Star Gazing Blues

Published 03, Aug, 2012

Dave R writes...Celebrity is everything in media-obsessed 2012 but is celebrity and HIV a match made in heaven? The stars certainly don’t seem to be out tonight!

Star Gazing Blues

I know we’re supposed to be obsessed with the private lives of A to D-list entertainment icons but I’m not sure HIV-positive, celebrity role models were ever really on my wish list. If it has any value at all, celebrity is all about escapism and briefly taking you out of your own reality but then again, like everybody else; a tasty morsel of bitchy gossip now and then can add spice to my breakfast cereal.

The fact that you really have to search for celebs who have come out with HIV and are still alive (even rarer), suggests that the rest of the world still isn’t HIV-friendly. Certainly their dollar-eyed agents will convince their protégées that the world doesn’t want to know! I get it; I can sort of understand stars’ reluctance to inform their fans of their HIV status. If we buy into the idea that coming out with HIV provides positive role models then isn’t that every paparazzo’s wet dream and licence to pry? I wonder if that’s also enough to bring them to a Canadian, or US court on non-disclosure charges! Now there’s a test case... HIV-positive stars have sex too! However, cynicism aside, the idea of being hounded by the paparazzi sniffing out every sleazy detail is horrifying at the best of times but if the HIV-label is attached...well, you’ve seen salivating Bloodhounds!!

I know, I know; if you earn ‘x’ zillion dollars from what you sell to your paying public, you should expect your private life to be laid bare for all to examine! Not in my universe! I don’t mind if the media are rooting through people like Mitt Romney’s trash bins – they’re planning to rule the world...but your average million-selling teen-heartthrob, or gold medal winning sports star never imagined that fame would come in the first place! When it arrives overnight, with all the baggage attached and you have to live an isolated life trying to build normal relationships away from prying eyes, I can well imagine that many would happily turn the clock back to half-past obscurity. If they’re gay as well, the ball-game changes and if you then have the misfortune to become HIV-positive, life in the celebrity lanes must become nigh on impossible!

It begs the question; what are role models for?

In the case of the HIV+ superstars, they’re never going to be for kids like accepted role models: someone to look up to and try to grow up to be.  ‘Hi junior, you like me huh! How’s about growing up to be me? Here’s how we begin...’

So by definition, people in the public eye living with HIV are going to be role models for adults only and even then, a relatively tiny percentage of the adult stargazers at that. But do adults with HIV, really need their positive celebrities to live such exemplary lives that they wish we could live like that themselves? Does it even make a difference if they do? God knows, Magic Johnson has done his level best to be a role model for the black community! However, it’s precisely that community that has jumped to number one in the HIV-vulnerable groups in North American society charts in the 21st century. Magic Johnson probably couldn’t have followed the role-model’s guide to proper behaviour any better than he has but his being a role model has turned out to be sadly irrelevant. It must make the HIV-positive potential superstar wonder what the point of disclosure really is!  If the essence of role modelling is influencing change for the better, where’s the proof that celebs who have come out with HIV have had any sort of positive influence on their fans?

We’re not exactly the easiest audience either. LGBT people are the greatest fans of...well anybody, who shows the slightest sign of becoming a gay icon in their lifetime; irrespective of talent (hi Madonna!) We follow their every move and become the ad-man’s and journalist’s prime target group for salacious gossip. We’re not a good crowd to get on the wrong side of either (ask the late Donna Summer!) So what are stars both old and new, supposed to do?

It’s become a sort of crusade to find them and many bemoan the lack of HIV plus representatives. Okay, just for fun, if you could choose, who would you want to be an HIV-role model? Obama maybe... Johnny Depp... Ryan Seacrest...Serena Williams; whoever? If you even begin to think about playing the ‘what if’ game, there must be something deeply troubling about our way of seeing celebrity don’t you think? Why would we just want people who are universally admired to suddenly turn out to have HIV and thus spread some of their popularity onto us? Is that actually how it works? Do we have a subliminal need to convince the world that even the greatest can still be great and have HIV? By even thinking along those lines, we need to acknowledge that we’re wishing HIV onto real people in order to satisfy our need to be seen as ‘normal’. This role model business probably just doesn’t work in our context.

"It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves."
William Shakespeare

Who came out and why?

It’s a subject that probably needs to fit into some sort of context and looking at the history of celebrity HIV-status, disclosure may help. Okay, hands up if you can name a major celeb who has come out with HIV since the early 90s? I couldn’t find any either. There are a few soapies and other minor starlets in the firmament but other than that, no big names! So has the closet in fact, become more and not less crowded with positive entertainers? Again, I get it. Given what they’re going to have to go through...who wants that kind of shit for the rest of their lives! If we’re talking about celebrities who’ve emerged as being gay; that’s a whole different story and if the publicity can be properly managed, it can even be a career choice but HIV just has seems to have too much kick-back.

Historically, the story of HIV celebrity seems to fall into two groups: those who have deliberately admitted it before they died and those who we learned were positive after their deaths. Into the latter group can be put those for whom revealing the truth was unavoidable and inevitable and they had to live out their last months or years, in the full glare of publicity. The first group however are truly brave people and have been determined to use their disclosure to achieve some sort of progress. I’ve mentioned Magic Johnson but there are notable others. You will all know of other names to add to the list but the following are probably representative of what has happened so far.

Men like Arthur Ashe (above right), who was a top, black tennis player in the 1980’s (in itself a rarity). He contracted HIV by means of a blood transfusion after heart problems in 1988 and waited four years before going public. In the last year of his life, he set out to make a difference and raise awareness and even made a speech to the UN on World Aids Day. He was a sportsman famous for his elegant playing style and gentlemanly conduct (in the days of McEnroe and Connors, more the exception that the rule!) but the dignity and courage of his public life as a black man with HIV set him apart from many others. He genuinely created a positive effect by disclosing and showed in those hostile times that HIV wasn’t necessarily a gay disease.

