Hope for Haiti: Hollywood stars answer the calls in Haiti telethon

Steven Spielberg, Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon are among those on the phone lines in a bid to raise funds for victims of the earthquake

"Can you send an angel?" sang Alicia Keys, opening the Hope For Haiti tele­thon early yesterday morning with her song Prelude to a Kiss. And then, on cue, George Clooney appeared, the first of a sombre parade of actors and musicians to appeal for donations for the earthquake victims in the Caribbean country.

"The Haitian people need our help," said the actor, who had organised the fundraising concert with Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean. "They need to know they are not alone."

Once again the international stellar community, broadcasting live from New York, London, Los Angeles and Haiti on MTV, YouTube and most major American networks, proved they could work together at short notice to raise funds for an emergency relief operation.

Viewers across the world – this event was aiming for the largest television audience ever – were treated to solo performances from Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting, and Chris Martin of Coldplay accompanying Beyoncé on the piano. The R&B superstar's rendition of her song Halo included the altered lyric: "Haiti, we can see your halo/I pray you won't fade away."

The millions who tuned in also had the chance to watch celebrities appearing "as themselves", sitting at banks of desks to take telephone calls from people pledging donations. Steven Spielberg answered the phone to a surprised female pastor who said: "Wow. It's cool to speak to you." "It is cool to speak to you too," the director replied.

Proceeds from the night, thought to amount to hundreds of millions, will be split among the five relief organisations actively operating in Haiti: Oxfam America, Partners in Health, the Red Cross, Unicef and to Jean's own Yéle Haiti foundation. The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, set up by the two most recent former American presidents, will benefit, too. International charity concerts are now a central part of boosting aid funds in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster.

"We obviously can't plan this kind of event, because we never know when a disaster is going to happen, so we rely on stars and performers coming forward quickly," said a British spokeswoman for Oxfam yesterday. "The devastation in Haiti has been so great, though, that we have been amazed by how many have come forward. They arrange events like this telethon when the need is greatest, but I also think high-profile supporters are particularly helpful to us in the second phase of relief fundraising, when the news coverage has died away."

Clooney is now a veteran of such TV fundraisers. He started with America: A Tribute to Heroes, which raised more than $150m (£103m) in the weeks following the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001. Three years later the actor was also behind the Concert of Hope telethon that followed the south Asian tsunami.

Aid For Haiti will be fuelled, too, by the release of a new single from American rapper Jay-Z, Stranded, composed in collaboration with U2 band members Bono and the Edge.

The track was first played on the MTV telethon and also featured Barbadian singer Rihanna.

In Britain, Gordon Brown has waived VAT on the charity single being put together by Simon Cowell for Haiti – a cover version of REM's Everybody Hurts, which will feature stars such as Cheryl Cole, Rod Stewart and Michael Bublé.

In addition to answering phones yesterday, Justin Timberlake sang a version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah in a duet with Matt Morris. Many of the world's most popular female singers, including Mary J Blige, Cristina Aguilera, Shakira, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson took part. Sheryl Crow joined Kid Rock and Australian country star Keith Urban for a rendition of Lean on Me.

Powerful personal appeals came from Bill Clinton, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman and Leonardo DiCaprio, one of several stars to donate $1m (£620,000) to the cause.

There were eloquent words from contributors from Haiti, too, from those who had lost relatives or were still stunned that their troubled homeland was facing yet another crisis.

Among the Hollywood stars supporting the appeal were Jack Nicholson, Mel Gibson, Meg Ryan, Ellen Barkin, Tim Robbins, Brad Pitt, Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, who talked to one caller about the positive energy among the celebrities around her who had gathered to help. Julia Roberts discussed the joys and fears of motherhood with one star-struck donor and said how difficult she found it to see televised images of the children in Haiti who were hurt.

Wearing the Haitian flag around his neck, Wyclef Jean closed the event, singing a few phrases from the reggae classic Rivers of Babylon before delivering a Creole version of his song Yéle, written in the style of the Haitian folk music called racine.

All the telethon performances are available on Apple's iTunes and cash donations can be made at hopeforhaitinow.org.

Oxfam is running a celebrity eBay auction to raise funds, featuring the offer of an exclusive personal song penned by Blur's Damon Albarn for the winning bidder. In London, the Roundhouse performing arts venue has announced a starry fundraising show on Thursday 25 February in support of the aid work of both ActionAid and Médecins Sans Frontières, while poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Poetry Live have invited 20 leading poets to perform at Westminster Central Hall on Saturday to raise money for Haiti.


Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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