It isn’t always easy for A-list celebrities to know how best to use their platform, especially in the age of social media.
Fans clamour for their idols to “speak out” on the plight of this, or the rise of that; charitable organisations desperate for a boost are forever in touch on the off-chance their messages might be read and their causes taken to heart; and brands employ entire teams to try to secure glamorous ambassadors.
Florence Pugh, the Oscar and Bafta-nominated British star of Little Women, Black Widow, Midsommar and, as of this week, the Academy Awards frontrunner Oppenheimer, certainly faces that quandary.
Pugh is 28 years old and at the peak of her powers, comfortably shedding the now hackneyed comparison with “a young Kate Winslet” to become a generational icon in her own right: a commanding screen presence, bold fashionista and naturally outspoken campaigner.
She also happens to have an Instagram following of 9.2 million, greater than the population of Austria. All of which is to say that when Pugh speaks, or posts, people listen. So she uses her voice wisely.
“You’re always asked if you can help out in any way, and for a few years I’ve definitely done my part in the ways that I can on social media, for many little things,” she says.
Over her short career, Pugh has so far worked with the charity War Child, appealed for a ceasefire in Gaza, repeatedly spoken out about body image (at a Valentino show in 2022, she drew some criticism for wearing a sheer pink gown that left her nipples visible; she responded by returning the following year in a blue gown that was even more transparent), and appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s ‘Next Generation Leaders’ issue in 2023.
Yet, as she explains on a short call en route to a dress fitting amid the glitzy mayhem of awards season, she has been eager to find something else. “I wanted to lend my voice in a bigger way to something that I could have the proper time to do, because it’s all very well lending yourself to it but if you don’t actually have time to be there and help, then it’s not very helpful.”
The cause she found, via a friend who works closely with the organisation, was Race Against Dementia, one of the four causes supported by The Telegraph’s most recent Christmas Charity Appeal.
“The first thing people always ask is, ‘So what’s your personal connection to dementia?’ But I find it quite interesting that I don’t have one? I don’t have anybody in my life living with it, but I do have people in my life that are living around it, and I’m very aware that it’s something that’s not just a disease to the person, it’s a disease to the family, and there’s so little information that’s commonly known.”
Pugh realised that she knew “barely anything” about dementia, and figured most young people are probably just as unaware of it, despite it being estimated that one in three people born today will die with the disease. And, in a refreshing change from many A-listers posting earnestly about complex issues online, she is very happy to admit her ignorance.
“I am in no way saying I am an expert, I do not want people to think that. I think it can be so confusing in this era, when everybody is an ‘expert’ on everything and everybody has an article to share on Instagram… While that’s equally important, it’s also important to let people know we are also learning, and it’s OK to not know. That’s definitely my angle in this.”
Pugh became an ambassador for Race Against Dementia in 2023, using the acres of free time forced on her last summer due to the writers’ and actors’ union strikes to commit some thought to how she wants to use her power.
“It’s hugely rare to be that available, so it was amazing to have something I could be getting on with and work on something positive.”
The charity was founded eight years ago by Sir Jackie Stewart OBE, the legendary Formula One driver, after his wife Helen’s frontotemporal dementia diagnosis (Pugh joined Sir Jackie at the British Grand Prix last summer). Its primary work is to fund early-career researchers to accelerate progress towards a cure for a disease somebody is diagnosed with every three seconds.
At the tail-end of last year, Pugh visited a laboratory at the University of Cambridge run by scientist Dr Maura Malpetti, who walked her through some of that work. She loved it. ““There was definitely a very forward-looking, exciting energy in those spaces,” she says. “It was a whole world of language I just don’t understand.”
Pugh grew up in Oxford, where her mother, Deborah, is a dance teacher and her father, Clinton, is a restaurateur turned nationally-famous low traffic neighbourhood (LTN) antagonist.
At school, she and her three siblings, who include the singer and actor Toby Sebastian, were far keener on arts than science, so Pugh was impressed and bamboozled by just about everything in Dr Malpetti’s lab.
“I used to love just putting all of the chemicals into the test tubes and just seeing what happens, [but] I’m now an adult trying to understand something that I really care about and I’m really trying to listen.”
The challenge is now to work out how she can make herself useful. The odd Instagram post is not enough for her; she wants to raise serious money in order to accelerate the work Dr Malpetti and other scientists are doing to find a cure.
The first act was a special fundraising episode of her occasional Instagram Live series Cooking with Flo – a show in which, well, Flo cooks – which raised over £20,000. The money kickstarted The Florence Pugh Race Against Dementia Team, a new group of elite dementia researchers. The longer term aim is to raise £750,000 to fund their work for five years.
And it is long term, this partnership – or at least until the charity wins the race. “I should hope so. I don’t see why relationships with a charity that you’re invested in should end,” Pugh says.
She will return to the treadmill of awards season now, primarily for Oppenheimer, before moving on to promotion for Dune: Part Two, then shooting a Marvel movie in the United States, and releasing a romcom, We Live In A Time, with Andrew Garfield.
“It’s back to back to back, so I’m trying to get all of my sleeps now.”
Yet through it all, she’ll keep using her platform for this urgent and laudable purpose. Because as well as fundraising, the goal is to make sure the young, healthy and relatively oblivious people who follow her learn about dementia with her.
And it’s working. “Ever since I first posted about it, so many of my friends have reached out to me, people I didn’t know were living around people with dementia, thanking me for starting to talk about it,” she says.
“So I’m already aware we’re leading in the right direction. I’m looking forward to it.”
Race Against Dementia is one of four charities supported by the Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Go Beyond, RAF Benevolent Fund and Marie Curie. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2023appeal or call 0151 284 1927