Celebrity Activists

I couldn't believe it when my weeks of lobbying paid off and my editor at Life & Style magazine (where I freelance) finally gave me the go-ahead to hop on a train and head to Washington, D.C., on April 30 to cover the Save Darfur Coalition's rally against genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

But while this was to me a journalistic coup of epic proportions, it also offered up a twofold dilemma. First, it was clear my editor only agreed to send me to the rally because of its planned celebrity contingent: George Clooney and Russell Simmons would definitely be there.

But in order to get any coverage of the event into the magazine at all, I needed to prod the various celebrity speakers and attendees into producing "newsworthy" (again, remembering that term is relative in the celebrity magazine context) quotes -- without eclipsing or detracting from the utter seriousness of the purpose at hand. I was absolutely mortified at the prospect of asking the inane, stalker-ish questions so typical of the gossip magazines and quickly erased all thoughts of them from my head.

The second slice of my discomfort had to do with my inherent uncertainty about celebrities taking up humanitarian or political causes. As a rational human being, I know luminaries have brains like everyone else and are certainly capable of embracing a cause passionately. But my skepticism lingered over the issue of efficacy when the other 99 percent of their passion is splashed across "Page 6" or In Touch.

The current climate is obviously ripe for involvement. According to an article in the July 2, 2005, issue of The Economist, the business of aid in the 1990s "endured listless donors and woeful budgets. But now the mood and the money are on an upswing."

Stars themselves have become a big part of this phenomenon -- prolonged human suffering (including but not limited to famine, poverty and that wrought by natural disaster), it seems, is the sexy celebrity cause du jour. According to a 2005 article in Time Europe major issues like the internet, terrorism and the Iraq war don't necessarily "lend themselves to the high wattage celebrities can bring." Moreover, in a day and age of digitized and global media, it probably (hopefully?) becomes a lot harder for high-profile people to turn a blind eye to misery, especially for those who call themselves "role models."

There are even basic training camps for celebrities who want to get involved in something worthwhile but need a hand in understanding the issues. For example, the Creative Coalition brings together artists and celebrities to learn about causes, eventually enabling them to do things like lobby on their behalf in D.C. Similarly, Participate is a group linking up big films (and presumably their stars) with like-minded grassroots organizations. Associations such as these, of course, do wonderful and important things. But the little devil perched on my shoulder is whispering that they also shroud the celebrities involved from the get-go with disingenuousness.

I arrived at the Darfur rally, then, with a secondary purpose: to try and determine what impact, if any, a celebrity could have on an important cause. I moseyed up to Nick Clooney (George wasn't doing any press at all) and asked him how he viewed the confluence of celebrity and humanitarian causes, especially considering the stature of his son. He told me, "We're in a culture of celebrity, and we all know it. It drives me crazy. But George [with his recent fact-finding mission to Chad and Darfur] said 'If you're going to take all these cameras and follow me, follow me here. Let's all find out something for ourselves that might be worthwhile for the whole human condition.'"

Similarly, Joey Cheek, (the Olympic speed skater who donated a total of $40,000 in prize money from his gold and silver medals to refugees in Darfur) told me, "For better or worse, at this point in our society, people look to celebrities. I think it's a bit of a travesty ... but it's the reality we live in. If you have a brief moment of celebrity like I did at the Olympics, I thought it was better to do something useful, raise awareness."

In other words, they both know how to work the system, a fact that touches on something that as a gossip world "insider" never ceases to astound me: the collusion between celebrities, paparazzi, the gossip magazines and publicists/P.R. There is absolutely nothing candid about these overlapping industries -- in another article I wrote a few months ago, I called it the celebrity-industrial complex (only learning recently that I wasn't so brilliantly creative after all -- it was actually Vanity Fair columnist Maureen Orth who first coined the term).

Quite simply, there's money to be made in all of these sectors, and that's why nobody or nothing is mitigating their proliferation, including the celebrities who "complain" about the intrusion of the paparazzi in their life. Where would they be without them? Certainly not on the cover of magazines, offering even more proof how loaded those relationships are from their inception.

Slate magazine editor Jacob Weisberg perfectly captures the spirit of the celebrity-industrial complex when he describes the surreal joint appearance of Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Angelina Jolie last September at a gala sponsored by the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. He depicts their photo op as a "state-of-the-art mélange of politics, celebrity and corporate public relations that such an event represents," adding, "cause-driven organizations … want celebrity endorsements for the same reasons companies like Nike and Coca-Cola do. Whereas product endorsements pay cash, actors and musicians gain heft and responsibility by supporting fashionable crusades."

And to a certain extent, that's fine. It's a phenomenon that increases the awareness of people who might otherwise simply might not have too firm a grasp on what's going on out there in the (increasingly complex) world. But when does the trend stop and real knowledge and action take root? In other words, when will the average citizen who takes note of a celebrity endorsement actually absorb it into her consciousness and translate it into activity, even on the most micro of levels -- perhaps the true litmus test of celebrity involvement in anything?

When I posed this question to Nick Clooney at the rally, he mused, "Well, that's up to each individual person, isn't it? All a celebrity can do is have the cameras follow them. Then it's our duty to either turn away -- as many do -- or follow that and do something about it." Similarly, Joey Cheek told me everyone needs to realize "there are as many problems as there are people to solve them. We are citizens of a global community," and it's time getting involved and making a positive impact on the world "became more than just celebrities or wealthy people."

