Dressing the Part 

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Dan Mathews has been pelted with bologna while wearing a carrot suit and arrested in a bed in the middle of Boston's Harvard Square while handcuffed to a General Motors prototype. But he says the hardest part of his career, by far, was trying not to laugh while being held down by police on the runway of a fashion show in Milan, while he was dressed as a Catholic priest.

As a driving force for 23 years behind PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), this last was one of Mathews' most empowering stunts -- and one of the simplest. Unlike the times he's dressed as a root vegetable or a woodland creature, he already had an old Halloween priest costume on hand. "I didn't even have a bizarre head," Mathews says.

"But to let an adversary organize this huge event, spend all of this money, with journalists from all over the world and turn the entire thing into an animal right's protest," he says — "to me that's what PETA's all about, using creativity and a little bit of style without any real money to do it."

In "Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir," Mathews weaves details about animal testing, the fur industry and the treatment of animals in the meat industry into the hilarious, campy story of his life, rather than vice versa.

"'Committed' is not an activist manifesto," he says. "I'm a trash heap as far as my sensibilities go. Obviously I have some message that I hope people observe, but like any good memoir I hope it helps people see a different point of view."

As the kind of kid — fat, sensitive — that would rather be a tree in the Disney Christmas Parade than toss a football, Mathews had the underdog mentality that made him the perfect champion for a cause that needs personality to avoid self-righteousness. Growing up in Costa Mesa, Calif., Mathews, along with his mom and two brothers, were known for being more likely to take in a stray cat, or 10, than pay the rent.

Mathews was a punching bag for area bullies, and often called a "fag." He found comfort in feline companions and show business. From his role as a drooling mental patient in a short film called "Zealot" to one of the dancing rats in the "Nutcracker," Mathews loved the limelight and developed a knack for stealing the show that would serve him well as an activist.

Following his indoctrination into the world of punk in the early '80s, Mathews got closer to his tribe — musicians such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Morrissey sang animal-cruelty protest songs — and Mathews became a vegetarian. At 17, while studying history abroad in Southern Italy, he was awakened to the world of homosexuality, runway modeling and starring in Fiat commercials. But the biggest impact came from wisdom of the ancients: Pythagoras and Plutarch's staunch vegetarian beliefs inspired his return to the states to apply for a job at PETA as the receptionist.

Mathews is now a handsome, 6-foot-5, 42-year-old man with international renown (read: notoriety). And he and PETA, where he's vice president, are going strong. "So many people burn out because they can't lighten up," he says. "Just because you're an activist doesn't mean you have to be a fucking bore."

His coups have run the gamut from sit-ins at animal testing sites to spray painting the offices of Calvin Klein (who agreed to cancel his fur line) to storming floats in parades dressed as a rabbit. Every stunt he pulls requires a different outfit. "I've dressed as just about everything," he says. "Like James Bond if he wore retarded costumes instead of those snazzy tuxedos."

Oh, and he loves spending time in jail: "A day in jail is more exciting to me than schmoozing at some party." He has no idea how many times he's been arrested. "I stopped counting at 20," he says, "but I'm surprised they even let me back in Paris. I love the French cops, but they're not as cute as the Italian cops. They even sent me to a psychiatric ward."

"Committed" is not Mathews' first foray into writing. He's authored a "Connoisseurs Guide to the World's Jails" for Details Magazine, rating food quality and sleep accommodations, as well as personal preference. As a longtime, loyal fan, he wrote a tribute to Lawrence Welk for TV Guide. He's also the brains behind the "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" campaign that's had Survivor contestants, fashion queens and Playboy centerfolds pose in the almost-nude.

Why use famous naked people to make a point? Mathews realizes that getting attention requires constantly keeping an eye on what captures the public's attention. "We're living in a giant high school and we have to adjust our mentality," he says. "In the '60s it was 'Get 10,000 people and do a march,' and now you get more attention with 10 people that happen to be naked. I have to adjust our campaign to what's relevant, and a lot of people are more interested in a celebrity's life than their own. It's great that we have so many celebrity supporters. But we're not just some kiss-ass Hollywood group."

Mathews is close friends with Pamela Anderson as a result of her desire to divert some of the media attention directed at her "boobs and boyfriends" to a more noble cause. They've traveled on cross-country PETA-campaign road trips together and to the lavish Opera Ball in Vienna.

With a home in Portsmouth, close to the PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Mathews is living with animals again for the first time since high school. His mom and her cats moved in after Hurricane Bonnie struck Virginia Beach. "She has just two now," Mathews says fondly. "And one of them puts the 'cat' in 'catatonic.'" S

Dan Mathews kicks-off of his national book tour at Barnes & Noble, Libbie Place Monday, March 17, at 7 p.m. An after-party at Café Gutenberg is open to the public. Call 282-0781 for more information.

Style Weekly book editor Valley Haggard writes a blog, The Write Life,

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