Jonathan Curiel : Star power : When celebrities support causes, who really winds up benefiting?

Sunday, June 5, 2005

The week was a typical one for actress Angelina Jolie. In the United States, she made the cover of every major magazine that traffics in celebrity gossip, all because of her romance with Brad Pitt. People ("Brad & Angelina Together in Morocco!"), Star ("Why Armed Guards Stormed Their Bedroom!") and the other tabloids spared no expense to get juicy details of Jolie’s new affaire de coeur.

The movie star had little time to pay heed to the titillating headlines, nor was she likely to see them on newsstands in Sierra Leone, the impoverished African country where she spent the week of May 9 meeting Sierra Leone’s president and survivors of the country’s 11-year civil war.

Jolie’s confab with Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was historic, says one witness. Kabbah opened the meeting to civil rights groups in Sierra Leone (one of the few times he’s ever done that), pledged to work with the organizations in the future and committed himself to responding to recommendations from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Kabbah might not have taken any action were it not for the actress, says Gavin Simpson, a Sierra Leone activist who worked with Jolie during her visit to the West African country.

An example of star power? You bet.

On international issues, the tattooed, 30-year-old actress has greater clout than many U.N. diplomats with Ph.D.s. Jolie opens doors wherever she goes, whether it’s a small country near the African equator or the capital of the United States, where Jolie has met some of Washington’s top policy-makers to discuss refugee issues.

"I see Angelina as the perfect humanitarian advocate," says Simpson, a member of the activist group Witness, in a phone interview from Sierra Leone. "She brings an immense amount of international focus and attention with her, but she never seeks to use it for her own benefit. On the contrary, she sends the spotlight directly to civic society advocates and makes them more effective and powerful in their own society."

Celebrities have always involved themselves in causes. Any list would have to include Audrey Hepburn, who worked with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund from 1988 until her death in 1993; Danny Kaye, who worked with UNICEF for 30 years, starting in the 1950s; and Humphrey Bogart, who led a 1947 group that protested the U.S. government’s probe of communism in Hollywood. However, the last few years have seen a marked increase in the depth of their involvement.

Whether it’s Bono flying to Africa with America’s Treasury secretary, Sean Penn visiting Iraq to protest the then-impending war or Bruce Spingsteen stumping and strumming for John Kerry, more stars than ever are pushing their political and social views into the public domain in an effort to change the world.

Whether this is a welcome development depends on your perspective. Organizations that work with the stars are ecstatic for the extra publicity they get. The week Jolie was in Sierra Leone, for example, she could have been promoting her new movie, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," which co-stars Pitt and opens on Friday.

Instead, Jolie chose to pay her own way to Sierra Leone so she could act as a representative for Witness, a New York organization started by a musical celebrity Peter Gabriel that uses video technology to spotlight human rights causes.

Why would anyone object to these efforts? Two big reasons: Suspicion of the celebrities’ motives and a sense that the celebrities don’t really understand the problems about which they speak.

Case in point: The lead singer for rock group Coldplay, Chris Martin, has visited Ghana in his campaign against Western trade practices that he says undermine farmers in the West African country. Get rid of unfair tariffs imposed on Ghana, and those farmers would thrive, he believes.

Martin, who’s married to actress Gwyneth Paltrow, may be well-intentioned, but he’s ignoring structural problems in Ghana that have far more impact than outside tariffs, says Franklin Cudjoe, a development director in Ghana’s capital, Accra. Cudjoe derides what he calls rock-star economics — the practice of musician-activists and others to focus predominantly on the West’s perceived responsibility for Africa’s economic woes.

Cudjoe says "Live Aid" and other fund-raising efforts for the continent actually prop up corrupt governments in Africa. Last week, "Live Aid" organizer Bob Geldof announced a new series of concerts, "Live 8," that will raise millions of dollars for Africa relief. The concerts will take place on July 2 in Philadelphia, Paris and other cities.

"Rock stars have been extending their social campaigns too far," Cudjoe says in a phone interview from Accra, where he directs the organization called Imani. "The more you keep giving aid to (African) countries, you are telling them, ‘It’s all right to run a bankrupt government.’ The countries themselves have to be revitalized. But the governments themselves aren’t interested in (changing). Chris Martin and Bono refuse to (acknowledge) that."

There are organizations that cater to celebrities who think they need help in understanding issues better and becoming better activists. These groups run workshops that teach them how to be effective speakers, introduce them to other activist-minded celebrities and suggest causes in which they can get involved.

The New York-based Creative Coalition (started in 1989 by Christopher Reeve, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Ron Silver and others) specializes in arts-related issues, regularly sending its celebrity activists to lobby congressional leaders in Washington.

