flashing his familiar smile. “But I could never have dreamt that this could take place.” A quarter century since hanging up his gloves, Leonard has been granted a second act in his storied career: as one of America’s top celebrity speakers.
Tomorrow morning, Leonard is giving the motivational keynote at the annual gathering of the Petroleum Equipment Institute, a fuel trade association. “Ray makes every single person feel like they’re his best friend,” says his agent, Peter Jacobs, head of the lecture department at Creative Artists Agency, one of the world’s biggest talent agencies. “That’s part of what makes a really successful speaker.” Leonard gives some 40 speeches a year, for upward of $100,000 a pop. That’s $4 million just for showing up and talking — the same amount Leonard earned for his final bout in 1997, when Hector Camacho pummeled him into retirement in the fifth round.
Leonard’s in good company. With conventions rushing back to Vegas and elsewhere, companies are spending an estimated $2 billion a year for celebrity speakers to inspire and entertain their pandemic-weary troops. It can cost over $500,000, plus luxury travel expenses, for an hourlong keynote by Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Q&A with Serena Williams. And since COVID-19 hit, a lucrative new market has opened up for celebrity talks via Zoom. In 2019, “virtual speeches” accounted for less than 5% of CAA’s paid appearances. Today they’re close to 70%.
Despite its size and influence, Big Talk has long existed in the shadowy nexus of the entertainment industrial complex, its inner workings mostly invisible to outsiders. But it’s a world I happen to know firsthand. I’ve spent the past 35 years working all three sides of the business: as a booker, an agent, and a speaker. In the late 1980s, as student director of the guest lecture series at the University of Maryland, I negotiated with a young Spike Lee from my dorm room and dusted up Hunter S. Thompson’s cocaine after his all-night bender at a local Waffle House. (“I don’t advocate this for anyone,” he told me.) Following college, I spent five years as Hunter’s agent at a leading speaker’s bureau in New York City, booking gigs for him and dozens of other literary lions, from the LSD guru Timothy Leary to the rapper KRS-One. And today, a few times a year, I give speeches at colleges and conferences about my own work as a journalist.
From the outside, it may seem like an easy gig: turn up, give a canned talk, and walk away with a big paycheck. But behind the scenes, Big Talk is equal parts Tony Robbins and “Entourage.” It’s a bizarro world, where all the excesses of fame are accompanied by all the indignities of life on the road. A celebrity speaker’s words carry weight not only because they’re talented talkers, but because people are willing to pay top dollar to learn from their success — even if the stars feel unprepared. “I never saw myself as a speaker, let alone a motivational speaker,” Leonard tells me while his assistant irons his jeans. “I mean, who wants to listen to me?”
‘When I ramble,” Hunter told me, “hit me in the leg!”
It was December 7, 1987, and we were backstage of the sold-out Tawes Theatre at the University of Maryland, where I was a junior majoring in English lit. As the school lecture director and a diehard Hunter fan, I’d booked Thompson to speak for $5,000 plus expenses. That covered the Chivas Regal required in his rider, but not the cocaine he provided himself or the carton of his preferred smokes, Dunhill Reds, that I got him as a gift. Thompson, a haggardly 50, wore a blue baseball cap, aviator shades, and a white button-up shirt dotted with red and blue circles. On the other side of the curtain, 1,348 fans were hollering at the top of their lungs for the world-famous gonzo journalist to appear.
I’d planned to give Thompson a short introduction, but he called an audible. He wanted me to sit beside him during the entire two-hour-plus appearance and punch him in the leg when he rambled — a likelihood made higher by the bottle of Chivas waiting for him onstage, along with the grapefruit he requested as a chaser. This, I realized, explained another odd requirement in his rider: that the table for his lecture be covered in a cloth that hung to the floor. It was so no one could see when I hit his leg. Apparently, he had used this method with other lackeys before. There was just one problem, I realized: I had forgotten to follow the instructions. As I trailed after Hunter onstage, he took one look and barked, “Where’s the fucking tablecloth?!”
