Can celebrity ac­tivism ac­tu­ally make a dif­fer­ence?

When A-listers use their fame to sup­port good causes, as An­gelina Jolie did in Lon­don last week, they of­ten stand ac­cused of cyn­i­cally try­ing to boost their own PR. But their back­ing can de­liver real change, finds Polly Dun­bar

Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

WHEN JEREMY HUNT posed for pho­to­graphs with An­gelina Jolie at the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute last week, few could blame him for the look of slightly sur­prised de­light on his face. For An­gelina, how­ever, meet­ing the For­eign Sec­re­tary and So­phie Wes­sex at the launch of a film fes­ti­val hon­our­ing sur­vivors of rape in war zones was all in an or­di­nary day’s work.

The Fight­ing Stigma Through Film fes­ti­val, which fea­tured film-mak­ers from coun­tries in­clud­ing Syria, Myanmar and Rus­sia, was the first or­gan­ised by the Pre­vent­ing Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Ini­tia­tive (PSVI), which An­gelina co-founded with for­mer For­eign Sec­re­tary Wil­liam Hague in 2012. Last week, it was also an­nounced that on 28 De­cem­ber the ac­tor will guest edit Ra­dio 4’s pres­ti­gious To­day pro­gramme, us­ing her episode to dis­cuss both sex­ual vi­o­lence in con­flict and the global refugee cri­sis.

It did not go un­no­ticed by the cyn­i­cal me­dia that An­gelina’s lat­est phil­an­thropic ef­forts have co­in­cided with a new round of dam­ag­ing head­lines about her ac­ri­mo­nious di­vorce from Brad Pitt and their on­go­ing cus­tody bat­tle over their six chil­dren. Us­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian work to de­flect from po­ten­tially rep­u­ta­tion-harm­ing per­sonal crises is a charge that’s long been lev­elled at her, ever since she hired a ‘phil­an­thropic ad­vi­sor’, Trevor Neil­son, to guide her sup­port for good causes. 

Celebrity ac­tivism has never been as pop­u­lar as it is to­day. Ev­ery ma­jor star, from Leonardo Di­caprio to Kim Kar­dashian, pro­fesses to be pas­sion­ate about hu­man rights, an­i­mal wel­fare or en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. For the A-list, be­com­ing a UN am­bas­sador like An­gelina – a good­will am­bas­sador since 2001 and spe­cial en­voy to the UNHCR, the UN’S refugee agency, since 2012 – is an es­sen­tial badge of elite sta­tus, shared by Ge­orge Clooney, Emma Wat­son and Vic­to­ria Beck­ham. But does the sup­port of some­one like An­gelina re­ally help?

Ac­cord­ing to Lord Tariq Ah­mad of Wim­ble­don, Bri­tain’s spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive for pre­vent­ing sex­ual vi­o­lence, the answer is an un­equiv­o­cal yes. ‘ The scale of sex­ual vi­o­lence in ar­eas of con­flict is truly ap­palling,’ he tells Grazia. ‘As co-founder of the PSVI, spe­cial en­voy Jolie has used her pro­file to help raise pub­lic aware­ness of the stigma sur­vivors have to en­dure, which com­pounds their suf­fer­ing.’

Sex­ual vi­o­lence in con­flict zones is a cause the ac­tor has worked on for many years, since be­com­ing aware of the scale of the prob­lem through her vis­its to refugees in coun­tries in­clud­ing Bos­nia, Congo, So­ma­lia and Iraq. The UNHCR’S Marie-noelle Lit­tle-boyer em­pha­sises that An­gelina’s is no fleet­ing celebrity in­ter­est.

‘Her ded­i­ca­tion to the refugee cause is quite ex­tra­or­di­nary,’ she says. ‘Hav­ing un­der­taken more than 60 field mis­sions, she can spend any­where from sev­eral days to sev­eral weeks in the field. She’s known to spend many hours meet­ing with refugees, some­times spend­ing the en­tire day in their tents or makeshift homes. As a re­sult, she has ac­quired an in-depth un­der­stand­ing of some of the hor­rors refugees face and has used her po­si­tion to shine a spot­light on their plight and speak on their be­half.’

Such is the ex­tent of her pas­sion that, in 2011, she made a film – her di­rec­to­rial de­but – In The Land Of Blood And Honey, high­light­ing the sys­tem­atic rape of women in refugee camps dur­ing the war in Bos­nia. Wil­liam Hague ad­mit­ted it was her film that ‘alerted’ him to the is­sue – fur­ther proof of the in­flu­ence stars can wield.

The pair’s PSVI ini­tia­tive promised to in­crease sup­port for sur­vivors and help end the cul­ture of im­punity that has al­lowed per­pe­tra­tors to go un­pun­ished. In 2014, they hosted a global sum­mit in Lon­don, fea­tur­ing lead­ers from 141 coun­tries dis­cussing how to im­prove the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of large-scale sex­ual vi­o­lence dur­ing wartime. Then, last week, the film fes­ti­val launch in­cluded the un­veil­ing of the Mu­rad Code to set the stan­dard for in­ves­ti­gat­ing and doc­u­ment­ing the crimes.

‘ We need to make jus­tice the norm, not the ex­cep­tion, for these crimes,’ An­gelina said. By mak­ing them the focus of in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, it’s hoped gov­ern­ments will be pres­sured into tak­ing con­crete ac­tion against them.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell, au­thor of Show­biz Pol­i­tics, says the A-lis­ter is a per­fect ex­am­ple of how suc­cess­ful celebrity phi­lan­thropy can be when tar­geted care­fully. ‘ The most ef­fec­tive celebrity ac­tivists re­ally re­search is­sues, see some of the prob­lems for them­selves and think about ways they can use their fame to am­plify some of the so­lu­tions,’ she says. ‘If they’re not in­formed, they risk mis­di­rect­ing the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion around is­sues in ways which aren’t help­ful.’

There’s no deny­ing that ac­tivism can also be a tool for self-pro­mo­tion. Eye­brows were raised, for in­stance, when Kim Kar­dashian seemed to climb aboard the hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism band­wagon by vis­it­ing Don­ald Trump in the White House to lobby for prison re­form. ‘Celebri­ties de­pend on pub­lic sup­port, so it can be ben­e­fi­cial to their brand and, ul­ti­mately, their bot­tom line to show they care,’ says Brownell. ‘Ul­ti­mately, there will al­ways be cyn­i­cism about celebri­ties adopt­ing causes, but if they’re try­ing to use their pub­lic plat­form to make the world bet­ter, it’s a pos­i­tive thing.’ To sup­port UNHCR’S vi­tal work with refugees, please donate at


Right: For­eign Sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt with An­gelina last week. Left: she leaves the BFI af­ter the film fes­ti­val launch

Vic­to­ria Beck­ham is a UN AIDS good­will am­bas­sador. Be­low: Emma Wat­son is a UN women’s good­will am­bas­sador

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