Register Sunday | August 18 | 2019

Lapel Pins Don't Pay the Bills

Celebrities have finally learned that raising awareness can raise their bottom lines

Used to be, when celebrities donated time or money to charity, all they would ask for in return was some good press and an open bar. They’d be photographed going to a $5,000-a-plate benefit or wearing a wee ribbon on their lapels and that would be that. If they were lucky, they’d get a throw-away mention in US Weekly. What a wasted opportunity. Here you have these talented people whose chest real estate is worth something like $500,000,000 per square inch, and they were just giving lapel-space away for free. Thankfully, some celebs are getting decent agents and things are beginning to change.

Cameron Diaz is a lady with the right idea. She raises awareness about environmental issues by starring in the MTV show Trippin’, in which she travels around the world drawing attention to environmentally troubled hotspots and herself. Scoring a TV series that caters to the crucial 18-to-24 year-old movie-going demographic while showcasing her dedication to Mother Earth is brilliant, but the real story here is the idea of awareness-raising—this, my friends, is groundbreaking.

When it comes to good causes, our idols have only two real options: raising money or raising awareness. The latter solves two classic problems of celebrity charity work. First, no money need actually be raised, so the celebs (and all their friends) can keep their wallets in their pockets. Second, no one can accuse the star of showboating because the whole pointof the event is to draw attention. Such synergy! In practice, the poor and/or diseased charity-cases, and the celebrity all share the same goal—to be noticed by people with money. Why non-profits have wasted their time putting together benefits and telethons to raise cash when they could’ve just raised awareness and left all that money stuff to us, the newly-aware populace, I’ll never know.

This dynamic new charity concept was taken to another level with last summer’s Live 8 concerts. Live 8 was a series of eight simultaneous music shows modeled after the 1985 Live Aid concerts—except that, rather than raise $200 million for Ethiopian famine relief, Live 8 raised awareness about IMF debt abatement, the G8 conference, some other boring stuff ... and CELEBRITIES! Specifically, it raised awareness about those celebrities who selflessly performed on television all around the world. Rather that limit itself to providing a concrete, quantifiable solution for a specific problem, Live 8 instead issued a “call” for “justice and increased aid” for Africa, tactfully avoiding short-sighted concerns about where that aid might come from or what it might do. It was the perfect event for the charitably forward-thinking famous person, and it does my heart good to tell you that they came out in droves.

Live 8 can be considered an unmitigated success. Nearly five months later, I still overhear teenagers on the subway chattering excitedly about how micro-loan programs don’t effectively address the problem of Africa’s crumbling infrastructure in the same breath as they discuss how cool Joss Stone is. But disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake have taken a toll on those celebrities desperate to get a fair shake for their charity work. After Katrina, the Hollywood elite and three-hour network relief shows completely shut out lesser celebs who could have really benefited from positive publicity; in fact, reporters were so focused on victims of the flooding that even the A-list could barely crack the news cycle.

This is why I was so relieved and happy to stumble across this little tidbit: both Richard Gere and Sharon Stone are writing songs for charity! Gere has teamed up with Lionel Richie and Indian Idol to raise awareness (yay!) about AIDS on the subcontinent, while Stone has written a song to raise money (boo!) for Katrina relief called “Come Together Now” (I thought it was already a song but I guess it isn’t). The point is that Dick and Shar have finally figured out a way to do charity work and move their careers into new arenas at the same time. Stars like Paris Hilton and Jennifer Love Hewitt had to spend precious dollars promoting their albums when theydecided to take a stab at the commercial music business—but to write a song that raises awareness about AIDS? Bam, it’s done—Gere’s a songwriter, the world’s a better place.

Hot on the heels of those announcements, Leonardo DiCaprio had some exciting news of his own—he plans to produce a feature-length film about global warming. A quick glace at his IMDB profile shows just what a shrewd move this is—he has five new producer credits lined up, plus he gets to be smug around all those Hollywood Hummer drivers.

What a brave new world for volunteerism. Think about it—any sane person would shudder at the thought of buying a collection of Jewel’s poetry, but if that poetry were to benefit breast cancer research or to raise awareness about autism? Can’t rightly turn thatdown! 30 Odd Foot of Grunts? No, thank you. 30 Odd Foot of AIDS Awareness? Sold. The possibilities are endless. I imagine a world where everyone is so aware of poverty, disease, environmental issues—and celebrities—that all of our problems are somehow magically solved and the world can sit down and watch Entourage together. Won’t you dream with me?

Audrey Ference tries her darndest to keep up with what the kids are into these days. Her column appears every two weeks. Read other recent columns by Audrey Ference.