New York Times - April 16, 2000


When Celebrity Hearts Bleed

"Leo reads more scientific magazines and books than anyone I know."


by Michelle Williams


The public image of Leonardo DiCaprio, circa 1998: a party boy with a reserved table in every V.I.P. room, hopping from Moomba to Chaos to Veruka in a Lincoln Navigator with his posse of male friends.

The image of Leonardo DiCaprio, circa April 2000: the chairman of Earth Day, leading a four-hour rally in Washington next Saturday to raise awareness of global warming, a subject about which he says in a Web chat, "I personally feel this is the most highly ignored, yet important issue facing the world today."

In recent years, few Hollywood stars have worked to transform their off-screen image as strikingly as Mr. DiCaprio, the "Titanic" heartthrob who seems intent on exchanging the hard-partying persona for that of an advocate alarmed about the fate of the earth. Mr. DiCaprio is also writing an essay on the environment to appear in Time magazine this week, and his interview with President Clinton, the subject of a media dust-up the last two weeks, will finally be seen on ABCīs "Planet Earth 2000" sepecial on Saturday.

The suddenness of Mr DiCaprioīs emergence as an environmental champion - he had not publicly flexed his social consciousness before - suggests some intriguing questions about the relationship between celebtrities and the causes they espouse. To what degree are a starīs motives altruistic, and to what degree self-promotional? When is an actor using a high profile to draw the spotlight to a worthy cause, and when is he or she hoping for a more flattering form of personal media coverage? Is there any downside for nonprofit groups who enlist celebrities?

Professional environmentalists are happy to have Mr DiCaprio in their corner. "Heīs a new name to the movement, but a well-knownone, so we say go for it," said Jay Watson, a West coast director of fund-raisung for the Wilderness Society. But he has some concern about the actorīs credibility on global warming, which is caused in part by driving gaz-guzzlers like Lincoln Navigators and heating big homes. "When you get into things like overconsumption of resources, a movie star like him has to be careful, because itīs no secret many live very lavish lifestyles," Mr. Watson said.

The questions about celebrities and causes seem more relevant than ever as so many stars line up behind do-good issues that nearly every Hollywood party is a stop on the charity circuit. "I have seen a major increase in the number of invitations I get for celebrities and benefits," said George Christy, the columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, who has covered the party scene for decades. "There are still birthday parties and premieres, but they are now overwhelmed by events that are about something."

The latest issue of George magazine uses its cover to "applaud" the no-nuke activism of Michael Douglas and, inside, list 109 stars and their causes, from David Schwimmer and the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, to Christina Aguilera and the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, to Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Association.

"A celebrity is expected to have an issue now as he or she is expected to have an agent," siad Robin Bronk, coordinator of the Creative Coalition, which acts as a sort of issues clearinghouse for the entertainment industry. (You donīt like global warming? How about doing this censorship benefit?)

The coalition, whose advisory board includes Alec Baldwin, Ron Silver and Robin Williams, makes no bones about mixing Hollywood careers with social activism. "The reality is that issues are searching for celebrity voices," Ms. Bronk said, "and that is relatively new. Itīs just the nature of our celebrity culture."

News coverages are increasingly fixated on celebrities, so causes recruit famous spokesmen, who in turn reap the benefit of coverage that is more flattering than usual. The campaign to build a World War II memorial in Washington with private money was stalled for years until its co-chairman, former Senator Bob Dole, recruited Tom Hanks as spokesman. Now, a §100 million drive has been kicked into high gear thanks to the actorīs announcements and appearances. "Every time he goes on Leno or Letterman, he mentions our 800 number, and the phones ring off the hook," said Doug McKinnon, Mr. Doleīs communications director.

Mr. Hanks, one of the publicīs most beloved stars, said was not motivated by the prospect of more personally flattering coverage. "As we enter the new millenium, a lot of us are realizimg thereīs more than just cranking out the product," he said. He had no hesitation at all about supporting the World War II memorial, he added, "once I saw the plans and knew that it was a tasteful design, not some huge combat boot in the middle of the Mall."

Philanthropy experts, by and large, see little downside to the tightening embrace of celebrities and causes, and even if the motives are mixed on both sides, they say, litle harm is done. "You always have to ask, is it pure altruism or an attempt for some new kind of warm glow?" said Alan Abramson, direcor of nonprofit studies for the Aspen Institute, a police research group. "The second possibilty may be more the case with these people, but I guess I say, so what? For those in the public eye, there are always doubters."

But William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, questions wether the trend represents momentum in the march of humanity. "You have to ask if the most successful causes had celebrities as their spokespersons," he said. "Did antismoking? Did drunk drivers? But this had become an increasingly unserious country, so unserious politics may make sense."

One example of serious politics driven by a celebrity endorser was Proposition 10 in California, a 1998 ballot initiative that raised the tax on cigarettes 50 cents a pack and uses the $680 million a year collected to pay for health, nutrition and child care for preschoolers. Proposition 10 was also known as the Reiner Initiative, for the actor-director Rob Reiner, who essentially quit his day job for two years to research and raise money for the issue.

"He drove it all the was through, the way a lot of political people couldnīt have," said John Emrson, a longtime Democratic operative in California.

