The Double Lives of Hollywood Philanthropists


Last year, Richard Gere made headlines, not for his latest film premiere, but because he was asked to testify in a trial against Matteo Salvini, the former Italian interior minister accused of preventing a ship full of refugees from docking on Italian shores for over two weeks. Despite the government’s attempts to block other vessels from aiding them, Gere had managed to get onboard to witness the situation first-hand as he handed out much needed food and water to the migrants. When the actor was called as a witness, Salvini mused, “You tell me how serious a trial is where Richard Gere will come from Hollywood to testify about my nastiness.”

But upon closer examination, Gere’s involvement in the refugee situation comes as no surprise. Gere, like many celebrities, has led a sort of double life, as both a Hollywood icon and philanthropist. And while some may criticize celebrity philanthropists for tackling issues outside of their realm of expertise, oftentimes they are driven to make a positive impact in areas of lived experience or deep personal involvement. Let’s take a look at what inspires Gere’s philanthropy and that of other Hollywood stars.

The efforts of the Gere Foundation, which aims to “alleviate suffering and advocate for the people of Tibet,” is largely reflective of the actor’s history as a humanitarian and practicing Buddhist. In addition to the Foundation’s work on Tibetan causes, HIV/AIDS, and human rights, it is engaged in aiding refugees, with the aim of moving “a developing, refugee community from a dire state of emergency towards the much-needed stability of maintainable self-reliance and security.”

So, when Gere was on holiday in Italy and caught wind of the situation involving the stranded migrants, it seemed only natural for him to do what he could to lend a hand. Speaking to The Guardian, he said, “We saw more than a hundred people on board. I felt ashamed that we have so much and are not able to embrace these fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters who were starving, traumatized. If they were told the boat was going back to Libya, they would jump in the water and drown themselves, and I felt it was our responsibility to bring as much light as we could.”

Another Hollywood icon who has channeled his humanitarian impulses through philanthropy is George Clooney, who founded the Clooney Foundation for Justice alongside his wife Amal, a renowned human rights attorney. The Foundation “gather[s] evidence of mass human rights abuses, provide[s] free legal support to victims and work[s] to ensure that perpetrators are held to account.” Currently, the Foundation is working to investigate war crimes in Ukraine, protect women’s rights, investigate mass human rights violations, and monitor criminal trials to identify abuses of justice.

Both George and Amal have a long history of fighting for the underdog. George grew up in the 60’s in a family that encouraged him to speak out about injustice. “I remember my father saying, ‘Don’t come back and look me in the eye unless you stand up to [bullies and racists].’ I’m glad to have been raised that way.” He has been named a United Nations Messenger of Peace and one of People Magazine’s People of the Year, and also co-founded The Sentry, “an investigative and policy organization that seeks to disable multinational predatory networks that benefit from violent conflict, repression, and kleptocracy.” Amal’s accolades include being named as one of Time Magazine’s Women of the Year for her work protecting women’s human rights by providing legal support to female journalists and victims of sexual violence and genocide.

Amal sees the Foundation as a natural extension of their work. “We call what we do waging justice for victims of human-rights abuses. Because justice doesn’t just happen—you have to wage it; you have to bend the arc toward it.… And it is a result of both my experience and the many years George has also spent working on these issues.”

While the Clooneys and Gere have aimed to help vulnerable individuals, other celebrities have focused their philanthropy on improving the lives of women and youth.

The actress Eva Longoria, famous for her role on the TV series Desperate Housewives, chose to make Latina women the focal point of the Eva Longoria Foundation, whose mission is “to help Latinas build better futures for themselves and their families through education and entrepreneurship.” Growing up, Longoria’s parents, who also had a special needs daughter and often found themselves on the receiving end of charity, instilled in her the importance of giving back.

Longoria explained how she arrived at her philanthropic focus. “My specific foundation began when I was getting my master’s degree in Chicano studies and I did my thesis on the lack of Latinas in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] fields. Because of that, I used my thesis as the basis for the work of my foundation, which gets young women prepared for STEM jobs and getting them through college and into the work force.”

Currently, the Foundation’s programs are focused on STEM education, parent engagement, mentorship, and entrepreneurship.

