By Ira Wagman 

In this article, I briefly explore the relationship between celebrities and the diplomatic process. Much of the general public’s knowledge about the work of celebrities comes through the efforts of Bono or Angelina Jolie. Academically speaking, our understanding of  “celebrity diplomacy” comes through works by a number of scholars, including Andrew Cooper and Mark Wheeler.[1] As part of that effort, I will focus on the humanitarian work of American actor and entertainer Danny Kaye for the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) from the 1950s until his death in 1987. Before there were “celebrity diplomats,” there were “Goodwill Ambassadors” who used their fame and status to broadcast the United Nations’ message of international cooperation. Kaye was the first Hollywood spokesperson for the UN and its affiliated agencies and served as its first “Ambassador-at-Large” starting in 1954.

Much of the scholarship on celebrity diplomacy is interested in assessing the effects celebrities have on the diplomatic process. I am uneasy about this tendency to think along the lines of a “help or hurt” mentality. Measuring effectiveness is a difficult thing because it involves an important assumption about causality. Celebrities have to do something that can be tangible enough that we might be able to account for its direct impact. Of course, this is easier said than done. A recent symposium at the University of Southern California devoted to the topic concluded that, “in policy terms, it remains unclear whether the UN’s celebrity diplomats are effective in helping the UN achieve its objectives in promoting the world body’s goals in peace building, disarmament, human rights, environmental protection, and human development.”[2] Cooper’s observation that “[a]s celebrities push for recognition and support by becoming plugged into transnational policy making, the political elite use celebrities to boost their own credibility” is probably the closest we can get to a definitive assessment of celebrity diplomacy.[3] It is when we move to assess the relationship between actor and cause that things become more difficult to ascertain.

This “help or hurt” mentality is similarly deployed in media studies, another area where I work. Scholars in this field frequently default to a series of claims about causality when it comes to media—social media brings about revolution, television begets violent behavior, and so on. In his examination of the relationship between Hollywood and American politics, Steven Ross points to the “love-hate relationship” between celebrities and the public. “We love stars when they remain faithful to our fantasy images of them,” Ross writes, “but we condemn them when they reveal their flaws or disagree with our politics.”[4] We are deeply suspicious about the motives of celebrities and the values they communicate—perhaps less so in an age characterized by promotional culture—but we are equally ambivalent about media technologies. Both carry with them a sense of awe at what they are able to do, but both celebrities and media technologies also carry a certain amount of baggage about the possible negative or untrammelled effects of their power. Turning to the case of Danny Kaye can highlight different questions about the role of celebrities in the diplomatic process, such as why celebrities turn to diplomatic issues, why specific celebrities team up with particular institutions, and what each has to gain.

The timing for this reflection is fortuitous. The Library of Congress recently celebrated the centennial year of Kaye’s birth with an exhibition of his work and the work of his talented wife, the composer and writer Sylvia Fine. A smaller version of that exhibit was on display at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The U.S. cable network TCM also had a 24-hour tribute to Kaye’s work, a new biography of Kaye was published, and the re-make of one of Kaye’s signature films, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,ran in theatres.

Starting his career in vaudeville, Kaye became one of the most popular entertainers worldwide for his theatrical work, comedic roles, musical talents, and acting work in such films as Hans Christian Andersen (1952) and White Christmas (1954). Many others followed, as did a career on television as the host of variety specials and The Danny Kaye Show. The story of how Kaye became involved with UNICEF is infamous: He met the Executive Director of UNICEF, Maurice Pate, in 1949 on a flight from London to New York that was re-routed to Ireland after it caught fire. Pate invited Kaye to lunch at UNICEF’s headquarters, as well as to some UNICEF field offices. Kaye agreed, and Paramount Pictures provided a camera crew to accompany him. Paramount produced a film based on these visits, Assignment Children (1954), and distributed it free of charge to movie theatres, classrooms, community centers, and other public venues all over the world. This launched Danny Kaye’s career as a celebrity humanitarian and supporter of a number of causes for UNICEF which are now part of the broader cultural imagination, from promoting the sale of UNICEF greeting cards to promoting the “Trick or Treat with UNICEF” Halloween campaign.

Why might Pate have been so interested in Kaye? In part, this was due to Kaye’s universal appeal, particularly his popularity among children and families. At the same time, the need for a celebrity spokesman at UNICEF arose due to changing dynamics of the agency. In the same year as Kaye and Pate’s chance meeting, UNICEF transformed from a temporary organization charged with attending to displaced children during World War II to an agency associated with development through a series of long-term projects. In 1959, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and the agency turned away from reconstruction efforts towards development concerns.[5] As J.P. Singh notes, educational responsibilities that had once been confined to other UN-related agencies, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), were transferred to agencies like the World Bank and UNICEF by the 1960s.[6] UNICEF needed Kaye to usher in this moment of institutional change by highlighting its efforts at improving children’s health.

