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Odd Man Out

Dan Mathews: nuts? No, committed.

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Tommy Lee, of Mötley Crüe, said, "If you read only one book this year (like me), this is it." Chrissie Hynde, of the Pretenders, said, "I'd marry him if he wasn't a fag."

The one book this year that Tommy Lee recommends you read is Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir (new in paperback from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster), and the author of that book — the one Chrissie Hynde would marry if he weren't a fag — is Dan Mathews.

Committed? Mathews is that. He's even been committed — to a Paris hospital for "observation." But a rabble-rouser? True too and proud of it. Case in point:

As a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mathews and other PETA members once invaded the offices of Calvin Klein in order to do something about the designer's use of animal fur. Days after the takeover (and days after the media attention), Mathews calmly sat down with Klein, explained PETA's position, and showed him a gruesome videotape of chinchillas being electrocuted, beavers being drowned, minks having their necks snapped, coyotes gnawing their legs off to escape the traps they were in, and baby seals being clobbered to death.

You've probably seen the shots, been outraged, and taken action — maybe. Or maybe you made it a point to avoid such scenes. You and Klein have something in common. It's horrible stuff. But out of sight, out of mind. Leave it, though, to PETA to be up in arms and in your face.

"Well, that's it," Klein said to Mathews, visibly shaken after viewing the video. "I have avoided looking at that crap for years. ... That's it. No more fur." And no more millions made off of animal suffering. Klein ended 17 years of licensing agreements with fur-supply companies.

Make that one victory, then, for PETA and a personal victory for Mathews, one among many victories he describes in the pages of Committed — that video he showed to Klein, one of many stomach-turning examples of animal cruelty he's working to put a stop to.

But, as serious as Mathews' message is, there's something else he wants readers to know: He's as silly as they come and not above masquerading as a priest to disrupt the catwalk of an Italian fashion show featuring furs. A person, he knows, can take only so many scenes of animal torture. And let's face it (Mathews does), PETA is "one obnoxious pressure group." But nothing, he also claims, says an activist has to be a stick-in-the-mud. Mathews isn't. Tell that, though, to the people at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Paris, where Mathews & Co. staged a protest in 2003 and where he was arrested, then accused of being out of his mind.

KFC's crime, according to PETA: throwing live chickens into "defeathering" tanks. PETA's crime, according to Paris police: inciting a riot (with the help of Chrissie Hynde, a militant vegetarian, who rode Mathews' shoulders — the man stands 6'-5" — during the protest to protect her guitar-playing fingers from possible injury). The police captain's opinion of Mathews? He couldn't fathom "why anybody in his right mind would wreak such havoc while totally sober, on behalf of chickens, no less." So the captain ordered a psychiatric evaluation, but a kindly doctor, after talking to Mathews, ordered his immediate release. Mathews was, in the words of the doctor, "not only sane" but "a good citizen."

He's not alone, and Hynde isn't the only good citizen (and celebrity) to be enlisted by Mathews to support PETA publicly. Count on life-saver Pamela Anderson, model Christy Turlington, singers Morrissey, Nina Hagen, and Lene Lovich, designers Todd Oldham and Stella McCartney, and drag queen Lady Bunny. But don't count on Madonna ("She's bad news," according to Mathews, who had a major run-in with her) or designer Michael Kors (who's, in a word, again according to Mathews, "awful").

Mathews, for his part, is damn serious, silly, out, proud, and, yes, committed. Prepare to be outraged (and quite likely charmed) when he reads from and signs copies of Committed at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Saturday, May 24th, at 4 p.m.

Before that signing, though, here's Dan Mathews, speaking by phone from New York City:

The Flyer: It was in the news today. Chicago's city council reversed its decision and is once more allowing Chicago restaurants to offer foie gras — the product of force-fed geese — on their menus. Care to comment?

BRYAN ADAMS
  • Bryan Adams

Dan Mathews: That was such a dirty trick ... for them, the Chicago city council, to come in and do that. It's one of the reasons PETA does very little with legislation. We target companies. We don't hold a candle to our adversaries on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress, of course, are bought and sold by big business. We'd never stand a chance.

Our whole approach is to look at the companies doing the nastiest things to animals. McDonald's, for example, used to buy meat from slaughterhouses that failed inspection. We knew that to have the FDA actually get inspectors to do their jobs was going to be impossible. So we brought the issue directly to the public and created this thing called the Unhappy Meal, which graphically showed kids how animals become Big Macs and McNuggets. That worked. McDonald's changed their policies.

Now we're protesting KFC to stop boiling chickens alive in their defeathering tanks. Chickens aren't covered by the Humane Slaughter Act. We can try to get Congress to add chickens to the act, but the poultry trade is more well-heeled than we are. So that's why we go for the corporate throat.

A lot of PETA's antics, a lot of what people roll their eyes at ... and I don't blame them, we're one obnoxious pressure group ... those antics: That's our currency. Companies welcome us into their boardrooms now because they're afraid of what we might do.

Have you ever been afraid that PETA's campaigns go too far?

There have been a few actions where I think we didn't go far enough.

You went far enough in your case against Madonna, but you don't go into the details in Committed. What's the story?

I'd heard from somebody at Warner Bros. records that Madonna was planning to have a bullfighting scene in her upcoming music video, "Take a Bow." So I wrote her letters saying, you know, the humane groups in Mexico, Spain, and Argentina have done so much work to make bullfighting a cruel relic of the past. They don't need you to come in and glamorize it.

