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December 18th, 2009
09:00 AM ET

Big Stars, Big Giving: All next week on American Morning

Editor's Note: In an American Morning original series, “Big Stars, Big Giving,” Alina Cho looks at celebrity philanthropy and how these big stars can make a big impact. Through one-on-one interviews with Elton John, Ben Stiller, Madonna, Martha Stewart and Richard Branson, she shares what causes have become their passion, and how you can get involved. In part one, Alina sits down with legendary musician Elton John. Monday, 6-9 a.m. ET – only on CNN’s American Morning.

By Alina Cho, CNN

There are many famous people who just talk the talk, and then there are those who walk the walk – and do it in other people's shoes. They are the ones who really give back, and their generosity is helping change the world.

I had the chance to sit down with some of Hollywood's biggest stars, and I mean "biggest." All of them are doing their part to try to make a difference.

All next week on CNN’s “American Morning,” we are highlighting them for the holiday season.

We begin on Monday with the man I call the "original" – Sir Elton John. In 17 years, his Elton John AIDS Foundation (ejaf.org) has raised more than $150 million with programs in 55 countries.

I caught up with him at a celebrity tennis tournament benefiting his foundation. Did you know Sir Elton John plays tennis?

“I've got a good forehand,” he tells me. And he's using it for a good cause.

The 62-year-old music legend says he wasn't inspired to become an advocate until he met 14-year old Ryan White in 1986. The Indiana teen was expelled from his school because he had AIDS.

John became so close to the White family that he gave them financial assistance and was at Ryan's bedside when he died.

“I never heard Ryan complain about having AIDS. I never heard him whine or be miserable; he carried everything with such dignity. It just taught me about humility, how my life was completely out of whack. About six months after Ryan died, I began to change my life."

On Tuesday I talk with movie star Ben Stiller. He's using comedy and social media to raise awareness and money to build schools in Haiti.

We all know Lance Armstrong's foundation, "Livestrong,” with those famous yellow bracelets. Well, Ben Stiller came up with "Stillerstrong," and his version of the bracelet – a yellow headband.

For the rest of the series, I’ll sit down with Madonna in a rare one-on-one interview. She's building a school for orphans in Malawi. Then there’s Martha Stewart, who built a center for aging Americans. She did that for her 93-year-old mother.

And last, but certainly not least, Sir Richard Branson – the man behind the "Virgin" empire. He treats philanthropy like a business – identify a problem and solve it.

So don't miss American Morning all next week for our original series, “Big Stars, Big Giving.” It’s an up close look at how Elton John, Ben Stiller, Madonna, Martha Stewart and Richard Branson are giving back.

To learn more about the organizations these stars have created to make a difference,

and how you can get involved, visit Impact Your World.

soundoff (57 Responses)
  1. flavofaze

    ...Two quick points: 1) I admire celebrities that give without any recognition or external reward...2) Many people give away 10% of their income every month without any news reports, articles, or fanfare. Some people give away 10% of their income and are barely able to pay their bills but still do it...the question to ask is why would a person do that? The answer is hidden inside the hearts and minds of the givers....

    December 23, 2009 at 12:25 pm |
  2. Tim

    What do all these high rollers have in common. They all give to other countries. Where are all the Movie stars that help out our own. It is such a big thing to help others in other countries. Not to flashy for them to help the people of El Centro,California...It is a shame that non of these self serving people do not help people in America. They are so quick to help other countries and let our go to crap. If had millions I sure would not help others in other countries, they do nto even like us. I would help others in our deprived cities over run by illegals. Not one dime would go to illegals....

    December 22, 2009 at 10:19 am |
  3. Ann

    I admire these people BUT what about the kids and families HERE in the USA . We send enough of our taxes to those countries and they abuse the money. I stopped contributing to foreign causes I now help with local agencies.

    December 22, 2009 at 10:03 am |
  4. Pippi

    I am very touched that someone with wealth isn't thinking only about himself, and how to acquire more, more, and more. But I am also feeling some of what others who wrote here express: why is there such a discrepancy in what people earn, and is their contribution really worth the compensation they receive? Case in point is the recent salary increase to 5 million dollars for University of Texas coach Mack Brown. He coaches a football team, he didn't discover the cure for cancer or some other disease. And how does he contribute to higher education? Why didn't UT cut tuition to make education more affordable for the average person, instead of rewarding someone who plays with a fooftball for a living? And at a time when some professors are getting a pink slip.

