Back in the '80s, when many people still thought that PETA was a Middle Eastern bread, a funny actor from Oklahoma became our first champion in Hollywood and helped establish the organization as a household name. She was Rue McClanahan, the flirty Golden Girl, and she became so active that she was PETA's honorary director for almost three decades.
I was still PETA's receptionist when I wrote to Rue and asked if she would star in our first antifur commercial. You can imagine my delight when I answered the phone to hear Rue say that not only would she do it, she had gotten Bea Arthur and Betty White to appear too and had even convinced the producers to film it for us free of charge on the set after one of their Friday-night tapings.
From then on, Rue became a key PETA operative in Hollywood as well as a personal friend; she even let me use her dressing room as a makeshift office, as PETA had no office in L.A. back then. I left my post at the reception desk and started developing campaigns with high-profile personalities thanks in large part to Rue's enthusiasm.
Growing up in the country, Rue had always been shocked to see the glee that many people derive from hunting and fishing -- and she had been mocked for her concern -- so she felt relieved to get involved with an organization that made no apologies about defending all animals.
After winning an Emmy, Rue did the talk-show circuit and always found a way to discuss her PETA activism, telling viewers, with that gracious smile, that not only was she antifur, she also opposed animal experimentation. In Salt Lake City she took time off from the Touched by an Angel set to host PETA's video for a landmark factory farm cruelty case. In Las Vegas she led a protest outside a furriers' convention. In Virginia she launched PETA's mobile spay-and-neuter clinic. And in New York she hosted a saucy PETA benefit at Chippendales. One muggy summer she returned to Oklahoma, where PETA had filmed elephant trainers beating animals who were performing in the circus, to screen that footage at the state capitol and call on lawmakers to outlaw bullhooks.
When floods ravaged the Midwest, Rue flew to St. Louis to make appeals
for people to
include animals in their evacuation plans. She starred in
public service announcements urging people to spay or neuter their
animals and always to adopt from animal shelters rather than buying
from pet shops or breeders (there were four shelter dogs at that shoot,
and she took all of them home). She opened her house for a PETA benefit
and told guests that "Rue" is French for "street" and that she always
wished her last name had been "Walker."
But my favorite memory
of Rue was when we traveled to New Mexico, where she helped push through
legislation to outlaw cockfighting. When a reporter asked if there
would be any naked protesters, she just smiled and replied, "It's not
that kind of cockfight."
Of course, in addition to speaking up for animals, Rue was a major gay rights advocate. We attended National Gay and Lesbian Journalist Association dinners in New York, where she promoted gay issues to politicians like Mayor Bloomberg and reporters like Peter Jennings. Rue was especially passionate about people coming out. She once told a closeted congressional staffer we were lobbying "pretending not to be gay is like pretending you don't have blue eyes or brown hair, you must be yourself." She was the queen of self-confidence and it was catchy.
If animals could sing, I have no doubt
that they'd serenade Rue with the Golden Girls theme song: "Thank You
for Being a Friend."