“This is an issue that has been in the dark for too long. There remains what can seem like an impenetrable wall of silence, around violence. And we must all play a role in breaking that silence.”
The funny thing,” Reese Witherspoon says, “is it happens all the time.” A day after Gordon Brown thanked “Renée Witherspoon” in Parliament for her work for victims of domestic violence, Witherspoon is wondering why she and her friend, fellow actress Renée Zellweger are often confused with each other. “Maybe it’s an R-W, R-Z thing,” she says. “I phoned Renée, and she already knew. She said three people yesterday had said to her, ‘Hi Reese, how are you?’”
There should be stranger elements to this tale than the mystery of the Z-W congruence. Such as, why is a 33-year-old actress from the US, most famous for a film in which she plays a ditzy blonde lawyer, being thanked at Prime Minister’s Questions? Why was she later given access to meet Sarah Brown? And why, purely by virtue of signing a contract in 2007 to advertise cosmetics, is she fronting a British campaign for the end of a postcode lottery in domestic violence services?
Witherspoon’s arrival in the Jubilee Room in the House of Commons comes with what can be described only as an expectant hush. Standing in front of a poster giving equal billing to Avon cosmetics, Refuge and Speak out Against Domestic Violence, she begins.
“Domestic violence is a global pandemic that knows no barriers — no geographic, demographic, or socio-economic barrier. Yet, as shocking as it has been for me to learn about how deeply it is plaguing society, it is equally encouraging for me to see progress being made.”
Cabinet ministers might roam Westminster, confident that there are more police per square metre than anywhere outside Scotland Yard, but when a Hollywood A-lister backs a charity, she takes no chances. Witherspoon — who won an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line — commands a reputed $20 million (£12 million) a film. Her bodyguard scans each photographer, glowering at them individually.
Witherspoon’s first major role was in Pleasantville, in 1998. She starred in the film after taking leave from a degree in English literature at Stanford University. She followed that with a supporting role in Cruel Intentions (1999), before winning the lead in Legally Blonde (2001), a comedy about a sorority girl’s efforts to be taken seriously at Harvard Law School. That spawned a sequel, her career was assured, and Stanford lost an English major. Nowadays she has an image as one of the more thoughtful stars.
“It has been extraordinary to travel around the world and see what a difference just speaking makes,” Witherspoon continues. “This is an issue that has been in the dark for too long. There remains what can seem like an impenetrable wall of silence, around violence. And we must all play a role in breaking that silence.”
There is a long, and sometimes noble, tradition of celebrity charity endorsements. Bob Geldof urged the world to “Give us the money”; Princess Diana looked photogenic wearing a flak jacket in a minefield; and Geri Halliwell served as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. But why is a US actress highlighting problems in Britain?
Sitting in a suite at a Marylebone hotel after her Westminster press conference, Witherspoon explains her personal link to the issue of domestic violence. “When I was younger I had a girlfriend in her early twenties who seemed to be having difficulties in her relationship,” she says. “She was never that forthcoming, though, about what was happening.”
Witherspoon’s friend was, it transpired, being beaten. “The boyfriend made her feel like if she left he would chase her, he would hurt her. He threatened her life many times. He tried to kill her one time. People say ‘Why don’t you just leave? Why would a smart, educated person stay in a relationship like that?’ But there is a psychological oppression, a tearing down of your self-esteem. And that’s what happened to my girlfriend.”
She did eventually leave, and when she did Witherspoon put her up for a short while. “The thing that’s most difficult to deal with is that there’s a wall of silence that surrounds this issue, a shame. And that’s what we’re trying to break through.” Witherspoon can reel off the statistics. One in four women will be a victim of domestic abuse in their lives. The perpetrators come from all classes and cultures. And yet, according to new research by Avon, for whom she is a Global Ambassador, 92 per cent of people believe that they do not know a victim.
Personal passion is not, however, the only reason why Witherspoon is such an expert. She is also involved in the campaign because she is contractually obliged to — and this is where her work marks a departure from that of Geldof, Halliwell and Princess Diana.To read Avon’s literature you would sometimes believe that her work is purely for its charitable foundation (indeed, sometimes you would believe that Avon is purely a charitable foundation). But there is another genre to its glossy output, not meant for such public consumption. “Revenue growth was fuelled by another strong performance in Beauty,” last year’s annual report says. “As we continued to leverage the exceptional popularity of Avon’s Global Ambassador, award-winning actress Reese Witherspoon.”
How does Witherspoon feel about being leveraged? She, to her credit, is open about the commercial element of her job, but does it not still taint her charitable purpose?
“I don’t think so. Many people had approached me about representing beauty brands, but I’d never been interested. But Avon also wanted me to represent them in their philanthropic work, which seemed a nice dovetailing of ideals. And we’re working on things that are very personal to me. So it’s a real win-win situation. You can’t underestimate the power of having a gigantic corporation helping you do these things.” As to why it takes a Hollywood actress to come to Parliament to tell us about our social problems, in a sense the answer is obvious.
The campaign was launched on the Thames, where the silhouettes of 72 women — the number who died last year because of domestic violence — were placed around Tower Bridge. Then came a press conference in which a victim told her story; Helena Kennedy, QC, spoke of her career defending vulnerable women; and the chief executive of Refuge described its work. What made the news? “Reese Witherspoon speaks out against domestic violence,” the papers said.
“It is, perhaps, sad that it takes a celebrity,” Witherspoon says. “But this it is a statement about our culture, our time, what we pay attention to. It’s great to be an actor, and provide entertainment and make people laugh. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have a wonderful gift, not to be denied. We are all global citizens these days and my films reach across the world. I went to China and a woman told me she went to law school because of Legally Blonde. So it is not strange to be talking about this here in the UK, or elsewhere. Women are being very badly abused all over the world.”