Why Katy Perry Matters to the UN

Katy Perry became UNICEF’s newest Goodwill Ambassador yesterday. To mark the occasion, UNICEF posted this video of Perry’s trip to Madagascar on behalf of UNICEF, set to her song “Unconditionally.”

UNICEF’s harnessing of celebrities to support its work goes back nearly as far as the founding of UNICEF itself. The very first UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador was the entertainer and comedian Danny Kaye, who was an internationally popular comic act back in the 1940s and 50s. He’s not that well known today, but he was a rockstar in an era that predated rock ‘n roll.

“The staid British Isles,” wrote Life Magazine in a June 13, 1949 dispatch, “were indulging in a type of worshipful hysteria…which affected young and old and of both sexes.”  The object of British adulation was a Brooklyn born son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. His six week run at the London Palladium had sold out a full 10 weeks before his first show.  People had lined up for 26 hours in a mile-long line to catch a glimpse. It was like Beatlemania. Only 15 years earlier. And in reverse.

The story of how he came to work with UNICEF is something of a legend.

It was 1953 and Danny Kaye was on a flight leaving from London to New York. One of the engines caught on fire and the pilot put the plane in an emergency dive to extinguish the flame. As the plane limped to an emergency landing in Ireland, Kaye struck up a conversation with another passenger: UNICEF executive director, Maurice Pate. Kaye pledged to use his celebrity to support UNICEF’s work, and the idea of a Celebrity Goodwill Ambassador was born.  Kaye travelled the world on behalf of UNICEF, and produced and starred in several American (and international) network programs to highlight UNICEF’s work on behalf of the world’s children.

Fast forward 60 years and dozens of Goodwill Ambassadors later and we get Katy Perry. She’s  as popular today as Danny Kaye was in his day. She has about a kagillion social media followers and is a beloved entertainer. The fact that UNICEF made her a goodwill ambassador means that she has made concrete commitments to support the actions of UNICEF.

She will be an asset to UNICEF, which depends entirely on voluntary contributions to support its work. UNICEF is essentially funded as a charity, and Goodwill Ambassadors can help with fundraising. Equally important, they spread the good news about UNICEF, which helps sustain funding levels from donor governments which are UNICEF’s most important contributors.

UNICEF’s regular budget (that is, money not earmarked for sudden emergencies like an earthquake) is $663 million. The USA is the top donor to the regular budget providing $132 million last year, followed by Norway with $81 million and Sweden with $70 million. Katy Perry has 48 million Twitter followers. If they each donated $2 to UNICEF’s regular budget, they could displace Norway as the second largest UNICEF funder.

Perry says she is ready to unleash her Twitter army on behalf of UNICEF. It will certainly be interesting to see where this leads.

So, congrats to UNICEF. Congrats to Katy Perry. And for those keeping track: Danny Kaye and Katy Perry have a Kevin Bacon score of just 3. 


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