How do you get a long-suffering but little-known slice of Africa on the White House agenda and onto American TV screens? George Clooney knows how.
Humble, self-effacing and dressed for safari, the Hollywood star and former Sexiest Man Alive was in the scruffy, straw-hut capital of Southern Sudan on Saturday to draw attention to the region’s weeklong independence referendum.
The vote, which begins Sunday, is likely to create the world’s newest nation. Clooney is working to help the region avoid a backslide toward war.
In picking a cause and roughing it in a developing country, Clooney is hardly alone. Celebrities are shining their star power on the poor, the war-weary and the disaster-prone more than ever.
"Our job is trying to keep this on the front burner of the news," Clooney told The Associated Press. "I’m the son of newsman. I understand how hard it is to keep stories on the front of news, and sometimes entertainment and news can be meshed together if you do it properly."
Clooney has had two meetings with President Barack Obama on Sudan and has persuaded reporters from outlets like NBC, CNN and Newsweek to focus on the country. He says he doesn’t know how much his efforts help, but that every bit counts.
"It’s important as any other individual in the country or in the world to engage in life and in the world," he continued. "You know, a celebrity is absolutely no different. I wasn’t a celebrity my whole life. I was an individual citizen for most of it, an unemployed citizen for a lot of it. … I don’t forfeit that just because I’ve happened to get lucky in my career."
Whether it’s Sean Penn in Haiti, Ben Affleck in Congo, or Angelina Jolie’s work in more than a dozen countries, stars are bringing attention to those in need. Bono, U2’s lead singer, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his aid work in Africa.
There’s even a website dedicated to the merger between Hollywood and helping. Look To The Stars lists more than 2,300 celebrities and 1,600 charities they support. Myrlia Purcell, who along with her husband began http://www.looktothestars.org in 2006, said stars bring recognition to a cause, which can be a boon for non-profits with tight budgets.
"Just imagine someone comes up to you on the street and says, ‘There’s a man around the corner giving out food to homeless people. Come and help.’ How many people are likely to stop what they are doing to go hand out food? Now imagine that the man helping out around the corner is George Clooney," Purcell said.
The aid organization World Vision has gotten celebrity endorsements from Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, actor Hugh Jackman and former first lady Laura Bush. The group’s Rachel Wolff said dramatic disasters like earthquakes can bring in quick donations, but that slowburn crises — like in Sudan — need help from celebrities like Clooney.
"He can do a lot of good just with his own celebrity, his own influence," she said. "And I think what differentiates Mr. Clooney and Angelina Jolie is they couple that with serious conversation with politicians and stakeholders, so they take it to the next level."
Affleck began going to Congo in 2007 and directed a short film called "Gimme Shelter" about the crisis. The director and actor told the AP after a trip there last year that he was insecure about getting involved at first because of how little he initially knew. He’s since studied up, and in November appeared on a panel on Congo alongside Sen. John Kerry and the State Department’s top official on Africa.
Clooney and Sudan activist John Prendergast helped launched the Satellite Sentinel Project, which will track troop movements in real time in Abyei, a north-south border region where the biggest threat of a return to conflict exists. The two wrote that they want to cast a spotlight on the hot spots on the border to help prevent Darfur-like atrocities.
"We are the anti-genocide paparazzi," Clooney told Time magazine this week in another attention-grabbing interview.
Clooney’s meetings with Obama were a way for the actor to get Sudan on the front pages and for the White House — which has been deeply engaged on the independence referendum — to show it is active on the issue. And the 49-year-old actor hinted that he’ll be back to Sudan.
He said there are two tricks to bringing attention to a cause. The first is to pick one.
"And the second thing is to create a constant drumbeat, to keep doing it," Clooney said. "You can’t just dip your toe in it and get out, you have to constantly come back and do it.
"Bono sort of led the way in terms of really being informed on the specific issue. Brad and Angie do it well, Matt Damon, I have a lot of friends who do it pretty well and really get involved. I see Ben Affleck doing it in the Congo now more and more. I find that people who pick a cause and stick to it, get to know something about it."