Hollywood Stars Find an Audience For Social Causes

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hollywood actress Drew Barrymore traipsed purposefully up the Capitol steps last month in a simple black dress, red-soled black pumps and russet mane, not for a film shoot but to lobby for child feeding programs in Africa as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. World Food Program.

Barrymore, 32, then took her extracurricular celebrity campaign to the airwaves at CNN with anchor Wolf Blitzer. She described children in Kenya telling her all they needed was one meal a day, pencils and paper. "It is life-altering, and it has humbled me to the core," she confided in a slow undertone.

"It struck a chord with me," said Michael Adams, 57, a guidance counselor at J. Albert Adams Academy, a middle school in Annapolis. He went online to research the World Food Program and called its Washington office to pledge $100.

"When I feel something is authentic, I respond," he said. "I could see the passion in her expression. Next, I am planning school-based lessons on world hunger and altruism and maybe a fundraiser."

Within a week, $10 donations snowballed into $25,000, according to Jennifer Parmelee, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program.

Barrymore is just one of many in a growing army of entertainment figures joining humanitarian crusades. Actors Meg Ryan and Salma Hayek and musician Sheryl Crow are among those who are using their star power to turn the spotlight on neglected global issues and to raise badly needed cash even at a time of donor fatigue.

Though celebrities have long attached their names to various causes -- the late Audrey Hepburn represented UNICEF, and Brigitte Bardot advocates for animal rights -- the links between Hollywood and philanthropy are stronger than ever. Stars now generate hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, sensitize the public and engage people attracted by popular culture with the serious foreign policy issues of the day.

"Almost every star has his or her cause," said Alan J. Abramson, director of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy program at the Aspen Institute, a research and advocacy organization. "Celebrities and their humanitarian work can sometimes show the way, especially overseas."

"Celebrities are like corporations," he added. "They make money, do good and get their names out."

Film star Lucy Liu appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on March 1, 2006, right after visiting earthquake victims in Pakistan on behalf of UNICEF. Traffic on the agency's Web site, http://unicefusa.org/, rose by 91 percent that day. "Compared to an average weekday, we received a 300 percent increase in calls and 240 percent more donations. All in all, we raised nearly $500,000," said Marissa Buckanoff, public relations director of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.

There is more, much more. When George Clooney appeared on Winfrey's show in April 2006 after visiting Africa with his father, contributions to UNICEF rose 20 percent.

And when Angelina Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, sat down for a two-hour interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper on June 20 last year, donations spiked by more than half a million dollars, Elisabeth Nolet said by telephone from UNHCR's Geneva office.

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