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VULTURE DROPPINGS OF THE WEEK: Campaigns Organized In Support Of Celebrities

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Its Friday! Which means it’s time once again for the weekly roundup of my favorite pop culture atrocities, misfires and entertaining trainwrecks. This week’s theme: Campaigns Organized In Support Of Celebrities. If there’s a villain in the Shakespearean drama that has become become of NBC’s powerplay to remove Conan O’Brien as host of The Tonight Show it’s Jeff Zucker. The NBC Universal chief has been the mastermind behind the original decision to replace Jay Leno and also to cut out an entire hour of primetime programming to make room for the now defunct Jay Leno Show. Unfortunately for Zucker and for Leno, the outpouring of public sympathy has erupted in Conan’s favor. There’s even a poster and a slogan for the movement that’s been dubbed Team Conan as a show of support for

the soon to be ex-host of The Tonight Show. The poster was created by LA based designer Mike Mitchell, who told Entertainment Weekly:

tonight_show_conan_o_brien_im_with_coco_image_01I’m a huge Conan fan. I went to one of the first test shows for The Tonight Show here in LA, and I’ve been a big fan for a long time. The whole thing’s just a crappy situation.

NBC is hoping to have the “crappy situation” taken care of by the end of the day. That seems unlikely, although, Nikki Finke reports that Jeff Zucker has actually demanded that the negotiations come to and end. She quotes him as saying:

This will get off the front pages.

To which Conan’s representatives responded:

You are 100% wrong.

Whatever happens, one thing is for certain. Fans will continue to show their support for the beleaguered red headed host in the form of wacky memorabilia like posters, T-shirts, mugs and the creation of facebook pages to honor his struggle. While we wait to see what the outcome will be, it may be a good time to take a look back at some of the other campaigns that were created to help down and out celebrities get back on the horse.

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1. Free Winona (2002)

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Winona  Ryder won the hearts and minds of audiences in movies like Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. At the height of her career, in 1995, she had the clout to put a movie like Little Women into production and was nominated for Best Actress for her role in the movie. She continued to expand her range throughout the latter half of the 90s in The Crucible and Girl Interrupted, but nothing could have prepared her for a scandalous turn as the star of her own shoplifting trial in 2002.

The actress was  arrested in December 2001 after walking out of a Saks Fifth Avenue department store in Beverly Hills with over $5,000 in stolen merchandise. She was also carrying several tablets of the painkiller Oxycodone, a fact which only added fuel to the tabloid frenzy that ensued. During Ryder’s trial, prosecuting attourney Ann Rundle, told the jury:

She came, she stole, she left.

Ryder’s attourney, Mark Geragos argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict the acclaimed actress. In his summation, he told the jury:

‘There is a collapse of objective evidence in this case such that you cannot say without a reasonable doubt that Winona is guilty.

The only problem with that line of defense was the existence of surveillance video that clearly illustrated that Ryder had purposely left with a large bundle of unpaid items.

The drug possession charge was dismissed, although the actress was convicted of Felony Grand Theft and Vandalism. In 2004, the charges were reduced to misdemeanors. The fan designed T-shirts emablazoned with the slogan “Free Winona” turned into hot sellers during the trial, as sympathy for Ryder swelled as a result of the unfortunate turn of events. Ryder’s career never quite recovered, which may not have been an entirely bad thing, since audiences were spared more movies like along the lines of clunkers like Autumn In New York. Her first starring role after the incident was in the Adam Sandler comedy Mr. Deeds. During the time of the movie’s release Ryder spoofed the incident on Saturday Night Live and appeared on the cover of W. magazine sporting a “Free Winona” T-shirt.

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2. Free Martha Stewart (2004)

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Martha Stewart barely gave it a second thought when she sold over 4,000 shares of Imclone stock based on the advice of her friend, Imclone CEO Samuel D. Waksal. While vacationing in Los Cabos, she even told friend, Mariana Pasternak:

Isn’t it nice to have brokers who tell you those things?

The advice was good, although the timing of sale, which took place in December 2001,  just days before Imclone announced an unfavorable ruling by the FDA for its cancer drug Erbitux, proved to be a red flag that the board of trade couldn’t ignore. In the trial that followed, she was charged with conspiracy and lying to investigators. For the media, it was an irresistible story, one that seemed to prove that behind Stewart’s carefully cultivated image a as a picture perfect example of domesticity, she was, in actuality, a cold, aggressive businesswoman who would stop at nothing for her own gain.

