Activist Celebrities and Celebrity Activists – Avenues for research in Climate Change and Celebrity

I was recently invited to put some brief thoughts together as part of an AHRC network entitled, ‘Spectacular Environmentalisms: Celebrity and the Mediation of Environmental Change’ run by Mike Goodman of King’s College London along with Jo Littler, Middlesex and Dan Brockington, Manchester.

The purpose of my talk was to try and incorporate an activist component to the study of celebrity. While I hope to develop the idea further into some sort of research project, what I argued in the talk was that while academic literature has distinguished between celebrity politicians and political celebrities, we can also think about celebrity activists (of which there is a lot of interesting work)  and activist celebrities (of which there is scant work).

With the environmental direct action movement and particularly the anti-roads movement of the 1990s, Daniel Hooper or ‘Swampy’ became a household name; from crusty to celebrity crusty appearing in national newspapers and on national television. Long after the  anti-roads protests were over, both The Guardian in 2003[1] and The Sunday Mirror in 2006[2] both did ‘whatever happened to’ articles illustrating Swampy’s  staying power. Admittedly in talking about celebrity power, compared to celebrity activists, the power of Swampy is akin to the micro-energy generated from a couple of solar panels or wind turbine on your house.

Nonetheless, according to an article run in the Independent in 2007, ten years after Swampy first made headlines, the article suggests that Swampy has gone ‘underground’ (though this time not literally)  within the Climate Camp movement so that his ‘celebrity status’ doesn’t impact activism[3].

There are two points of note here. First, Climate Camp, with its roots in the environmental direct action practices a form of autonomous politics where celebrity is concioulsy avoided. Thus is would be interesting to explore how celebrity is navigated by contemporary activists in the environmental/climate change movement.  These activists are keen to engage with symbolic capital, but it seems less so with celebrity capital.

Second, the activist celebrity of Swampy raises  questions around what the boundaries are in the context of climate change concerning activist celebrities. It is clearly a different ‘kind’ of celebrity, it has a different shelf-life, it is much more ephemeral, the  rules of access to the media are different, the pulling power is different and the type of credibility and thus perhaps fallibility is different.

In the context of climate change, there is no Swampy (correct me if I am wrong). There is a general absence of activist celebrities. Part of this could be explained by the difficulyt of actually representing the issue to people and doing so in a way that begets media coverage or perhaps it is politics.

One of the few exceptions I am aware of is ‘Tamsin Omond’ from Plane Stupid who, in a high profile event climbed Westminster. The Daily Mail, for example, reported her as the granddaughter of Sir Thomas Lees, a fourth generation Dorset baronet and wealthy landowner of the Holton Lee estate and then goes on to speculate about her sexual orientation[4], Omond’s ‘blue blooded’ past highlighted by the Mail could arguably qualify her as an activist celebrity. Another way to look at it is how the Mail, perhaps along with other media, through the logic of media constructs Omond as a celebrity activist. Equally an argument could perhaps be made there are different types of celebrity activists. The point is, activist celebrity is something that is interesting and, I believe worth perusing.


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