Everybody loves celebrities

Even high-level economics and finance events could do with some Hollywood star power

KIM Kardashian could have been in town this week, rubbing shoulders with our corporate bigwigs and maybe a business columnist or two. What a missed opportunity. If only the Securities Commission had been savvier about celebrity culture.

The regulator has been staging the biennial World Capital Markets Symposium since 2009 and the theme for the latest instalment, which ended yesterday, was ‘Markets and Technology: Driving Future Growth through Innovation’.

Who better to speak on technology and innovation than Kardashian? Here is the woman who posed nude for Paper magazine last year in an audacious (and bodacious) attempt to break the Internet. Also, on Wednesday, the number of people who follow her Instagram account crossed the 45 million mark.

And it doesn’t hurt that she happens to be attractive and a household name. Many of us can’t help but be drawn to the rich, famous and beautiful.

Unfortunately, the symposium organisers either didn’t think of inviting her, or if they did, they failed to make an offer she couldn’t refuse.

If you think it’s ridiculous to have somebody like her as a speaker at a business event described as a “platform that promotes informed debate” among global thought leaders, you must have overlooked what’s happening at the annual CLSA Investors’ Forums in Hong Kong.

CLSA, an Asian independent brokerage and investment group, has found a surefire way to lift the profile of this gathering of institutional investors – fly in a celebrity, preferably a pop culture icon, and the investors will come.

It began with the 2009 forum, which featured Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and John McCain’s running mate in the US Presidential election the year before.

“Our keynote speakers are notable luminaries who often address topics that go beyond traditional finance such as geopolitics. We just felt it would be a fabulous opportunity for CLSA clients to hear from Mrs. Palin,” a CLSA spokesperson explained in a statement that had come out ahead of Palin’s appearance at the forum.

True enough, her 90-minute luncheon keynote presentation was a standing-room-only affair.

Previous Investors’ Forums had non-business speakers such as South Africa’s Desmond Tutu, Irish rocker and political activist Bob Geldof, ex-US President Bill Clinton and his No.2, Al Gore.

However, it can be argued these are persons with true influence and game-changing achievements. They brought gravitas to the table, and were in a position to teach the investors a thing or two.

It’s hard to say the same about Palin. To most people, her appeal is rooted in shallow curiosity rather than a desire to enrich hearts and minds.

Some in the crowd ended up disappointed. One gripe was that she dwelled too much on Alaska. “She rambled on about the place for ages,” an Indian banker with a major US firm told Time magazine. A Bloomberg article quoted a senior executive of an investment outfit as saying the talk was “totally missable”.

But why abandon a strategy that helps put bums on seats? In 2010, CLSA made the news after announcing that actor Michael Douglas will be speaking at the forum in September.

On the surface, it seemed fitting that the guy who played greedy investor Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and its sequel, would have much to share with the forum participants about the pitfalls of high finance.

But Gekko exists only on film. In fact, Douglas planned to talk about other stuff such as filmmaking, nuclear abolition and the prevention of small arms proliferation.

Anyway, he cancelled the trip because he needed treatment for throat cancer. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, he of The Godfather trilogy fame, came instead.

The CLSA forum’s celebrity speakers in the subsequent years were actor George Clooney, former boxing champion Mike Tyson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action flick star and former California governor.

This year, it’s Nicolas Cage, who’s billed as an “Academy Award winning actor, director, producer and philanthropist”.

“In a conversation with CLSA clients over lunch on Sept 16, Cage, one of the most versatile actors of all time equally known for his poignant portrayals in both drama and comedy, will discuss his prolific four-decade movie career comprising 82 films in which he has either appeared or provided a character voice,” says CLSA in a media release issued on Wednesday.

Actually, it’s a good thing that Cage won’t talking about finance and investments. There are numerous news reports of him having tax troubles and losing millions of dollars because of poor investments and lavish spending.

You may feel that this idea of headlining a serious business event with celebrities who have little or no connection to thought leadership on economics and finance, is fine for Hong Kong but not Malaysia. Think again.

Next month, the Malaysian Government will host the three-day Global Transformation Forum (“a high-level platform for dialogue” on how global transformation can effectively take shape) and guess who’s coming? According to the forum website, Schwarzenegger will be among the speakers, presumably because his “upward path in life saw him undergo a few transformations” and also because his election as California Governor “showed his leadership skills”.

A Pemandu subsdiary is organising the event in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme.

Yes, Schwarzenegger is still a working actor, but his once formidable box-office wattage has dimmed considerably.

For stronger Hollywood magnetism, a younger, hotter and more talented actor is a better choice.

Leonardo DiCaprio immediately comes to mind. If you want transformation credentials, how about the fact that his rise to stardom began with a supporting role in TV sitcom Growing Pains?

He then became a heartthrob through movies such as Romeo + Juliet and Titanic but has since matured into a widely respected actor with a clutch of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and two wins in the latter award. He’s also known for his support for environmental and humanitarian causes.

But the clincher has to be the fact that he starred in The Wolf of Wall Street, another movie that looks at the excesses of the US investment banking scene. That already provides plenty of fodder for discussion.

The bonus here is that the movie has a Malaysian connection. And boy, how we love such things.

One of the production companies that backed The Wolf of Wall Street is Red Granite Pictures, which was co-founded by Malaysian Riza Aziz. Yes, DiCaprio should have a lot of worthwhile stories to share.