I couldn't believe it when my weeks of lobbying paid off and my editor at Life & Style magazine (where I freelance) finally gave me the go-ahead to hop on a train and head to Washington, D.C., on April 30 to cover the Save Darfur Coalition's rally against genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
But while this was to me a journalistic coup of epic proportions, it also offered up a twofold dilemma. First, it was clear my editor only agreed to send me to the rally because of its planned celebrity contingent: George Clooney and Russell Simmons would definitely be there.
But in order to get any coverage of the event into the magazine at all, I needed to prod the various celebrity speakers and attendees into producing "newsworthy" (again, remembering that term is relative in the celebrity magazine context) quotes -- without eclipsing or detracting from the utter seriousness of the purpose at hand. I was absolutely mortified at the prospect of asking the inane, stalker-ish questions so typical of the gossip magazines and quickly erased all thoughts of them from my head.
The second slice of my discomfort had to do with my inherent uncertainty about celebrities taking up humanitarian or political causes. As a rational human being, I know luminaries have brains like everyone else and are certainly capable of embracing a cause passionately. But my skepticism lingered over the issue of efficacy when the other 99 percent of their passion is splashed across "Page 6" or In Touch.
The current climate is obviously ripe for involvement. According to an article in the July 2, 2005, issue of The Economist, the business of aid in the 1990s "endured listless donors and woeful budgets. But now the mood and the money are on an upswing."
Stars themselves have become a big part of this phenomenon -- prolonged human suffering (including but not limited to famine, poverty and that wrought by natural disaster), it seems, is the sexy celebrity cause du jour. According to a 2005 article in Time Europe major issues like the internet, terrorism and the Iraq war don't necessarily "lend themselves to the high wattage celebrities can bring." Moreover, in a day and age of digitized and global media, it probably (hopefully?) becomes a lot harder for high-profile people to turn a blind eye to misery, especially for those who call themselves "role models."
There are even basic training camps for celebrities who want to get involved in something worthwhile but need a hand in understanding the issues. For example, the Creative Coalition brings together artists and celebrities to learn about causes, eventually enabling them to do things like lobby on their behalf in D.C. Similarly, Participate is a group linking up big films (and presumably their stars) with like-minded grassroots organizations. Associations such as these, of course, do wonderful and important things. But the little devil perched on my shoulder is whispering that they also shroud the celebrities involved from the get-go with disingenuousness.
I arrived at the Darfur rally, then, with a secondary purpose: to try and determine what impact, if any, a celebrity could have on an important cause. I moseyed up to Nick Clooney (George wasn't doing any press at all) and asked him how he viewed the confluence of celebrity and humanitarian causes, especially considering the stature of his son. He told me, "We're in a culture of celebrity, and we all know it. It drives me crazy. But George [with his recent fact-finding mission to Chad and Darfur] said 'If you're going to take all these cameras and follow me, follow me here. Let's all find out something for ourselves that might be worthwhile for the whole human condition.'"
Similarly, Joey Cheek, (the Olympic speed skater who donated a total of $40,000 in prize money from his gold and silver medals to refugees in Darfur) told me, "For better or worse, at this point in our society, people look to celebrities. I think it's a bit of a travesty ... but it's the reality we live in. If you have a brief moment of celebrity like I did at the Olympics, I thought it was better to do something useful, raise awareness."
In other words, they both know how to work the system, a fact that touches on something that as a gossip world "insider" never ceases to astound me: the collusion between celebrities, paparazzi, the gossip magazines and publicists/P.R. There is absolutely nothing candid about these overlapping industries -- in another article I wrote a few months ago, I called it the celebrity-industrial complex (only learning recently that I wasn't so brilliantly creative after all -- it was actually Vanity Fair columnist Maureen Orth who first coined the term).
Quite simply, there's money to be made in all of these sectors, and that's why nobody or nothing is mitigating their proliferation, including the celebrities who "complain" about the intrusion of the paparazzi in their life. Where would they be without them? Certainly not on the cover of magazines, offering even more proof how loaded those relationships are from their inception.
