Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons: Their Palm Beach connection

  • Post Features Staff
11:19 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017 Community
Jeffrey Langlois
Russell Simons, Shamin Abas and Marc Goldman in 2006. (Palm Beach Daily News)

Editor’s Note: Former ‘Today’ Show host Matt Lauer and hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons have both been accused of sexual misconduct this week. Lauer lost his job Wednesday and Simmons announced Thursday that he is stepping down from his companies. They have at least one local friend in common: the Palm Beach County-New York public relations executive Shamin Abas. In this 2010 profile of Abas, “The Star of PR,” by former Post staff writer Staci Sturrock, Simmons was interviewed and spoke highly of the work Abas did on a 2005 charity event he held at Mar-A-Lago. Abas declined comment Wednesday when asked about the Lauer allegations.

OK, here’s the pitch …

Horse-crazed girl grows up in Welsh village, begins dancing at the relatively late age of 14, wins spot at London dance academy.

She comes this close to landing a role in a West End revival of West Side Story, but when the Sharks and Jets take off without her, she jets to Miami for a cruise-ship gig.

>EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Russell Simmons in Palm Beach

A few years later, she’s off to Detroit, New York City, the Hamptons — befriending the likes of Matt Lauer, Kelly Klein and Russell Simmons along the way, and eventually moving to West Palm Beach.

It is here that she launches a PR firm at her kitchen table and, less than five years later, is repping clients in the advertising, fashion and equestrian fields.

It’s a good story, right?

It’s the story of Shamin Abas, quite possibly the area’s most glamorous publicist. Or the one with the life story most likely to be made into a West End musical.

This busy time of year, Abas can be found every Sunday at the International Polo Club (a client), hosting VIPs and coordinating media coverage with her team.

Or she might be in Fort Lauderdale, accompanying advertising guru Jordan Zimmerman (a client) to an appearance on Fox Business, or at a photo shoot with shoe designers Sam and Libby Edelman (clients).

Or maybe she’s at her office in downtown West Palm Beach. “My dream day is to eat lunch at my desk because I just don’t want to stop going,” she says. “If I can be here from 8 to 8, I’m very happy.”

When the 40-year-old Abas, whose office attire leans toward Elie Tahari dresses and Giuseppe Zanotti pumps, arrives at the glass-walled building that her firm rents, she’s a world away from her hometown of Llandegtan, Wales — “not exactly cosmopolitan, with the horses, the sheep and the cows,” she says.

Her Persian father was a math professor at the University of North Wales in Bangor, and her British mother was a jazz singer turned homemaker.

Because of their mixed heritage, Abas, her two sisters and brother weren’t exactly embraced by some of their peers. “We were the darkest kids in town,” she says. “There was a lot of teasing.”

But the siblings stuck together, riding their bikes, playing in the fields, mucking out local stables and being encouraged by their parents to pursue their dreams.

“I grew up living and breathing horses,” Abas says, “but it wasn’t even a thought that I would stay there.”

Then came Abas’ fateful viewing of the 1980 movie Fame, about students at a New York performing arts school. “Something ignited inside of me, and I became obsessed with dancing.”

She signed up for classes where she was twice the age of the average student, and “just did whatever it took to catch up,” she says.

At 16, she won a spot in a three-year program at the Doreen Bird dance school in London.

Then came West Side Story and her first setback. It wouldn’t be her last.

“When you’re used to being an underdog, it isn’t painful,” Abas says. “Your skin is so thick you don’t take things to heart.”

Cruise ship to Page Six

Instead of the West End, Abas found herself in the West Indies, performing on Caribbean cruise ships.

She met her first husband on one cruise, and joined him in Detroit, where he worked as a cosmetic dentist.

Although she says “surburban life didn’t suit me well at all,” she got her first taste of media relations when Chrysler hired her as a spokesmodel.

She continued working with Chrysler after the couple moved to New York in 1999 (they split soon after) and, because of her British accent, she found it relatively easy to land voiceover work. On weekends, she visited the Hamptons.

