TOPIC GUIDE: Celebrity Politics

"Celebrities should keep out of politics"

PUBLISHED: 01 Sep 2009

AUTHOR: Ed Noel & Aaron Butterfield

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Today politicians want to be celebrities and celebrities want to be politicians. On the one hand, politicians associate themselves with celebrities and cultivate celebrity status; in a recent Radio 1 interview David Cameron declared his love for Girls Aloud, only to be told by band member Cheryl Cole that he should “get on with running the country” [Ref: New Statesman]. On the other hand, celebrities now play a key role in setting the political agenda. It is claimed that without Mia Farrow’s hunger strike, we would not be having the serious political discussions about Darfur that came subsequent to her protest [Ref: RantRave]. Celebrities act as UN Goodwill Ambassadors, give high-profile support to NGOs like Amnesty and Greenpeace, and talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey launch large scale campaigns to encourage young people to vote [Ref: TIME]. Indeed, Arnold Schwarzenegger even went from Hollywood to the post of Governor of California. Of course, actors and musicians becoming involved in politics is nothing new. In the 60s, the Beatles and Bob Dylan provided the soundtrack for a new generation and protest songs were integral to the US Civil Rights movement. But celebrities have moved from counter-culture to the mainstream and today politicians and pop stars often share the same stage, lending each other credibility. Does the involvement of celebrities improve or damage the quality of political debate? On becoming Prime Minister, Brown declared an end to celebrity politics [Ref: Ekklesia], but his opponents accuse him of being “as obsessed with celebrity” as his predecessor. [Ref: Telegraph]. While some lament ‘celebritisation’ or ‘celebrity politics’, seeing it as putting single-issues before party programmes and elevating personality above policy, others argue that celebrities inspire young people to engage in new forms of political action and draw attention to issues that are ignored by the traditional political system.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Can celebrities bring about real change?
When celebrities endorse a political cause, some argue it is more about cynical marketing than genuine political change, but celebrities can be important political players. After Joanna Lumley’s campaigning on behalf of the Gurkhas, the government reluctantly granted the Nepalese soldiers the right to settle in the UK [Ref: Guardian]. From TV psychologist Tanya Byron to Jamie Oliver to Bob Geldolf, celebrities regularly use their prestige as a platform for furthering a political cause, and in many cases it seems to work. Some say celebrity support is important and, in the case of the large scale campaigns such as Comic Relief, can have a real impact on the world [Ref: Comic Relief]. Others disagree, saying that celebrity fronted events such Red Nose Day actually diminish people’s understanding of complex political issues like as poverty. [Ref: Telegraph].

Do celebrities speak for the people?
Whereas politicians stand on the basis of a political programme and are elected to represent their constituents, celebrities are not directly answerable to the electorate and there is no formal process to hold them accountable. Some critics of celebrity politics suggest that the ‘Jamie Oliver phenomenon’ implies that some issues are ‘above politics’ and allow politicians to hide behind celebrities rather than take responsibility [Ref: Spiked]. Others reply that it took the involvement of a celebrity to get something done about a problem that should have been addressed years ago. The focus of public debate, they argue, has moved away from Parliament, which, as David Cameron readily recognises, has succumbed to ‘Punch and Judy politics’. [Ref: Telegraph]. In what has been described as a widespread crisis of trust following the MPs expenses scandal, some have also argued that a well-meaning celebrity can be better trusted that the self-interested MP. Former ‘That’s life’ presenter, Esther Rantzen; BBC Watchdog presenter, Lynn Faulds Wood and former BBC journalist, Martin Bell have all suggested that they would be prepared to join the political fray. [Ref: Reuters blog]. Have politicians become out of touch and irrelevant and do they address the issues people care about?

Can celebrities re-engage young people in politics?
There is widespread concern about political apathy amongst young people. Some argue that young people are interested in political issues but are turned off by politicians, and that celebrities, like former model and presenter Tyra Banks, can encourage them to re-engage with politics. With Banks having photo shoots on her popular TV show, ‘America’s Next Top Model’, about political issues such as terrorism and bureaucracy [Ref: Buzz], the debate rages as to whether initiatives like this over-simplify and ‘dumb-down’ important political issues [Ref: Shakopee Valley News] for young people or whether it’s a clever and imaginative way to recapture youth interest in politics [Ref: Independent]. Further, initiatives like Rock the Vote mean that celebrity politics is even more developed, and capturing the youth vote through celebrity appeals was a big part of the 2008 Presidential campaign, with celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Madonna lending their support [Ref: Wikipedia]. Can celebrities convert their appeal into positive political action, or is it patronising to young people to assume that they’re only interested in single issues and will only be interested in politics if it’s sold through celebrity marketing?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


I’m a celebrity… get me in there!

Esther Rantzen The Times 21 May 2009

Angelina Jolie and Darfur

Nicolas Kristol New York Times 20 October 2008

Africa’s flash moment

Madeleine Bunting Guardian June 2005


How to study Africa: from victimhood to agency

John Lonsdale OpenDemocracy September 2005

When pop stars get political

Ollie Stone-Lee BBC News June 2005

Celebrity, media and History

Jessica Evans McGraw-Hill


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

He comments on Boyle and Goody but not a major national issue

Anne Mc Elvoy This Is London 24 August 2009

Girls Aloud: Get lost Cameron

Sophie Headwood New Statesman 18 December 2006

Do Celebrities have a place in politics?

Guardian Comment is Free 7 August 2006

Better red than…

Larry Elliott Guardian Newsblog January 2006

The constant charmer

Josh Tyrangiel Time December 2005

Rocky political horror show

Libby Purves The Times 05 July 2005 July 2005

They owe it all to their fans

Oscar Reyes Red Pepper July 2005

What do pop stars know about the world?

Brendan O’Neill BBC News June 2005

Where Brad Pitt meets George W Bush

Jody Pollock Silver Chips Online April 2005

Jamie Oliver and the politics of an overpaid cook

openDemocracy Discussion Forum 08 April 2005 March 2005


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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