There Is Very Little Downside to Performing for a Hateful Despot

Commentary about business and finance.
July 11 2013 4:00 PM

Embarrassment of Riches

What happens when the rich and famous rent themselves out to the very, very rich and much less famous.  

Jennifer Lopez performs at Belgrade Arena on November 20, 2012 in Belgrade, Serbia.
Jennifer Lopez performs in Avaza, Turkmenistan, on June 29, 2013.

Photo by Igor Sasin/AFP/Getty Images

Celebrities are people, much in the mysterious, metaphorical way that corporations are people. They have normal human things, like children and emotions, but they also have entourages and price tags and auras. (Those last two make them sound like oil paintings, which they also have.) Nowhere is their ontological status muddier than in the strange ritual of the paid party appearance, wherein an A-lister attends an event as one-third guest, one-third entertainer, and one-third really glamorous piece of decoration.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Behold Paula Abdul pulling enormous needles out of 8-foot-tall haystacks for a Yahoo party in Los Angeles. And Christina Aguilera singing at the wedding of Russian banker Andrey Melnichenko.*And Robin Williams and Paul McCartney gracing the 70th birthday party of the financier David Bonderman. (Bonderman needed to top his 60th birthday party, which featured the Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp, somehow.) Not long ago, Justin Timberlake reportedly flew out to attend a super-secret fête for Sheikh Khalifa of the United Arab Emirates. The British business tycoon Sir Philip Green invited Rod Stewart and Tom Jones to Cyprus to entertain 250 guests at a three-day extravaganza (plus toga party!) commemorating his 50th birthday—and then wrangled Destiny’s Child for his son’s bar mitzvah. Celine Dion “participated in a private party to celebrate 50 years of Wal-Mart,” according to a blog run by her fans. Most recently, Jennifer Lopez was paid at least $1 million to perform three songs and sing “Happy Birthday” to the dictator-president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, at a private party on June 29 for executives of the China National Petroleum Corp.

Welcome to a most curious alcove of the economy: the celebrity-appearance industry, in which the rich and famous entertain—or chat with, or perhaps simply stand near—the very rich and much less famous. Sticker shock can be acute, whether it’s for a performance or mere face time. A private concert by the Eagles, for instance, costs $6 million; you can get the Rolling Stones for two-thirds of the price. The Kardashians will mingle at your art opening for $30,000 apiece. Usher’s vocal stylings can set you back $1 million; Fergie’s, just $50,000. Charlie Sheen receives $250,000 for an appearance. And rarely do these numbers factor in the costs of the private jet, limo, and lavish meals. Renting a star can be a dicey proposition, too: The celebrity you’ve requested might not show or might show up drunk or otherwise indisposed.

It may all seem a bit unseemly, and there are certain superstars—your Tom Cruises, your Johnny Depps—whom you’ll never see busking for extra income, but the incentives driving this economy seem clear. New clubs and luxury brands get publicity in the form of Page Six mentions and “Who Wore It Best” items. Bankers and sheikhs get to rent a shiny toy. And celebrities get a big paycheck for a relatively small commitment of time and effort. “Certain stars have an attitude like, ‘I want to go to this foreign country!’ or ‘Why not meet the sheik?’ ” says Mike Esterman, CEO of the celebrity booking agency Esterman.com, which facilitates more than 275 appearances a year. “It’s lucrative. It’s painless. It’s fun.”  

Except when it isn’t. The danger of embarrassment—of lousy PR and humanitarian outrage—runs high, depending on which despotic leader you’re entertaining. As with any investment, the star must calculate the balance of risk and reward. Lopez came under fire after video leaked of her Turkmenistan adventure, due to the nation’s terrible human rights record. Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank had an unhappy-birthday incident of her own in 2011, after she accepted $500,000 to attend a birthday party in Chechnya for the military leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been linked to atrocities. Within weeks, Swank had parted ways with both her manager and her PR firm. According to Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, Kadyrov originally booked Shakira for the gala, but the singer backed out when HRF alerted her to her host’s scroll of human rights abuses. (This incurred the wrath of Kadyrov, who issued a press release calling HRF staff “worms.”) “We then reached out to Swank’s team and even got them to say she wouldn’t go either,” Halvorssen says. “But what you’re looking at here is the seedy underside of when greed is convenient. Stars think they can get away with it because no one will notice.”

For the most part, they’re right. The disgrace of pocketing millions of dollars in return for singing for the Qaddafi family in Libya doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on Mariah Carey, Nelly Furtado, 50 Cent, or Beyoncé. (Beyoncé! What were you thinking?) Lopez’s Turkmenistan fiasco isn’t even her first brush with scandal in the post-Soviet states. Last year, she was booked for a birthday party in Moscow hosted by the oligarch Alexander Yelkin, but the bash was canceled after Yelkin was arrested on corruption charges; Lopez reportedly earned $1 million anyway. (Halvorssen speculates that celebrities like entertaining authoritarian regimes because they generally get paid in cash, which helps with the tax bill.) The calculations for lower-wattage celebrities are even better. Nobody remembers that Julio Iglesias (Enrique’s dad) performed for the corrupt dictator of Equatorial Guinea or that Danny Glover accepted a whopping $18 million from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 2007, ostensibly to create a film about an 18th-century slave uprising in Haiti. (The film has yet to be made.)  

So long as the rewards remain so high ($1 million to not show up at a terrible person’s party!) and the consequences relatively slight, we can probably look forward to more of these scandals flaring up—and just as quickly dying down—in the future. While Lopez pleaded ignorance of Berdimuhamedow’s human rights abuses through her rep, she didn’t even bother to apologize directly. Still, it’s worth remembering that you can’t put a price tag on integrity. So if you’re out there, Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I have not committed any human rights abuses, and my birthday is in December. My people will call your people?

Correction, Aug. 1, 2013: This piece originally misidentified the wife of Russian banker Andrey Melnichenko as a former Miss Yugoslavia. She is not. (Return.)

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