Issue 12: How Amal Clooney Uses and Rejects Her Celebrity (2024)

This week, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that he had applied for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas's leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, for war crimes. The ICC judges must now decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to issue those warrants, a process that could take months. The current death toll in Gaza, via the BBC, is about 35,500, a large portion of whom are children. One of the lawyers involved in the decision was Amal Clooney an international law and human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, a prestigious firm based in London. As their website noted, "the Panel unanimously endorsed the Prosecutor’s assessment that the Court had jurisdiction over the case and that there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that individuals named in the arrest warrants [...] have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the Court." Clooney also published an op-ed with the Financial Times wherein she emphasized her support for the ICC’s report and their “unanimous” findings. On the website for the Clooney Foundation for Justice, she said, "My approach is not to provide a running commentary of my work but to let the work speak for itself."

Amal Clooney is probably the most famous human rights lawyer on the planet. Her record speaks for itself, from going up against ISIS to leading a legal task force on accountability for crimes committed in Ukraine during the war with Russia to representing Armenia in a case concerning the denial of the country's genocide. She is an extremely impressive woman who has more than proven her mettle. That she is also Mrs. George Clooney means that everything she does will be amplified to a level well beyond that of international law and justice.

It feels, admittedly, uncomfortable for me to do a celeb study on a lawyer who is currently working towards garnering justice for an ongoing genocide, as if my discussing a Vogue profile is in any way important work. It’s not. I know the inherent fluffiness of my field and embrace it. But I do think Amal Clooney is someone whose image and work is worth talking about in this context because she has made the effort over the years to use the spotlight for good. She’s become a celebrity through marriage but has made it clear where her true priorities lie, and has no qualms about taking that microphone shoved in front of her and giving it to those in the margins.

Issue 12: How Amal Clooney Uses and Rejects Her Celebrity (1)

(Read the profile here.)

George Clooney met Amal Alamuddin through a mutual friend in July 2013. Hollywood's most loveable playboy had long said he had no plans to settle down and seemed content with a bevvy of gorgeous and mostly age-appropriate women on his arm (he's no Leo.) The moment the press found out, it was a major story. Had the perennial singleton found his match? Not only that but she was clearly far more accomplished than he (and 90% of all human beings.) She seemed like an equal match for the megastar. They were engaged nine months later, followed by a lavish multi-day wedding celebration in George’s beloved Venice that was covered by the media like it was the Oscars.

A new power couple was in our midst, and we love a true celebrity relationship that combines sex appeal, intellect, and purpose. It doesn’t happen very often. We had it with Brangelina for a while (Team Angelina, f*ck that man.) This felt different, though. Amal wasn’t a celebrity or figure in the entertainment world. She didn’t need the clout of Hollywood fame. Sure, she changed her surname and walked red carpets, but she didn’t give up her work to be Mrs. Clooney full-time. Not that she was expected to, but her presence seemed to prove that the business had not established a path forward for someone like her. Admit it, we all thought that George would either never marry or choose a much younger woman with no social or financial power. That’s what guys of his fame level usually do. Now, the pattern was different, so when Amal was given the Vogue cover treatment, it was never going to be business as usual for her.

Writing for Vogue, you certainly get the sense that Nathan Heller was told to hit some of the more familiar beats. He asks about how the happy couple met, sharing how George was enamoured with Amal after their first meeting. We get descriptions of Amal’s clothing and how “poised she is” and what she drinks (espresso.) There are lots of quotes from friends and associates about how great she is, with the most effusive coming, of course, from George. That’s the job of stuff like this: to promote people, usually more so than whatever projects they’re shilling at the time. But Amal isn’t selling a film or book or tequila brand. I doubt Vogue pitched the cover story with a promotional tie-in in mind. What does she have to sell to the Vogue crowd beyond herself, that glistening image of the Hollywood wife? Quite a bit, actually.

