Ayesha Malik had more of a comment than a question. Malik, a 28-year-old Pakistani-American, had spent an uneventful Saturday at BeautyCon, a beauty festival in Los Angeles, until she was handed the mic at a Q&A with the Indian actor Priyanka Chopra. BeautyCon chat is usually more cashmere than Kashmir, but Chopra had been waxing lyrical about her humanitarian activities, which irked Malik.
“It was kind of hard hearing you talk about humanity, because, as your neighbour, a Pakistani, I know you are a bit of a hypocrite,” Malik said, referencing a tweet that Chopra had sent in support of the Indian armed forces on 26 February, the same day India conducted airstrikes in Pakistan. “You are a Unicef ambassador for peace and you are encouraging nuclear war against Pakistan,” Malik continued.
Chopra disagreed; after the microphone was grabbed from Malik, the former Miss World retorted that “war is not something that I’m really fond of, but I am patriotic” – a statement so vapid it is worthy of a British prime minister. The confrontation was captured on camera and went viral, prompting headlines internationally.
You may wonder why this spat made the news. Who cares what the star of Quantico, a mediocre TV drama, tweets about politics? This is Priyanka Chopra, not Noam Chomsky. The answer, I am afraid, is a hell of a lot of people. Celebrities are no longer just entertainers; they are activists and thought-leaders. There doesn’t seem to be a single celebrity who hasn’t claimed a cause as their own. Kim Kardashian has prison reform; Emma Watson has feminism; Leonardo DiCaprio is fighting the climate crisis; and Madonna has taken it upon herself to save Malawi. I could go on ad infinitum – the celebrity without a cause or a fancy UN title is a rare beast these days.
Of course, celebrity activism isn’t new. The American comedian Danny Kaye was made a Unicef ambassador in 1954; Harry Belafonte helped organise the 1965 Selma march; Jane Fonda campaigned against the Vietnam war; and the Beatles refused to play in front of racially segregated audiences. But only in recent years has such activism gone mainstream. We have started to take famous people increasingly seriously. We listen to medically unqualified actors’ opinions on vaccines; we take dietary advice from online influencers; we elect reality TV stars, comedians and cricketers as heads of state. Everything is showbiz now and the line between politics, activism and entertainment is almost invisible.
Not that celebrities should stay away from politics or shouldn’t be taken seriously. I am not arguing that athletes should “shut up and dribble”, as a Fox News host once said of LeBron James. Nor am I saying that Chopra has no business having an opinion on international relations. The answer to the question of whether celebrities ought to get involved in politics is nuanced. The more interesting point to ponder is how the rise of celebrity activism mirrors a decline in trust for traditional institutions such as the government and the media.
We live in a world increasingly dominated by personal brands; a world in which a morally bankrupt reality TV star won an election by positioning himself as a challenger to “the system”; a world in which the media amplifies the wrong voices and we focus too much of our attention on too many of the wrong people.
•Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist