Jennifer Lopez famously sung that her ‘love don’t cost a thing’. However, a recent investigation by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) revealed that Jennifer’s love can in fact be bought for the small matter of $1.5 million[1]. Of all the people in the world to investigate, Jennifer Lopez may seem a strange target for a leading human rights organisation. However, this recent controversy illustrates the double-standard in ethics that is ubiquitous amongst public figures. Individuals who are all too eager to leverage their celebrity to create awareness for human rights issues, to champion environmental causes and to preach liberal politics to the masses—only to board their private jet to mingle with notorious crooks for an easy pay-day. This controversy is more than just a piece of fodder for the tabloids, as it holds an important message regarding the responsibility of high-profile individuals to the public, as well as acting as an uncomfortable reminder of how easily human morality can be usurped by greed and self-interest.

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The Jennifer Lopez scandal broke after the media belatedly picked up on the singer’s June performance in Turkmenistan, where aside from a medley of hits, she sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Unfortunately, the President heads one of the most oppressive authoritarian regimes in the Northern hemisphere. The government of Turkmenistan boasts full control of the media, total censorship of the internet and promises life imprisonment to any opposition to government policy. As the scandal picked up greater momentum, J. Lo’s management was forced to make a public statement, feigning ignorance and assuring the public that “had there been knowledge of human rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended.”[2]

This caused HRW to take a deeper look into Jennifer’s performing history, which revealed that over the last three years, she has made “in excess of $10 million for serenading crooks and dictators from Eastern Europe and Russia”[3]. Jamie Hancock writes on the organisation’s website that “J.Lo has repeatedly mingled with and entertained some of the world’s worst thugs and their cronies. The ‘Jenny-from-the-block-who-doesn’t-Google’ clarification may be credible in one instance, but it beggars belief in light of a pattern of repeated behavior. This is not about ignorance, it’s about greed.”[4] Indeed, in 2011, she received $1 million performing for Azam Aslanov – a corrupt oil tycoon from Uzbekistan – and at the same event, met with Chechen dictator, Ramzan Kaydrov. She went on to earn $1.4 million from the birthday celebrations for Russian oligarch, Telman Ismailov, who is currently under investigation for corruption. Then after performing in Azerbaijan in 2012, Jennifer met with the wife of the President—whose husband was presumably too busy violently repressing journalists and protestors to meet with the singer. Later that year, she also performed in Belarus for President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is currently facing international sanctions for electoral fraud and a plethora of human rights abuses. Perhaps J. Lo’s finest hour was being paid $2 million to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Alexander Yolkin—a Russian bureaucrat—who sadly couldn’t make it to his own birthday celebrations on account of his arrest the day before on corruption charges.

This issue should not be dismissed as something inconsequential. Public figures are complicit in the human rights violations of the country they are visiting as their very appearance is used by public relations machinery around these figures as a demonstration of their power, prestige and influence. When Jennifer Lopez performs for the President of Turkmenistan, it’s not because he is a fan of her music, it is because in a country where there is total control over the media, such a performance can be used as an endorsement of government policy and can be used to maintain the carefully-crafted aura around its leader. The money performers receive from dictators is dirty money, as it either comes straight from the treasuries of countries where most of the country lives in abject poverty or the bank accounts of businessmen, who have become wealthy through corruption and cronyism.

There is an unfortunate tendency amongst Hollywood elite to receive millions of dollars to perform at or attend parties thrown by prolific human rights abusers and suspected criminals. In 2011, Oscar-winner Hilary Swank was photographed at the birthday party of Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is alleged to have sanctioned torture and targeted assassinations of political dissenters. In 2008, Beyoncé, 50 Cent, Usher, Mariah Carey and Nelly Furtado were among the high-profile singers assembled to perform for the late-Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. The issue would not hold as much weight if it were not for the prominence of these individuals in supporting human rights issues and lending their voices to political causes. The desire among the Hollywood elite to engage in activism is utterly devoid of value if these individuals refuse to practice what they preach. This issue was most conspicuous with the ill-conceived Live Earth event, a series of benefit concerts in 2007 to raise awareness for climate change, which saw its performers arrive and depart via private jet.

However, this should not be taken as an opportunity to vilify Hollywood stars for their lack of self-awareness and poor strength of character. All of us demonstrate the same hypocrisies everyday, albeit on a much smaller scale. We can all recoil at the working conditions facing women and children in sweatshops, but when comes to boycotting our favourite high-street retailer, our outrage can be conveniently compartmentalised. We can all express contempt for the trade in blood diamonds, but when it comes to Apple’s use of conflict minerals in its electronics, there is no sign of people’s grip loosening around their iPhone. Indeed, we are all too happy to sign a petition to “save the polar bear!” but when it comes to making the effort to recycle that glass bottle, we’d rather throw it out with the rest of the trash.

In the modern world, it is easy to pretend that we have evolved to a superior level of morality and consciousness, because of the material we read and the causes we can surround ourselves with to feel as if we are doing our part to make the world a better place. However, as this case shows, no human – rich or poor – is immune to self-interest when it comes to converting their words into practice. It doesn’t matter how many charities you support or how many good causes you advocate, if you refuse to change your own behaviour to live in accordance with those values, all the rhetoric and activism means nothing.