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CAUSE CELEBRE

Africa tops Hollywood activists' fundraising lists

April 24, 2009|TINA DAUNT

There was a time when Hollywood thought of Africa as a kind of exotic backlot, but these days it's the venue for many of the causes about which activist members of the industry feel most deeply.

Over the next two weeks, in fact, the continent is getting top billing on the town's social to-do list. Last Monday, an unprecedented summit of first ladies from across Africa gathered with local activists and celebrities at the Skirball Center to discuss a panoply of developmental health issues, particularly those that affect women and children. Next week, former President Clinton will be in town raising money for his global foundation, Millennium Network, which supports a number of important African initiatives. (In his memoir, Clinton confessed that he regarded his failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide as perhaps his most haunting mistake.) Will.i.am is set to headline the Clinton gala Thursday at the Roosevelt Hotel.

It's hard to imagine anything more moving, though, than the scene at the Beverly Regent Hotel on Tuesday night, where a who's who of industry power brokers joined international luminaries, most notably former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to raise money for Malaria No More.

Why malaria? Just ask outgoing News Corp. and Fox honcho Peter Chernin, who, along with Wall Street financier Peter Chambers, founded the organization three years ago. As Chernin explained in Beverly Hills, what they saw was a devasting public health problem that could be resolved by a relatively simple, business-style solution if they could raise the money.

America put an end to malaria more than 50 years ago, so it's a disease that has slipped off most of our radars. Not so in Africa, where it ravages young children and pregnant women in tragic numbers. On a continent where war, disease and malnutrition decimate whole regions, malaria remains the No. 1 cause of death among children.

What Chernin, who devotes an increasing amount of his time to work as Malaria No More's chairman, saw was that it also was a disease that could be stopped in its tracks with three simple steps: distributing mosquito nets (malaria is spread by the insects' bites), spraying to push down mosquito populations and supplying local clinics with the relatively inexpensive medicines needed to treat infected patients. The mosquito nets distributed by Malaria No More cost just $10 each.

As Chernin has explained, "We have the tools . . . but we need to dramatically scale up efforts to deliver them to the people who need them most."

Before he took the microphone, Blair had many of the town's movers and shakers sharing stories about his legendary wit. For example, he's joked about being a character in three films -- "The Deal" (2007), "The Queen" (2006) and HBO's upcoming "The Special Relationship."

Blair quipped that he's provided "some good work for people in Hollywood over the years." He got a laugh when he explained to the crowd gathered for the Malaria No More event that many Americans seem to know him better as a film character than as a political leader. "They say nothing about my time in office, but they say, 'I did like you in that movie.' "

The natural question, of course, was whether he's seen "The Queen," which earned Helen Mirren an Oscar. "I have to tell you that I haven't seen the film for a very good reason, that when I was in office and the film came out, I actually had my weekly audience with the queen -- I mean, The Queen -- and she said to me, 'There's a film. I don't think I'm going to watch it. Are you?' "

Clearly having warmed up the crowd (which included Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa), Blair shifted the topic to the serious matter at hand: raising money to fight Malaria. "If a child was outside here tonight who was going to die unless you gave $10, you would give the $10," Blair said. "That's what makes us proud as human beings, to help those people in need."

As powerful as his remarks were, the audience was transfixed by "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest's account of a trip he and "Idol" judge Simon Cowell made to Africa with a film crew on behalf of the organization. Hoping to make a consciousness-raising video, they accompanied a woman and her child -- desperately ill with malaria -- as they made a long bus trip to a distant clinic in search of treatment for the baby. During the course of the bumpy journey, the child died in the mother's arms. Seacrest told the hushed Beverly Hills audience that the scene still haunts him. He also announced that had pledged $100,000 to support Malaria No More's work.

Media mogul Haim Saban -- who has been gettng more than his share of press attention this week -- was in the audience with his wife, Cheryl, and demanded to know, "where is the pledge card?"

Before they left, the Sabans matched the rest of the evening's donations with a contribution of $500,000.

That's $1 million, which is a lot of mosquito nets.

--

tina.daunt@latimes.com

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