NY Times: Megastars Out to Save the World

For the star who has everything — money, fame, awards — the latest must-have accessory seems to be a saintly halo as images are burnished by high-profile attempts to save the world. Trying to turn themselves into glam versions of Mother Teresa has its perils, though. George Clooney addressed the United Nations Security Council without derision, lecturing its members about their responsibilities in Darfur, but Madonna had to do a whole damage-control tour after adopting a baby boy from Malawi.

When Gwyneth Paltrow appeared in tribal makeup for an AIDS-charity print ad, jokes flooded the Web and threatened to eclipse the campaign.

And for every benign image of Brad Pitt hammering nails in India while building Habit for Humanity houses with Jimmy Carter, there’s the risk of a Gwyneth Paltrow debacle. When she appeared in a print ad over the line, “I Am African,” with tribal stripes painted on her English-rose complexion, scathing jokes flooded the Internet and threatened to overshadow the ad’s purpose, to raise money for the AIDS charity Keep a Child Alive. The tightrope that charitable celebrities have to walk reveals how volatile the relationship is between the stars and their public, how easily a credulous audience can turn cynical.

The connection of stardom and charity is almost as old as movies themselves. The silent film idols Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks lent their images to the American Red Cross fund-raising campaign during World War I. Today the Red Cross has a director of celebrity and entertainment outreach, Amnesty International has a flourishing Artists for Amnesty program (both divisions created in the last six years), and many other philanthropic groups have created systems for tapping into the frenzy of celebrities with causes.

Bonnie Abaunza, the director of Artists for Amnesty, said that while celebrities have always been drawn to causes, “they’ve had more of an impact in the last few years.” She continued: “It’s more of a pop culture society, and there has also been a resurgence of social activism. It’s the synergy between the two,” that is behind the growth of celebrity-focused volunteerism. And, she said, stars create a valuable ripple effect. “When a Mira Sorvino attends a rally and speaks eloquently and passionately against the rape of women in Darfur, people read about it in People magazine, they see it on CNN, they want to get involved.”

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