Angelina Jolie has the best publicity game in Hollywood. Here’s how she does it.
What was Angelina Jolie best known for in 2004?
a.) Wearing a vial of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck.
b.) Making out with her brother on the red carpet.
c.) Being the offspring of ‘70s star Jon Voight.
d.) All of the above.
The answer, of course, is d. There was talent there — in 1999, she’d won an Oscar for her depiction of a sociopathic mental patient in Girl, Interrupted — but that performance had also effectively set her image at the intersection of beautiful and menacing. The marriage to Thornton, who was 20 years her senior, and their frankness about their sex life (knife play, bondage) only amplified the message: This girl was gorgeous, but wow was she weird.
But it gets even weirder — just not in the way you’d expect. While filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia, Jolie became invested in the plight of refugees, leading to her high-profile appointment as a United Nations ambassador. Then, in 2002, Jolie finalized the adoption of a 1-year-old boy, Maddox, from an orphanage in Cambodia.
How could those two very different understandings of Jolie make sense together? Most Hollywood stars, with the help of their publicists and agents, work very, very hard to have a coherent image — to “mean” something clearly and simply: the Nice Guy, the Pinup, the Tough Dude. Ryan Reynolds, Megan Fox, Vin Diesel.
But the biggest Hollywood star images are complicated, and even contradictory: Marilyn Monroe was pure sex, but she radiated innocence; Marlon Brando was overpoweringly masculine yet incredibly sensitive.
So Jolie’s image mixed dangerous sexuality…and benevolent humanitarianism? It sounds ridiculous. But it was precisely that combination, and the flexibility it permitted, that allowed Jolie to not only weather one of the biggest potential scandals of the decade, but facilitated her rise to superstardom.
It’s because Angelina Jolie plays the celebrity game better than anyone else in the business. Her game is subtle, often invisible, incredibly precise, and always, always effective. And by all accounts, she does it without the help of a publicist. To best explain how she masters it today, though, we have to return to 2004 — but this time, to Brad Pitt.
In fall 2004, Brad Pitt was one of the top leading men in Hollywood. Two-time “Sexiest Man Alive,” he was coming off of the massive success of both Ocean’s 12 and Troy, in which he appeared mostly nude at the age of 40. He was also in the fourth year of marriage to Jennifer Aniston; together, they formed Hollywood’s most golden — and, arguably, beloved — couple.
Pitt and Jolie had both signed on to make Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a double-crossing spy thriller intended to exploit Jolie’s skill at what can only be called sexy fighting. When filming began in fall 2004, Jolie was single, but Pitt was married — still, it was no surprise that the narrative of the film, which required them to play rival assassins who just happened to be married, sparked immediate rumors of romance. It was all routine gossip, status quo for two stars in any movie — at least until January 2005, when Pitt announced that he and Aniston would divorce.
Both Pitt and Jolie denied that anything had happened, but Jolie’s image, coupled with suggestive stills from the film, kept the story in circulation. Then, in late April, a revelation: pictures of Pitt and Jolie playing on a Kenyan beach, published on the cover of Us Weekly with the subtitle “12 PAGES OF NEW PICS THAT PROVE THE ROMANCE WAS REAL.”
While none of the images show Pitt and Jolie in a romantic configuration, let alone touching, Pitt’s familiarity with Maddox seemed to tell a different story. Quickly dubbed “Brangelina,” the pair dominated the summer news cycle, first promoting Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which defied expectations by opening with a $50 million weekend — a personal best for both stars — and went on to gross over $150 million worldwide. Then, in July, with Mr. and Mrs. Smith still in theaters, the pair traveled to adopt a 6-month-old AIDS orphan, named Zahara, from Ethiopia.
There was no confirmation of a relationship, no public displays of affection. At press junkets, interviewers signed agreements that they wouldn’t ask questions about their personal lives. Indeed, it wasn’t until Jolie revealed that she was pregnant in January 2006 that the pair publicly acknowledged their relationship status.
