Barbara Corcoran's claim to fame is turning a $1,000 gift from an ex-boyfriend into a $1 billion business. She's a TV personality and one of the biggest names in New York City real estate today. That's a long cry from the Barbara Corcoran of decades ago, who admits she was struggling to run a seven-person firm and "trying to build a business through the talents of other people."

How'd she do it? "I had to build a big image, bigger than I was," she says. "I got very good at looking the part. I got very good at looking the part long before I was the part."

Her first campaign for notoriety began with a tiny ad buy in New York Magazine. As Corcoran tells it, she gathered together all her brokers, their kids (in their tennis outfits and riding gear) and the families dogs, and had photos taken. One ran in the ad, with the title "Power Brokers."

"Were we power brokers? No, of course not. We were at the bottom of the heap," she says.

Two years later, the cover of New York Magazine read: "The Power Brokers of New York." And out of top 10 real-estate brokers profiled, six were Corcoran agents.

"The press actually fell for the fact that my people were the power brokers," Corcoran says. "They weren't! But we put the image, and then what happened is the image created the reality."

It's a moment that solidified Corcoran's theory: Reality doesn't create perception, perception creates reality.

Later, Corcoran says she read that Madonna was looking for a New York apartment. The pop diva was pregnant at the time, and was all over the news.

"God! I'd do anything if we had a celebrity as a client. We had no celebrities, we had no high-priced sales; we were like lower-priced firm," Corcoran says. "And I thought ... I'm going to publish a Madonna report."

The list wasn't complicated; it was just seven or eight items (i.e. she'd want top security because she was famous; she'd want more space because she was pregnant). But after she sent it out to the news media, it landed Corcoran on four different 11 p.m. newscasts, which led to her being billed as "broker to the stars."