Seven Times Lady Grantham Completely Embarrassed Herself in Sierra Leone

An errant charity trip to Sierra Leone may have just ruined Downton Abbey forever. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, the Countess of Grantham on the hit British show Downton Abbey, went to Sierra Leone to visit the child she sponsors through the charity organization World Vision. She was accompanied by Telegraph reporter Jake Wallis Simons, ...

The Telegraph; screenshot
The Telegraph; screenshot

An errant charity trip to Sierra Leone may have just ruined Downton Abbey forever.

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, the Countess of Grantham on the hit British show Downton Abbey, went to Sierra Leone to visit the child she sponsors through the charity organization World Vision. She was accompanied by Telegraph reporter Jake Wallis Simons, who recounted her trip in a bizarre, unplugged article that chronicled the star actress’ journey to Africa as an ambassador for World Vision. McGovern, whose once-promising film career unraveled in the 1980s only to be revived by Downton, offers some off-the-cuff insights on nutrition, the sexual habits of "African" people, genital mutilation, and more. With the U.S.  premiere of the show’s fourth season on PBS earlier in January, the Telegraph story from just before Christmas kicked up a Twitter storm Thursday. 

The Downton star’s trip to Sierra Leone is ripe with irony. Critics have repeatedly accused the show of glorifying the classist, racist colonial world of earls and dukes of early 20th century England. Lady Grantham’s decision to choose a former British colony, once a transit hub for slave trade, as her charity case is but the cherry on top. Even better, as much as we crow about the colonial guilt and cultural insensitivity of the former British empire, the Downton star who embarrassed herself in Africa is … American. Here are seven times the kindhearted Lady Grantham, known for the consideration she shows her legion of servants, utterly embarrassed herself in Sierra Leone.

1. Are we in Darfur yet?

McGovern had never been to Africa before her trip to Sierra Leone. Wallis, rather charmingly, points out her first mishap of the trip: "As if to prove this point, when we refuel in Dakar, Senegal, she gets mixed up and says we have stopped in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, some 4,000 miles away." Whoops. By the way, Cora, Sierra Leone concluded a brutal, decade-long civil war in 2002. 

To that, Sarah Wilson, a representative of World Vision, the charity that paid for McGovern’s trip said, "We have to break in our new celebrities slowly … There will be lots of breaks so she doesn’t get overloaded." Carson, get this woman some tea.

2. Wait, what, World Vision is Christian?

In a video shot during McGovern’s trip she says that she has often been hesitant in the past about "throwing a lot of money" at charities, because she didn’t really know where the money was going. Well, she still doesn’t. 

Wallis asked the actress, who is not Christian, why she chose to support a religious organization instead of, say, UNICEF, a common choice for celebrities. McGovern had no clue that World Vision was a Christian-affiliated group. The organization’s representatives never told her, as they thought it obvious — "they had assumed that McGovern would take a look at the World Vision website." A glance at the group’s logo probably would have given her a hint. It’s a shining cross. The group’s website makes it even more obvious: "World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice."

"I was stupid not to realise it," McGovern said. 

Though World Vision is adamant that its charity work does not include proselytizing, a driver is quoted in the Telegraph article telling McGovern and Wallis that after the organization’s employees convince local Muslim populations that they are "good people," they pay pastors to preach to them. "Christianity is our goal," the driver says. 

One can’t help but wonder about the arrangement the Telegraph had with McGovern, as it seems nothing was off-the-record, even her discussions of other media coverage of the trip. "Before I do interviews, I need to know what distinguishes World Vision from its competitors," Wallis quoted McGovern saying. "Is it less well-known because it spends less on promotion?" Perhaps she failed to realize that she is the promotion. World Vision, which is one of the largest aid groups in the world, sponsored McGovern’s not-so-cheap trip.

3. OMG, their food is so healthy!

As McGovern and Wallis were eating a lunch of fried plantains and chicken curry, McGovern remarked: "Their food must be so healthy … You don’t see all those crap chains and stuff. But I guess that will change as the country gets more modern. It’s like a holiday. I feel a bit guilty." 

4. Brad Pitt was here?! Oh, I slept with him once

McGovern, it seems, is totally immune to picking up on irony. In one breath, she offers the following gem: "I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home." Informed that they will soon be staying at a hotel at which Brad Pitt had once overnighted, she offers up the following revelation: "Oh, I’ve slept with Brad Pitt before … Before he became a sex object."

(She would later tell Wallis that she was referring to an on-camera sex scene.) 

5. "And that clitoris thing is awful"

McGovern also has some thoughts on how World Vision should prioritize its work. "You see certain cultures where there’s just endemic cruelty to women," she said. "I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka? And that clitoris thing is awful."

That clitoris thing? Perhaps she means genital mutilation?

6. Call me "mum"  

As shown in the video, accompanied by a sometimes uplifting, sometimes somber tune, McGovern kneels down to meet Jestina, the girl she sponsors. She calls herself the girl’s "sponsored mum." That’s a title she acquired for $38 per month — a modest amount that doesn’t even go to the girl, but as Wallis notes, to projects in the community. "A cynic might view all this as histrionic," he writes, though he later notes that McGovern’s emotions seemed genuine.

7. Lady Grantham drops her iPhone in the toilet, Africa weeps

"My overwhelming feeling is the gratitude of the people for the money that they’re getting," McGovern told Wallis. While they were touring a poor area, McGovern came out of her room "white as a sheet." She had dropped her iPhone in the toilet. As someone suggested that rice would help drain the moisture from the phone, McGovern asked the hostess for some rice — in a country where over 21 percent of children under the age of five are underweight.  

It didn’t work, and so it happened that poor Lady Grantham traveled all the way to Sierra Leone with no access to Instagram. Thank God for the video footage. Otherwise all that hugging of poor black children would have been for nothing. 

Hanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.  Twitter: @hannakozlowska