The Surprising Reality of a Leading Hollywood Agent

Amanda Kogan works for one of the world’s biggest talent agencies, making deals for reality TV shows. How did she end up cantoring at a Beverly Hills synagogue?

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

Amanda Kogan is all about reality TV. The Hollywood agent is fast becoming the go-to woman for any Israeli hoping to make it in the United States with their fresh twist on “Survivor” or breakthrough plans for a new Big Brother. She breathes reality TV, eats reality TV and then goes home and watches “Dancing with the Stars.”

“I’m not going to make excuses for it,” says the peppy, pint-sized, perfect-hair-day-every-day 36-year-old. “I love reality TV. It’s fun. It’s entertaining.”

Part of the stable of nonscripted format agents at William Morris Endeavor (WME), the world’s largest talent agency, Kogan is an expert when it comes to predicting whether your variation on “Wife Swap” has a chance, or selling your makeover of “Extreme Makeover” to the big networks.

As such, she would doubtless be the first to argue that a show based her own personal life would be a hard pitch, reality TV-wise. Because it’s just too, well, regular.

The mother of two, who is happily married to her high-school sweetheart (the former captain of the football team) Kogan loves cooking, gets along great with her parents, is an active member of her local Jewish Federation, and enjoys early nights hanging out in pajamas watching “Homeland.” Not quite the stuff of high ratings.

But then again, an outside agent might add, disagreeing, there’s the whole cantor thing.

Yes, in between cutting deals for hit shows such as “Hollywood Game Night” and “Deal with It,” catching up on the latest “Hardcore Pawn” on her iPad and chopping vegetables for family dinner lasagnas, Kogan is also available for bar mitzvahs and weddings.

So maybe there is a show here after all.

“I like the mix, the balance,” she says with a laugh, tapping her perfectly manicured nails on the tabletop and sipping soda water in the garden of a trendy Tel Aviv boutique hotel. The Keshet Media Group's international conference on innovation in television, which brought Kogan across the ocean this month, has just ended, and the agent is spending a few more days in the country, meeting up with clients.

Singing, she says, was always part of who she was. She grew up humming the best of “My Fair Lady” at breakfast and belting out “42nd Street” numbers in the shower. Her mother’s first cousin, Donny, a professional pianist, would come by the house and teach her WWI standards – as uncles do. At 12 she had a private opera teacher and was trilling away in eight different languages, including Latin. And at Beverly Hills High, she starred in all the musicals: “Pippin,” “West Side Story,” “Oklahoma” and “Oliver!”.

The journey that led to her trading in the “Oom-pah-pah” for the “Mi sheberach” started on the day Aaron, Beverly’s hunky football star, showed up at auditions for their high school singing group, the Madrigals – direct from afternoon field practice. “He was all shvitzy,” sighs Kogan, “and then he started singing. I grabbed my best friend’s hand and said, ‘Who is that?” It was, says Kogan, “just like ‘Glee.’” She was a senior. He was a junior. He got into the singing group. The rest is all Finn Hudson and Rachel Berry – but only the good parts.

It was Aaron, today a talent manager and producer, who brought Kogan – whose great-great-grandparents came from the Polish shtetl, but by the time they reached California were “as Reform as can be” – back to her roots. “I used to go to Disneyland on Yom Kippur,” she admits, wondering if such transgressions should go in print. “We went to school with PB and J-sandwiches on Passover.” She mock shields her eyes and grimaces.

Aaron’s family – which came complete with charoset, shank bone and maror in their proper places on the Passover Seder plate – changed all that. By the time Kogan had graduated from USC School of Cinematic Arts in 1999 and started working as an assistant at NBC, she had decided she wanted a belated bat mitzvah.

“Aaron encouraged me and was very inspirational,” she says. “I joke that I am a born-again Jew.” She learnt some Hebrew, hit the prayer books and, at the ripe old age of 23, got up at the Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills to sing “Va’etchanan,” her Torah portion.

And that’s how she was discovered – by the temple’s founding rabbi, David Baron. The synagogue’s cantor was going on maternity leave, he informed Kogan. Perhaps she would be willing to fill in for a Shabbat service? “I said ‘Umm, OK,” she recalls. And, just like that, a star was born.

Kogan started with a few Friday nights, and – a big success – moved onto the holidays, and then began making special guest appearances on the bar- and bat-mitzvah circuit. It was no easy task. “When you are the lead in a musical, you do maybe four or five solos at best,” Kogan says. “At a bar mitzvah you will be up there cantoring for an hour and a half, and doing 20-30 prayers. Difficult.”

Meanwhile, back in her other life, Kogan had moved from NBC to Endeavor, the talent agency that soon merged with William Morris. There, she worked as an assistant to legendary agent Rick Rosen, who runs the TV division – and has close ties to the Israeli TV industry. Later, when she moved into WME’s nonscripted division, Kogan kept up those ties, working with such Israeli market leaders as Dori Media and Keshet (that recently came up with the blockbuster “Rising Star” show).

These days, with two daughters – Madeline, 3, and Hannah, 1 – and precious little free time for any Mizmor Shir practices, Kogan moonlights as “the understudy” cantor at the Temple of the Arts. She also performs for special occasions upon request – most recently, at a client’s wedding ceremony – and is developing a reputation in the Los Angeles cantorial scene.

Word in town is that the agent’s “Kol Nidre” duet – performed with husband Aaron –is a true showstopper. There’s got to be a hit in there.

Amanda Kogan: From musicals to cantoring.Credit: Haaretz

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