Madonna, of course, didn't reply. So I got the groups in Mexico, Spain, and Argentina to send her letters too. She didn't reply.

BY TODD OLDHAM
  • by Todd Oldham

It was edging closer to the production date of the video — I have friends inside the music industry who talk about these things — and I turned over all the letters to the New York Post, which ran a big article.

That's when Madonna replied. We had a lengthy chat. But what was interesting was how self-absorbed she was.

You were surprised?

It didn't surprise me, but it was just ... ridiculous! In my letters, I said that I used to be a fan of hers, the music, the videos, all the way through the Sex book. But now she could count me out.

The first thing she said on the phone was, "I find it odd that you call yourselves People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals when you've treated me so unethically. You're now giving this story to the press."

I said, "You had weeks to respond and never did."

Then she said, "Well, I really wanted to finally respond, because I read in your letters that you used to be a fan."

And I thought, What about the part about the bull?

She issued a statement that she did not support bullfighting and that the video was designed to portray the bullfighter's cruelty to the animal and to her.

Then she did another video with bullfighting! I thought it was an outrage. And about the same time, there was a big story about a crazed fan with a knife who was arrested when he hopped the fence to Madonna's property in Los Angeles. It was all over the news. So I took out a full-page ad in Billboard that said, "Dear Madonna, now that you know what it's like to have a strange man with a sharp object attacking you, perhaps you'll sympathize with the bull and stop glamorizing bullfighting." That got a few people talking.

I don't expect to be friends with Madonna. And I do like a lot of her music. But she's an awful personality. She's bad news.

What PETA does when it identifies people like this ... It's not like we expect them to change when we attack them. We want to send a message out to other celebrities: that if they endorse cruel practices on animals, they'll have us on them massaging their backs with a club. We're not just some kiss-ass charity.

We're more like a "punk" charity. We're a little too edgy for a lot of people. It's what makes us attractive to others, like Bill Maher, Pamela Anderson, and Pink, who aren't afraid to cause controversy. And that's great. We're not for everybody.

Like fashion designer Michael Kors. He blew you off when you challenged his use of the skins from baby sheep.

He's awful. Awful.

We're appealing now to young designers. This afternoon, for example, I did a program at Parsons school of design, showing the students videos of how animals are skinned alive for their fur, for their leather. How they're mutilated even in the wool trade.

You know, your booksigning in Memphis ... You'll be missing the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest by one week.

Shoot! Barbecue sauce is one of my favorite foods. I put it on tofu and baked potatoes and broccoli. So, actually, I'm upset to be missing that.

Is it PETA's position that all animal killing is wrong, even when farm animals are treated as humanely as possible?

We believe the only reason to kill an animal is in self-defense. Having said that, some practices are worse than others. Even though philosophically we'd love to see the whole world go vegan tomorrow, we realize that's not going to happen. We spotlight the most egregious cruelties.

You started at PETA as a receptionist. Twenty-five years later, you're officially what?

I think I'm a senior vice president of campaigns. But I've never been into titles. I've always done whatever I could. Sometimes, it was making posters. Sometimes, it was getting arrested. As an activist, you try to look at what you can bring to the party.

Committed came out in 2007. Now it's in paperback. Do you have another book in the works?

It's too early to talk about. But I wrote for punk-music magazines back when I was 17. And I once wrote "A Connoisseur's Guide to Jails." I rated jails on their food, hospitality, accommodations.

But I never planned to become a writer or write a book at all. I started getting approached ...

[Street sirens sounding in the background.]

... Can you hear New York?

I started getting approached by publishers after I wrote an article about my adventures in the Midwest dressed as a carrot ...

[More sirens.]

... That's ladder company 24.

I was dressed as a carrot to promote vegetarianism in elementary schools. In Iowa, pig farmers gave the kids luncheon meat to throw at me, and I wrote about it for The Advocate.

So, here I was. I'd gone back, as an adult, to elementary school, where I used to get beat up for being gay. I come back years later, and I get attacked with this shit. I thought, This is pathetic. I've been attacked at school for being both a fruit and a vegetable.

Your being a "fruit" ... Has it helped or hindered your work for PETA?

I'd say it's made it easier to navigate the fashion world. And recruiting beautiful women, like Christy Turlington, to pose nude for PETA posters ... The fact that I'm a fag makes them realize I don't have ulterior motives.

But it isn't so much a question of being gay. It's a question of being myself. When you're an activist, a lot of people put themselves in a box, trying to be earnest, talking in facts and figures. I've got the facts and the figures, but it's just too boring. You've gotta add some personality, plus I've always been a little bit of an oddball. It's why I welcome all kinds of people at my booksignings, even those who disagree with what PETA has to say.

The book and being on tour: I've been to about 35 cities now. I talk to PETA members. I talk to people who aren't members. Some ask devil's-advocate questions. Some are parents who are apprehensive, because their kids want to go to the signing. Wives bring their husbands, who aren't into it. It's been great to have these meet-and-greets, answer questions.

And it's a great boon to activism when you can engage people, especially because animal activists often feel like the odd ones out, as people going against the grain. It's why I was hoping that Committed could be something to share — stories about the ups and downs in a movement like this one but with a sense of humor about it. To be an activist, you don't have to be a total bore.

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