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The domestic diva’s near omnipresence in pop culture, with a magazine, television and books featuring her beaming smile, made the ability to secure an unbiased jury difficult. The cards were stacked against her from the start, even though many pieces of the story didn’t add up. Most importantly, it didn’t really make sense why Stewart would go to such lengths to get rid of those particular stocks when she had much more invested in her own company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

martha-stewart-jail-criminalStewart was found guilty in January 2004 and sentenced to five months in prison. According to the New York Times, fans and well wishers gathered outside the courtroom and chanted:

Save Martha!

When she exited the courtroom Stewart told the crowd:

I’ll be back. I will be back. I’m used to all kinds of hard work, as you know, and I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid whatsoever.

Since the “Free Winona” T-shirt had already made endorsing a celebrity caught in the middle of a scandal the hipster equivalent of fashionable, a T-shirt which carried the slogan, “Free Martha” was created faster than it takes to say, “It’s a good thing.”

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Stewart used the jailtime to her advantage, developing a reality show spin-off of The Apprentice and a daytime talk show.

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3. Free Fiona (2005)

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Fiona Apple broke out onto the music scene in 1997 with hits like “Criminal” and “Sullen Girl” from her debut album Tidal and quickly developed a reputation as a neurotic prodigy, with a penchant for speaking her mind. In her acceptance speech for the Best New Artist award at MTV’s Video Music Awards, Apple caused a stir when she declared:

This world is bullshit.

album-when-the-pawnHer follow up CD, When the Pawn was released in the fall of 1999 to widespread acclaim. The reputation she had developed as a loose cannon also continued, unabated; fueled by incidents like a March 2000 concert at the Roseland Auditorium in New York city, during which she complained to the audience about the quality of the sound and started crying, before exiting the stage for good after performing for only 40 minutes.

Apples vulnerability made her fans more protective than most, a fact that became clear with the fan mobilized campaign organized behind her third album Extraordinary Machine. Apple had started work on the album in 2002. By 2004, fans who had waited five years for a new Apple album were growing impatient. When news spread that Sony Music’s Epic Records refused to release the album due the fact that it lacked any hit singles, fan outrage led to a massive campaign spearheaded by musician Dave Muscato (pictured below) , who created the website freefiona.com. The campaign culminated with a petition of over 21,000 signatures that were then written onto real apples and shipped to Sony headquarters.

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FreeFionaThe campaign only became more intense when a bootlegged copy of the album was leaked online and became easily available to download. On January, 29 2005 a group protest led by Muscato was held outside Sony headquarters. The gathered crowd chanted:

We want Fiona!

At the time Sony released a statement that said:

It’s our understanding that Fiona is still in the midst of recording her next album and we at Epic Records join music lovers everywhere in eagerly anticipating her next release.

The truth about the reason the album hadn’t been released was less black and white. It turned out Apple had been unhappy with the result of her collaboration with composer and close friend Jon Brion, who she had previously worked with on When The Pawn. To salvage the album, Brion introduced Apple to producer Mike Elizondo, hoping that a possible collaboration would click. Up to that point, Elizondo was best known for his collaborations with Eminem, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent.

The collaboration did click, so Apple asked Sony for more money to re-record the album with Elizondo from scratch. Sony executives agreed to fund the re-recording, but insisted upon an arrangement in which Apple would submit each completed song for approval before being given more money to record the next one. Apple chose to walk away from the record instead of complying with Sony’s demands. The singer credits the “Free Fiona” campaign with her decision to finish the record. She told Entertainment Weekly:

I remember very clearly going into the back room of my mother’s apartment and my sister was sitting at the computer. I said, ‘Look up Free Fiona.’ First I started laughing, saying, ‘This is hilarious, people are protesting and I’m sitting on my ass watching reruns of Columbo. I’m not on the phone with my lawyers trying to get my album released, I’m applying to Green Chimneys!’ And then I started crying because I really felt touched. It’s an incredible feeling to feel like all these people who you don’t know care about you. And it was bigger than me, it was about what was going on in the music industry and anybody deciding what’s sellable. And then I started feeling guilty, because it wasn’t the truth. The album hadn’t really been shelved. What was I going to do, tell all these people to stop, tell them that I had done the quitting? But I quit because I felt that what was going to happen was what they thought was already happening.

The Elizondo produced version of Extraordinary Machine was was finally released in September 2005 and was widely praised as Apple’s best album to date.

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