Eric Leonardos is charming. So much so that he won the competition for love and partnership on the first season of Finding Prince Charming_, a reality show on Logo that broke ground as the gay version of_ The Bachelor_. As a gay man living with HIV, Eric became an instant force against HIV stigma, and he's continuing to speak out, with a focus on the message that HIV is untransmittable from people with an undetectable viral load._
TheBody.com corresponded with Leonardos to find out more about his HIV journey and see how he's doing in life after the series.
When were you diagnosed with HIV? How did you feel?
10 years ago. March 2006.
I felt scared and alone. I felt dirty and tainted. I felt like "who is going to love me now?" I was afraid for my life. I felt like I really screwed up, like I trusted the wrong person. I felt like I was being punished for doing something that came natural to me.
Did your thoughts about HIV or people with HIV change after your diagnosis?
Honestly, in the very beginning the only person I could think about was myself.
It wasn't until my own health was stable and I began to experience rejection from my peers or romantic interests that I began to think about things from a different perspective. Then I remembered times when someone revealed their HIV status to me and how it affected my outlook or interest in them. It allowed me to be understanding of those that could not understand and to tolerate those who were uninformed.
I began to feel an overwhelming amount of compassion and empathy for all people living with HIV and AIDS -- all of the pain, rejection, isolation, grief and fear that we experience. At the same time, I believe the desire from most people living with HIV is to first feel safe and healthy -- and next is the desire to feel normal, accepted and loved.
Did HIV affect your experiences with dating and relationships after your diagnosis?
When I found out, I was living in Austin, Texas. Once I actually felt like dating again, it seemed as if I was met with rejection over and over again. I was very discouraged.
I spoke with a friend of mine that lived in Los Angeles, and he encouraged me to come visit. He said people there were different, more understanding and informed. After my visit, I decide to move. I still experienced rejection and the stigma around HIV -- but the more and more I talked about it and stayed close to the people who loved and accepted me, it gave more strength to keep going.
Every time I share my story and I am met with love and acceptance, it gives me strength to keep going, keep sharing, keep talking about the issues that people living with HIV are faced with, to keep standing up for what I believe in.
How did you end up being on the show?
They found me on Facebook.
When did you decide to share with the producers that you are living with HIV?
In my very first interview, I mentioned my HIV status. I shared my story -- at this point, I had become very comfortable with it. I have always felt strongly about talking about it with men I am dating and most of the time I like to just get it out of the way. However, I want the men I date to know me for me. I am not HIV. It is just a virus that is in my body.
How did people react when you told them?
In general, people today react a few different ways.
Sympathy: "Oh, I am so sorry. People today live a long time now; you're going to be OK."
Empathy: "I can't imagine how that must feel or have felt. How are you now?"
Let me be clear that empathy is my desired response, not sympathy. I don't experience much rejection or misunderstanding anymore, but I believe that's just my personal experience because of whom I surround myself with -- and I live in an urban area like LA. On the show, I was embraced and celebrated by everyone that was still there, cast and crew included.
What did you learn from your experience of being in the spotlight as a person living with HIV?
I learned and understood that this is a big responsibility. I represent a community of people that have experienced a great deal of pain and adversity. People living with HIV have something to say. They have needs, they have been misunderstood, they have felt an unnecessary amount of guilt and shame for an unfortunate happening in their lives. I know now my job is to listen to them to understand the needs of the community and then to speak out, speak up and speak loud.
How are things with you and Robert [the star of Finding Prince Charming who selected Eric as the winner] now?
Isn't that the question everyone wants answered? Robert and I are friends, and that is all now. We have experienced a lot together and separately after the show.
All of the guys on the show have exposed very vulnerable parts of their lives. This kind of exposure makes people feel, say and do things they might not do under normal circumstances. Because of this, I feel it is important to give myself and other people the benefit of the doubt, give them the space to readjust and come back to a more centered place. The story of Finding Prince Charming is bigger than me, Robert, the other guys on the show and Logo. It represents a moment in time when we are beginning to be seen as equals. Not the same but equal. We are all deserving of love.
Has life been different since the show was being filmed?
It has been different since the show was filmed and now after it has aired completely. Nothing can prepare you for a moment like this in your life. There is a huge learning curve. Everyone has an opinion or judgement on what you should do and say. What I have learned is to listen to myself -- the answers are already there. If I take the time to be still and listen carefully, I will always know what to do.
Was there anything that you wanted to say about living with HIV that wasn't covered on the show?
Yes, HIV is not a gay man's disease -- it is a virus that affects many different races, sexual orientations, genders, ages and social-economic backgrounds. The work is not over yet. Yes, not as many people are dying in the U.S. from HIV-related illnesses, but in other parts of the world people do not have the same access to treatment and prevention.
So, just because the effect seems no longer fatal in our own bubble, it does not mean that we stop working for others. It is our responsibility to stand in the gap for those that may not have the same resources as us.
Also, it's important to clear up the mixed messaging about risk and say that HIV undetectable means non-transmittable. According to many different expert sources, if someone is undetectable and fully compliant with their medication, they cannot transmit the virus.
That's life changing for so many of us and a major factor in ending HIV stigma. The first time heard this information I was relieved and felt for the first time that maybe I would have a chance at a normal relationship. The work to see people living with HIV as normal and equal to others will be my most important areas of focus until it changes.
What's next for you?
The sky is the limit!
I am really focused on my work as a hairstylist at Public Service Salon in West Hollywood and creating a line of men's haircare, skincare and body care.
I also have been meeting with many different HIV and LGBTQ non-profit organizations to gather information, so I know where I want to focus my activism in the community. I have applied for a scholarship to attend the AIDSWatch in March, fingers crossed.
I am also working on producing short videos that are easily shareable and viewable via social media that showcase the geography, diversity, struggle, victories and triumphs of the experience of people living with HIV. This will help bring light to the current climate of HIV and AIDS in the world.
Anything else I should have asked you?
Are you happy? The answer is YES!
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
JD Davids is the managing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.