You're So Vain: Celeb Side Projects

Scarlett Johannson's debut album is the latest of many celeb "side" projects.

May 28, 2008 — -- She may be a Hollywood It Girl, but Scarlett Johannson's new CD, "Anywhere I Lay My Head," is hardly earning her indie cred on the music scene.

Buzz about the disc, a set of Tom Waits's songs and one original produced by Dave Sitek of indie favorite TV on the Radio, has been bubbling since January, but the album, released May 10, didn't even crack the top 50 on the Billboard chart. Critics have widely panned it, advising Johannson to hold on to her day job.

As an actress with a built-in audience, "it's harder for sure," Billboard senior editor Jonathan Cohen said. "But the thing is, I don't think people are hating on Scarlett's album because she's an actress. It's just not very good. But when celebrities do things like this, they have more to risk in the sense that people already know then, have an opinion about them. So it better be up to par, or you're going to get slammed, and big."

Johansson's CD is one in a string of recent celebrity vanity projects. Celebrities hop – and sometimes flop -- from one arena to another and, these days, it seems, more frequently than ever before.

There are restaurateurs like Patti LaBelle, Jay-Z, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Lopez, and Eva Longoria-Parker, whose L.A. hotspot Beso is a celebrity hangout. Longoria, for one, claims her venture is driven by both passion and talent. On her menu: "I make the best guacamole in the world. And my tortilla soup for which I am renowned for."

"Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria-Parker opened her restaurant Beso this spring.

There are fashion designers, like Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, Jessica Simpson, Jay-Z (again), Justin Timberlake, Sienna Miller, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman (who does a line of vegan shoes) and Hilary Duff, whose Stuff line made $5 million in its first year.

"When I created the first line of clothes, I didn't really have as much of an understanding of the business," Duff told in 2006. "The first slew of clothes that hit the stores didn't look exactly like I would have wanted. I just started learning the business side of how to get things made for the public."

Hilary Duff's successful clothing line, Stuff, is sold at Target.

And let's not forget the celebs venturing into the political realm, like Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, Jerry Springer, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Harold & Kumar" and "House" star Kal Penn, who's been stumping for Barack Obama, has political aspirations himself. "I'd like to run for Congress when I'm older," said Penn, who's also wrapping up two film studies classes he's teaching at UPenn this semester as a guest lecturer while pursuing a Masters in International Security from Stanford. "I just know that I have a passion for social change and I think that's a great way to go about doing it."

Career coach Julie Jansen said celebs are exploring their options to find meaningful work, just like anyone else. "Being a celebrity is rarely what it seems to be -- maybe a small percentage of it is meaningful," said Jansen, author of "I Don't Know What I Want, But I Know It's Not This: A Step-By-Step Guide to Finding Gratifying Work."

"Celebs have resources regular people do not have -- money, skilled advisors, instant publicity, adoration, and instant recognition," Jansen continued. "Don't forget celebs were regular people before they became celebrities. They have all the same dreams, needs and feelings that anyone has."

And she said the current trend toward multiple careers applies to celebrities as well.

"Younger people in particular just don't see the merit of 'paying their dues,'" Jansen said. "It's easier and more acceptable to make job and career changes now. This is because of technology and the myriad choices we can make regarding work. The media glorifies people who try different things."

But while he admits it's more widespread, PR guru Howard Bragman doesn't see this trend as anything new.

"Madonna's writing kids books, 'The Hills' girls have clothing lines, Ashton Kutcher has a bunch of restaurants," said Bragman, who owns L.A.'s Fifteen Minutes PR. "These days, everyone is everywhere. But I don't think it's a new phenomenon, actually. Historically, a lot of famous people have had other interests. Frank Sinatra and Big Crosby crossed from acting to music with equal aplomb."

But with the level of media saturation today, celebrities have more eyes on them than ever before -- and, therefore, bigger marketing power. "We live in an age when each celebrity is a brand, an image, a point-of-view -- and celeb-watchers become a loyal audience," said Bragman, whose book on celebrity, "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?," is due early next year.

"So people want to expand their brands, use that reach, they can command that attention," Bragman continued. "A lot of times, it's about the money. Usually, an outside company comes to you to license your brand. People are throwing money at these stars to open that restaurant or record that album. If they want to do a Paris Hilton line of shoes, they pay her to put her name on it and she has a bit of say over what they look like, how much she'll promote it and so on."

This is especially true with record deals thrown at celebs like Johannsson and Hilton.

Paris Hilton debuted an album, "Paris" in 2006.

"There's a lot of talk about brand-building," said Billboard's Cohen. "There's money being thrown at these people to do whatever they want. Take Paris Hilton -- her album was actually the least embarrassing thing she's done so far -- it got decent reviews. But it didn't get taken seriously. And in Scarlett's case, someone at Atco records approached her and said, 'Hey, do you want to do an album? Here's some money.' That's pretty hard to resist."

Whether it was for money or artistic expression, Johannson set out to create a serious album. "It comes as no surprise that her foray into pop music eschews the Lohan-esque," said Blender magazine critic Jody Rosen. "In fact, it's hard to imagaine a record better calibrated to strike the chords of sophistication and credibility.

"Scarlett was very smart about this," said Cohen. "Tom Waits is an icon in the indie world. And the CD was produced by Dave Sitek, which Scarlett hoped would up her indie credibility."

Nonetheless, Blender's Rosen was not impressed. "You keep waiting for her to inhabit the songs, to read the lyric sheet like she would a script and get into character," she wrote. "As sometimes happens in Hollywood, it's simply a case of poor casting."

But, for some celebrites, what the critics will think takes a backseat to their desire for creative expression.

"Scarlett is an A-lister, but she's just an actress for hire. She can't really call the shots on making a film," Bragman said. "So when they offer her a record deal, they give her creative control over something that defines her brand. She gets to pick the songs, the producer, how it's marketed. It's creative freedom on a level she can't get in that other realm of acting."

And there are celebrities who have managed to pull it off. Billboard's Cohen cites the crossover success of actors like Jared Leto, whose band 30 Seconds to Mars scored a hit with singles like "A Beautiful Lie" and "The Kill."

Hilary Duff, who has been successful in her music and fashion careers but had trouble transitioning to grown-up films, is making the leap of faith with acting again. "I haven't done movies for a while, because nobody really wanted to take a chance on me," said Duff, who upped her indie cred with "War, Inc.," which premiered at Tribeca last month. "I've been typecast. And for two years I've been singing and touring and making records. And I love doing that. But it's nice to get to do something different. It was nice to challenge myself and do something nobody would expect me to do."

Perhaps that's what ScarJo was aiming for, too. Critics be damned. After all, "I'm not trying to prove anything with this album," Johansson told People magazine. "I never worry about that kind of thing."