WASHINGTON -- The agent for hot country-western star LeAnn Rimes was busy promoting his client to celebrity networker Alma Viator when the conversation turned to the young singer's favorite causes. The teen, he confided, plans to take a public position on children.
Let it be known: She intends to support them.
Viator came all the way to Nashville to hear something like this. A Washington matchmaker who links celebrities with charity work, took Viator no time to imagine the perfect campaign. She envisioned an outreach effort with Rimes and enough feel-good songs to cheer little cowgirls and cowboys around the globe. Rimes could testify on Capitol Hill and volunteer her name to pro-children's benefits. She could be a spokeswoman, a concerned American, an activist. She would have what every rising star needs: a cause.
Such thinking is key to Viator's new business, the first-ever public relations service in Washington that links celebrities with special-interest groups. The company, called Cause Celebre, discovers activist outlets for entertainers while finding famous faces for Washington's big issues.
In a bright corner office lined with government phone directories and memorabilia from congressional bill-signings, Viator and her new partner, public relations specialist Margery Kraus, are in their first month of playing matchmaker between the coasts.
The bureaucratic setting in this downtown headquarters - shoehorned between buildings full of lobbyists and lawyers - seems an unlikely place to hear Viator discussing the relative fame of Cher and Tom Cruise ('When I had them at the same event in 1985, Cher was a bigger deal'), Steven Spielberg's power as a spokesman ('It's our goal to get him for an event') or Jack Lemmon's availability for charity gigs ('You've got to work on him through his wife').
But to Viator and Kraus, such chatter has a place in Washington. This city is the home base for hundreds of nonprofits - many of which have yet to realize the power of a famous face for public service announcements, ad campaigns and fund-raisers.
Sure, stars love coming to this city. They appear at Capitol Hill hearings, inaugurations, embassy dinners and presidential galas. Anti-gang activist and actor Edward James Olmos, for one, took the podium at the 1996 Democratic national convention. At the start of the Clinton administration, officials even gave private political briefings to entertainers like Barbra Streisand.
But these are the glamour events. Cause Celebre is trying to attract box-office names for ordinary nonprofit campaigns - the stuff of daily business that could use some glitzing up.
'Our clients need entertainers,' says Viator, 49, a theatrical publicist married to ex-congressman and former 'Dukes of Hazzard' star Ben Jones. 'Our service fills an obvious niche in this city.
' While star endorsements may be new to Washington, the same is not true on the West Coast. There, Ted Danson and Jeff Bridges created signature organizations (oceans and hunger, respectively). Richard Gere became occupied with Tibet while Whoopi Goldberg began advocating for the homeless. Henry Winkler still does 'The Fonz' for fatally ill children in hospitals. Television actor Craig T. Nelson likes bringing ministers to car races to deliver sermons at the track. Richard Dreyfuss is so busy, he hired his own full-time political consultant.
With their causes in tow, these stars make news. Actress and PETA member Kim Basinger told a reporter she used to shoot her fingers like a gun at people wearing fur. Actor Ed Begley Jr. made (and won) a highly publicized bet that he could recycle almost all his trash for a week, fitting the non-recyclables in the glove compartment of his electric car. At Cause Celebre, the aim is to get the same kind of exposure for Washington causes and organizations. The group also keeps in mind the stars' need for publicity.
'We're not going to find them causes already crowded with other celebs,' said Robin Bronk, a Cause Celebre vice president. 'We'll help them find their audience.
' Celebrity manager Alan Somers likes this idea, and advises celebrities to join causes. But he always warns performers that they are at risk when they allow an outside party to control their image, even for a 30-second public service announcement.
'[Actors] are very careful in what they want to put their name to and how they want to be perceived out there,' Somers says of his clients, who include Hector Elizondo, Cheryl Ladd and Amanda Plummer. 'We discuss this very carefully. Anything can hurt a career.
' To avoid the humiliation factor, staffers at Cause Celebre will write speeches and do background research. The aim is to keep stars from freezing before the microphones or endorsing a cause that somehow makes them look bad.
After all, no one wants a repeat of the Ed McMahon episode, in which the former 'Tonight Show' sidekick had endorsed an Orange County veterans charity only to see its leader nailed in 1992 for fraudulent fund-raising practices.
Obey the rules
The service also will warn nonprofits not to overstress their on-loan celebrities and to obey the guidelines set by the entertainers.
