Did Jennifer Lopez make the biggest mistake of her career by singing Happy Birthday to the leader of an authoritarian regime infamous for its human-rights infractions?
The Latina pop superstar and former American Idol judge is catching heat for her appearance at the birthday celebration for Turkmenistan leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow over the weekend. A former Soviet Bloc country, Turkmenistan has been cited on multiple occasions for human rights abuses and authoritarian rule.
The singer's breezy performance of Happy Birthday Mr. President immediately generated a tidal wave of negative publicity, including a story in The Daily Mail referring to her as "Jenny from the Eastern Bloc." She also earned sharp rebuke from the non-profit Human Rights Foundation.
"Lopez obviously has the right to earn a living performing for the dictator of her choice and his circle of cronies, but her actions utterly destroy the carefully crafted message she has cultivated with her prior involvement with Amnesty International's programs in Mexico aimed at curbing violence against women," said HRF president Thor Halvorssen in a statement.
Not surprisingly, Lopez's publicity team shifted quickly into damage control. On Sunday, her representative released a statement to the Associated Press stating that the birthday bash was in fact hosted by the China National Petroleum Corporation, which does business with Turkmenistan.
In a subsequent statement to The Hollywood Reporter, a Lopez publicist said the event in Turkmenistan was a "private corporate event" put on by the CNPC that was "not political in nature." The decision to specifically honour the Turkmenistan leader in song was explained by the singer's rep as a "last-minute birthday greeting" request prior to Lopez taking the stage.
Although Lopez was obviously paid to sing at the event, no details of her performance fee have been made public. Her publicist confirmed she has no other performances scheduled in Turkmenistan.
In early 2012, a report from the advocacy organization Human Rights Watch stated that "Turkmenistan remains one of the world's most repressive countries." In the eyes of the CIA's World Factbook, Turkmenistan's government "defines itself as a secular democracy and a presidential republic; in actuality it displays authoritarian presidential rule."
And while Lopez, may have been unaware of Turkmenistan's track record, she's certainly not the first celebrity to accept a gig in a country renowned for human rights violations.
In late 2011, Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank was forced to issue a profuse mea culpa for attending the birthday party for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, long after he had been accused of killing and torturing his own people. Swank claimed she didn't have a full understanding of the event.
Similarly, singers Mariah Carey, Usher, Beyonce, 50 Cent and Canada's own Nelly Furtado were paid to perform at events linked to the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Each performer claimed they hadn't known Gadhafi was connected to terrorism and announced plans to donate their respective performance fees to charity.
Don't be surprised if Lopez takes a similar tack as her Happy Birthday performance becomes a buzz-worthy topic in the U.S. media (and perhaps even more so considering the recent story that she wants to return to American Idol).
But in the final analysis, who's really responsible for Lopez's unintentional support of a notorious regime? The singer or her handlers? What do you think?