Mr. Reiner compared the political effort to a political campaign, as opposed to a one-night stand at a charity fund-raiser at the Beverly Hilton. "Itīs one thing to put a spotlight on an issue, itīs another to get into the inner workings of creating public policy," he said. By comparison, movie making now fels like recess to him, he said. He continues his advocacy through his I Am Your Child Foundation, for which he has convinced Meg Ryan and Bruce Wilis to do ads.

"When some people see my name on their phone list, they groan when once they were thrilled," he said. "They know itīs probably not about a movie. But they still call me back because maybe itīs about a movie."

Such seriuos-isue advocacy in Hollywood has given rise to a new kind of personal assistant, one who helps stars sort through the competing claims of charities and channel their time and money. Call them P girls, as in "political", as distinguished from the D girls, who develop film projects for stars. The P girl sisterhood - nearly everyone in this line of work seems to be a woman - includes Lara Berghold, who navigates social causes for Norman Lear; Marge Tabankin, who works for Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg; Joyce Deep, with Robert Redford; and Donna Bojarsky, with Richard Dreyfuss.

"Thereīs lots outside of movies Iīd like to do, so it make sense to have someone who knows that world", said Mr. Dreyfuss, who founded the volunteer organization L.A.Works in 1991 and ecently sponsored a conference at Columbia University on journalism and the Mideast.

Most of the P girls have political experience in Washington and, in the words of Ms. Bojarsky, "We constantly pass things back and forth, and thereīs a lot of īIīll do yours if youīll do mine.ī"

P girls should not be confused with press agents, though at times they may be hard to distinguish. Mr. DiCaprio entered the world of social activism through Ken Sunshine, who calls himself a "P.R.consultant", though he has deep political roots. He is a former chief of staff for Mayor David N. Dinkins and informally advising Hillary Rodham Clintonīs senate campaign. Mr. Sunshine got to know Mr. DiCaprio on a trip to Cuba about a year and a half ago. Six months ago, he became Mr. DiCaprioīs sole press agent when the actor dismissed his longtime Los Angeles publicity agent, Cindy Guagente.

With Mr. Sunshineīs help, Mr. DiCaprio, 25, who had no previous record of lending his name to social issues, began seeking to position himself as an environmental spokesman about a year ago. He met several environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council, before deciding to represent Earth Day. Mr. Sunshine said the movie starīs interest in environmental things was neither sudden nor designed to dignify his image. Mr. DiCaprio himself declined to be interviewed.

"Leo reads more scientific magazines and books than anyone I know and knows more about global warming than most reporters covering it," Mr. Sunshine said. "Iīve worked with phonies trying to use issues to enhance their images, but Leo isnīt one of them."

Maybe not, although Mr. DiCaprioīs public embrace of environmentalism did follow some bad press during the making of his last movie, "The Beach". Ecologists in Thailand protested in February 1999 that the filmmakers had desecrated a national park. In an open letter decrying Mr. DiCaprioīs Earth Day role, posted in an environmental Web site,, Michael Babcock, an American visitor to the beach where the movie was made, wrote that film crews had damaged the root systems that hold the sand in place, and monsoons have subsequently flattened and "denuded" the dunes. (The 20th Century Fox studio, which made the film, maintains the beach was left in better shape than it was found.)

Dennis Hayes, the national coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970, who is also a leader of this years effort, recalled his first meeting with Mr. DiCaprio last year. "I flew down to Los Angeles to meet him at his office and found him both knowledgeable and pasionate", he said. "Since we were looking to reach a new generation, he seemed a natural fit, and he agreed at that meeting to be our chairman."

Mr. Hayes said he did not worry about image problems the star, who had his parents with him, might have had. "I guess if I had any concerns", Mr. Hayes said, "it was that he is the best actor of his generation, and you always wonder, is this the real thing or another performance?"

While Mr. DiCaprio was signing on with Earth Day and doing an interview for its Web site ("Buy the same T-shirt worn by Leonardo DiCaprio"), he and Mr. Sunshine approached television networks about an environmental special. NBC turned them down. But Mr. DiCaprioīs friend Chris Cuomo, a correspondent for "20/20" on ABC convinced his producers to do a one-hour show, with what must have sounded like a coup: the Hollywood star would chat with President Clinton.

When word of Mr. DiCaprioīs March 31 interview at the White House leaked out, ABC News was instantly ridiculed for sending an actor to do a news reporterīs job, with some of the harshest criticism coming from ABCīs Washington bureau. After internal debate, ABC has decided to use at least some of the 20-minute interview on the 8 p.m. broadcast this Saturday.

"ABC has a history of bringing the fight, which is why I came here," said Mr. Cuomo, the son of the former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo. "Who knew weīd be attacked from the inside?"

"I feel tons of guilt about bringing Leonado into this," he added. "He went with me because we are friends, not pal-around, close friends, but friends, and he felt heīd be protected in a sense. I think that for him to put up with this - and he knew he was going to get a whipping even before we started - shows how committed he is to the issue. He did it anyway, even though this doesnīt help him one bit. Heīs not doing this in a celebrity fashion."

In the end, Mr. DiCaprio may decide itīs easier to go back to club-hopping.