I normally work on matters to do with social aspects of biodiversity and wildlife conservation. I study things like the social impacts of protected areas and the work and performance of conservation organisations. In its broadest terms my work examines what happens when conservation resists, collaborates, or (every now and then) jumps into bed with, capitalism.
These interests do not normally involve celebrity. However a few years ago I realized that I was just always coming across celebrities or charismatic figures in certain wildlife circles with too much regularity to ignore. Moreover there were some odd patterns in the people I was encountering. Most of the public figures well known in African circles were white, and many were expats, whereas in India and South East Asia white expats were a minority. Why should this pattern exist? The more I read about celebrity the more I realized that it was indeed one of the means by which conservation and capitalism are becoming more intertwined. It was not just a curious distraction in glossy magazines, but quite a substantial force changing people, nature and conservation in the process.
Studying celebrity and conservation was hard. I had been part of that silent majority who managed to live quite happily in complete ignorance of most celebrity’s names. When I realised that I was going to have to take an interest in it and find out how it works, my main problem was that I simply did not know the names of the people involved. And when I found out what they were, I still did not know who they were.
I have improved since then. I have sat for hours (well three, but it felt like more) in the stacks of the Bodleian library reading back issues of Hello! Magazine. I have learnt much from the sub-discipline of Celebrity Studies. I have explored all sorts of ways different varieties of the celebrity industry are working with environmental and conservation causes and I was able to publish what I learnt in a book called Celebrity and the Environment.
The present research project, ‘Celebrity and Development’, extends that work. It explores the interaction of the celebrity industry with International Development, particularly in the 25+ years since the Ethiopian famine of 1984 (which brought on Band Aid, Live Aid, Comic Relief and so much more). The project is part of a mid-career research fellowship funded by the ESRC (RES-070-27-0035) and will last from September 2010 to September 2012.