The lecture industry, as it happens, was invented by another gonzo journalist. After the Civil War, a scrappy abolitionist writer named James Redpath took a page from his friend P.T. Barnum and created what he called “the canvas college.” It was a traveling intellectual circus of tents featuring orations by the country’s leading writers, radicals, and humorists. Proclaiming that “there should be a general headquarters, a bureau for the welcome of literary men and women coming to our country for the purpose of lecturing,” Redpath founded the first lecture agency, the Boston Lyceum Bureau, in 1868. Over the years he repped a Who’s Who of speakers, including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Mark Twain, who toured the world giving hundreds of talks to dig himself out of debt. It was dangerous work. “I have gained 9 pounds in 28 days,” Twain once complained, “and expect to weigh 600 before January.”
By the time Hunter was touring campuses, college lectures had become more like rock concerts. Counterculture antiheroes such as Angela Davis, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, and Gloria Steinem were packing raucous university halls. Student lecture directors like me had to be teenage Bill Grahams — booking, promoting, and running events that would sell tickets, fill seats, and increase alumni donations. I also had to handle all the logistics, from fulfilling rider requirements to escorting speakers throughout their stay. Before his four-hour spoken-word performance, I took the punk-rock singer and activist Jello Biafra record shopping. Afterward we had dinner at Bennigan’s; on the menu chalkboard, under Quiche of the Day, Jello scrawled “YOU.”
In 1986, a few months after University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias overdosed on cocaine, I produced an event called “Drugs: The Great Debate.” Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman argued on behalf of drugs; the former DEA head Peter Bensinger and the pugilistic Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa took the Just Say No position. It quickly devolved into what Leary gleefully described as “a mud-wrestling match.” Sliwa jabbed the Yippie leader as “Abbie Hoffman from New Dope, Pennsylvania.” Leary made acid-head jokes. “I am brain-damaged,” he quipped. “At the altitudes and velocities I’ve traveled in the last 30 years, I know I have blown away several billion brain cells!”
After the debate, Hoffman told me to take him and Leary to a bar “where the students hang out.” Disenchanted with the piss- and vomit-stained floor of the ‘Vous club, we settled for dinner at the local Best Western, where I’d put them up. At one point, Hoffman was shouting at me about how my generation didn’t know shit because we didn’t have to die in Vietnam. Then he returned to his green beans. After dinner, Leary had me drive him to the 7-Eleven for Tums. On the way back to the Best Western we dropped antacid.
Booking Hunter proved the most epic of all. On the day of the lecture, he was scheduled to fly in from Denver, near his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. The night before, I got an urgent call from his agent, Betsy Berg. Thompson, she informed me, was going to be reuniting with his ex-girlfriend Maria at my event. I would have to pick her up ahead of time, and if she wasn’t at Baltimore/Washington International when Thompson arrived, he wouldn’t get off the plane.
The next morning, I picked up Maria, who was just a few years older than me. She was friendly, and a bit anxious about her reunion with Thompson. But later that day, I received an urgent message from Berg: A freakish snowstorm had descended on Denver, and a plane had flipped — actually flipped — on the runway. Every plane had been grounded, including the one stuck on the tarmac with an increasingly inebriated Hunter Thompson trapped inside.
At 7:30 p.m., the start time for the lecture, my advisor was forced to cancel the event and send 1,350 people home. “Maybe it was one of Thompson’s twisted plans to piss off an audience duped into paying for the right to ask him questions,” the student newspaper later speculated.
I waited at the airport for hours with Maria. When Thompson’s flight finally arrived at 10:30, he was the last passenger to stumble off the plane — with his arms draped around a flight attendant and a pilot.
“I’m thirsty!” he shouted to me. “Very thirsty!” He planted a big kiss on Maria, and we headed to the airport bar to catch the end of the Broncos-Bears game.
“How about a margarita?” Hunter suggested. “Make that two margaritas!”
