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Holy Jolie!

Angelina Jolie has gone from Hollywood bad girl to a one-woman Angel Network who has raised the bar on giving back, and rehabbing a tarnished image.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Over the last week or so, I asked friends and acquaintances this "Family Feud"-style question: Name something associated with Angelina Jolie. Some people blurted out answers immediately, word association style: “Lips!”  “Lara Croft!”  “Homewrecker!” Others took the opportunity to express their secret longings for Jolie. “I’d do her in front of my mother until I couldn’t walk,” said one respondent who happened to be married … and female … and a grandmother. Yes, Angelina’s sexy. This we know.

But coming in at No. 1 — ahead of even “Brad Pitt”, which was two — were answers having to do with Jolie’s humanitarianism and work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the U. N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees. I wasn’t surprised because this is the answer I would have given.  When I think of Angelina, the image that pops into in my head is of the actress, makeup-free but still ravishing, giving aid and spreading hope to people in places most people would never want to go. Her Wikipedia humanitarian section reads like the most heart-wrenching season of "The Amazing Race" ever, with stops in Cambodia, Pakistan, Equador, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Kenya, Thailand, Namibia, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Russia, Chad, Washington D.C. and my home state of Arizona, visiting detained asylum seekers at three facilities there. Who knew there were asylum seekers in Phoenix? Angelina, that's who.

The jet lag alone would do me in. And then there’s the lobbying she does in Washington and millions of dollars she donates out of her own pocket. And unlike a lot of actors, who turn activist when the acting jobs slow down, Angelina is doing all this when she’s still super-hot, both physically and career-wise. It’s awe-inspiring.

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In addition to doing a world of good for people in need, Angelina’s efforts have had some interesting side effects. It’s totally changed her image — the Billy Bob, vials of blood, brother-kissing Angie seems like a lifetime ago. But more importantly, she’s single-handedly raised the bar for other celebrities — and the rest of us — in terms of what it means to give back. You can’t just drive a Prius, or donate your Oscar dress to charity, or wear a colored ribbon to an awards show anymore. You have to get in there in the muck, keep your facts and figures straight, and do without Starbucks, Jamba Juice and Pinkberry for weeks at a time. It’s not for wusses.

When Paris Hilton got out of the slammer, she talked about wanting to do charity work. She even showed up at gala to raise funds for children with spinal cord injuries, which is great. The difference with Angelina and almost any star you can think of is that she really gets her hands dirty. When visiting a troubled land, she reportedly insists on staying in the same facilities where the UNHCR field staff stays. Can you imagine Paris or hell, even Oprah doing that? As we all know, Ms. Winfrey likes to help people, and she’s helped tons of them, but she doesn’t like to touch them, I don’t think. Have you noticed that or is it just me? Angie, on the other hand, touches you and hugs you and wants to take you home with her. And sometimes, like with her adopted children, Maddox, Zahara and Pax, she actually does.

I’m sure other celebs have no end of admiration for Jolie but I wonder if secretly some of them are thinking, ‘Give it a rest, girl. You’re making the rest of us look lazy and self-involved.’ Could she be to celebrity activism what Lance Armstrong is to cycling? Do some people think, ‘I’m never going to be that good so why even bother getting on the bike?’  If international activism were like the board game Risk, Angelina would have her little plastic cubes all over the map.  Greenland might still be up for grabs, but maybe not. I think Leonardo DiCaprio might already have it.

If any celebrity can’t win for losing here, it would have to be Jennifer Aniston, the mega-famous ex of Jolie’s hottie boyfriend Brad Pitt. Say Aniston wanted to go to Zimbabwe or Chad or Phoenix to help out with something — maybe Bono invited her personally — the media would accuse her of trying to horn in on Angie’s act. So Jen makes movies, endorses Smart Water and gets a GLAAD Award for being simultaneously famous and OK with gay people. She probably does other good stuff, too, but I can’t think of it off hand. Jen’s best bet, in terms of bolstering her do-gooder image, would be if some horrible, natural disaster were to hit Greece.  She’s of Greek descent, after all, so she could chopper into the homeland, pass out food rations, maybe autograph some sand bags, and get all sweaty and tear-streaked. That could be a home run, assuming Nia Vardalos doesn’t get there first and make it all C-listy.

The way I see it, if any modern starlet — or male star, for that matter — wants to come close to Angelina in terms of humanitarian cred, the best bet is to come down with a disease, conquer it gracefully and then help others with that same disease. The ideal scenario would be to get the disease named after you — like Gwynethitis or Afflecksia. The big risk here is that Angelina would, with the help of her contacts in the international medical community, cure your disease and then you’re back to square one. And she’d look smoking hot in the lab coat, too, so you really can’t win. The only way you can win is if Angelina gets fat.  And judging by the recent spreads in In Touch, Star and Us Weekly, that doesn’t look like it’s happening any time soon.

“She’s just too many things,” said one of the respondents to my "Family Feud" question. “She’s beautiful, she’s talented, she’s smart and she helps millions and millions of people. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t secretly know how to fly. I’m waiting for the day she just flies down the red carpet.”

Speaking of red carpets, one small consolation for stars who feel like Jan Brady to Angelina’s Marcia Marcia Marcia is that Angie’s box office appeal is a bit hit and miss. Her last movie, “A Mighty Heart,” in which she played slain journalist Daniel Pearl’s wife Mariane, came and went early this summer. I heard it was good and I even wrote it down on my Things to See list, but I just didn’t make it to the theater. Angelina gives and gives and gives. You’d think I’d be able to get to the multiplex. There’s always Netflix.

In the meantime, I’m going to take a page out of Angie’s book and give back. No, seriously, I am. There’s a local youth mentoring program called Lifeworks I’ve been thinking of getting involved with. I met the founder a while back at a party and have kept his business card on my desk for months. Every once a while, I’ll pick it up, think about signing up to help, then put it down again, deciding, ‘I’ll get involved when things calm down.’  But of course, things never calm down. So this week, in honor of Angie, I’m picking up the phone and volunteering.  And if I don’t and I blow it off yet again, Angelina’s welcome to come to my house, wrestle me to the ground and berate me like the weakling that I am.

Dennis Hensley is the author of the novels Misadventures in the (213) and Screening Party and a co-host of the national radio show, Twist. www.dennishensley.com