When the talk-show star met the lawmakers, the atmosphere was electric. Kathie Lee Gifford, on a break from television's “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee,” arrived on Capitol Hill July 15 amid a sea of cameras and jutting microphones. The celebrity-turned-human-rights activist was showered with praise.
“You are an ambassador to the world's exploited workers,” Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., told her at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights. “We welcome you as our comrade in arms,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif. “It is lonely in the human rights arena. There are very few touchdowns and many fumbles.”
Only a few short months before, Gifford had been the activists' favorite punching bag. The apolitical entertainer had been blindsided in late April by the charge that her women's clothing line, marketed through Wal-Mart Stores Inc., had been produced by sweatshop labor in Honduras, and, it was later revealed, in New York City. The accusations were lodged at a congressional hearing by Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, a human rights group.
Gifford's first reaction had been to lash out emotionally. “I truly resent this man impugning my integrity,” she said tearfully on her morning show. “You can say I'm ugly, you can say I'm not talented, but when you say I don't care about children, that I will exploit them for some sort of monetary gain, for once, mister, you better answer your phone, because my attorney is calling you today. How dare you!”
Ten days earlier, an emotional Gifford had told 20,000 shareholders at Wal-Mart's annual meeting about the “viciousness” of the news media that were blowing the matter out of proportion. She had considered discontinuing her clothing line, but changed her mind after phone calls from Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, New York Gov. George Pataki and Jay Mazur, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). In a private meeting with Kernaghan, she was introduced to Wendy Diaz, a 15-year-old Honduran who toiled on Kathie Lee-endorsed garments, earning $22 for a 60-hour week.
Soon after the revelations, Gifford's husband Frank, a television sportscaster and former football star, paid a visit to Seo Fashions in Manhattan's garment district, where he passed out packets of $300 in cash toward the $48,000 in back pay due the workers.
“The allegation from [Kernaghan] hit me like a truck,” Gifford told the July hearing. “Our first instinct was to run, but Frank did not want a spin control or damage-control thing, but the right thing. We were a national model for what's wrong in the system. We now have to be national model for what's right.”
Gifford's transformation prompted her to meet with Wal-Mart to rethink strategy. An investigation revealed that unexpectedly high demand for her clothing had prompted a Wal-Mart supplier to subcontract to an unregulated New York sweatshop. Gifford was reminded that her contract had required the retailer to specify which suppliers were being used. She soon set up her own watchdog organization to monitor the situation, and has been meeting regularly with government, industry and human rights officials.
Since her activism blossomed, Gifford's critics have become her strongest boosters. Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., told her that activists in Congress had not known that as much as 20 percent of the multimillion-dollar profits from Gifford's four-year-old clothing line were already benefiting homes for children victimized by AIDS and crack cocaine.
“We thought you had lent your name for selfish profits,” he told her. “We didn't realize at the time that your motivation shouldn't be questioned. But now your leadership will change the lives of millions in ways you couldn't have imagined. It would have taken much longer without someone of your sensitivity, visibility and communicative skills. God works in strange ways.”
As an anti-sweatshop crusader, Gifford stands in marked contrast to several other celebrities whose names have been dragged into the human rights debate. Actress Jaclyn Smith, who has a successful clothing line with K Mart, has declined comment on the issue. And the seemingly indifferent attitude of basketball megastar Michael Jordan, who has a lucrative contract to advertise Nike sneakers made by low- wage Indonesian workers, has disappointed some fans. It's up to Nike to “do what they can to make sure everything is correctly done,” Jordan told The Associated Press in June. “I don't know the complete situation. Why should I? I'm trying to do my job. Hopefully, Nike will do the right thing.”
Kevin Sweeney, a vice president at Patagonia, a Ventura, Calif., clothing maker, says that “Jordan made a big mistake in saying that [fighting worker exploitation] is not what he does. Nike does a lot of good things, and I have been a Jordan fan. But he gets $20 million from Nike. You've got to do something for your money. I have no interest in him now.”
Other celebrity endorsers have been sensitive to the sweatshop issue for years, but behind the scenes. Supermodel Cheryl Tiegs has had her own women's sportswear line since 1980. “By being in the spotlight, by my appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, I accept a certain moral responsibility,” she told a conference on sweatshops organized by the Labor Department in July.
Tiegs explained how she did background checks on all suppliers and won approval rights to ascertain that all goods were fairly and properly made. She said she had ended up putting about 120 days a year into the effort instead of the 20 days she had originally planned. She cautions that celebrities must depend on trust and can't be responsible for every phase of the manufacturing and marketing process. “I do design and photography, but not the shipping or display,” Tiegs says. Still, “My celebrity status depends on my good name, and it's the public that casts the final vote.”
Another longtime celebrity activist is exercise guru Richard Simmons. For 12 years he has marketed a clothing line for overweight women that is sold in 4,000 stores. “I've never had a child make a piece of clothing, and I do go to the factories,” Simmons says. “Few of us would take this on as a career, but it has affected me emotionally, even if some in the [entertainment] business don't want me to be active. My advice to celebrities is to mean it. Don't just make cute celebrity visits.”
Back in 1980, Tiegs says, it was easier for a celebrity to insist on control over the terms of a clothing-endorsement contract. But because of consolidation in the retail industry that has put small operators out of business, she says, “Today, they will tell you, 'Sorry, honey, there are other celebrities waiting in line.' ”
Gifford says she is disappointed that other celebrities have failed to respond to her entreaties to get involved. “They take the attitude that the issue will go away if they ignore it,” she told the Labor Department gathering. “But in the future, many celebrities will be careful about what they endorse and will get involved in the process.”
“I was probably the right person to pick on,” Gifford says, describing herself as the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants raised to believe that “if you are privileged, you don't have the right to horde it all. You should share it.” In 30 years of endorsing products - her first was for Kraft Foods at age 17, when she won a Junior Miss contest - Gifford says the issue of sweatshops and child labor had never arisen. Now, she says, she has come to realize that “my own pain seemed selfish and insignificant. Now my anger has a focus. Even if we have to downsize growth, I would be willing to pay to stop an obscene practice by people who are more like a cockroach than a human being.”
Not all observers give Gifford rave reviews. “People are turned off by Kathie Lee becoming an activist because she's been so whiny in her approach,” says Duncan Muir, a spokesman for J.C. Penny Co. “Everyday people are wondering what she is doing getting involved in things like that.”
Robert Hall, vice president and international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation, says that activist groups are targeting celebrities in order to build support for unionizing foreign factories. The issue “never made it into People magazine until they went after Kathie Lee,” he says.
Does Gifford's husband think the producers of her TV show are pleased with her activism?. “I don't see how they would not be pleased,” he says. “And if not, it doesn't matter.”
Gifford herself now flicks off critics' barbs with her usual exuberance. “I didn't want accolades for what we're doing, but I didn't feel we deserved to be criticized,” she says. “Now I know I'm not the victim. I go home at night to a lovely home, a loving husband and healthy kids. I'm hooked on the feeling that one person can make a difference.”