Thompson made a Thompson-like scene, standing on the table and unscrewing light bulbs from the ceiling because he said it was getting too hot. Two reporters from the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly, had somehow found us and later wrote up the experience as “Fear and Loathing at BWI.” They referred to me as the school “lackey” whom Thompson had ordered to smuggle his margarita out of the airport, which I did.
When we arrived at the Best Western, Thompson insisted I drive him around the parking lot while he sat on the hood of my car. “Maria said you’re a good driver,” he informed me as he lit a Dunhill Red. After we circled the hotel a few times, he headed up to his room with Maria, promising to come down later and have a beer with me and my friends. I figured there wasn’t much chance we’d see him again.
A couple of hours later I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Thompson. He was holding one of those small plastic catch-the-ball-in-a-cup toys. “I got this for you,” he mumbled.
A few weeks later, on what happened to be my 19th birthday, Thompson returned to campus to make good on his lecture commitment. As he predicted, he did in fact ramble — a reality made obvious by the forgotten tablecloth and the rapidly vanishing Chivas. But the crowd cheered nonetheless as he railed against Ronald Reagan and offered up a defense of the long list of the drugs he had described taking along on his legendary road trip in the opening passage of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
“I said we had all those drugs in the trunk,” he explained, “but I didn’t say we took them!”
He also commented on the recent scandal involving presidential candidate Joe Biden, who was forced to drop out of the race following revelations that he had plagiarized a paper in law school. “You shouldn’t be thrown out for cheating,” Hunter said sympathetically. “But you should probably be punished for going to law school at all.”
Afterward, as I drove him back to the Best Western, I asked him how he thought the talk had gone. He sank down in the passenger seat and puffed on his cigarette holder. “Everyone just asks me about how much drugs I took,” he replied sullenly. “They never ask me about writing.”
Back at his hotel room, we smoked a joint I’d brought along. “Some people get paranoid on this,” he told me, in what felt like a warning of his behavior to come. He lamented getting older, and how his friends weren’t as much fun anymore. When I asked him why he wrote a mock suicide note as the opening of his book “The Great Shark Hunt,” he turned grave. “You’re too young to be thinking about that,” he said paternally. I wasn’t thinking about it. But perhaps, I now realize, he was.
The next morning, he screamed at me when I knocked on his door — then opened it with a sigh of relief. “I thought you were the maid!” he groaned. She’d been trying to get in to clean the room.
I could see — and smell — why it needed attention. After I’d left, Hunter had been out all night at the Waffle House talking to townies. He’d just gotten back. Clothes littered the floor. Coke powdered the bathroom counter. The room was also insanely hot and smelled like dead whale. For reasons I couldn’t grasp, Hunter had strung a pair of his pants like a hammock under the ceiling vent, which was blasting them with heat.
“What is that?” I asked.
“I bought a tuna sandwich, but it was frozen,” he grumbled. So, naturally, he decided to thaw it out in a makeshift pants-hammock.
I drove Hunter to the airport and left him at the security gate, holding an inflatable Reagan doll he’d bought in the gift shop. Spending time at yet another college had only seemed to exacerbate his sense of melancholy. “I’m an old man!” he shouted to me as he waved goodbye.
Two years later, armed with a recommendation from Hunter, I got a full-time job booking him and other celebrities for the most gonzo agency in the business, Greater Talent Network. By the early 1990s, Big Talk had grown beyond low-paid college lectures to the more lucrative world of corporate conventions. With Wall Street booming, businesses were looking for insights from journalists like Michael Lewis, Tom Wolfe, and Bryan Burrough, who were all on the GTN roster, and whose books were transforming the way people thought about finance. After eight years of Reagan, greed was good.
GTN was the brainchild of my new boss, Don Epstein, a fast-talking, always-hustling, self-made lecture mogul from Miami. A plaque on his desk read “The Bucks Start Here.” Epstein got his start in the 1970s running student lectures at the University of Florida, where he befriended the trinity of freakdom: Hoffman, Leary, and Thompson. In 1982, at age 23, he cofounded Greater Talent as a counterculture alternative to the established patriarch of the business: a diminutive, second-generation rabbi from the Bronx named Harry Walker. “Walker really owned the industry,” Epstein recalls.