Usually, a refusal to publicly comment or otherwise shape the response to scandal results in backlash. In 1950, it was revealed that Ingrid Bergman was pregnant with the child of Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini, whom she had met while filming Stromboli. When Bergman became pregnant, she was still married to her Swedish husband, thereby making the pregnancy even more illicit. As a result, Bergman became embroiled in the biggest Hollywood scandal since the Fatty Arbuckle trial. So scandalous, in fact, that she was publicly denounced on the floor of the United States Senate as an “instrument of evil,” the subject of dozens of condemnatory editorials and a generalized object of scorn.
Many female stars from the period had endured similar ordeals — they’d just covered them up. With the help of studio “fixers,” dozens of starlets had abortions; when Loretta Young found herself pregnant with the very married Clark Gable’s baby, she traveled to Europe, went into hiding, gave the baby up for adoption… and then adopted her.
Bergman, in other words, had options. But from the start, she had resisted the normal strategies for Hollywood stardom. When famed producer David O. Selznick “discovered” her in Sweden and brought her stateside, she resisted all attempts to shape her into a Hollywood starlet: Bergman refused to pluck her eyebrows, or wear heavy makeup, or mold her image in any manner.
Instead of battling her, Selznick decided to exploit her stubbornness, framing her as the “Nordic Natural” who didn’t even need the normal sculpting and shaping. Lack of image, in other words, as image: What you saw was what you got.
This lack of mediation — and resistance to publicity maneuvering — is precisely what made it so difficult for Bergman to negotiate her scandal. Two years earlier, Robert Mitchum had been arrested for possession of marijuana while hanging out with a woman who was decidedly not his wife. Well aware of the public perception of illegal drug use, Mitchum declared his career over. But 43 days as a model prisoner, along with some savvy publicity manipulation and a very remorseful, very sappy apology in the leading fan magazine, salvaged his career.
But Mitchum gave himself fully over to the recuperation of his image — a campaign that included a full-page spread of him playing with his sons and this piece of magnificent copy:
“Wild animals at a birthday party! A fishing trip on a desert sea! But then, as Josh and Chris Mitchum can tell you, wonderful things have been happening since Dad came home … Bob always had a great fondness for his sons. But in the past, his attitude with them was pretty casual. Now he gives them most of his leisure time.”
It sounds sappy, but it worked; if anything, Mitchum became more successful. Bergman, however, treated the entire affair as a private matter, refusing to do any press or otherwise attempt to exculpate herself. It was all very European.
And so Bergman retreated to Italy, gave birth to a daughter, gave birth to a set of twins, made movies with Rossellini. Bergman’s offense was far more grave than Mitchum’s — in part because she was a woman, and her “sin” was sexual — but her unwillingness to speak or otherwise mitigate the fallout from her actions, and thereby control the trajectory of the narrative, effectively blacklisted her in Hollywood and ended her American career.
Which returns us to Brangelina: The lack of public comment could have mired both Jolie and Pitt in the quagmire of bad press and bombing movies. But Pitt and Jolie were speaking constantly. They were just doing so semiotically.
In April, for example, immediately following the release of the photos of him and Jolie on the beach, Pitt flew to Ethiopia, where he spent three days touring AIDS orphanages.
In May, Jolie participated in a humanitarian mission in Sierra Leone, meeting with the president and speaking privately with victims of the 2002 civil war.
In October, Jolie visited Darfur to bring attention to the plight of Sudanese refugees; later that month, she returned to New York to receive the U.N.’s Global Humanitarian Action Award.
In November, she appeared at a Washington press conference celebrating the signing of the Assistance for Orphans and Other Vulnerable Children in Developing Countries Act, while Pitt spent two days meeting with various politicians to lobby on behalf of the ONE Foundation’s work in Africa.
They then flew to Geneva to hear debriefings on the aftermath of the Pakistani earthquake; for Thanksgiving, they flew to Pakistan, where they participated in relief efforts.
