George Clooney organized the Haiti telethon – and is also famous for his fight to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.
The one moment when movie stars light up during interviews – and I speak from experience – is when you ask them about their humanitarian endeavors. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of stardom is to be able to use their fame to put their favorite causes under a spotlight, raise funds and push governments to act. Today’s multiplication of gossip magazines, soft-news TV shows and celebrity-obsessed websites have given stars a bigger audience and more leverage to promote their cause.
Stars’ commitment to humanitarian causes is nothing new, and many have found the time to fight for social and political change well before it was trendy. Liz Taylor was active in the fight against AIDS in the 1980s when it was still accompanied by stigma and homophobia. Jane Fonda was famously vocal, and famously criticized, for her opposition to the Vietnam War, and never stopped being socially and politically active.
“I’m at my core a social activist, which means I see myself as an agent of change,” said Fonda, who recently focused her efforts on the prevention of teen pregnancies and other women’s issues. “I want to use my life story to teach women that they don’t have to be afraid of their strength, and men of their heart. When women will be free to be strong, and men compassionate, the world will be a better place.” Fonda’s most recent project was a documentary focusing on three girls’ programs in Nigeria called Girls’ Power Initiative.
Perhaps the best-known celebrity activist these days is Angelina Jolie, a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Jolie became interested in the plight of displaced people after filming Beyond Borders in Africa and Thailand.
“I was moved by what I saw and asked how I could help,” Jolie said. “I was told that in certain parts of the world the situation has been tragic for so long that journalists move on to the latest hot spot and people forget about it, and that only the presence of a celebrity can force media to talk about these regions again. So I said, ‘here I am’.”
Jolie can be regularly found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Haiti and other war and tragedy-stricken countries. Jolie and longtime love Brad Pitt also committed to charity projects in the countries of their adopted children and in Namibia, where daughter Shiloh was born.
“Through the Jolie-Pitt Foundation we are building clinics and hospitals in Cambodia, Vietnam and Ethiopia, the countries of origin of Maddox, Pax and Zahara, and in Namibia,” she said. “We travel there regularly, we want the kids to know where they come from, and in the future they will have to take care of these projects themselves.”
But Jolie isn’t the only notable who holds philanthropy in high regard.
“Instilling in my children the desire to help others is one of my goals as a father,” said Matt Damon, who co-founded Water.org, a charity that focuses on clean water and sanitation. Damon traveled to Africa, India and Haiti to dig wells. Bringing clean water to nations in need.
Doing good can take several forms, from supporting established organizations, to creating a foundation, to signing big checks, to speaking to politicians and media, to producing movies with a message. Sandra Bullock is famous for writing million dollar checks to the Red Cross after major catastrophes, while Harrison Ford personally piloted one of his jets to bring medical supplies to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Sharon Stone inherited Liz Taylor’s role as indefatigable spokesperson and fundraiser for AIDS-related causes, and her auctioneer’s skills at the annual amfAR benefit in Cannes are legendary. David Beckham is one of the many UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors; the soccer superstar is joined by Mia Farrow, Sir Roger Moore, Jackie Chan, Anjélique Kidjo, Shakira and Ricky Martin.
Leonardo DiCaprio, an ardent environmentalist, wrote, produced and narrated the documentary The 11th Hour, on the state of the environment. Sean Penn moved to Haiti to work with relief workers after the earthquake and he became a leader of the rebuilding effort.
George Clooney organized the Haiti telethon – and is also famous for his fight to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. He founded Not On Our Watch with his Ocean’s 11 co-stars Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt. Clooney visited Darfur many times, TV crew in tow, to shed light on the region’s dramatic situation. His charity has donated millions of dollars to the United Nations World Food Programme to help Darfur refugees. Another big name in celebrity activism is U2’s front man Bono, who strives to erase third world countries’ debt, and helped create the ONE and RED Campaigns.
Regardless of their big names, stars have made one thing clear – charity is something high on their list of priorities.