"Danny Seo is awe-inspiring!"
"Danny Seo is a miracle worker!"
"Danny Seo is a philanthropic hero!"
So it says on the promotional postcard Danny Seo sends around for his latest book, "Heaven on Earth: 15-Minute Miracles to Change the World." And here's the rest of the resume on Seo: Been on "Oprah" and "Leeza." Founded his own save-the-Earth group when he was 12 and grew it to 20,000 members. Single-handedly raised $30,000 to build a Habitat for Humanity house when he was 20. Has a magazine column in Vegetarian Times. Has a Web site. Gives 30 paid speeches a year. Is close to a deal on his own TV show. A regular sultan of synergy.
If everything goes according to plan, this young Washingtonian aims to be the impresario of a whole new lifestyle, spiritual yet stylish, in which his followers wear hip, eco-friendly shoes and donate their frequent-flier miles to charities for sick children. He believes in yoking technology to philanthropy, in pairing fashion and environmentalism, in making activism cool.
Danny Seo believes you can be good to Mother Earth while still--and this is important here at the end of the greedy '90s--being really good to yourself.
His two books have received blurbs of praise from lots of big-name activists: chimp scientist Jane Goodall, children's lobbyist Marian Wright Edelman, Habitat founder Millard Fuller. Already he has earned two lifetime achievement awards, one of which, the Albert Schweitzer Reverence for Life Award, sent him scrambling to figure out who Albert Schweitzer was.
Why, Danny Seo could just be the World's Most Amazing 22-Year-Old!
Danny Seo lives simply, alone on the third floor of a walk-up at 17th and Q streets. Slight and dressed in monochrome, he looks like a Corcoran art student, maybe a Starbucks wage slave. Certainly not a multimedia marvel. No one ever buttonholes him to say, "Hey, weren't you in People's '50 Most Beautiful People'?" (He was, last year. He's sort of embarrassed by it.) He makes his way around mostly on foot. He does not have a car. He does not have a cell phone.
He does not lust for objects, the traditional appurtenances of the successful. "I don't like to have a lot of things," he says. "If I can move in the middle of the night, with one truck, I don't have too much stuff."
What he wants is far more sweeping, even grandiose. He wants everybody else to have all the "things" they want, as long as they are environmentally correct, spiritually aware things--recycled glass, Tencel dresses, hemp shoes. He wants people to give of themselves, as painlessly as possible, by employing his Ten Rules of Angel Power (No. 2: Shatter Your Personal Glass Ceiling. No. 3: U.B.U.--You Be You).
Above all, he intends that this kind of existence--a sort of cafeteria menu of good works--will come to be known as the "Conscious Style," by Danny Seo, and the planet will be a better place.
He will become the green Martha Stewart, the trendy Mother Teresa, for the Gen X-, Y- and Zers.
"Please, please, please don't call me that," he protests, but, hey, it's a sound bite, it's a handle, it's a pitch. And Seo understands that as well as any Madison Avenue maestro.
Take the proposal for what Seo hopes will be his third book, his "Conscious Style Wardrobe," an arty resource guide to getting and wearing eco-friendly, cruelty-free clothing. The proposal, as yet unsold, is beautifully designed, as is all literature by Danny Seo, printed in an old-fashioned font on substantial, recycled paper, all tied together with faux-aged brown shoelaces. Sprinkled throughout are tiny line drawings of wire-frame spectacles, the kind worn by retired history professors. Seo has learned to affect a much older persona; who wants life advice from a 22-year-old?
Under the heading "Building My Audience," a section of the proposal begins with this punch: "According to the San Francisco-based consultancy group Aesthetics Marketing, 'green' products (excluding food) have exceeded $100 billion in sales a year since 1996. Yet despite this staggering statistic, there is no clear authoritative expert in the eco-friendly, cruelty-free lifestyle field. . . . It is my intention to own this lifestyle concept in several media formats."
Says his literary agent, Joe Regal, of the "Conscious Style Wardrobe" proposal: "I wasn't sure I could sell it, but I believed in it. Danny is ambitious, driven and directed. He has a vision of the way the world ought to be, and he also has the practical wisdom about what it takes to get attention for that."
Seo's vision wasn't formed the old way, by travel or time, by reflection upon the classics or integration of life experiences, by the wisdom of aging.
It was formed the new way, by compressed data sent along telephone lines, by careful watching of celebrity trends, by an ear cocked toward MTV and motivational infomercials. He doesn't read for pleasure; it seems like such a waste of time.
Seo's style could have come about only at this time, at the end of the century. He hasn't watched the cult of celebrity and the deification of the sound bite develop subtly over decades; for him, it's the only America he knows, a place where the famous drive popular culture like never before.