When Jolie reached her eighth month of pregnancy, she and Pitt made the decision to move, temporarily, to Namibia, in hopes of avoiding paparazzi yet drawing attention to the impoverished country; when they sold the rights to the first photos of their daughter, Shiloh, for over $7 million, they donated the money to charities fighting AIDS in Africa.
And the list goes on and on, from Pitt’s high-profile work with the Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans to the adoption, six months after the birth of Shiloh, of a 3-year-old Vietnamese orphan, Pax — all of which were regularly punctuated with images of Jolie, Pitt, and their ever-growing family looking like, well, a family, albeit an untraditional one.
This photo, for example, is a semiotic gold mine: Shiloh, often nicknamed “The Chosen One,” a glimmering beacon of whiteness, flanked by her racially marked siblings, one of whom seems to be protecting her from possible harm. All three are framed by their doting parents, tied to their children via skin color, head/neck scarf, hair highlighting, and physical touch. They’re a “Party of Five,” as the title of the accompanying article puts it, but they’re a distinctly global one: The photos were all shot in Cambodia, and when asked how her children manage all the traveling, Jolie says, “We’ve tried to make them very adaptable, so when we go to a country like India or certain parts of Namibia, they’re happy to play with sticks and rocks outside — they’re happy to blend.”
Taken together, these images, and the stories that accompanied them, were speaking about their relationship, even if the pair themselves weren’t offering comment. And what they were saying was that this wasn’t a story about sex or scandal; rather, it was one of family, humanitarianism, and global citizenship. Within this framework, any publication that chose to focus on sexual intrigue was effectively neglecting the most in need.
Take the dozens of letters to the editor that People received and printed in response to its months of Brangelina coverage. While there were always letters like this…
I’m sickened by Angelina and Brad. They should be hiding their romance out of embarrassment and shame.
Great! Yet another baby born out of wedlock. These people read lines for a living; you’d think they’d be able to read the directions on a contraceptive package.
…they were always surrounded by ones like this:
I had a hard time getting past the whole Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston breakup. However, after reading your story and seeing the photos, it is obvious how in love he and Angelina Jolie are. I applaud them for putting so much heart and soul not only into raising their children in a loving environment but also for raising them to be proud, aware and kind.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the picture of Brad, Angelina and their children is priceless: three alert children with their parents as bookends. Look how Brad’s and Angelina’s arms surround them, with Maddox protectively holding his baby sister. I am not a big celebrity watcher, but I know a loving family when I see one.
These are real letters, but People’s choice to run these particular ones — always in a way that outshines the single dissenting voice — implicitly encouraged other readers to take up the same attitudes.
There’s an old PR maxim that goes, “If you don’t like what people are saying about you, then change the conversation.” That’s what Bergman failed to do, but what Angelina Jolie did with aplomb. It was more than just the beautiful images, though: It was what they represented.
More specifically, Jolie’s image management played on anxieties and ideals specific to the mid-2000s: If Aniston was America’s sweetheart — the girl next door par excellence — then Jolie was the cosmopolitan, global citizen. If Aniston was cute and victimized, then Jolie was sexy, in control of her sexuality and the men around her — a vivid manifestation of postfeminism that projects both the success of feminism and its current irrelevance. If Aniston was reticent to juggle family and career, then Jolie wanted a sprawling international family, the marks of her globalism literally tattooed on her body in the form of the longitude and latitude of her children’s birthplaces.
Jolie’s image thus combines a successful career, motherhood, engaged philanthropy, and active sex appeal: the very height of having it all, but in a way that reflects a distinctly transnational, non-U.S.-centric identity that might not appeal to a certain swath of conservative American moviegoers, but made her — and, by extension, Pitt, whose image has been folded into her own — immensely appealing to progressive Americans and the global market at large.
That’s how Jolie functioned ideologically. But it’s not the entire story.
Most of us don’t know a life before People magazine. It was started in 1974 as a spin-off of the “People” section in Time magazine, and with the heft of Time Inc. behind it, it enjoyed one of the most successful launches in publishing history. And in the 40 years since its launch, it’s become a publishing juggernaut.