I wasn't satisfied, and it became less difficult for me to see how the good deeds of Bono (crusader against AIDS and poverty in the third world) and his ilk have been met with more than a little critical skepticism. In a scathing op-ed in the New York Times, author Paul Theroux (who spent many years teaching in Africa under the auspices of the Peace Corps) derided the propensity (especially of celebrities, but specifically Bono, whom he says shouts "so loud people trust his answers") to advocate, for example, the "more money platform" in Africa. He says it's both patronizing and a mistake, "donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing." What Africa needs, he says, is home-grown citizen involvement, a stopping of the continental brain drain -- not the computers Bono's One campaign cohort Bill Gates wants to send to places that not only don't have electricity, they don't even have pencils and paper for schools.

There is of course plenty of waste in the international aid business, and systemic corruption outside the African -- and well into the western -- paradigm. In Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace In Afghanistan, Ann Jones says matter-of-factly, "most of [international aid] goes to support the experts and contractors and bureaucrats of the donor[s] … providing cover (and more tax dollars) for the rich in the guise of helping the poor."

So, OK, maybe Bono should have studied up a little harder on the intricacies of the international aid racket. However, it's infinitely worse -- even critically damaging -- when celebrity involvement in a humanitarian cause is merely a matter of self-promotion or a passing fancy. For example, I watched an interview with Lindsay Lohan recently on Access Hollywood. In it, she enthusiastically enumerated her upcoming movie projects, her love life, and scoffed off yet another round of those pesky party-animal rumors that seem to plague her. In practically the same breath, she told the reporter she's planning a trip to Kenya to contribute to the work of, of all things, the One campaign. It smacked of the superficial, feeling like little more than an attempt to be taken more seriously (perhaps bolstering the teen queen's quest for more "adult" movie roles?).

Or how about a few weeks ago, when I covered a charity event and had to interview a famous supermodel who was also the spokeswoman for the organization. She literally couldn't even answer the simple question "How did you get involved with the cause?" without some major prompting from the publicist/guard dog attached to her side.

Contrast all of that with an October CBS News/Early Show "spotlight" about Angelina Jolie. She's been a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee commission for over five years and has been a central figure in a mind-boggling array of charities and geopolitical/humanitarian causes long before interest in her personal life reached its current fever pitch. In another interview, she said commitment is key to making a difference, noting, "We have to make sure we're willing to dedicate part of our lives to this. We shouldn't do it halfway."

Then there's Kanye West. He shocked the entire world when last year at a Red Cross event benefiting Hurricane Katrina victims, he looked right into the camera and said live on national television, enunciating each word, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." His outcry against the wrenching inequalities exposed by that disaster was raw, angry and emotional. But could anyone ever accuse him of being insincere? Hell, no.

Given all of the evidence, especially within the celebrity-industrial complex scenario, I suppose what each and every one of these celebrities -- even the vapid or the stupid -- do is, as previously pondered, give rise to some sort of awareness, which is (even when I am only grudgingly admitting it) in and of itself vital.

It's been my perception, maybe in large part given the genre of magazine in which I work, that too many of American citizens, especially young Americans, have not been voting or paying attention to international politics. According to Generation Engage, a nonprofit devoted to urging young people to get more politically involved, people between the ages of 18 and 24 tend to vote in lower numbers than any other age group. But the group decries not a lack of young people's interest (they volunteer in community organizing and relief more than other age groups) but of their actual access to politicians and the process. That said, the 2004 presidential election brought out the largest percentage of young voters in 32 years, notching up 4 million new voters (at least half of which were Latino and black). What this seems to indicate is that when there is a reason to be passionate (ahem, George W. Bush rancor), we young people will most certainly make our presence known. But the question remains: Does celebrity involvement make any real difference in what we choose to be passionate about?

If our readership of gossip magazines and consumption of celebrity culture is any indication, then the answer is yes. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, In Touch, Us Weekly and Star magazine had weekly circulation increases from 2005 to 2006 of 15.5 percent, 12.7 percent and 10 percent, respectively. However, the dominance of People magazine over all the other gossip weeklies, as a hybrid of straight gossip and stories with more of a human interest and humanitarian angle, leads me to believe there is more of a hunger in the general public for important, more serious articles than the editors at the rest of the gossip magazines so far have been willing to admit.

That's where the blogs come in, forcing the hand of the print magazines (across the board, most certainly not just in the celebrity sector) to become increasingly competitive in offering and breaking important news. According to blogcount, almost 1/3 of Americans regularly read blogs, and interestingly enough, while political blogs like Daily Kos (500,000 hits a day) and Talking Points Memo (150,000 hits a day) are increasing their readerships exponentially, especially among the young and internet-savvy, so are the more gossip-oriented blogs such as Gawker and Perez Hilton.

The popularity of these blogs suggests the confluence of celebrity and news in the same way that politicians are morphing into celebrities, and vice versa. Maybe we young people are inundated by the merger of the cause-driven and the celebrity-driven issues in our society and are frankly weary from trying to tease them apart. Maybe it doesn't, at the end of the day, matter to us whether a celebrity is invested in something important or something stupid, because the next hour, day or blog-post will bring another set of circumstances for us to ponder for ourselves.

As author Jeff Chang says, maybe our skepticism plays into the hands of "part of a larger conservative effort to de-legitimize voices other than so-called 'authorities.'"* In other words, "the conservative mind frame wants to limit the number of voices in a discourse." Kanye West might agree -- our government and the corporations that pander to it could have a vested interest in keeping us dumbed down and focused on pure entertainment, immediately moving to discredit anyone -- celebrity or not -- who steps up to try and actually make a difference.


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