WASHINGTON -- The agent for hot country-western star LeAnn Rimes was busy promoting his client to celebrity networker Alma Viator when the conversation turned to the young singer's favorite causes. The teen, he confided, plans to take a public position on children.
Let it be known: She intends to support them.
Viator came all the way to Nashville to hear something like this. A Washington matchmaker who links celebrities with charity work, took Viator no time to imagine the perfect campaign. She envisioned an outreach effort with Rimes and enough feel-good songs to cheer little cowgirls and cowboys around the globe. Rimes could testify on Capitol Hill and volunteer her name to pro-children's benefits. She could be a spokeswoman, a concerned American, an activist. She would have what every rising star needs: a cause.
Such thinking is key to Viator's new business, the first-ever public relations service in Washington that links celebrities with special-interest groups. The company, called Cause Celebre, discovers activist outlets for entertainers while finding famous faces for Washington's big issues.
In a bright corner office lined with government phone directories and memorabilia from congressional bill-signings, Viator and her new partner, public relations specialist Margery Kraus, are in their first month of playing matchmaker between the coasts.
The bureaucratic setting in this downtown headquarters - shoehorned between buildings full of lobbyists and lawyers - seems an unlikely place to hear Viator discussing the relative fame of Cher and Tom Cruise ('When I had them at the same event in 1985, Cher was a bigger deal'), Steven Spielberg's power as a spokesman ('It's our goal to get him for an event') or Jack Lemmon's availability for charity gigs ('You've got to work on him through his wife').
But to Viator and Kraus, such chatter has a place in Washington. This city is the home base for hundreds of nonprofits - many of which have yet to realize the power of a famous face for public service announcements, ad campaigns and fund-raisers.
Sure, stars love coming to this city. They appear at Capitol Hill hearings, inaugurations, embassy dinners and presidential galas. Anti-gang activist and actor Edward James Olmos, for one, took the podium at the 1996 Democratic national convention. At the start of the Clinton administration, officials even gave private political briefings to entertainers like Barbra Streisand.
But these are the glamour events. Cause Celebre is trying to attract box-office names for ordinary nonprofit campaigns - the stuff of daily business that could use some glitzing up.
'Our clients need entertainers,' says Viator, 49, a theatrical publicist married to ex-congressman and former 'Dukes of Hazzard' star Ben Jones. 'Our service fills an obvious niche in this city.
' While star endorsements may be new to Washington, the same is not true on the West Coast. There, Ted Danson and Jeff Bridges created signature organizations (oceans and hunger, respectively). Richard Gere became occupied with Tibet while Whoopi Goldberg began advocating for the homeless. Henry Winkler still does 'The Fonz' for fatally ill children in hospitals. Television actor Craig T. Nelson likes bringing ministers to car races to deliver sermons at the track. Richard Dreyfuss is so busy, he hired his own full-time political consultant.
With their causes in tow, these stars make news. Actress and PETA member Kim Basinger told a reporter she used to shoot her fingers like a gun at people wearing fur. Actor Ed Begley Jr. made (and won) a highly publicized bet that he could recycle almost all his trash for a week, fitting the non-recyclables in the glove compartment of his electric car. At Cause Celebre, the aim is to get the same kind of exposure for Washington causes and organizations. The group also keeps in mind the stars' need for publicity.
'We're not going to find them causes already crowded with other celebs,' said Robin Bronk, a Cause Celebre vice president. 'We'll help them find their audience.
' Celebrity manager Alan Somers likes this idea, and advises celebrities to join causes. But he always warns performers that they are at risk when they allow an outside party to control their image, even for a 30-second public service announcement.
'[Actors] are very careful in what they want to put their name to and how they want to be perceived out there,' Somers says of his clients, who include Hector Elizondo, Cheryl Ladd and Amanda Plummer. 'We discuss this very carefully. Anything can hurt a career.
' To avoid the humiliation factor, staffers at Cause Celebre will write speeches and do background research. The aim is to keep stars from freezing before the microphones or endorsing a cause that somehow makes them look bad.