Angelina Jolie has transformed herself from troubled teen star into the queen of hearts with her tireless humanitarian campaigning. From the crisis in Cambodia to the current global refugee situation, the 41-year-old star is always on the frontlines of change.
THE PEACEFUL PUNK
I n modern society, fame and philanthropy appear to go hand in hand – and upholding the appearance of “giving something back” is a vital part of modern celebrity. But for actress Angelina Jolie, her dedication and relentless campaigning on behalf of others sometimes tip the scales in the other direction: humanitarian first, Hollywood star second. Once a troubled starlet, Jolie has seemingly dealt with her own demons by focusing her energy on trying to limit the suffering of others. Having grown up in Los Angeles, she struggled with depression, drug abuse, and self-harming throughout her youth. Her father, actor Jon Voight, left her mother, actress Marcheline Bertrand, when Jolie was barely one.
This experience – coupled with the feeling that her own family was not as wealthy as those of her peers at Beverly Hills High School – left her feeling disenfranchised. In spite of her early success as an actor, Jolie remained deeply troubled, and she says her humanitarian work has helped heal some of her deeper wounds. “It’s a big difference, but all the pain I went through when I was younger was my way of trying to get to where I am now,” she confesses. “I wasn’t happy with how things were for me because I thought I wasn’t accomplishing enough, and all the characters I played in my films were leading much more interesting lives than I was.” In 2001, while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia, Jolie found herself moved by the plight of those living in the
war-torn country. On her return home, she contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and began her enduring relationship with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), becoming an official ambassador the same year.
For over a decade I have been visiting refugee camps and orphanages and other places working with the United Nations and the UNHCR.
“The basic thing was that I was searching for some greater purpose and goal in life, and when I started working with UNESCO and doing humanitarian work, I began feeling that I could point to something concrete that I was doing to help people who had very little hope,” Jolie explains. Celebrity endorsement, or even taking on a role as an ambassador, does not necessarily mean a star will “get their handsdirty” per se. But for Jolie, an important part of her work has always been to get out into the world and see the heartache and poverty for herself – to comfort the mother who lost a child in conflict and hear firsthand the plight of a teenage soldier forced into combat from a young age.
Since 2001 she has gone on more than 40 field missions in over 30 countries, from Pakistan to Sierra Leone. She has always covered her own costs and stayed in the basic accommodations
provided for fellow aid workers – a far cry from the glamorous world of Hollywood. This altruism shines a light on those celebrities for whom column inches are everything. “There are many times when there are no media present, and many times in the past when I was working on the ground there was no immediate attention,” Jolie says. “For over a decade I have been visiting refugee camps and orphanages and other places working with the United Nations and the UNHCR. So I know what I’ve been able to contribute personally and in terms of creating greater public awareness of the issues at stake and the actual conditions of the people and children in various regions.” Naturally, the presence of such a high-profile personality can cause a furor that negates the good work they are trying to do. But the 41-year-old star is acutely aware of this dilemma.
“There is a fine line to walk, but I’m very conscious of that line. Everywhere I go I try to balance the needs of field officers who are doing the real work and also serving the general interest of creating awareness, which can influence political decisions and public support, which are vital,” Jolie says. “I believe that after all this time, though, the public knows how serious and committed I am to the work I’m doing in these regions.”
Though her mission has very much been global, Cambodia in particular has maintained a strong place in Jolie’s heart. In 2002, while married to actor Billy Bob Thornton, Jolie adopted her first child, seven-month-old Maddox Chivan, from an orphanage in Battambang, Cambodia. She later bought a property in the province in an attempt to maintain her son’s connection to his heritage. Unfortunately, the land was adjacent to Samlout National Park in the Cardamom Mountains and plagued by poachers who threatened the endangered species there. Jolie’s response was to buy the entire park and turn it into a wildlife reserve – named the Maddox Jolie Project. Along with three biological children, Jolie adopted her daughter Zahara from Ethiopia and son Pax Thien from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The path was by no means an easy one, though, as in each case, controversy surrounded the adoption process. In the case of Maddox, it was purely bureaucratic due to the United States temporarily banning adoptions from Cambodia amidst child trafficking allegations, but the ”trend” of celebrities adopting children from developing countries often raises the debate on how ethical the process is, with mothers coming forward afterwards – as was the case with Zahara, saying it was not her decision to put the child up for adoption in the first place.
Regardless, one look at Jolie and husband Brad Pitt with their enormous and diverse brood proves it is possible to break down the conventions of traditional family and raise children who
are happy, stable, and, above all, deeply loved. “When it comes to my children, I can see how important it is to be there for them and teach them things and to be with Brad and create this sense of a family unit,” Jolie says. “It’s also fascinating how the children react to Brad and I differently, and how each of us has a different connection to each of our children.”
Jolie and her husband have sought to instill in each of their children a sense of worldliness and gratitude for their incredible lives. The couple also try to involve their children in their humanitarian work and foster an awareness and empathy for the plight of others. Following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005, Pitt has worked tirelessly to rebuild
homes and support families in the city’s Ninth Quarter, one of the worst hit neighborhoods. “We both feel inspired by the work we’re doing and particularly a project like Brad’s Make It Right [house-building] project,” Jolie says. “We lead very fulfilling lives. We both want the same things. We want to be as happy and connected as we possibly can be because the whole point of being a family is to share your love and caring with your children. We want our kids to always feel that we’re one big loving family taking this big adventure together.“
In the same way Jolie strives to instill compassion in her own children, it appears her selfless attitude was nurtured by her mother, Marcheline. “From a very young age, I saw her doing aid work. She took me to an Amnesty International dinner when I was about nine,” recalls Jolie, who lost her mother to cancer. “She was very involved in Native American issues – she was part Iroquois Indian and French Canadian. And in the end, we started a foundation together for Native American people. It was instilled in me from a very young age how important it is to do nice things for other people. I saw how it made her life very happy and fulfilled.”
She then adds, “The biggest lesson she taught me was that it’s the little things that often count the most in life. This was somebody who the world didn’t know about at all, but her simple acts of kindness left a huge impression. I still get letters from people who work in a dentist’s office, for example, who will tell me something she did for their daughter – or something she remembered that just stunned them, because it was so out of the blue and thoughtful.”
Yet, astonishingly, there are still snipers taking shots at Jolie’s altruism and achievements. Following the recent announcement by the London School of Economics that Jolie is to be a visiting professor in practice as part of the MSc it offers in Women, Peacekeeping and Security, some have been quick to criticize the appointment, saying she lacks the academic credentials. That rather misses the point, and one can be sure that Jolie has come a long way since her troubled childhood, developing the thick skin she needs to deflect such detractors. “I’m a much stronger and better woman today,” she nods. “I’ve become a deeper and more understanding individual, and working for the UN and other missions has been a source of incredible satisfaction to me. It’s been so important to me to try to contribute as much as I can to these causes.” For an actress who is becoming more ubiquitous in the refugee camps of Syria than the hills of Hollywood, it is obvious.
Written by Karen Anne Overton.