People has dominated a category of “personality journalism” that it created, telling stories, as its first editorial proclaimed, about “the active personalities of our time — in all fields.” Its success sparked dozens of copycats: USA Today, Entertainment Tonight, and one, founded in 1978, funded by the New York Times Company. It was called…Us Magazine.
Over the next decade, the magazine would switch hands several times before Publisher Jann Wenner, best known as the wunderkind responsible for Rolling Stone, took full control in 1989. He experimented with different formats, but by 1999, the magazine was losing $10 million a year, known in the trades as “Wenner’s folly.”
Until, that is, Wenner made the decision to funnel $50 million into a complete redesign and, in 2002, hired Bonnie Fuller as editor-in-chief, notorious for her sensational yet tremendously successful tenure at Cosmopolitan and Glamour. Fuller — and her successor, Janice Min — popularized a feature that we joke about today, but one that had tremendous ramifications on the industry at large, which, as you’ll soon see, dictated the coverage of Pitt and Jolie.
That feature was “Stars: They’re Just Like Us.” You’ve almost certainly seen it, or seen it satirized, but what it did was take photos of stars doing mundane activities — pumping gas, going to the grocery store — and captioned them to suggest that stars are, in fact, just like us. As I highlighted earlier, it’s nothing new, ideologically, but it was a brilliant business move. Because, as Fuller put it, “people don’t like to read,” she flooded the magazines pages with photos — but the cheapest kind available, namely, paparazzi photos of celebrities doing unremarkable things.
Until the late ‘90s, paparazzi had been a rarified vocation. Unless contracted to a specific agency, an individual paparazzo had to bear the cost of an expensive camera, miles of film, development, and distribution. But with the rise of digital technologies at the turn of the millennium, it had become increasingly easy — and cheap — to track a celebrity’s quotidian activities. Anyone with a digital camera and an internet connection could take and sell unauthorized photos of celebrities. The number of paparazzi grew from a “handful” in 1995 to 80 in 2004 and 150 in 2005.
Three high-profile gossip narratives compounded the sense of celebrity hysteria. First, Britney Spears was pregnant with her first child with Kevin Federline, and pictures of her pregnant body were at a premium.
Second, Tom Cruise had engaged in a very public courting of Katie Holmes, replete with myriad photo opportunities, including a date at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
And finally, Pitt and Jolie, whose refusal to comment on their relationship, as discussed above, led to a premium on visual documentation. The market for these photos exploded, and by 2005, Us was receiving 45,000 to 50,000 images every week, 75% of which were paparazzi shots — allowing both Us and People to tell the next chapter in the Brangelina narrative in photos.
But as Us began to slowly encroach on People’s circulation and advertising dollars, the two began to engage in massive bidding wars over exclusive rights to various photos. With Time Inc. behind it, People was able to offer huge amounts of money for all types of photos, even ones it did not plan to use. For example, People spent $75,000 for a photo of Jennifer Lopez reading Us Weekly, simply to prevent Us from publishing the photo. People was driving up prices, hoping to shut out other magazines with smaller operating budgets from scooping them on any story, no matter how small.
People would always have more buying power, but Us relied on its wiles, as evidenced by the magazine’s scoop on the first photos of the Pitt-Jolie romance. People believed it had secured the rights at $320,000, and Us countered with an offer of $500,000, but only if the agency would sign a contract immediately, without going back to People.
People tried to retaliate with a $1 million offer, but the deal was done, and the magazine had to watch as Us took the glory. When, a year later, the bidding began for the first images of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, People refused to be outbid by Us, even if it meant paying a startling $4.1 million, which became a story in and of itself, especially when Jolie and Pitt turned around and donated that money to African charities.
Throughout this period, gossip blogs were gradually becoming a regular fixture — Perez Hilton, most notoriously, but also Just Jared, The Superficial, Go Fug Yourself, Oh No They Didn’t, and Lainey Gossip — all of which exploited the newly massive stream of digital paparazzi photos. Us and People provided weekly updates, but the blogs helped keep the Brangelina narrative in constant circulation, inundating web users with daily, even hourly updates.
