Jonathan Cheban: Man About Town
For someone whose persona is completely misunderstood on social media, Jonathan Cheban is surprisingly sanguine. Yes, he is Kim Kardashian’s BFF at most of the events and parties she attends, but Cheban, 41, doesn’t mind having his own formidable set of ever-growing accomplishments eclipsed by his beautiful friend. He knows exactly who he is: A man who has been on TV for almost 10 years, owns one restaurant, an entertainment and lifestyle internet company called TheDishh.com, launched a new clothing line … and that is just the list for today. Get ready to keep up with Jonathan Cheban—if you can.
Diamond dreams, caviar class
We walk into an office suite in the Trump Tower that will soon become the International School of New York. “This is another project I am working on,” he says as he waves a hand across the proposed new school. “I am developing the entire pop culture program for this school here in the Trump Tower. Wealthy kids from all over the world will learn things about private aviation, social media, quality of diamonds, types of caviar, mixed in with economics and other fundamental undergrad and grad classes. This is the social stuff you need to know to survive in a city like this with a lot of money. If you are buying a diamond you need to know the clarity and if you are buying a private jet you need to know the different leathers and seats. I’ll basically be the Dean of Pop Culture at the school.”
The room we eventually settle into is sparse with two desks, a couple of chairs, and a floor-to-ceiling window that he assures me opens up if I say anything negative about his friend, Kim. Dressed in a standard Jonathan open-necked, tight shirt and slim pants, his energy is palpable as he motions for me to pull up a chair. “People are like, oh, you just hang out with Kim all day. No, I’m working on 39 businesses. It drives me nuts,” he makes a point of saying. “I’ve been working since I was a kid. I had my own company when I was 23 years old, worked with Diddy and J. Lo and Mariah and did a million events with them.”
So, out of all the businesses today, which one demands the most energy and time? “The Dishh is my baby so far,” he says. “People on my Instagram and [other] social media were constantly looking to me for advice on where to go, what to eat, so I thought, Let me start a website that kind of gives that lifestyle.” And although he was unsure at the time as to how it would eventually morph to its present site, he does admit he came up with the catchy name because The Dishh can mean food as well as gossip—and the double “h” for dishing gossip also translates into the well-known sound for keeping secrets: Shh! Something he knows all too much about.
“I don’t give any gossip, everything personal stays personal,” he quickly assures me. “We pick the best news and write it in our way. There is so much crap out there. I don’t want to read [about the] Housewives and the Duggars. I don’t want to read about Duck Dynasty. I want to read about Justin and Selena and Young Hollywood. That’s our whole thing. We curate the stuff that is going to be amazing mixed in with the hottest places to go. That’s what people want to know; they want fast information and they trust us.”
With his PR background, he has a good, keen instinct for what is exciting and enticing to people and for what’s a waste of time. “I get asked all the time, ‘Come on our radio podcast!’ I’m not going on a podcast for five people so that you can use what I said and pull out a Kim statement and then put it in the media,” he says with an eye roll. “When you are best friends with the most famous girl in the world, it’s like being best friends with Marilyn. People are infatuated and obsessed.”
Adding to his ever-expanding list of new opportunities on the near horizon is an innovative Cheban-created TV show in development stage—think a modern-day version of Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, except the twist is gaining access to some of the more attainable luxuries of the celeb set. “Did you ever watch Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives? This is the opposite,” he says. “People want to know where Beyoncé sits at a hot restaurant. It’s not about billion dollar houses; no one cares about that. They want to know where the hot stuff is and nobody knows better than me. I live it!”
And then there is his new clothing line, Moves, for which he gives credit to Kanye West for inspiring him. “He is a genius. Kids have been dressing like Kanye for the past four or five years and it’s now becoming mainstream to the point where American Apparel and H&M are doing the long shirts and his type of sweatshirts. His sneakers are revolutionary.” One valuable lesson he learned from his friend was to surround himself not with older, smarter people but a younger generation. “I can get inspired from them because they are in the streets, not older people who have knowledge which is useless now. It’s all about social media and he has made the streets most relevant.”
Clearly, young Hollywood is his target audience; those who want (or, as Cheban might correct, need) to be seen at trending hot spots in major cities around the globe. And who better to adjudicate those places than Jonathan, who posts mouthwatering dishes from around the world on his Instagram daily. “I live to eat, or eat to live—one of those sentences,” he laughs. “Even when I couldn’t afford to eat at all the expensive restaurants, I’d find the coolest-shit restaurant. There is a place in Westchester I go to for Buffalo wings called the Candlelight Inn.”
