Wyclef, don’t phunk with celebrity politics

Why did media outlets campaign for Joanna Lumley to be PM but laugh at Wyclef’s desire to be president?

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

It looks like Haiti, for once, has averted a disaster. It has barred hip hop star Wyclef Jean from running for president.

Haiti’s election board thwarted the former Fugees frontman’s leadership bid on Friday on the basis that he did not pass the residency requirement, which stipulates that presidential candidates must have lived in Haiti for at least five years. Wyclef, Haitian-born but New York-bred, had built his leadership bid on a foundation of pity, entertainment and self-promotion – a bad political recipe, indeed.

Yet what is curious is that his run for prez was met with so much incredulity and derision amongst commentators and other celebrities. After all, celeb campaigns based on pity for the poor and dazzling photo ops are normally cheered these days. What was different in Wyclef’s case?

Even before Haiti’s election board announced its disallowance of Wyclef’s candidacy, the rapper had inspired column inches of scorn. In a diatribe against ‘sleb politics’, one writer warned against vacuous and arrogant celebs who will ‘take the diamonds from a mass murderer [referring to Naomi Campbell] or try to become the president of Haiti, because they know no better. They think they are entitled to everything. They think they can do anything, and they think they are right.’ Another commentator implied that celebrities like Campbell and Wyclef have invaded and dumbed down world affairs.

There is truth in these observations, yet the question remains: why are some celebrities regarded as worthy of meddling in politics while others are dismissed as big-headed morons? Why are some invited by politicians and the media to pontificate about things like poverty reduction, international development and health policy, while others are waved aside as megalomaniac bling-blinded airheads?

Lately, it seems, there has emerged a hierarchy of do-gooding celebrities, with some seen as supporting causes that are inherently good and beyond contention, while others are regarded as attention-seeking, power-hungry and deluded.

On the side of the angels we find, for instance, British celebrity chef turned anti-obesity crusader Jamie Oliver, whose televised lobbying for healthy school meals and clampdowns on the overweight have been hailed as revolutionary. Criticising Oliver’s approach to kids (whom he sees as fast-food addicted slobs) and parents (irresponsible tossers), and the way in which the New Labour government and the media alike swooned over the straight-talking, laddish chef, is pretty much taboo. Expletive-littered letters in response to spiked articles on Oliver testify to this fact.

Back in 2005, during the Live 8 and Make Poverty History campaigns, celebrities like Bob Geldof and Bono were welcomed with open arms on to the political stage, while charities and anti-poverty campaigners treated them as Africa-saving heroes. These campaigns relied heavily on celebrities to promote their causes and gained widespread support across the media. So Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow refused to take off his white Make Poverty History wristband, saying that the campaign was ‘beyond contention’.

Then there was the fawning over actress and former Bond girl Joanna Lumley after she became spokesperson last year for the campaign for retired Gurkha soldiers to have the right to settle in Britain. The Guardian described her as ‘Goddess of the Ghurkas’ and even ran a poll asking readers if she should become prime minister. Some said she should be made a dame, while then prime minister Gordon Brown praised her ‘campaigning skills’.

Other celebrities, however, are ridiculed when they dare to get involved in politics. In 2006, Sharon Stone was widely mocked, including on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, when she offered to ‘kiss just about anybody for peace in the Middle East’. She then set off for Tel Aviv where she held a press conference with former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres. Stone was dismissed as a pretentious bimbo who should stick to getting naked on the big screen instead of meddling in serious, real-life matters.

In January this year, when Pulp Fiction star John Travolta showed up in the post-earthquake Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, in a private jet packed with ready-to-eat military rations and medicines, his film hero antics were met with widespread cringing. But this was not so much because he was a celebrity getting involved in emergency aid – after all, the George Clooney-led ‘Hope for Haiti Now’ telethon was praised for raising £35million in just two hours. No, it was the fact that Travolta brought with him a bunch of Scientology ministers which made his mission jar with liberal sensibilities. He was seen as imposing a religious agenda on Haiti rather than acting selflessly.

Wyclef himself was in the Western media’s good books until he crossed over from celebrity fund- and awareness-raiser to political contender. During the celebrity-studded Haiti telethon, the spotlight fell mostly on the rap star, as he wrapped the flag of his native country around his neck, sang a Creole tune, and told viewers he had just returned from Haiti where he pulled his countrymen out of the rubble, carrying bodies of mothers and fathers to cemeteries. Now that Wyclef, who set up the charity Yéle Haiti, wants to move into politics, he is suddenly seen as a dangerous force.

Celebrities who use their fame to influence policy tend to place themselves above the democratic process, claiming to speak on behalf of ‘the powerless’ even if no one has asked them to do so. (‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all’, Bono once said.) They tend to reduce world affairs to black-and-white morality tales, helping to sustain skewed images of faraway lands and victimised peoples. And politicians yearning for some stardust to help them revive their flailing careers tend to seek photo ops with celebrities instead of engaging properly with the public. These are the real reasons why the worlds of celebrity and politics should be pried apart, whether it’s Joanna Lumley being saintly or Sharon Stone being stupid.

At least by running for president, Wyclef would have given the people of Haiti a chance to tell him to get lost – an option that other people around the world don’t seem to have, as they are simply turned into props for yet another ‘selfless’ celebrity photo op.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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