After starting out in the 1940s booking puppet shows at Jewish community centers, Walker had expanded into arranging for clergy and professors to speak at garden clubs, churches, and mosques. Like James Redpath, whom he considered a role model, Walker saw lectures as more than a way to make a living. “He wanted to make change in the world and participate in the marketplace of ideas,” says his son, Don Walker, who took over the agency after his father’s death. “He found that this was a way he could do both.”
In the 1960s, spotting an untapped farm league of speakers leaving Capitol Hill, Walker began approaching retired government officials with a pitch. “You can make a lot of money, stay visible, and make a difference,” he told them. Signing everyone from Henry Kissinger to Gloria Steinem, he turned the Harry Walker Agency into America’s biggest and most influential speakers bureau. Today it boasts an exclusive roster that runs from Serena Williams and Derek Jeter to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
As the young upstart competing with Walker, Epstein ran Greater Talent like a boiler room. We’d spend our days pounding the phones in our cubicles, hawking not only speakers but the occasional hypnotist and ventriloquist. For weeks on end, he had us gather in the conference room every morning and listen to Tony Robbins motivational tapes.
With the business booming, we were inundated with wannabe celebrity speakers eager to cash in on their fame. One day, during the Gulf War, I was sitting in my cubicle when the fax machine spat out a letter from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., the leader of all coalition forces in Iraq. In the midst of the war, he was busy negotiating his fees for the lectures he planned to do upon his return. “It was the most insane thing in the world,” Epstein recalls. “The next thing I knew I was faxing back and forth with Schwarzkopf while the war was going on.”
The competition could get fierce, and pricey. In 1993, when George H.W. Bush left office, he was the first speaker to demand a signing bonus, which set off a bidding war among rival agencies. (“We dropped out at a million-dollar guarantee,” Epstein recalls.)
Our office high above Fifth Avenue often resembled a casting call for “Broadway Danny Rose.” One afternoon, we met with Angela Bowie, David’s ex-wife, who opened her calendar and commanded us to book eight weeks of speeches — not on her life as an art-rock Svengali but on her passion for vegetarian cooking.
“Angela,” Epstein demurred, “it’s not going to happen.”
Bowie, reprising her recent appearance on “The Howard Stern Show,” stormed out. Epstein made me run after her to smooth things over. In what remains the most indelible image from my time as a lecture agent, I found the queen of glam rock in the lobby shaking hands with our next wannabe speaker: Roger Clinton, the president’s brother.
As an agency trying to make a name for itself, GTN retained some of the rebellious spirit of the industry’s origins. In an age before reality TV and the internet, college lecture halls thrived on being a hotbed of controversy, and many of the speakers I booked were considered radical for the time. A newlywed couple — Bob Paris, a former Mr. Universe, and Rod Jackson, a Playgirl centerfold — talked about gay rights. Marla Hanson, a top model who was the victim of a notorious slashing attack, spoke about women’s rights. I booked KRS-One on a tour in the whitest college towns in Idaho.
Not every audience wanted enlightenment. One day Andy, a fellow GTN agent, pitched a Holocaust survivor to a Midwestern community college — only to be told by the student activities director that the Holocaust was a hoax. Andy reported the incident to the school’s president, who refused to take action. Shaken, he called the Anti-Defamation League and left a message about what had happened.
The next morning, Andy got a call back from a vigilante who demanded, “Give me the name of the antisemite!” Somehow Andy hadn’t called the ADL — he’d dialed the JDL, the militant Jewish Defense League, and they wanted revenge. When Andy tried to explain the mistake, the JDL guy threatened him. “Give us the name,” he said. “We know where you work!” Andy quickly hung up. For the rest of the week we kept an eye on the office door, but no one showed up.