The interest is mutual. Recognizing the power of celebrities to draw media attention, Congress seeks out stars to testify at committee hearings and give the hearings more cachet. The practice can backfire, as in 1985, when then-Rep. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had Jane Fonda and Jessica Lange — both of whom portrayed farmers in movies — testify during a committee hearing designed to protest President Reagan’s proposed cuts in farm subsidies.

Political observers ridiculed Daschle for his emphasis on faux farmers, but 20 years later, celebrity activists are so commonplace that even global leaders regularly look to them for ideas.

Five months ago, the World Economic Forum — that august body in Davos, Switzerland, that invites presidents and corporate heads to its annual retreat — had a special program featuring Jolie; Gabriel; Richard Gere; Sharon Stone; Lionel Richie, who was honored with an award for co-writing the 1985 fund-raising song, "We Are the World"; and Chris Tucker, the "Rush Hour" actor- comic who, in 2002, traveled with Secretary of State Colin Powell to a development summit in South Africa and with former President Bill Clinton on an AIDS fund-raising mission in Africa.

The stars were invited to analyze what the forum called this trend of celebrity advocacy. Skeptics were won over by the star panelists’ answers and their commitment to their causes. It should be noted that some in the crowd rushed to take pictures of the panelists and to get their autographs.

"I was very impressed when I realized that these people were very serious, " says Michel Ogrizek, a former medical doctor in Africa who, as the World Economic Forum’s head of communications, was a panel participant. "When you are a celebrity, people think you are doing it just for PR and self-image. I’m what people call a cynical French (person), but I was fully convinced that these people were genuinely authentic."

Yet for every celebrity who gets invited to Davos, there are probably 10 who show no apparent desire to make the wider world a better place. People in the business of celebrity activism admit they’ve met the famous who tried to get involved with social causes but had no long-term interest in it, had no patience to learn about a subject they thought they’d wanted to embrace, and were not temperamentally suited to be more than a music star or movie star or whatever star they were.

Robin Bronk, the Creative Coalition’s executive director, says, "Probably the most challenging thing one can do for one’s career is get involved with an issue. It takes time. You put yourself out there, in that if you don’t know why you’re involved and what it is you’re involved with and how to make a sensible argument, you’re going to tank your own reputation."

If it’s true that celebrity activism has become this trend, then Jolie and the rock singer Bono are two of today’s leading trendsetters.

This year, Bono established an "ethical" clothing line (Edun) that works with factories in Africa to promote fair trade. Since 1985, when his group, U2, became a musical giant, Bono has visited Africa many times to focus attention on AIDS, trade issues and other problems. At Davos and other forums, Bono, 45, often appears to know more about Africa’s economies than specialists do.

"Celebrities open doors, without question — everyone wants to meet Bono — but the amazing thing about Bono is that they want to meet him again and again because he’s not only a celebrity but knows far more about the subject under discussion than the politicians do," says Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University who’s worked with Bono for six years.

Jolie has been a Goodwill Ambassador with the United Nations’ High Commission on Refugees for four years, traveling to the Sudan, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and other countries where refugee problems are a major concern. Jolie always pays her own way, and her work with the refugee commission is volunteer.

"Angelina Jolie pays every penny of her work with UNHCR, and hazarding a guess, I’d say that might cost in the neighborhood of at least a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, minimum," says Shannon Boyd, who directs the refugee commission’s Goodwill Ambassadors program. "It sets a new standard for the new generation of Goodwill Ambassadors."

Jolie has talked about her impetus for activism. "Just being an actress doesn’t help me sleep well at night. When I do something for other people, then I feel my life has value."

Her fans who rush out this weekend to see "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" may not care about her activist work, but it’s increasingly likely they’re aware of it. The tabloids that follow Jolie and Pitt around the world have reported on her work in Africa and other continents and how Pitt has been moved to visit hospitals in Africa.

Celebrity activism seems to be contagious, although the typical American may care more about Jolie’s private life than her ability to meet with the president of Sierra Leone. The May 23 issue of Us magazine ran a five- paragraph story of Jolie’s humanitarian work tucked inside a four-page cover story headlined, "How Angelina Stole Brad."

In today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, there may no better way to publicize a cause than having someone beautiful and famous show up and say, "This is important, and here is why."

But the question remains: Why should it take an Angelina Jolie for people to care about the situation in Sierra Leone? For the U.N. refugee commission’s Boyd, the answer is tied up in the reality of pop culture.

"Whether we like it or not, the popular culture is powerful, and not to recognize that is to have our head in the sand," Boyd says. "For refugees, we need to reach the mass public. Goodwill Ambassadors can go on prime-time TV shows that will never invite our senior-most friends, whether they’re teaching at Harvard or sitting in the Senate. … A Goodwill Ambassador brings a special buzz if they are the right person, if they’re well informed."

Boyd emphasizes the word "if" — a small word that nonetheless says a lot about the pitfalls and potential of celebrity activists.

From :