Celebrity politicians: why the glamour and power of politics remains fascinating to stars
As Will Smith, Matthew McConaughey and Dwayne Johnson go public with their political aspirations, here's a look at how fame became the perfect breeding ground for a career in office
You can pinpoint the exact moment when the line between politics and celebrity went from blurred to crystal clear. It was the evening of May 19, 1962, at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
That was the night Marilyn Monroe, in a gold, beaded gown by Oscar-winning French costume designer, Jean Louis, sang a breathless “happy birthday” to president John F Kennedy at a $1,000-a-head fundraiser in the Big Apple.
Monroe’s rumoured lover Kennedy would later call the sensual performance “wholesome”, while his wife, Jackie, who did not attend, would tell her sister Lee Radziwill: “Life’s too short to worry about Marilyn Monroe.”
The glamour of the Kennedy-era White House had all the stars of the day – Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Bing Crosby, Angie Dickinson and Judy Garland – come running in the same way that modern celebrities turn up to fundraisers to support political aspirants.
"The connection between Hollywood and politics is not a new phenomenon," says Carolyn Yaffe, a cognitive behaviour therapist at Medcare Camali Clinic in Dubai. "The Kennedy family aligned themselves with many famous stars to help Kennedy get elected and it worked. It was Kennedy's father Joseph's knowledge of the movie industry and connections that facilitated his son's alignment with the Hollywood elite to help glamourise the Kennedy brand."
While some celebrities are content to simply bask in the enduring Camelot glow, others see rubbing shoulders with politicians as a stepping stone to the next stage in their career, one that which a life spent in the spotlight of a similarly fickle industry and fame, has already prepared them for.
“Although celebrities are mostly known for their roles in movies or in sports, more and more are effecting change through influence,” says Nancy W Gleason, associate professor of practice of political science at NYU Abu Dhabi. “They command a vast platform that allows them to reach large fanbases, which is attractive to politicians. Plus, their media reach gives them access to comment on and influence local and global issues. Very often a celebrity being involved in an issue is how the public get to know about it.”
Recognition and marketability
Imran Khan, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Amitabh Bachchan, Glenda Jackson and Donald Trump … The list of celebrities who have been lured by the not much brighter, but certainly more powerful lights of politics, is long and extends a global reach.
In the Philippines, action movie star Joseph "Erap" Estrada was voted in as president from 1998 to 2001, while in Liberia, international footballer George Weah was elected president in 2018, a position he still holds.
“Actors are extroverts and also narcissistic, there is the need to keep attention on themselves,” says Johanna Richmond, a therapist at Cognitive Behaviour Therapy centre in Dubai. “Reagan led the way for many actors to believe politics is the next step in their careers. And if the general public will follow their style, why not their politics, too? An actor could believe they can shape society to their ideas.”
I realised early on in bodybuilding that you have to be able to sell yourself, your ideas, your position to the public. You have to set yourself apart, whether it’s policy or movies.
Celebrities often make for good politicians because they are inherently more likeable than traditional politicians, for whom there is a universally held disdain both for what they do, and fail to do, in office.
“There’s the issue of charisma,” says Gleason, “which most celebrities have. Plus, you have to be thick-skinned when it comes to the new ways in which media is communicated and delivered, and celebrities are already well-versed in this process. Plus, living life in the spotlight often means there are not many skeletons left in their closets by the time a celebrity chooses to run. They’re already a known entity to the public.”
It was a firm grasp of his own-brand awareness that Schwarzenegger credits for taking him from the big screen to the role of governor of California, a position he held from 2003 to 2011.
“I realised early on in bodybuilding that you have to be able to sell yourself, your ideas, your position to the public,” he told advertising magazine Adweek. “You have to set yourself apart, whether it’s policy or movies. How do you make them remember you?”
The allure of rags to riches
In the UK, it is rare to find career politicians who have risen from the kind of humble beginnings celebrities often lay claim to – the ones who waited tables and lived in their cars while they worked their way on to the A-list.
These "humble beginnings" stories are much more prevalent in the US, not only in entertainment, but also in politics.
“In the US there are lots of rags-to-riches stories in the political system and that gives the person more clout against their wealthier opponents,” says Gleason. “Coming from a poorer background is important; the public wants to see a reflection of themselves in office. Because many artists can claim to have come from ‘the streets’, there is authenticity in that sort of story which resonates with voters and the public. Plus, celebrities can get their rags-to-riches tale out there more easily than aspiring politicians, because their story has already been in magazines and online by the time they decide to transition into politics.”
