The saying goes that there is nothing that celebrities can’t make about themselves. As it turns out, that includes a war in Ukraine caused by an invasion of Russia that’s already seen thousands of casualties.
It’s almost as though there are two wars happening at once: one on social media, where guerrilla clips from the front lines show bodies, shelling, and damage to homes, and one playing out in the pages of Vogue magazine.
This week, it was revealed that Oscar-winning actress Jessica Chastain had visited with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. The photo was posted to his official Telegram account and was taken from his presidential palace. There were also several shots of Chastain seated at a table with Zelensky having a discussion of some sort.
Chastain is only the latest celebrity du jour to hold court with Zelensky, who has taken on a celebrity status of his own in American media culture. He was asked to appear at the Oscars and did appear at the Grammys via video message. Last month, actor Sean Penn took a meeting with Zelensky. In June, actor Ben Stiller met with Zelensky in the presidential palace. In May, on Zelensky’s invitation, U2 gave a 40-minute performance in a Kyiv metro station. Angelina Jolie, a UN-designated humanitarian, visited as well. Last month, Zelensky and his wife Olena posed for a much heralded photo spread in Vogue for famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. The spread drew head scratches and some backlash on social media for what was deemed misguided priorities.
I don’t fault Zelensky for taking high-profile meetings with international celebrities. He’s doing what he can using a star-hungry media to keep the atrocities in his country at the forefront of people’s minds. I do, however, question what kind of military strategy and diplomatic expertise the guy from Zoolander and the chick from Zero Dark Thirty can offer.
Perhaps Sean Penn can grab his shotgun and commandeer a platoon. More and more these visits look like publicity safari photo-ops to be kept on mantles as keepsakes. The logistics and planning of flying a millionaire celebrity into a war zone for a photo-op can’t be easy, nor can it be cheap and accommodating. It’s not like booking an Airbnb. I don’t think Zelensky himself is arranging these high-profile meetings, but one can’t help but wonder what kind of attention is being pulled away from caring for Ukrainian refugees and keeping the Russians at bay.
Getting a photo with Zelensky appears to be the new Hollywood fad. It’ll only be a matter of time before Alec Baldwin or Will Smith airdrops himself into Kyiv in the dead of night to salvage his celebrity reputation. Smith will post an Instagram photo with the caption “In Ukraine to slap the shit out of Putin,” and the media will cheer him on.
Zelensky should take every opportunity to promote his cause. Yet by catering to these people, he runs the risk of looking like an unserious leader. It’s a trap he can avoid, and he can avoid it by apologizing to Leonardo DiCaprio for being too busy to cut a climate change ad or whatever they ask of him next. By then, however, it will be too late. Hollywood will have already moved on to the next big thing.