Angelina Jolie – more than just an actress

The manner in which Angelina Jolie announced she had had a double mastectomy in February this year echoes through the work she does outside her acting career.

Rather than via an emotional outpouring in a celebrity magazine - for which she could have demanded a handsome fee - the actress chose to release the news through an opinion piece in the New York Times.

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Not seeking sympathy, but written to encourage other women to make informed medical choices, it was both dignified and measured, inspiring and with a total absence of self-pity.

Jolie is perhaps the biggest female star in Hollywood, but despite her incredibly high-profile relationship with Brad Pitt, she has mixed navigating the celebrity scene with increasingly serious film work and extensive charity projects.

Though easy to mock or criticise the motives of celebrities for their 'humanitarian work', Jolie has been working with the United Nations since 2001, when she was made a Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR, its arm which focuses on the plight of refugees.

She has since become one of the most high-profile ambassadors for the UN's High Commission, witnessing the devastation in the Dafur region of Sudan, the effects of the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005, the civil war in Chad in 2007 and in 2011, the uprising in Libya.

Speaking to the BBC, she has referred to the 'forgotten emergencies' being her chosen focus, lobbying big business to aid third world charities at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and also in Washington. She is not just one of those celebs fronting a campaign to get ordinary folk to part with their money - she is actually working with people who can change things.

Last year she was promoted from being a Goodwill Ambassador to a more diplomatic role as the special envoy to the UN High Commissioner, described by the organisation as 'an exceptional position reflecting an exceptional role she has played for us'.

As if to prove that Jolie is in it for the long-haul, last year she was awarded a gold pin only given to the longest serving staff of the UN by its High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. She was also given honorary Cambodian citizenship for her work there by King Norodom Sihamoni.

In short, Jolie doesn’t just do this for a bit of good PR. She’s deeply involved and even chose to bring her charity work into her own family, adopting her son Maddox from Cambodia in 2002, her daughter Zahara Marley from Ethiopia in 2005, and then son Pax Thien in 2005 from Vietnam, all of them orphaned children.

When Jolie and Pitt had their first child Shiloh, they sold the first images straight to Getty, rather than allow paparazzi to nab the first photos. Together with subsequent deals with People and Hello!, the couple made more than $10 million from the pics… then gave the money directly to charities for African children. How many other celebrity couples would do the same?

But rather than ceaselessly playing the po-faced humanitarian card, Jolie's career in the movies has found her mixing up difficult subject matter with crowd pleasers.

She's as comfortable making serious movies like 'A Mighty Heart' (about Mariane Pearl, widow of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan) as she is voicing Master Tigress in 'Kung Fu Panda'.

Then she mixes up the fun action projects, like 'Salt' or 'The Tourist', with directing 'In The Land of Blood and Honey', a drama set to the backdrop of the war in Bosnia. Her next project is directing a Coen Brothers script about World War II hero Louis Zamperini.

Though Hollywood through and through – being the daughter of actor Jon Voight and the late actress Marcheline Bertrand, who died of ovarian cancer in 2007 – Jolie and her family eschew the intensive glare of Los Angeles living, instead bouncing around the world, where they reside either at their estate in France – their first batch of wine sold out earlier this year - their mansion in Richmond, Surrey, or their ranch north of Santa Barbara.

Ever unconventional, Jolie has moved from Hollywood wildchild to respected humanitarian over the past decade, and now will have garnered further respect from women the world over for making a decisive but intensely difficult decision.

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