Angelina Jolie, the Oscar-winning actress and media obsession, has focused international attention on her heartfelt cause, the plight of the poorest children in the developing world. She visits refugee camps in war-torn regions of Southeast Asia to comfort hundreds of kids who have lost limbs to land mines. She lobbies Congress on behalf of orphans with AIDS. She personally has donated $4 million since 2001 to Pakistani earthquake victims and other causes, most recently to maternity wards of state hospitals in Namibia, the impoverished African nation where she gave birth to her daughter, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, on May 27.
The first photos of her new baby, which Jolie released to Getty Images, brought a reported $4.1 million payment from People magazine — the glossy disputes the amount — and she is giving all of the proceeds to charity. But Jolie, in her first one-on-one interview since giving birth, candidly acknowledges her crusade has an extra upside: It diverts movie fans, supermarket tabloids and the media from focusing on more controversial and less attractive elements of her life.
"That is a fair assessment," she tells FORBES in an exclusive interview. Her work "is twofold: I have all that gossip in my life that has gotten so out of control. And my work in Washington and with the UN gets people to focus on other things." Jolie, 31, who won an Academy Award in 2000 for her supporting role as a mental patient in the film "Girl, Interrupted," has thus been able to endure hits to her image that might otherwise have badly hurt her career.
The public-relations value of a good deed has quelled carpers who could have painted an uglier picture, say, of a home-wrecker and sex symbol who's had an out-of-wedlock baby with a heartthrob actor she stole from America's sweetheart. (Last year Jolie had a rumored affair with Brad Pitt, her costar in the film "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," purportedly prompting him to leave his actress wife, the perky sitcom darling Jennifer Aniston. "Brangelina," as the couple has been christened in the press, have denied that marriage will follow.)
'It's all about self-interest'
But some of the best charitable works are motivated by a personal stake. Michael Milken, the former Wall Street banker and philanthropist who survived prostate cancer, has pledged $50 million or more for research on his disease, yielding breakthrough therapies. Virgin Group Chief Richard Branson devotes money and staff for work on AIDS in South Africa, in part because he employs 4,500 there.
"It's all about self-interest. Your experience is the epicenter of your efforts," says actor Michael J. Fox, whose Parkinson's disease was diagnosed in 1991. He has mounted a nationwide effort to increase Parkinson's funding and persuade Congress to override the Bush Administration's ban on using federal dollars for research on new stem-cell lines, which might be useful in treating his debilitating disease. Had it not been diagnosed, "Would I have picked this disease out of a hat and run with it?" Fox asks. "No. Besides, it would be less authentic if I had."
So it is that Angelina Jolie, who earns $15 million per film, has benefited visibly from her good works. Her Q score, a much-watched quotient in Hollywood that gauges a star's likability among hoi polloi, has gone up with her aid efforts. In 2000 only 31 percent of respondents said she was "familiar" to them, and only 14 percent of those viewed her positively. By 2006 she was familiar to 81 percent of Americans, and her positive rating had almost doubled to 25 percent, says Marketing Evaluations Inc. (Her negative rating rose, too, but it is lower than that of the average performer.)
Still, her improving image is in sharp contrast with the bizarre persona she had before her Third World aid efforts began in early 2001. Back then, the star with the fullest, most famous pair of lips since Mick Jagger was known for edgy eccentricity. She got multiple tattoos. She had been in naughty romps with costars. She wore, on a chain around her neck, a tiny vial of blood from her then husband, actor-writer Billy Bob Thornton. She passionately kissed her brother on the lips at the 2000 Academy Awards and spoke publicly of bisexual trysts. "In my early 20s I was fighting with myself," Jolie says. "Now I take that punk in me to Washington, and I fight for something important."
Waking up to the world
Her awakening began in early 2001, when the self-styled "sheltered Los Angeles kid," the daughter of actor Jon Voight and actress Marcheline Bertrand, began reading United Nations reports on global poverty and refugees. She approached UN officials, hoping to help but wary her offbeat image might get in the way. They sent her to paparazzi-free zones: hot spots Sierra Leone and Tanzania. In 2001 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees wanted to make her a goodwill ambassador, but she told UN officials in Geneva: "I don't think you want me. There's a lot of bad things written about me and my behavior. I could have a negative effect on your operations." They gave her the title anyway.
Five years later rock stars and actors dish with world leaders about global debt relief and stem-cell law. U2's Bono held forth in January at the power-packed World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But he was upstaged by one Angelina Jolie, who took the dais to say she was "ashamed" that the Bush Administration had refused to sign a UN bill of rights for children. The world's most luminous tabloid target had remade herself into an efficient advocate for the Third World.
Now she also lobbies in Washington, D.C. "Hollywood types have figured out the only difference in Washington is that you're selling bills instead of scripts," says Erik Huey, a D.C. lobbyist. Jolie, who has dropped in on scores of congressmen and senators at least 20 times in the past three years, says she hopes to return to the nation's capital on June 20 to attend World Refugee Day. "As much as I would love to never have to visit Washington, that's the way to move the ball," she says. And since giving birth to Shiloh, her third child — she adopted son Maddox, 4, in Cambodia and Zahara, 1, in Ethiopia — she promises more cameos on the Hill. "The more children I have, the more I feel it's my duty," she says.
She has pushed three bills to protect children. One would have the U.S. spend $500 million next year and $15 billion over ten years, to educate kids in the poorest regions. She plans to work with Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who has proposed it. In April, to pique interest in the press, Jolie joined in a media conference call about education when she was eight months pregnant; it generated 243 stories.
A second bill would provide legal help to alien minors (she despises the term "alien") who are alone and pass through U.S. borders. The Senate passed it in December 2005, but it has languished in the House for six months. "It's caught up in the overall immigration debate," Jolie says, "but I just think it's un-American to refuse refugee children access to a lawyer." But in a private meeting, Representative F. John Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin scoffed at the cost of implementing such an idea, she says. "He didn't treat me gently — I left shaking in my heels."
Her third bill, to aid 70 million "vulnerable" kids in the Third World, was signed by President Bush last November — but so far no funding has been okayed. "We worked so hard to pass a bill, and then you realize you have to figure out a way to pay for it," she gripes.
Still, Jolie got the issue to center stage. "She fills a room," says Chris Ann Keehner, a Senate staffer who helped draft the bill. "It gives a member of Congress a photo op, and it's a way to get the message out — even if she did break up a marriage."
© 2012 Forbes.com