The transformation of Pitt and Jolie’s “scandal” to one of “happy global family” could not have happened, at least not with the efficiency and clarity that it did, if not for the seismic changes in the gossip industry taking place at the same time. Indeed, the successful navigation of the potential scandal of their relationship could have been a fluke — if not for the masterful negotiation of the decade of Brangelina publicity to come.
Looking back, the Brangelina publicity strategy is deceptively simple. In fact, it’s a model of the strategy that has subconsciously guided star production for the last hundred years. More specifically, that the star should be at once ordinary and extraordinary, “just like us” and absolutely nothing like us. Gloria Swanson is the most glamorous star in the world — who loves to make dinner for her children. Paul Newman is the most handsome man in Hollywood — whose favorite pastime is making breakfast in his socks and loafers.
Jolie’s post-2005 image took the ordinary — she was a working mom trying to make her relationship work — and not only amplified it, but infused it with the rhetoric and imagery of globalism and liberalism. She’s not just a mom, but a mom of six. Instead of teaching her kids tolerance, she creates a family unit that engenders it; instead of reading books on kindness and generosity, she models it all over the globe. As for her partner, he isn’t just handsome — he’s the Sexiest Man Alive. And she doesn’t just have a job; instead, her job is being the most important — and influential — actress in the world.
Her image was built on the infrastructure of the status quo — a straight, white, doting mother engaged in a long-term monogamous relationship — but made just extraordinary enough to truly entice but never offend. The line between the tantalizing and the scandalizing is notoriously difficult to tread (just ask Kanye), but Jolie was able to negotiate it via two tactics: First, and most obviously, she accumulated (or, more generously, adopted and gave birth to) a dynamic group of children who were beautiful to observe; second, she figured out how to talk about her personal life in a way that seemed confessional while, in truth, revealing very little; and third, she exploited the desire for inside access into control of that access.
Let’s start with the first. More jaundiced critics have accused Jolie of collecting children like handbags — an ABC News piece, for example, wondered if “black babies” were “Hollywood’s newest accessory.” Jolie’s “true” intentions with adoption and motherhood, however, were less important than the perception of those intentions. As emphasized above, Jolie’s ever-expanding family was almost always celebrated. Even before the birth of Shiloh, People had declared them their first-ever “World’s Most Beautiful Family,” exalting the “multicultural brood that transcends continents and boasts the two cutest kids ever to sport a Mohawk and a kerchief.”
The birth of Shiloh and the adoption of Pax strengthened the sentiment, but it was the birth of twins Vivienne and Knox in 2008 that transformed a family into a phenomenon. Lots of celebrities had kids; others had adopted kids; some even had twins. But none had all of the above. The desire for documentation thereof was compounded by general twins frenzy: Babies are cute, but two babies, that’s even cuter. Demand for the first photos was high, but no one anticipated the $14 million price tag that People and Hello! paid for exclusive rights, the most that has ever been paid for a celebrity image. But the paycheck paid off, at least in part: The issue featuring the twins and a “19-photo album” became the best-selling issue in seven years — a huge coup.
The picture just emanates family-ness, but a very particular sort of unposed, unmanufactured family. You got the formal pose of adoration on the cover, but this photo is messy, discombobulated, an incredibly compelling argument for authenticity. If everything Jolie says in interviews — how madcap they are, how they’re just trying to figure it out day by day, how much they love each other — is the theory, then photos like these are the proof.
The “photo album” and the text that accompanied it served a particular purpose, however. When Jolie and Pitt sold the photos to People, they stipulated that they would also have control not only over the photos themselves, but the editorial content. According to inside sources, the publication that won the image rights would be “obliged to offer coverage that would not reflect negatively on her or her family,” wouldn’t use the word “Brangelina,” and would supply an “editorial plan” for the layout. Put differently, whoever bought the photos also agreed to editorial oversight by Jolie and Pitt.
