Levi Johnston is in the middle of a public relations blitz.
With the help of his handlers, attorney Rex Butler and private investigator turned body man Tank Jones, Levi’s everywhere. Us Weekly’s calling to find out if he’s dating the actress Jennifer Murphy (he’s not). He’s been featured in GQ magazine; there’s an upcoming Vanity Fair article coming out; Levi was the A1 story in last Sunday’s Anchorage Daily News, in Julia O’Malley’s column; and that doesn’t count the celeb mags and tabloids that he hasn’t even talked to. But Levi swears he doesn’t read any of the coverage. “I don’t need to read it—I know all about me, I don’t need to read it again,” Levi says. “If something’s bad, [Rex or Tank] will tell me. They’ll read it. I’m not into that.”
Despite Levi’s ubiquity—the Tyra Banks show, two appearances on Larry King, the Today Show, the Early Show, the magazines—Tank and Rex swear they haven’t asked for any of the attention. “We’ve never picked up the phone and said, ‘hey, come do a story,’” Tank says. “Everybody’s pursued him.”
And what Levi and his handlers are doing is trying to turn a bad situation into a net positive for the 19-year-old from Wasilla who knocked up the wrong girl at the wrong time.
Now the plans include red carpet events in Los Angeles, acting in films, perhaps a reality show.
“There’s so many misconceptions, like he wants to damage the Palins or hurt the Palins,” Tank says. “This is what he’s been left. He didn’t ask to be put in this situation. This is the card he’s been dealt and he needs to deal with it. He can’t change; that’s history. That’s done. So when people come up and go, ‘well he’s doing this, his 15 minutes’—that’s all nonsense. This is still America. It’s still a capitalist society. Why is everybody up in arms about this?”
Levi Johnston grew up in what he calls a normal family in Wasilla, with his dad Keith, his mom Sherry, and his sister Mercede. Like many Alaska families, they hunted and fished and camped. Levi played hockey every day, and put everything he had into it. Track Palin, Sarah and Todd’s eldest child, played hockey too, so he grew up around the Palins.
Levi and Bristol were in the same grade, and they started dating when they were 15. Sarah had been mayor of Wasilla, but Levi didn’t think that was a big deal. Then she became governor.
Then when he was 17, Bristol got pregnant. The young couple told the Johnston parents first, who were happy and supportive. Things didn’t go so well when they told the Palin parents, according to Levi. Around May 5, as Levi recalls, he and Bristol dropped the bomb on Sarah and Todd. “It wasn’t so happy,” he says. “They just said that we had to get married; they wanted us to get married, and it was gonna be a lot of work, it was gonna be hard.”
But things were pretty normal between them—Levi stands by his story that he was staying at the Palins’ house regularly—until Senator John McCain tapped Sarah as his running mate on August 29. When Sarah became a vice presidential candidate, things started going downhill for Levi.
It didn’t seem so to the public, though. Levi went to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis and St. Paul with the Palins, where photos of him meeting McCain on the tarmac went viral. Levi didn’t want to go to the convention, he says. “Bristol wanted me to be there for her; I told her no at first. Sarah kinda got on—she wasn’t gonna let me stay home. I didn’t have a choice… I didn’t really think much about it, but I was bummed ‘cause I had to come back from my hunting trip and get on a plane.”
It was his first experience with the cameras, which would become ubiquitous in his life (and his first experience with makeup, which he still doesn’t care for). “Everyone’s staring at you; you’re on a big screen, cameras everywhere. It was weird.”
Levi says that once the campaign was in full swing, the Palins asked him to do a few campaign things, but he refused.
Then, after November 4, the Palins came home; the McCain/Palin ticket had been unsuccessful. “After they all came back and stuff, it was a lot worse with everybody,” Levi says. “Their whole attitude just changed and they were used to that kind of lifestyle and suddenly it was gone.”
He’d dropped out of high school because he had a year left and he knew that his son Tripp would be born before the school year ended. He also started working for the same North Slope company as his father, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, as an apprentice.
There was just one problem—he didn’t even have a GED, which Daily News columnist and Palin antagonist Dan Fagan pointed out in a column in January, and that’s a requirement of ASRC’s apprenticeship program. So Levi lost his job. His parents split up when his father left his mom for another, younger, woman. Then, in December, his mom Sherry was arrested for selling oxycontin, a pain pill. Plus he and Bristol had broken up, and he says the Palins wouldn’t let him see his son, or take Tripp to visit his family. The Palins thought the Johnstons were white trash, according to Mercede’s Myspace page. And media were camped at the Johnston’s Wasilla home, waiting for a glimpse or a soundbite from the father of the Palin grandson.
For Levi to turn this deteriorating situation around, he needed to take action. And he met just the guys to guide him through the process.
