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Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time

An inside look at stars ranging from Harry Belafonte to Ronald Reagan

Elizabeth Taylor and the Reagans prepare for a speech about AIDS research

President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan with Elizabeth Taylor at a 1987 event on AIDS research in Washington, D.C. — Ronald Reagan Library/Getty Images

Elizabeth Taylor

Taylor's career arc took her from child star to global sex symbol to tabloid magnet, and she was better known to many for her multiple marriages than her compelling acting. But in the 1980s, Taylor unexpectedly emerged as a powerful voice for tolerance and compassion in the frightening first years of the AIDS epidemic.

Taylor testified in Congress for more AIDS funding and founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research with Mathilde Krim, a researcher at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the wife of Hollywood titan Arthur Krim (himself a major power in Democratic politics).

Taylor's greatest impact, however, may have come through the simple decency of being seen hugging and kissing Rock Hudson, her co-star in the classic 1956 film Giant, while he lay in the hospital after an AIDS diagnosis — at a time when many people still feared that casual contact could spread the disease. (His illness helped spur her activism.) Later, she quietly paid bills for friends and even strangers suffering from the disease, and visited them in hospitals. Few celebrities ever risked their fame on a cause shrouded in such a social stigma.

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