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The rise of the celebrity conscience

ByPoppy-Anna Waterman

Sep 30, 2014
courtesy of UN Women/Simon Lueth

In today’s society it appears that the social and political reach of celebrities outweighs that of elected politicians. Celebrities, elected through the attention of the media and general population, have a power of influence that most politicians do not: David Cameron has 797,000 followers on Twitter, a meagre sum in comparison to Emma Watson’s 14.7 million. However, according to the cynics, celebrities are involved in social issues not for altruistic causes, but rather as an exercise of self-promotion, furthering their ‘brand’, which seems to undervalue the positive message.

Emma Watson, known worldwide for her role in the Harry Potter film series, was recently appointed as UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, and gave an impassioned speech on feminism and gender, launching the ‘HeForShe’ campaign, at a UN conference in New York. In her speech, Watson formally invited men to help end the inequalities that women and girls face globally, and to challenge perceptions of feminism, which is so often seen by the misinformed as “man-hating”. The response has been massive, especially on Twitter. Celebrities are often criticized for being poor role models, but Watson’s campaign for equality can only be interpreted in a positive way, encouraging people to become involved in social and political issues. Although politicians are elected to serve public interest, ‘that Harry Potter girl’ clearly has more national and international influence for social change.

It’s not unusual for celebrities to involve themselves in controversial issues. Vivienne Westwood caused a stir recently by publicly declaring her support for Scottish independence, by attaching ‘Yes’ badges to each of her models at London Fashion Week. She also made provocative statements, such as: “I hate England […] I like Scotland because somehow I think they are better than we are. They are more democratic.” Westwood has a history of sparking controversy, for example wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I’m Julian Assange” when visiting the WikiLeaks founder at the Ecuadorian Embassy, and in 2008, furnishing her catwalk models with placards reading: “Fair trial my arse”, referring to the incarceration of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. However, some may accuse Westwood of being contrived and chasing issues for publicity. Indeed, it is part of her brand to behave in this way.

Another celebrity who has courted controversy for his outspoken views is Russell Brand, whose interview with Jeremy Paxman was one of the UK’s ten most-watched YouTube clips of 2013. Brand called for a “revolution”, voicing, for many, opinions that they themselves could not articulate. “The apathy doesn’t come from us, the people,” he said. “The apathy comes from politicians. They’re only interested in serving corporations.” The result was lots of people talking about Brand, but also a lot of people talking about the state of democracy. Brands’ obvious passion for reform seems to be trying to involve everyone: “We have brilliant thinkers and organisations and no one needs to cook up an egalitarian Shangri-La on their todd; we can all do it together”. Yet, it is not irrelevant that Brand was promoting his ‘Messiah Complex’ tour at the time.

However, celebrities are being used as much as they are furthering their own image. Leonardo DiCaprio, recently appointed UN Messenger of Peace, spoke at the same conference as Watson, to nearly two hundred heads of state, imploring them to take action against climate change, to “make history or be vilified by it.” The UN uses celebrities like DiCaprio because people listen and feel connected to them. They understand that people won’t know the names of all the worlds’ political leaders, but will know DiCaprio, the Titanic star. Therefore, while the public may be more convinced by the points of view conveyed from celebrities than politicians, essentially, it is the politicians that court the vote of the public.


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