A friend asked Rex Butler, a prominent Anchorage attorney, if he would help Sherry Johnston with her drug case. It was a tough decision, one he consulted on with Tank Jones, a private investigator who works closely with Butler. Rex only wanted to take the case if he could do a better job than any other attorney, and he knew that there wouldn’t be money in it. “You’ve got a family feud going,” Rex says. “That’s one reason why somebody said, ‘Rex, you need to take this case; we know that you can stand up against anybody. You won’t bend under the pressure of the Palins or anybody else.’”
So he took on Johnston’s case—she eventually pled out and her sentencing has been delayed while they work out medical issues with the Department of Corrections in case she has to do time—but Sherry Johnston wanted Rex and Tank to help her son too.
Levi resisted at first. But after a couple of weeks with the media camped outside his house—one of them actually dressed in camouflage and Levi saw him running through the trees outside his home—he called Tank Jones.
Tank didn’t even know who was calling when Levi called and asked for help. But he signed on, and had Levi funnel calls to him—“this is the biggest mistake I ever made,” Tank laughs. The Johnstons put a sign on their front door saying to call Rex Butler or Tank Jones if they wanted access to or information about Levi.
Soon the requests were overwhelming. A Nashville-based public relations company flew up a crew of people who showed Rex, Tank and Levi a PowerPoint presentation of their plan for Levi: modeling, a reality show, a book, recording a country-western CD, appearing in a music video with country star Taylor Swift. But they also wanted to feature Tripp, Levi’s son, and that was a deal breaker. The group left, but it mailed up a contract, which Rex mailed back unsigned.
There was a reporter from People magazine who stayed up here, telling Rex and Tank he couldn’t leave Alaska without a Levi Johnston story. “We said, ‘find yourself a real estate agent, ‘cause you about to move in,” Rex laughs.
The first order of business was to correct the record about Levi’s access to his son. Levi, his mom, and his sister appeared on the Tyra Banks show, with Sherry tearing up when she talked about not being able to see her grandson. They did the Larry King show, twice. Then, according to Levi, things improved with the Palins. He got to pick up Tripp and take him to see his family.
And the Palins didn’t seem to fight back—there were a couple snarky comments from Palin spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton, but for the most part, other than Bristol becoming an “abstinence ambassador” for a non-profit, the Palins were quiet. “They’re smart,” Levi says. “They know I know things. I can tell you [Sarah’s] not happy with me, but she can’t do anything about it.”
Now that Levi had ironed things out regarding access to his son, he and Tank and Rex developed a new strategy, one that could take advantage of the public interest in Levi. Tank traveled with Levi to New York, where he opined about Bristol’s abstinence campaign, and later talked with another outlet about his thoughts on Sarah Palin’s abrupt resignation announcement.
Levi went to Hollywood, and met the actress—and former Miss Oregon—Jennifer Murphy, who said she was casting him in a film. GQ magazine did an extensive feature, complete with shirtless photos, about him. He played hockey in New York with the news magazine Inside Edition’s league team (he won the game for them in a shootout). The website The Daily Beast followed Levi and Tank around Hollywood on a shopping trip, and he was dubbed Ricky Hollywood—a joke that Tank had invented for checking into hotels anonymously, but was picked up by the media at large; The Daily Beast even got a photo of him holding up a shirt with the name on it.
“There is no alter ego,” Tank says. He says he explained this at length to Inside Edition, but then the Michael Jackson death story broke and none of it made it on-air. “He’s Levi from Wasilla.”
But he’s also a celebrity of sorts. Standing on the corner outside of Rex’s offices, people in cars stopped at a red light are obviously staring. Tank says he’s had Levi working on his autograph—“It’s like l-e-v-I!” he says, emphasizing the “I” with a flourish. Levi’s been mobbed in airports by tween girl fans, with whom he graciously posed for photos. And once, when Levi’s photo was in People magazine, just to screw with him, Tank took the magazine over to some shoppers and said, see this guy in the magazine, that’s him over there. Levi rolls his eyes at the stunt.
Now Levi’s plans are to get a couple of film roles, and maybe a spot on a reality show. He was offered a dating show: Who wants to date Levi Johnston? They’d get something like 30 girls up in Alaska, and Levi could take them hunting. “I ended up passing,” Levi says. “I can’t handle one… 30? Come on.”
He’d rather do a reality show where he takes people hunting that have never been before (like Tank, who says he’ll never do it; shooting Bambi in the face and eating Bambi burgers doesn’t appeal to him). He’s also interested in something to do with freestyle motocross.
But he’s going to spare the world a Levi Johnston country-western album. “If I had the voice for it, maybe,” he says, “but I’m gonna stay away from that and save myself the humiliation.”
It appears that Levi’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame will be extended, and Rex and Tank seem poised to ensure that. Asked if he’s worried the attention will disappear, Levi says, “no, we got this.” Then he repeats “we got this” twice more.
He’s anxious to get back to Wasilla (and Tank is anxious for him to get back there too: “I welcome when he goes out so I can get some work done,” Tank says), the hometown made so famous by his son’s grandmother, though Levi doesn’t quite see it that way: “Wasilla’s my town,” he says, “not Sarah Palin’s.”
Brendan Joel Kelley