It wasn’t the first time that Jolie had exercised that sort of editorial control. While doing the publicity rounds for A Mighty Heart, all journalists speaking with Jolie had to sign a publicity agreement with the following stipulations:
1) Interviewer will not ask Ms. Jolie any questions regarding her personal relationships. In the event Interviewer does ask Ms. Jolie any questions regarding her personal relationships, Ms. Jolie will have the right to immediately terminate the interview and leave.
2) The interview may only be used to promote the Picture. In no event may Interviewer or Media Outlet be entitled to run all or any portion of the interview in connection with any other story.
3) The interview will not be used in a manner that is disparaging, demeaning, or derogatory to Ms. Jolie.
The move to control journalists’ questions — and subsequent reportage — wasn’t unprecedented: In classic Hollywood, there was a tacit agreement between the studios, fan magazines, and gossip columnists that star interviews and profiles would remain positive, flattering, and in line with the star’s image. But you don’t really need an agreement to garner positive treatment: The calculus of contemporary Hollywood publicity ensures that journalists, especially those in the celebrity trade, will paint positive portraits of their subjects if they want to remain in the business. Write a negative story, in other words, and no publicist will let you near their client.
In formalizing the agreement, however, Jolie broke an unwritten rule: The demand for celebrity access may impinge what we normally call journalistic ethics, but you shouldn’t make it public. Most outlets at the press junket for A Mighty Heart refused to sign the agreement, which was obtained and published by The Smoking Gun, sparked a New York Times piece, and prompted Slate to declare an Esquire profile, presumably written under the same conditions, “the worst celebrity profile ever written.”
For the first time, Jolie’s strategy for control had backfired. Before, nothing had read like a publicity stunt — she just looked like she was living her life, traveling around, doing her activism, having some kids, casually dating Brad Pitt. She didn’t have a publicist; she wasn’t calculating or concerned about her image. But the revelation of the journalist agreement suddenly put all of that into doubt: Maybe everything that had seemed so natural and unmediated was, in fact, an elaborate publicity plan.
It was, of course. Not a malicious or manipulative plan, at least not in the way we think of them — but Jolie, like any public person, was always conscious of the way her actions and words made her appear. She was so conscious that she didn’t need a publicist — a less savvy woman would’ve certainly made a mistake. And part of that savvy was effacing any traces of manipulation: The more you make the evidence of the game disappear, the more your audience will be willing to forget that they’re being played. Or, put differently, that part of the reason that millions found Jolie’s words and actions so compelling was that they felt she wasn’t trying to be compelling: She simply was. And in our postmodern moment of hyper-manipulation, a perceived lack of manipulation fosters the sort of rarified authenticity that every product, celebrity or otherwise, desires. Authenticity is the most valued currency in the media world — and Jolie, at least to that point, had it in spades.
Jolie handled the backlash with ease. Her lawyer claimed total responsibility for the document, calling himself “boneheaded” and “overzealous,” while Jolie herself asserted that she “wouldn’t have put it out there.” Her manager, Geyer Kosinski, told the Times that the document itself was meant as “guide” intended to protect Jolie from herself: “She is an incredibly candid, honest person, who is undeterred in answering questions. Our collective intention was to protect her.” In this way, the response to the backlash became a way of reaffirming Jolie’s own authenticity. If she wasn’t so unchecked and unguarded, her people never would’ve had to put it out there. And now, with the agreement revoked, every piece of reportage would be the “real Jolie.”
That note of reaffirmed authenticity has continued to structure the Jolie image — as she traveled the world, alternating between starring roles, supporting Pitt, and humanitarian work; as she told Vanity Fair that her daughter Shiloh was “like a little dude” who loved to wear boys’ clothes and be like her brothers and refused to acknowledge the trolling press that accused her of “turning Shiloh into a boy.”
