THE TIMES – October 25 2005
Ginny Dougary

The Reverend Billy of the Stop Shopping Church leads our correspondent on a campaign against the multinationals.

There’s a man in a cream polyester suit and dog collar causing a bit of a rumpus in Oxford Circus. “Brothers and sisters,” clap clap, he goes with his pale outstretched hands. “This is the SHOPOCALYPSE! Stop your shopping NOW! You are BOMBING Bahgdad with your shopping! It is YOU who are responsible for the SWEAT in the sweatshops! For this — Huh, yuh, yuh, huh (wild eyes rolling) — THIS is the SHOPOCALYPSE, brothers and sisters.” The youthful tourists stopped in the doorway of the large shop — one of the many retail chains proliferating worldwide — are grinning and taking photos of this happening with their mobile phones. Security guards appear; the police, who have other reasons to be around, mutter into their walkie-talkies. Reverend Billy, founder of the Stop Shopping Church, sweat dripping off his face, exhausted by the raging torrent of his words, backs off.

We have spent an unusual day together. It started in a relatively low-key manner when I attempted to interview William Claire Talen, the fake Reverend’s real name, assisted by his wife, Savitri D, in a private members’ club frequented by the media. We had been corresponding with one another for several months via e-mail and telephone. I had read his entertaining book — What Should I Do if Reverend Billy is in My Store? — heard the CD of his choir, and seen the DVD. We had reached an agreement that for the purposes of the interview itself, he would attempt to be plain old Bill rather than his Southern fire and brimstone preacher-man persona. But the Rev — like the ventriloquist’s dummy who wants to show who’s really in charge here — keeps threatening to take over.

I want, in my boring journalist’s way, to pin down this mesmerising fellow in detail, biographical data, facts, provenance. What was it, precisely, that led this particular forty-something New York actor, writer and political activist to transform himself into a pastiche evangelical, with a church and a choir and disciples. In other words, I want to blow his cover.

In one of our conversations, Bill had mentioned that about half of his 40-strong gospel singers were in recovery from the trauma of being the offspring of ministers or preachers. Was he one of them? Well, yes . . . but, actually, no. His father was a banker who loaned money to farmers so that they could buy seed and tractors, and — for reasons that are not forthcoming — was always being sacked, which meant that the Talens were forever picking up and moving on from place to place in the mid-West.

He says his parents were Dutch Calvinists — and so I assume did not employ the florid rhetoric of the evangelical Bible-bashers that Bill has appropriated for his act. Were they strict and abiding about their religion? “No, they were a-bidding,” he laughs. “In the sense that they said, ‘I bid you do this and I bid you do that.” Were Mr and Mrs Talen consumed with the idea of sin? “The only sin IS consumption, ” he says lightning fast.

When he was around the age of 6 or 7 — the sort of age when a child may wander away from his parents and climb up a tree in the back garden to gaze at the stars in the night’s sky and lose himself in the inexplicable wonderment of it all — the young Bill’s imagination was terrorised by his Dutch Calvinist instructors. “I was told that a very old man will decide whether I will go to H eaven or to Hell for eternity when I die, “ he recalls. “And I might die at any moment. And I never got a description of Heaven but I got a HELLUVA description of HELL! ‘You will be standing in a lake of fire and you will be burning forever.’ And I asked, ‘You mean like putting my hand in the stove and hurting my hand but I can’t take my hand off?’

“They said, ‘No, you can never take your hand off. It continues and continues and you don’t get to die and you stand there for an eternity in utter pain and shame’.” Well, that’s lovely. “And this is such an extreme nightmare to tell a child at that age that it fries out your circuits. It makes you a consumer of that imperial God. You don’t DARE have an imagination. You don’t dare go back out to those stars and say: ‘What is this?’ That is tyrannical,” he says. “But somehow I did get back to that place — to that tree in the back yard.”

Bill’s escape from the lake of fire into the tree of life was via the well trod route of teenage rebellion: “The civil rights movement and the protests against Vietnam brought me out back into the stars.” He started hitch-hiking away from home to go to Jimi Hendrix and Grateful Dead concerts and on one occasion ended up in jail when his parents put out a missing persons alert: “And I’ve been going to jail ever since! ” The teenage years were followed by years of hitchhiking between the East and West coasts of America. He once spent ten months in Hollywood, where he sought out likeminded counter-culture figures such as Harry Dean Stanton and Spalding Gray. But the endless round of auditions was dispiriting, “finding myself in lobbies with 40 other Kurt Russell lookalikes all up for the same armoured car driver part doing a fart joke in Beverly Hills Cop I”. Still, the rejections were good fodder for his own monolgues which he acted out back in New York City.

The volume of Bill’s speech has been steadily rising and I am moved — brothers and sisters — to ask him whether he always talks so loud. This is a mistake since he now starts to yell at the top of his voice, “AMEN! ALLELUIA! PRAISE BE!” and then walks over to the window, opens it and preaches to the passers-by below: “SAVE YOUR SOULS, CHILDREN! SAVE YOUR SOULS! AND YOU, SIR! KEEP YOUR CREDIT CARD OUT OF YOUR WALLET. AMEN!” “Come back, Billy,” Savitri says quietly. No more coffee for you, dear, I think to myself.

Ah, coffee. We will return to that vexed theme later. Reverend Billy’s Church of Stop Shopping is part of a broader church which encompasses the concerns of writers such as Naomi “No Logo” Klein, film-maker Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock, Kurt Vonnegut, John Pilger, the McLibel Two and all the thousands of anti-global capitalisation protesters around the world.

