When Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher decided to contribute $10 million to tsunami-relief efforts last week, he did not hide his light under a bushel.
Instead, the race-car driver had his manager announce the gift in a phone call to a nationally broadcast telethon in his native Germany. As the largest known individual donation, the gesture drew instant global attention.
So did Sandra "Miss Congeniality" Bullock's gift of $1 million to the American Red Cross, Steven Spielberg's donation of $1.5 million to several charities, and Leonardo DiCaprio's "sizable" contribution to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
They raised a few eyebrows, too, among observers who are trying hard not to be cynical, but wonder whether the international outpouring of celebrity generosity in the wake of the Asian tsunamis might sometimes be motivated as much by self-promotion as by philanthropy.
The film stars, musicians, and athletes who have publicly pitched in to pay for disaster relief are caught "in a dialectic of aggrandizement and responsibility," says Paul Schervish, head of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. "If helping others is in your strategic self-interest as a signal of who you are ... that can be read cyn- ically or non-cynically."
Mr. Schumacher, of course, like other big-name givers, could have avoided raising any doubts by making their donations anonymously.
But that would have missed an opportunity, says Schumacher's spokeswoman, Sabine Kehm. "He wanted others to be encouraged by his donation," she explains. "He felt it would be good if people saw others were doing something, which would invite them to do something too."
It worked, Ms. Kehm insists. The telethon to which Schumacher pledged his money raised 40 million euros ($53 million) - four times the amount collected by a similar television drive a night earlier.
"Because our society ... deifies our celebrities, we expect them to somehow become our role models," suggests Marc Pollick, who heads The Giving Back Fund, which advises celebrities about charity. "Celebrities have the dual assets in our culture of wealth and fame. If they choose, they can leverage both on behalf of whatever cause they believe in."
Stars of every stripe have been doing their bit for tsunami victims over the past two weeks. The rock band Linkin Park seeded an organization dubbed "Music for Relief" with $100,000. Chinese singers have staged marathon benefit concerts. Four-time world heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield visited Sri Lanka with a disaster-relief team. In Britain, Princes Harry and William packed supplies destined for Asia.
Celebrities now appear almost obliged to be seen to care. In today's celebrity-driven culture "the closer these people get to the gods, the more they feel they have to give something back," says Maria Zanca, head of celebrity relations for UNICEF.
At the same time, says Mario Almonte, vice president of the Herman Associates public relations firm in New York, celebrities "tend to be followers of trends. They want to be with the 'in' crowd. They go to the 'in' restaurants. They donate to the 'in' charity."
The trend of celebrity association with good causes began with Danny Kaye, UNICEF's first goodwill ambassador, who toured the world on the agency's behalf in 1954.
Over the decades, a number of other famous names have worn their hearts on their sleeves. George Harrison organized a concert for Bangladesh in 1971; Bob Geldof raised huge sums for Ethiopian famine victims with Band Aid in 1984; five supermodels appeared together nude on posters proclaiming they would "rather go naked than wear fur"; U2's Bono spends as much time campaigning for Third-World causes as he does singing.
Today, most aid agencies find that they need a star or two to help them make their case, and to bring their cause to the forefront of public attention.
The 30 or so celebrities who boost UNICEF, including Nicole Kidman and David Beckham, "are of huge value," says Ms. Zanca. "They give a face and voice to all those people with no faces and no voices. When a celebrity talks, people listen; there is no better messenger."
Phil Bloomer, head of advocacy for Oxfam UK, agrees. "They can reach into people's lives and speak to them in ways that Oxfam spokesmen cannot," he says. "They can reach out to people who might not normally listen to what Oxfam has to say."
This works - for the star and for the aid group - only if the celebrity is sincere and clearly cares, says Mr. Pollick. Being publicly philanthropic "takes a sincerity and authenticity," he cautions. "Anything not done for the right reasons will soon become apparent to the public."
When things go wrong with stars they can be "horrendously embarrassing," says one development expert. "For a good number of celebrities there is a marketing opportunity in all this. All they want is a photo-opportunity with a poor African kid."
That was not the case with Princess Diana, whose effort against landmines "set the stage for the modern conjunction of celebrity and public causes," says Thomas Goodnight, who teaches a course in celebrity advocacy at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Many aid workers are happy to accept a "quid pro quo" in their relationships with stars. "If they get as much out of it as we do, so long as we don't think that is the main reason they are doing it, why should I be bothered?" asks Zanca.
In the end, adds Toby Miller, who teaches film at the University of California, "what matters is the quality and the quantity of the giving ... the good done on the ground, much more than any motivation."