Silly Madonna, always having to get her way with everything. It’s one of the accepted perks of fame, that a celebrity scoops up certain allowances undreamt of by normal folk: ordering your staff to bring you room-temperature water, jetting to exotic countries by private plane, picking up impoverished Malawian youngsters along the way.

Morgan Morel
Angelina Jolie with Maddox, adopted. (Courtesy of gossipin.com)
Morgan Morel
Madonna with daughter Lourdes (not adopted). (Courtesy of CNN.com)

David Banda arrived in London yesterday from Malawi. At 13 months old he’s already the star of a growing overseas adoption controversy, and as the newest addition to the Madonna/Guy Ritchie family, baby David better get used to the attention. Madge and her filmmaker husband found David at a Malawian orphanage on a recent trip to the small African country. According to various reports, Madonna had agreed to donate $5 million for programs supporting orphaned children and an additional $1.5 million to make a documentary publicizing their case. Her Raising Malawi project will not only be a child-care center providing food, shelter and education to 4,000 orphans, it will also have Kabbalah-related projects, a sect of Judaic mysticism with which Madonna is famously associated.

News wires and gossip sites initially focused on the couple’s trip objectives, but Malawian government officials revealed that they planned on taking home a baby to boot. Law dictates that a couple must live in Malawi at least a year before being cleared for the adoption process; speeding through by pleading their case at the Malawi High Court, the Ritchies gained permission to take David back to London less than two weeks after they arrived.

Cue the outcry from human-rights activists now.

So what’s the problem here? What’s wrong with fancy, rich-Brit (one artificially so) white superstars swooping in on African children and saving them from a life of misfortune like some secular, modern-day missionaries?

One, Madonna and Guy have completely skirted adoption laws. Typically for international adoption, prospective adopters must spend (at least) one or two years in the country where they seek to adopt while being evaluated by child welfare workers.

Two, the infant isn’t actually an orphan. Too poor to care for David after his wife died shortly after childbirth, Yohame Banda told The Associated Press the child had been living in an orphan care center in Mchinji, Malawi, when the baby first caught the Ritchies’ eyes.

Though the baby’s father claims he’s happy the celebrity couple has chosen to adopt his kid (Banda told the AP last week, “I am very, very happy because as you can see there is poverty in this village and I know he will be very well looked after in America”), activist groups in Malawi and around the world are crying foul.

A representative of the Eye of the Child organization told the AP that one cannot buy a child the way one buys a house – no matter how rich the prospective buyer. African babies, Madonna has learned, are harder to obtain than deeds to centuries-old British manors.

Madonna and her people brought their case to the Malawian High Court Oct. 10; the court gave their okay a few days later, giving the prospective parents preliminary custody, but Madonna was not able to take the child out of the country when she left that Friday because of “legal procedural reasons,” according to a statement by Madonna’s publicist Liz Roseberg.

The purported method with which Madonna and husband Guy Ritchie “selected” their Malawi treasure was not unlike special treatment at upscale stores where some L.A. boutique is cordoned off to regular customers for an afternoon while some celebrity drops $10,000 on ostrich-skin totes and cashmere coats in peace. But instead of some Rodeo Drive establishment, it’s an orphanage in Malawi: Allegedly, the children of the care center were all brought out on display for the Ritchies. The famous couple subsequently chose their favorite.

Thousands of couples seek international adoption every year with less media attention.

Is Madonna getting more attention simply because she’s a celebrity? Is this any different than what Angelina Jolie has been doing with her experiences with international adoption for years?

While Jolie is a marquee star, she’s also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency and has promoted humanitarian causes around the world. Madonna – well, she has her causes (AIDS awareness, for one), but she’s also known for calling attention to herself when there’s a spotlight available (the “Sex” book, another example).

But the questions here aren’t necessarily about Madonna’s motives. The main debate is whether or not celebrity status paints loopholes for non-material things. Extra privileges. Think about it. Having first grab at multi-million mansions because you “know people who know people,” having your hands on the Versace spring collection in advance because you’re friends with Donatella, choosing the cutest Malawian baby from an orphanage because you’re one of the most famous pop stars in the world – which one of these don’t belong?

Despite outside uproar, Madonna has obviously gotten her way; before David was flown into London’s Heathrow airport, members of her entourage had been taking care of him at the upscale haunt they were staying at in the capitol city Lilongwe.

Madonna sent out a letter to news agencies yesterday afternoon, claiming she and her husband had started the adoption procedures months prior to their Malawi trip, they just hadn’t told the world as they wanted to keep it a private matter. Believe her if you will. In any case, this episode doesn’t just publicize the plight of Malawian children, as Madonna hoped, it makes you wonder what exactly is the cutoff line for celebrity bonuses. For everyone that thought the Kwame Kilpatrick deal with the Lincoln Navigator was a scandal, wow.

– Chou can be reached at kimberch@umich.edu.

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