Josh Rottenberg
October 21, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

At first glance, it almost looked like some strange hostage video — or just a lost episode of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!: Hilary Swank standing on a stage in Grozny, Chechnya, during a celebration for a new real estate complex, smiling as she wished Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov — a reputedly brutal dictator who has allegedly tortured and executed political foes — a happy 35th birthday. As everyone now knows, Swank wasn’t dragged to the Oct. 5 event against her will. Far from it. The two-time Oscar-winning actress — along with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Seal, and the English violinist Vanessa-Mae — was paid to be there. (According to her reps, the fee was far less than the $500,000 to $1 million her fellow attendees reportedly received.)

Facing a storm of negative publicity and criticism from human rights groups, Swank apologized, saying she had intended to be ”an advocate for peace in Chechnya,” and vowed to donate the fee to charity. Still, the incident — which follows ones in recent years in which artists including Beyoncé, 50 Cent, Usher, and Mariah Carey drew fire for performing at parties for members of the Gaddafi family — shed a harsh new light on a truth about today’s Hollywood many would rather keep hidden. It’s never been easier to get up close and personal with someone famous, provided you can write a big enough check. From pop stars and A-list actors on down, celebrities are more willing than ever to rent out their star power for everything from corporate events for major banks and car companies to private weddings and backyard soirees, fetching appearance fees that can soar into the millions for just a few hours of their time. ”People get paid to go to fashion shows, to go to store openings, to wear a particular brand of earrings to the Oscars,” says one top talent manager. ”They’ll say, ‘You know what? That’s my mortgage for the next six months.’ It’s a slippery slope.”

This sort of selling of one’s fame used to carry an undeniable whiff of desperation. But in recent years, actors and musicians (who, to be fair, often donate their time, energy, and money to worthy causes) have considered it an increasingly acceptable, and even desirable, way to boost their income — to the point that booking personal appearances is often now one of the primary services celebrities want from their agent or manager. One longtime agent puts it this way: ”When I started doing this 25 years ago, if a really hot artist got an offer for a private date, they’d pass immediately, because to them it signified the end of their career — like, ‘Where am I next? Vegas?’ Now you’ve got Snoop Dogg doing corporate dates. People hear, ‘I flew on a private jet and I skied for three days and nobody knew I was there and it was great’ — and they want to do that too.” As an example of the kinds of offers he receives, this agent says he once booked several top musical acts for a bar mitzvah for which the entertainment budget was a staggering $8 million. ”We called it Mitzvah-palooza internally,” he says.

A rich kid’s bar mitzvah is one thing; a celebration hosted by a notorious foreign leader is something else entirely. Human Rights Foundation president Thor Halvorssen wrote a letter to Swank’s manager in late September urging the actress to decline the invitation to the Chechen event and says leaders like Kadyrov are often eager to rub elbows with movie stars and pop divas, whatever the cost. ”There’s a fascination these dictators have with celebrity, and because they can’t earn it the way, say, Nelson Mandela earned it, they want to buy it. It’s a very effective return on investment because it sends the message to their people, ‘I’m partying it up with Hollywood’s royalty. I’m respected. I’m strong.”’

The furor over Swank’s attendance at the event is not likely to cool the market for celebrity appearances. Despite the current economic woes, says one talent manager in the TV business, the demand is stronger than ever: ”There’s no end to it. Charities, schools, graduations — you name it and there’s a request.” Still, the controversy will most certainly make stars vet every offer that comes in more carefully. Stardom, after all, is built upon perception, and there’s no doubt Hilary Swank would much rather be recognized as the actress who won her second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby than as one getting a questionable big-dollar payday.

(Additional reporting by Dave Karger and Lynette Rice)

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