NEW YORK – Quick! Match these celebrities with their causes: Bono, Richard Gere, Tom Selleck, and Kim Basinger with Free Tibet, gun rights, Amnesty International, and animal rights.
Chances are you got at least one of those right. It's not hard to understand why.
Gere's support for Tibet, Bono's ties with Amnesty and Selleck's pro-gun stance are as well known as their professional achievements. In fact, with seemingly all the stars in Hollywood hawking some charity or other, it can be hard to remember that their primary professions are acting or singing.
Ten years from now, will Warren Beatty be remembered for Bulworth or for stumping for universal health care and his flirtation with a presidential run? Star couple Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins are cited more for their liberal charitable and political causes than for their joint turn in Bull Durham. And Sting has fallen far from his rebellious Police frontman days: He's now known less for his breathy music than as the perennial pitchman for rainforests.
"Celebrities are up there with other pillars of the community — they're voices of influence," said Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, an organization that pairs celebrities and causes. "Five years ago, no one knew what stem cells were, but Michael J. Fox took on the mantle and now it's been pushed to the top of the agenda."
It's a quid-pro-quo situation, according to Bob Oettinger, the president of Celebrity Outreach Foundation, another organization that matches celebrities who need causes to charities that need spokespeople.
"Charities want celebrities to increase their visibility, to boost their fund-raising efforts or their credibility," he said, "which is sometimes sort of ironic."
Celebrity backing for an issue, though usually helpful, can sometimes backfire.
For the average Joe, something's not right when Ed Begley Jr., who hasn't been able to steer his career straight since St. Elsewhere, advises everyone else to get electric-and natural-gas-powered cars. Or is there any reason why Americans should heed the fiscal-policy advice of Barbra Streisand, who supports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for Public Integrity?
"If you can bring a pro football player to a local high school football fund-raiser, it's going to raise more money for them and will grab people's attention," Oettinger said. "But sometimes it works against a cause if the general public perceives the celebrity as flaky or out of the mainstream."
Sometimes celebrities become so associated with a cause that it becomes a running joke. Gere will forever provoke sniggers from those who don't care if China leaves Tibet. And did anyone really think Bo Derek pulled in votes for Bob Dole's presidential campaign?
Even a fellow celeb — Blur singer Damon Albarn — said he'd had enough in a public statement that created some ripples in the music industry over a year ago.
"I've got a problem with Bono going to see the Pope about Third World debt," Albarn was quoted by MTV as saying in September 2000. "I don't question his sincerity, but I think it's creating monsters.
"You see so-called stars in these situations and they seem irrelevant. They don't even dress for the part; they don't look like they're there. They look like computer-generated inserts."
There's also the sense that, among the media darlings of Los Angeles and New York City, finding the season's philanthropic crusade is treated like a fad, like Pashmina scarves or Manolo Blahnik shoes. It was hard to avoid the feeling, for example, that those ubiquitous red ribbons sported by celebrities a couple years ago were actually badges of good conduct issued by the fashion police.
"There are causes that become chic," Oettinger said. "AIDS and the environment haven't had a difficult time finding celebrities because they're the chic causes in Hollywood. Other causes that are just as important, like Alzheimer's, literacy or drug prevention, have a harder time because they're not the cause du jour. There's a sort of herd mentality at times. When we first sit down with a celebrity about some charity, oftentimes the first question they ask is, 'Who else is doing it?'"
Even though the idea of celebs bearing guilt might bring groans and snarky remarks from many, Bronk said that's no reason for a well-known person not to support a cause he or she believes in or is personally affected by.
"Those are the people who say all of Congress is made up of crooks," she said. "Well, you know what I say to them? When was the last time you voted or got involved in your community? It's easy to be a nay-sayer."