Definition: Hollywood Helicopter Hero â€“ a famous personality who uses charitable and / or popular social / environmental / economic issues to burnish their professional credentials and boost their celebrity status.
i) Bono: lead singer of Irish rock band U2, now bouncing about the world talking about how we must all get together and fight poverty
ii) George Clooney: actor famous for portraying urbane, debonair heroes, now jetting into Darfur where he can be urbane and debonair while pointing out the trauma behind him
iii) Diana Spencer: ex Princess of Wales (and now deceased) who used to hug AIDS and landmine victims, which helped her become the “people’s princess” instead of the shallow, venal royals we all read about in the tabloids
iv) Angelina Jolie and Madonna: one a so-so actress, the other a past-it singer, who helicopter into impoverished nations and find cute-looking poor kids to adopt
v) Al Gore: ex-presidential hopeful, and Nobel Prize-winning documentary producer, who gets to jet about the world, talking about how everyone must downsize to reduce global heating, while upsizing his personal body-mass and living it up in a massive estate (while buying carbon offsets to offset his offset)
However, my personal favourite is still:
vi) Oprah Winfrey: talk-show host about whom I have written considerably (and more below).
It must be nice to be a Hollywood Helicopter Hero. You get to associate yourself with noble causes (creating the image of compassion), speak humbly about the subject (giving gravitas) and tell everyone that something must be done (striking urgency and showing your deep personal commitment) but without having to do anything about it.
It’s a no-brainer as far as personal publicity is concerned.
And South Africa’s always been a great location for poseur benefactors. We have astonishing poverty which makes Calcutta look upmarket, yet we also have really fantastic hotels and restaurants a short drive away (the spoils of the most unequal economy in the world). Plus, Nelson Mandela is still alive and you can usually prevail on the old man to give you a hug on camera if you toss enough money at one or other noble cause.
Enter the Winfrey.
Back in December 2006 I wrote about Jackie Maarohanye, the “Angel of Soweto”. Mama Jackie had become famous for running a self-help program for disadvantaged kids in Soweto, the large black township outside Johannesburg. She had received millions of US dollars in dosh from willing benefactors; not least $ 1.14 million from Oprah Winfrey.
Then it turned out the whole thing was a sham. Maarohanye had collected various children and paid them to tell sob stories to donors. It worked. When confronted by journalists she kidnapped one and held him hostage.
Despite all this Maarohanye is still an Ashoka Fellow and received a personal invite by Winfrey to the opening of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in January 2007.
Winfrey’s Leadership Academy was an expensive boondoggle. The school cost $ 46 million to build and $ 800,000 per month to run. The dollar may buy less than it used to, but that’s still a lot of cash to throw at a mere 150 students. Yip. 150 students.
Fortunately, the $ 60 000 per year each student costs was covered entirely by Winfrey.
Winfrey got to swan about and declare how wonderful she was. 150 girls got an education.
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Yet, like Britney Spears before her, Winfrey is discovering that kids hang around a lot longer than it takes to snap that front-page image. Children are an ongoing responsibility.
Over the past few weeks the school has been subject to an inordinate amount of bad press. Staff are alleged to have been abusing the girls, who are kept under near prison conditions.
You’d think that Winfrey would have learned about responsibility after her experiences with Maarohanye. However, she hasn’t.
“I trusted her. When I appointed her, I thought she was passionate about the children of Africa. But I’ve been disappointed,” said a tearful Winfrey of the principal of the school, Dr Mzimane. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
What to make of all this?
Firstly, that Hollywood stars have fallen for their own bullshit. All those kids swanning about, humming along to “We are the world,” genuinely believe that supporting some over-inflated celebrity is a way to end suffering and bring about a “better” world (whatever that means). But so do the celebrities.
They genuinely think that all that is required is that we all “care” about poverty, neglect and so on.
Poverty is not simply the absence of money or opportunity. Anyone â€“ especially Hollywood stars â€“ who places themselves in front of the most impoverished and desperate are going to find out the hard way that money, in and of itself, solves nothing.