    December 21, 2009 at 1:05 pm |
  5. realworld

    Like a kid everybody loves but he goes around selling matches and lighters, and then gives charity to people hurt by fires someone caused, so the life style he lives spreads aids! Buy at least he sings real good! So did the kid that sold fire starters!

    December 21, 2009 at 12:13 pm |
  6. GF, Los Angles

    @ John when we the taxpayers start bailing out the movie industry with our money like we did with Wallstreet, then I'd be mad at the actors. Until then, shame on Wallstreet!

    December 21, 2009 at 11:53 am |
  7. Columbia

    Everyone should give and share according to their ability to do so. It's wonderful when people who have so much can give back so much. Don't criticize people like Elton John for being rich. They got that way through hard work and talent. That's eveyone's free-world dream. He made it big...good for him. And he gives back BIG. Bless him for that. Thanks, Sir Elton, for being who you are.

    December 21, 2009 at 11:40 am |
  8. Kostas

    It is simple. Those people bring money – thats why they get so much money..in my mind it makes a lot of sense.

    December 21, 2009 at 11:30 am |
  9. amoreno

    EJ is the tops-I have been madly in love with the man and his music since 1974.He is smart, funny, articulate, passionate in his beliefs,plain speaking and very big hearted-very very.Long live him!

    December 21, 2009 at 9:56 am |
  10. Virginia

    It's inconceivable that there's no mention of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie here! They have donated Millions upon millions of dollars, PLUS, hands on help in New Orleans, and probably so much more!!
    This is really inexcusable!

    December 21, 2009 at 9:41 am |
  11. len w

    Since when did Elton John become one of "Hollywood's biggest stars". Big star, definitely, but he has nothing to do with Hollywood.

    December 21, 2009 at 9:36 am |
  12. Daniel Rodriguez

    I WANT TO SAY THAT ELTON IS THE BEST IN MUSIC AS A PERSON AND A BIG VOICE IN HELPING TO FIND A CURE FOR HIV AND AIDS.
    I LOOK UP TO HIM AS AN INSPIRATION TO DO BETTER IN MY LIFE AND GIVE BACK EVEN I DON'T HAVE THE RESOURSES TO DO SO. I AM A LATINO LIVING WITH HIV AND I KNOW THEY WIL BE A CURE SAME DAY. ELTON KEEP UP THE GREAT, UNSELFISH WORK YOU DO. GOD BLESS YOU MANY TIMES OVER

    December 21, 2009 at 9:24 am |
  13. Carol A. Strickland

    I hope this series brings out how "ordinary" people can contribute to the world not only with money but also in other ways. I hope it gives the urls for websites that rate charities as to how much donated money actually gets to what the person has donated for. I hope this series also points out how many charities have an automatic donation program, where you can painlessly give a few bucks every month and wind up making a sizable donation by year's end.

    December 21, 2009 at 9:13 am |
  14. R Wallace

    John, when the public starts paying $10 a head and lining up around the block to watch policemen, firefighters and military personnel (not to mention teachers) do their jobs, they'll be paid accordingly. Sorry for not being outraged that actors make millions of dollars for their role in generating billions of dollars in box office revenues. Same goes for athletes. It's called capitalism, amigo

    December 21, 2009 at 9:02 am |
  15. adam Pratts

    Dear Sir Elton,

    It's wonderful to see you still helping , You're the kind of person the world needs, and more like you

    December 21, 2009 at 8:38 am |
  16. Rabia

    Is anybody heard about Zanzibar? it is a small Island in Indian Ocean, located in East Africa. This Island gets electricity from Tanzania through marine cables which have just exploded two weeks ago! The Island is in dark till now, it is very dangerous, criminals and adulters takes advantage of the situation to increase thier evil acts! Please Elton, extend your support to Zanzibar, so that we can get electricity again! Technician are working day and night without any sucess, Please help us, so that together we can eliminate number of would-be-AIDS victims!

    December 21, 2009 at 8:30 am |
  17. Kathleen

    And just the other day I read (yet another) article about Elton John auctioning his extensive wardrobe to "raise money" for charity. He boasted that many things had been worn only once - some not at all. There were at least 200 pair of shoes in the photo. Does no one see the stupidity in this?

    December 21, 2009 at 8:01 am |
  18. Heaven

    Elton John, I love you!!

    December 21, 2009 at 7:52 am |
  19. Sherri

    I think this is great what these Bigs Stars are doing! So glad that there are still individuals out there who have the means to step up and make a difference to the needy. I do have a questions for the editor..,I saw your line up for the week, my question is are there any African American Big Stars that could also be spot lighted in your look at Big Stars who are Big Givers? In this case color shouldn't be an issue because giving comes from the heart..,but I personally would like to see what other nationalities are doing as Big Stars. I'm sure they do so why mix up the Big Star Big Givers highlights.

