once made headlines as a member of the jet set but today flies around the globe as a campaigner for human rights and chair of the World Future Council.
Huw Spanner caught her on 28 April 2008 at her central London pied-à-terre.
Photography: Andrew Firth
When you first came to the world’s attention in the early Seventies, the image most people had of you was of a beautiful but frivolous creature – and yet now you come across as an intense and very serious person. Have there always been two different sides to your character?
Well, have you ever met someone who was one person and then became someone else?
People change: they evolve, they mature, they know better what they want to do and gain the confidence to do it. I was a 21-year-old girl when I got married, and there was a parenthesis in my life: I had this extraordinary marriage and extraordinary life. But it wasn’t for me – I was obviously a fish out of water. Even before my divorce I was asked by the Red Cross to help to raise funds for the victims of the war in Nicaragua,1Between the forces of the dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and the Sandinista rebels and thus in a way began my human-rights work. Managua fell to the Sandinistas on July 17, 1979 and my divorce was on December 23 – and my life changed forever.
It wasn’t easy – it was very difficult – to be a ‘glamour girl’, married into this marriage – one of the best-dressed women in the world, you know, [the Vanity Fair International] Best-Dressed Hall of Fame and all that kind of thing – and then to commit myself to becoming a human-rights campaigner. I had to overcome the scepticism and the sneers. I understood that I had to pay a price. But I knew that my commitment, my perseverance and my focus were really what was important, not explaining it or trying to justify it. At the end of the day, what would speak would be what I achieved.
But this is a world where even today the media still refer to women, despite their achievements, in terms of who they were once married to. You are judged as if you were an appendix of someone else.
Why did you decide to keep your married name?
Because I was brought up in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, a woman keeps her husband’s name when she divorces. Also, if I had tried to change my name [back] to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macías, I don’t think the media would have taken much notice – they would have continued to call me Bianca Jagger no matter what.
Was your celebrity not in some ways an advantage?
If you have a famous name it can open doors, but just opening a door is not the important thing – it’s what you do when you cross that threshold that matters, what you have to say.
I think celebrity is a two-edged sword. Like everything in life, you have to be aware of the good and the bad, when it can help you and when it can damage you. I always say that everything has a price, and you must always be aware of the price you have to pay for it. I think that there are many people who have used their celebrity well and are remarkable: they have substance, they are really articulate and committed, you know – George Clooney is one of them. But celebrity without substance doesn’t mean anything.
Sure, but substance without celebrity can be hard work.
My understanding of injustice and of freedom and democracy and the rule of law – it was all first taught to me by my mother. She was an orphan and so she was mistreated
Well, do you not think it has been hard work?
I don’t think I am regarded as a celebrity, forgive me for saying. I may be well known, but I am really regarded by the people that count more as a human-rights advocate or as an environmentalist.
Can you say how you were shaped by your upbringing?
My mother was my role model, though I only realised in the last three years before she died how much she had influenced me and my outlook on the world. My understanding of injustice and of the concepts of freedom and democracy and the rule of law – it was all first taught to me by my mother. She was an orphan and so she was mistreated, and she was also very conscious that we lived under a dictatorship, the Somozas who ruled Nicaragua for 43 years.
My parents divorced when I was 10 years old. My mother had married very young and didn’t have a profession, and suddenly she had to take care of three children on her own. She tried to maintain a veneer of the kind of life we had before, but of course things were very difficult. The Nicaragua of the Sixties was a very conservative society and a divorced woman was discriminated against, and so was a working woman. The experience left an indelible impression on me.
You won a scholarship at the age of 16 to go and study political science in Paris. How great an achievement was that for someone from your background?
I don’t know if it was a remarkable achievement. I had got good grades in school. I had an uncle on my mother’s side who was the Nicaraguan ambassador in Paris, and a cousin who was the attaché culturel, and so when I began to think about where to study, my first instinct was not to go to the United States like most Nicaraguans at the time. The French government had a really good programme of scholarships for developing countries, and I thought Paris would be the right place.
Do you think you would have become the same person if you had gone to study in the US instead?
Perhaps not. The Institut d’Études Politiques was very progressive – and still is – and it was a very important time in Paris. I embraced French culture, I embraced the language – you know, I thought I was in an enlightened paradise. I think you could say that my view of the world is more in keeping with European values.
I think there are some profound differences between how Europeans and Americans see the world, and their understanding of the rule of law and so on. Because of the Second World War I think the establishment of the United Nations to avert the scourge of war was really important for Europeans.
The death penalty is a very important issue for me, too. France abolished it over 25 years ago.
