Tom Hiddleston is trending on Twitter, and not for a good reason. Last night at the Golden Globes, he won a best actor award for the AMC series The Night Manager. But his acceptance speech didn’t go over as well as his performance. Hiddleston recounted a visit he made to see medics from Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan. He was serving as a humanitarian spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund, and some of the medics “wanted to say hello” because “during the shelling the previous month they had binge-watched The Night Manager.”
Hiddleston continued: “The idea that I could … provide some relief and entertainment for people who work for UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Food Programme who are fixing the world in the places where it was broken made me immensely proud.”
The internet showed no mercy. Sample tweets:
Hiddleston is part of a long list of stars who’ve served as the celebrity face of a global goodwill organization. Today, the U.N. roster of celebrity advocates ranges from singer Selena Gomez to Indian cricket superstar Sachin Tendulkar. This generation’s most famous U.N. goodwill ambassador, Angelina Jolie, has dedicated a significant portion of her time to the UNHCR’s work with refugees. Other nonprofits have celebrity advocates as well.
So let’s step back from the Hiddleston flap and take a look at this phenomenon. What makes an ideal celebrity spokesperson? Are there some who are better than others? And how do NGOs — nongovernmental organizations — go about picking them?
The U.N. has a long history of integrating celebrities in its campaigns, dating back to stage and screen star Danny Kaye, who linked up with the child-focused UNICEF agency in 1954.
Many who work in the international aid community point to the 1980s as the “tipping point” when celebrities and NGOs really forged bonds. That’s the view of Sam Worthington, chief executive officer of InterAction, an alliance of international-oriented NGOs (InterAction has worked with the U.N. in the past). Consider the 1985 Live Aid concert, which produced the song “We Are the World” to aid victims of the Ethiopian famine. A who’s who of the music industry sang a song that sold 20 million copies, with proceeds going to famine victims.
Picking a celebrity to front a cause isn’t just a matter of approaching a hot star. First and foremost, a celebrity must be “likable” with a stellar character, says Nanette Braun, chief of communications at U.N. Women.
Worthington emphasizes that passion is central to a successful partnership between NGO and celebrity. A track record helps to indicate this. Anne Hathaway, he says, named as a U.N. goodwill ambassador last year, is a good example of a person who has been outspoken for girls and women’s rights: Hathaway has held previous posts advocating against child marriage with the Nike Foundation and was the narrator of Girl Rising, a 2013 CNN documentary that followed seven girls around the world as they sought an education and better lives for themselves.
But a previously held public stance can only go so far in indicating a celebrity’s commitment, Worthington stressed. “The issue is finding a celebrity for whom the cause actually means something and an individual who is able to advance the cause,” he says.
Rajesh Mirchandani, the vice president of communications at the Center for Global Development, agrees. But there is a down side, he notes: Celebrities can be distracting because of their celebrity. “If they [celebrities] are too famous, or infamous, the media is going to be more interested in their personal doings than the project they are supposed to be fronting,” he said.
An “unlikely but powerful” example of a celebrity who has been able to walk the tightrope between offering an organization much-needed publicity and awareness while also acting as a strong role model is actress Angelina Jolie, says Mirchandani. Jolie began her work with the UNHCR as a goodwill ambassador in 2001 after adopting eldest son Maddox while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia and becoming interested in the local history of refugees. Jolie developed a focus on the needs of refugee women and emergency medical relief. In 2012, the U.N. offered her the rare distinction of “special envoy,” recognizing her role in attracting attention to the refugee cause.
But celebrity/charity matches don’t always work out. PETA, the animal rights group, once arranged for model Naomi Campbell to pose nude to promote its stance: “We’d rather go naked than wear fur.” A few years later, Campbell was promoting fur for Dennis Basso.
Then there’s the clueless celebrity. In 2013 a Telegraph reporter accompanying Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern on a goodwill trip to Sierra Leone with the group World Vision wrote this: “I ask about her new role as charity ambassador. She says that she has never been to Africa, and does not know what to expect. As if to prove this point, when we refuel in Dakar, Senegal, she gets mixed up and says we have stopped in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, some 4,000 miles away.”
Other celebrities are praised for their involvement. U2 singer Bono is cited by industry analysts as a model celebrity in his efforts to bring attention to poverty and disease in Africa. The ONE Campaign has been lauded by groups like the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for helping pass the Electrify Africa Act of 2016, which would help bring electricity to 50 million Africans by 2020, and GAVI for helping to secure funding for vaccines.
Emma Watson, who sparkled in Hollywood with her turn as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter franchise, has since marked herself as a vocal feminist with her #heforshe gender equality campaign after she was appointed a goodwill ambassador for U.N. Women in 2014. A video of her speech promoting the cause went viral and boosted not only Watson’s profile as an actress with a conscience but also the profile of U.N. Women.
Indeed, celebrities have been the backbone of many fundraising and publicity efforts. The U.N. even has an office dedicated to brokering partnerships.
But once the celebrity is chosen to represent their cause, it’s really up to him or her what to do with it. Commitments can vary, and there is no ruling authority that watches what a celebrity does.
And there is always the danger of the Hiddleston backlash.
“In the best cases, the most enlightened celebrities understand that their fame and wealth is not the objective, but the platform from which to make a real difference in the world,” says Mirchandani, ruefully adding, “If only they all did.”
After Hiddleston’s remarks last night, it seemed that no one was talking about the work of Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan. They were just talking about … Tom Hiddleston.
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