    Just Curious

    December 21, 2009 at 7:38 am |
  20. Kathy Tate

    I'd just like to say to all the people who say that celebrities have a responsibility to give back... what about all the extremely rich CEO's of Banks, Telcom and IT companies and so on?? @ Karen Steel: You are right that no one needs tens of millions to live.. but you point out that the famous should give back? What about the rich and infamous? I doubt the Wal-Mart family gives back half of what these stars do. I doubt they even make an effort. What EJ earns compared to competitive sphere is peanuts. IMHO I think instead of saying that it’s compulsory for stars to give back, say thank you for remembering that once upon a time they weren't rich. Rather point a finger at all the unknown people who hoard their wealth.... because the majority could give sh*+ who is suffering in this world...

    December 21, 2009 at 7:31 am |
  21. Jonathan Creech

    What a great story!

    December 21, 2009 at 6:28 am |
  22. Mike

    Elton has been around the block. His work with AIDS is outstanding and the money he has raised through his Foundation is unbleivable.
    My kids are 18 and 20 and I made them listen to Elton when they were very very small. I've seen him in concert 33 times in 25 years. Just recently my daughter called he up from college and said she was listening to one of my favorite Broadway Shows Aida. She made my day.
    He is a good soul.........and wouldn't we all like to be remembered that way?

    December 21, 2009 at 5:21 am |
  23. Louise

    Wouldn't it be nice if we all could give time and money to a worthy cause? Instead, we have to work our heads off to pay for our own food and lodging. There are tons of causes I'd back if I could.

    December 21, 2009 at 4:07 am |
  24. Rose Scuteri

    Elton John is the person I most admire and respect in the world for all he does for charity. He is a very kind and compassionate man. The Elton John AIDS Foundation has received a four star rating from Charity Navigator which is the highest rating available. Elton also donates his time and money to many other charities. He is a great humanitarian.

    December 21, 2009 at 1:30 am |
  25. dina osullivan

    Finally a "celebrity" with a heart who thinks of others and not just publicity. Elton John is a role model for others who need to stop being so narcisistic and strt giving back and helping people.

    What a bunch of crumb balls we have in HOllywood. It takes an entertainer like Sir Elton John to show the others how to be a giver.

    December 20, 2009 at 11:44 pm |
  26. cony007

    This reminds me of what JFK said around 48 years ago, "It is not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." I wish I could thank everyone of these people for their conviction to help their segment of society. God bless them and watch over them and their families.

    December 20, 2009 at 10:20 pm |
  27. oneoarout

    If only every rich person knew that the greatest satisfaction one can have is to help others. Some wealthy people give from their vast hordes, but I'm guessing those who give more than a trifling are a small percentage. KUDOS TO KAREN STEEL for making an extremely important point, that no one needs a yearly income in the tens of millions. These people certainly have the right to amass wealth, as their talents and efforts allow them, but there's a point at which this reaches a detrimental imbalance in the real world of human need and suffering. If a person rakes in such huge sums, at a certain point they owe the society for making them so wealthy. They shouldn't be society's beneficiary and not give back in a big way. Obscene wealth, grotesque wealth, is an antiquated idea at odds with a future that provides life, health, opportunity and justice for all.

    December 20, 2009 at 9:46 pm |
  28. Heaven

    I love Elton John's every song!!He is so brilliant!!He is a real a genius!!

    December 20, 2009 at 8:25 pm |
  29. Daniel

    Long live Elton John. He makes the music and lives by the reasons that brings hearts together.

    December 20, 2009 at 7:14 pm |
  30. attilathehusker

    Karen, I'm glad you're in the minority of folks who think Elton John and others have "a duty" to give to those less fortunate. Rubs a pretty raw spot when people think the earnings of one person should belong to all.

    It's wonderful when a person is moved to share, but let there be no mistake, it's the responsibility of each of us to provide for ourselves.

    Remember the ant and the grasshopper.

    December 20, 2009 at 6:24 pm |
  31. ken

    we should also help people here in the states that there folks are out of jobs homeless. I know people in other country need help so do the states look in your own back yard......

    December 20, 2009 at 6:12 pm |
  32. dave

    Good story, positive, nice for a change, we all need more stories like this!

