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Public consequences of pop stars' private gigs

With Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and other artists feeling the sting of their private concerts' connection to the Moammar Kadafi clan, the risks and payoffs of such lucrative engagements come to the surface.

March 10, 2011|By Reed Johnson and Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • 'NAIVE': Mariah Carey says she had no idea that a Kadafi family member bankrolled a 2008 gig.
'NAIVE': Mariah Carey says she had no idea that a Kadafi family… (Chris Pizzello / Associated…)

When pop stars Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Nelly Furtado and 50 Cent recently said they'd renounced millions of dollars they'd received for performing for members of Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi's family, they drew attention to a growing and controversial cultural phenomenon: celebrity artists being hired by rich, powerful and sometimes disreputable clients to play at private or semi-private functions.

From flashy hotel openings to wedding receptions, upscale bat mitzvahs and Caribbean bacchanalias, brand-name musicians, Hollywood actors and other celebrities are increasingly renting out their talents, or simply their crowd-drawing presence, for under-the-radar engagements.

Despite the potential ethical breaches, and the risk of tainting their public images, big stars likely will continue to be tempted by fat fees and all-expense-paid trips by private jet to a remote tropical island or luxury resort. Today's free-spending clients include Fortune 500 corporations, Wall Street tycoons and nouveau-riche developing-world businessmen.

PHOTOS: Who played and who paid

Some of these artists may be motivated largely by money and are ignorant of, or indifferent to, political concerns. Others like Sting, who performed at a 2009 concert arranged at the behest of the daughter of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov (known for jailing dissidents and other human rights abuses), see themselves as cultural ambassadors opening new communications channels into closed societies.

Top stars' managers take care to protect their artists' reputations by pre-screening clients, "so they know they're not getting a briefcase of cash that wouldn't be clean, wouldn't be legal and would cause them all kinds of problems," said Bob van Ronkel, who runs a Moscow-based business that arranges for actors and musicians to appear at charity events, concerts and other activities, frequently in Russia and Central Asia.

But that can be difficult if the client is using a third-party intermediary or hiding behind a pseudonym, as one of Kadafi's sons is known to do, Van Ronkel said.

That was the explanation put forward by Carey last week when she renounced the reported $1 million she earned for giving a private 2008 New Year's Eve concert bankrolled by a member of the Kadafi family.

"I was naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for," the singer, who has a substantial record of philanthropic activities, said in a statement. "I feel horrible and embarrassed to have participated in this mess. Going forward, this is a lesson for all artists to learn from. We need to be more aware and take more responsibility, regardless of who books our shows."

A few days previously, Furtado, the Canadian pop chanteuse, had announced in a Twitter message that she planned to give away the $1 million she made playing a 45-minute show for the Kadafi clan at an Italian hotel in 2007. She did not specify where the money would go.

Beyoncé said in a statement that she hadn't realized who was picking up the tab for a Kadafi-sponsored private party. "Once it became known that the third-party promoter was linked to the Kadafi family, the decision was made to put that payment to a good cause," the statement read. The singer said she already had donated the money she earned to Haitian earthquake-relief efforts.

Then this week rapper 50 Cent said that he, too, would donate to charity the money he'd earned performing several years ago at yet another private event linked to Kadafi family members.

Chris Palmer, a former vice president of progressive music and senior vice president of marketing for Warner Bros. Records, said that many artists typically are disconnected from who they are performing for, or for what reason, being more interested in putting on a good show.

"Some of the artists are so focused on being good entertainers, they're oblivious to the politics," said Palmer, now an assistant professor and program director for Arts Presenting at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. "Not all artists are as politically aware as Bruce Springsteen, Sting or Bono. It's a responsibility of their agents, and support staff, and the people around them to make that kind of call."

But even booking agents and managers may not know who'll show up at a gig until after it's planned. Van Ronkel said that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin turned up on short notice last December at a charity event, billed as aiding hospitals for children with cancer, at which Kevin Costner performed with his band. Putin sang "Blueberry Hill" and played a grand piano.

At the time, Van Ronkel said, no one in his entourage was thinking about politics. "Governments think politics," he said, "but most of us are thinking, 'Wow, Kevin's here performing.'"

The event has subsequently drawn Russian media attention after the mother of a girl with cancer wrote an open letter implying the event may have benefited Putin's public image more than the children.

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