Another top sportsman who happened to be gay and is thankfully still alive and working hard for HIV awareness is Greg Louganis (left). He was a Los Angeles, Olympic gold medal winning diver, who became one of the faces of the Barcelona games in 1988, mainly for smashing his head on the board on the way down in a dive. It was in that year that, six months before Barcelona, he discovered that he was HIV-positive. In 1994 he announced he was gay and in 1995 he disclosed that he was positive. This coincided with his co-written book, ‘Breaking the Surface’, which resulted in his sponsors dropping him like a stone. These are the facts that most people are aware of but they only tell half the story. Louganis had a traumatic childhood and adolescence, with abuse, rape and ensuing misbehaviour as a logical result. The fact that he fought his way out of that to become a gold medallist was partly due to being spotted by the right coaches and partly due to strength of character. When HIV came along, it must have been a bitter and ironic pill to swallow but he used his situation to educate as many young people as he could and still does. The only sponsor to defend him and keep him on their books was, to their enormous credit, Speedo. That a sexy swim suit manufacturer could embrace a gay, HIV-positive man and use him as a figurehead was very symbolic. Hopefully they did it for the right reasons! That he still works so hard to get the message out means that he too can be regarded as a ‘coming-out with HIV’ success story.

The 80’s saw the loss of many talented figures from the world of art and theatre but one of those who left an abiding impression, due to his open admission of being positive was Keith Haring. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Keith Haring didn’t deny his AIDS diagnosis and during the last few years of his life, he used his artwork to provide graphic representations of HIV in that period. Like Arthur Ashe, he created a foundation that lives on today. His art work more than most, symbolizes AIDS in that period and those simple but powerful figures are recognised across the world as being representative of both the man and his disease.

Finally, another celebrity with HIV, who made a difference in his own lifetime, was Pedro Zamora. If anybody could be said to be a celebrity created by the media, it was Pedro. In 1994, he took part in MTV’s ‘The Real World’ and saw it as an opportunity to educate people on a large scale about HIV. He was brave enough to reveal his status from the beginning and was such a sympathetic character that people warmed to him immediately but his stated intention was to use the media as a way to further change people’s views about HIV and its consequences. In that respect, it was a huge success but as the season wore on he became ill and died at the age of 22, just a day after the final episode appeared on TV. His was a reality-TV story that helped make the genre so popular but it wasn’t imposed on him and he wasn’t ‘used’ by the makers. If anything, it was the other way round and it had a huge impact on public perceptions of the virus.

These four people all deserve posts to themselves. Their life stories are compelling and dramatic and maybe examples for us all in one way or another but of course, the celebs we remember most are probably those who died and left us in shock, because we hadn’t been prepared! Whether these people can be called ‘role models’ then becomes a matter of debate. They were famous for other reasons when they were alive and because of the reasons for their deaths, they are famous amongst all communities now...but role models? I’m not sure. Of course, you respond to the times you live in and revealing your HIV status had a whole set of different consequences pre-1990 but for whatever reasons, these people never stood up and told the world of their disease and really didn’t do anything to make that world a better place for others in their situation, so can they be called role-models? The answer is...perhaps; in the fact that they are famous people with huge fan bases, who died of Aids. Did their fans turn away from them and did the heterosexual population as a whole like them any less? The answer is, generally not and for that reason they became acceptable faces of people with HIV and Aids perhaps making them a sort of role model for many. However, it was their fame that made them HIV icons, not necessarily what they did for the cause.

There are a fair few examples; amongst which, Antony Perkins (Norman Bates in ‘Psycho’) and Rock Hudson, who are stand out examples from the film world and whose deaths sparked massive discussions and widespread publicity about homosexuality and HIV. For that reason, both these strikingly handsome men may be considered role-models but their illnesses were only revealed when it was no longer possible to hide it.

Freddy Mercury is another whose death shocked the world but once again, the truth was only revealed when it was physically impossible to keep secret. Openly gay and obviously outrageous; Freddy Mercury did more for the HIV movement after he was dead than ever before and in the cold light of day. His brand of hedonism was perhaps not such a great advert for people with HIV.

You could say that all three men had a talent that rose above either their lifestyle or their disease and that might be why they are still revered by so many but I really don’t believe that makes them role models for people with HIV. They are examples of people whose very public lives and deaths became media hits and it’s the combination of fame, notoriety and their manner of death that elevated them into icon status.

There are many others but not so many that you could attach a ‘movement’ or trend to. Having HIV seems to be a more closeted subject than ever before. If it’s true that practically no major stars have come out with the disease since 1991 it makes you question the value of celebrity as an inspiration to others and the moral integrity of a media that won’t allow it. You can’t tell me that no major box office names; either from entertainment, or sport, or politics, haven’t been diagnosed with HIV since 1991. It’s just not credible but whatever the numbers, nobody seems brave enough to tell all anymore. 

So do we want to hear about stars living with HIV? More to the point, do we need to? I’m a fan and have been inspired by many of their talents but they’re rarely role models for me. Personally, I believe a role model is someone who inspires by example but that comes from ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’. Just being famous isn’t enough; you have to work for other people in your situation and do it without reward or plaudits. You’ll probably never know the names of the true role models in the history of HIV because the care and freedoms that you take for granted have already been fought for behind the scenes.

"We are all in the gutter,
but some of us are looking at the stars."
Oscar Wilde

For the curious, this Wiki link will provide a meagre selection of celebrities, minor or major, who have been HIV-positive.