Paris to Rwanda: Socialite Becomes Latest Star Hitched to Charity
How Involved Are Celebrity Charity Activists, and Do They Have Ulterior Motives?
By BLAIR SODEN
Oct. 19, 2007 —
The pictures are everywhere — celebrities dressed down in earth-tone T-shirts and jeans, covered in dirt and looking incredibly out of place among a group of villagers in some Third-World country; it’s a far cry from the red carpet.
Now Paris Hilton says she, too, is jumping on the humanitarian aid bandwagon as she plans her upcoming trip to Rwanda. Some are questioning Hilton’s motives for linking up with a humanitarian aid organization, wondering if she’s only doing it in effort to revive her tarnished reputation, or if she is truly involved in the charity Playing for Good’s cause.
Hilton’s recent entrance into the world of charitable giving raises the question: Are celebrities lending more than just their names to a cause, or is it all about the photo-op?
Celebs and Causes Go Way Back
Celebrities’ association with humanitarian aid organizations is nothing new. Danny Kaye was one of the first actors to join a charitable organization when he was named a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in 1954. The comedian paved the way for other entertainers, among them Audrey Hepburn, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Beckham and Clay Aiken.
While Unicef was one of the first international aid programs, as need spread throughout the world other organizations started popping up, adding to the list of charitable celebrities.
Now organizations are even being established by celebrities. In 2006, actor Don Cheadle founded the Enough project with human rights activist John Prendergast.
Prendergast said the celebrity attachment is an integral part of his organization.
“Celebrities are like major recruiters to the humanitarian cause,” said Prendergast. “They certainly increase the number of people and donors interested in the cause.”
Lisa Szarkowski, who heads the ambassador program for Unicef agreed.
“Celebrities have the ear and attention of the public,” said Szarkowski. “They tend to command more attention than talking heads from our organization.”
Attention that leads to big bucks. Aiken asked fans to donate money to Unicef to help the children in Lebanon and raised more than $75,000 in 24 hours.
So getting involved in causes may help celebrities draw attention to a specific need in some other part of the world as well as get their names in the spotlight — but just how involved are they?
How Do Celebrities Get Involved?
It’s not easy to be selected as a Unicef ambassador. The group sets high standards for celebrities to live up to.
“In terms of becoming an ambassador, it’s definitely a process,” said Szarkowski. “We like to work with people who are committed to the cause and the mission and to align themselves with us for the long term.”
Aiken made the cut when he was named a Unicef ambassador in 2004. The organization approached Aiken after hearing of his involvement with his own charity, the Bubel/Aiken foundation that helps young people with special needs.
Aiken said he felt obligated to help those in need.
“One of the most important responsibilities that you have if you’re answering to the public is that you try to use that position in a way that serves the people you’re trying to entertain,” said Aiken. “I think you have a responsibility when you realize you have kids watching you. … You can set an example to have kids doing drugs, or you can set an example to have kids helping their communities or their world.”
Preparing for a Trip
Despite some common misconceptions, celebrity representatives don’t just jet set off for a photo-op; they prepare for months before taking a trip.
“We prepare them pretty well,” said Szarkowski. “People don’t become ambassadors or supporters of ours unless they go through a process of learning about us and engaging with us.”
Celebrities sit through classes to learn about Unicef and all the various issues that threaten children’s survival around the world.
“We study as much as we possibly can before we go,” said Aiken. “And I study after I go, because I want to be an expert on it. I think it’s a disservice to the country you’re going to and the children you’re trying to help if you don’t know what’s going on and can’t speak knowledgably about your experience.’
Aiken said the preparation is necessary in order to meet with health ministers and other officials on these trips.
“It wouldn’t behoove anyone if we just went in to take pictures and came back,” said Aiken. “The goal of all these visits and the reason we sit through extremely long sessions sometimes is so when we come back we know what we’re talking about.”
What Really Happens on Field Visits
Aiken didn’t know what to expect during his first visit to Uganda. He walked into the minimalist community center, where he expected nobody to know his name. Suddenly, he was greeted with bows from the crowd.
“When we walked in, they kept calling me your excellency,” laughed Aiken. “I think both visits we’ve been on there have been misconceptions about how important I am.”
All joking aside, no matter how famous — or infamous — a celebrity is, celebrity support is essential.
But with so many problem areas across the globe, how do celebrities decide which country they want to visit? For most, the decision is made based on where the greatest need is at that time.
“The celebrities we work with want to go where they can be most helpful,” said Szarkowski. “We’re fortunate to have that caliber of people who basically say to us, ‘Tell me where you want me to go.'”
In her eight years at Unicef, she said she’s never had a celebrity refuse to go where they were asked to go. And the places they’re asked to go certainly don’t come with luxe accommodations.
“It’s usually a tent somewhere.That’s our standard accommodation,” said Szarkowski.
Aiken and others pay their own way when they travel on behalf of Unicef. However, once they reach their destination, they don’t have the need for many expenses. Most nights they’re sleeping in tents on the ground.
In addition to the bare bones travel accommodations, celebrities must cope with extremely dangerous situations. In order to avoid conflict, Prendergast said every minute detail of the trip must be mapped out.
“These trips have to be planned very well to ensure maximum impact and security,” said Prendergast.
Security is something Hilton has expressed concern about regarding her upcoming trip, which has some people questioning her motivations.
“I’m scared, yeah. I’ve heard it’s really dangerous,” she said. “I’ve never been on a trip like this before.”
All Attention Is Good Attention
Hilton will be filming scenes for her new reality TV show while she’s in Rwanda, which has left some questioning the genuineness of her visit. But not everyone is upset about celebrities like Hilton lending their name to causes without much further involvement, if that is so in her case.
“I wouldn’t judge people for what their motivations are,” said Szarkowski. “We need everyone with a voice to help us get behind that and change that reality.”
But, Aiken cautions, a focus on one organization or charity is important to the public.
“I get requests from every organization to come and do this or that,” said Aiken. “It’s not that I don’t have a passion for kids with cancer, because I do. I feel like you can dilute your message if you talk about too many things.”
While it remains to be seen how involved Hilton will be with her organization of choice, one celebrity who no doubt has stolen the humanitarian aid spotlight is in it for all the right reasons, according to Aiken.
“I look to Angelina Jolie as a prime example of someone who is doing an amazing job,” said Aiken. “She really has a passion and she goes in and makes a point to educate herself about what’s going on and that’s the only way to do it.”
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