Last week the mere rumour that the Duchess Fergiana was to become goodwill ambassador to the UN High Commission for Refugees caused heads the length and breadth of the land to crash on to the tables before them. Already perplexed by a rash of celebrity photo shoots, with the misery of the disadvantaged world as image accessory - Samantha Fox in Bosnia, Cher in Armenia - the public is now worried by a phenomenon that once seemed wholly a force for good.
A fine line exists here, difficult to define because motivation in the aid world is always a blend of altruism and self-interest. But on the right side is the celebrity who is helping the cause more than they help themselves: on the wrong side the celebrity who helps themselves more than the cause.
Fergie's great triumph was to plonk herself so far on the wrong side of the line as to clarify it. How can a woman so closely associated with the freebie and the short cut - who went for the fun bits of being Royal, sidestepping the sacrifice and slog - help the campaign for refugees more than she helps herself? Her support for refugees will no doubt continue and we will see a changed Fergie, but that will be the cause helping Fergie. Her contribution is to win publicity, but where will that focus? On Fergie.
The intriguing symbiotic relationship between causes and stars first became big when Hollywood met the troops in the Second World War. But it was after Live Aid that it began to range dizzily out of control. Bob Geldof and the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine was a match made in heaven. Not only did it raise money, but it created a new younger donor sector and initiated public rebellion, which turned Third World aid into a voting issue. Geldof had indisputable commitment. He attacked the apathy of world leaders. He showed the public how to help. And he found a purpose which turned an ailing pop star into a global hero.
No wonder charities jumped on to the bandwagon. No wonder celebrities jumped on, too. Media fame, the phenomenon of this half-century, brings a granting of wealth and power out of all proportion to the gifts which earned it. Celebrities know it. Through charity they can give back, and put the power to good use. More cynically, it improves the image and boosts the power. Why resist, under such pressure from the charities to help?
'And why shouldn't Fergie help?' is the cry from some. But the very proliferation of stars with causes dilutes their effectiveness. The ones without integrity turn the public off the rest. It is hard to separate the helpful wheat from the damaging chaff.
Among the wheat are effective messengers, who have delved deep into the issues, have an appropriate persona and communicate responsibly. In an age of short concentration spans, popular stars can sugar the pill of unpalatable facts. If Lenny Henry can explain the Third World debt crisis, if Julie Christie can show why Cambodia needs government help more than private donations, great. But then there is the chaff, ranging around the world with too much of the cynical quest for self-promotion in the motivational mix.
Crassness and appalling taste matter. Aid is a political issue. Every starving baby pictured in celebrity arms is the victim of a political problem - be it war, debt, bad governance or the North-South imbalance. Human beings used as props, stripped of dignity, appear less than human. Ludicrously off-centre gifts - Hot Wheels and Barbie dolls from Cher for the Armenian kids, chocolate Horlicks for Africa from Robert Maxwell - trivialise need. Saccharine poses and statements create the illusion that help is being given when it is not, and that caring in itself is enough. And many are the resigned and bitter sighs from relief workers, devoting precious resources to escorting the stars around the starving. God knows what they made of Cher and her depilatorist in Armenia.
'Oh but it raises money' is the universal justification. Of course donated money helps, but it is a drop in the ocean alongside what governments can do. The pounds 16m raised by this year's Red Nose Day was less than 0.9 per cent of the Government's annual Overseas Aid budget. Comic Relief raises awareness as well as money. But if the illusion is created elsewhere that models hugging babies let governments off the hook then that is very bad indeed. Problems cannot be solved by the rattle of collecting tins and what really helps is the pressure of informed opinion.
Integrity - or its absence - is hard to specify but easy to sense. What will stop the rot is more integrity right along the line. Charities easily become over-
grateful to the helpful celebs. They have a right to question who is helping who, become more choosy and demand much more. Celebrities should look deep into their souls, not their make-
up bags, before they hop on the plane. And if the public were more willing to give and get informed without being spoon-fed by stars, then celebrity craziness might slacken off.
Who better than Fergie to press this message home? Who knows what we have missed now she is denied her UN job? Fergie adopts orphan and gives her old ball gowns to the malnourished. Fergie poses in leopard-skin bikini with the naked. Fergie weds starving refugee and takes him to Tramps. It would have been the perfect cause for her.
The writer's novel 'Cause Celeb' will be published by Picador next year.
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