Celebrities (actors, musicians and other influential superstars) within political circles
is popular is a common phenomenon. Celebrity viewpoints on political matters, their
participation in political activities, and even endorsements and campaigns for specific
candidates and political parties is a common phenomenon (Piknerová & Rybáková, 2017).
Studies about celebrity politics are scattered. However, Street (2004), on the topic of
“political star power,” is of the assumption that the involvement of celebrities in political
activism is a sardonic portrayal of a desolate populism. One in which spectacle and
appearance supplant policy and principle. Politicians are simply under a crux of
representation and not a realisation of it. What this implies is in the world of celebrity
politics, politicians deeply understand that they have lost credibility and trust (Street, 2004).
Therefore, they shift to novel modes of political communication that further destroy the trust
and integrity they strove to salvage.
Conversely, celebrities engage in politics and their role is often taken seriously as
compared to when they are used by politicians to earn popularity and trust. Influential
persons, such as thespians, professional sportspersons, artists, and media personalities, with a
large following, especially on social media, may choose to engage in politics purposely to
communicate (Marsh, Hart & Tindall, 2010). They comment and advocate for individual
policies, endorse candidates, or even run for political offices. Debate on whether celebrities
promote or degrade democracy also remains intense. This essay seeks to discuss why a
celebrity might want to become a political activist and their impact on democracy.
Before embarking on the reasons why celebrities might want to engage in political
activism, it is essential to examine why an unelected person may lay claim to representing
popular opinions. While it is possible to object, unelected persons may validly represent other
people’s views and opinions politically. Wheeler (2012) affirms that the primary element in
this situation is the legitimacy. Street (2004) supports this view by indicating that celebrities
are credible commentators and activists because they voice a popular opinion. Their
credibility is augmented because they are in constant touch with the masses.
Celebrities have a following that can change the society’s perspective about a
particular issue. Stars leverage culture and the contemporary media to reach out to the people.
Modernity dictates that being a “fan” is a critical defining element of the current
dispensation. An enthusiast forms intimate relations with distant others (celebrities), and this
establishes the bedrock for political representation (Marsh, Hart & Tindall, 2010). In fact, the
world pays attention when actors like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie or rock musicians
like Bruce Springsteen and Bono, to speak about injustices. For that reason, celebrity politics,
particularly music and musicians, played a significant role in fuelling the Arab Spring,
particularly in Tunisia and Egypt. However, it is essential to note that not all celebrities are
ideal representatives of political ideologies. For instance, Britney Spears may not be a better
candidate compared to Bruce Springsteen due to the differences in their musical genres
(Chou, 2015). What this signifies is some styles may provide a fertile ground for political
engagements such as folk, rock and country music compared to teen pop.
Celebrities become political activists based on the way they are involved in the
political process. Star politics has been there for years. Musicians and actors have
communicated to governments and civilians in distinct ways. Examples include, Ben Affleck,
who was instrumental in directing the media attention to the war in DRC, Bob Marley played
a critical role in unifying militant groups, and John Lennon worked with the new left to
counter the re-election of President Nixon. Elvis Presley collaborated with Nixon to oppose
anti-war activism (Harvey, 2017). Typically, celebrities that can identify issues in the media
and persuade the masses to accept their ideological position are well-placed in the political
space. Harvey (2017) cements the position by affirming that celebrities who speak about
public issues get more coverage compared to politicians. It, therefore, makes it less difficult
to convince voters. Most importantly, people find politicians untrustworthy and less credible
in comparison to celebrities. Thus, celebrities might want to join political activism to support
or advocate for the rights of a select group, to speak against a government policy they find
unjust and to call upon the government to act on an issue affecting or might affect the society
in future (health issue or the environment). Celebrities may also focus on politics when they
want the want to promote equality in the community, run for a political office or endorse a
political candidate or party.
Celebrities as Political Advocates
Celebrities join politics to advocate for a particular social injustice or issue affecting
the masses. Typically, a significant percentage of celebrities prefer attaching themselves to
charity organisations or a specific cause, but some have positioned themselves as primary
stakeholders in issues policy. Policy advocates are focused on ensuring that particular
government policies do not disenfranchise a particular group of individuals (Piknerová &
Rybáková, 2017). Repo & Yrjölä (2011) affirms that in the past 20 years, the role of
celebrities in issues of politics has become increasingly acknowledged. Celebrities address
issues affecting the ordinary person such as human rights abuses, abortion laws, poverty,
immigration laws and restrictions, feminism, and equality in the society.