Slate magazine editor Jacob Weisberg perfectly captures the spirit of the celebrity-industrial complex when he describes the surreal joint appearance of Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Angelina Jolie last September at a gala sponsored by the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. He depicts their photo op as a "state-of-the-art mÃƒÂ©lange of politics, celebrity and corporate public relations that such an event represents," adding, "cause-driven organizations Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ want celebrity endorsements for the same reasons companies like Nike and Coca-Cola do. Whereas product endorsements pay cash, actors and musicians gain heft and responsibility by supporting fashionable crusades."
And to a certain extent, that's fine. It's a phenomenon that increases the awareness of people who might otherwise simply might not have too firm a grasp on what's going on out there in the (increasingly complex) world. But when does the trend stop and real knowledge and action take root? In other words, when will the average citizen who takes note of a celebrity endorsement actually absorb it into her consciousness and translate it into activity, even on the most micro of levels -- perhaps the true litmus test of celebrity involvement in anything?
When I posed this question to Nick Clooney at the rally, he mused, "Well, that's up to each individual person, isn't it? All a celebrity can do is have the cameras follow them. Then it's our duty to either turn away -- as many do -- or follow that and do something about it." Similarly, Joey Cheek told me everyone needs to realize "there are as many problems as there are people to solve them. We are citizens of a global community," and it's time getting involved and making a positive impact on the world "became more than just celebrities or wealthy people."
I wasn't satisfied, and it became less difficult for me to see how the good deeds of Bono (crusader against AIDS and poverty in the third world) and his ilk have been met with more than a little critical skepticism. In a scathing op-ed in the New York Times, author Paul Theroux (who spent many years teaching in Africa under the auspices of the Peace Corps) derided the propensity (especially of celebrities, but specifically Bono, whom he says shouts "so loud people trust his answers") to advocate, for example, the "more money platform" in Africa. He says it's both patronizing and a mistake, "donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing." What Africa needs, he says, is home-grown citizen involvement, a stopping of the continental brain drain -- not the computers Bono's One campaign cohort Bill Gates wants to send to places that not only don't have electricity, they don't even have pencils and paper for schools.
There is of course plenty of waste in the international aid business, and systemic corruption outside the African -- and well into the western -- paradigm. In Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace In Afghanistan, Ann Jones says matter-of-factly, "most of [international aid] goes to support the experts and contractors and bureaucrats of the donor[s] Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ providing cover (and more tax dollars) for the rich in the guise of helping the poor."
So, OK, maybe Bono should have studied up a little harder on the intricacies of the international aid racket. However, it's infinitely worse -- even critically damaging -- when celebrity involvement in a humanitarian cause is merely a matter of self-promotion or a passing fancy. For example, I watched an interview with Lindsay Lohan recently on Access Hollywood. In it, she enthusiastically enumerated her upcoming movie projects, her love life, and scoffed off yet another round of those pesky party-animal rumors that seem to plague her. In practically the same breath, she told the reporter she's planning a trip to Kenya to contribute to the work of, of all things, the One campaign. It smacked of the superficial, feeling like little more than an attempt to be taken more seriously (perhaps bolstering the teen queen's quest for more "adult" movie roles?).
Or how about a few weeks ago, when I covered a charity event and had to interview a famous supermodel who was also the spokeswoman for the organization. She literally couldn't even answer the simple question "How did you get involved with the cause?" without some major prompting from the publicist/guard dog attached to her side.
Contrast all of that with an October CBS News/Early Show "spotlight" about Angelina Jolie. She's been a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee commission for over five years and has been a central figure in a mind-boggling array of charities and geopolitical/humanitarian causes long before interest in her personal life reached its current fever pitch. In another interview, she said commitment is key to making a difference, noting, "We have to make sure we're willing to dedicate part of our lives to this. We shouldn't do it halfway."
