He lured the paparazzi to Africa, where people really needed the attention.
If it wasn’t for Brad Pitt, most Americans would never have heard of Namibia. They might not know about AIDS orphans in South Africa, or the plight of children in Haiti, or what transpired at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Pitt, 42, has been a movie star for 15 years—and a paparazzi target for nearly as long. Celebrity mags have made millions reporting on his love life, and the obsession only intensified when he began romancing Angelina Jolie. So he started fighting back—but not by punching photographers. If paparazzi were going to follow the couple everywhere, Pitt figured they might as well drag them somewhere that desperately needed the world’s attention. “It’s the first time I’ve actually felt like we have some degree of control over it,” says Pitt, from his home in Malibu. “I can’t describe what an immense relief it is for me.” The splashiest example of his new strategy unfolded just last month. He and Jolie, who recently gave birth to their daughter Shiloh Nouvel in Namibia, sold the coveted first baby photos to People magazine for a reported $4 million—and gave all the money to African charities. “Knowing that someone was going to hound us for that first photo—and was going to profit immensely for doing it—I just couldn’t live with it,” Pitt says. “We were able to turn that around and collect millions for people who are really going to need it.”
If Pitt was simply using his star power to force the celebrity press to cover poverty and disease, that would be enough—it’s far more than most celebrities do. But Pitt has also been studying trade issues, diving into why much of Africa is so impoverished and how it can be turned around. “Industrialized nations cost Africa three times what we give it in aid,” he says. “We buy their coffee beans, but we don’t let them process the beans, which is where the real money is. So what we’re doing is digging a hole for them that they can’t get out of, and then throwing a little money in the hole. The odds are just stacked against them.”
Fatherhood, he says, helped accelerate his activism. Not long before Shiloh was born, Pitt adopted Jolie’s son, Maddox, whom she originally adopted from Cambodia, and her daughter Zahara, whom she adopted last summer from Ethiopia. “I look at [Zahara] and imagine what her life could have been,” he says. “You want to grab as many of these kids in your arms as you can. They need our help, and we should be doing more.”
He’s doing more in America, too. A longtime student of architecture and an advocate of “green” design, Pitt saw an opportunity after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild New Orleans in an innovative way. Joining forces with Global Green USA, an environmental advocacy group, Pitt put up $100,000 to help sponsor an architecture competition that requires contestants to create affordable, multifamily housing for the city that is ecofriendly and community focused. Some 3,000 people have pre-registered for the competition. Global Green predicts that the number of actual design submissions will be several hundred.
“We can’t just consume ourselves into extinction,” he says. “We have to find a new paradigm, a new way of thinking. Of course, the ultimate goal is to get the designs built. It’s a bit of a quagmire down there now, so I see myself getting even more involved in the future.”
First, he has to be free to leave the house. Since returning from Africa, the Jolie-Pitt clan has been swarmed by paparazzi. “They’re outside the house right now, at least 40 of them,” Pitt says, as a baby’s cry fills the background. “There are two boats out in the water, and there’s an occasional chopper that goes by.” Indeed, the sound of a helicopter propeller is so loud at times during our interview that Pitt can’t hear the questions. “It’s madness,” he says. But he doesn’t sound annoyed. Far from it: he sounds like any other blissed-out new dad. “Do you have kids? It’s absolutely sublime.” You can virtually hear him smile over the phone. “Whether you have them or adopt them, they’re all blood. And the funniest people I’ve ever met.”
Pretty soon, it’ll be their generation’s world. “I’ve had the luxury of being able to see these issues firsthand,” he says. “If I don’t share that, I’m complicit in the problem.” Instead, he’s making sure he’s part of the solution.