From Angelina Jolie and Gigi Hadid to Blake Lively and Leonardo DiCaprio, A-listers are throwing their star power – and wealth – behind the Ukraine war effort.

At the centre of this dazzling line-up of Hollywood heavyweights, is another charismatic former entertainer: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

On top of his calls for weapons, tanks and artillery, the ex-comedian has leaned on another tool to drum up support for his war effort – celebrity influence. And famous faces from the big screen to reality TV have lined to up to front campaigns supporting Ukraine.

Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, Hollywood actress and singer Barbra Streisand, astronaut Scott Kelly and rock band Imagine Dragons have all become ambassadors for United24, Ukraine’s official fundraising platform launched by Mr Zelensky last year, which has raised more than $300m (£245m) so far.

Katheryn Winnick, star of historical drama series Vikings, told i that she signed up after visiting Ukraine to celebrate the country’s 30th anniversary of independence and meeting Mr Zelensky in August 2021, six months before the war began.

“I come from a strong Ukrainian family,” said the Canadian-born actress. “The sense of pride of being Ukrainian is something I remember when I was there [in 2021] just seeing people on the streets celebrating. I know that that is a reason why we put up such a great fight, and we will win the war.

“I got to see first hand how beautiful it was and how people celebrated the sense of heritage and nationalism and independence.”

Winnick launched her own organisation, the Winnick Foundation, to support fundraising efforts for United24’s rebuilding project, saying the war “really propelled me to help women and children in Ukraine”.

“I have talked to some friends that have moved over here and they have some family there, unfortunately. One good friend of mine, she left Kyiv, she told me that her brother passed away, fighting. It’s heartbreaking when you hear the stories of what’s going on.”

Olena Arendaruk is one of the people being supported by United24’s rebuilding project. Her home in Hostomel near the capital city Kyiv was destroyed by a rocket when Russian troops captured the town in March last year.

Her apartment is one of 18 being repaired by United24 in the area, and she is eager to welcome the celebrities who have helped rebuild her home with “bread and salt”.

“I haven’t heard of Katheryn Winnick before, but now I would like to watch one of her movies,” she told i.

When the Russians withdrew from Hostomel the following month, Ms Arendaruk returned to find the fifth floor of her apartment building had been completely destroyed, leaving her home on the fourth floor open to the skies.

“We do not have a roof now,” the 51-year-old said. “When I returned my flat was completely flooded.

“Our walls looked like waterfalls. Clothes become damp after you wear [them] for half an hour in the apartment. If you walk in it long enough, you can see your breath.

“There are times when I get electric shocks. We have fungus on our walls; our apartment is damp. We live here because we have nowhere else to go.”

Olena Arendaruk's home in Hostomel, Ukraine, is being rebuilt with the help of United24 (Photo: Andrii Yushchak)
Olena Arendaruk’s home in Hostomel, Ukraine, is being rebuilt with the help of United24 (Photo: Andrii Yushchak)

Winnick is now among a list of celebrities who are banned from entering Russia for their support of Ukraine, including actors Jim Carey, Morgan Freeman, Ben Stiller and Sean Penn, as well as singer Lady Gaga and American TV icon Oprah Winfrey.

As well as encouraging their fans to donate to Ukrainian causes, celebrities have been carrying Mr Zelensky’s message on camera and behind the scenes.

Penn has co-directed a documentary about the war in Ukraine, called Superpower, which received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. During a visit to Ukraine, Penn loaned one of his two Oscars to Mr Zelensky, telling him: “When you win, bring it back to Malibu.”

The actor also introduced Mr Zelensky at the Golden Globe Awards in January, one of many glittering events the president has appeared in (virtually) throughout the conflict. He also appeared at the Grammy Awards and Cannes Film Festival – but the Oscars turned down his appeal to make a speech, reportedly because it prefers to avoid political issues.

How effective are celebrity endorsements?

While a famous person can use their influence and power to give charities more exposure, it can only go so far.

“We know people are interested in celebrities, but the downside in some ways is that celebrities are not interesting to the general public for their political view or their advocacy work,” said Lisa Ann Richey, professor of globalisation at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, who has researched celebrity humanitarianism.

“They may be useful in the beginning but not in the longer term.”

However, celebrities are useful for bringing attention to causes, Professor Richey added.

“That’s their secret power, they are the oligarchs of the attention economy.”

One of the risks with superstars becoming the face of a campaign is that they are often accused of being “slacktivists”, a term used on social media to describe a person who openly supports a cause but contributes little themselves.

U.S. actor and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie listens while meeting with volunteers during a visit to Lviv's main railway station, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine April 30, 2022 in this still image obtained from handout video. Ukrzaliznytsia/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Angelina Jolie listens to volunteers during a visit to Lviv (Photo: Ukrzaliznytsia via Reuters)

Another issue with celebrity endorsement is that they are themselves business people, selling their products, brands and ideas, therefore political causes are sold like their merch, said Professor Richey.

“Is it good for democracy? That is a question we have to ask,” she added.

“The answer to that depends on how it is used. Not all celebrities are the same and this isn’t just about how we feel about them – you need to look at whether they are organising a democratic space (or) bringing people not so interested in politics and activism on board to realise their role as activists.”

Another notable difference she has seen with campaigns for Ukraine is that they are “full of white people”.

“We need to notice this because it’s important to see how people are represented differently when we talk about campaigns,” she said. “In Africa and Asia, they are focused on victims who are very racialised.”

Some celebrities who mingled with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the invasion have attempted to distance themselves from him. Martial artist star Jean-Claude Van Damme attended an MMA tournament with Mr Putin, himself a judo fan, and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2007, but in December last year the action star met with Ukrainian soldiers and shouted “glory to Ukraine” as he posed for pictures with them.

Sir Paul McCartney, who performed for the Russian leader in 2003, waved the Ukrainian flag last year as he kicked off his world tour in the US, and actor Jack Nicholson reportedly offered Mr Putin a film producer’s job in 2001 but has since declared his support for Ukraine.

Not all of the rich and famous are united over this conflict, with some coming out in defence of Mr Putin or condemning both sides of the war.

American-born actor Steven Seagal declared himself “one million per cent Russian” as he pledged his allegiance to Russia during an event in Moscow last week. Seagal and Mr Putin are longtime friends, with the Kremlin leader giving the actor a Russian passport in 2016 and awarding him the Order of Friendship medal last month for his “international humanitarian and cultural work”, Tass news agency reported. He is also reportedly helping to train young Russian soldiers in martial arts.

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has faced intense criticism for his views on the conflict, having told the UN Security Council last month that he condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine but that it was “not unprovoked”.

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