Madonna, Gucci aid Malawi orphans amid controversy

Reuters/February 6, 2008

Pop star Madonna hosted a celebrity-studded event on Wednesday on the lawns of the United Nations to aid Malawi orphans, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) and - controversially - to inaugurate a new Gucci store.

Actors Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Drew Barrymore, Gwyneth Paltrow and a heavily pregnant Jennifer Lopez were among many stars at the dinner that Gucci Chief Executive Mark Lee said has already raised $3.7 million.

But critics have objected to the use of the U.N. grounds to kick off a Gucci store opening and raised concerns about ties between Madonna's charity Raising Malawi and The Kabbalah Centre, a body devoted to a mystical form of Judaism followed by the pop star.

The accusations, made mainly by bloggers, appear to stem from the fact that Raising Malawi's founder Michael Berg is also co-director of The Kabbalah Centre.

"I don't really pay any attention to that. I am grateful that Gucci has underwritten this event - that's all that matters to me - their generosity. There's always controversy surrounding anything that involves change," Madonna told Reuters.

"I want to put Raising Malawi on the map. I want credibility as a philanthropic organization. I want to inspire people. I don't want them to just write me a check: I want them to give me a piece of their heart," she said.

Philippe van den Bossche, executive director of Raising Malawi, said it was "absolutely not true" that any money raised would benefit Kabbalah. He said the organization was a nonprofit, registered, nonsectarian organization intended to provide support for orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi.


A huge tent was erected on the lawns of the United Nations for the event and security was tight. Alicia Keys, Timbaland and Rihanna were due to perform, while comedian Chris Rock was to auction off celebrity events, such as aerobics with Madonna and baseball batting practice with Yankee Alex Rodriguez.

Despite announcing the fundraising event in November as a celebration of the opening of a new Gucci store in New York, Lee said on Wednesday that "it's a coincidence that we happen to be here and we're opening an important store on Friday."

"Really tonight is about the charities and the money we're raising," he told Reuters, while Gucci's Creative Director Frida Giannini said that in the end the dinner was simply a "fundraising event with glamour."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who did not attend the event, said on Tuesday that he understood the proceeds would "be used for a proper purpose as agreed between UNICEF and the organizers."

Gucci, which is owned by French retailer PPR, has paid for the entire event and said all money raised will be split between Raising Malawi and UNICEF.

Madonna's interest in helping Malawi orphans is personal - she and her husband, director Guy Ritchie, are raising a young Malawian boy they hope to adopt. But the adoption has hit several stumbling blocks since they took him from an orphanage in late 2006 when he was 13 months old.

Rights groups have accused Madonna of using her fame and wealth to circumvent the country's adoption rules, although the singer has insisted she is following the law. Malawi's High Court is to hold a hearing this year into whether Madonna and Ritchie are suitable parents and should adopt the child.

(Additional reporting by Sharon Reich and Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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