Amid wars and White House race, celebs weigh risks of speaking out

(The Hill) - Celebrities went all in during the 2020 and 2016 White House races, but they are proceeding with more caution this election cycle with its expected Biden-Trump rematch looming as multiple wars rage around the world. 

Annie Lennox knows first-hand about entering the political conversation as a music artist. The “Sweet Dreams” singer made headlines last month when she called for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza while performing at the Grammy Awards.

“I took the chance to say something because I felt so strongly about it,” Lennox said in a recent interview with ITK.

“But what I did — it's risky speaking,” the 69-year-old Scottish performer added when asked if the public should expect to hear her speak out more on the issue.

“I don't want to upset anyone. I'm not the sort of person that likes to upset people. And yet, it seems that calling for peace at a certain point is upsetting for some people. But the world is waking up to see that,” Lennox said.

Evan Nierman, the founder and CEO of Red Banyan, a strategic communications firm said that “our society has come to expect celebrities to clearly demarcate where they stand, whether it's who they want to be the president, who they're endorsing, what their views are on social issues.”

“I don't think it really makes a lot of sense because certainly when it comes to both politics and geopolitics, these are individuals who make their living from performing. They're not expected to be political experts, or foreign policy wonks,” said Nierman.

“But yet all of them are held to that standard now, and they get questioned about their views on every issue under the sun, and they can't possibly be deeply educated on every topic about which they're interrogated by a public that wants to know and reporters who throw questions at them,” the public relations guru added.

Being outspoken about politics, controversial or emotionally charged issues can backfire.

“People are always somewhat concerned, if you start making very kind of political statements… you can find yourself being ostracized,” said Mark Wheeler, a political communications professor at London Metropolitan University.

“You’re not getting the roles. You’re not getting the opportunities,” added Wheeler, the author of the book, “Celebrity Politics.”

He pointed to Jane Fonda — who famously visited Vietnam in the 1970s to criticize the war and was promptly dubbed “Hanoi Jane” — as someone who, despite winning the 1972 Academy Award for best actress, essentially became “unemployable for a while in Hollywood.”

More recently, actor Melissa Barrera was booted from “Scream VII” following what the production company behind the film called her “hate speech” on social media about the Israel-Hamas war. Barrera had reportedly referred to Israel as a “colonized” land and circulated an “antisemitic trope that Jews control the media.”  

“Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer also faced intense backlash for remarks about the conflict in Gaza while accepting an Oscar earlier this month, in which he said he and his colleagues stood “as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.” More than 500 entertainment industry figures reportedly signed an open letter denouncing Glazer’s speech.

Going public about politics can affect even an A-lister’s bottom line. While 41 percent of respondents in an October Morning Consult/The Hollywood Reporter poll said that “celebrities’ social and political opinions are effective at influencing them,” 25 percent said they “ignored a show or film because of a cast member’s political views.” Another 25 percent of respondents said they had unfollowed a performer on social media “due to their political views.”

Nierman, the crisis PR pro, said he would advise today’s stars to “weigh in if you feel like you absolutely must, but know full well what you're getting into.”

“If you choose to dive headlong into controversial topics that divide our society, know that you're going to get blowback, and that it could have an impact on you,” Nierman said.

In an exceedingly polarized climate, not just in Congress but across the country, some entertainers say they tend to avoid politics all together.

“I don’t do any political jokes. I just steer away from it,” said comedian Nikki Glaser.

Asked why, Glaser said, “Because I’m too angry about it. And you know if I get too angry, sometimes it can be funny, but it’s like I’m too angry to be funny and people can sense that. It turns you off when you’re watching someone just like rage and lose control.”

“I do want everyone to enjoy me,” added Glaser, 39. “And if it’s triggering to some people, and it turns people off right away, it’s my natural inclination to go, ‘I don’t want to go there.’”

While his tour stops feature him opening up about everything from his childhood to relationship troubles, Kevin Hart has long maintained that politics aren’t part of his comedic conversation.

“I'm not a divisive person,” Hart told ITK.