Eventually, Abas befriended Frank Cilione — who owned a successful nightclub in New York City and what was then the NV Tsunami club and restaurant in East Hampton.

“The bible in the Hamptons is Hamptons Magazine,” Abas says, “and I would look through it, and Frank just wasn’t getting his fair share, I thought.”

She began educating herself about PR, particularly “bringing brands together to create events out of thin air.”

She got the Veuve Cliquot flowing at a birthday party for designer and part-time Hamptons resident Betsey Johnson and organized a fashion show with an assist from Ferrari and designer and part-time Hamptons resident Randolph Duke.

“People came out. We got photos in all the magazines and on Page Six,” Abas says. “It worked.”

Force behind Tsunami

The business grew enough that CityPlace asked Abas and Cilione to open a Tsunami here.

Roughly 1,200 people attended the 2003 opening of the Asian fusion restaurant with the 35-foot ceilings and giant Buddha heads.

The food earned rave reviews, celebs such as Natalie Cole and Howard Stern dined there, and The New York Times and Travel and Leisure gave it ink.

But within 18 months, just a few months after Abas and Cilione opened Resort nightclub in CityPlace, Tsunami filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

“$2.5 million later, it was quite an expensive lesson,” says Abas, who cites issues such as pricey valet parking, the never-built CityPlace hotel and a not-up-to-full-speed convention center as reasons for Tsunami’s demise.

“All the business we planned on never came to fruition,” Abas says. “Our lease was just not sustainable.”

2015: Shamin Abas inside hangar at Jet Aviation at the Palm Beach International Airport. (Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post)

In the middle of all this, Abas and Cilione married, but the stress of trying to keep Tsunami afloat took its toll.

“My advice is never be married to someone in the restaurant business,” Abas says. “We were under so much pressure with this huge lease and financial responsibility. It played a huge part in the failure of our marriage.”

The businesses failed, too: Tsunami closed in 2006, and Resort folded in 2007.

In May 2005, Abas launched her own PR firm, bringing that most valuable asset to the table, her clients say: connections.

She’d befriended Russell Simmons in the Hamptons, and pitched to him the idea of organizing a Palm Beach fundraiser for his New York City-based Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation.

“I couldn’t even imagine why she would suggest such a thing,” Simmons recalls. “It didn’t seem like a reasonable suggestion, and I didn’t believe in it.”

First big break

A few months later, Abas produced the inaugural event of Rush’s Art for Life Palm Beach at Mar-a-Lago. The honoree: Sean “Diddy” Combs. On the guest list: Donald and Melania Trump, Venus and Serena Williams, Star Jones. The take: $450,000. The coverage: Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood.

“She did all the work that we didn’t know how to do,” Simmons said. “She nailed it down.”

Abas says the event was “part of my mission to prove to everyone else around the nation that Palm Beach wasn’t old and stodgy.”

Sam Edelman, the shoe designer who has a house and horse farm in Wellington, recently hired Abas to coordinate his South Florida appearances because of her contacts in the horse world and her knowledge of fashion.

“She’s one of the few people who combines both,” he says.

Abas’s first big break, she says, was when she was hired by Jordan Zimmerman, founder and chairman of Fort Lauderdale’s Zimmerman Advertising, a $2.5 billion company with 1,500 employees.

Zimmerman says he hired Abas, in part, because she was hungry.

“She understands what it’s like to build a business, but she understands what it’s like to fail,” Zimmerman says. “She doesn’t want to taste that failure.”

Maybe that accounts for what Simmons calls Abas’ “very aggressive” approach. “She’s very focused, she’s very committed, and she’s very honest.”

So where does Abas see herself — and her six-person firm — five years from now?

“Personally speaking, definitely as a mother, and definitely involved with horses and animals,” she says. “Business-wise, certainly growing this company.”

Honestly, says Abas — from dance studio to cruise ship to nightclub to polo field — “It’s been an adventure, and it continues to be an adventure.”

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