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James Cameron dives onto National Geographic’s cover

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For only the second time in its 125-year history, National Geographic magazine is putting a big celebrity on the cover: Oscar-winning director James Cameron.

“We’re not about celebrities, we’re about exploration,” editor-in-chief Chris Johns told us Wednesday.  Cameron is “the only person who, by himself, has gone to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. He talks the talk and walks the walk.”

The “Titanic” and “Avatar” creator has a long association with National Geographic , primarily for his work on underwater research and innovation. Two years ago, the society awarded Cameron the title of Explorer In Residence. Last year, he made a solo descent to the deepest part of the ocean — about seven miles under the surface of the Pacific —  in a one-man submarine he designed.

“He unquestionably risked his life,” said Johns. “James Cameron is hard core. He’s out there. That’s why I love him.” And that’s why Cameron landed the June cover — shot underwater in his scuba suit.

National Geographic is best known for its gorgeous nature photography. Beauty is a big part of the cover selection process, explained Johns, but the aim is to “address the important issues that face humankind.”

So it’s very rare for anyone famous to appear on the cover. Cameron is the only Hollywood figure to ever make the cut; Winston Churchill the only politician. The honor typically goes to scientists and explorers: Buzz Aldrin, Sir Edmund Hillary, Jane Goodall.

That doesn’t mean that stars haven’t tried — to no avail. “We’ve had celebrities approach us about being on the cover, but that’s not what we do,” Johns told us, declining to name names. “The cover of National Geographic magazine is valuable real estate, so we’re going to use a lot of discretion.”

Cameron, who’s often said his movie career has funded his lifelong interest in exploration, will be honored at the 125th anniversary gala next month along with BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and philanthropist Howard Buffet.

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