Determining what is a new trend is an art in which Jonathan is well versed. He feels he is better connected to his audience because he enjoys living both a normal life and a TV life. “I have always been like that. I’d go to the mall in New Jersey on Saturday afternoon and then on Sunday night I’m at a movie premiere with all the craziness that goes with it.”
So how does he keep up with all the proposed and on-going projects on the table? “I love life!” he says. “I love the crowd reactions to the celebrity, not the celebrity. I love how excited people get and what they are reacting to; I’m like a heat sensor. Also, I’ve learned that my gut is always right; it’s a sixth sense.” His big break came soon after landing a job with PR maven Peggy Siegal in New York after graduating from Hofstra University in 1995. “I heard Benny Medina [ex-manager to Sean Combs] call and ask if Peggy would like to do this birthday party and Peggy was like, ‘What Sean Combs?’ She didn’t get it no matter how much I persuaded her.” So he quit and started his own company—with Combs as his first client. “I knew Diddy was going to be the hottest person in town, there was nobody flashier and cooler at the time, and I feel it’s all because of Diddy and Benny Medina that J.Lo is J.Lo today. She could have been just another boring singer.” Jonathan has an unprecedented knack for forming long-lasting relationships that extend beyond the professional platform translating into a trusted little black book that includes, of course, the über Kardashian clan.
He first met Khloé Kardashian through Nicole Richie and then accidently found himself sitting next to Kim at Brittny Gastineau’s birthday party. The friendship blossomed and it was not long before he began appearing as a friend of the sisters on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and several of the show’s spinoffs. In 2010, Kim helped produce Jonathan’s show, The Spin Crowd, chronicling the lives of Cheban, his partner Simon Huck, and their employees at Command PR. The show did not last past one season, but the friendship did.
With slight trepidation of being “thrown out the window,” I asked why he thought Kim was still relevant. “Everyone wants to be like Kim even if they aren’t gorgeous. They will try in their own version to dress like her,” he says. “She’s very aspirational because she is a regular girl; she’s not a movie star. There are more seasons of the Kardashians than I Love Lucy. She’s a TV star. This also drives me nuts about people saying, ‘Why is she famous?’ If you have a TV show for 20 seasons in 180 countries, you would be famous as well, but you do not,” he scolds, demonstrating not for the first time this afternoon how very protective he is of his beautiful, famous friend and the high level of trust that exists between them. What about the negativity on social media, I inquire. “Sometimes I respond to somebody on Instagram and kind of attack them back and block them, but she’s much softer than I am. She would never do it the way I do it. Also very few people will tell her the truth but I will, even if she gets mad. I just tell her straight up.” Many people assume that Cheban is a friend of Kim for business as well but nothing could be further from the truth. “We don’t mix business, Kim and I,” he says.
Trust is something that Cheban holds dear. He considers himself a vault and has gathered layers of friends around him. He says the very close friends are the ones he would invite to Kim’s house, while this second layer of friends he would invite to his home but never into the inner Kardashian sanctum. From there, the layers extend to more superficial or work-a-day layers.
So what merits a true, trusted friend? “It’s a secret,” he says. “You have to spend a lot of time with me. I’m a really intensive, abusive friend. Believe me, it’s really hard to survive Jonathan boot camp.” He refused to describe the intense method he adopts to weed out those who do not pass the smell test, but did admit that drugs and drink were a big red flag, as were “messy, sloppy people” who party until 7am multiple nights in a row. “I need normal people who get normal-drunk and go home at 3am, not 7am,” he says. How does he find a true friend or even a girlfriend? “When the check list is complete, I just know they are good and then my mom meets them. I would never bring someone who is, like, embarrassing because she is so critical.” What about those unfortunate souls who betray his inner trust? “They’d be dead!” he retorts. “Everybody knows their life will be over.”
That being said, family reigns supreme in Cheban’s world. He credits his late father for keeping him grounded and his mom for keeping him on the straight and narrow. “[Mom]’s really the only person I’ll listen to when she tells me how ridiculous I am with things,” he says. “I get excited to do something, like get a tattoo, and she’s like, ‘That’s disgusting; you can’t do it,’ to the point where I’m like ‘I can’t do it!’ We’ve always been close. I’m an only child and have loved the excitement of doing these things like being on TV, getting a Bentley—now I do them for my mom.”
He pulls out the invitation to the White House Christmas party and tells me how thrilled his mom was when he asked her to accompany him to the event. She must be proud of all he has achieved, I offer. “It’s the only validation I care about,” he says. Sometimes that is the only validation we all need—even if you’re Jonathan Cheban.