Swank staff sacked over Chechen gaffe

Oscar-winning actress condemned for serenading brutal dictator turns on agents who made booking

Guy Adams
Monday 31 October 2011 11:17 GMT

If you thought Hilary Swank packed an angry punch when she stepped into the ring during Million Dollar Baby, wait till you see how she treats employees who put her in a bad light in newspaper headlines involving Soviet block dictators

Three weeks after she upset human rights organisations by accepting a six-figure fee to attend the 35th birthday party of Chechnya's autocratic president, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Oscar-winning actress has begun handing out redundancy slips to the staff she blames for her damaged image.

The Independent on Sunday understands that Jason Weinberg, Swank's friend and manager of eight years, was unceremoniously fired last week. Amie Yavor and Josh Lieberman, two of Swank's representatives at Hollywood's most powerful talent agency, CAA, and the people who made the Chechen booking, also face being moved off her team.

Swank, a prominent Hollywood liberal, is also upset that a fourth employee, Lauren Hale, who works for CAA and travelled to Grozny, failed to prevent the 5 October PR debacle, which saw her join Jean-Claude Van Damme, violinist Vanessa Mae and the singer Seal in publicly singing Kadyrov's praises.

YouTube footage of the celebration showed her offering warm applause for the Moscow-backed warlord, who is widely accused of torturing dissidents, killing political opponents, and encouraging citizens to abuse women who dress immodestly.

At one point, Swank strode to the microphone and announced how much she had enjoyed visiting the totalitarian state. "I could feel the spirit of the people, and I could see that everyone was so happy," she said. "Happy birthday, Mr President!"

The appearance sparked a storm of criticism, and cast an awkward light on the world of "personal appearances" in which Hollywood stars quietly earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to appear at private parties and corporate events.

Swank later agreed to donate her fee to "various charitable organisations". She also issued a grovelling apology, saying: "I deeply regret attending." But every self-respecting Hollywood star blames career setbacks on their staff. Since Mr Kadyrov's dodgy profile would be evident to anyone who Googled "Chechnya" and "human rights", Swank has begun sacking employees she believes failed to vet the booking.

"Hilary values her liberal credentials and is close to Michelle Obama. She's really upset by what happened," says a source close to the affair. "It's partly her fault. But what can she do? She can hardly fire herself."

Mr Weinberg's role in the saga was particularly unfortunate. Just before the event, the talent manager – whose clients include Madonna, Demi Moore and Lindsay Lohan – wrote an email to the New York-based Human Rights Foundation saying Swank had "no current plans to attend". That was clearly untrue. But a source close to the controversy denied a deliberate effort to mislead. "Jason was never properly told about the Grozny event," the source said. "He's the fall guy in all this."

Swank, 37, who commands up to $8m a film, has decided not to terminate her relationship with CAA: her partner of five years, John Campisi, works for the company.

Swank has expressed remorse. The same is not true of Van Damme or Mae – or Seal, who used Twitter to bizarrely lambast critics: "You sit there under the umbrella of democracy and never once stop to think how it keeps you dry," he said.

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