The creation of Goodwill Ambassadors should draw our attention to how public diplomacy can be considered to represent a series of communication problems. The diplomatic challenge is one of messaging: What can we say to convince other constituencies to change their view of us? Many of the components in the public diplomacy toolkit—dialogue, dissemination, translation, interaction, and engagement—are ideas about messages, receivers, and media. For agencies like the United Nations, celebrities are used in part because other forms of communication—namely intra-state “dialogue,” other bureaucratic processes of multilateralism, or public communication efforts—were unable to deliver desirable results. Celebrities such as Kaye emerge as a different way to mediate multilateralism, another tool in the effort by the UN to get its message across to larger populations.

But what was in it for Kaye, aside from fulfilling a laudable humanitarian impulse? There are a number of factors to consider. For one, Kaye and Hollywood were stung badly by the anti-communist “red-baiting” activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s. Many Hollywood actors and directors protested their treatment at the hands of HUAC, and expressed frustration that the industry had come under such close scrutiny by the government. Kaye joined legendary actors including Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in denouncing HUAC’s actions.[7] His work for UNICEF shortly thereafter was not only a reflection of his own philanthropic impulses, but also the reflection of a sentiment held within the industry that sought legitimacy. The post-1945 environment also saw the development of Hollywood actors as independent businesspeople, as a result of anti-trust legislation that liberated them from the studio system. Many started production companies and became their own “brands.” Celebrity work for the UN is very much a continuation of this process, one that legitimates celebrities’ efforts and distinguishes them among their peers.

What is the relationship between diplomatic efforts and other new technological innovations? The story of post-war public diplomacy is very much the story of the triumph of jet travel that makes intercontinental forms of diplomacy more efficient and diplomats more mobile. Telephones and telex machines (and diplomatic cables before them) increased the speed and expanded the scope of intra-state communication.[8] Today the primary tools are technical platforms owned by private companies—like Twitter—that require less mobility and physical transportation. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many celebrities have been drawn into various causes so easily. Much of the history of the UN has been framed by the gap between the scope of its aspirations and the financial resources it has had at its disposal, and its reliance on the voluntary humanitarian efforts of non-state actors. The work of celebrities represents a highly efficient means for the dissemination of ideas for an organization that has historically lacked financial resources to meet its objectives.

It is my hope that this brief discussion of celebrity diplomacy, beginning with the work of Danny Kaye, provokes a more robust conversation about the relationship between the entertainment industry and multilateral institutions that are involved in diplomatic practices. What is needed is a better appreciation of the history of the industries that produce celebrities, the agencies that make use of them, and of the nature of celebrity careers that make humanitarian work a part of the job. The co-editors of a recent issue of the journal Celebrity Studies advocate the notion of “celebrity ecologies” in order to “emphasize the larger assemblages and systems within and around which celebrity is enmeshed.”[9] This may result in a more expansive understanding of “celebrity diplomacy,” one which will be far more reflective of the work that these agents do—role-playing, status-seeking, attention-grabbing, audience-forming, and resource-using—even if that leaves questions of “effectiveness” up in the air.

References and Notes

[1] Andrew Cooper. Celebrity Diplomacy. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008; Mark Wheeler. Celebrity Politics. London: Polity Press, 2013.

[2] “The Public Diplomacy Role of Celebrity Diplomats.” Center for Public Diplomacy Workshop, University of Southern California, April 21, 2009.

[3] Cooper, p. 3.

[4] Steven Ross. Hollywood Left and Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 3.

[5] For example, see the discussion of “Goodwill Ambassadors” in UNICEF’s publication, 1946-2006: Sixty Years for Children. New York: UNICEF, 2006, p. 8.  Another version of this story is recounted in Martin Gottfried’s biography of Kaye, Nobody’s Fool. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002, p. 164-165.

[6] J.P. Singh, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization: Creating Norms for a Complex World. New York: Routledge, 2010, p. 47.

[7] For an interesting discussion of the Hollywood blacklist, see Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, Tender Comrades. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

[8] Geoffrey Pigman. Contemporary Diplomacy, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010, p. 115.

[9] Michael Goodman and Jo Littler. “Celebrity Ecologies: Introduction,” Celebrity Studies 4:3 (2013), p. 270.


Ira Wagman

Ira Wagman is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is the co-editor of Cultural Making Sense of the Canadian Media in the Digital Age (James Lorimer, 2013) and Intersections of Media and Communication Studies: Concepts and Critical Frameworks (Emond Montgromery, 2011). In 2013 he held the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Public Diplomacy at the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.