Considering it’s a rarity comparable with hen’s teeth, it’s nice to be able to talk about a living HIV pop icon for a change and although Andy Bell may not be so recognisable as in the hit years of the 80’s, he’s still going strong and working hard performing to full houses.
Despite two hip replacements (thanks to a disease called avascular necrosis and not HIV) which stopped him from ‘pogoing’ around as he used to do, many gay men will remember the irresistible optimism of the hits he had with Erasure. His charm lay in his ‘boy next door’ image and the slightly ‘drunken dad at a wedding’ dance moves which typified their videos (he saw it as ‘hi-energy’ dancing but his moves were not exactly ‘sexy’).
Despite trying to play the diva and camp it up whenever possible it somehow came over as so innocent and non-threatening that he never really achieved the gay icon status of contemporaries like Boy George. That isn’t a criticism; people liked the humour and perceived innocence behind Erasure and Bell wasn’t someone who had a list of dressing room demands before he even went on stage. People saw Andy Bell as one of the lads but there was no doubting he had the right voice and presence to sing the string of hits he and synth pop genius Vince Clarke produced.
He was born in 1964, in Peterborough, England and started off as a meat counter worker at a large supermarket chain. As luck would have it, he responded to a newspaper ad looking for a singer to front a band. He hit it off with Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode founding member and the man behind Alison Moyet and Yazoo) and Erasure was born. Twenty million albums sold worldwide and five consecutive number one albums between 1988 and 1994 suggest he deserves much more recognition than he gets.
From the beginning he never hid the fact that he was gay, taking the chance that it wouldn’t wreck his career before it started and so it turned out. His friendly image, pleasant demeanour and easy relationship with both media and fans, plus the catchiness of the music, meant that his sexuality never really became an issue. In an interview with Barry Walters of Seventeen magazine in the mid-eighties, he said:
"I want to be known as a good performer but it's important to me to take a stance. If you're doing music, you should use it for something and have substance. Being gay and open about it is my substance".
This wasn’t a problem except in the US where Erasure were never fully given the exposure they needed or deserved. Yet despite record executive reluctance, they still managed to have 3 US Top Twenty singles!
"Once I came out as gay, in the US we were pigeon-holed as gay artists," he says. "Magazines like Rolling Stone would not talk to us. But I'm proud I was honest. There are huge artists who are still in the closet even today, which is ridiculous."
However, the thing that sets Andy Bell apart from other LGBT pop stars is the fact that he was the first to openly come out as being HIV-positive and the first to be completely honest about what happened and the climate which led to it happening to him.
He’d known he was positive since 1988, when he succumbed to a bout of pneumonia but in December, 2004, decided to abandon the secrecy and announced on Erasure’s website that he and his long term partner, Paul Hickey were both HIV positive. From the beginning he emphasised the positive rather than the negative aspects of being HIV+:
"Being HIV-positive does not mean that you have AIDS," Bell wrote on ErasureInfo.com. "My life expectancy should be the same as anyone else's, so there's no need to panic."
He finished off his admission on the website by saying:
"There is still so much hysteria and ignorance surrounding HIV and AIDS. Let's just get on with life— i.e., making music, doing a live tour, and generally having a good time. Lots of love, Andy."
There’d already been rumours but that was par for the course if you were an out gay pop artist. One of the saddest was when a guy stole his jacket in a club and was subsequently caught using his credit cards. Because the thief had AIDS, Andy Bell took pity and let it drop but the guy had also been telling people that he was Bell’s boyfriend and it was Bell who had given him AIDS. He even contacted a national newspaper with that news. Luckily, Andy Bell had just had his appendix removed and had proof that he was HIV negative. Andy’s partner took the test results down to the press office and the story was dropped. Having avoided a press witch hunt, Andy felt that if he ever tested positive, it would be better to be open about it than be exposed in lurid headlines. Nevertheless, it took 6 years after learning of his diagnosis before he ‘came out’ to the press. He explained the delay by giving reasons which will be familiar to many readers.
“I didn't feel I was ready, really. I wasn't freaked out about it at the time…My boyfriend was quite freaked out when he found out that he was. Then he wouldn't have sex with me anymore. I thought, I'm going to go out and do what I want to. I felt like [contracting HIV] was a bit like testing yourself. It was a bit like belonging to a group [I felt left out of] like being gay in the first place, being on records, experimenting with drugs, being HIV-positive kind of peer groups I thought I wanted to belong to. But only by becoming part of the groups did I realize I was just me still.”
In effect, he was saying that a part of him actually wanted to become infected but it would be hypocritical to judge him for that. If we’re really honest with ourselves, many of us allowed those thoughts to go through our minds – it often justified our behaviour, despite knowing the risks and the idea that the fear and anticipation would be removed by infection, was somehow enticing…a feeling of ‘let’s get it over with; we’re probably going to get it anyway". He admitted these thoughts may have stemmed from a sort of self-loathing and were the same driving force that led to his coke addiction.