Then there's Kanye West. He shocked the entire world when last year at a Red Cross event benefiting Hurricane Katrina victims, he looked right into the camera and said live on national television, enunciating each word, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." His outcry against the wrenching inequalities exposed by that disaster was raw, angry and emotional. But could anyone ever accuse him of being insincere? Hell, no.
Given all of the evidence, especially within the celebrity-industrial complex scenario, I suppose what each and every one of these celebrities -- even the vapid or the stupid -- do is, as previously pondered, give rise to some sort of awareness, which is (even when I am only grudgingly admitting it) in and of itself vital.
It's been my perception, maybe in large part given the genre of magazine in which I work, that too many of American citizens, especially young Americans, have not been voting or paying attention to international politics. According to Generation Engage, a nonprofit devoted to urging young people to get more politically involved, people between the ages of 18 and 24 tend to vote in lower numbers than any other age group. But the group decries not a lack of young people's interest (they volunteer in community organizing and relief more than other age groups) but of their actual access to politicians and the process. That said, the 2004 presidential election brought out the largest percentage of young voters in 32 years, notching up 4 million new voters (at least half of which were Latino and black). What this seems to indicate is that when there is a reason to be passionate (ahem, George W. Bush rancor), we young people will most certainly make our presence known. But the question remains: Does celebrity involvement make any real difference in what we choose to be passionate about?
If our readership of gossip magazines and consumption of celebrity culture is any indication, then the answer is yes. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, In Touch, Us Weekly and Star magazine had weekly circulation increases from 2005 to 2006 of 15.5 percent, 12.7 percent and 10 percent, respectively. However, the dominance of People magazine over all the other gossip weeklies, as a hybrid of straight gossip and stories with more of a human interest and humanitarian angle, leads me to believe there is more of a hunger in the general public for important, more serious articles than the editors at the rest of the gossip magazines so far have been willing to admit.
That's where the blogs come in, forcing the hand of the print magazines (across the board, most certainly not just in the celebrity sector) to become increasingly competitive in offering and breaking important news. According to blogcount, almost 1/3 of Americans regularly read blogs, and interestingly enough, while political blogs like Daily Kos (500,000 hits a day) and Talking Points Memo (150,000 hits a day) are increasing their readerships exponentially, especially among the young and internet-savvy, so are the more gossip-oriented blogs such as Gawker and Perez Hilton.
The popularity of these blogs suggests the confluence of celebrity and news in the same way that politicians are morphing into celebrities, and vice versa. Maybe we young people are inundated by the merger of the cause-driven and the celebrity-driven issues in our society and are frankly weary from trying to tease them apart. Maybe it doesn't, at the end of the day, matter to us whether a celebrity is invested in something important or something stupid, because the next hour, day or blog-post will bring another set of circumstances for us to ponder for ourselves.
As author Jeff Chang says, maybe our skepticism plays into the hands of "part of a larger conservative effort to de-legitimize voices other than so-called 'authorities.'"* In other words, "the conservative mind frame wants to limit the number of voices in a discourse." Kanye West might agree -- our government and the corporations that pander to it could have a vested interest in keeping us dumbed down and focused on pure entertainment, immediately moving to discredit anyone -- celebrity or not -- who steps up to try and actually make a difference.
I think my first indication that taking a beginners' stripping class was not going to be exactly what I had been envisioning was when we (a group of ten girlfriends on a bachelorette party outing) were introduced to our instructor, Daphne. She happened to be a perfect physical mix of Jenna Jameson and Mary Lou Retton.
She also paraded around the waiting room in little more than a bra (think see-through black lace, not sports), short shorts (think matching black lace with ruffles on the butt, not something she would wear biking), and five-inch red and black platform shoes. Earlier that day, anticipating nothing more than maybe a minor deviation from a run-of-the-mill aerobics class -- doesn't Teri Hatcher do this as a workout? -- I'd thrown on a faded tee-shirt I'd had since high school and stretched-out, paint-spattered sweatpants.