With dozens of speakers on the road, I had to do my fair share of crisis management: scoring a carton of smokes for the trash-TV host Morton Downey Jr. before a gig at an Atlantic City casino, warding off the handsy creeps who harassed the former porn star Traci Lords at a convention in Nashville, talking Jello Biafra down after he suspected skinheads of breaking into his hotel room. One day, Tim Leary called in a panic after landing in Tampa for a speech at the University of South Florida. He needed to retrieve an important package he had accidentally left at the airport in Los Angeles, but he didn’t want to tell anyone what it contained. Was it LSD? I wondered. DMT? “It’s my teeth!” Leary barked. It turned out he wore dentures. I imagined some hippie at LAX licking them for traces of acid.
But by far the most all-consuming task was booking gigs for Hunter Thompson. Just before a debate with G. Gordon Liddy at Brown University, Hunter demanded that Betsy Berg, whom I now worked alongside at GTN, score him some crystal meth. No meth, he said, no debate. “Hunter basically locked himself in this classroom,” Berg recalls. “He wouldn’t come out.” Fortunately, a Brown student provided the meth — and Thompson spoke as scheduled.
Another time, when he hadn’t received a check from GTN, Hunter threatened to send some Hells Angels to “stomp” one of my fellow agents. But if the check arrived by the following day, Hunter promised, he would send flowers. My friend, who had already FedExed the check, came to work the next morning to find a dozen white lilies — funeral flowers — on his desk, along with a thank-you note from Thompson.
As the years went on, the business became increasingly cutthroat. In 2005, Alan Walker — a wayward nephew of Harry’s — was convicted of fraud and conspiracy after he bilked Magic Johnson, Erin Brockovich, and other celebrity clientele out of their lecture fees. (Andy Rooney, irate over being stiffed, dispatched a “60 Minutes” film crew to Walker’s doorstep to collect the $10,000 he was owed.) The cost of booking celebrity speakers, meanwhile, has soared: In 2015, the University of Houston provoked an uproar when it paid more than $135,000 for a speech by Matthew McConaughey, and Kent State faced similar blowback after it paid Octavia Spencer $100,000 for a 20-minute commencement address. In today’s environment, courting controversy often comes with an additional cost. In 2017, the University of California at Berkeley shelled out $4.8 million for added security after it invited the right-wing flamethrowers Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro to appear on campus. That same year, the University of Florida spent $500,000 on security when the white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke.
As with other industries, more money has led to more monopolization. In 2017, GTN was purchased by United Talent, a global agency based in Beverly Hills. Two years later, the Harry Walker Agency was snapped up by the talent behemoth Endeavor. Today, Big Talk is bigger than ever. For Walker’s son, Don, it’s both strange and exhilarating to have his family business answering to the big shots in Hollywood. “Now I have access to Tom Brady and Serena Williams and Charlize Theron,” he says. “It’s like we’ve been running a small toy store, and all of a sudden we’re FAO Schwarz.”
‘I didn’t see myself trying to inspire people,” Sugar Ray Leonard tells me as his assistant unpacks his bags in his Vegas suite the night before his lecture at the petroleum-industry convention. As a young man, Leonard was inspired by speakers like Martin Luther King Jr. and his mentor, Muhammad Ali. When the lecture industry began taking off in the 1980s, he found himself in high demand — and unprepared. “I was petrified,” he says with a laugh. “I was so freaked out!”
Fear of public speaking — known as glossophobia —is a common anxiety, even among big-name stars. After getting booked on a college lecture tour in 1967, Andy Warhol was so eager to bail that he dispatched the actor Allen Midgette to secretly impersonate him on the road. Midgette donned the artist’s famous wig and Delphic manner of speaking, collecting the $600 payments. It was only after a suspicious appearance at the University of Utah in 1968 when an investigation by the campus paper forced Warhol to admit to using a double. “He was better than I am,” Warhol explained. “He’s what people expected. They liked him better than they would’ve liked me.”
