Salma Hayek: Mom on a Mission

Motherhood inspired Salma Hayek to take on one more high-profile role: saving women and children in Africa.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 25, 2009
10 min read

Salma Hayek’s plane landed in Sierra Leone last fall, after some 20 hours in the air. She was part of a global health care initiative sponsored by UNICEF to vaccinate children against tetanus, and she had barely been on the ground an hour before she saw firsthand just what the disease can do. “We hadn’t even gone to the hotel yet, and we stopped at a hospital,” she says. “I went into a room where a baby was seven days old and had been born with tetanus. Something told me that we needed to leave,” out of respect for the family. “We stepped out of the room, and as we did, the baby died.”

This scenario is, unfortunately, all too common in places like Sierra Leone, one of Africa’s poorest nations, where basic medical care, including vaccinations, is often inadequate. UNICEF’s goal is to eradicate tetanus worldwide by 2012; the disease kills 128,000 children and 30,000 women in developing countries every year. Hayek’s trip was part of her role to help oversee the vaccination program as a global spokesperson for the One Pack=One Vaccine program. Proceeds from sales of specially marked Pampers diapers and wipes are directly donated to tetanus prevention efforts in African and Asian countries where the disease is most prevalent.

Hayek’s trip showed her the extent of the problem in close-up, intimate terms—sometimes literally so. Take the now much-publicized story of her putting a tiny newborn boy to her breast. Only a week old, he had been born into poverty-stricken conditions in a remote area of Sierra Leone. “He was so skinny,” Hayek recalls. “His mother had lost her milk, probably because of malnutrition.” So Hayek, with the mother’s approval, instinctively did what almost any nursing mother would feel compelled to do. She fed him. “You should have seen his face!” she says. “He just lit up. He became alive. I mean, how could I not feed him? I was in the field, my daughter wasn’t with me, I was either going to throw away the milk or feed this baby.”

The Academy Award-nominated actress, executive producer of the popular TV series Ugly Betty, and star of the film Frida -- who’s currently playing Alec Baldwin’s girlfriend in a high-profile turn on the hit TV comedy 30 Rock -- is well known for her activism on domestic violence, environmental issues, and AIDS. She served as the spokesperson for the Avon Foundation’s Speak Out Against Domestic Violence program, appeared before the U.S. Senate to encourage extension of the Violence Against Women Act, and traveled to the Arctic Circle for Earth Day 2005 to heighten awareness of global warming. But after the birth of her daughter, Valentina, in September 2007, the 42-year-old Hayek says, “I was thinking that I don’t have as much time and I have to focus more, so this year I’m going to take a break from causes.”

But then One Pack=One Vaccine came calling, and she learned about tetanus. “One mother or child dies every three minutes from something that is entirely preventable,” she says. Indeed, Hayek became so committed to the campaign that she made the recent journey to Africa -- her first trip without Valentina.

“The tetanus toxin produced by tetanus spores is one of the most potent toxins ever identified,” explains François Gasse, MD, a senior project officer at UNICEF who leads the neonatal tetanus campaign. “It attacks the central nervous system, producing painful, violent, and uncontrolled spasms that lead to death in over 70% of the cases, mostly through respiratory failure but also aspiration pneumonia.”

A child born in Sierra Leone has more than a one in four chance of not living to see his or her fifth birthday, and many of those deaths are caused by tetanus. Unlike many vaccine-preventable diseases, tetanus is not contagious -- it’s spread through environmental exposure. So everyone at risk needs to be vaccinated to be protected. The neonatal form of tetanus occurs in newborn infants who have not received immunity from their mothers (because they have not been vaccinated themselves). Babies are usually infected through the unhealed umbilical stump, especially when it’s been cut with a nonsterile instrument -- which happens often in remote communities in developing countries.

Hayek even helped vaccinate some of the women who had come to receive their immunizations. “It’s not brain surgery. You just go in at an angle!” she says. “I was impressed that these young women, many of them really girls, were so eager to get this vaccine. When I was 15, if somebody wanted to give me a shot, I’d run away. But they line up for it … because it’s for their babies.”

Sierra Leone is not the only country where tetanus afflicts mothers and children. According to the World Health Organization, the disease -- which is the 5th leading cause of childhood mortality around the world -- kills 128,000 children annually (down from 800,000 in the mid-1980s), which is a testament to the power of the neonatal tetanus vaccine. “We have made dramatic progress,” says François Gasse, MD, a senior project officer at UNICEF, “but it remains an unacceptable cause of death as it is the easiest to prevent and affects the poorest populations of the least developed countries.”

(The World Health Organization estimates that more than 2 million children worldwide under age 5 die every year from diseases that could be prevented by routine vaccinations such as those most American children receive at their regular visits to the pediatrician. These diseases include: pneumonia (leading cause of death in children younger than age 5, with 1.7 million children dying of it annually); rotavirus (causes severe diarrhea and kills 500,000 children worldwide annually); measles (380,000 deaths annually); and pertussis (270,000 deaths annually).

Since the birth of Valentina, Hayek personally understands that mindset. She’s still an ambitious force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry -- Entertainment Weekly praised her as one of the “25 Smartest People in TV” in December 2008 -- but because of her daughter, she’s made some changes in how she looks at her career.

