Sunday, January 22, 2006

Celebrities Capitalize on Star Power in D.C. - Los Angeles Times

More performers are lobbying about issues unrelated to their day jobs. The famous get their egos stroked, while their causes receive publicity.

WASHINGTON — In four decades as a guitarist with such iconic rock bands as the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, David Crosby played in front of millions of fans at such venues as Woodstock, the Fillmore East, the Hollywood Bowl and London's Wembley Stadium.

Lately, one of his regular gigs has been at one of the nation's most elite clubs: the U.S. Senate.

Last year, the shaggy-haired, 64-year-old musician donned a suit in lieu of his usual bluejeans to lobby the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, seeking to thwart plans to expand Chumash casinos and commercial developments near his home in the tranquil Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. On another occasion, Crosby opined to lawmakers on campaign finance reform.

"Being a celebrity cuts both ways in Washington," Crosby said. "In some ways it gets you access. But in other ways it makes people dismiss you. You have to be insanely careful about what you say."

Crosby is part of a growing parade of celebrities trekking up Capitol Hill to talk to the nation's lawmakers about issues that rarely have anything to do with their day jobs. Trying to get attention for pet causes easily lost in the clutter of public policy debates, stars hope their cachet can make the difference in opening doors, getting media attention and scoring face time on C-SPAN.

During the last year, Washington's show has starred actress Salma Hayek testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on domestic violence about how she became familiar with the issue researching a movie role. Jazz musician and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis told the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management how important it was to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

Actress and AIDS activist Ashley Judd spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the need to develop an HIV vaccine for Africa. Actor Don Cheadle, who starred in the movie "Hotel Rwanda" set in that country's 1994 civil war, joined five members of Congress on a fact-finding mission to learn about refugees in Sudan.

When it comes to hobnobbing with lawmakers, U2 frontman Bono ranks as Washington's reigning celebrity lobbyist. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is a frequent guest at the band's concerts. In October, Bono lunched for 90 minutes with President Bush at the White House, where the two discussed debt relief, AIDS, malaria and world trade, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

"More and more celebrities are lobbying for particular causes," said Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University and author of the book "Celebrity Politics." "They attract the TV cameras, and celebrities are great fundraisers."

For celebrities, testifying and lobbying in the nation's capital offers the ego stroke of being taken seriously on important issues, and a chance to make headlines for something other than their latest loves or public mishaps.

In an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, actress Mary Tyler Moore said her lobbying on behalf of the Diabetes Research Foundation stemmed from her own experiences as a diabetic. Having the disease "has fueled my desire to help … find a cure," Moore said.

After actor Michael J. Fox testified on Capitol Hill in 1999 about his battles with Parkinson's disease, lawmakers urged the National Institutes of Health to intensify the government's search for better treatments. Since then research grants for Parkinson's have jumped more than tenfold from $25 million to as much as $300 million this year, said Robin Elliott, executive director of the Parkinson's Disease Foundation.

"In a television culture, celebrity has become crucial to advancing all kinds of causes," Elliott said.

But it also can often backfire when it appears a celebrity is simply fronting for an issue in which he or she has no special expertise.

In 2002, Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) walked out of a Senate subcommittee hearing on the environmental effect of mountain mining when Kevin Richardson, a Kentucky native and member of the Backstreet Boys singing group, was called as a witness. Voinovich told reporters the proceedings had turned into "a joke."

Lou Diamond Phillips, star of such films as "La Bamba" and "Young Guns," said it was unfair to assume celebrities were unqualified to testify. Phillips said he met resistance when he testified in 2002 about extending veterans benefits to Filipinos who had fought in World War II. Phillips is part Filipino and the son of a war veteran.

"It upsets me that people don't think we have the right to speak out," Phillips said in an interview. "We are citizens like everybody else. I made it certain to the senators that I was no carpetbagger."

When Crosby testified last summer on the tribal development plans, Connecticut blogger Edward Janusz questioned his qualifications.

"Mr. Crosby seems like an intelligent person," Janusz said in an interview. "But I'm more inclined to listen to people who are personally involved and have some expertise."

Congressional hearings for decades were mostly dominated by nondescript government, industry and academic experts. Stars called to testify typically were asked about issues directly related to the entertainment industry, such as when the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s investigated alleged Communist infiltration of Hollywood.

Credit former top Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti and Washington lawyer Michael Gardner with helping demonstrate during the 1980s the clout celebrities could have on Capitol Hill. They mobilized some of Hollywood's biggest names to counter government efforts to end financial syndication rules that forbade broadcasters from owning any of the TV programs they aired.