Another Hollywood A-lister that has focused her energies on women and children is Oprah Winfrey. The mission of the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, which has awarded $400 million in grants to date, “is to lead, to educate, to uplift, to inspire and to empower women and children throughout the world, opening doors so that each person can begin to define what it would mean to lead their best life and fulfill their own possibility for greatness.” The primary focus is on youth education through scholarships and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa. Winfrey’s giving is no doubt influenced by her experience growing up in poverty.

The actor Matthew McConaughey seeks to inspire young people through the just keep livin Foundation, which he started with his wife Camila. The name of the Foundation began as a saying that helped him get through the loss of his father back when he was filming Dazed and Confused, and has continued to provide inspiration for making the best of every situation.

The just keep livin Foundation’s mission is to “empower high school students by providing them with the tools to lead active lives and make healthy choices for a better future.” Reflecting on his decision to work in this area, the actor recounted, “I remember I said, ‘I want to prevent before cure,’ all right? So that led me to youth—get them young before there’s a real problem where they can make their own self-reliant choices and better healthy choices for themselves. I settled on high school kids because it’s the last bridge before you cross into adulthood.”

To accomplish its goals, the Foundation implements its own after-school programs in inner cities, focused on promoting fitness, wellness, and positive life choices. Participants in these programs are much less likely to drop out of school and have enhanced their grades, fitness levels, and self-esteem.

Other philanthropists seeking to empower youth include the singer, songwriter, and actor John Legend, and the actress Charlize Theron. Legend’s Show Me Campaign focuses on providing children with access to a quality education and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Early on, Legend knew that he wanted to leverage his artistic talent to give back. He said that at the age of 16, “I wrote that I was going to become a successful musician and I would use my success as an artist to fight for my community, to fight for justice.” Similarly, the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project is dedicated to “advancing the health, education, and safety of young people in Africa”, with a special focus on her home country of South Africa. The actress views this work as fundamental to her identity. “There’s a feeling that I have that I need to give back, and I don’t know how to live my life in its full potential by not doing that. It’s part of my DNA to want to be part of something that can better the world or better the communities that I’ve been to that I feel are so unnecessarily suffering.”

Young people are also the central focus of the actress and musician Lady Gaga’s foundation. Lady Gaga co-founded the Born This Way Foundation with her mother Cynthia Germanotta with the aim of supporting youth mental health and working with young people to “build a kinder and braver world.” The Foundation seeks to destigmatize mental health issues, “make kindness cool”, and enable youth to feel that their emotions are validated. It has achieved these aims through its programs, partnerships, and the publication of a book called CHANNEL KINDNESS, featuring stories written by young people.

The issues at the core of the Foundation’s work are very close to Lady Gaga. As a high school student, she found herself the victim of bullying. Looking back on the experience, she said, “It sticks with you and it hurts. And I went home and cried. I didn’t want to go to school.”

Lady Gaga is not the only Hollywood celebrity whose personal struggles have helped guide their philanthropy.

Michael J. Fox, perhaps best known for his role as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future films, found his life turned upside down in 1991 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the early age of 29. Nine years later, he founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to fund medical research and develop improved therapies for Parkinson’s patients. The Foundation grants over $100 million annually, and is unusual in its approach—it does not hold an endowment or substantial financial reserves, meaning that nearly all of the money it raises goes towards its programs.

Fox feels a sense of gratitude when it comes to his work with the Foundation. Speaking to the AARP last year, he said, “My cofounder, Deborah Brooks, and I didn’t want to create an endowment to spend on advertising and stuff—we wanted to get the money to science to find a cure. No agenda other than that. So, we created what has become this giant network of patients, scientists and institutions.” He continued, “I appreciate the purpose and the opportunity to help the foundation, to be part of something that’s potentially so powerful and life changing and world changing—that’s huge.”

Even the fame and wealth that come along with Hollywood stardom are not enough to shield oneself from the struggles of the human condition. Actors, particularly, are adept at putting themselves in other people’s shoes, so it should come as no surprise that so many of them dedicate their time offstage to the issues, people, and communities they care most about. To many, leading a double life as a philanthropist adds a depth and meaning to their existence that can’t be attained on the silver screen alone.