In their advocacy programmes celebrities brand themselves to resonate well with
their cause. Actors such as Bono, Angelina Jolie, Audrey Hepburn, George Clooney, and Bob
Geldof have become continuously influential in matters of global governance. They have
embarked on humanitarian initiatives in Africa and various parts of the world in their
determination to make it a better place (Repo & Yrjölä, (2011). Jane Fonda in the United
States has been vocal since President Nixon’s administrations in the early 70s. She was
against the Vietnam war and continues to be a devoted anti-war activist and adolescent rights,
activist. Fonda branded herself as someone who picks up voices from citizens who cannot be
heard and broadcast their stories (Mira, 2019). Therefore, the fight wars masses cannot.
Celebrities participate in the advocacy process by actively and fiercely defending
their positions and belief systems online and within the mainstream media. Feminists such as
Emma Watson, who is a UN women’s goodwill ambassador, and America Ferrera, have
acknowledged fighting for equality for women. Conversely, Ellen Page has fearlessly fought
for L.G.M.T.Q rights. Jude Law is also one of the celebrities who continues to fight for better
laws of immigration in the UK. For example, in 2019, he was among the persons who signed
a petition requiring the government to lift a ban on asylum seekers in the United Kingdom
(Pilgrim, 2019). Therefore, while some may consider it frustrating for celebrities to comment
on public issues they have little knowledge about, people find them credible.
Therefore, stars’ appeal to the masses gives them an upper hand in handling societal
issues that professional politicians find difficulties handling. Celebrities have a direct effect
on the decision-making capabilities of most people. While one may argue that most of them
focus on building brands or speaking about policies they do not understand, celebrities
actively engage on issues affecting the public. They use their networks to articulate and
confront matters they think are critical. They aim to develop their surrounding into something
better than that its original state. For that reason, it can be hypothesised that celebrities join
politics to bring a positive change to the masses.
Celebrities as Political Endorsers
Celebrities engage in political activism to champion for political candidates or
parties of their choice. It has become a popular tool in the political world. Von Sikorski,
Knoll, & Matthes (2018) indicate that celebrities globally participate in political rallies,
endorse parties, members, and ideologies. For example, Oprah Winfrey, a media personality
and global figure, actively canvassed for Barack Obama. The U.K election in 2015 recorded
numerous endorsements. Steve Coogan and Simon Cowell wholeheartedly supported the
Labour party. Endorsements by celebrities have proven effective because they appeal to
young people, who adore celebrities, and this motivates them to like and cast votes for
specific politicians compared to non-endorsements.
A celebrity’s past can augment or taint a politician’s image and thus politicians are
sometimes sceptical on who endorses them. A promiscuous past that fails to resonate with the
masses, such as scandals, can haunt a politician. Meaning, even though celebrity endorsement
remains an effective strategy, it is highly dependent on the public image of the celebrity
(Wood & Herbst, 2007). For instance, many pornographic celebrities endorsed Hillary
Clinton in the 2016 primaries, but many of her supporters disapproved of them. UK’s Katie
Hopkins endorsed David Cameron, but she was faced with massive disapproved due to a
xenophobic article she had written (Von Sikorski, Knoll & Matthes, 2018). Previous actions
of a celebrity can easily affect the performance of a politician even though the two are not
related in any way. What this implies is ‘A-List’ celebrities can attract significant media
coverage compared to lesser ones.
Even though one can be a celebrity, they may not have the power to endorse certain
political figures. It is important to note that relative to activism and endorsements, a
celebrity’s charitable or political actions will be considered successful and significant if the
source of their initial fame is more of merit-based (Repo & Yrjölä, 2011). What this signifies
is such as name has stood the test of time and can still survive in times of storms.
Additionally, endorsements will be more critical if the celebrity is higher on the social status
of their cultural environment. Usually, the level of social prestige directly affects the status a
personality holds in society (Wheeler, 2012). Furthermore, the celebrity should have enduring
fame. What this implies is such an individual should always be in the public space for good
reasons. Lastly, the person should be in a position to reach a broader geographical scope and
persons of different demographics, to be effective (Chou, 2015). This indicates that social and
economic status for a celebrity can be used as practical tools for segregation.
