A trip to India to interview Angelina Jolie changed Sean Smith’s life. Now, after 13 years writing about Hollywood, he’s heading to South Africa in the Peace Corps. Plus, John Coyne on Peace Corps' determined father, Sargent Shriver.
Angelina Jolie is to blame, really. Because of something she said to me in India four years ago, I have quit my 13-year career as an entertainment journalist, have given away almost everything I own, and at 43, have joined the Peace Corps.
Yes, the Peace Corps still exists. In fact, the agency, founded just weeks after President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, will celebrate its 50th anniversary this March. Since its creation, the Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 American volunteers abroad, where they have worked in poor communities as teachers, health educators, and advisers in business, the environment, and agriculture, among other fields. Although the Peace Corps’ public profile may be quieter today than it was during the Kennedy era, the agency is now on the cusp of resurgence. In 2009 the Senate approved an increase in funding from $340 million to $400 million, the largest single-year jump in Peace Corps history.
I knew none of this, of course, when I arrived in Mumbai in November 2006 to interview Jolie. I had been a writer at Newsweek for almost four years at the time, and a journalist for a decade covering the film industry. It’s fair to say the Peace Corps was nowhere near my radar. What was on my mind, though, was a growing dissatisfaction in my work that no amount of success seemed to cure. I was good at my job and paid well, and yet I couldn’t shake the sense that I was spending most of my energy on something that ultimately wasn’t real.
Writing about Hollywood is like being a reporter at Disneyland. At first, you can’t believe that you get to spend every day in The Happiest Place on Earth. Everyone wants to ask you about your work. You’re surrounded by princesses, and the sky sparkles with pixie dust. But as the years go on, you learn about the oily machinery that manufactures all that enchantment. You see what Cinderella’s really like when that glass slipper comes off. And then one day you notice that the magic is gone, and all you’re left with is a small, small world.
“When I was famous for just being an actress, my life felt very shallow,” Jolie said.
So I was seeking something authentic when I arrived in India, and I got more than I bargained for. A reported 43 percent of Mumbai’s 18 million people live in slums, and the depth of poverty is soul-sickening. By the time I met with Jolie, I felt raw and rattled, and I was eager to learn how she coped with this kind of suffering in her role as a U.N. ambassador. She said it was painful, yes, but it wasn’t debilitating because she was active. Her work was bringing attention to crises in the world. “If I couldn’t do that, I don’t know how I’d be around it, because I’d feel helpless,” she told me as we drove through the city. “You know, we all go through stages in our life where we feel lost, and I think it all comes down to having a sense of purpose. When I was famous for just being an actress, my life felt very shallow. Then when I became a mom and started working with the U.N., I was happy. I could die and feel that I’d done the right things with my life. It’s as simple as that.”
As a rule, I don’t ask celebrities for advice about anything, save hotels and restaurants, and I didn’t exactly race home and quit my job. But Jolie’s insight stuck with me, and over the next few years, as my ambivalence about my career deepened, I realized that she had provided me with an answer. I had absolute freedom. If I was willing to make a few sacrifices, I could find my sense of purpose and engage myself in work that would feel meaningful to me and be helpful to others. After more than a decade in the most glamorous theme park on earth, I could choose to make my world big again.
So 18 months ago I applied to join the Peace Corps, and this week I leave for South Africa to begin my 27-month commitment as an HIV/AIDS Outreach volunteer. Excited as I am, I confess that I haven’t quite eradicated all of my Hollywood values. I’m currently trying to calculate how much Kiehl’s moisturizer could fit in my 80-pound luggage allotment. But I have zero doubt about my decision. I do not know where this experience will lead me, but I no longer feel lost. I’m certain that my compass is pointed in the right direction.
Sean Smith spent 13 years writing about Hollywood.