Daphne led our group into a large studio, illuminated only by big candles dripping sexy red wax amidst five metal poles. She turned on Barry White, and I almost died when she then whipped out a bag of neon-green g-strings with ties on each side and started passing them out. Sure, I was among close girlfriends -- but let's just say I wasn't thong-ready under any circumstance.
I felt better when she ordered us to put them on over our underwear, because we were going to learn how to give "our men" a sexy dance involving the removal of said g-string. I felt less better when, upon my attempted sexy removal, the piece of neon-green floss actually got stuck and I had to reach down into the back of my sweats and yank it out.
My dismay mounted when we started learning more moves: we had come from a huge brunch (and I was admittedly about three Bloody Mary's deep), so I could barely move, much less roll around the floor, splay my legs, gyrate my hips, twirl like a ballerina around a pole, or according to Daphne's impassioned instruction, "sloooooowly trail my fingertips from my hair -- giving it a sexy tousle -- down the side of [my] body, across my breastsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ " At one point, my friend Liz looked over at me and wailed, "I feel like a 90-year-old woman with arthritis trying to be sexy!"
Part of the reason why we took the class in the first place is because my girlfriends and I tend to consider ourselves pretty adventurous and free-spirited. A few months back we started regularly going to (female) strip clubs and getting the occasional lap dance, while the mostly male clientele licked their chops. However, suddenly two things made all of that a lot less alluring for me -- and one of them wasn't that every time I tried to swing around the pole, I got dizzy and my sweaty hands caused me to land in a heap on the floor.
First, taking the strip class put me square in the stripper's shoes (heels), right there on the stage, under the flashing lights. Second, and more importantly, reading Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy gave insight into the mind of the stripper, and the overall rampant pornification of our culture at large.
Levy writes about the proliferation of "raunch culture," which, regardless of my self-proclaimed staunch feminism (women can make any choices they want!), I have been unwittingly engendering by doing things like going to strip clubs. Levy says in raunch culture, it's the norm that "all empowered women must be overtly and publicly sexual Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ and the only sign of sexuality we seem to be able to recognize is a direct allusion to red-light entertainment."
All during strip class, Daphne kept repeating the mantra ad nauseum: everything we were learning was for "[our] man." To me, empowerment signifies control -- and the man-centric philosophy strip class (not to mention the whole stripping industry) seemed to espouse flew in the face of female control, either in society or just swinging around the pole.
Empowerment in my view is also about equality -- and if all things were equal, would women necessarily want to be stripping for the greasy dollar bills that men throw at them with the same hand that wears their wedding bands? If my experience is any indication, I don't think so. Proponents of "female liberation" might argue that some women are really comfortable with their bodies and like what they do with that pole, but as Ariel Levy says so perceptively, "because I am paid to is not the same thing as taking control of my sexuality." Liberation implies we have broken the chains that have bound us to our status as sexual inferiors, and as Daphne's sultry intonations suggested, that's definitely not the case.
Ms. Levy continues, "The vast majority of women who enter the [stripping] field do so because they are poor and have no more attractive alternative" -- and they stay poor. It really unsettled me to discover that I, as a "feminist," would exploit one woman's lack of power in the name of my own empowerment. This sort of hypocritical "empowerment for sale" mentality strikes me as another layer of conspiracy in the race to keep women down, and indicative of the fundamentally economic nature of the inequality of the sexes.
If we were smart and really empowered, we women would use our economic power to take sex out of the equation. Similarly, Female Chauvinist Pigs quotes Erica Jong as saying "sex is not power -- women in decision-making positions -- that's power. When the senate is 50 percent women, that's power. Sexual freedom is a smokescreen for how far we haven't come."
In a perfect world, I'd love to be able to be judged for something other than my physical appearance, and for something other than just my sex. Strip class taught me though that at least for the moment and to the detriment of all women, even the rare few who actually hold truly powerful positions, achievement for us is tied to sex.
The question is, what are we going to do about it?