It is purely thanks to his openness and honesty, that his story is so interesting and recognisable for so many, especially today when the climate is arguably less inviting for declaring an HIV+ status. Andy Bell’s self-analysis confronts the reader with his own motives and asks questions of us all. How many pop culture stars have had the balls to do that?
He admitted to weaknesses on tour, when safe sex sometimes got lost in the hedonism and temptations surrounding him. He had an open relationship with his partner and admitted to taking a somewhat one-sided advantage of that. As he said, “…the boundaries were a bit blurred.”
His partner of 20 years, Paul Hickey, played a huge role in his life and wrote a book about how HIV patients are presented with the news and how they learn to live with the virus (‘Sometimes: A Life of Love, Loss & Erasure’ the book can still be found on Lulu.com.) Unfortunately Hickey died in 2012 after a stroke and a long illness and despite having some misgivings about how brutally honest Hickey was going to be in the book, it helped Andy to conclude that in the end, honesty was the best way to deal with everything that happened to the both of them.
He was quite surprised at the lack of extreme reactions to his revelation, both from the press and his fans. He had also suspected that he may end up being better known for being HIV positive than for his work and his music but that too turned out to be an unfounded fear. There were spontaneous negative reactions here and there around the world but being HIV+ hasn’t really affected his career the way he feared it might.
Despite the hip replacements due to vascular necrosis, which may or may not be HIV-related, his cocaine addiction and early teething problems from the medications (he was on treatment from 1988), including neuropathy (from early exposure to Stavudine), he has survived to live an almost normal life, despite the inherent stresses of still performing and touring. He has involved both himself and Erasure with certain HIV organisations, benefits and fund raisers and has plans to do more of that when the occasion arises but generally, he feels lucky to have escaped thus far with minimal damage from the virus and his willingness to talk openly about his experiences make him an effective ambassador for living with HIV, without feeling the need to trumpet the cause from every corner.
“I would say, really, the best thing you can do is look after yourself just like everybody else. And make sure you treat yourself well. If you party, like everything else, do it in moderation. And it's always nice to have groups of people around, other HIV-positive people, so you can help them and they can help you.”
He is certainly an advocate for better education in schools: ”I don't think young people are paying enough attention to it. There's 19-year-olds coming down as HIV-positive, and that's really awful,” and made the case for being more honest with children at an earlier age:
“I'm not a sex-education minister; I'm just me. But you'd have to have very open sex education in school. Start at the age people start experimenting with sex, which is about 13, and explore all the realms of sexual possibility. You can't just say abstinence is the only way to go. Children don't listen to that. If you tell them "No," children are going to do the exact opposite. What's unfortunate is that when you're a teenager, you want to experiment, you want to try everything. If you tell them, "No, you have to use a condom," it's really hard for them to learn. It really has to be drummed in.”
He’s no Elton John, or Bono when it comes to HIV activism but never shies away from giving his opinion when asked. When asked if he should have been doing more on the activist front. He replied with his usual honesty:
“Erasure did quite a lot actually. We talked about it on kids’ TV programs; we did loads of benefits. But I wasn’t a member of ACT UP or anything. You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I’ve always been a bit of a wallflower. I’d hang back at gay pride marches because I was terrified of getting arrested.”
It’s the admission of human frailties that make Andy Bell so likeable. He admits to doing things many of us have done and to fears about life that many of us have. In that respect, he’s both more relatable and more approachable than many contemporaries and you never have the feeling you’re being preached at.
He’s certainly not given up sex either, or pretended to have adopted a more conservative lifestyle: “I’ve whored around the world! I’ve been thinking of getting into the leather scene lately…I was thinking of trying out being a slave, but I think I’d be too manipulative!” When asked about his opinion of barebacking, he was equally forthright: “It’s quite sexy in a way, isn’t it, the whole risk factor. I’ve been up-front with guys about my status. They’re still like, “It’s fine.” But I don’t advocate barebacking. It’s fine with a consenting partner, but not if you’re going out and screwing willy-nilly.”
So with Andy Bell, you take him or leave him but either way, you know he’s not going to bullshit you or tell you what he thinks you want to hear, politically correct or not. That sets him apart because he’s lived our lives too, warts and all and is living with the consequences we’re all living with. He’s a living example of living with the disease and making the best of it, taking life as it comes and carrying on regardless with as positive an attitude as possible. He’s pretty much a living equivalent of the music he makes - a pop showman but down to earth enough to be the buddy you could confide in in the pub on a Friday night.
If you don’t already know Andy Bell’s voice and Erasure’s work, these two videos should bring back a few memories of good times. ‘A Little Respect’ 1988 and the brilliant Abba-esque covers EP of 1992. Whaddya mean, 80’s music sounds so tinny!!