A friend of mine is a walking tour guide in Edinburgh and is about as qualified to talk about Scottish history as I am to perform brain surgery. Every day he recites a script written by the company who hired him, and when a keen tourist asks him a particularly niche question, he simply plucks an answer out of thin air. He puts on a good show, but is first to admit that he is wholly unqualified: 'Someday someone is going to call me out on some of the garbage I come away with,' he says smiling, 'and I'll absolutely deserve it.'
That's exactly what happened to Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra during her Q&A session at this year's LA BeautyCon festival. The former Miss World had been preaching about her humanitarian activities, telling her audience that 'we should love our neighbours', when a woman named Ayesha Malik stood up and called her a hypocrite. The 28-year-old Pakistani-American cited a Tweet from Chopra from earlier this year in which she voiced her support for Indian armed forces on the same day India launched airstrikes in Pakistan. Malik was in the middle of accusing the pageant queen of encouraging nuclear war against Pakistan, when the mic was snatched out of her hand by security.
Once Malik had been disarmed, Chopra, a self-proclaimed champion of women's empowerment, started her response with: 'Whenever you're done venting… Got it? Done? Cool,' before going on to say: 'War is not something I'm really fond of, but I am patriotic.' To hear a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Peace refer to war as something she is not 'really fond of' was underwhelming at best, and hearing Chopra finish the exchange by calling the 28-year-old 'girl' and saying 'don't embarrass yourself', having just finished a sermon on sisterhood and solidarity, shows that, much like my friend, she isn't qualified for her job.
This confrontation could have been a real opportunity to unify, but the Goodwill Ambassador chose instead to condescend and dismiss to the applause of an audience who had picked her side before she had even started talking.
It's that sound of applause that's stuck with me. I initially scoffed at Chopra's remarks and comfortably dismissed them as the unnuanced drivel of someone who was as far from an authority on South Asian political relations as Donald Trump is from reality – and yet he's in the White House. Because that's what happens when we underestimate the power of celebrity; they slip through the cracks in our complacency and before you know it they're having security confiscate your mic when you try to hold them accountable for their actions.
The truth is, no-one trusts institutions any more and celebrities are filling in for world leaders and experts. That's why we have a reality TV star in the White House; it's why the Ukrainian prime minister played one on TV; and it's why Miranda from Sex and the City
ran for governor of New York in real life.
At home, the impact of celebrity advocacy in politics helped Labour secure an essential youth vote in the 2017 general election that no-one expected. After popular Grime artists encouraged fans to rally around Jeremy Corbyn, promising free tickets to a secret show for anyone who registered to vote, nearly 250,000 young people registered – an increase of 137,400 on the last day of registrations in 2015. Stormzy, that year's Glastonbury festival headliner, even told the Guardian
, 'My man, Jeremy! I dig what he says,' thus securing the support of the rapper's vast fan base.
There isn't a celebrity alive who hasn't claimed a cause: Leonardo DiCaprio has environmentalism; Emma Watson has feminism; while Bono has the entire continent of Africa. And while they have the ability to bring these issues to the top of the global agenda and boost social responsibility, they are not experts. In fact, they have the potential to do more harm than good by oversimplifying highly complex issues.
The Live Earth concerts might have generated a lot of money for the Global South, but they also perpetuated the misconception that an entire continent of more than 50 countries desperately need actors and rock stars to rescue them from their own helplessness. They did nothing to educate people on Africa's complicated geo-political climate and the systemic issues prevalent across the whole continent which make it difficult for increased aid relief to have any meaningful, long-term impact.
The Kony 2012
documentary is another classic example of celebrities jumping on the back of a cause they know very little about and consequently spreading misinformation. The 30-minute video spotlights Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony, notorious for his use of child soldiers and sex slaves, and calls on celebrities and policy-makers to respond to his atrocities. Just some of the celebrities who promoted the documentary on their social media include Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and former US presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton. The video surged into an internet sensation overnight and has been viewed over 83 million times, transforming an issue in a far off country few could identify on a map into part of the cultural zeitgeist.
This is problematic because the documentary purported widely outdated information and was riddled with over-simplifications. The charity behind it, Invisible Children, has also been accused of spending only 33% of its revenue on direct services – less money than the production budget for the video itself – and of inflating the stats they reported for strategic purposes. But this wasn't known by the dozens of celebrities who urged their followers to watch the documentary and donate to Invisible Children. As a result, they helped generate millions of dollars for an organisation campaigning for US military intervention in Uganda and misrepresented a 25-year-old issue to their audiences by suggesting that bracelets and t shirts could engineer peace.
Unlike the institutions and organisations we once turned to for political direction, celebrities are successful. We talk about political parties, world leaders and even universities with regards to their ineffectiveness, their susceptibility to corruption, their insularity. By contrast, celebrities are award-winners, go-getters, wealthy, and increasingly seem, thanks to social media, just like us. But if celebrities are going to play politics, then they need to be held accountable. Priyanka Chopra should have her UN title revoked, not as a cruel punishment imposed by the court of public opinion, but because her nationalist remarks undermine the credibility of the position to which she has been elevated.
It's not that celebrities should stay in their lane and not attempt to use their platform to effect change. Most are probably as well-intentioned as they are self-absorbed, but it's up to us to take what they say with the proverbial pinch of salt and ask ourselves how qualified they are to be making the assessments they make – then call them out on it.