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Fame and HIV: History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities

November 17, 2015

HIV-Positive Celebrities

The list of famous people who have been open about their HIV diagnosis is a short one. Even among those known to us, most had their HIV status revealed either just before or after their deaths. While, sadly, many felt they had to hide their status, a few have used their influence to spread HIV awareness.

What follows is a slideshow of some of the most notable celebrities who are known to be living with or have died from HIV or AIDS. Some will be extremely familiar while others may surprise you.

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Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen

In November 2015, 50-year-old Charlie Sheen publicly disclosed that he had been living with HIV for four years. "It's a hard three letters to absorb. It's a turning point in one's life," he said about receiving the diagnosis.

A Hollywood staple for more than 30 years, Sheen, born Carlos Estevez, is the youngest member of the Sheen Acting Dynasty. He rose to fame following a series of successful films including Platoon, Wall Street and Major League. In addition to acting, Sheen made a name for himself as a Hollywood “bad boy,” engaging in drug use and sexual activity with sex workers.

At the time of his disclosure, Sheen said he uses antiretroviral medication, which has brought his viral load to undetectable. Publicity of his case started to bring more conversation about treatment as prevention into the mainstream.

Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson

Most people over the age of 30 won't soon forget the emotional public disclosure on Nov. 7, 1991 from one of basketball's all-time greats. Magic's HIV diagnosis essentially ended a phenomenal NBA career, though he did make a few brief comebacks.

His disclosure spurred a re-evaluation of safety in sports and was a watershed moment in HIV awareness. He has thrived since, leading some to believe he was somehow cured. To combat this type of misinformation, Magic has dedicated himself to HIV education and helping those living with HIV through the Magic Johnson Foundation and several other efforts.

Rock Hudson

Rock Hudson

One of the most beloved movie stars of the '50s and '60s, Rock Hudson's AIDS-related death in late 1985 was a shock to the world. In a move that is truly emblematic of the unparalleled stigma of HIV, his publicity team had covered up his illness by saying he had liver cancer.

Hudson's HIV disclosure just prior to his death brought forth the fact that this matinee idol, a leading man in numerous romantic comedies, was gay. For better or for worse, his death sparked a landslide of conversation in mainstream media about homosexuality and HIV.

Mykki Blanco

Mykki Blanco

In June of 2015, then-29-year-old queer rap pioneer, genderqueer poet and artist Mykki Blanco took to his Facebook page to reveal that he has been living with HIV since 2011 -- or as he put it, "my entire career."

"Fuck stigma and hiding in the dark," his initial post said. "No more living a lie," he added in the post's Comments section. The fact that it took him several years to disclose reopened a conversation in mainstream and online media about HIV stigma in the current era.

Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury

As the lead singer of Queen, one of the top-selling rock bands of all time, Freddie Mercury was among the most recognizable faces of the '70s. He tested positive in 1987 and died of AIDS-related pneumonia four years later, one day after publicly acknowledging for the first time that he had AIDS.

Had Mercury lived in a different era, perhaps people would be thinking about eradicating HIV every time they heard "We Will Rock You" or "We Are the Champions" booming over the stadium loudspeaker. Instead, it simply became a footnote on his life.

Keith Haring

Keith Haring

Keith Haring was an iconic artist who rose to prominence during the '80s. He was best known for his street murals and cartoonish figures. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and died just two years later.

Unlike many public figures, Haring did not shy away from his AIDS diagnosis. During those last few years of his life, he dedicated himself to raising HIV awareness through his artwork and a foundation he established that still benefits HIV causes to this day.

Eazy-E

Eric "Eazy-E" Wright

Eazy-E was a rap legend and co-founder of the influential group N.W.A., along with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Their album, Straight Outta Compton, went double platinum in 1988 and cemented Eazy-E's legacy in gangsta rap history.

His lyrics jolted many, but nothing shocked people more than when he fell ill in 1995 and publicly acknowledged that he had AIDS. He died just one month after his diagnosis at the age of 31. His death was another key moment in public awareness of HIV/AIDS, particularly within the African-American community.

Sylvester

Sylvester

Sylvester James, better known as "Sylvester," was a legendary disco, R&B and soul singer/songwriter from San Francisco, known for his flamboyant, androgynous appearance and falsetto singing voice. He died in December 1988 from AIDS-related complications.

Before his death, Sylvester bequeathed the royalties from his music, including hits like "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," to the AIDS Emergency Fund and Rita Rockett's food program at San Francisco General Hospital's Ward 86 for people living with AIDS.

Elizabeth Glaser

Elizabeth Glaser

Though she was not a celebrity in the traditional sense, Elizabeth Glaser gained fame and notoriety through her tremendous efforts to fight this disease. She contracted HIV in 1981 but did not find out until 1985. As a result, she unwittingly passed on the virus to both of her children. Her daughter Ariel lost her life in 1988, but her son, Jake, is alive and well today.

Following Ariel's death, Glazer co-founded what is now known as the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, one of the leading AIDS charities in the world. The Foundation is dedicated to preventing and eliminating HIV/AIDS in children. Elizabeth died in 1994, but her legacy lives on through her foundation.

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific authors of all time, best known for his science fiction novels and short stories. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, but his HIV status was only revealed by his widow 10 years after his death.

Because of the tremendous stigma associated with HIV, particularly prevalent in the early '80s, Asimov's family had been advised to keep his true cause of death a secret.

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe

As the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam title, Arthur Ashe broke down the color barrier in tennis. An accomplished champion and Hall of Famer, he is perhaps best known for his humanitarian and civil right efforts.

