Stepping out for the UN

WHAT do a Somali woman who had her clitoris removed with a dirty razor at the age of five and a TV personality best known for her trademark sunglasses have in common? The answer is that both the model Waris Dirie and the travel programme presenter Magenta Devine have been appointed as UN special ambassadors. They will face the cameras at the Foreign Press Association in London today as they front the launch of Face To Face, a three-year campaign by the UN Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation aimed at promoting global awareness of women's rights.

It might once have been the province of Hollywood, but bureaucracies such as the UN have taken to the cult of fame with a vengeance. Danny Kaye started it all in 1954 when he was appointed as a roving "goodwill ambassador" by Unicef. Today, all manner of celebs have been appointed. Special ambassadors chosen in recent years include Roger Moore, Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Olivia Newton-John, Imran Khan, Bianca Jagger, footballer John Fashanu and Dallas actress Linda Gray.

But what can they achieve? Wirie, now a Pirelli calendar girl, was appointed in October to publicise a campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation. As someone who suffered because her parents believed she had "bad things between her legs", she was an obvious choice. "I see myself as an ambassador on behalf of my sisters in Africa," she says. "I was strong enough to survive and I want to make a difference."

The choice of Devine, however, seems less obvious. She became a special ambassador two weeks ago, her name having been put forward by Population Concern, which is a partner in the Face To Face campaign in this country. According to Russell Dickson, the organisation's fund-raising manager, they contacted her a couple of years ago as "a shot in the dark" and since then she has written to showbiz celebrities on the organisation's behalf.

"She's just the frontperson, if you like," says Dickson. He is unsure what she will be doing in the months to come. "I expect the UN will be asking her to go out and visit projects," he says.

Devine herself is also somewhat mystified as to what her future duties will involve. She says she will be signing a contract in the near future, although she hasn't seen it yet. "You have to work," she says. "You've got to be proactive ... It's not just a case of using your name."

Devine says her appointment came as an "incredible surprise", although she describes herself as "passionate" about women's issues and says her travels for BBC2's Rough Guide shows have brought her face to face with the problems facing women in the Third World. Possibly the main reason for her surprise was her comparative lack of celebrity status compared to other special ambassadors. As Dickson puts it: "Most of them are quite high-powered, very well-known people throughout the world, so in some ways it's quite a feather in her cap."

Tim Hulse