Blockbusters and a winning smile made George Clooney famous, yet the actor has become an unexpected force in the debate over protecting human rights in the Sudan, testifying before Congress, meeting with the president and making headlines for getting arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy.
Angelina Jolie lobbies for refugees. Sean Penn weighs in on the Falkland Islands. When a viral video sought to spread awareness of the crimes of Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony, it used the power of social media to prod "culture makers" such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna to spread the word.
But skeptics question whether star power actually does any good. Celebrities are often criticized for co-opting struggles from across the world and making themselves the stars instead, selling simplified stories with familiar heroes to draw Westerners to causes they might otherwise overlook.
The Times talked to University of Waterloo political science professor Andrew F. Cooper, who dissected in his book "Celebrity Diplomacy" what happens when stars and international issues collide.
Is it a good thing when a celebrity throws his or her star power behind a foreign problem?
Depends on who it is. There’s a real spectrum of celebrity activity. George Clooney really stands out, along with Angelina Jolie and Bono -- you can disagree with some of the cases that they pick up, but they’re very conscientious, they’re advised well, they’re in it for the longer run. Then there’s all this scattered stuff that’s more messy and problematic and amateur. You can’t put them all in the same bag.
How has this changed over time?
They’ve become more sort of freelance. Thirty years ago they were all sort of locked into the system, usually as ambassadors for a specialized agency in the U.N. They weren’t particularly controversial. Audrey Hepburn comes to mind. [Hepburn served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF until her death.]
What do you think is driving that change?
I think they don’t want to be confined. They want to be flexible in the issues they see as important. Now most people don’t mind being controversial. They don’t want to do these things in retirement after they’ve been big stars. They want to do it now. It makes it a bit more interesting and volatile as well.
Does star power skew which kinds of issues get attention and which don’t?
Very much so. You might some see things in the real hot spots. But there’s not too many celebrities that really think they can make a difference on Israel-Palestine or North Korea-South Korea. Most of them pick an issue area that doesn’t get as much attention. Probably in some ways they’re the safer issues. For instance, it’s very hard for people to criticize celebrities getting involved on health issues. Sharon Stone got involved with mosquito nets and she tried to pass a hat around at Davos and was criticized for trying to force these rich people to donate right on the spot. But for the most part you don’t get the criticism you’d get if those people were trying to deal with big geopolitical issues.
Other people worry that celebrities place so much attention on access, on playing that inside game, that they may not be as critical as they should be because they feel they can work better from the inside. There are some celebrities, though, who you can almost call anti-diplomats, who don’t think they need or want to have access to leaders. Sean Penn is a good example.
It’s going to push celebrities maybe to take risks a bit more. Maybe part of the reason George Clooney got arrested is having to compete with all different sources for attention. Kony is an excellent example of pressures coming from different groups forcing celebrities to react without being in control of the process or the narrative or the script. This really makes it interesting. Maybe it’s going to be more cluttered, but it’s going to push celebrities to do things a bit more risk-oriented or maybe fade away.
Is there any risk of a cause losing legitimacy when a celebrity gets involved?
The ones that have their network in place like Bono or Jolie, there aren’t usually too many huge gaffes. Their problem is almost a fatigue problem. People just get tired of Bono and Angelina telling them about different issues.
Then on the other side, there are a vast amount of people who just jump into campaigns and don’t have that level of professionalism. Ginger Spice was sent off to the Philippines as a U.N. goodwill ambassador and was in over her head. Richard Gere kissed a reality star in India and had all sorts of Indian taboos being compromised. Richard Gere is an interesting example -- he wants to be active on a variety of things, but you don’t get a sense of a huge network around him. Then there’s the wannabes who say they're going to do something but nobody really thinks they’re going to do anything terribly serious.
How do politicians tend to react to celebrities getting involved?
Some “big people” like to deal with big people from other walks of life. It helps if someone can play to their instincts or their culture. There’s been a lot written about Bono and Jesse Helms. Helms is a conservative Republican but Bono comes in and reads Scripture to Helms and he’s quite transfixed [by] this. But there’s also the possibility that they’re going to be embarrassed by the celebrities in some ways. They may go away and say, “Leader X promised to do something and let’s hold him or her to that promise.” In the last couple years you’ve seen a shutting down of leaders meeting with these kinds of celebrities because they don’t want to get caught in the same situation.
Why do people listen to celebrities on foreign issues?
I think people are looking around for people that aren’t from the traditional elites that can give them some sort of guidance. That they don’t really have any stake in these type of issues. When a celebrity comes out initially, there is that element of surprise. Why should George Clooney be spending all of his time on this issue? Or Angelina Jolie? These people aren’t has-beens. There’s some goodwill that these people are fairly authentic or genuine, as private citizens without a stake but entertainers used to talking to people and attracting an audience.
It’s only when something goes wrong or they overdo it that you lose that. NGOs have been very quick to realize that they can have a different brand if they jump into the celebrity world themselves. It’s very difficult for NGOs to compete for attention. It’s much easier to work through celebrities.
So you’re saying that part of what makes celebrities appealing is that they aren’t really the experts.
Some of the better celebrity activists are precisely the ones that really don’t have very much education at all. Bono is a dropout. Part of their appeal is that they’ve worked their way up, like ordinary people.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Actor George Clooney is arrested during a demonstration outside the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, D.C. Credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images