Says Regal, who has worked with him for four years: "I think there are a lot of people when they are 14 or 15 who think about protests, and 10 years later, you won't see these same people involved. What makes him different is a very rare mixture of innocence and cynicism. He has remained committed to the ideals he had when he was young, but sees how outsiders would perceive him and uses that to his advantage. To possess those ideals, and to learn how to work it--he's basically a genius at that."
Even at his barely legal age, Seo is a savvy self-promoter, completely self-taught. His professors are people like pop money guru Suze Orman, whose "Nine Steps to Financial Freedom" remains a blockbuster. "I tape her appearances on QVC to see what she does. She reaches right through the camera to grab you," Seo says. "She's really successful at marketing herself."
A Driven Nonconformist
Seo, the youngest of three children of Korean immigrants, grew up on the edge of Reading, in the rolling farmland of central Pennsylvania. About the only hint of Asia in Reading was the improbable Pagoda, a gimmick restaurant that now houses an arts center.
His father, an anesthesiologist, moved the family there to take a job at the local hospital. His mother raised her children and drove her baby-faced activist around to all his duties of picketing or dropping his mass mailings off at the post office.
His brother, now a lawyer in Los Angeles, graduated from high school with a 4.0 average and went on to the Ivy League. Seo's own high school career was the dead opposite. College was not--and may never be--part of his plan.
"The best way to describe it is ironic," he says. "I failed civics, and I was lobbying the state legislature and doing public relations for a candidate. I was a critical thinker who could not regurgitate the construction of English, and I got a book contract. When I finally graduated [in 1995], I think it was 169th in a class of 170."
"Oh, it wasn't that bad," says Barbara Cataldi, a secretary in the guidance office at Governor Mifflin High School. "He's exaggerating. He's a piece of work, I'm telling you. He was one of those free-wheeling kids when he was here."
Seo says most people in his home town "had a deep dislike" for him. "I didn't conform. I was an animal rights activist in a community where school stops for the first day of hunting season. I was weird."
The story of Danny Seo's birth as a child activist goes like this: He stayed up way past his bedtime the night before his 12th birthday to watch Morton Downey Jr. make fun of Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and he felt sorry for her. He listened to her grisly account of modern poultry farming, then promptly went into the bathroom and upchucked his chicken salad sandwich.
The next morning, he checked out the newspaper to read his horoscope. But Seo's birthday falls on Earth Day, so he discovered the usual dire headlines depicting the planet's depletion. And when his friends came over to celebrate, he told them they needed to form a group to save the world.
"I named it Earth 2000, and my goal was to fix the Earth by then," Seo says. "Pretty lofty, huh?" He became a vegetarian. He started to pay attention to holes in the ozone layer and puppies in the science labs.
The group, open only to kids, had 20,000 members at its height. Seo and the group first took on a builder who wanted to develop forested open space near his home. He fought for wetlands and came to Washington to picket the Danish Embassy about whaling and seal-hunting. He takes credit for helping persuade Eddie Bauer to stop carrying fur-trimmed outerwear by exhorting his followers to send the company tens of thousands of letters, faxes and cut-up charge cards. He leafleted and harangued. He recalls "a sense of urgency when I was 12."
"All of us were very driven," he says of his family. "We were a driven household."
Seo's sister, Ann Kim, 26, recalls that the family was pretty shocked when Danny struck off on his own path. "It was uncomfortable for us because he was very much different," she says. "He wasn't doing the standard traditional stuff of playing an instrument and being in plays, the academic activities like chess. In our family, you tended to be more conformist: It's not good to be individualized. You are supposed to be one of the group."
Kim, a Montgomery County elementary school teacher, says she and her brother are now quite close, and her parents have come to respect and be proud of him. "It was a very long process because he was very adamant, and he wasn't going to be swayed." Now she sees that Danny had the same fierce ambitions as she and her older brother, but in a different form.
"His vision is adapting and changing and expanding," Kim says. "He is a very flexible person, and when opportunity knocks, he takes it."
In keeping with that, Seo decided to move on from Earth 2000 a few years ago. The group dissolved shortly after. "It was very successful, but it was personality-driven. When I retired at 18," he says, "I realized that a lot of people were involved just because of me."
Seo decided to share what he had learned as a youth agitator, and persuaded Ballantine Books to advance him $33,000 for "Generation React," his 1997 handbook for world changers. While it runs through the standard instructions for launching boycotts and lobbying officials, its most trenchant advice is on handling the media.