I got my first shot at being a speaker while I was still an agent at GTN. One day a fellow agent told me he needed a cheap speaker on the day’s hot topic — Generation X — for a leadership conference at a luxury resort in Jasper, Canada. “I booked you,” he told me with a grin. I’d written a few magazine articles and was singing in a fledgling punk band, so he figured that was qualification enough to make me a Gen Xpert. The last time I’d been on a lecture stage was back in college, pouring Chivas for Hunter.
I arrived by prop plane with Dr. Judy Kuriansky, the sex therapist and radio talk-show host, who was booked on the panel with me. It was elk mating season, and the resort warned us to be careful if we ventured outside. I had no speech prepared, but I made sure to have an opening joke ready: a cardinal rule I’d learned in the business.
“It’s great to be here,” I told the audience. “Except every time I go for my morning coffee, I’m afraid I’ll get humped by an elk.” I got a couple of feeble laughs.
Dr. Judy leaned over to me. “That’s a good one,” she whispered encouragingly.
Today, agencies go to great lengths to make sure inexperienced speakers are able to pull off their gigs — especially when a client is new to their celebrity. “Occasionally, we’ll find somebody who becomes a famous person overnight and doesn’t have that training,” Don Walker says. “For instance, we had Captain Phillips — remember that movie? Tom Hanks played him. We got him a speech coach and a speechwriter and we rented a hotel room. Ten years later, it’s his main source of income.” The key, according to Epstein, is to get celebrities to speak from the heart, no matter how imperfect they sound. “The best speakers tell a great story about themselves,” he says. “How they got to where they got, the trials, the tribulations, the failures.”
For Sugar Ray Leonard, finding his mojo on the lecture circuit meant digging into the part of himself he tapped to become a champion in the ring. “Boxing is like life,” he likes to say. “You have to get up from knockdowns.” But one night, during a corporate speech, he found himself talking about more than just his bouts. He spoke about the sexual abuse he suffered from an Olympic coach as a young man, and the years of alcoholism and heavy drug use that followed. He wasn’t sure how his confession had gone over with the hushed crowd until after the event. “People were walking up to me, the biggest dudes,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Thank you, man. Thank you for talking about this.’ I said, ‘Thank you for listening,’ and then we hugged and cried.”
As the business boomed, speaker bureaus would occasionally try to schedule virtual appearances for big-name celebrities, who were eager to skip the time and hassle of long-distance travel and interactions with fans. But audiences wanted the real deal. Why pay $100,000 to watch Trevor Noah on a screen when you can do that for free in your living room? “One meeting planner told me a virtual program is like an ambient smoothie with a NyQuil kicker,” Walker says. “It’s the most boring thing in the world.”
Then came COVID. Desperate to keep their homebound employees motivated, companies began booking virtual appearances by celebrity speakers. “We decided we weren’t going to wait for the pandemic to end,” Walker says. “We were just going to become a virtual speakers agency.” Long keynote speeches were replaced with punchy Q&A sessions, and speaker fees were slashed in half. Epstein recalls going to the author Michael Lewis and saying, “As opposed to getting $100,000 where you got to get on a plane, give it to people for $50,000 and do two or three of them in a day and stay at home. He loved it.” By the end of 2021, more than three-fourths of CAA’s lectures were virtual.
For Leonard, however, a virtual talk can’t compete with being in the ring, live. “It’s just not the same,” he says. “It doesn’t give you the same satisfaction.” And in the age of remote everything, people are willing to pay big bucks to be in the presence of their heroes and bask in the warmth of their reflected celebrity. Big Talk thrives, ultimately, on the same human need that fuels industries like Big Oil and Big Tobacco — an addiction to what brings us comfort.
As the lights dim inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, the rows of petroleum engineers turn their eyes to the stage. Music pumps from the loudspeakers. Lights flash. It feels more like a boxing match than a keynote address.
“Let’s get ready to ruuuuumble!” the announcer roars.
Leonard bounds onstage, fist in the air.
The engineers rise to their feet.
David Kushner is a long-time contributor to Rolling Stone. His new book is “Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master: Pong, Atari, and the Dawn of the Video Game.”