Why Do Actors Take to Politics Effortlessly?

The tangled, twisted world of post-World War II Italian politics has also thrown up a few actor-politicians that have periodically raised Anglo-Saxon brows. In 1987, former porn star Ilona Staller — popularly known as "Cicciolina" or "cuddles" — was elected to parliament, but lost a mayoral race in the northern Italian city of Monza last year.

In Egypt, home to the Arab world's biggest entertainment businesses, singers and pop stars are not uncommon in politics. And in Turkey, the vice president of the opposition Motherland Party (ANAP) and a sitting member of parliament is Ediz Hun, a veteran Turkish film actor.

Click here for more about some of the world's most colorful actor-politicians.

Similar Sets of Skills

"I suppose this is inevitable," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. "With 24-hour news channels, a political leader has to look good, appeal to an audience, talk to the cameras, present a persona — in many respects it's a relatively similar set of skills required of an actor."

What's more, according to Thompson, movie actors invariably begin their political races with a tremendous head start over their rivals. "They have instant brand name recognition," he explains. "They are starting way ahead of someone working up to name recognition — which needs a good amount of time and money."

But while the election of actors often sparks fulminations about the intellectual inadequacies of the voting populace, not everyone believes it simply boils down to the irrational populism of the democratic system.

Arvind Rajagopal, a professor of media studies at New York University, believes — like the German sociologist Max Weber — that with the increasing bureaucratization of modern life, "charismatic power is seen as the only way of breaking out of the iron cage of bureaucratic rationality."

"In cases where there is an uncertain outcome, where there is no guarantee of a good leader, we can see a substantive logic in seeking out a charismatic leader," says Rajagopal.

Warning Notes

Certainly stars who have shed their acting costumes for a new political garb have had a mixed track record. Reagan, by all accounts, is considered a success, who will be remembered for his political rather than his acting roles.

But in India, Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest star of Bollywood — as the Bombay film industry is known — proved to be a failure in politics. Voted into parliament in the 1980s, Bollywood's most popular actor was unable to complete his five-year term due to persistent corruption allegations.

The journey from being an adored movie star to a widely derided politician can sometimes be so harrowing that from his prison cell in Manila, Estrada had a few warning notes for Schwarzenegger.

"The pitfall is if you do not perform in the movies, it's just acting," he told reporters shortly after the Austrian-born Hollywood star was elected governor. "But in politics, it's real life."

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