In the kind of headline that’s become quite frequent in recent years, Jennifer Lopez has found herself in hot water for playing the 56th birthday of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the president of Turkmenistan, a country with a deeply terrible human rights record, and oil reserves that have fueled its leaders’ personal extravagance and eccentricities. Lopez’s representatives have tried to sidestep any association between Lopez and the regime by arguing that she was invited by China National Petroleum Corporation as part of “a private corporate event that was presented to their local executives in Turkmenistan,” as if an invitation from China’s state-owned oil and gas company had no geopolitical implications whatsoever.
And as of yesterday, they’re playing a different card that celebrities before her have tried to deploy: total ignorance. Huffington Post reports:
Lopez’s publicist says the event was vetted by Lopez’s staff: “Had there been knowledge of human rights issues any kind, Jennifer would not have attended.” The birthday serenade was a last-minute request made by the corporation to Lopez before she took the stage, and she “graciously obliged,” the statement said. Lopez is the latest celebrity to face scrutiny for performing in countries or for leaders with human rights violations. In 2011, Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank profusely apologized after attending a birthday party for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who had been accused of torture and killings; she said she didn’t have a full understanding of the event. Beyonce, Nelly Furtado, 50 Cent, Mariah Carey and Usher were paid handsomely to perform at parties linked to the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. All later announced plans to donate their performance fees to charity and said they hadn’t known the leader was connected to terrorism.
This is a patently ludicrous attempt at a dodge even if Lopez and her people are sticking to their story that they had no idea she’d be singing for Berdymukhamedov, and saw China National Petroleum Corporation as her only client. The Corporation’s been boycotted over its work in Sudan, accused of human rights abuses in Burma, and faced charges over the environmental impacts of its projects. It’s possible to find out about all of these controversies with thirty seconds of Googling, and if Lopez truly didn’t want to be associated with even the suggestion of any of these sorts of problems, that should have been enough for her representatives to make a call on the event. If they wanted to investigate their veracity, that might have taken them longer, but it’s not as if Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, or Human Rights Watch don’t pick up the phone when a celebrity’s representatives call.But more to the point, Jennifer Lopez is a giant international music star with endorsement deals, an active recording and acting career, and a television production company. Under what circumstances does she possibly need whatever undisclosed fee she was paid by CNPC, and that, like celebrities who were previously in her circumstances, she might have to end up donating to a human rights group anyway to try to negate the political fallout of the gig? And why is it so hard for celebrities, whose staffs turn down requests for appearances that aren’t high-profile or high-paying enough all the time, to turn down a job that’s much higher-profile and higher-paying, but that, unlike speaking a high school or performing for a sick child, carries the possibility of actual brand damage?
The reason Lopez and other people like her keep taking these jobs is revealing in two highly unattractive ways. First, it’s a reminder that the consequences for cozying up to dictators and other human rights abusers remain extremely small. ABC Family, for example, would never drop The Fosters, which Lopez’s company is producing, because she performed for Berdymukhamedov. Kohl’s isn’t going to drop her perfume line. If you’re willing to ride out an uncomfortable news cycle, that’s a relatively low price to pay to be in the private performances business, which is significantly dominated by people who, whether they abuse human rights or not, have enormous amounts of money to burn for extremely small units of work by very famous people.
And second, there’s really no sense in our current celebrity industry that you can ever have too much money, particularly when the relative potential cost to an artist’s brand is low. I can’t imagine Lopez’s representatives thought for a moment about whether or not she actually needed whatever money CNPC offered her. It was there for the taking, and there are things she could do with it even if she doesn’t remotely need it to pay for food, shelter, child care, or clothing. Until there are actual costs to making money by particular means, it will remain true for people like Lopez that you can never be too rich.