    December 20, 2009 at 5:54 pm |
  33. Julio Cesar Pereira

    I grew up in the 70s and Elton John was my first idol. Though I didn't speak any English at the time, his songs always touched me deeply. And now, I see that he's growing old with dignity, spreading love and help to those who need it most. I remeber my friends making fun of me when they read somewhere that Elton was gay. I confess that it took some time for me to accept this. But I loved his music so much, I had to overcome my prejudice, I had to grow and he was responsible for that. I am still a great fan of his early albums and also a fan of him as a person. Well done Reg!

    December 20, 2009 at 5:34 pm |
  34. Kim

    Sir Elton John is the King of Kings. Everything he touches turns to gold. May God continue to bless you and yours.

    December 20, 2009 at 5:28 pm |
  35. Scott Aarons

    Sir Elton John and his Foundation set the example for how it should be done. I continue to be impressed by his devotion to the cause and the work his group does. So many people in his position make you feel like it's all for the sake of a photo opportunity, but the work of Elton's foundation makes me feel irresponsible for not helping to make enough of a difference. Thank you, CNN, for doing this story on Elton's Foundation.

    December 20, 2009 at 5:05 pm |
  36. Dr. Rob

    Wow-half of this "interview" is about the upcoming people she' interviewing.

    What self-congratulatory hype, and how EMPTY a story.

    On sentence of -barely-info or insight-and 99% filler. Thank goodness no trees died in this thorough waste of time and space.

    This is journalism??? NO-it's garbage.

    December 20, 2009 at 5:03 pm |
  37. gina smith

    I applaud all the people who give back in one way or another. These are just a few.
    Where are the wall St. big wigs donating their money this year? I'm sure they got a huge commission this year.
    I don't care if an entertainer has 5 houses as long as he remembers to give back to the less fortunate. This is a short list of people, but i know there are many other entertainers who give generously.

    December 20, 2009 at 5:01 pm |
  38. DMG

    I believe that we must find balance between helping people who need it here in the US, and people in other countries. Maybe I am naive, but I believe that by helping, we set an example for others. If charity is contagious, then it won't matter as much who we are helping because others will be encouraged to help also.

    December 20, 2009 at 4:56 pm |
  39. Art

    Sir Elton John is a living legend.

    December 20, 2009 at 4:52 pm |
  40. Mark

    Way to go, Reggie.

    December 20, 2009 at 4:15 pm |
  41. Su Kobbe

    I've always been an EJ fan and have been so impressed with his philanthropy. Good for him! Wish more people with loads of money would take a step in Elton's direction. (I'm sure alot of them do but we just don't hear about it) If I won the lottery, I would definitely give a portion to my fave charities.

    December 20, 2009 at 3:24 pm |
  42. Tim Eagle

    Thanks for the inspiring article... we need that

    December 20, 2009 at 2:22 pm |
  43. Giancarlo

    It's amazing how the GOP calls these celebrities "liberal elites". Well I really don't see the GOP and their greedy supporter's, including the religious right, out there trying to make a difference. No, all they care about it making money, being greedy and to hell with the rest of the world.

    December 20, 2009 at 1:40 pm |
  44. Nancy

    Elton John has a heart. He has feelings for those in need. He is a good soul. May God bless him.

    December 20, 2009 at 1:30 pm |
  45. Jo-ann T

    Sir Elton was my very first concert, and I believe one of his back in 1975. (With back up from an also newbie named Bob Seger!) He's been a class act from day one. He has always been involved in one charity or another. His involvement with Ryan White most moving. He was a brave, loving and inteligent yougn man and as Elton pointed out, put the face of dignity on a horrid disease. It also goes to show you do not have to have millions, nor a well known name to make a difference.

    December 20, 2009 at 1:26 pm |
  46. Dixie

    I applaud those who have influence and the eye of the public who are using their gifts to inspire and challenge us to give back. Good for them! I don't want, however, for us to forget those that are working unnoticed, unacclaimed, and go about quietly giving not only of their time and money, but in some cases, their lives. I know of a very young couple (in their early twenties) who started a non-profit organization that is building homes and providing education for AIDS orphans in South Africa. They could be working in corporate jobs earning a good living. Instead, they receive a small stipend from money they raise, live in a one bedroom apartment, and are the "boots on the ground" for these needy children. Bravo to folks like these!

    December 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm |
  47. Karen Steel

    I feel it is their duty to give back to others– maybe they are supremely talented, gifted with something/an art/an idea/a new way of living for all. Why should anyone be hungry or homeless, when a 'star', has 5 houses, 25 cars...and some don't have family /children to support. The Motion Picture Home in California, for the Elderly is going broke! All these people were part of an industry where they gave and gave....and now when they need it they are abandoned by their own community. This is the epitimy of selfishness. No - one person needs 20 million a year!

