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Strike a Pose

The way Mathews sees it, PETA'S "sort of an ACT UP for animals." PETA, and its claimed half-million members worldwide, evidently don't feel the need just yet to moderate an agenda that advocates an end to any exploitation of animals for human use. That includes clothing made of fur, leather, suede, shearling, down, wool (the sheep get nicked), and silk (silkworms are boiled alive); red meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, eggs, and honey (bees are smoked from their hives at harvest time); zoos, circuses, horse races, and rodeos; and any product testing and medical research involving animal experimentation, even for AIDS or cancer.

It's not that PETA doesn't care about people, insists co-founder Ingrid Newkirk. "There's no trick to relating to yourself, your family, your own species. We're saying don't be stingy with your compassion." Mathews says that "billions of chickens, rats, pigs, and other animals are consumed by human greed in various industries every year. People should feel compelled to fight against any form of suffering. I choose not to draw the lines on who or what I care for. At one point, someone might have said a Jew is not a person. I'm sure people who fought for civil rights in the sixties heard the same argument: 'Why do you care about the blacks?' I was always drawn to creatures who were the most defenseless—children and animals. It's worst for animals, because they can't communicate. Animal rights is perhaps the final frontier of social evolution."

"For Halloween, the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin and I went as a cruelty-free bondage couple. I was her slave. Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson want to pose naked with their 2-year-old. RuPaul's a friend."

It's comparisons like these that have gotten PETA into hot water in the past. Newkirk is still defending her infamous Auschwitz analogy, an argument she introduced in the early eighties in which she likened the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust to the annual slaughter of 6-billion broiler chickens. "Animals are individuals. When it comes to feelings like pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. You need to be compassionate across the board." Is it compassionate to heckle fur wearers on the street or to invade someone's office? "Inconvenience is different than hurting and killing living beings," she counters.

Calvin Klein was more than inconvenienced by PETA'S occupation of his office in January. He was outraged. Nevertheless, he agreed to meet with Mathews and other PETA members. They showed him their four-minute video depicting the horrors of trapping and fur farms, and he showed them the door. But days later, Klein announced he was getting out of the fur business. (In his statement, he said the decision was made before PETA'S protest.) "The Calvin thing was a real defining moment for us," says Mathews. "It showed that if you play hardball, you win." The fact that Klein, like many other designers who've abandoned fur, still works with shearling, leather, suede, and other animal products doesn't stop Mathews from claiming victory. "We're encouraged by any small step anybody takes. We don't want to ice the cake before it's baked." (Klein declined to comment.)

Mathews's greatest insight is his seemingly intuitive (not to say cynical) understanding that causes are as much about trendiness as they are about conscience. His campaign recalls P. J. O'Rourke's acidic comment that the left prevailed in the sixties because that's where the babes were. "We're a fun group," Mathews says. "Action-oriented, but also fun." By leavening their grim undercover investigations and confrontational raids with zany publicity stunts and campy events like the "Fur Is a Drag" ball, PETA has devised an MTV-generation smorgasbord for potential activists with short attention spans. "People don't want to be informed, they want to be entertained," says Mathews. "This way, they're getting the message without even realizing it."

Putting rock musicians and movie stars front and center is an essential part of this strategy. Mathews, who started as a $10,400-a-year PETA receptionist in 1985, has turned the cultivation of famous people into a vocation. "Many of my closest friends happen to be celebrities," he muses. "I just see celebrities as activists, like me. As an activist, I look for any opportunity to get attention—they know that. We don't need managers or publicists. I can just call k. d. lang at home in L.A. or in Vancouver, because we're friends."

And so he calls—and calls and calls. "For Halloween a few years ago, the Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin and I went as a cruelty-free bondage couple. I was her slave. I got cruelty-free bondagewear at the Pleasure Chest and an animal-supply shop—all rubber, canvas, and cotton. . . . I had dinner with Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson at their house. They want to pose naked with their 2-year-old son. . . . 's a friend. We always get into some kind of trouble. . . . Whenever I'm in England, I always go out and visit the McCartneys. But it's not like I'm asking Paul what was on his mind when he wrote 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.' It's like we're cousins or extended family.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Nov 7, 1994 issue of New York