'Some celebrities cannot stand in front of a group, they don't like public speaking,' said Kraus, head of APCO Associates, a Washington-based public relations firm where Cause Celebre will be housed. 'I have to know that. I can't have a client hurt or embarrassed.
' Case in point: James Earl Jones. After a planned appearance at a charity arts event organized by Viator not long ago, he bristled at the unexpected requirement that he make chitchat in front of live cameras.
'When he says 'no!' you might think he's being off-putting, but that's just the way he feels,' says Viator, who now knows to shoo media from Jones.
If celebrities must care for their image, so too must nonprofits. An anti-drug public service announcement was ready to air several years ago when its star, actor Corey Feldman, was arrested for narcotics possession. Obviously, the spot was pulled.
Having someone decipher the complications of fame wouldn't be all bad, said Heather Paul, executive director of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign in Washington. After all, star status seems to change from minute to minute, and she is too busy to keep track.
'Sometimes the PSAs have a short shelf life, just like the actors' careers,' Paul said.
So whose SAFE KIDS public service announcement should be mothballed?
'Corbin Bernsen,' she said. 'I must give that as an example - he was the blonde lawyer from 'L.A. Law.' His highest visibility so far was on that show, so we probably wouldn't pitch him now.
' The idea of a celebrity booking service is new in Washington, but not in Los Angeles, where such matchmakers fill California's star-studded charity galas every week.
Rita Tateel, the head of L.A.'s Celebrity Source, is among the more successful in this field. She knows who is starring in a new series, who is a nightmare to work with, who loves live interviews, who is in rehab.
She combines this information with data from her computer - details on stars' likes, dislikes, personal lives - and creates a list of possible matches.
'A company like Kellogg's may not want someone who has been in trouble with the law,' she said. 'A Kelsey Grammer, a Jack Nicholson isn't always right because it's not the wholesome family image.' She ended up snagging Kathy Ireland and Mickey Rooney instead.
These days, cause-identification starts early. At a recent gathering of child actors in Los Angeles, Cause Celebre's Bronk spoke to the youngsters about getting involved in charity work. Jessica Marie Alba, a star of the cable show 'Flipper,' wanted to donate a portion of her salary to women's issues.
No doubt, Alba's name will be on Cause Celebre's list. On a recent afternoon in the Washington office, Bronk and others brainstormed for new celebrities to link with causes. Viator casually mentioned that Catherine Bach, who played Daisy Duke on the 'Dukes of Hazzard,' just had a baby. Bronk did not hesitate before jumping to the next logical conclusion.
'Oh really? A baby?' she said. 'We've got to get her to save kids.
Celebrities and their causes
Ted Danson ...................... Saving oceans
Edward James Olmos .............. Anti-gangs
Mary Tyler Moore ................ Diabetes
Susan Sarandon ......... ........ Anti-death penalty
Richard Gere, Steven Seagal ..... Tibet
Henry Winkler ......... ......... Kids
Arnold Schwarzenegger ........... Special Olympics, fitness
Elizabeth Taylor, Demi Moore, ... AIDS
Roddy McDowall, Elton John ...... AIDS
George Clooney ....... .......... Childhood injury prevention
Tom Hanks ........... ........... Pediatric AIDS
Jimmy Smits ........ ............ Hispanic arts
Iman .............. ............. Famine
Beau Bridges ......... .......... Gun control
Jeff Bridges .......... ......... Hunger relief
Kathleen Turner ....... ......... Osteoporosis
Woody Harrelson ....... ......... Legalization of industrial hemp
Christopher Reeve ..... ......... Spinal cord injuries
Ed Begley Jr. ......... ......... Environment
Farrah Fawcett ......... ........ Women's issues
Martin Sheen, Ed Asner .. ....... Civil liberties
Jane Fonda ......... ............ Prevention of adolescent pregnancy
Tom Arnold .......... ........... Substance abuse
Richard Dreyfuss ..... .......... Middle East peace
Sting .......... ................ Saving rainforests
Patti Davis, Kim Basinger ....... People for the Ethical
Bea Arthur, Alicia Silverstone .. Treatment of Animals
Woody Harrelson ....... ......... Treatment of Animals
Whoopi Goldberg ....... ......... Homelessness
Charles Durning ....... ......... Arts, veterans
Shelley Fabares ....... ......... Alzheimer's disease
Roger Moore ........ ............ Child abuse prevention
Pub Date: 7/31/97