In this era of social media, politicians sometimes do not need to pay celebrities
before they can be endorsed. One can post their support for a specific candidate on Twitter,
Facebook, or any other social platform. Therefore, it possible that celebrities join politics to
influence how their followers vote (Marsh, Hart & Tindall, 2010). By choosing to support a
particular candidate or political party, they in some way influence their “fans” decisions.
While it is not always a guarantee that the given politician would win, endorsements have an
impact on voter turnout, registration, and the voting process. Some voters, especially young,
would prefer a particular candidate or party because their idol improved of him or her.
Endorsements have become common in the past few elections (Street, Inthorn & Scott, 2015).
They have, to a greater extent, influenced voter decisions.
Celebrities as Politicians
Celebrities are motivated to join political activism to earn legitimate power required
to bring the change they desire. This group of celebrities comprises of those that choose not
to focus on a particular issue in politics but to join fully. Examples include Ronald Reagan
and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the United States and Tracy Brabin, Richard Franklin and
Glenda Jackson, in the United Kingdom (Lipman, 2020). India and Indonesia have many
celebrities cum politicians more often than western countries. Usually, celebrities who choose
to run for office leverage their position as famous persons and merge it with the posture of a
political outsider who the system has not compromised (Von Sikorski, Knoll & Matthes,
2018). Besides the fake promises, they are famous, liked, and often wealthy. They have all
the characteristics that a political newcomer desires.
Earning legitimate power requires a politician to operate within the conventional
political structures. Political celebrities, even with all the “hype” must operate within a
particular legislative framework or culture that affects their role considerably (Lipman,
2020). For example, a celebrity who likes speaking their mind or acting idiosyncratically may
be less attractive to a political party that has a clear cut line, rules, and traditions (Street,
Inthorn & Scott, 2015). Such celebrities use their charm to attract votes, and the perception
that they may be nothing significant to the party is inflated. Thus, they are considered less
attractive. Additionally, celebrities may face numerous roadblocks in a heated political
system like Britain’s (Street, Inthorn & Scott, 2015). In such a legislative framework, voters
may yield to a celebrity only if party members are disillusioned or slow or decide to seek
unconventional ways to win. Celebrities also have to battle with their past life. It counts as
the extra-political segment of their life inside their new political framework. Usually,
discrepancies in their past and current life can be detrimental to their credibility, policy
frameworks, and trust among the populace (Wood & Herbst, 2007). Celebrities face the
challenge of shifting from their past life to who they supposed to be (position of authority)
after being elected.
Therefore, it can be affirmed that when a celebrity decides to run for a public office,
more often they are driven by ego. Typically, they seek to challenge the status quo and
perform better than a professional politician. After frequent interactions with the people, they
desire to be and to bring the change that people want. The belief is that while in office, they
will be in a position to implement projects and improve people lives in a meaningful way.
The notion that the system has not corrupted them is enough to make them feel that they will
deliver on their objectives. While some succeed, others fail.
Activism, desire to endorse particular candidates or run for political offices happen
to be the forms of celebrity participation in politics. However, celebrities have, to an extent,
impeded a free and fair system. Their functions cannot only be recognised by conventional
democracies which are the types that Wood & Herbst (2007) describe as 'minority
democracies.' Such processes are characterised by lack of representation and interest
aggression on the inward side of politics but more of voice and accountability on the outer
side that excludes people, key to the entire process.
Celebrities’ centre of focus is selfish and rarely to the best interest of the process.
Stars have enthusiasts who are more interested in the individual and their chosen cause. It
raises questions as what Angelina Jolie or George Clooney rightfully claim to represent.
While their activities focus on correcting society's ills and changing people's lives, they fail to
depict an ideal cosmopolite democracy. Additionally, on the issue of representation, stars
trivialise political debates to an extensive stretch. Mira (2019) agrees that celebrities tend to
personalise and dramatize politics. They centre on looks or styles and degrade politicians
measured by their skills and capabilities. They dumb down political debates by embracing
personalities, charm and images instead of policies and procedures. Soon, our parliament will
be replaced with rock stars and actors who understand little about foreign policy. Lastly, the
media's superior coverage of celebrities in public discourse may cloud the people's
perspectives of the real issues floated by less famous but competent individuals.
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