It might be hard to believe, but the Angelina Jolie who now makes headlines for her work on global humanitarian causes is the same Angelina Jolie who, only a dozen years ago, was making headlines for her tattoos, her sexuality and a very intense Oscars-night kiss with her brother.
This morning, Jolie may have made the leap to that sparsely-populated realm of stars who are almost above reproach when she announced via an op-ed in the New York Times that she underwent a preventative double mastectomy due to positive tests for a gene linked to breast and ovarian cancers. Hers is a story of a rebellious Goth-friendly actress, known for her sexual escapades and what might be called home-wrecking by fans of Jennifer Aniston, who became an uber-mother with six children—and a celebrity with enough policy smarts to earn a speaking spot at the Council on Foreign Relations. And now it seems she’s poised to become a powerful voice on women’s health.
(Click here to read TIME’s cover story on The Angelina Effect: Why Her Mastectomy Raises Key Issues About Genes, Health and Risk)
Jolie’s piece was both serious and open, full of personal details about her relationships with her mother—who died of cancer at age 56—and her own children. Along the way, she describes the medical statistics in layman’s terms and touches on the issue of the high cost of medical care. Her goal was to inspire other women to make informed health choices:
I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.
And already it’s clear that she’s reaching people: the article quickly shot to the top of the “most e-mailed” list and has been drawing (mostly) sincere and positive responses on blogs and social-media networks, even from those more used to snarkiness about her.
The words feel strange even forming together in my mind but… good for Angelina Jolie.
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) May 14, 2013
But one op-ed does not a sparkling public image make. Jolie has spent the years since 2001—which was both the year of the Oscars kiss and the year of her Oscar win—earning her activist cred in a number of subjects, and it’s paid off. Her “Q score,” the measure of celebrity likability (which percentage of those aware of a personality rank that person as one of their favorites) determined by the pollsters at Marketing Evaluations has been above average since her activism began. The average right now is a score of 16 with 30% of the population ages 6+ aware of who that person is; Jolie’s score peaked at 29 and today rests at 20 with 81% awareness. Although Jolie is no stranger to controversy, Marketing Evaluations Executive VP Henry Schafer says she will probably maintain her high score unless she does something that goes beyond unusual to truly bad (like drunk driving).
(PHOTOS: Angelina Jolie: Humanitarian)
Or she’ll do more than maintain it: Schafer estimates that today’s move by Jolie will boost her image, particularly since she went public so soon after her surgery and a lack of delay nearly always helps perceptions of celebrities. “I would imagine after today’s announcement most likely it’ll have a positive affect on her perception, with the increased awareness she’s bringing to breast cancer,” he says, adding that her openness will help with a key component of respect for a celebrity: “I think this will have a positive effect on her image as a human being.”
Though Jolie is far from the only star to take up a cause, or several causes, her journey from laughing stock to lauded activist is a model example. Here’s how she did it:
2001: Jolie begins visiting refugee camps in Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Pakistan. That year, at 26, she officially becomes a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
2002: In 2002, Jolie adopts her first child, Maddox, from Cambodia. In 2005, she adopts Zahara from Ethiopia. She says publicly that she hopes she inspires more potential parents to explore adopting children in need; her choices about which countries from which to adopt are shown to inspire increased interest from other parents. She later adopts Pax from Vietnam and has several biological children (Shiloh, Knox and Vivienne).
2003: She writes a book about her experiences as a goodwill ambassador, Notes from My Travels: Visits with Refugees in Africa, Cambodia, Pakistan and Ecuador. She also establishes the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation—originally the Maddox Jolie Project—to support conservation in her son’s homeland.
2005: Jolie appears alongside Mr. & Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt—and it soon becomes clear that Pitt, married to Jennifer Aniston at the time, has more than a working relationship with the actress. Jolie and Pitt visit Pakistan after an earthquake to encourage increased aid for those affected. Despite outrage over perceived husband-stealing, Jolie’s Q score still remains in the 20s.
2007: She appears at the launch of Global Action for Children, a group that encourages American aid to orphans in the developing world and also at the launch of Brad Pitt’s campaign to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She joins the Council on Foreign Relations. Also in 2007, Jolie plays Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, the story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in Pakistan.
2008: Jolie speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations during a session about law and justice in Darfur. The New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof, who also spoke, writes after the event that Jolie is smart and effective and means what she says:
Frankly, if a celebrity isn’t genuinely interested in poverty and is simply trying to get good press, there are better ways to do it. Traveling to Darfur or Congo is dangerous, expensive and uncomfortable, and the outhouses have bats, scorpions and camel spiders. But if a celebrity is willing to put up with such challenges, he or she can get public attention in a way that no one else can. I once was on a panel where Angelina’s eyes filled up as she spoke of Iraqi refugees she had met in Syria; for anybody who was there, that scene was worth 100 of my columns.
2011: Jolie’s directorial debut is the Bosnian War-set In the Land of Blood and Honey.
2012: The actress is promoted from goodwill ambassador to special envoy by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, with a focus on “large-scale crises.” As part of the announcement of her new position, a U.N. spokesman said that she has made 40 visits to refugee hotspots and donated $5 million to the cause.
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The division between doing good and helping oneself has never been a real bright line, and Jolie’s activism has raised some questions along the way about where her personal image fits into her plan for a better world. In 2008, the New York Times—the same paper in which Jolie’s op-ed ran today—took an in-depth look at Jolie’s attempts to control the way she’s presented in the media, including the trade-offs she asks for in exchange for access. For example, pictures of a young Maddox came with the requirement that People (which is owned by the same company as TIME) also report on his mother’s humanitarianism. Which, while it may make editors squeamish, is an arrangement that may seem like a good idea to those who admire her—and to Trevor Neilson, the philanthropic adviser to Jolie who is quoted in that 2008 Times story. As of the time of publication, Neilson had not responded to TIME’s request for comment about Jolie’s latest news, but he had made his thoughts known. And they’re the same thoughts that everyone else seems to have:
Brave words from Angelina Jolie which will save lives by educating others: My Medical Choice nyti.ms/10U9HwL
— Trevor Neilson (@trevor_neilson) May 14, 2013
True devotion to a cause is really the only reason a celebrity would become an activist, says Robin Bronk, CEO of The Creative Coalition, a group that helps those in the entertainment industry get involved as advocates for various causes. Though Bronk has not worked with Jolie, she says that any issue on which a celebrity could be vocal will inevitably upset some of his or her fans, so an image-obsessed star would do better to keep quiet. “People say they’re just doing it for publicity,” she says, “but it’s just the opposite.”