He was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, but didn't go public until 1992. He died a year later from AIDS-related pneumonia. During his final year of life, he was instrumental in raising HIV awareness through various efforts, including a speech at the U.N. on World AIDS Day and the creation of an AIDS foundation.

Liberace

Liberace

Liberace was a pianist and entertainer who became a worldwide icon in the '50s. He appeared in films and television shows, and released numerous albums. He was the highest paid entertainer in the world for over a decade and was known for his opulent lifestyle.

He died of AIDS-related complications in 1987, but the cause of his illness during his final years was kept secret from the public until after his death.

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti, also known as Fela Anikulapo Kuti or simply Fela, was and remains an international icon: a highly political Nigerian musician, activist, and pioneer of the influential Afrobeat music genre. After his death in August 1997, it was his brother, a former minister of health in Nigeria, who announced that Fela had died of Kaposi's sarcoma due to advanced HIV.

Many in his home country have called the revelation of Fela's HIV status Nigeria's "Magic moment" -- referring to the impact of Magic Johnson's coming out on the conversation about HIV/AIDS in the US and the world. However, despite Fela's coming from a well-connected family with several close relatives in the medical field, the resources and medical advances that have kept Magic alive and thriving were not readily available to him in Nigeria at the time of his death.

Anthony Perkins

Anthony Perkins

Anthony Perkins was a film and stage actor who will always be remembered for his unforgettable turn as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. He had a productive career that spanned nearly 40 years.

Oddly, Perkins only discovered he was HIV positive in 1990 after a National Enquirer article exposed that he had AIDS, leading him to get tested. He had suspected that he might be HIV positive, but chose to ignore it for fear of what it might do to his career. He died two years later from AIDS-related complications.

Danny Pintauro

Danny Pintauro

In September 2015, then-39-year-old Danny Pintauro, a child star in the 1980s and early '90s, publicly disclosed that he had been living with HIV for 12 years.

Once known for playing precocious towhead Jonathan Bower on the U.S. sitcom Who's the Boss?, Pintauro's subsequent interview on The View, hosted by two other former child stars, was deemed "problematic" by mainstream media and HIV activists alike for its unchecked stigmatizing commentary and moralizing, and its lack of grounding in current science about HIV.

Pintauro has since teamed with HIV Equal to combat stigma; activists have also offered thoughtful suggestions as to how Pintauro can more effectively use his platform for advocacy.

Robert Reed

Robert Reed

Robert Reed portrayed perhaps the most beloved father in the history of U.S. television. As Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch, he was the head of a highly traditional household. It was hard for some to believe that the man who played this almost puritanical character was in fact a gay man who tested HIV positive before his death in 1992. Like a number of others on this list, the word about his HIV status only spread after he died.

Greg Louganis

Greg Louganis

Greg Louganis is an Olympic diver who won multiple gold medals in the '80s. He was one of the most recognizable faces in American sports during that decade. He tested positive in 1988, the same year he won two gold medals at the Seoul Olympics.

Louganis went public with his HIV status seven years later in his autobiography, Breaking the Surface. Having now lived with HIV for more than 20 years, he has been a champion for numerous HIV causes.

Tommy Morrison

Tommy Morrison

When he was diagnosed with HIV in 1996, at the apex of his career, heavyweight boxer and Rocky V star Tommy Morrison publicly announced his status and his retirement from the ring.

While he took steps to cope with his diagnosis, conferring with Magic Johnson and starting treatment with AZT, he soon fell prey to HIV denialism and stigma. He stopped taking meds, and even on his deathbed pushed back against the notion that the virus had progressed to AIDS and would end his life. He died in September 2013, at age 44.

Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey was a renowned choreographer and a major force in modern dance beginning in the 1950s. He formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, a groundbreaking dance company still popular today. Though based in New York City, the group has performed all over the world.

Ailey died of AIDS-related causes in 1989 at the age of 58. Like a number of others on this list, Ailey had his doctor hide his true cause of death to protect his family from the stigma of the disease.

Gia Carangi

Gia Carangi

Gia was a world-famous fashion model in the '70s and '80s. She was among the most sought-after models of her time and graced the cover of such magazines as Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Her career was cut short in the early '80s after she developed a debilitating heroin addiction.

She was later diagnosed with AIDS and died of a related illness in 1986 at the age of 26. Her death was largely kept quiet; few in the fashion industry even knew of her passing, and her funeral service (which was held in a small funeral home) was modest.

Her story was eventually told in Gia, the aptly titled HBO biographical film starring Angelina Jolie.

Pedro Zamora

Pedro Zamora

Pedro Zamora gained fame as a cast member on the third season of MTV's The Real World in 1994. Having worked as an AIDS educator following his diagnosis in 1989, he viewed The Real World as a unique opportunity to educate on a mass scale. His appearance on the show had a major impact in raising social consciousness about AIDS, particularly among young people.

Zamora grew ill as the season as wore on and was hospitalized with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) just a few months after shooting wrapped. He died at the age of 22 in November 1994, one day after the final episode aired. His impact has lived on through numerous charities formed in his name.

Tim Richmond

Tim Richmond

In the mid-1980s, rising NASCAR star Tim Richmond was in the prime of his racing career. A rakish Yankee portrayed by Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder, the 1990 film loosely based on his life, Richmond stood out among the Southern good ol' boys of the NASCAR set. He tested positive for HIV in 1987. Though he kept his diagnosis private as he tried to maintain his career, his declining health coupled with AIDS rumors led to his being blackballed by NASCAR. He died in August 1989, at the age of 34. After his passing, his physician publicly revealed that he had died from AIDS-related complications.




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