From Prima Ballerina to Humanitarian

Audrey Hepburn’s transition from Movie star to UNICEF Ambassador

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

During an interview with Global News in 1988, Audrey Hepburn mentions that she feels privileged and grateful that she has been given the opportunity to help people through her work with UNICEF.

I have a broken heart. I feel desperate. I can’t stand the idea that two million people are in imminent danger of starving to death, many of them children.

March, 1888. Audrey Hepburn begins her year-long stay in Ethiopia. While there, she saw famine, drought, and civil war. Hepburn knew that she needed to do something to help these people, who were going blind from Vitamin A deficiencies, because she had been there before. Audrey knew what it was like to be so malnourished to the extent that it had stunted her growth. She needed to help the Ethiopian children because they were her.

Hepburn lived in places where the people didn’t even know her name, which is one of the biggest names in film and on Broadway. There are not many people in the world who would consider themselves lucky or privileged to live in a foreign land among impoverished children, and yet, Hepburn did. She wished to gain insight on the children’s troubles and tribulations in an effort to help them rather than for the positive media coverage it would garner.

In 1940, during the Second World War, a young Audrey Hepburn was transported from her home in Belgium to the more stable nation of Holland. It was there that she used her extensive ballet and other dance training to be a part of Black-Out performances, which were kept secret and raised money for the young girls near where she lived. Audrey was able to participate in these performances until the Hunger Wars began in 1944.

Soon after the famine struck Germany occupied Holland, Hepburn found herself unable to dace due to malnutrition and other physical ailments. At the end of the Hunger Wars, Hepburn was reunited with her mother, sister, and brother as she had not seen them since the beginning of the war. Now that the war was over and she had been liberated, she would finally be able to work towards achieving her goal of becoming a prima ballerina.

She moved to England and danced under a few different studios and instructors until she was ultimately told that the ailments and physical limitations caused by wartime famine would make it impossible for her to ever be the ballerina she had hoped to become.

Audrey decided that she must find other work. She began modeling and continued to take dance lessons until the end of 1948, when she was hired to perform in a cabaret show called High Button Shoes. She performed with the cabaret for many years, while continuing modeling, auditioning for other roles, and taking lessons for dance and direction.

“I worked myself like an idiot” -Audrey Hepburn

By the end of 1951, she had already been cast in five movies; however, Audrey’s big break came when she met famous writer, Collette, at one of Hepburn’s performances. Collette was in search of an actress to play the character Gigi in her next big Broadway production. When she was originally offered the role, Hepburn responded in her usual humble fashion,

“I cannot take this role because I cannot act.”

Collette convinced her otherwise and Audrey began a grueling and challenging rehearsal schedule. Every week it seemed another performer was quitting or being fired. Audrey was able to keep the leading role by going to private acting coaches and attending every rehearsal. Eventually in November of 1951, Gigi opened, and, seemingly overnight, Hepburn shot into stardom.

A poster for the production Gigi

After Gigi’s amazing success, Hepburn was given multiple roles starring in movies, her first being Princess Anne in Roman Holiday. She eventually met Mel Ferrer on set of a movie, he convinced her to co-stair in a Broadway production. On set of this Broadway production, Audrey and Mell fell in love and were wed in 1954. They welcomed her first child, Sean, in 1959. She later divorced Mel Ferrer and remarried in 1969 to Andrea Dotti. Audrey had her second son, Luca Dotti, in 1970. She continued to perform and act in movies while being an excellent mother to her two children, and always spoke of being a mother as the greatest role she would ever have.

While her acting career was at its peak, she was nominated for and winning Oscars, Tonys, and other awards, however, Hepburn often said that her greatest award was being named the 1988 UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador. She traveled with UNICEF for five years traveling to twenty different countries. She was and still is a huge inspiration to many people and organizations in the world.

In 1993, Audrey Hepburn passed away in her small country home in Rome, Italy with her family at her side. The Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund is still active today, bringing safety and resources to children in need all over the world. Her legacy of kindness, compassion, class, and gracefulness is one that will endure because of her selfless acts of service until the end of time.

Audrey Hepburn on one of her many humanitarian trips