Animal rights: the new model army

Forget dreadlocked crusties and horrid pictures of bleeding beagles: these days the anti-cruelty league would rather go naked. Decca Aitkenhead reports

London's Atlantic Bar, that fiercely guarded bastion of fashion, is not the first place you would look for animal rights campaigners. Dreadlocked hunt saboteurs would get short shrift from its elegant doormen; crusty anti-vivisectionists would, one imagines, receive the kind of welcome reserved for Greenham women turning up at the Garrick.

Yet this week, the Atlantic Bar will host - at its own behest - a reception for the biggest animal rights organisation in the world. Animal rights, it would seem, are suddenly sexy. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) is launching its latest campaign against the fur trade on Wednesday, with the help of one of the world's leading model agencies.

After a week when fur revivalists made the headlines ("I love real fur!" gushed underwear queen Janet Reger), Peta is fighting back. Having already enlisted practically every model super enough to be known by name (Christy, Naomi, Nadja and co), it has now won the backing of Boss Models. What would have seemed a wildly improbable partnership a few years ago - between a militant anti-fur outfit and an agency that made a sizeable chunk of its money modelling that very thing - is about to go public, in spectacular fashion.

Above is a pose from the new campaign, "Turn Your Back on Fur", released exclusively to this newspaper. It will be launched on Wednesday with a "live ad", a concept as inspired as it is elementary. The world's media will be invited to a secret but public open air location in central London, to witness a screen being raised. Exposed will be a selection of the highest paid Boss models, male and female, wearing precisely nothing. The press gets 60 seconds to capture what it can and the message, that fur is profoundly unfashionable, gets splashed across every front page. The models then go to the Atlantic Bar for a drink, and one of the biggest publicity stunts since Lady Godiva has been carried off free. All of which is a far cry from traditional animal rights tactics; the grotesque posters, the violent demos, and the bombing of laboratories. The strategy may have appealed to the young and angry, but never went down too well with Middle England. Daily Mail readers might regard animal welfare as a cutesie, fairly unproblematic affair, and old ladies will leave their money to cats homes, but animal rights are more contentious. As Amanda Bate, a Peta spokesperson, explains: "We believe animals are not ours to do with as we will; that we can survive without using them in any way." Not, in other words, that animals should be treated kindly before we kill them, but that we've no business killing them at all.

Yet Peta has managed to turn animal rights into the sexiest cause on the catwalk. It has also, in the process, been accused of trivialising the issue, going tabloid, and promoting itself with Page 3 sensationalism. The organisation was founded 16 years ago in the US, but captured the public's attention most dramatically when, three years ago, Peta persuaded Christy Turlington to pose naked under the slogan: "I'd rather go naked than wear fur." A series of supermodel adverts ensued, with models and photographers offering their services free. They would, they declared, no longer be promoting fur.

High-profile raids were staged on fashion houses using fur, most notably when Peta protesters stormed Calvin Klein's offices in New York in 1994. Within the week the designer had invited them back, this time to show him their four-minute video of what goes into the making of fur coats. Mr Klein announced that he would no longer be working with fur. When it was learned that Claudia Schiffer had refused to give up modelling fur, fingers began to point, unkind comments were made, and soon enough the German model changed her mind. Peta, understandably anxious not to sound like a bully, denies that any pressure was exerted upon her. Ms Schiffer merely came to answer her conscience. But in reality, the incident marked a sea change in what was and was not any longer considered acceptable.

The message gained momentum. Activists have gone naked on the streets of cities all over Europe and the US and, predictably, the protests are pictured in the papers every time. Patti Davis, Kim Basinger and her husband, actor Alec Baldwin, have campaigned, and comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel posed naked in Company earlier this year. Worldwide membership of Peta stands at 500,000. Since the organisation opened its London offices three years ago British membership has exceeded 25,000.

The damage to the fur trade is chronicled by Peta with glee. Evans Inc, the leading US furrier, suffered a $12m loss in 1995; by June, sales were down a further 22 per cent. In April, another US company declared itself extinct: "We never wanted to admit those terrorist animal rights people could affect our business," said a spokesman "but I don't know how you could think any other way now." Total fur sales worldwide are down by 60 per cent in the last seven years.

Yet still, some in the fashion industry have resisted Peta's onslaught, notably Karl Lagerfeld. Among the activists arrested for raiding his premises two years ago, chanting "Karl kills" was talk show queen Rikki Lake, yet Mr Lagerfeld remains, at least for the moment, unmoved. Well, shrugs Ms Bate, "he is an old fur hag". It is the endorsement of Boss models, an international corporation at the heart of the fashion industry, that marks the movement's most significant victory.

"Peta has always been perceived as an outsider in the industry," explains Paul West, a Boss director. "But a consensus was growing within Boss that we were no longer happy selling fur. For us to say to designers, sorry, but our models won't be modelling your fur any more, is a damned big deal. People may have a relative who died of cancer or Aids, but no one is coming and taking their puppy away for cosmetics tests. We had to do something to make people take notice; to show that it's important enough to us to lose revenue."

Misgivings about this kind of campaign have been voiced, not least by other animal rights campaigners. Is there not something incongruous, some say, about a worthy cause employing the sensationalist tactics of Page 3 to promote itself? Some have queried the wisdom of associating with an industry notorious for its superficial glitter, and the Green Party has accused Peta of reinforcing sexist stereotypes of women. And why are we only hearing about fur, when there are so many other abuses of animals taking place all the time? Amanda Bate is unapologetic. "We live," she counters, "in a tabloid era. And we have to live by the day, and use which ever means we can. Using celebrities, using the MTV approach, we get noticed. We are media savvy, we know what works, we know what gets people's attention and people don't like looking at cruelty." Their critics, argues Dan Mathews, Peta's director of international campaigns, are "confusing sexist with sexy". He also points to Peta's less glamorous work which includes undercover operations during which activists infiltrate corporations to expose abuse. Revlon, Avon and L'Oreal have stopped animal testing; a Peta whilstleblower ended the use of live animals in test crashes at General Motors. Another campaign is now being waged against the use of mares in the production of hormone replacement treatment. "I guess," he concludes, "a little bit of nudity goes a long way."

Peta can be contacted on 0181 856 8552.

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