The announcement this month that Global Philanthropy Group, a celebrity-focused advisory firm, is teaming up with Human Rights Watch to help celebs choose which foreign heads of state they should do private shows for comes just in time. It seems that the number of apparently clueless headliners hurrying to perform for tyrants and dictators has reached epic proportions. Strangely, though, while three dictators have fallen since the Arab Spring began late last year, their favourite stars have not. Mariah Carey and Nelly Furtado are among those who have sung and danced for the devil (members of the Gadhafi family in this case) and suffered few social consequences. Beyoncé Knowles—another pop star on the dead dictator’s payroll—claims she had no idea that Moammar Gadhafi’s son Hannibal picked up the $2-million tab on her 2010 New Year’s Eve performance in St. Barts (you’d think if the name Gadhafi didn’t raise any red flags, the name Hannibal might), and both Carey and Furtado have apologized publicly for their performances, donating millions to charity in compensation for the hefty sums given to them by the Gadhafis.
But besides a slap on the wrist from entertainment blogs and human rights activists, these stars have gotten off largely scot-free. Our collective attitude toward them seems to be, “Who cares that Mariah Carey sang We Belong Together to a murderous dictator? She just had twins!” And who cares, likewise, if Hilary Swank took $1.5 million from Chechen President Ramzan A. Kadyrov to celebrate his 35th birthday party this month, during which she addressed a packed Grozny auditorium in a backless gown and gushed over Chechnya’s beautiful architecture (“I pay a lot of attention to details!”)? The gown and the architecture are clearly the important details—not that the president’s hobbies (besides presumably watching Boys Don’t Cry) included quashing political dissent via torture and assassination, and eradicating women’s rights.
The question is, where does our penchant for forgiving the stunned and the famous come from? Why don’t we care if Naomi Campbell accepts a large blood diamond from a Liberian dictator or if Nelly Furtado performs Promiscuous Girl for Gadhafi and his band of female bodyguards? The answer may be that the next best thing to having overwhelming wealth and power is knowing that those who do have them don’t wield them wisely. More importantly, it’s extremely entertaining to watch them screw up. Most importantly, the more they screw up, the more we like them.
If the rise of reality television has taught us anything, it’s that we’re less interested in the pursuit of knowledge than in the knowledge that we know more than the next guy—or girl. How else do you explain Snooki? And how else do you explain the reverse phenomenon? Angelina Jolie, for example, has donated $8 million to charity and adopted two-thirds of the African continent, but, sorry, she still stole Brad from Jen. And even if she hadn’t wrecked a home, her good works would continue to exasperate. Nothing is a bigger turn-off than a serious star being seriously philanthropic. Except, maybe, Madonna practising Kabbalah.
What’s interesting is that this notion doesn’t hold for all species of stars.
Take Meryl Streep, for example, or Susan Sarandon. It may be that they’re older and wiser, and even play heads of states themselves (Streep will star as Margaret Thatcher in the biopic The Iron Lady, scheduled for release in December), but for some reason they’re forgiven their perfect records of public responsibility. Maybe the unwritten rule of female celebrity is that when you can no longer sport a short skirt and stilettos, the world accepts your forays into diplomacy. While you still can, however, well . . . you should. And then you should leave well enough alone. That may be why the follies of Furtado and friends have elicited more laughs than indignation. These girls failed miserably at international politics and so established themselves as charter members of the troupe we like best: the young and clueless.
But maybe clueless no more. In what is probably the least expected outcome of the Arab Spring, the planned partnership of Global Philanthropy Group and Human Rights Watch intends to help “stars and their handlers verify the records of people who want to hire them to appear at birthday parties and other private events.” Or, as Gawker.com puts it, “News Service Offers Celebrities Googling Skills, Conscience.”
Is this a net gain, though, or an ultimate loss? Consider, for example, that a chastened Hilary Swank has agreed to donate her $1.5-million Chechen birthday fee to “various charitable organizations.” Perhaps for the benefit of humanitarian aid, these activists should sit back and let the stars do their worst—and continue strutting their best stuff for genocidal maniacs across the globe. After all, what better way to collect charitable funds than to shame stunned celebrities into matching their own exorbitant price?
And how else will we get to keep on watching them embarrass themselves?