"We're insiders now," he marvels, all the while insisting he is still "basically white trash. I have fun taking out the garbage. The least exciting part of my job is being a celebrity troll. I'd much rather be taken away in handcuffs—I've been arrested I don't know how many times all over the world." He's writing an article for Details rating jails of the world with one to five stars (Hong Kong's is the best, Chicago's the worst).
The guy who grew up listening to Pretenders albums in Orange County, California, now dances till dawn with his idol, Chrissie Hynde. "We'd been out all night, and he said to me, 'I feel so spiritually connected to you,' " Hynde recalls. "Chrissie's absolutely one of my best friends," says Mathews. The day she visited PETA headquarters—at his invitation—was "the first day in my life that I ever felt anything but despair," Hynde, a longtime vegetarian, says. "Face it, most people are natural-born followers. To see this growing army fighting, especially in America, one of the most conservative countries in the world—I was flabbergasted."
After prices dropped, wealthy women no longer wanted "to buy something their maids could have," says a fur executive.
When word leaked out about a proposed PETA ad campaign starring River Phoenix, who had just OD'd ("I Wouldn't Be Caught Dead in Fur" was the tagline) and Kurt Cobain, who had just shot himself to death ("You Need Fur Like a Hole in the Head"), Hynde decided to change her will. "I said, 'In the event of my death, I invite them to exploit my name and likeness in any way they see fit.' " Mathews, says Hynde, is "a phenomenon—totally resilient, unstoppable. I feel like a big sister to him." But she also fears for his life. "You can't go up against these multinational companies. These are very dangerous industries. They deal in blood and profits. I worry that someone will take him out altogether. But if he died in the name of this cause, we'd all be popping open champagne bottles. That's the way we all want to go."
Perhaps the weakest plank in PETA'S platform is its unwavering condemnation of medical research involving animals. "No AIDS breakthroughs have come out of animal research," Mathews maintains. A National Institutes of Health spokesman calls the contention nonsense: "We wouldn't have been able to discover the AIDS virus as quickly as we did without animal research." Mathews is unrepentant. "We have a lazy, sick society," he says. "People bring diseases on themselves." The best defense against illness, he says crisply, is prevention—"avoid getting the disease in the first place."
The fur business, by comparison, is a big-downy, sitting duck. "It's the easiest thing for consumers to do away with," explains Mathews. "It's deplorable to kill animals for a luxury product." Last autumn, when PETA stormed Vogue's offices to protest the magazine's refusal to run an ad depicting the fur industry's cruelty to animals, B-52's singer Kate Pierson was among those arrested. "During the raid, some people at Vogue were laughing," she recalls. "But some looked horrified. They do get a little bit afraid, and that's not terrible."
Somehow, the fur industry doesn't see it that way. Taking a page from the tobacco-industry playbook, it's set out to depict Mathews and his ilk as mad p.c. vandals whose true aim is to rob Americans of their personal freedoms. "Consumers are getting sick and tired of the whole notion of someone dictating their behavior," says Karen Handel of the Fur Information Council of America (FICA). "What we decide to wear in life is a basic liberty. If I want to have a steak for dinner, wear a fur, or use some medical procedure that involved animal research, I have a right to do that." "They're the bullies in school—the bully flunks out," scoffs Lawrence Schulman, vice-president of Alixandre furs. "That sort of stuff went out with Stalin."
If the fur industry is modeling its rhetoric after the tobacco lobby's, PETA'S protests are often uncannily similar to those of the far right, Operation Rescue's in particular. What separates these animal-rights fundamentalists from the people who surround abortion clinics? "The difference is that we're nonviolent and we have a sense of humor. We engage in publicity terrorism, but we're against physical violence," says Mathews. "Your average fundamentalist Christian condemns you to hell if you don't believe."
Designer Marc Jacobs, who designs a line of furs for Birger Christensen aimed at hip, young customers, doesn't see the difference. "That's so wrong," he says, "for people who are so concerned with the ethical treatment of animals to attack other people. They wouldn't want anyone to spray paint in their offices. What if someone threw paint on their vinyl coats because they didn't believe in chemicals?"