Issue 12: How Amal Clooney Uses and Rejects Her Celebrity (2)

As Heller visits the Clooney household, he's not the only guest. Also in town is Nadia Murad, a Yazidi student who was kidnapped and trafficked by ISIS. She went on to found Nadia's Initiative, an organization dedicated to helping women and children victimized by human trafficking and genocides. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 and is a UN Goodwill Ambassador. In 2016, Clooney represented Murad as a client in legal action against ISIS commanders. It became one of her most high-profile cases.

Murad’s harrowing story is repeated in this profile, a sharp contrast from the previous paragraph about George's paintings of his late dog. It seems as though Heller doesn’t know how to balance his sparkly celeb writing with something so painful and traumatizing. He makes note of Murad’s cat jumper but also that she’s “hauntedly thin.” This is more something you’d see in a, say, New York Times profile of Clooney, but would that get to the audience she seeks? Clooney is unequivocal in calling the ISIS attacks on the Yazidi community "genocide, and genocide doesn’t happen by accident… I am ashamed, as a supporter of the United Nations, that states are failing to prevent or even punish genocide because they find that their own interests get in the way.” Even the most politically engaged celebrities don’t get this specific in their interviews (an exception being Angelina Jolie.)

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Clooney isn’t all talk either, as her career is evidence of. Her work with the Yazidi community is, for her, a chance to gain some tangible justice for an oft-overlooked group. “There are many cases where I think, Well, the reality is, politically, nothing will be done. But there is actually no reason why nothing could be done on this case, where the perpetrators were confessing to the crime.”

One thing this piece is very good at is explaining in layman’s terms the nitty-gritty of Clooney’s job. As one of her colleagues, the legendary lawyer Geoffrey Robinson, notes, international law is relatively "newfangled" in the grand scheme of the system. Being an intellectual marvel is one thing, but doing it in a field still developing where, as Robinson puts it, "a trial where you don’t have a jury and where, sometimes, you don’t have a defendant", is something else. He celebrates Amal's "creativity" and ability to make persuadable cases in oft-impenetrable areas. You don’t have to be immersed in the legal system yourself to understand the heft of Clooney’s work, or to understand something like the Yazidi situation. Seeing it described so starkly, and with one of its victims front and centre in a Vogue piece, is enough to drive the case home.

Amal Clooney is excellent at juggling these narratives, of being a famous wife who’s also a lawyer who’s also a mother who’s also a celebrity in her own right. I’m not sure the piece itself is so dexterous. While Clooney seems comfortable jumping from talking about free speech issues to playing with her kids, Heller is left to balance out the tonal shifts. It’s not easy, especially for a piece intended for a publication that doesn’t exactly go deep on the regular. It’s sweet to hear her calling George “my love” on a Facetime call while he’s off shooting a coffee ad (in full knight’s armour, to add to the perfect love story narrative), but you read it and can’t stop thinking about Nadia Murad’s experiences with rape and sex trafficking during a genocide.

It seems clear to me that Vogue wanted less of this stuff and more of the juicy private details of life with the Clooneys. It’s a great story, after all: Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor renounces his title to become the doting husband of a woman who is way out of his league. They have a gorgeous house, two adorable kids, and they work together in various causes. They’re openly affectionate and he’s clearly besotted with her, and it is sweet to read about. It’s part of George’s job to be suave and appealing and using his personal life has long been part of that. He made being a debonair playboy seem really exciting and not creepy in the slightest (take note, Leo), and yet his move into trophy husband living seems even more interesting. It makes him cooler to be Mr. Amal, and he knows it. they also want to make Amal seem, if not approachable then at the very least human. We’re told she has a good sense of humour and loves to party. She makes wry jokes about her barrister’s wig and its general grossness (apparently they’re really difficult to clean?) We certainly get a solid portrait of an interesting woman. But again, it seems so frivolous compared to Amal talking about going to the Hague to take on war criminals.

