The big news over the past few days – besides the ongoing developments in Afghanistan, the church-abuse scandal, the NCAA Final Four, and other hot-spots – was the revelation that Angelina Jolie is a shrew, a nag, a hypocrite. That’s what the magazine In Touch reports, based on an interview with a former bodyguard who says the “self-centered” actress verbally abuses her children, belittles her husband (the guy she calls “Bradley”), yells at her staff, and generally acts “psycho” – contrary to the reputation she cultivates on screen, in public, and the diplomatic trail.
Jolie’s international activism was the reason I wrote about her in 2005, for a big story in the San Francisco Chronicle headlined, “Star power. When celebrities support causes, who really winds up benefiting?” Some celebrity activists (no surprise) are in it for themselves, to only burnish their reputation as humanitarians. Other celebrity activists really do want to make a difference in the world, and Jolie – according to people I interviewed then – is one of these apparently selfless figures.
Reality, of course, is complicated, and I encountered another side of Jolie in the summer of 2007. Then, I was a journalism mentor to a young Egyptian journalist named Amr Emam, who was a Daniel Pearl Fellow at the San Francisco Chronicle. That August, Amr went to Los Angeles to give a talk at the Los Angeles Press Club, where Jolie (the star of a a dramatized movie about Pearl) was in attendance. After Amr’s talk, Jolie walked up to Amr, told him she thought his words were inspiring, gave him her personal email, and said he could interview her anytime he wanted.
Amr was thankful, but after Jolie departed, he told someone what had happened and asked, “Who is this Angelina Jolie?” He honestly didn’t know. A few days later, when Amr came back to San Francisco and the Chronicle’s newsroom, he dropped by my desk, and after hearing his story, I almost flipped – not because Amr was unfamiliar with this pop-culture icon, but because I’d been trying to interview Jolie myself, for my book on Arab and Muslim culture. (The book has a chapter that partly focuses on Arabic tattoos, and Jolie was known to have such a tattoo on her right arm.)
We emailed the actress on the spot, with Amr telling her in his message, “Dear Angelina. This is Amr Emam, the Egyptian journalist . . . I’d like to interview you for my friend’s book. Thank you very much. Amr.”
Three days later, he’d heard nothing from her. Amr double-checked the email address, which was correct, and sent a follow-up email, asking again to take Jolie up on the offer she’d made him. Three days later, nothing still. Eventually, Amr gave up trying to contact Jolie. Was her original overture – made in the heated gathering of an L.A. press event – genuine, or did she project a kind of self-centeredness onto a reporter whom she knew she might never see again?
Frankly, since that summer, I hadn’t thought a lot about Amr’s Jolie encounter – until a few hours ago, when I was doing a Google News search and I saw a Huffington Post headline about In Touch’s report. I was going to ignore the headline. Who has time for celebrity gossip when the world is in such a state? Who has time to read about the travails of multi-millionaire actors?
I do, it turned out. That’s the thing about Jolie: Even those who are indifferent to her (or repulsed by her) know who she is, and may just pay attention to whatever she’s doing. For my 2005 article, a higher-up at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (the agency that uses Jolie as a Goodwill Ambassador, to spotlight refugee issues) told me, “Whether we like it or not, the popular culture is powerful, and not to recognize that is to have our head in the sand. For refugees, we need to reach the mass public.”
The public can be fickle, though. Jolie may have already reached her peak as an actress and a figure of adoration. In Touch’s report may be a sign of her public diminishment. Many people care about such things. I know that for a fact.