It continued as she directed her first film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, a love story set in war-torn Bosnia, and insisted on casting only local actors playing their own ethnicity. “It couldn’t be anyone else,” she told Vanity Fair. “It’s their story. It was important that they were willing to do it. If none of them were willing, I wouldn’t have made it.” As her family continued to be photographed in exotic locales doing various edifying activities: going to the aquarium in Sydney, riding on a boat in the Galapagos, frolicking on the grounds of a castle in Scotland, going to see Wicked in London. As she started wearing a sizable ring and confirming the engagement only through Pitt’s publicist, who said, “It is a promise for the future and their kids are very happy. There’s no date set at this time.” As she offered just enough of herself, and her private life, to keep the public interested. Never too many images or interviews; never a danger of oversaturation. Just enough, in other words, to make you feel grateful each time you had the opportunity for more.
Over the winter and spring, however, there was a relative lack of Jolie content. She appeared in Jordan in her capacity as a UNHCR Special Envoy to raise awareness about Syrian refugees in December; honored her cinematographer Dean Semler at the American Society for Cinematographers Awards in February; visited the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda to advocate against the use of rape as a tool of war in March; spoke at the Women of the World Summit and the G-8 in April. For anyone else, that’s a busy four months; for Jolie, it’s a relative pittance of public appearance.
But then, a bombshell: She’d been out of the spotlight because she’d been preparing for, and then undergoing, a double mastectomy. Another celebrity would reveal that kind of information through a magazine cover — which is what Michael J. Fox did with the news of his Parkinson’s disease, how Patrick Swayze chose to confirm his battle with pancreatic cancer, and what Guiliana Rancic did two years earlier with the news of her own double mastectomy.
Jolie was certainly no stranger to sanctioned People magazine covers — but there was a grander narrative at stake, and she had something else in mind. The narrative of illness (or, in Jolie’s case, pre-illness) and affliction is almost always rooted in the personal: Here is how I feel; here is how it affects my family. Gossip and fan magazines have always turned celebrity struggles into melodrama, engendering the sort of sympathy and/or empathy that further connects the reader to the star image.
But Jolie wasn’t interested in melodrama. Instead, she wrote an editorial for the New York Times, couching the news in the selfsame rhetoric of advocacy and awareness that had structured the rest of her non-Hollywood labor. She plainly explained that she was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene and that her doctors estimated an 87% risk of breast cancer and 50% risk of ovarian cancer; she narrated the process of the removal in explicit, unflinching detail, from the “nipple delay” procedure to reconstruction surgery eight weeks later.
The editorial was titled “My Medical Choice,” but the message was about universal awareness. As she explained, “Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live.”
“For any woman reading this,” she continued, “I hope it helps you to know that you have options.”
As Jolie said at the end of her editorial, “I chose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer,” which is another way of saying, “I chose to take this scary thing and use my privilege to make it so that less women might have to experience it.” It reads as benevolent, altruistic, and fundamentally good — the very opposite of how we generally think of celebrity culture, and the dozens of proliferating stories, blog posts, tweets, and cover stories affirm just how effectively she communicated the message.
That message wouldn’t have such unambiguous clarity, however, without precise planning. All the doctor’s appointments, surgeries, and recoveries — all of the potential leaks — were anticipated and controlled, allowing Jolie to completely control the narrative. And that sort of control allowed Jolie, with Pitt firmly beside her, to likewise control the meaning — of the procedure and its ramifications on her career, of course, but also her image at large. In the years prior, the gossip press had come to refer to her as “Saint Angelina” — and this became one more justification for her beatification.
And all of this was accomplished, recall, without a publicist. As Bonnie Fuller said back in 2008, “She’s scary smart,” with “an amazing knack, perhaps more than any other star, for knowing how to shape a public image.”
In the year since the Times editorial, Jolie has been in full movie star gear: filming Maleficent, appearing with Pitt during the publicity tour for World War Z, and, most significantly, directing her second feature, Unbroken. Unlike The Land of Milk and Honey, Unbroken is a classic Hollywood prestige picture. Based on the real-life travails of Louis Zamperini that had been adapted, in 2010, by Laura Hillenbrand into a best-selling book, its plot reads like an Academy Awards checklist: athletic triumph, World War II, lost at sea, time as prisoner of war, and based on a true story, with the protagonist still alive.
