David Beckham, an English soccer player who can claim to be the most famous athlete in the world outside of the U.S. and his wife Victoria, the former Posh Spice from girl-band the Spice Girls, are in New York for a week of promotional appearances and parties. Their level of fame-neo-royalty in the U.K., a youth phenomenon in much of the rest of the world-and their product-shifting power as celebrity endorsers, are difficult to comprehend in the U.S. Here, Beckham (aka Becks) in particular, has meant so little. Until now.
Why is it Posh n' Becks week? How did Victoria come to be all over the New York press earlier this month, pictured at Anna Wintour's party in see-through Dolce & Gabbana? Why was she in newspapers the world over holding hands with Naomi Campbell? What were the Beckham's doing with Barbara Walters on "20/20"? How did David land possibly the largest article on a sportsman ever to command the front two pages of USA Today (May 9)? What role did Manchester United have in this, or Posh's record company, or the SFX sports marketing agency, which represents him?
It's a pretty good bet that it had something to do with the recent hiring of Globaltalent, a New York-based PR company (other clients include Alicia Keys and Naomi Campbell). Interestingly, the couple hired the shop to work for them as a banded pack: the Beckhams, plural.
Globaltalent has a huge brand on its hands. Watch the recent footage of SARS masks in Singapore or Iraqi mobs dismantling statues of Saddam Hussein. Somewhere in each scenario is a man wearing the red No. 7 Beckham shirt of Manchester United, the $1 billion British soccer club that is the world's largest sports franchise.
Beckham is more than a sports idol. Because of his talent, his celebrity pairing with Posh, his unerring fashion sense (his many changes of hairstyle are immediately imitated by thousands around the world) and pretty-boy looks, he is revered globally to a degree that goes beyond Tiger Woods, even Michael Jordan. When it was suggested he might miss the 2002 soccer World Cup, thousands of young Japanese built shrines where they prayed for his broken toe.
His reward for such adulation is over $7 million a year from Manchester United and perhaps $18 million from endorsements with Vodafone, Adidas, Pepsi and others. Jordan, Woods and world champion Formula 1 racing driver Michael Schumacher earn more. But Becks broke the mold in soccer, where he was the first player to negotiate a percentage of his image rights with his club, and is now the highest earning player in the world.
This summer, Manchester United tours the U.S., playing the likes of Juventus of Italy in sell-out games. The promoters are praying that Beckham will be in the Man United line-up, given fevered speculation that he might transfer to Real Madrid for a $50 million fee. "Bend it like Beckham," a movie about soccer-playing girls who idolize Becks, is the indie hit of the summer.
Posh has been relatively quiet since the demise of the Spice Girls. She has given birth to two boys since and has done a hodgepodge of media projects. But it's tough to be a former anything in the U.K.'s savage tabloid culture.
So in New York, Globaltalent staged a come-and-meet Victoria party for up to 40 magazine editors this month. Familiarity, it seems, neuters contempt, the proof being the number of covers the couple will be on soon, together and individually. Posh was also introduced to cool photographers like David LaChapelle. She knows all the designers already.
Victoria also completed a shoot for Rocawear, her first global endorsement deal. Serendipitously, it will appear in the fall in Times Square and a dozen major world cities, just ahead of the international release of her new solo album.
"People in bookings are definitely very up on them; there's definitely an intrigue," says Thomas Martin, co-founder of Globaltalent.
Posh is a very hands-on gatekeeper to their celebrity, certainly their schedule. Man United and SFX have a great deal of control over David's. The Manchester United coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Victoria do not get along. He is famously said to believe she has turned his prize asset into a more aloof, fame-obsessed fashion junkie (Ferguson hates the hairstyles). The tabloids lap it up. To date, the U.S. press has been more supine.
Every major magazine is interested, Martin says. "The couple-factor thing is interesting. They are successful apart, but together... The American market is so attractive. You have an idea, you do it, and things get done. In fact, our biggest concern is the U.K. press-how things over here are dissected over there."
The Beckhams are a publicists dream. Posh is willing and able, and Becks? As the BBC soccer pundit Mark Lawrenson famously said: "Boys want to be him, and girls want to shag him or be his mother-in-law."
Posh n' Becks simply want to be global icons.