“I want to bring people closer together. Conversations that divide, I just do not want to partake in. Doesn't mean that don't respect it: I do respect it, I acknowledge it, I embrace it. I love it,” said the “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” star, who was recently awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

“We all have lanes, and there's nothing wrong with operating in the lane that’s best for you,” Hart, 44, said.

Wheeler said there’s “a certain degree of caution because the political realm” in America has become divided to the point of open hostility.

“If you associate yourself with one side, it's not you are just an opponent anymore,” the professor said, “you are an enemy.”

The temper has changed from even just a few years ago, according to Nierman.

“Cancel culture was not as prevalent as it is now. You have people mobilizing online to take people down, whereas the extent of the harassment in a bygone era was more that you would maybe get a petition against someone.”

“Now it comes with real risks of actions, when you have people doxing, or calling for people to get fired or lobbying for the most stringent punishments to be given to people,” he said.

During the 2020 presidential race, many left-leaning Hollywood stars entered the political fray in the hopes of rallying their fanbases to defeat then-President Trump.

In an August 2020 post on X, formerly known as Twitter, “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill shared a pro-Biden message depicting the then-Democratic White House hopeful as Obi-Wan Kenobi in an altered image.

“Vote to defeat the dark side,” Hamill wrote.

John Legend wrote to his more than 13 million followers on the site of Trump, “We can’t put ourselves through another four years of this walking dumpster fire.”

Cher, one of Trump’s fiercest Hollywood critics, said in a 2020 interview that she “hated” the then-president, blaming him for creating a “toxic” culture in the U.S.

“People who just disagreed with each other before are now enemies,” said the “Believe” singer, who recorded a song in support of Biden’s 2020 campaign.

Outspoken Trump fans also didn’t shy away from taking some political punches during the 2020 race. “All Summer Long” singer Kid Rock performed at a Trump campaign rally in September 2020 while guitarist Ted Nugent hawked autographed $47 pro-Trump hats.

Wheeler said that some celebrities who take a political stand might covet a proximity to power or a boost to their egos, but others could have truly altruistic purposes or “feel that they have a perfect right as a citizen to be involved in the process.”

They might also like the idea of utilizing their enormous platforms for good, Wheeler said, a la actor and singer Danny Kaye, who was named UNICEF’s first celebrity Goodwill Ambassador in 1954.

“He felt I'm using my position to put something back into the wider system — so there was a kind of sense that they had a wider ideological and institutional kind of purpose.”

With roughly seven months before Election Day, plenty of stars could still decide to be among the Hollywood contingent who voice their political views loud and clear. Despite the risks, some high-profile figures haven’t shied away this year from speaking out.

Maren Morris was one of several musicians who recorded a song last month in support of Tennessee Senate hopeful Gloria Johnson — the state senator is running in the Democratic primary to try to unseat Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R).

Asked if more stars should speak out about politics, Morris didn’t hold back, “I mean, I can only speak for myself, but we live in Nashville, Tenn. and Marsha Blackburn f---ing sucks, so we would love to see her get ousted.”

Music and politics, the Grammy Award-winning “Bones” singer said, are “synonymous” because “music is just inherently political because you’re telling people’s stories.”

“So that’s what politics should be about as well,” Morris said.

Brandi Carlile also performed on the pro-Johnson song, “Tennessee Rising,” and has been an outspoken supporter for LGBTQ rights.

The choice of whether entertainers should use their voices to wade into political debates, Carlile said, really “depends on their life.”

“I think they should speak out about what they're good at, what they understand and what they genuinely feel,” the “Joke” songwriter said.

“They shouldn't feel obligated to misrepresent themselves in a way as virtue signaling,” she added.

“I feel that speaking out about the issues that I feel genuinely compelled toward is effective,” the 10-time Grammy Award winner said. “But if I spoke out about issues that I didn’t feel compelled toward, it wouldn’t be effective, it would just almost kind of dilute and loosen the meaning of that issue.

“First of all, being a woman, and second of all, being a gay woman,” Carlile, 42, said, “I wake up every day political.

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