Billy started out preaching on his own in Times Square, targeting Disney as public enemy No 1. But through his theatre friends and contacts, and because of the peculiarly American nexus between right-wing politics and religious fundamentalism, he hit upon the subversive notion of creating a ministry of his own to mimic the tools of what he considers to be the opposition.

Savitri explains why these sorts of actions are the new theatre. “We don’t think that theatre is changing the world any more,” she says. Apart from the very occasional new work, such as Angels in America, and the annual Arthur Miller revival, “where are the political plays today?” she asks. Even if the subject is political, there’s a feeling that the theatre experience itself has now become such a sponsored corporate event that it dilutes or even taints what you see. “So we ‘politicised fools’,” Billy says, “are trying to perform in the contested spaces between the private and the public domains.” The couple talk about the Madison Avenue advertising culture and how the marketing gurus are now looking to the right-wing, apocalyptic “Christ’s Cowboys” of the South for tips on how to run their campaigns. “For many years the advertising industry resisted the televangelists because they were considered to be insufferable lowbrow hicks,” Billy says. “But now, with George Bush, we’re beginning to see the ‘Hickification’ of Uptown New York. And together they’re going to take over the world.” Who are you talking about when you say “they”? Billy: “Starbucks.” Savitri: “ Marketing in general. Corporations. Celebrity and pop culture. Politicians. All of them are wondering what it is these Christians are doing which is getting them all this power.”

McDonald’s, The Gap, Nike, Wal-Mart . . . I have read or seen exposés of their work practices, but Starbucks? What’s so wrong with them? “Shall I take this one?” Bill asks Savitri, who nods. “We feel that Starbucks is the villain because it epitomises the neo-liberal lie. They have managed to persuade us that they are a green company — even though they are 98 per cent not fair trade. And they have mediocre coffee and mismatching furniture so they look a bit beatniky — and a few avant-garde grace notes — but it is really a manipulation in appropriating the idea of rebellion. It’s FAKE bohemianism and, more importantly, it’s not a fair trade company even though they use it as an advertising thing.”

The spokeswoman from the Fair Trade Foundation in Britain was unable to supply me with the percentage of Starbucks coffee in this country which is Fair Trade certified (less than 2 per cent worldwide according to Starbucks’s 2004 annual report), but says it was one of the first high-street coffee chains in this country to offer any Fair Trade coffee at all. And Starbucks themselves say it is their goal to pay premium prices for all their coffee.

When we come to do our “action” in the Oxford Street area, there seems to be a Starbucks on every street corner. Billy and Savitri have agreed to show me what it is they do that so alarms the Starbucks bosses. In California, for instance, a restraining order has been placed on William Claire Talen banning him from coming within 750 feet of the edge of any Starbucks property.

Saivtri: “They use violent boyfriend language so that Billy was accused of ‘stalking’ the so-called ‘victim’, Starbucks. They use laws which were designed to protect women to keep Billy away.” Billy: “I am enjoined by the Superior Court of Los Angeles from stalking, disturbing, annoying or in any way sexually . . .” No, not sexually? “Oh YES! Sexually abusing . . .Oh yes, oh yes.” But in what way have you sexually abused Starbucks? “I put my hand on the cash register,” Billy says. He now refers to it as “the genitals of the giant”. “And, listen,” Savitri says, “the very same day that he got this injunction there was a woman in Los Angeles killed because she couldn’t get a restraining order on her boyfriend who had been beating her for months!”

In the first Starbucks we visit, it is Billy and I who will be performing “Sponsored Love”. I have agreed that he can touch me in the interests of veracity. We sit down and he starts: “Oh Ginny, Ginny, I love you so much. I want you to take off from The Times and elope with me. I adore you Ginny!” He is gazing into my eyes and stroking my arm and it is like being serenaded by a crooning Elvis when he does his talking bit. But my over-riding sensation is exquisite English embarassment. And it’s about to get worse: “Ginny, GINNY, we’ll be in our cottage on the Isle of Wight and spend our lives together, (voice gaining urgent momentum and — oh no — he is down on his knees!) I LOVEYOUILOVEYOU — brought to you by . . . Nike Sportswear. I love you, brought to you by . . . The Gap. I love you, brought to you by McDonald’s. I’m Lovin’ it, McDonald’s Now with new salads! — since McLibel and Morgan Spurlock.”

Round the corner and we’re in another Starbucks. This action is rather more effective, since it involves a real couple — Billy and Savitri — playing themselves and having a big marital tiff. In the course of the “argument” Billy berates his wife for her addiction to frothy lattes which are being sold on the backs of impoverished workers in Guatemela, they storm out of the shop, she is apparently in tears, they embrace, and one of the girls behind the counter says: “Oh look, they’re making up. bless.” But the stunt didn’t fool everyone. Two men, who did not wish to be identified, thought it was a set-up mainly because Billy was so preposterously over-the-top that he must be an English actor’s idea of an American. A woman who is there with her student daughter, however, thought Billy was so excitable he must be drunk. Both of them were aware that Starbucks had been criticised for not being an exclusively Fair Trade coffee supplier but had gone there because it was convenient and there were no alternatives. Billy and Savtiri would like us to boycott Starbucks, but that’s not going to happen.

Starbucks has become the McDonald’s of the middle classes; it’s quick, easy, and it’s everywhere. But the congregation of the Stop Shopping Church is also on the move. As the Reverend told me when I moaned about how embarrased I felt doing my “action”: “The ocean’s rising, Sister Ginny, it’s crashing through the windows, so STOP BEING POLITE!”