Ed Carr and his colleagues recently wrote “a serious history” of celebrities, activism and humanitarianism. It is seriously good. Then, Telegraph reporter Jake Wallis Simons (two-thirds of a great law firm name), wrote a profile piece on Elizabeth McGovern (aka Lady Cora of Downton Abbey). It is perhaps the single greatest piece of journalism about celebrity, humanitarianism and Africa you will ever read. It is already receiving rave reviews from those such as Ed, who calls it,”the most insane, boggling thing I have ever read on celebrity aid in Africa.”
What follows are some highlights (Spoiler alerts). This piece requires and deserves multiple readings.
- Sierra Leone is “in every conceivable sense a long way from Downton”. And we begin!
- McGovern was engaged to Sean Penn at the age of 23. She hates Woody Allen.
- She is in a band, called ‘Sadie and the Hotheads’. Apparently, the band is sponsored by World Vision!?! “World Vision has paid her band £28,000 to fund the recording of their latest album and a UK tour, in return for which they have agreed to promote the charity.” And down the rabbit hole we go!
- When the flight stopped en route to Sierra Leone, it refuelled in Dakar, Senegal. McGovern thought they were in Darfur, Sudan. Miss it by that much!
- Simons claims that “World Vision is the biggest charity you’ve never heard of”. So, by that logic, you’ve probably never heard of ANY charities.
- McGovern didn’t realise World Vision was a Christian organisation. According to Simons, “charity representatives failed to make their Christianity clear to her”. But, she chose not to pull out because “on balance, it is an organisation that does a lot of good for many people”. (And, paid her band £28,000. See above).
- McGovern is suitably impressed with Freetown. ‘”Their food must be so healthy,” says McGovern. “You don’t see all those crap chains and stuff. But I guess that will change as the country gets more modern. It’s like a holiday. I feel a bit guilty.”‘
- Brad Pitt. They stay in the same hotel as Brad Pitt. McGovern starred alongside Pitt in The Favour (1994). (The film received reviews such as this: “I remember seeing this when first released, and I remember not liking it, but I no longer remember the film at all”). She casually remarks that she slept with Pitt once (on-camera) and that he doesn’t have sex appeal. Are you not entertained?
- World Vision paid for McGovern’s trip. McGovern was under the impression that World Vision doesn’t spend money on promotion. Wilson, World Vision’s PR representative for the trip corrects her. The trip wasn’t cheap. McGovern was told otherwise when pitched too. Wilson suggests that she shouldn’t say that in interviews and should instead focus on the organisation’s long-term aid.
- Lets talk about gender and sex: “I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home”, says McGovern. Wait for it… “I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka?” Wait for it… “And that clitoris thing is awful”. Bingo.
- Lets talk about World Vision and proselytising: Simons asks the World Vision driver of 10 years if the organisation ever tries to convert people. His response is one for the ages:
“Christianity is our goal,” he says. “In some Muslim areas they are suspicious of us. So we put our effort into setting up clinics, permanent schools, and establish a society. Gradually they see we are good people. Then we pay professional pastors to preach to them. That is our final goal.”
- McGovern meets the girl she has been sponsoring for 1.5 years. Simons calls McGovern’s sponsorship “no great act of philanthropy”, references the fact that both the girl and McGovern are stuck in a “feedback loop of public relations”. A moment of wisdom.
- The girl’s parents are told by the World Vision representative Wilson that McGovern is a TV star, so people listen to her.
- McGovern gives the girl a skipping rope, bubble mixture and a bouncy ball. McGovern and her daughter (did I mention her 15-year old daughter came along?) are given fresh coconuts, matching smocks and two live chickens. Fair trade?
- Then, suddenly, on the final day, McGovern comes out from her room. Simons describes her as looking white as a sheet. (Is there a pun buried in there somewhere?). McGovern dropped her iPhone in the toilet. It never recovered.
Get a cup of tea. Take some time to reorientate. Sit down. Take a deep breathe. In through your nose…Out through your mouth. Ok. Better? Now for your thoughts.