Who benefits when celebrities visit quake-battered Haiti?

The death toll climbed Wednesday as dozens of aftershocks from a massive earthquake rattled the capital of Haiti.
The death toll climbed Wednesday as dozens of aftershocks from a massive earthquake rattled the capital of Haiti. Carl Juste / Miami Herald

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Only hours earlier, Michelle Obama had drawn a purple fish for a bunch of kids in a school bus-turned-classroom outside a forlorn tent city. Now here was another celebrity — beefy bodyguards in tow — wandering the same dusty grounds.

"I'm Ben," said Ben Stiller, looking like a lost tourist as he shook the hand of Haitian artist Philippe Dodard.

Celebrity sightings in Haiti have transformed the quake-battered nation into a red carpet.

Some lug bags of rice and dole it out to quake survivors (Sean Penn, Wyclef Jean) while others (Susan Sarandon, Demi Moore) tour the shantytown camps and hospital malnutrition wards. Still others have cut checks benefiting relief efforts for as much as $1 million (Sandra Bullock, Brangelina).

It's a repeat of what happened in New Orleans after Katrina, which may have marked a turning point for celebrity involvement in disaster response. After that monster storm ravaged the Gulf Coast, celebrities not only appeared for photo ops but helped rebuild homes.

Brad Pitt, for one, bought a house for himself in New Orleans and oversaw a project that built five houses and 18 apartments in the devastated Ninth Ward.

Whether the impact in Haiti is as tangible and lasting remains to be seen.

Although some might dismiss it as ego-tripping or publicity-mongering, the celebrity drop-ins shine a media spotlight on Haiti at a time when the public's attention has wandered elsewhere.

And that, says Ronald Waldman, a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, can only be good.

"Angelina Jolie comes to Haiti and the next thing you know she's being interviewed by CNN," said Waldman, a physician who took part in relief efforts. "How many people are going to turn on CNN to watch me?"

Once limited to doing charity concerts a la We Are the World in 1985, the stars have gone beyond fundraising, coinciding with a growing interest in global health, notes Waldman.

Some, in fact, were involved in Haiti before the disaster. After a pre-quake visit to Haiti, Stiller had committed to building a grade school in the countryside.

But Haiti didn't become a celeb free-for-all until after the quake.

Haitian hip hop star Wyclef Jean reached Port-au-Prince the day after on a charter flight. He was followed by Julio Iglesias, Moore, Sarandon and Colombian pop star Shakira, who flew her private jet here to help build a school through her own foundation.

Jimmy Buffett island-hopped to Haiti, strumming his acoustic guitar on the veranda of the Oloffson, the ramshackle yet storied hotel that was featured in Graham Greene's Duvalier-era novel, The Comedians. Buffett, who has a room named for him at the hotel, brought tents. The U.S. Embassy supplied security personnel.

John Travolta piloted his Boeing 707 to Haiti, filled with aid supplies and fellow Scientologists, who administered "touch therapy," a new-age-style massage technique, to relief workers and survivors.

In trademark yellow T-shirts, the "volunteer ministers" could be seen hiking through the Port-au-Prince rubble or pitching in at hospitals.

Angelina Jolie, the United Nations goodwill ambassador, showed up too (along with husband Brad Pitt).

"I was struck by the strength and spirit of the Haitian people," Jolie told People magazine, the chronicler of stars in Haiti.

Jolie, who has adopted three kids from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Ethiopia, said she wouldn't be adding to her brood while in Haiti — probably a good thing, especially after Haitian police started arresting Americans for spiriting children out of the country without authorization, casting suspicion on adoptions in general.

No celeb has been more visible than Sean Penn, the cantankerous Hollywood bad boy who co-founded the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization. Haiti reminded Penn of his time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and he felt compelled to respond, he told National Public Radio.

While many other celebs came and went in a day, Penn moved into a tent, taking operational control of a homeless encampment on the grounds of Haiti's only golf course, the nine-hole Petionville Club.

With a radio in one hand and a hardbox of Marlboro Lights in the other, Penn stomped across the hillside on a recent Saturday, standing akimbo as he surveyed the orange and blue tarps that blanketed the grounds.

An ID badge dangled from Penn's neck although his identity wasn't much in question. Some camp dwellers jokingly refer to him as the "mayor."

Penn's workers cruised the grounds in golf carts, wearing "J/P HRO" T-shirts, demanding credentials from reporters but declining interview requests.

"All press requests need to be ran through me first, thus why you were not able to get something on site," Rachel Karten, a J/P HRO spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail dispatched from Hollywood.

"At this time we are not releasing any comments, but if we are, we will let you know."

When a Miami Herald reporter tried to approach Penn directly, the actor, his hair gelled but his jeans crusted in dust, cut him short.

"One minute," Penn said, raising his index finger.

Then he turned on his heel and walked away.

(Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald contributed to this article.)

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