by Zoe Stagg
photography by Moo King
If you buy that life and art have a “sincere form of flattery” relationship, you’d believe that Kristin Davis would be as pie-sweet as the Charlotte York Goldenblatt character she’s played on TV’s and big screen’s Sex and the City.
You would be wrong.
She’s a firm and fearless political activist with a pile of ferocious opinions – and not one single headband.
In the real world, Davis has all of the charm, but none of the prudish flounce of a Charlotte – and no topic is off the brunch table. She’s unflappable, settling into a confident cadence that doesn’t falter, skewering topics from addiction to politics and every marriage equality fight in between. She’s unshockable and frank, yet instantly winsome. Factor in that Davis’ big break role, Brooke, was axed from Melrose Place after one season because fans couldn’t stand her abrasive character, and you realize that “sweet Charlotte” is cut with some serious spice.
Recently joining the Facebook Nation with a Fan page that is as open as she is, Davis is delighted by the thought that her early attempts at social networking garner an A+. “Really? That means a lot, because let me tell you, I’m a novice. I’ve been dragged into the new millennium kicking and screaming.” Posting updates on the upcoming Sex and the City sequel are big Fan pleasers, but Davis doesn’t stop there. She uses the popular social networking platform as a place to advance her thoughts on her very active humanitarian efforts. “When I posted that I was so moved by the Haiti telethon that I donated again, it instigated a discussion about ‘Why don’t we help people here?’ And of course, we do help people here. But then one woman said, ‘I don’t have anyone help me pay my mortgage.’” Davis was taken aback. “I get concerned when people don’t want to see the serious stuff.”
Celebrities in the modern world have real power to change that “serious stuff.” Davis realizes that if she’s living her life on a stage constructed by paparazzi and Internet gossip sites, the least she can do is use her visibility to benefit the causes she supports, and take advantage of the attention she gets. “Think about it. If Congress had been answering the phones at the telethon instead of celebrities, there might have been a lot of yelling in the background. But with Haiti, when something is such a huge and hard event, people want to tune it out. So in that way, being a famous person involved in fundraising really helps make a difference. Someone might tune in who otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Our culture is trained to watch every move a celebrity makes from the comfort of our laptops and flat screens. Davis experiences that fishbowl from the inside, and she knows how to use it. “There are some days when you just really, really wish that people wouldn’t take your picture. But then you think, ‘Well, if they’re going to pay so much attention, then I’m going to try to do something good. I’m going to try to point somebody toward something that I think is important. After a while, it does become a little more palatable to have your picture taken all the time, even if you don’t want that extra attention, because you have a bigger goal.”
Heightened awareness of humanitarianism is a function of the job that the modern age of on-demand streaming and cloudy global relations has wrought. “I think that the world is really different now, in many, many ways. And I think we’re much more aware of global issues and global problems, particularly because of 9/11, and partly because a sort of shift has happened. It’s the one thing that’s a really great outgrowth of the very intense media culture in which we live. But speaking out is a genuine passion… I wouldn’t have a Facebook page if I didn’t want to help the causes I believe in.”
One of those causes is her very active participation in OxFam. Her work with this humanitarian organization and others has taken her to Africa on multiple occasions. She became an adoptive mother on a recent trip – but a decidedly different type than the tabloid Hollywood standard. “I had seen a 60 Minutes piece on an elephant orphanage right outside Nairobi. I had made plans to go visit, and on our way, we happened to come across an orphaned baby elephant. We saved her and took her to the orphanage. It wasn’t easy! It took six hours but it was well worth it. We’re planning our next trip to go visit her.”
Shifting from animal rights to human rights isn’t a huge jump, and Davis devotes time and attention to both. In addition to her work in Africa, she’s an outspoken proponent of marriage equality, marching next to her “out” co-star, Cynthia Nixon. “I think it’s such an obvious civil right; that’s why I get upset. I just don’t even understand why it would even bother someone else. I don’t understand why allowing gay marriage somehow makes its opponents feel attacked. Marriage is a human being’s right. The thing that makes no sense is that the people who are against gay marriage say that marriage is an institution, and that it’s good for communities. Because if that’s the case, why wouldn’t you want everybody to do it?”
