The Blog

Celebrities And Their Million-Dollar Gigs for Dictators

Celebrities don't need the money. So why do they do it? Why do they take the risk of performing for these immoral regimes when there is so much for them at stake? Well, the frank answer is either they are stupid or they are greedy. And neither excuse is acceptable.

Now I've never been one to take pop lyrics at face value but J-Lo's promise that her 'love don't cost a thing' has turned out to be, well, a bit of a porky pie. In truth, you can buy a bit of J-Lo love for $1.5million. How do we know this? Because that's what the President of Turkmenistan paid the A-Lister to sing Happy Birthday to him at his lavish party last month.

According to Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan is "among the most repressive in the world." That's quite a statement given the state of the world today. And if J-Lo was banking on snaffling up the cash on the down-lo, that badly backfired. Footage of Ms Lopez performing the secret gig hit YouTube almost instantly and before they could say 'how can we get this video taken down?' Brand Lopez was in trouble.

J-Lo's publicist immediately came out on the defensive, saying that of course the star wouldn't have performed if she had known about the country's human rights record. Really? Well, how hard is it to use Google?

You see, because if I was a publicist and I got a request for my artist to play in Turkmenistan, the first thing that would cross my mind would be "Hmm, Turkmenistan. That doesn't sound like it's in Western Europe. Let's just check this out before we say, Yes."

But this didn't happen. Instead as soon as Turkmenistan's Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (say it quickly and it'll sound like you know what you're talking about) threw down the fee, J-Lo was put on a plane.

Now J-Lo's appearance was all kept hush-hush so the PR team must have known the risks. Unfortunately for them the cover was blown when J-Lo's choreographer tweeted "I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up." Clearly she was unaware that Turkmenistan's population live almost entirely on the poverty line so, you know, social media isn't a big thing out there. Plus it's banned.

And the PR storm has not died down since.

When the press finally got the opportunity to ask Jennifer Lopez directly, she demurely responded "I prefer not to talk about politics." Shrewd move Jennifer, but not exactly truthful. What Jennifer actually means is, I only want to talk about politics when it suits me.

In 2006 Jennifer Lopez starred in a film called Bordertown. You probably haven't heard of it; it wasn't that successful. It was a film based on the true story of the hundreds of female murders that have taken place in the border region of Mexico known as Ciudad Juárez. The murder of these estimated 370 women was so violent and so mysterious that even Amnesty International urged the notoriously corrupt Mexican government to investigate them.

Pretty political stuff, don't you think? In the film, Jennifer Lopez played the crusading American journalist who investigates these crimes to bring the perpetrators to justice. Honourable stuff. And when promoting this film, J-Lo was only too happy to talk politics. Of course she was. This was the kind of film that had "and the award goes to..." written all over it. But the awards never came.

Nor was that political statement from J-Lo a one-off. J-Lo was one of the many performers at the Chime for Change concert earlier this year in London, a concert to promote education, health and justice for women the world over. At that time, politics suited J-Lo's image perfectly.

But Ms Lopez isn't the only A-lister to want her (figurative) cake and eat it.

Beyonce and Jay Z (I think he had dropped the hyphen by then) attended one of the many rallies taking place around the US to protest against the Trayvon Martin verdict, a very political and divisive story. All very honourable and very much in line with the pair's liberal stance - friends with the Obamas, involvement in Occupy Wall Street etc.

But this is the same Beyonce who in 2009 pocketed a whopping $2million to play at the extended Gaddafi family's New Year's Eve Party. Yes Gaddafi, you might remember the name. The head of the family was the violent, brutal dictator who ran Libya with an iron fist for 42 years, imprisoning and murdering political opponents at will.

Once the performance came to light Beyonce's management put out a story that the singer had since dedicated her fee to a charity for Haiti. Similarly contrite donations were made by Mariah Carey, Nelly Futrado and 50 Cent when their fees for similar performances were exposed.

And it's not just our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic either.

In May this year, Liz Hurley was in Chechnya, filming a movie with Gerard Depardieu. She posted a picture to her 400,000 followers on Twitter of her cuddling a cute cat whilst also cuddling up to the slightly less cute Chechen dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Now Kadyrov may not be a household name but he is one of the most ruthless and violent leaders in the world. Critics of his authoritarian regime - whether they be political opponents, journalists or human rights workers - are routinely murdered.

Was Liz fussed? No of course not. "I'm only here to talk about the movie" she replied. See a pattern forming here?

And Liz really didn't have to look hard to know this was a mistake. Two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank had already suffered a career-threatening catastrophe when she took home a reported six-figure fee to attend Kadyrov's birthday gala back in 2011.

The backlash Swank got for her attendance was profound. The actress responded by giving away her fee to charity and firing most of her management team, but the damage to her liberal credentials had already been done. Even Swank's grovelling apologies after the fact had to be taken with a pinch of salt when it came to light that Human Rights Watch had written to the actress before her planned appearance to warn her of Chechnya's issues.

In fairness to Swank, Jean-Claude Van Damme, violinist Vanessa Mae and singer Seal also performed at the function and none of them have been humble enough to apologise let alone return their sizeable fees. In fact, when Seal was approached with the facts about Kadyrov and his violent rule, he lashed out on his Twitter account. "You sit there under the umbrella of democracy and never once stop to think how it keeps you dry."

No I don't quite understand what he's getting at either but this was the same Seal who performed at charity gigs for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Clearly a moral compass comes with an on/off button for celebrities.

And that's really the rub - celebrities trying to have it both ways. The celebrities want to talk politics only on their terms.

Celebrities are role models whether they like it or not. For good or ill, a lot of young people place value in what they say and do, so lending credibility to murderous regimes should be absolutely off the agenda.

And let's be frank, celebrities don't need the money. So why do they do it? Why do they take the risk of performing for these immoral regimes when there is so much for them at stake? Well, the frank answer is either they are stupid or they are greedy. And neither excuse is acceptable. And has been shown, in this age of internet and social media, they will be found out.