Sometimes stars fuck up. Celebrity gaffes can range from the little things (tripping on the red carpet) to the bigger things (calling yourself a gay man who doesn’t sleep with dudes) to the stuff of national crises (nationally televised nip slips, racist/anti-Semitic rants, and criminal charges). Some celebrities have genuinely bad opinions, and others are just imperfect human beings—Justin Bieber probably didn’t mean to hit a photographer with his truck outside of church just days after rededicating his life to Jesus Christ. For every “woke” celebrity retweeting Kamala Harris, there’s an ill-articulate actor whose PR team has already pre-drafted an apology. But poor word choice pales in comparison to being accused of facilitating or tacitly supporting human rights violations. The day that your long-suffering assistant informs you that Human Rights Watch is formally condemning you should probably be the day you start rethinking some life choices.
While this might sound like a fairly far-out predicament, there’s a long list of celebrities who have been chastised for performing for dictators, cooperating with oppressive regimes, and generally exercising poor judgment abroad. While most of these incidents involve paid gigs—taking money from someone objectively evil—some, like Ivanka Trump’s alleged factory conditions and Madonna’s controversial adoptions, are either more nuanced or even less defensible. In honor of Angelina Jolie’s recent, widely criticized adventures in Cambodia, we’ve assembled an A-list of celebs who have been questioned, condemned, and told off.
Angelina Jolie’s questionable Cambodian patronage
With this week’s Vanity Fair cover story, Angelina Jolie appeared to be taking a lesson in outrageous distraction techniques from our current Presidential administration. Unfortunately for Jolie, no red lip is bold enough to erase fraternizing with the Cambodian army. In one of many questionable anecdotes about Jolie’s new Netflix film, First They Killed My Father, the Vanity Fair profile discloses: “Cambodia went all in—closing off Battambang for days, giving the filmmakers permits to land in remote zones, providing them with 500 officials from their actual army to play the Khmer Rouge army.”
As a dedicated philanthropist like Angelina Jolie probably should have known, cooperating with the Cambodian government and military is quite the human rights faux pas. “There’s moral hazard in having any relationship or dealings with the Cambodian government,” explained Brad Adams, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “It’s not clear whether she understands that and it’s not clear whether she cares about it.” He continued, “You can take a stance to make sure you don’t empower, legitimize or pay the wrong people. And working with the Cambodian army is a no-go zone, it’s a red flag, and it’s a terrible mistake…This is an army that is basically an occupying force of a dictatorship, it’s used to put down environmental activists — the kind of thing that she stands for is in direct contrast to what this government is.” The irony is that in attempting to make a movie that draws attention to the Cambodian genocide, Jolie appears to be collaborating with political and military leaders Adams describes as “former Khmer Rouge.” Say what you will about Brad Pitt (drug dependent, allegedly abusive, sad, weird about his pottery) but at least Jolie’s ex isn’t a hypocrite.
The idea of Angeline Jolie pissing off Human Rights Watch might sound a little strange, but this actually isn’t the first time Jolie’s run afoul. In 2002, the actress purchased around 225 acres of land from former Khmer Rouge commander Yim Tith—and was allegedly aware of Tith’s reputation and violent history. It’s nice that Jolie is investing in Cambodia, but she probably should have thought twice before supplying a cash-strapped genocide facilitator with a huge pay day.
Nicki Minaj and the Angolan dictator
Almost every celebrity welcomes the opportunity to present themselves as a socially conscious do-gooder. Simultaneously, almost every celebrity loves money. These competing desires can come to a head when celebs are offered millions of dollars to entertain foreign dictators. Many of your faves have performed for foreign leaders who spend their days oppressing, torturing, and killing their fellow countrymen. You know when you go on a dinner date with a horrible person for the free food? Now imagine that “free food” is a multimillion-dollar check, and your date is Muammar Gaddafi.
