Photo: REX USA

Photo: REX USA

BY DANIELLE STROLIA

She’s one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses. And she’s talented too, with an Academy Award and three Golden Globes to her name. But she’s arguably better known for her personal life: humanitarian, mother of six, wife of People’s two-time “Sexiest Man Alive” winner and fellow Hollywood star.

Obviously she’s Angelina Jolie. A lot has changed since her rise to stardom 15 years ago. Daughter of actor Jon Voight and model Marcheline Bertrand, Jolie was not only known for her acclaim for the roll of sociopathic Lisa in Girl, Interrupted, but also for making out with her brother on the Red Carpet, wearing a vial around her neck containing the blood of then-husband Billy Bob Thornton (“My husband’s blood is the most beautiful thing in the world to me,” she said in an interview to the Boston Globe). She was also candid about her past depression and suicidal thoughts.

Fast-forward five years, and she’s making headlines of another sort—for being the other woman, breaking up Hollywood’s golden couple Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Rumors began spreading already during the filming of Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2004, and they didn’t stop swirling when Pitt and Aniston announced their divorce. A few months later, pictures emerged of Pitt and Jolie on a Kenyan beach with her adopted son Maddox in tow. Within the year, Pitt had adopted Maddox along with Jolie’s infant Ethiopian daughter Zahara. And then Jolie got pregnant, and their family saga has continued to unfold on the front pages of the tabloids ever since.

Yet today, Jolie has managed to turn the homewrecking, slightly strange image around and has become known as a respected actress and outspoken advocate for several causes. In 2012, after a decade of doing humanitarian work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she was promoted to the rank of special envoy. In 2013, she opened up in a New York Times op-ed on her decision to undergo a double mastectomy. On top of this, she now has six children with Pitt: three biological, three adopted. They themselves married last year, herself clothed in a wedding dress that had dozens of her children’s drawings sewed in.

So how did Jolie go from incestuous and blood-obsessed to alleged home-wrecker to what she is today?

Changing a public image requires several steps, according to Dorie Clark, a marketing strategy consultant and author of Reinventing You. “With bad publicity – as with addiction – the first step to recovery is knowing you have a problem,” she wrote in an email. Clark saw Jolie’s transformation occur in two stages. First, Jolie stopped talking about risqué subjects such as “her past drug use, sexcapades, and wearing Billy Bob Thornton’s blood.” Then, more important, she started demonstrating her responsibility by acting in ways that show a broader concern for others, both as a mother and a humanitarian ambassador. “Changing your image requires commitment and discipline, and Jolie has shown both traits,” Clark wrote.

Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen calls it “her perfect game” that has only gotten better with time. Her relationship with Pitt could have been disastrous for her image. And yet, it signaled a turning point, and according to Petersen’s article, “facilitated her rise to superstardom.”

Amidst the drama, Jolie didn’t comment. But she was still constantly in the media, being pictured in places such as Sierra Leone and Darfur doing work for the UNHCR. And once her first biological daughter Shiloh was born, she sold the first baby photos and donated the money to charities fighting AIDS in Africa. In her article, Petersen argues that Jolie changed the public dialogue by doing so: “And what [Pitt and Jolie] were saying was that this wasn’t a story about sex or scandal; rather, it was one of family, humanitarianism, and global citizenship.”

Within a year, People magazine had not only named her the “World’s Most Beautiful Person” of 2006. They had also headlined her as “St. Angelina.”

What perhaps is most striking about Jolie’s transformation in the media is that she is and always has been her own publicist. While a New York Times article from 2008 argues that all celebrities attempt to manipulate their public images in some way, it states that Jolie “accomplishes it with a determination, a self-reliance and a degree of success that is particularly notable.” In the same article, Bonnie Fuller, the former editor of Us Weekly and Star magazines, states that Jolie is “scary smart” and that she has an “amazing knack, perhaps more than any other star, for knowing how to shape a public image.”

Seven years have passed since the Times article was published, and yet the journalist who wrote it doesn’t think that anything has changed: “I think you either have those skills or you don’t, and Angie is pretty much unparalleled among stars when it comes to managing her image,” wrote Brooks Barnes, who covers media for The New York Times, in an email. He uses the last box office year as an example of her skill. “Somehow she managed to star as an evil fairy in Maleficent and still be taken seriously as a director and potential Oscar contender with Unbroken.”

Jolie’s reveal of her double mastectomy in the op-ed section of The New York Times is another illustration of how in control she is. The article, My Medical Choice, came across as authentic, using her privileged position to make more women aware of the ‘faulty’ BRCA1 gene that significantly increases the risks of breast and ovarian cancer. As Buzzfeed reporter Petersen puts it in her article, Jolie’s piece went against everything one would expect from celebrity culture. Similarly, The New York Times journalist, Barnes, saw it as genius: “From a public relations aspect it was a master stroke: She got out in front of the media mob to tell her own story rather than allow the media to filter and sift the information first,” he wrote via email.

Jolie could have kept her double mastectomy a secret, according to Dorie Clark, the marketing strategy consultant. “Her decision to reveal a very private decision in the interests of raising public awareness about a health issue was commendable, and helps strengthen her brand as someone who has matured and come into her own as a charitable advocate,” Clark wrote in an email. That Jolie is widely viewed as a sex symbol, according to Clark, made it notably brave.

Jolie’s global stardom is at least partially due to the fact that her control goes unnoticed. “The more you make the evidence of the game disappear, the more your audience will be willing to forget that they’re being played,” Petersen writes. “Or, put differently, that part of the reason that millions found Jolie’s words and actions so compelling was that they felt she wasn’t trying to be compelling: She simply was.”