MALIBU, CA—Sara Baumann, who for seven nightmarish years was trapped in the powerful grip of client Matthew Perry's drug and alcohol dependency, has "come out the other side, stronger than ever," the 33-year-old publicist said Monday.
Sipping a Diet Coke while curled up on a couch in her Malibu home, Baumann reflected on those dark days of drug busts, car crashes, and tabloid spin control.
"Drugs, drinking, rehab, bad relationships, arrests—I've been through it all," Baumann said. "But, thank God, all that's finally in the past. And you know what? I'm a better publicist for having gone through it. The lessons I've learned about shaping how the public perceives a celebrity client, I'll have those for the rest of my life."
Through the good and the bad, Baumann has stood by Perry, issuing official post-rehab press statements, doing damage control after relapses, and enduring countless lunches with reporters and producers in an effort to manipulate their opinion of the troubled Friends star.
"It's hard to talk about some of the things I went through," Baumann said. "The Vicodin addiction, the smashed Porsche, the Hazelden stint... so much of that time is just a blur to me."
Baumann, who "never expected this wild ride," came from humble roots, raised by schoolteacher parents Bob and Annette Baumann in Easton, PA. After graduating from Boston University with a degree in psychology in 1991, she moved to Los Angeles to become a publicist. She landed the Perry gig in 1995.
"The peak of all the madness was probably around 1997," Baumann said. "There I was, this simple girl from Easton, PA, and all of a sudden, my client's picture is appearing in all these magazines—People, Us Weekly, EW... you name it. His fame really went to my head. Looking back, I guess the crash was inevitable."
The first cracks began to show in late 1997, when Perry entered a rehab hospital for chemical dependency. Baumann said she was in "deep denial" about his drug troubles, repeatedly issuing statements quashing tabloid rumors that Perry had damaged his liver so badly that he needed a transplant.
As Perry bounced in and out of rehab, and his name became a staple on late-night talk-show monologues, Baumann found herself sinking deeper and deeper into depression. The stress began to take its toll on her health.
"Everything was so out of control," Baumann said. "I didn't have time to go to the manicurist, much less my power-yoga class at Reebok [Sports Club]. I put on eight pounds. I looked like shit."
Fortunately for Baumann, a good friend stepped in to provide a much-needed wake-up call.
"Liz [Cohen] said to me, 'Sara, you need to do something for yourself. Not for Matthew, but for you,'" Baumann said. "She convinced me to check into a spa. I did a lot of serious thinking during my 48 hours in the desert. While lying there in that full-body seaweed wrap, I gained an entirely new perspective on what I was doing to myself."
Baumann emerged from the spa with a determination to get better press. Presenting Perry's troubles as the "early stages of chemical dependency, not addiction," Baumann sought the public's admiration for his courageous admission of fallibility. She was largely successful, landing Perry a sympathetic cover story in USA Today.
Encouraged by the USA Today success, Baumann decided that it was time to start focusing on the positive.
"In February 2000, Matthew did this L.A. Times interview, during which he said he was fed up with the whole Hollywood dating scene and was looking for a girl who has more going for her than just looks," Baumann said. "You know, the standard I-want-somebody-who's-real stuff. At one point, he said he wanted a girl who was into regular things, like playing bingo. He said, and I quote, 'Bingo is sexy.' By 9 a.m. the next day, I had that line on the desk of every entertainment editor in the country. According to our clipping service, it appeared in print or on air in 63 different places. For me, that was the moment I knew I'd turned the corner."
But the fight was not over. When Friends co-star Jennifer Aniston married Brad Pitt, Baumann dug deep within herself to find an angle to advance Perry's career.
"I sent out a story about how Jennifer's wedding inspired Matthew to quit partying and start looking for someone he could build a life with himself," Baumann said. "I couldn't believe how well that worked. The press ate it up."
Today, with the media focusing on Perry's recovery and his recent slim-down, Baumann said she's "mellower and definitely happier." This calmer version of Baumann stands in stark contrast to the harried, perpetually angry person she used to be—someone who would scream at talk-show bookers on her cellphone or bully young personal assistants.
"I'm more mature now," Baumann said. "My attitude is, whatever craziness comes my way, I can handle it. Except, like, another arrest. Oh, God, please don't let him get busted for possession."