"When he entered politics, Reagan was a successful actor leaving this profession to run for governor of California," says Yaffe. "Reagan’s attraction to politics stemmed from his humble beginnings, he believed he could do more for the common working person as he felt he could relate to their struggles.
Fast forward to the 21st century and like Reagan, Schwarzenegger described himself “as the man of the people”. But do these celebrities run for office to illicit positive change? Or is it just an extension of their time in the spotlight? Once again, the lines are blurred."
‘Likeability is hugely important’
While hashtags and polls might tell you how a celebrity or politician is regarded at any given moment, the Q Score, developed in 1963 by marketeer Jack Landis, is a measurement of the likeability, familiarity and appeal of a brand, celebrity, company or entertainment product, such as a film or TV show. The higher the Q Score, the more highly regarded the item or person is. Some celebrities with high Q Score’s include Tom Hanks, Adele and Samuel L Jackson.
“Likeability is hugely important,” says Gleason. “If the message gets out that we, the public, don’t like this or that person, then that becomes ingrained in our psyche. It’s important to note there is no research to suggest celebrities can shape policy. They can elevate an issue to prominence using their platform, but to effect change, you have to run for office or a leadership role.”
And hand in hand with likeability is trust. When it comes to celebrities giving their voice to an issue or running for office, the public puts their trust in the fact that they’re not doing it for self-serving reasons such as fame, publicity or money, because they already have those things.
“Maybe voters trust celebrities more than politicians because their incentive is not necessary power,” says Gleason. "Celebrities don’t have to go into politics, but politicians do.”
Fame can put political structures in place
When celebrities move into politics, the mechanics of what is required to make the transition are already in place, thanks to their years spent navigating fame. What aspiring politicians would need to spend years building – recognition, a platform, fan support and money – a celebrity already has access to.
“A celebrity’s access to and ownership of resources means they already move in circles that govern, and they know and understand these systems,” says Gleason. “And because they’re in those circles already with access to things such as influential donors, they have the power in place to succeed.”
It is about power. [Celebrities] have become accustomed to adulation and power and politics will give them another boost. Power people seek out other power people.
Johanna Richmond, therapist
Politically active celebrities move within a separate sphere to elected politicians, giving them the ability to say and do things officials cannot. While George Clooney was able to call the 2003 conflict in Darfur “genocide”, if an elected politician were to do the same, the invocation of the word would automatically necessitate a military response from that country as per international law.
“Celebrity power itself is required to be fed by the media and needs constant recognition to stay famous, but what’s interesting about celebrities is they are not subject to traditional mechanisms of accountability,” says Gleason of why vocal stars such as Clooney or Leonardo DiCaprio are politically active but do not become politicians. “They have an issue not a political mandate and they don’t have accountability, which means they can speak in areas politicians can’t.
“It is about power,” says Richmond of why some celebrities move into politics. “They have become accustomed to adulation and power and politics will give them another boost. Power people seek out other power people.”
The rise of 'celebrity politics'
These days, it seems you can’t open your Twitter feed without seeing another celebrity announce their openness to running for political office. The latest is Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey, 51.
Calling a possible bid to run for governor of Texas in the 2022 election “a true consideration”, McConaughey recently told the Balanced Voice podcast, “I have wisdom to share that I think is obvious [such as when] youngsters go: ‘No, I had no idea, thank you for that.’” After his appointment as professor of practice at the Moody College of Communication in Texas in 2019, the Fool’s Gold actor revealed the role had given him the opportunity to step “into more leadership teaching positions".
Speaking on the popular Pod Save America podcast, actor Will Smith, 52, said of running for political office: “For now I’ll let that office get cleaned up a little bit and then I'll consider that at some point down the line.
“I absolutely have an opinion, I’m optimistic, I’m hopeful, I believe in understanding between people and I believe in the possibility of harmony. I will certainly do my part, whether it remains artistic or, at some point, ventures into the political arena.”
Although he has never fully disclosed his political inclinations, having donated to the Democratic party while also marrying into the Republican arm of the Kennedy family, Guardians of the Galaxy star, Chris Pratt, 41, is another actor whose name is often mentioned alongside stars who might run for office one day. Rumours grew louder after his marriage to Kennedy scion Katherine Schwarzenegger – JFK’s great niece – in June 2019.
But it is comments made by the world’s No 1 action star, wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson, 48, concerning his political aspirations, that which have garnered the most positive feedback from fans.
“I would consider a presidential run in the future if that's what the people wanted,” Johnson told USA Today. “Truly I mean that, and I’m not flippant in any way with my answer. That would be up to the people ... So, I would wait, and I would listen. I would have my finger on the pulse, my ear to the ground.”
Updated: April 4, 2021 12:53 PM