In December Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers praised Beyoncé Knowles’ portrayal of R&B singer Etta James, who struggled with heroin addiction, in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records. Beyoncé credited a visit to a nonprofit substance use prevention and treatment organization for helping her prepare for the role. In fact, she was so impressed by her visit that she donated her base salary from the film to the organization.
“For someone like Beyoncé, who had no personal involvement with drug addiction, it was important for her to understand what impact heroin addiction has emotionally and physically,” explains Howard Meitiner, CEO of Phoenix House, which has operations in ten states.
During her visit to Phoenix House’s Brooklyn location last February, Beyoncé listened to six women’s stories and followed up with questions. In November she told the Los Angeles Times, “They were so honest, tough, and I am so thankful. I don’t think I could’ve understood the level of pain or need. What they do there is amazing.”
Meitiner adds that the meeting was very emotional and uplifting. “She received credit from movie critics for her portrayal because she listened to people who had battled addiction. They explained how everything else in their lives takes second place. Understanding that physical and emotional challenge helped bring depth to her portrayal,” he says.
After her visit, Beyoncé pledged her financial support to help create a vocational program to teach 30 women and men at a time cosmetology skills.
“It was a very generous donation,” Meitiner notes, “and it is being used to change the lives of people struggling with addiction in the most important way possible—helping them get and keep a job.”
Meitiner stresses that more important than any financial donations is the increased public awareness of addiction that celebrities can foster, helping to remove stigmas associated with the disease.
“By supporting what we are doing, celebrities like Beyoncé can help change the public’s view of this disease,” he says.
David Raths is a freelance writer.