    December 20, 2009 at 1:04 pm |
  48. M. Kline

    Sometimes people look at me oddly when I tell them that Elton John is my hero. But if they give me the chance to educate them on his AIDS foundation and the lessons his life has inspired me to learn, they begin to see how he has evolved from the cartoonish figure of the 1970s into an amazing role model. I was privileged to attend this EJAF event and helping to raise money while getting to see Elton in such a unique way was quite an experience. Thanks for taking the time to highlight this aspect of his life. Know that his fans appreciate it.

    December 20, 2009 at 12:37 pm |
  49. Michael Romano

    I agree with Mary– I have never before been to a concert where I felt that the performer cared as much about entertaining the audience. I've been to a lot of concerts and, when I went to see Elton John, I was kind of expecting to see a prima donna (because I saw a couple of his tantrums on a gossip tv show). But Elton played for over two hours (even while select band members took breaks!) and did it all with nothing other than a diet Coke on his piano (he's been been clean and sober for decades). He made chit chat with the audience of 20,000 and stood for many of the songs to really bang away at the piano. Elton rocks! The sad thing is, when I told my assistant at work I'd gone to see him, she didn't know who he was. A whole generation of fans is missing out.

    December 20, 2009 at 12:27 pm |
  50. barak hammond

    Yes, Elton, I am a big fan of his, we are about the same age, and
    as far as talent goes, He is Tops, He knows how to write, compose
    sing songs., He is the best., and yes, like he said people need
    to understand about HIV and aids, and get educated and informed.-

    It is very unforunate that people of this country have a stigma about
    people who have aids or hiv and cannot differenchate the differance,
    between being Hiv and having full blow aids.. I am Hiv non-detectable.

    You can get the virus in several ways., It is not a (gay) disease only,
    it can be aquired by most anyone., Yes, I say, It is not a (gay) disease,
    anyone can get the virus.

    What Elton John and a few others are doing to try to bring about a cure, or helping people who have contacted Hiv and aids. He is doing
    a wonderful work., We need more people in the world like Elton John.

    December 20, 2009 at 12:14 pm |
  51. Dennis

    We've really learned a lot about AIDS since then. Magic Johnson was diagnosed HIV positive around the same time that Freddy Mercury passed away. Magic is still alive and strong. Hopefully we can cure it some day.

    December 20, 2009 at 11:41 am |
  52. Mary

    Last year I attended an EJ concert. He played for over 2 hours and put his heart and soul into each and every song. The last song he sang was"Your song"with the lyrics "my gift is my song and this one's for you" , and I know that he really meant it. Despite being a gozillionaire who could just come in a do a show, he makes an effort to connect with the audience and show his appreciation to them for being fans by singing his heart out, talking to the audience and thanking them frequently. THe concert was the talk of our small town for weeks, a real gift to all who went.

    My husband and I travelled 300 miles to see Van Morrison in concert that same year. The difference was amazing – Morrison never acknowleged the audience and acted as if he couldn't wait to get off stage, I felt "used". Elton John never forgets his fans.

    December 20, 2009 at 11:23 am |
  53. Rummy

    This is the type of news that needs to make the headlines. Thank you Ms. Cho. Please consider making these types of stories a regular type of production rather than a limited series.

    December 20, 2009 at 11:06 am |
  54. Avey Cronan

    People should really get more involved with worldly activities to help start off a better foundation torwards a worldwide peace such as helping out the community in africa

    December 20, 2009 at 10:25 am |
  55. Karen Benavente

    I look forward to this week's series of interviews. As a social worker, it is my hope that people will be inspired to become involved especially with efforts in the United States.

    December 20, 2009 at 10:09 am |
  56. jim vicalvi

    Why do you people continually fixate on these egomaniacs. There are a lot more everyday people out there that do things everyday all year and ask for no notoriety. These are the people that should be continually lauded and not the overpaid buffoons you are going to showcase next week.

    December 19, 2009 at 8:30 am |
  57. John

    How come no one is upset about Hollywood actors making millions of dollars for a single film? They probably only had to work for a month or two in order to get it. But everyone is all upset about a CEO that works 80 hours a week 52 weeks a year to make the same amount. Does that make any sense? We should all be outraged when actors demand $20, $30 even $40 million for a film when men and women risking their lives for the good of others (police, firefighter, military) get $20,000 per year.

    December 18, 2009 at 10:45 am |