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Therein is the conflict of Amal Clooney. We saw this in play when many people online called her a fraud and hypocrite for not making any public statements on Gaza when she was actually doing her job. Celebrities are expected to make statements. Lawyers are meant to do the work. Is it possible to do both? The Clooney Foundation tries, and has a good track record, especially in the tenuous field of celebrity philanthropic endeavours. Yet the clash remains. Glitz and trauma aren’t really supposed to go together, but we all see how our media prefers the former over the latter. Is it softening the blow to have Vogue surround the story of the Yazidi people in anecdotes about George Clooney’s flirting? Of course it does. But maybe it did make its way to someone who needed to hear it. That’s the hopeful reading of a profile like this, and I imagine that’s what Amal Clooney herself wanted from it. She doesn’t need the boost but her work always does. How many international lawyers get the chance to amplify their clients on this scale?

There’s no reason a woman can’t be both. She can wear couture at the Met Gala then take ISIS to court. Lawyers are people too, kids. They have hobbies. The expectations on Amal Clooney are weighty not just because she’s now a celebrity but because she’s expected to treat her job as an extension of it. That’s not how it works, and I wonder if her dedication to her profession kind of exposes the shoddy theatricalities of a lot of celebrity activism. Statements are cool and all but why demand one from someone who’s actually doing the work?

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Her work is also never-ending, she laments. In the profile’s closing paragraphs, she says, “The same things keep happening again, and that’s the tragedy. We had genocide in Bosnia and then again in Rwanda. Somehow, the system has not evolved to a place where these atrocities are being prevented, nor are they even being properly addressed afterward." There’s so much work to be done, and it’ll happen whether or not Vogue and company are there to listen. So, if they’re going to stick around, maybe Amal can get them to pay attention to something thornier than a red carpet look?

It’d be easy to deride Vogue for not taking on “serious issues.” It’s always going to be discomfiting to see something like a fashion show or expensive photoshoot happening when the nightly news is full of agony and a literal genocide. I’ve been criticized by some for “caring about stupid stuff while real news happens”, and even when you know it’s said by a bad-faith smarm machine, it still stings. When Vogue does talk politics, it packages it as part of its brand aesthetic and that’s frequently either visually misguided or just straight-up ill-informed. Remember when they did a full-on propagandistic profile of Bashar al-Assad’s wife? That happened!

But it is undeniable that Amal Clooney is now a celebrity who can get attention to whatever she wants. When the news about the ICC’s arrest warrants was announced, it was her name trending worldwide. That’s both a gift and a curse because the algorithm sucks and inevitably puts more focus on her than the case itself via the lens of the internet (and sites like Twitter which face a lot of criticisms about censoring content from pro-Palestine accounts.) When Amal says she wants “to let the work speak for itself,” is that even possible for a capital-C Celebrity? She’s certainly trying to make it so, and her intentions are never less than crystal clear. It all makes Amal Clooney fascinating to talk and think about, if only for how she exposes that eternal quandary of the responsibilities of fame.

Issue 12: How Amal Clooney Uses and Rejects Her Celebrity (4)

Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is dedicated to providing "an effective, sustainable and locally-led system of healthcare" in the occupied territories. They are currently doing crucial work in the region to provide much-needed medical assistance and support to those impacted by Israel's attacks. You can donate to their work here. UNICEF's Gaza appeal is working to deliver food, water, and medical care to the region. 87% of all schools in Gaza have been damaged and destroyed. 600,000 children are trapped in Rafah. Support their works here.

Thanks for reading the latest issue. You can find my work scattered across the internet. For Crooked Marquee, I wrote about Death in Venice. I made my debut at the AV Club to talk about the documentary Amy and why you should watch it instead of Back to Black. Speaking of biopics, I also looked into perhaps the absolute worst one ever made, The Babe Ruth Story, for Paste.

If you’d like to support me and my work, I have a Ko-Fi page.

Are there any films or TV series coming out soon you’d like to hear my thoughts on? Is there a celebrity or piece of writing you’d wish to read a deep dive into? Let me know in the comments! I was on holiday last week (Madrid was beautiful) so there’s much to catch up on.

(Header image from Flickr - Dying Regime @ Creative Commons Licence.)

Issue 12: How Amal Clooney Uses and Rejects Her Celebrity (2024)
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