Faced with smoldering accusations that Fox studios destroyed a pristine Thai island while filming his upcoming feature, ‘The Beach,’ Leonardo DiCaprio could have left the job of damage control to studio hacks. But given his longtime commitment to environmental issues, Leo came out swinging instead. ‘If I knew or thought there was any damage being done to that island, I wouldn’t have been part of the movie, DiCaprio’s official home on the Web (www.leonardodicaprio.com) is roughly 50 percent Leo, 50 percent eco, with a decided emphasis on apes. Boasting an aquatic color scheme, his pages contain all the perfunctory drivel common to celebrity sites—filmography, gift shop—but the most prominent links relate to the environment. Clicking on the menu option entitled “Earth,” one can read about the star’s philanthropic forays into such ecological hot zones as reef care and deforestation. The site is a masterpiece of inclusion and omission. There is no reference to the Beach controversy (although a diary page does mention “painful jellyfish bites” incurred during the shoot); instead, Leo’s eco-credentials are repeatedly affirmed through links to environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with ubiquitous pictures of endangered gorillas accompanied by alarmist captions: “It’s a decisive moment for mountain gorillas.”
According to Chuck Smith, director of production for Birken Interactive Studios (the production company that runs Leo’s Web site), the Internet is the perfect outlet for Leo’s understated, dark-glasses approach to philanthropy. “We wanted to broadcast Leo’s environmental concerns in a low-key, untraditional way,” Smith says. “That’s why we chose the Net. We don’t want to feed the mentality of the lowest level of the media, which only wants fresh meat about him all the time.” While Smith acknowledges that extra environmental content has been added to the site in the wake of the Beach controversy, he stresses that Leo’s environmental activism predated the current scandal and therefore can’t be construed purely as PR damage control. As it turns out, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which donates all its proceeds to environmental causes, was conceived in late 1997, a full year prior to the initial reports of Fox’s damage to the Thai beach.
Even if his fans are visiting his site for gossip and the latest dreamy photos, Leo’s online ecosystem ensures that they get a dose of environmental education. The official site is logging 1.75 million page views a week, and on November 17, DiCaprio hosted his first Web broadcast, where he announced his appointment as chairman of Earth Day 2000. Another initiative recently undertaken by Leo’s production company is LeoFest—officially, the first Annual Leonardo DiCaprio International Online Short Film Festival—to be conducted exclusively on the Web at ( www.leofest.com). The site, which will be online in January 2000, is currently soliciting short films, and its revenues will go to—you guessed it—environmental causes.
Of course, DiCaprio isn’t the only environmentalist who has successfully used the Net to garner publicity. Earlier this year, Women’s Voices of the Earth (WVE) (www.wildrockies.org/wve), a Montana-based environmental group, was one of several groups to accuse the film’s production company of destroying the island’s ecosystem by bulldozing the beach to plant coconut trees and removing foundational vegetation necessary to prevent erosion. WVE began circulating an e-mail petition calling on environmentalists to boycott The Beach. “I thought I’d get maybe 1000 petitioners,” WVE executive director Bryony Schwan says. “But by March I was getting up to 300 e-mail responses a day, to the point that I had to get a new personal e-mail address.”
WVE’s initiatives were immediately contested by a Thai student site run by expatriate webmaster Richard Barrow (www.thaistudents.com/the beach), which took the studio’s side in the conflict. “Some environmental groups are trying to get a worldwide name for themselves by using DiCaprio’s name,” Barrow claimed. Schwan disputes these accusations: “Turn the tables for a moment. Would a Thai film company be able to walk into Yellowstone National Park and say, ‘Old Faithful doesn’t meet Thai perceptions of paradise, so we’re going to alter it a bit. But don’t worry—when we’re done we’ll put it back together again’? Americans would never stand for that.”
Even Schwan admits, however, that Leo’s vamped-up activism in the wake of the Beach scandal may be a blessing in disguise. “Maybe this has been a wake-up call for him,” she muses. “And certainly, celebrities are an effective tool for getting people to hear about issues they normally wouldn’t listen to.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 7, 1999