The script had been bouncing around Hollywood for decades, but it took Hillenbrand’s adaptation, plus some script work by Joel and Ethan Coen, to put it into filmable shape. A short clip aired during the 2014 Winter Olympics, and, with a December release date, its fate will be markedly more high-profile than Jolie’s previous directorial effort. In short, Unbroken seems poised to finally legitimate Jolie’s artistic ambitions — which, when coupled with the certain blockbuster success of Maleficent, situates her as the most enviable female star in Hollywood.
In the lead-up to the release of Maleficent, however, Jolie has given dozens of interviews, with a recurring emphasis on a career pivot away from acting in order to focus on directing, writing, and her work for the U.N. and the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. But that doesn’t mean that her role as a celebrity — and the masterful management thereof — has faded. When asked about whether she feels guilt as a working mother, Jolie’s response was an object lesson in effective PR:
I’m not a single mom with two jobs trying to get by every day. I have much more support than most people, most women in this world. And I have the financial means to have a home and health care and food. When I feel I’m doing too much, I do less, if I can. And that’s why I’m in a rare position where I don’t have to do job after job. I can take time when my family needs it. I actually feel that women in my position, when we have all at our disposal to help us, shouldn’t complain. Consider all the people who really struggle and don’t have the financial means, don’t have the support, and many people are single raising children. That’s hard.
It’s unlikely, however, that Jolie was targeting Paltrow, or any specific celebrity. Purposefully or not, she directly addressed the animosity levied not only at celebrities. They may be beautiful, and act beautifully, and provide us with objects of lust and desire — emotions whose flip side has always been jealousy and resentment. Those feelings fuel the particular and complex schadenfreude we feel watching celebrities fail, suffer, and implode, and it’s the primary engine of the snarkiest and darkest side of the gossip industry. And every time a celebrity says that it’s hard being pretty, or difficult having your photo taken all the time, or exhausting attending movie premieres, or sitting in hair and makeup, or posing for magazine covers, it engenders just a bit more spite, which makes it all the easier to quietly revel in that celebrity’s demise.
But with a quote like that, Jolie does something different. Instead of attempting to make herself seem “just like us,” she acknowledges the gap; instead of empathizing, or comparing her struggle to others’, she underlines just how difficult it is not only for most of her fans, but most of the world. As gossip columnist and CTV host Elaine Lui explains, “She doesn’t allow herself to be quoted about how hard her life is … She’s figured out that celebrities can never get away with moaning — especially not now, in these times, when almost everyone has it worse.”
Jolie is exquisitely beautiful. She’s a talented actress, she has a beautiful family, and seems, in truth, quite happy. She’s handled her publicity with enviable skill. But that skill isn’t the product of training, or planning, or even a well-laid-out strategy. And like many in her position, Jolie never went to college. But she is clearly intelligent and experienced — and, most crucially, humbled by that experience.
Her savvy, then, stems from the same thing that makes us write better as we grow older or think more expansively after traveling abroad, the thing that happens when you realize your relative insignificance, or have to make difficult decisions, or experience pain, or witness suffering. It’s the sort of skill that can’t be taught, and that’s the reason Jolie doesn’t need a publicist: Everything she says and does in public is guided by her myriad, textured, educating experiences of the world.
So many celebrities embarrass or otherwise scandalize themselves because their sphere of operation is so limited and privileged: It’s hard to not be angry about the paparazzi when they compose the boundaries of your existence; it’s easy to come off as superficial when appearance is the only thing on your mind.
But it’s both telling and instructive that the best person at the contemporary publicity game is also the one most invested in a life outside of Hollywood. And that, more than any beauty or acting tip, is what not only all celebrities, but anyone interested in making themselves into a compelling person of worth and note, should learn from Angelina Jolie.