If 2020 had a mantra, it would be: Don’t be afraid of change. Or at least, that’s the mantra I’ve given myself. This unprecedented year has seen the confluence of a global pandemic, important and long-simmering social justice movements, and too much political upheaval to count. At a global level, this change is coming in waves — traumatic, uprooting, destabilising. But sometimes, and in certain contexts, change is good, and necessary. One example of this promising change? Seeing celebrities pivot to using their public clout to highlight something positive, spurring attention, action, and evolution (even if we know they’re also in for the red carpet galas).
This year, three famous and popular couples chose to highlight personal milestones in a unique new way: using the websites and social media accounts of their charity partners. It started with that black-and-white photo of Katy Perry’s daisy nails holding the tiny hand of her new daughter, Daisy Dove Bloom, in August. Instead of followers seeing the first photos of Perry and Orlando Bloom’s first child on a glossy magazine cover, they saw the intimate photo on UNICEF’s website, right above a donation box asking interested fans to consider improving the lives of children around the world. It was an organic fit: Perry became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2013, while Bloom started publicly working with the organisation in 2007.
After Perry and Bloom announced Daisy’s birth through a UNICEF post, Amanda Seyfried and Thomas Sadoski shared the news of their second child through War Child, and Scarlett Johannson and Colin Jost sent their wedding announcement to Meals on Wheels. Barring a global pandemic, celebrities are constant fixtures at galas, dinners, and red carpet events benefiting various organisations, but using charities’ social media platforms to quietly disseminate relationship and family updates is different, and new.
As someone who keeps close tabs on all celebrity and pop culture happenings, I was a little surprised. Typically, celebrity couples choose to announce engagements, pregnancies, and births through outlets like PEOPLE, Us Weekly, and, if they want to allow journalists to pry a little more, Vanity Fair and Vogue. This exchange of goods is long established; celebrities give publications access to newsworthy life updates, and the publications give them coverage, relevance, and an opportunity for a controlled appearance in the public eye. Sometimes, magazines will pay for an exclusive, like in the famous bidding war for the first photos of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt in 2006. (Time Warner won the bid at $4.1 million; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie very publicly donated the money to charitable organisations, a process that was repeated when the couple had twins in 2008.) Compared to the magazine covers announcing a celebrity’s split, or perceived downfall, a star willingly sharing good news is a rare moment of publicity bliss. It’s the celebrity gossip industrial complex at work, and it’s changing in front of our eyes on Instagram.
After posting the first photo of Daisy Bloom, UNICEF says it received an “incredible wave of attention” from the announcement on over a dozen websites. “Katy and Orlando are UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors, and their decision to use this precious moment to amplify the needs of mothers around the world underscores their unwavering commitment to creating an equitable world for every child,” Shelley Diamond, Chief Marketing Officer from UNICEF USA, told Refinery29. “We are so grateful to all of the individuals who graciously use their platforms and voices to support UNICEF’s work, and who won’t stop until the rights of every child are upheld.”
It’s the celebrity gossip industrial complex at work, and it’s changing in front of our eyes on Instagram.
The charitable celebrity has always been one of Hollywood’s more palatable tropes, but the question of who approaches whom (celebrity versus organisation) has flipped over the years. Eighty years ago, the Hollywood Victory Committee, a government-funded initiative launched during World War II, worked in tandem with the Screen Actors Guild to utilise performers who were not active in the military by having them contribute to the ongoing war effort. Megastars like Marlene Dietrech and Clark Gable boosted morale by traveling from city to city for bond drives and providing entertainment for troops at the front. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even went so far as to have the actors explain rationing and Land-Lease programs to the masses, while also encouraging citizens to enlist. The HVC encouraged and promoted a different type of celebrity influence, yet it shared similar roots with the current idea of celebrity endorsements.
Spokespeople and executives at UNICEF, War Child, and Meals on Wheels all told Refinery29 that the idea to announce news on the charities’ accounts came from the celebrities themselves. The charities all excitedly agreed to be the harbinger of good news.
“The idea came from Thomas and Amanda and we were only too happy to execute it,” a spokesperson from War Child told Refinery29 in an email. “We received an enormous amount of positive press through this announcement, which is key to reaching new audiences and new supporters. Sometimes it’s an amplifying effect: People hear about us, learn more, follow us, and then when it comes to holiday giving or some other global event they think of us. We do know that the more times people hear about us and our work, the more likely they are to give, and Tom and Amanda have been incredible champions in this respect (and are donors themselves).”
This amplification brings in money, press, and exposure, and is the running theme throughout these announcements. Every charity mentioned in this story was happy to provide a comment to Refinery29 to express its gratitude for the celebrities’ good intentions. These are organisations that trade in humility and doing good work under the radar; it’s not their brand to gush about A-listers doing their part. But again, we’re in uncharted waters.
Citymeals on Wheels’ Executive Director Beth Shapiro also noted how organic this kind of post can feel, especially at a time when all of social media feels staged and performative.
“Celebrities have a unique platform and ability to engage their followers organically, which can result in critical attention and funds for causes that many people may not have previously been aware of,” says Shapiro. “While Citymeals works with the culinary and entertainment community on a variety of fundraising initiatives throughout the year, we recognise the increasing ability – and opportunity – that celeb’s’ personal announcements in partnership with non-profit partners can have to draw attention to causes that elevates the mission of an organisation.” Less Annie Leibovitz, more paying it forward, and we still get the punny “Jost Married” cover headline.
Celebrities are still going to announce news in exclusive interviews paired with lavish magazine covers, but it will be hard not to look at those with a newly critical eye: Why not share the attention with a charity in need that helps those in even greater need? Two birds, one stone, as they say. The nuance of a celebrity turning a private piece of information into a moment of positive impact for an organisation is one of the few good things out of 2020. Imagine that.
This story has been updated.