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Showbiz iffy on trips to troops

Filling the USO bill a bit of a challenge

Everyone wants to “support our troops.” But almost no one in Hollywood is quite sure what that means.

During good old morally unambiguous WWII, showbiz’s biggest stars went around the globe to entertain “our boys.” Now, with the country split politically, celebs fret that a trip to Iraq might be construed as support for the war. “You mention the USO and people’s eyes glaze over,” says Creative Artists Agency vice chairman Lee Gabler, who joined the USO board a year ago. “A lot of celebrities view it as political, and it’s not.”

Compounding the USO’s challenge is the draw of newer orgs, including some that compensate stars for their efforts.

Private firms like Colorado Springs-based Pro Sports Marketing Ventures, under prexy David Chavez, has done 30 overseas military tours. That includes three in Iraq in 2004; two (one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan) are skedded for 2005.

Unlike the non-profit USO, Chavez pays honoraria in the tens of thousands of dollars to celebs, who often use the money to help fund their own charities. Celebs who’ve toured for Pro Sport include “Baywatch’s” Gena Lee Nolin, Nascar racer Bobby Alison and Tae-bo maven Billy Blanks.

John Hanson, USO senior VP of marketing, says the USO is in the process of rebranding itself and has skedded January strategy meetings with MGM’s Alex Yemenidijian, outgoing Paramount capo Sherry Lansing, producer Quincy Jones and MPAA prexy Dan Glickman.

The org has to battle the image as a conservative group, which is partly based on folks’ memories of Bob Hope’s WWII and Vietnam tours.

A congressionally chartered, private group, the USO pre-dates American involvement in World War II. And while it is quick to point out recent trips to the Middle East by Robin Williams, Ted Nugent and Wayne Newton, making inroads to liberal Hollywood in a post-9/11, post-Bush re-election time is still proving difficult.

Signing up for the USO are acts like Tobey Keith, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders — and Henry Rollins.

The punk rock icon who flew to Afghanistan for his fourth USO tour on Dec. 12. The contrast of Bob Hope with the ear-splitting, tattooed Rollins couldn’t be more revealing about how far outside the mainstream the USO has had to go to get a loyal mouthpiece.

“They’re just shocked that I keep coming back for more,” says Rollins. “I told my USO tour producer, ‘You must have all sorts of Hollywood people banging on your door.’ And her response was, ‘Are you kidding me? We just get hung up on all the time.’ ”

Even when the USO succeeds in getting stars to go to Iraq, many don’t want to talk about it, for fear of being thought immodest.

Says Hanson, “It causes me a lot of havoc, but we have to respect the stars’ wishes when it comes to PR.”

Celebs like David Letterman, 50 Cent and Ben Affleck have gone to the Gulf to shake hands with troops recently. But top talent agents say there’s still plenty of celeb reluctance stemming from fear of public reprisals for “backing” troops who are fighting a war that many oppose.

“Already a student group is protesting my show in London next year,” Rollins says. “I told them, ‘I’m glad you’re protesting, but you got the wrong target — my USO tour is my anti-Bush statement. And please dress warmly; it’s cold and flu season.’ “

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