When extremely wealthy celebrities encounter impoverished people experiencing homelessness, sometimes the collision sparks a social media frenzy with worldwide consequences. This is the Hollywood celebrity-version (think TMZ.com) of a diplomatic skirmish.
Take Justin Timberlake’s wedding with Jessica Biel, for example. The nuptials of these A-list celebrities should have resulted in tweets, blog articles, and tabloid rag photos filled with what dress was Jessica wearing and who was lucky to be part of the select group of guests.
Instead, a longtime friend of Justin’s paid individuals living on the streets of Hollywood to make fun of homelessness and pretend to be sending well wishes to the couple on video. (If you are homeless, $40 is a lot of money to simply read a short, seconds-long script into a video camera.)
The video ended up on YouTube, Gawker, and TMZ. That’s like getting every gossip-hungry family member and neighbor together to broadcast their own tweets, blogs, and Facebook announcements of your most embarrassing secret. It went global.
Sure, some people may think a simple fraternity club-type prank should not be taken so seriously. It is not like someone put a gun to the head of the video’s so-called actors. And the actors really did need the $40.
It is sort of like China and Japan arguing over the fact that one country bought from current landowners the Diaoyu Islands, small tiny islands just north of Taiwan. If you looked on Google maps for these rocks they would be the size of a tiny darkened pixel on your computer screen. The argument over the right to purchase land, however, has deeper, more historical territorial ownership issues. That’s why thousands of Chinese have boycotted Japanese products and overturned popular Japanese vehicles. (In other words, don’t rent a Toyota Camry if you plan to drive in China.)
So also, the idea of creating a funny, purely innocent videotape of people who are homeless is, in itself not globally significant. But on the other hand, derogatory homeless videos have deeper, more historical civil rights issues. Just remember the bum fights videos ten years ago, where video producers paid people who were homeless to fight on tape. A sad example of exploitation.
Justin Timberlake was correct to post a formal, very compassionate apology on his website and on video. Even though he did not actually create the video, the fact that he was associated with it and the sensitive understanding of the significance of creating pranks with hurting people, justified a world-wide apology. Timberlake just became Hollywood’s Chief of Diplomacy. (We are still waiting for some sort of apology in the Asian dispute.)
The moral of this story? If you are lucky enough to have more money than you could ever spend, and have a name and face that nearly everyone can recognize, then be careful how you interact with people who are living in poverty or are homeless.
At the bare minimum, use George Clooney as an example, who recently stepped out of a New York City restaurant after eating dinner with his partner, talked with a man who was homeless and gave him some money.
Woody Harrelson performed a similar compassionate act this past summer when he gave a woman who was homeless $600 in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district.
Or, to make a more significant impact in helping those who are less fortunate, copy Jon Bon Jovi, who created a foundation to help house veterans who are homeless on America’s streets.
Now, that is what I call a positive collision between a celebrity and people who are homeless.