Valenti squired Warren Beatty, Stefanie Powers, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas to Washington to testify, lobby and pose for snapshots with star-struck lawmakers.

Gardner took Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda and Jean Stapleton to make the rounds of federal regulators who were siding with the TV networks in favor of the rule change.

In the end, the beleaguered television networks were outmatched by Hollywood's star power.

Financial syndication rules were preserved for nearly a decade before a judicial ruling ended them in the early 1990s.

Valenti, who retired in 2004 as head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America after 38 years, has a relatively simple explanation for why celebrity testimony can be so effective: Congressional hearings are dreadfully dull.

"Most people come in and duck their heads and read their testimony and leave no lasting impression," he said.

But by virtue of their star power and training, Valenti said, "actors can give Oscar-winning performances."

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Just Fabulous

Knack For Sewing Launched Donna Salyers' Career

COVINGTON - Donna Salyers didn't grow up wearing furs - neither faux, nor real. She did, however, grow up with a grandmother who could whip a mighty stitch, and under her tutelage Salyers learned to do the same.

"I was just one of those little kids who like to sew," Salyers said. "I loved pretty clothes and I was from a poor family, and if I was going to have them, I thought, I'll learn to sew, and I'll make them."

She not only made her own clothes, but became an expert on how others might do the same.

In 1974, Salyers, who grew up in Northern Kentucky and graduated from Dixie Heights High School in Crestview Hills, wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper saying that publication's sewing column wasn't up to par.

"I said the column in your paper is so bad even I could write a better column," Salyers said. "They called me and said, 'We wish you would.' I wrote six samples, and I remember thinking I've never written anything but a letter to the editor."

But lack of experience didn't matter and for the next 17 years Salyers wrote a weekly sewing column, "Sewing, Etc.," for Gannett newspapers. She also made guest appearances on sewing segments for a cable television show that was taped in New York City.

"I would go to New York to do these shows and I thought everybody in the whole town had a fur coat but me," Salyers said.

So, Salyers made her own fur coat.

Because she had been writing the column for so long, she had some good contacts in the textile business. As a result, she was able to get her hands on good quality faux fur.

"People would just marvel at that coat," Salyers said. "After about four or five years I'd worn that coat so many times and so many people had tried it on, and I thought I'm getting rid of it and I'm buying a fur coat today."

But, as it turned out, Salyers plan changed with the turn of a radio dial.

Salyers was listening to radio commentator Paul Harvey talk about a toy manufacturer in London who took litters of kittens, skinned them, then used their fur to make teddy bears.

"I thought, I don't want a fur coat," Salyers said. But she wanted the look of fur, and she thought others might, too.

Salyers bought an ad in a sewing publication and sold sewing kits for her fur coat. In 1989, her first year of business, she earned $300,000. This year, Fabulous Furs will earn more than $10 million.

Celebrity List

"Do you know who Ice T is?" asked Salyers. "I didn't."

But Salyers soon found out, when the rap star became a customer. As it turns out, Ice T and his wife Coco purchased three custom bed throws from Fabulous Furs for their home which was featured on MTV's "Cribs," a television program that gives viewers a glimpse into celebrities' far-from-humble abodes.

Fabulous Furs established celebrity appeal early on. Actress Loretta Swit of the sitcom M*A*S*H contacted Salyers after reading about her in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"She read about us in the Chronicle and said, 'I want one of your coats, but I don't know how to sew,'" Salyers recalled. "I told her I'd turn it over to the ready-to-wear department. So, of course I'm in my kitchen making it that night."

Swit showed the coat to her friend, actress Stefanie Powers, who contacted Salyers and asked her to bring some of her coats backstage while she was in town performing "Love Letters."

Fabulous Fur pillows were on the big screen in the movie, "You've Got Mail," starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. "All My Children's" Susan Lucci sported a faux-lynx coat on the daytime drama, and Cosmopolitan Editor Helen Gurley Brown owns both sable and coyote faux furs.

"We still get excited about celebrities," Salyers said.

Fabulous Furs' business offices are located in Covington along with a showroom that Salyers said has become a tour bus destination. She's hoping her new endeavor, Fabulous Bridal (see related story, this page), located at the corner of Sixth Street and Madison Avenue in Covington, will have similar appeal.

"If we can make Fabulous Bridal a destination, people will travel from down in Kentucky and Tennessee," Salyers said.