LONDON (Reuters) - From tattooed wild woman to humanitarian heroine — what a difference a few years has made for Angelina Jolie, who topped a Reuters poll released on Thursday of the best celebrity humanitarians of 2007.
Hollywood star Jolie commanded the greatest public respect of all celebrity public do-gooders this year due to her work as a U.N. goodwill ambassador and as the adoptive mother tried to raise awareness of suffering in Africa.
But the poll by humanitarian Web site Reuters AlertNet (www.alertnet.org) found not all do-gooders fared so well, with fellow adoptive mother Madonna voted the least respected celebrity altruist of 2007 despite raising millions for orphans in Malawi, and Bob Geldof struggling for support.
Madonna’s image was hit by claims she used her fame and wealth to circumvent Malawian adoption rules.
“People aren’t stupid,” said Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University.
“They can really sense when it’s just an endorsement and when somebody really means it. Someone like Angelina Jolie comes across as having more integrity than some celebrities and a greater sense that she doesn’t just do this for the publicity.”
The online poll of 606 people conducted from December 7 to 19 put 32-year-old Jolie ahead of U2 singer Bono, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Microsoft founder Bill Gates — all of whom have helped put African suffering on the global agenda.
The result underlined how far Jolie has changed her image since shocking onlookers by French kissing her brother at an awards ceremony about seven years ago and from wearing a vial of second husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck.
Since becoming an ambassador in 2001 for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, she has visited more than 20 humanitarian hot spots, most recently Iraq.
“She does this in a very low-key way,” said UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler. “She goes out to see for herself, to get up close and very personal. She doesn’t travel with film crews, and I think that is real testimony to her dedication to the cause.”
Jolie has three adopted children — from Ethiopia, Cambodia and Vietnam, and last year gave birth to a daughter, Shiloh, with her actor partner Brad Pitt.
But she has sparked little of the controversy that has dogged Madonna, who adopted a toddler from Malawi in 2006.
“Madonna seems to do philanthropy the way she’s done Indian culture, sex, and just about everything — like a disposable fad,” said one anonymous voter. “Hope she doesn’t get bored of her adopted African kid.”
John McKie, who recruits celebrities for British relief agency Christian Aid, was less critical of Madonna.
“She has played Live8 and she’s got her own charity in Malawi,” he said. “Many celebrities don’t engage in Africa on any level, so we shouldn’t be too hard on Madonna.”
After Madonna, U.S. socialite Paris Hilton gave the worst name to celebrity humanitarianism in 2007, the poll found, after announcing she planned to swap partying for philanthropy with a trip to Rwanda. The trip was later postponed.
Famous figures who scored highly for their humanitarian work included former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Jordan’s Queen Rania and former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan.
Actors Mia Farrow, Don Cheadle and Brad Pitt won praise for their advocacy on behalf of Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region.
Bono showed he has both admirers and detractors, ranking second after Jolie in the “most respected” category but also attracting enough negative votes to put him in the top five celebrity do-gooders people love to hate — with Bob Geldof.
“This guy probably believes he’s the new Messiah,” said one anonymous voter.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Eric Walsh