After the book came out, he moved out of his parents' house and settled in Washington. "I just really liked it, and if I didn't have anything to do one day I could hop on the Metro and go lobby somebody," Seo says.
He started writing a column on eco-friendly clothing and home accessories for Vegetarian Times. Oprah called. People magazine anointed him one of the beautiful people.
And on his laptop computer in his living room, he wrote his second book, which was published this summer. "Heaven on Earth" is a manual for speedy acts of selflessness. Here's one, on page 61: "Because thousands of children and senior citizens hurt themselves by slipping on ice each year during the winter months, you can prevent accidents by throwing rock salt or de-icing mixture on the sidewalk in front of your home."
Another, on page 134: "Lean branches in uncovered basement window wells so creatures like chipmunks and rabbits who fall into them can climb out."
"It's baby steps, actually," Seo explains in an interview. "People want to make a difference," but they need help squeezing their activism into crowded lives, he says.
An Ascetic's Luxury
At the moment, Seo is into fast philanthropy. He teaches by example. Last year on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," he explained to the incredulous hostess how he met her challenge to raise $30,000 in 30 days for a Habitat house: He dropped off personal letters to members of Congress asking each for $10. He persuaded building managers to let him have coins for the cause tossed into public fountains. He got the Gap to give him free T-shirts, then sold them at less than their retail price. He got Starbucks and Fresh Fields to earmark 5 percent of one day's receipts. And then, he tossed in $4,500 of his own money. "It was simple," he says. "Anybody can do this stuff."
There was great hoopla when the house was finished, and a single mother and her baby moved in. Seo didn't go.
"It creeps me out" to meet the people he helps, he says. "They shouldn't have to show up and give praise. It's their house. I don't feel like I need to have a special banquet dinner. The whole point of being selfless is not to get something in return. I know that's bizarre to a lot of people--a self-improvement guru telling them to be more selfless and you'll be a better person."
His next project will be to try to close the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots. He has agreed to provide editorial direction for the Web site of a nonprofit group called Heaven, which stands for "Helping Educate, Activate, Volunteer and Empower the Net." Seo's tasks will be to perform outreach with poor high schoolers needing computer skills and to jazz up the site, which offers resources to help people get involved in "positive social change," according to Heaven's founder, Wendy Dubit.
"I'm blown away by Danny," Dubit says, "and he has done so much. He is a fun guy. We are totally compatible. We are both giraffes. I don't know if you know what that is--it salutes people who have stuck their necks out for the common good. We are both activists from the center of our souls."
For all the "Heaven" and "angel" references, Seo, who was raised Lutheran, does not practice any particular religion. Yet he maintains an almost monastic lifestyle in keeping with his beliefs. His apartment is spare, all gleaming hardwood and industrial, recycled chic. Seo stripped his refrigerator with citrus-based paint remover, then roughed up the steel with sandpaper. On his mantel is an old piece of wood he pulled from the trash and covered with chalkboard paint. He scrawls his to-do list on it. Having the daily taskmaster as the insistent visual focus of his entire apartment seems right to him.
Asked how he measures success, he says: "Do I have enough to pay my bills? Can I buy whatever I want at Fresh Fields?" Luxury, to him, is buying a $15 jar of cashew butter.
Exploiting the Personality
Seo is in New York, in his synthetic wool Benetton suit. Regular wool is bad, he believes, "because they do the shearing so fast, it harms the sheep. They bleed to death and die." But he's no purist, he claims, and will wear silk "even though they boil the silkworms." It's a blur of an early summer day that has him racing through meetings with Martha Stewart's former book editor, a radio show producer, a teen magazine editor, his agent, Regal, and the taping of a television show.
At the moment, he is in the office of David Thalberg, a vice president of Planned Television Arts, which puts together satellite radio, TV and print tours for authors. Seo wants publicity. They are discussing the roll-out of "Heaven on Earth."
"Sixty thousand in stores and 13,000 waiting to be shipped," Thalberg says. "That's a great number for a first-time author."
"Actually, this is my second book," Seo says, pointedly.
Seo pulls out his standard pitch to explain who he is and what he does. He tells how, after his "Oprah" appearance, he received about 1,000 e-mails. "Basically, they all said, you are really inspiring but I could never do something like that. So I wanted to tell people that they could have an impact, in this book. It's a synergistic effect. You feel fulfilled and you don't have to work at it."
"Hmmmmm," says Thalberg. He's skeptical that Seo is any different from any other motivational author. "This is something we've done before--'Small Miracles.' We've done 'Everyday Miracles.' We've done 'Random Acts of Kindness.' "
Seo has a quick response. "It's not really about the book. It's about me as a personality," he says, "and we need to exploit that."