By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
'CALL US WHEN YOU'RE NAKED'
Since this is a story about someone from PETA, we're obligated to talk about what we ate. We ate at McDonald's. Mathews had the veggie burger; I had a cheeseburger, lamely asking him if it was okay.
"Order what you want," he said. "Half of our members are vegetarian and half think it's a good idea. If people need guilt to motivate them, great. People are surprised to find out I do shots of Jaegermeister, that I like having a good time. Just because you're devoted to a cause doesn't mean you can't have a good time. I think that's one of the reasons I've never burned out."
He's been at PETA for 18 years, having shown up just a few days after graduating from American University, where he used to stand outside the cafeteria and show slaughterhouse footage. Back then, maybe 10 people worked out of Newkirk's suburban Maryland home—she'd founded the group in 1980—and Mathews was hired at $10,400 to answer phones and reply to mail on a typewriter with a lazy u.
"I thought he was special since he had taken on American University regarding their treatment of pigeons," Newkirk said. "Anyone who can stand up for these poor little birds, completely gentle that just go around looking for your crumbs, I knew was special. Now, I didn't envision him on TV for us. His hair was some oddball color and he spoke a mile a minute."
From his punk days in California, he'd gotten to know Nina Hagen and now told her he was working for an animal rights organization that wasn't just a bunch of old women standing around with signs—these people intended to take action—and could she write a song? She wrote "Don't Kill the Animals," sang it with Lene Lovich and soon it was No. 1 at the Palladium in New York, No. 1 at the Star Club in Dallas, No. 1 at clubs on both coasts and even in Oklahoma City. Soon the guy who answered the phones and battled lazy u's was going around the country, talking about the song but, more, talking about PETA and animal rights, reaching a whole new, untapped and, most importantly, young audience.
"At that point," he says, "Ingrid said, 'I think we'll get someone else to answer the phones.'"
And so started Mathews' life of heading PETA campaigns. He organized protests and sit-ins, educational this and throwing-stuff that. And he didn't forget the central theme of making it in America: get someone famous to be either with you or against you. Get Paul McCartney talking about vegetarianism. Better, get Pamela Anderson wearing vegetarianism. That's when you get more than 200 newspapers worldwide running incredibly clever headlines such as "Pam Anderson Wears Lettuce Bikini."
"Before Dan we had used celebrities like Loretta Swit or Steve Guttenberg, but it was always in very serious ads, or to sign letters, very serious things," Newkirk said. "When Dan came along, he really added a spice to the mix. He allowed the celebrities to have fun. Of course, Dan can have fun in a brown paper bag."
He started the "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign by stripping on a Tokyo street. That campaign has grown into one of PETA's best known and has included Anderson. It's been so big that Britney Spears' refusal to pose made big headlines.
"When I started at PETA our main focus was undercover projects designed to expose cruelty," Mathews said. "But as the years went by, fewer news shows were willing to show the footage because they found people turned the channel because they didn't want to see something upsetting. We live in escapist times. People want to be entertained, not informed. We'd have footage of animals on fur farms with eyes missing, mutilated, and try to get this out about the real story of what happens, why there is a problem with fur, and producers would say, 'This isn't the sort of thing people want to see at dinner time, but give us a call when you're going to take off your clothes again.'"
PETA doesn't make the rules, they just play by them very well, and there are plenty of celebrities who want to get into the game—so many that, Mathews says, "Somebody joked that we're the CAA of animals."
What civil rights were to the '60s, feminism was to the '70s and gay rights were after that, animals rights is now, he says, especially with young people—young people who watch Josh Hartnett and Orlando Bloom in movies and buy Pink and Shania Twain CDs and vote on PETA's online polls asking who's the sexiest vegetarian: Orlando Bloom? Josh Hartnett? Shania Twain? It works—one of PETA's most popular websites is PETA2.com, aimed at kids—but it's also a direction that bugs a lot of those in the animal rights movement.
"Resistance? Oh, all the time," Mathews said. "People take themselves very seriously, and you can't blame them. We've reduced the movement by and large to a sound bite so the masses can digest it and think its cool, boiling any of the brains out of it. But anyone who's interested, say by one of our campaigns, can go to PETA.com and get tons of information. There's a lot of competition for people's attention and it'd be very easy to become invisible if you weren't exciting. Basically, our country has become a giant high school where people want to gossip about the popular people, snicker about who lost weight and who got divorced. It's pathetic, but we're tapping into that.