“I haven’t had the guts to do something violent or dark. I’m not there,” she says. “I actually canceled a movie. They said, ‘You can really move yourself as an actress with this role and go to a really dark place.’ I said, I don’t want to go there! Maybe I’ll change my mind later, but right now, I want easy movies that I can take my child along to. I want uplifting movies for the world.”

Even in the movies she watches, Hayek finds herself turning away from violence -- a challenge since, as a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she has to vote for Best Picture nominees for the Academy Award.

“I have to watch them all, and I take it very seriously and have to be objective,” she says. She cites Vicky Cristina Barcelona, starring her great friend and Bandidas co-star Penelope Cruz, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as two of her favorites this year. “And Milk -- I loved Sean [Penn] in it! But I’m watching the rest, too, even the violent ones. I still appreciate the craft and the films and the acting in them.”

She’s raising Valentina to be trilingual (French, Spanish, and English), but Hayek herself didn’t learn English well until she abandoned her lucrative career in Mexican soap operas and moved to Hollywood in 1991. Even though she was diagnosed with dyslexia in her teens, she didn’t find mastering a second language difficult.

“I’m really a fast learner. I always was, which is maybe why in high school they didn’t realize I had dyslexia. I skipped years without studying too much,” she says. “[The dyslexia] doesn’t bother me now. Some people read really fast, but you’ll ask them questions about the script and they’ll forget. I take a long time to read a script, but I read it only once. I directed a movie [The MaldonadoMiracle, for which she won a Daytime Emmy], and I never brought the script to the set.”

Hayek was a gymnast in her teen years, and was even approached to join the Mexican national team -- something her oil-company executive father forbade. Today, she prefers Pilates to keep in shape. “It appeals to me because I’m lying down!” she jokes. “It’s like you do the effort, but you don’t feel it as much.” Her fitness routine must be working -- a national poll ranked Hayek as the sexiest celebrity in the country in 2007.

When asked about her other best health habits, Hayek laughs. “I’m not very disciplined. I like to indulge, I love food,” she says. As for other good habits, she adds, “I never got into drugs … I never went through that phase, never found them appealing. That’s a good health habit because a lot of people have done them at some point in their lives and had to give them up.”

But then she thinks of something better. “I’m joyful. I try to find joy in life, and I don’t take myself too seriously.” That includes no plastic surgery, she insists. “None of that. No peelings, either, I’ve not started that craze. Or tanning booths. What you see is what you get. I’ve been lucky … maybe when the face starts falling apart, I’ll change my mind, but for now I think I’m fine. I think people who do things to their face age faster, I really do. And I’m lazy, so this suits me -- I don’t like a lot of maintenance, and now I really don’t have time for it!”

These days, when she’s not working -- and even sometimes when she is -- most of her time goes to Valentina. “I stay home a lot with her, and feed her and bathe with her. That’s relaxing. Yesterday I started watching a movie during her first nap, and finished it during her second nap. I wait until she’s asleep and I sneak one in. That’s how I watch a movie these days.”

A few months ago, Hayek was famously quoted in the press as saying she was “addicted to breastfeeding.” She laughs about that comment now, noting that she did finally wean Valentina by her first birthday. “I did love breastfeeding, but I decided she was ready.”

Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed until they are at least a year old, and the World Health Organization recommends two years, women like Hayek are often made to feel they’re doing something strange.

“An actress I knew said, ‘You’re still breastfeeding? You’re crazy!’ Valentina wasn’t even 1 yet, and she was like, ‘Why would you do that? That’s for India!’ I was shocked at the level of ignorance. The best thing you can ever do for your child in your lifetime is to breastfeed.”

Hayek was surprised when she became pregnant with Valentina so easily at age 40. “I thought I was going to need help getting pregnant, and I didn’t,” she says.

Her fairly uneventful pregnancy was complicated only by gestational diabetes (the risk of GD increases with a mother’s age). “I was nauseous for the whole nine months, and the only thing I craved was fruit -- cold mango, watermelon,” she says. “And then later on, I was saying that I didn’t know why I was getting so big. Paul Bettany [the actor and husband of actor Jennifer Connelly] said something about too much fruit and gestational diabetes, and I thought, What does he know?” But then she discussed these concerns with her midwife and doula, who advised her to watch her diet, especially given her family history of diabetes.

Is she ready for a second child? Hayek, who said “I do” to businessman François Henri Pinault, Valentina’s father, this past Valentine’s Day, isn’t sure, but she hasn’t ruled it out, even at 42. For Hayek, becoming a mom at this stage of her life was definitely the right way to go. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world,” she says. “I feel that I’ve done enough things in life where I can appreciate the time I spend with her as my No. 1 priority and not feel I’m missing out on something. I feel I’m a lot more patient.

“I’m a more fulfilled human being now, and I probably wouldn’t have been 10 years ago. She gets a better mother for being born now.”

And women and babies in countries thousands of miles away benefit too, as Hayek’s mama-bear instincts for her daughter translate into a desire to protect other women’s children as well.

“Women in America can help other women and children from really remote places in the world, who are in such need. We can save their lives by doing something we were going to do anyway -- buy diapers and wipes,” says Hayek. “How can you not?”