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Top 20 Celebrity Activists of All Time

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

Bono speaks with former President Bill Clinton during political weekend

U2's Bono speaks with former President Bill Clinton during a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City in 2005. — Ramin Talaie/Corbis


Has a celebrity ever accumulated more political influence than Bono? No one has ever really come close. Born Paul Hewson, the lead singer for the Irish band U2 has made himself the fulcrum of an extraordinary global network of political leaders, philanthropists, development experts and celebrities dedicated to relieving poverty in the developing world, particularly Africa.

With his religious bent, Bono once sang about the day "when all the colors will bleed into one," and he sometimes seems to personally embody that convergence: He mingles as easily with heads of state onstage at Davos as he does with Bruce Springsteen at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he can sling M.B.A.-speak about reform and responsibility in poor countries as fluently as the language of Christian obligation to the needy.

Bono has demonstrated tenacity, persistence and extraordinary political dexterity in building alliances not only with left-of-center American political figures such as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates but with George W. Bush and Jesse Helms, the late archconservative senator from North Carolina, who Bono bonded with in discussion over Scripture and persuaded to attend a U2 concert.

Such shrewd political maneuvering helps explain why Bono has not only been able to raise consciousness about his issues — poverty and health needs in Africa — but also has changed the way that celebrities interact with politicians and issues. More than any single figure, he's responsible for the tilt of celebrity activism toward poverty in the developing world, the increased emphasis on direct action as a complement to government lobbying, and attention to building institutions (such as the ONE campaign he cofounded to mobilize public support for African aid in the United States).

What's more, Bono has done all this while usually maintaining a wry sense of irony about his own privileged life, only occasionally straining his audience's tolerance for sermons and emphasizing outreach over confrontation with virtually everyone he interacts with.

"He calls on everyone to be their best," actor George Clooney once told The New York Times. "If you fall short, you feel embarrassed. That's the unique thing. And we all want to be that person."

Next: George Clooney >>

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