While countless celebrities have appeared at these morally murky gigs, Nicki Minaj stands out because—well, Nicki Minaj always stands out. When the ever-flamboyant rapper took to social media to promote an appearance at the Unitel Christmas festival in Angola, activists immediately called her out for taking money from the communications company. That’s because Unitel is run by the family of José Eduardo dos Santos, who has occupied the Angolan presidency for almost four decades. Minaj reportedly received $2 million for the gig, which went forward as scheduled despite the protestations of various human rights activists. “This is a situation where the level of self-interest is astonishing,” Thor Halvorssen, the president of the Human Rights Foundation, said at the time. “They are hoping this is all going to go away, and people will collect their money, and people will forget about it.”
Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream fiasco
In another instance of greed superseding good old common sense, Scarlett Johansson was pressured to step down from her position as Oxfam Global Ambassador after she chose to represent a company that was under fire for operating a factory in an illegal West Bank settlement. The ScarJo SodaStream fiasco was a perfect storm for the star, who probably assumed that she could get away with drinking some bubbly water on-camera and pick up her paycheck. Unfortunately, your mom’s favorite carbonation company isn’t your average apolitical beverage business. When Johansson, who’d been an Oxfam ambassador since 2007, announced her new partnership, activists were immediately up in arms. A petition asking the actress to stop being a SodaStream spokeswoman garnered more than 10,000 signatures.
Additionally, pro-Palestinian groups appealed to Oxfam in person; Nancy Murray, a member of the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, recalled, “Among our group that met with Oxfam were four people who had recently been to the West Bank and who spoke about the destructive impact on the ground of the city-settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim where SodaStream is manufactured. Oxfam has stated that it is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. It should now stand by these words.” This continuous pressure culminated in Johansson stepping down as Oxfam ambassador shortly before her SodaStream ad was slated to run on Super Bowl Sunday. The charity accepted ScarJo’s resignation citing incompatibility, stating, “Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.”
Human Rights Watch also weighed in with a statement of their own: “It is impossible to ignore the Israeli system of unlawful discrimination, land confiscation, natural resource theft, and forced displacement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, where SodaStream is located.” Simultaneously, Scarlett was lauded by the World Jewish Congress and other critics of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Radiohead ‘supports apartheid’ in Israel
In spite of Jared Kushner’s best efforts, the years since ScarJo’s SodaStream scandal have not ushered in peace in the Middle East. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is the latest celebrity to be criticized for seemingly aligning himself with Israel. The band was called out for performing in Tel Aviv earlier this summer, and activists have since petitioned and protested. Yorke has personally issued multiple statements insisting that Radiohead’s decision to play in the country shouldn’t be conflated with supporting the actions of the Israeli government. “Playing in a country isn’t the same as endorsing its government,” Yorke wrote. “We’ve played in Israel for over 20 years through a succession of governments, some more liberal than others. As we have in America. We don’t endorse Netanyahu any more than Trump, but we still play in America.” English director Ken Loach was among Radiohead’s most vocal critics at the time, writing an op-ed in which he called out the band: “I don’t know who is advising Radiohead, but their stubborn refusal to engage with the many critics of their ill-advised concert in Tel Aviv suggests to me that they only want to hear one side—the one that supports apartheid.”
Madonna vs. Malawi
Like Angelina Jolie, Madonna has made a name for herself as a Woman Most Often Photographed in Africa. The pop singer has forged a particular relationship with the Republic of Malawi, dedicating years of her life (and huge sums of money) to various humanitarian efforts. But Madonna’s adventures in Malawi have also been contentious; in 2013 then-president Joyce Banda essentially tore the star to pieces, unleashing a barrage of complaints and allegations. Amidst a litany of gripes, Banda took issue with Madonna’s stated mission to build 10 schools in Malawi. “Where are the 10 schools she has built?" Banda said. "She is just building school blocks at already existing schools. In some cases she just renovated an already existing block. This is an insult to the people of Malawi. She can't be lying to the world at our expense."
And then there are the adoptions. Madonna’s first two adopted Malawi children, David Banda and Mercy James, were already controversial. A judge initially denied James’ adoption, arguing that Madonna “jetted into the country during the weekend just days prior to the hearing of this application” and therefore was not an eligible “resident” (in order to adopt a child in Malawi, foreigners are require to live in the country for 18 months). While Madonna went on to win that case on appeal, her subsequent attempt to adopt four-year-old twins also met with criticism.