You have said that when you went to Paris, Camus’ novel L’Étranger made a big impact on you. Why was that?
It was a very important book in my life, and it still is. When you are born in one country and very early on have to emigrate to another, or many others, you have to adapt – to different cultures, to different languages, to different ways of thinking. I embraced French culture and then I went to England and America and travelled the world and, you know, learnt four-and-a-half languages and all of that and I became a citizen of the world; but at the same time something in me is still a bit of a stranger, a foreigner, un étranger, wherever I go – even when I go to Nicaragua, because I left it when I was so young. But I have never forgotten my roots.
At what point did you really become committed full-time to human-rights work? You had something of a career as an actress in the Eighties, didn’t you?
I am not a hothead, but I believe that individuals can make a difference and I believe that we have to stand up for our principles
Well, in 1981 I was asked to be part of a fact-finding Congressional delegation that went to a UN refugee camp in Honduras called Colomoncagua. We had just arrived in Honduras when we were told that some death squads had crossed the border from El Salvador, with the acquiescence of the Honduran army, and were coming to abduct people from the camp and take them back to El Salvador, presumably to kill them. I didn’t think I was actually going to be there when they came; I thought we would simply document [the abduction] and then go back and testify.
The other delegates arrived at the camp before me and I got a phonecall: ‘The death squads are here. Come immediately!’ There were about 35 men, armed with M16s, and some of them had very sophisticated radio equipment. When I arrived, they were tying the thumbs of the [male] refugees behind their backs. Everybody was crying and screaming, and the delegates and the relief workers had only a few minutes to decide what to do. So, we followed them. Some of us had cameras and we took photographs as we were running behind them along a river bed, and the mothers and the sisters and the children were with us, all running.
It seemed an eternity but I imagine it was maybe for about half an hour that we followed them; and suddenly they turned round and pointed their rifles at us. We were quite close to them and we could hear them say, ‘Estos hijos de putas ya nos estan controlando,’ which means ‘These sons of bitches are catching up with us.’ We were screaming that they would have to kill us all – we were quite a large group – and they talked among themselves and suddenly they turned round and let the refugees go. Perhaps they thought there were too many people to kill – God only knows.
It was a turning-point in my life. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, Bianca Jagger, from being married to Mick Jagger and being one of the jet set, suddenly decides she’s a human-rights campaigner.’ These were extraordinary circumstances I was thrown into by fate. It was a privilege to be there and to be able to understand so much – to be there when people were about to be killed and our presence, because we were foreigners, [saved their lives] – that was an important lesson in my life. I went back to the US and testified before the Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs about what I had seen.
I read that even in the Sixties in Managua you took part in demonstrations against the massacres of students carried out by the National Guard. Are you a courageous person – or is it that you just get very angry about things and the anger takes over?
No, I am a very calm person, I am not a hothead. But I believe that individuals can make a difference and I believe that we have to stand up for our principles. I have believed that all my life.
In fact, the realisation of the danger that I face, and the fear, I feel not so much at the time but afterwards, when I look back.
At the time, you are focused on what needs to be done?
Yes, because perhaps otherwise I wouldn’t do it, you know? And in Honduras we had no time for reflection.
Also, I must tell you, I have always believed I have a guardian angel that protects me. You know, why we were not killed…
Your first involvement in humanitarian work was not in 1979 or 1981 but in 1972, when Managua was struck by an earthquake and you persuaded the Rolling Stones to do a benefit concert. Was that also a formative time?
I have to believe that it is possible to avert catastrophe, but unless we are prepared to make profound, revolutionary changes in our lives, the human race will not survive
Of course. I was very young and I witnessed the misery and abject poverty in which the people of Nicaragua lived – and the fact that the Somoza regime appropriated the money they received as aid from the US and other countries. It gave me a different perspective.
You know, it is one thing to know about a situation intellectually, it is another thing to really see it. I could have read all about the atrocities in El Salvador, but if I hadn’t had that experience at Colomoncagua, perhaps I never would have become who I did become. Maybe I would have done, you know, what celebrities do…
Today you live in New York as well as London, I think –
I now live in a suitcase.
But you have lived in the US and you have had a lot to do with that country. It is hard to imagine how it seems to someone like you, given that it sponsored so much terror and oppression in Central America.
I must be honest, I can’t say I can just forget the history of invasions and occupations and overthrowing of governments in Latin America and other parts of the developing world. Of course I think about it. When I spoke out against the invasion of Iraq and I said that you cannot impose democracy at gunpoint, I was referring to many things I saw in Latin America, atrocities committed in the name of democracy.
