George Clooney was there. Mia Farrow was there. So were Drew Barrymore, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Naomi Watts, Matt Damon and Bono.
It wasn’t a Hollywood party, a movie premiere or the opening of a chic new restaurant. It was Africa, whose dubious distinction as the world’s most troubled continent is attracting a flood of celebrities eager to utilize their clout for political purposes. In the past three months alone, Clooney and the others have used their fame to draw attention to everything from AIDS in Kenya to the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, illustrating the increased power of celebrity to influence public opinion over distant events that few Americans might otherwise hear—or care—about.
Even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan advocated star power in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Addressing hundreds of politicians, business leaders and academics, he said if the United Nations was to “be of use to humanity” in the 21st century, it needed to do more than work with governments. It also needs to embrace “all the new actors on the international scene,” including “celebrities from the worlds of sport and entertainment,” Annan said.
Celebrity activism is not new. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, seized on the idea of in the 1950s when entertainer Danny Kaye became its first globe-trotting ambassador, speaking out on children’s issues. Since then, it has used scores of stars, from “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken, who visited Indonesia and Uganda last year, to Farrow, who spent a week in Darfur this month.
What has changed is the number and the diversity of the stars adopting political causes, and their reasons for doing so, say aid organizations and social scientists. Now that fame can be attained relatively easily via reality TV, stars who want to stand out have learned that they need to do more than look good on a red carpet. They also need to be role models.
“I think celebrity status has changed. Celebrities now need to prove they are not superficial airheads,” said Gerald Martone of the International Rescue Committee, which facilitated Clooney’s trip to Sudan and neighboring Chad in March. “Celebrities feel the need to show themselves as having a conscience and intelligence.”
It is impossible to gauge the precise financial impact of journeys such as Clooney’s, but aid groups say there is no question they generate attention, and that leads to increased donations.
“The return on investment is always good,” said Sandee Borgman of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, which expects its ambassadors to follow up their trips with media appearances and fund-raising activities. “I can guarantee that we always come out quite well ahead.”
Africa is not the only stop for celebrity activists, but it is the most common destination, due to its multitude of social issues and its history of star-studded activism. It was Ethiopia’s 1984 famine that spurred Bob Geldof, then the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, to organize the Live Aid concerts. The event raised a record $245 million for famine relief.
The following decade, which saw the Somali famine, the Rwandan genocide, and brutal wars in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the former Zaire, among others, never generated such celebrity interest. John Orman, a political science professor at Fairfield University and co-author of a book on celebrity activism, “Celebrity Politics,” said that reflected the lack of genuine commitment to such causes among stars at the time.
A turnaround came in the late 1990s, due in large part to efforts by some of the very celebrities involved in Live Aid—Geldof and Bono, whose band, U-2, performed at Live Aid. Long-time activists already, they began using their celebrity to call attention to some of the new issues affecting Africa, such AIDS, poverty, and debt relief.
At the same time, celebrities began to become more closely associated with politics, something Orman attributes in part to world-changing events such as the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the war in Iraq, which galvanized many stars to take public political stances.
There is no question that celebrities personally benefit from the publicity from trips to places like Darfur.
However, Orman and others say the willingness of stars to undertake such ventures also shows a genuine commitment that should convince cynics that they are in it for more than publicity. “I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of them are doing it because they really care,” Orman said. Speaking of Clooney’s trip to Africa, Orman added: “He doesn’t have to go over there. He’s at the top of his game. He’s one of the coolest guys in Hollywood, but he felt this wasn’t getting enough attention in the United States, so he decided to go over there.”
Similarly, Jolie and Pitt donated the millions of dollars paid for their newborn’s first photographs to charities including UNICEF. “It’s an interesting way to use celebrity,” Orman said of such tactics.
At UNICEF, Borgman said the organization only targets certain celebrities for its ambassador program, to ensure it is represented by stars with more than publicity shots in mind. “They have to really put the time in to learn about the issues, and they have to have the passion to do that year after year after year, and go into the field and do fund-raising upon their return,” she said.
If there is a down side to celebrity activism, Orman said, it is the danger of the public becoming so bombarded by stars visiting war zones, famine areas and disaster areas that they tune out, just as many tune out politicians when they discuss wars, famines and disasters.
Borgman, though, said any potential pitfalls are far outweighed by the benefits of having a star’s famous face and voice associated with an issue. “If everyone who had such a voice used it for all kinds of issues, that’s the most brilliant use of celebrity,” she said.