Activism Is Entertainers' New Role
NEW YORK — It was actor James Cromwell's first visit to Washington - and he came well briefed for the mission.
Mr. Cromwell, one of the stars of the movie "L.A. Confidential," smiled easily as he shook hands and posed for photos. But then the actor got down to business, meeting with several lawmakers to rally support for arts education on Indian reservations.
Cromwell spent an hour discussing the issue over lunch in the House dining room with Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York and in meetings with Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota and Vice President Al Gore. Not the kind of access a typical first-time visitor to Washington gets.
At the end of his two-day visit, Cromwell signed a picture for Senator Daschle, and Daschle autographed his own photo for Cromwell.
Whether it's to satisfy one's social conscience or to elicit good PR, celebrity activism is becoming the entertainment industry's unofficial pastime. A recent report in George magazine notes that the number of celebrities making appearances on Capitol Hill has more than doubled since 1994.
That trend is being fueled by the expanding industry of matchmaking services and politically savvy publicists who pair up causes with celebrities la "The Dating Game."
"Celebrity activism is evolving to a whole new level," says Craig Winneker, senior editor at Capital Style, a monthly magazine that covers the culture of political power in Washington.
Celebrities are not only spending more time on Capitol Hill, says Mr. Winneker. Some, like director Steven Spielberg and actors Kevin Costner, Richard Dreyfuss, and Jimmy Smits, have also hired political consultants to advise them on policy issues and how to lobby members of Congress.
It's a trend that Alma Viator, president of Cause Clbre, a Washington-based matchmaking organization, is building her business on. It was Ms. Viator's political Rolodex that paved the way for Cromwell's visit to Capitol Hill.
"Fifty years ago, there was just a handful of huge stars whose careers were controlled by the big Hollywood studios," says Viator. "Now there are more stars with more freedom to get involved in the social and political causes they care about," she says.
While celebrity activism can bring a star personal satisfaction and even a measure of respectability, causes that enlist celebrities get the two things they need most: money and media attention.
The surge in celebrity activism has been a big benefit for organizations like Rock the Vote, the group that used rock stars like rapper Chuck D. and guitarist Ted Nugent to help register 500,000 young voters in 1996.
"The media landscape is so cluttered that any organization is inherently challenged in issuing a call to action," says Seth Matlins, the newly minted president of Rock the Vote. "A readily identifiable personality is the quickest way to break through that clutter," he says.
By joining forces, politicians and celebrities offer each other something the other lacks, says Norman Adler, a political consultant in New York. Elected officials have credibility on issues but are not always well liked. Celebrities are admired but don't always cross the "credibility threshold," says Mr. Adler.
A celebrity connection can also give lawmakers access to the rising number of voters who get their news less from the nightly newscasts and more from entertainment shows. What better way for a congressman to attract the attention of "Entertainment Tonight" or "MTV News" than to make an appearance with actor George Clooney or singer Alanis Morissette?
In the hotly competitive entertainment industries, taking up a cause can be a good career move for a celebrity, says Rita Tateel, president of the Celebrity Source, a Los Angeles-based service that matches celebrities with causes and product endorsements.
"When a celebrity hires a publicist, one of the first questions that publicist asks is, 'What causes do you want to identify yourself with?' " says Ms. Tateel. "Being active in a cause is becoming a standard part of the career package of a lot of entertainers," she says.
This year Tateel worked with nearly 50 nonprofit and corporate organizations in matching causes to many of the 5,100 celebrities in the Celebrity Source database. Such matchmaking has its price, however: Tateel's fees begin at $4,000.
Of course, even the biggest stars can fail to produce results. Last month, Madonna penned an opinion piece in the New York Daily News to rally support for the work of Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras, who has taught violin to inner-city children for 17 years in East Harlem.
Calling Ms. Tzavaras "an angel," Madonna asked, "Why are music and art programs the first to go when budgets are cut in the public school system? Why doesn't the City of New York do something about it? Why doesn't the mayor?"
So far, no one has ponied up a penny. "It was lovely of Madonna to write the article, but it hasn't produced any contributions. Not even from Madonna," says Tzavaras.
In other cases, what happens when a celebrity offers expertise that turns out to be less than expert? Actress Meryl Streep found out in 1989 when she and others testified before Congress about effects of Alar, a chemical used to control ripening apples. The assertions were later disproved.
Preventing such missteps is one of the goals of the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit celebrity-activist group of 350 actors, entertainers, writers, directors, producers, and others. The coalition conducts briefings for its members on issues it takes on.
Some of the coalition's leading luminaries recently helped broker a New York City agreement on water resources and launched a petition drive that played a key role in getting a campaign-finance reform initiative on next month's ballot in Massachusetts.
Actor William Baldwin, the coalition's president, says the organization's issue-driven agenda lends intellectual legitimacy to the group's efforts.
"It's sad that celebrities get visibility just because they're famous," says Mr. Baldwin. "Joey Buttafuco gets more attention in the press than a lot of elected officials."
"But given that unfortunate situation, celebrity activists owe it to the public to use their celebrity in positive ways," he continues. "That means playing the celebrity card, but playing it to raise awareness about the most important issues of our day."
A sampling of celebrities and their causes
Ted Danson Oceans and the environment
Richard Dreyfuss Middle East peace
Rosie O'Donnell Children's issues
Richard Gere Freedom for Tibet
Danny Glover Democracy in South Africa
Whoopi Goldberg Health care for the homeless
Madonna AIDS-related issues
Mary Tyler Moore Juvenile diabetes
Robert Redford Environment
Jane Seymour Arts programs for inner-city children
Martin Sheen Civil liberties
Sting Saving rain forests
Barbra Streisand Women's rights, AIDS
Kathleen Turner Osteoporosis
Oprah Winfrey Abused children
Source: The Celebrity Source