Money, art and politics. Sometimes, the three inform each other. Some celebrity singers, models and actors have raked in the bucks in morally ambiguous ways, making appearances with dictators and paying for it with scathing publicity. Some claimed ignorance after the fact and blamed their managers. Who knows what their true intentions were? What would you do to earn up to $1 million in one night? Here are 10 celebrities who performed for dictators or accepted gifts from them.
The megastar who has been laying down hits for more than 20 years performed in a private concert in St. Barts in 2008 for family members of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. She later apologized, humiliated over being unaware of the concert details. Five years later, she was pinned to the dartboard again when she rang in the Christmas spirit in Angola for its autocratic President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, receiving another million-dollar holiday gift. She was performing in a country where the majority of the population lives on less than $2 a day. An alleged violator of human rights, dos Santos is labeled a dictator by most people.
Sting Got Stung
Sting, aka Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, is not only a sensational singer-songwriter. His charity work and activism are also facets of his media presence. He’s played in Tibet, performed to save the rain forests, spoke out against the South African apartheid… and earned nearly two million euros to play for a despot. In 2009, he was hired to play a set for Gulnara Karimova, the daughter and heiress of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. President Karimov has been cited by the U.N. and Amnesty International for multiple alleged human rights violations including imposing death on protesters, child slave labor, and stealing water from Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea. Sting defended himself, claiming that UNICEF organized the concert. News reports later claimed this was untrue.
J-Lo Stooping Low
Human Rights Watch lists Turkmenistan as one of the most oppressive regimes today. Well, Jennifer Lopez didn’t get that memo. In 2013, she issued an apology after playing a private concert at a Caspian Sea resort for President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s 56th birthday party. She said she wouldn’t have performed had she been aware of the regime’s track record. J.R. Taylor, a member of her entourage, sent out a tweet that night saying, “The Turkemistan breeze feels great at night Kidz!” according to The Daily Mail. This in a country where Twitter and other social media have been blocked.
Hilary Swank’s Million-Dollar Mistake
The manager of two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank reportedly booked her for an appearance at Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday celebration in 2011. Kadyrov has been accused of countless alleged war crimes and dictatorial rule, including fulfilling a “murder list” of hundreds of Chechen citizens considered threats to his power. Also in attendance at the celebration were singer Seal and Belgian action star Jean Claude Van Damme. After the Human Rights Foundation said the performance was “shameful and inappropriate,” Swank apologized through a statement by her spokesman. She allegedly fired her long-term manager Jason Weinberg.
Julio Iglesias Doesn’t Care?
In 2012, the 68-year-old Spanish serenader Julio Iglesias performed at a concert in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, organized by Teodorin Obiang Nguema Manque, the vice-president of the country and son of its long-running dictator Teodoro Obiang. Manque had been accused of alleged corruption, including embezzling state funds to pay for a playboy’s lifestyle. The country is one of the world’s wealthiest in oil, yet its citizens are some of the poorest on Earth. Where does the money go? Despite outcries by multiple human rights organizations, Iglesias didn’t seem to care. “The entire government was there, and the first ladies of several African nations,” he said, according to The Telegraph. “When I greet them, I don’t ask them if their husbands are corrupt…I never considered not going.”
Nelly Furtado’s Gaddafi Gaffe
Mariah Carey and Beyonce Knowles aren’t the only divas who have wailed for the Gaddafi clan. Canadian pop idol Nelly Furtado is on that list as well. In 2007, the Libyan dictator paid her $1 million bucks to croon for his nearest and dearest at an Italian resort. Lamenting that it was her first private concert, she claimed ignorance. Later, after the uprising against Gaddafi’s regime left thousands of Libyan citizens dead, Furtado announced in 2011 that she was donating the money to charity.
Come on, Kanye!
The often-boastful but media-commanding superstar singer Kanye West earned a whopping $3 million dollars for his 2013 Labor Day Weekend gig at the wedding reception of the grandson of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Considered a “brutal killer” ruling a “human rights wasteland” by the Human Rights Foundation (Rolling Stone Magazine), Nazarbayev has allegedly tortured and suppressed media members and others who opposed him during his 25-year dictatorship.
Dennis Rodman Loves the Despot
Rodman’s antics have always been an acquired taste, but many did not think it was entertaining when he made multiple visits to the oppressed country of North Korea. During his first visit, supreme leader Kim Jong-un taped him hosting basketball clinics in the capital of Pyongyang. Rodman declared Kim a friend for life. Two more visits and Rodman thought himself a diplomat, urging U.S. President Barack Obama to build bridges with the isolated regime. On his third visit, CNN recorded Rodman in an interview suggesting that imprisoned American citizen Kenneth Bae was at fault for his long hard-labor sentence. A public apology followed. In March 2014 a tearful Rodman said on an ESPN interview, “If you don’t want me to go back there ever again, I won’t go back.”
Naomi and the Dirty Rocks
Supermodel Naomi Campbell received a gift of a blood diamond from Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor at a 2007 Nelson Mandela charity function. After refusing to testify at Taylor’s war crimes trial in The Hague in 2010, Campbell was subpoenaed and took the stand with an attitude, indignant over being “inconvenienced.” She claimed she had no idea the diamond was from Taylor until another attendee, actress Mia Farrow, informed her. Farrow took the stand and said that Campbell told her the source of the gift.
Bad Choice, Badu!
The most recent bad choice on this list was by soul and blues singer Erykah Badu. While cutting a record in South Africa, Badu flew to Swaziland at the request of a friend who was organizing a birthday party for Swaziland’s King Mswati III. Labeled by Amnesty International as “Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy” (Rolling Stone Magazine), the country starves while Mswati swims in pools of money. Badu defended herself, saying she “signed up as an artist, not as a political activist” (Rolling Stone Magazine).