According to The Daily Mail, the twins’ father and his family were unable to support them, and ended up turning to an orphanage. Maxwell Matewere, the Director of Eye of the Child, a children’s human rights charity in Malawi, told reporters, “We are very worried about this latest adoption…We used to have a culture of extended families caring for children who have lost one or both parents. But families are now being actively told that orphanages are the best place for children when clearly the best place for them is with their own families.” Matewere said that, during a recent orphanage visit, he counted only two orphans out of 198 children, claiming that the other children were only there because their families could not afford to care for them. Mercy James’ uncle urged the family to oppose the twins’ adoption, saying, “You may never see your children again, never have contact with them. It will be as if your children have died.’”
Nicolas Cage’s ‘whitewashing stunt for a murderous tyrant’
How can a meme that feels so right be so wrong? This July, famous man Nicolas Cage went viral after photos of the actor donning traditional Kazakh garb flooded the internet. Cage was in Kazakhstan to attend the Eurasia Film Festival, but was immediately accused of garnering positive press coverage for the authoritarian regime. And Cage didn’t just go to a screening—he also gave some glowing quotes. “I would be pleased to participate in some film project on the territory of Kazakhstan," Cage told the festival press. "I enjoyed the architecture of your capital. What I saw reminded me of an old black-and-white film that depicted the future."
The Human Rights Foundation was having none of that. “His glowing review gave Kazakhstan's dictatorship much-needed PR, and his photos boosted the regime's visibility on the international stage, even as it persecutes journalists, monitors and arrests social media users, crushes opposition voices, and strangles the electoral process," said Human Rights Foundation president Thor Halvorssen. “Cage should be mortified that he participated in a whitewashing stunt for a murderous tyrant. If he aims to live up to his previous comments about artistic freedom and freedom of expression, he should donate the hefty payment he received from the dictatorship to independent Kazakh artists and journalists.” Adding insult to outrage, HRF chief strategy officer Alex Gladstein stated, “Cage and his publicity team could have determined from a quick online search that Kazakhstan is ruled by a brutal dictator. Cage was obviously aware of this. Did he not care?”
Ivanka Trump’s Chinese sweatshop
Detailing the extent of Ivanka Trump’s hypocrisy is a journalistic black hole, like trying to figure out what Jared Kushner’s voice sounds like or explain all the reasons why Donald Trump is not fit to be President of the United States. Suffice to say, when it comes to human rights, Ivanka’s moral compass has been predictably smashed into five thousand pieces. Our first daughter, who is committed to shining “a light on the darkness of human trafficking,” also stands accused of utilizing a southeastern China factory where workers are allegedly overworked and abused. As Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox wrote, “Serving as the very public face of the Trump administration human-rights initiatives while at the same time serving as the face of a brand that used a factory that allegedly flagrantly violated labor laws is an impossible situation.”
According to an Associated Press report, workers at a factory that manufactured items for Ivanka Trump’s brand often work 17-hour days, and were subjected to both verbal and physical abuse. China Labor Watch, a New York-based NGO that works to defend workers’ rights, claims to have sent Ivanka Trump a video recorded inside the factory, in which a manager berates a worker and threatens to “beat” them “right here.” China Labor Watch did not receive a response.
Jay and Bey’s ‘insensitive’ Cuban vacation
Jay-Z and Beyoncé are two of our most beloved celebrities—and their 2003 trip to Cuba in no way negates all of the good work they’ve done raising awareness and funds for causes like Black Lives Matter. But the couple still caused quite a stir when they decided to spend their fifth anniversary in Havana, at a time when far fewer Americans vacationed in Cuba. Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Executive Director of Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, D.C., criticized Jay and Bey for what he perceived as a lack of cultural awareness. “There are women getting beaten on a daily basis, women who are being jailed for no reason...people are fighting for their freedom,” he told TMZ, arguing that the Carters’ decision to take a luxurious trip to the communist nation was “extremely insensitive.”
Honorable mention: Lindsay Lohan
Lindsay Lohan has repeatedly defended Turkish President Recep Erdogan, even praising how he handled a coup that resulted in 300 deaths. However, a cursory Google search suggests no legitimate human rights organization has even bothered to condemn her.