Of course, one has to make a distinction between the people and the government and remember that a lot of Americans opposed the Contra war in Nicaragua and were outspoken against it.2The United States financed the Nicaraguan contrarrevolucionarios, or Contras, from 1981 to 1988. On the other hand, we are all responsible for the governments that we elect…
Do you believe there are fundamental human rights that exist whether we recognise them or not and one day maybe the whole world will wake up to them, or do you think that actually – perhaps with good reason – we are trying to impose on the rest of humankind what are essentially Judeo-Christian or humanist values?
I do believe there are fundamental rights that transcend nationalities, that transcend borders, that transcend colours, that transcend religions. Yes, we are all at risk of looking at the world through our own prism that tints the way we see it. If we say that we are totally objective, we’re complete fools. There is a very thin line between what is a fundamental human right and what is our cultural view of how the world should be, and we should be very careful that we don’t overstep and try to impose our values on other people.
Do I believe in the sanctity of life? I do. Do I believe that some Judeo-Christians interpret differently what is in the Bible? I do – because there are those who say it is clear that it says we can’t impose the death penalty, but there are others who feel that it is not so. Therefore, we have to think always about the room for interpretation, even of the sacred documents we believe in. Do I believe that men and women are created equal? Yes, I do. Do I believe that men and women have the same rights? I do. Do I believe that people from the North and the South have the same rights? I do. Do I believe in children’s rights? I do, regardless of nationality. And I will stand up for them.
Do I believe that we should impose our values on Muslims, and discriminate against them because they are Muslim – or Hindu, or Jewish or any other faith? Do I think that I as a Catholic am better than them, and my values are better than those of other religions? No, I don’t. Do I believe they may know something better than I do? Yes, I do. Am I ready to listen to them? I am.
Do you still define yourself as a Catholic?
Yes. I was born into a Catholic family and was educated by nuns – and once a Catholic, always a Catholic. No matter what has happened in my life, I have remained a Catholic. Religion is a very important aspect of my life.
So, for you it is not just cultural? Your faith is personal?
Yes. Of course, it has evolved. Certain things have made it even more profound, like when I was working with people on death row in the US. That was a real reaffirmation of my faith – it was really important to find connection with God, because of the connection people on death row themselves find with God, in the last hours of their lives.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid – but much else has gone wrong. Do you see the world as getting better or getting worse – or is it two steps forward, two steps back?
There was a moment when I was hopeful, but today my speeches are all about the challenges we are facing. Not only are we facing a climate-change disaster – and most of the scientists are talking about a tipping-point in 10 or 12 years, and some are more pessimistic and say perhaps we have already passed it – there are so many governments that abuse the ‘war on terror’ in order to curtail and assault civil liberties. We are at a crossroads in history and we are heading straight for catastrophe.
As chair of the World Future Council, I have to believe that it is possible to avert it, to make a difference and bring about change; but it won’t be easy. I know that the threats we face are extremely dangerous and perhaps insurmountable – and certainly insurmountable if we’re not prepared to make great sacrifices. We need to understand that unless we are prepared to make profound and revolutionary changes in our lives, the human race will not survive.
This edit was originally published in the September 2008 issue of Third Way.
Bianca Jagger was born Bianca Pérez-Mora Macías in Managua, where she was educated at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception. She studied political science at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
She had a sporadic career as an actress, appearing in Couleur Chair (1978), The American Success Company (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981) and CHUD 2: Bud the Chud (1989), as well as guesting in US TV series such as Miami Vice (1986) and The Colbys (1987).
As a human-rights advocate, she has worked with the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office for Latin America, the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, the Century Foundation, Greenpeace and Christian Aid among others, and has campaigned against the death penalty, torture, violence against women, the sexual exploitation of children, genocide and mass rape in the former Yugoslavia and environmental destruction (notably by Esso and ChevronTexaco). She has taken part in fact-finding missions all over the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia.
She has sat on the executive director’s leadership council of Amnesty International USA and the board of the People for the American Way Foundation, and since 2003 has been a ‘goodwill ambassador’ for the Council of Europe.
In 2007, she set up the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation and was also elected chair of the World Future Council.
Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer, the Mail on Sunday, New Statesman and Libération among others. In 1998, she reported from Kosovo for BBC2’s Newsnight.
She has received many honours, including the 1994 United Nations Earth Day International Award, a Green Globe award from the Rainforest Alliance in 1997, the American Civil Liberties Union Award in 1998, a Champion of Justice award from the US National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in 2000 and in 2004 both the World Achievement Award, presented by Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Right Livelihood Award (‘the alternative Nobel Prize’).
She was married in 1971, but divorced in 1979. She has one daughter and two granddaughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 June 2008