The gay marriage divide is echoed from communities to Congress; the same people she wouldn’t want answering the phones for Haiti troubles her with their inability to agree, even on matters as important as health care. And it doesn’t stop there. “We don’t know who we are as Americans anymore. I think it’s everything since 9/11. I think 9/11 was a horrific shock to our culture, to our system, to our sense of security and safety in the world. After that, the Bush Administration would mince words in ways that made it really hard to figure out what was happening. And now we know a lot of what was happening and it’s not nice. I don’t know that we feel very good about ourselves because of that ignorance and lack of communication.”
Davis was thrilled when the nation voted for change, though she remains cautious about equating the election with an overnight answer to the American identity crisis. “When we elected Obama, a lot of people felt proud. It was a fantastic, exciting moment. And then we thought that he would magically be able to change things. But one person can’t magically change a system that in some ways, seems broken. He’s just one person. Yes, he’s our President, and his speaking does a lot. We want to know he’s not chickening out; we want to know his words weren’t empty promises. He’s not going to be able to wave a magic wand, but I think that we want to be inspired, and led.”
The new glamorous White House inhabitants are reviving a little of the Camelot red carpet panache. As a woman in Hollywood, Davis knows there is an inescapable pressure to look a certain way, and it isn’t easy to handle. “There’s no debate that it is a visual industry. If you try to ignore that, you ignore it at your own peril. When I did Couples Retreat, we all had to stand around in our underwear, which I had never done before, and I was completely neurotic about it. But the men were more neurotic about it than the women. Then when the movie came out, I saw articles that said the men were fat. I thought ‘Wow, the tide is turning toward them now.’ On the one hand, it’s diminishing the double standard, but on the other hand, it hurts. It hurts everyone to be criticized. The thing that’s interesting in Hollywood is that you can be Jack Nicholson or Vince Vaughn and your talent is what matters most. But if you’re Sandy Bullock,
you’re stick thin.” Though the pressure to squeeze into sample sizes remains, the march of maturity is no longer as much of a threat as it once was. In the past ten years, women in Hollywood have been allowed to – gasp – grow older. “I think we’re doing better. I’m the busiest I’ve ever been in my whole life and I’m about to turn 45. If you had told me that when I was 22 and graduating from college, I would have told you you were insane.”
An outspoken sober actress in a world where every Jersey Shore dweller has a shot-fueled tale to tell, Davis worries the permissive “reality” culture isn’t telling the real story at all. “Reality television makes it seem like it’s glamorous to be out all night, and everyone’s making out in hot tubs. If you’re a young person exposed to those images all the time, it does seem normal and it does seem fine. And not only fine, it seems cool.” This normalization is particularly tricky for kids who don’t remember a time before The Real World. “You really worry about what is going on in the minds of the young people who didn’t really see this trend forming. They just haven’t known anything else. Personally, I really love the Celebrity Rehab show, though I know there are some people who don’t. I love Intervention and I know there are some people who don’t. I’m just happy they’re on TV. If those other shows that glamorize drinking were on TV and these weren’t, there’d be no programming showing any repercussions.”
As someone whose painful shyness spurred alcohol addiction in her early adulthood, Davis was able to seek treatment well out of the limelight. But she sees younger actresses struggle to balance the paparazzi rehab balcony shots with actual recovery. “The thing about treatment is that it is the same whether you’re a famous person or not. It’s all about how you do it, and what you do with it.” But as for her shyness, “I never got over it. I know other actors who are super shy too, and don’t have addiction issues. I still struggle with it. I’m just gripped with fear. Any kind of public speaking I have to do – I’ve trained myself how to do it, I mean I still have moments where I struggle.”
In New York, one place the sometimes uneasy pairing of her shyness and constant spotlight falls away is outside. “I love to go to all those little kids parks, the playgrounds, that’s so much fun. You can just be like any woman, like in the little dog areas, those few little spots where like-minded dog people go, and you can just talk like a dog owner and there’s no fuss. You go where people like the same things. In that great New York way where little communities spring up out of interests – it’s like all of New York is a giant Facebook.” And in that way, to know Kristin Davis is to Fan a real piece of her mind.