STAR POWER FEBRUARY 15, 2013
The last time Ashley Judd made headlines as an actress, it was March 2012 and she was responding to plastic surgery gossip. This was no boilerplate denial. Speculation about her puffy face had trailed her as she promoted the debut of her ABC drama "Missing," and Judd, in a Daily Beast essay that went viral, wrote that "the conversation was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle." 1 To the lady blogs, her words were catnip. "I've never thought much about Ashley Judd," Jezebel's Lindy West wrote."[S]he's pretty, she seems nice, her pores look really small—but it turns out she's also a smart, bold, kickass feminist." But when she discussed the whole episode on the more staid "Rock Center with Brian Williams," Judd looked vulnerable. "I have never been so genuinely surprised in all my born days," she told Williams, her usually level voice warbling. The idea that a subtle change to her facial features—that "maybe I had somethin' salty, as we say in the South, and got all swelled up"—had invited so much finger-wagging, she said, "hurt me. It really hurt my feelings."
A feminist who can summon the sudsy enthusiasm of Jezebel, but also channel genteel, Southern sensibilities? If only she'd run for office! Which, of course, is exactly what she's considering: a challenge of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The rumors began last fall, and only grew after she didn't deny them. When sources confirmed as much, two polls were promptly commissioned—one by PPP showing that she was the preferred candidate of Kentucky Democrats, and another by McConnell himself. His campaign's internal poll, readily shared with the press, was less newsworthy for its results than the fear it betrayed.2 That fear has since spread. Karl Rove's super PAC, American Crossroads, released an ad last week featuring photos of Judd sauntering down the red carpet, a clip of her saying "Tennessee is home," and her effusive praise of President Barack Obama, who lost Kentucky by 23 points. Rove has promised there's more to come.
They have reason to be scared: A recent PPP poll found that McConnell is the nation's least popular senator, judged by his constituents, and in January a Louisville Courier-Journal poll found that 44 percent of Kentucky voters withheld their support of him until his opponent is known; 34 percent planned to vote against him, and only 17 percent for him. But Judd would face obstacles of her own in the deep-red state. She is, after all, a Democrat, a Hollywood star, an environmentalist, and an abortion rights agitator.3 But it is clear, from her response to the plastic surgery rumors, that Judd is adept at turning cheap personal shots into media-resonant strikes on her opponents. It's not difficult to imagine her, in the face of a GOP attack on her jet-setting celebrity, finding just the right measure of righteous disgust to make McConnell, or her other potential opponent, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, appear sexist—especially since they're already giving her material. "Ashley Judd is a famous actress, she's an attractive woman, and presents herself well, and from what I understand is articulate," Paul said recently, when asked to evaluate Judd as a foe. "But the thing is, she doesn't really represent Kentucky."
In fact, Judd, a diehard Kentucky basketball fan, can trace her family back eight generations in the Bluegrass State. She lived there for a big chunk of her vagabond childhood, and it was where her mother and half-sister kicked off the famous '80s country music duo The Judds. Judd's 2011 memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet, is thick with gauzy memories of growing up in the state. As a child, she writes, "I recall looking out the window at redbud, dogwood, daffodils, irises, and pom-pom bushes, knowing exactly what heaven must look like: a spring day in Kentucky." She is adroit at drawing upon those romantic recollections to explain the roots of her liberal convictions. The dreams of her parents, "small-town kids from rural eastern Kentucky," are waylaid by teenage pregnancy and the social pressure to marry. A backcountry drive to her grandmother's house in Black Log Hollow, which an "almost mystical sense of place" compels her to make, is preceded by a plane flight over "catastrophic mountaintop removal coal-mining sites." Her unofficial major at the University of Kentucky is rabble-rousing, "or at least as much rabble-rousing as one could do and still belong to an old, elite social sorority." And her heroes? "Jesus has always been my favorite radical." It's enough to make you almost believe, when she boasts that her eleven-city AIDS awareness bus tour with Bono bypassed "the media-rich, oh-so-sophisticated East Coast and West Coast" in favor of the American heartland, that she's a bona fide resident of the mythical "real America."
The problem, of course, is that believing Judd to be authentically Kentuckian requires reading past the headlines, something most voters will never do. An Ashley Judd campaign for Senate no doubt would include serious liberal ideas, witty rejoinders, and effervescent moments, as when she buried her nose in a pot of flowers on the "Rachel Ray Show." But it is all too easy to cherry-pick Judd's activism for wounding sound bites. Sometimes, in that weird Hollywood way, she seems to be overawed by her own goodness: In a March talk show appearance, where she cradled her cockapoo, Shug, Judd told the host that she cries sometimes when she watches herself on screen, or when she takes particularly inspired graduate courses at Harvard University. And in Bitter and Sweet, this is how she describes her visit to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: "A smiling girl in her too large, dirty yellow dress; the moment we begin to hold hands, she shines. My heart sings alleluia." Judd may not regard these as liabilities. "I hold that it is none of my business what people think of me," she wrote in the Daily Beast essay. But, of course, it will have to become her business—in a way, her only business—if she decides to run for office.
Judd might not understand that yet, but she understands how to render a certain public image. She has pondered how, for The Judds, her mother Naomi created an "origin myth" and "transformed herself" in order to hide her turbulent family situation. She gets that years of Bono bus tours, stumping for Obama, and celebrity "ambassadorships" would generate speculation about her ability to serve in Congress, a charge she preemptively rebutted in her memoir. "The cynics contend that if I were to give up acting to focus exclusively on public service, well, my service would never be valid, because I had once had a career as an actor," she wrote. "Forgetting, of course, the previous job description of that right-wing icon Ronald Reagan." She is, after all, an actress, one whose main talent is her ability to portray archetypal women—the tough mom, the crazy girlfriend, or the pensive girl—with convincing depth. Judd is similarly textured in real life. She's a sharp-tongued celebrity but also a just-folks Southerner, apparently contradictory roles that instead are complementary: Her activism would be unbearably self-righteous if it wasn't leavened with such down-home sincerity.
Would this translate in the political arena? It's all speculation. Any race is inevitably complicated by the hot-button issues of the moment, campaign-trail gaffes, and outside money. For now, Republicans are content to portray Judd as a stereotypical "Hollywood liberal"; if she declares her candidacy, the attacks ads will multiply and diversify. But on her best days, Judd does not settle for being a stock character. One can imagine her embracing her radicalism as just one piece of a more complicated whole: a true Kentuckian and feminist movie star whose liberalism is as fierce as her manners are charming. To make voters believe it, though, she'll need to deliver the performance of a lifetime.