Todrick Hall on HIV Awareness, Stigma and Fear Among People of Color

Contributing Editor
Charles Sanchez takes a selfie with Todrick Hall after Hall's performance at the 2016 U.S. Conference on AIDS in Hollywood, Fla.
Charles Sanchez takes a selfie with Todrick Hall after Hall's performance at the 2016 U.S. Conference on AIDS in Hollywood, Fla.

Todrick Hall is fabulous. He's a YouTube sensation, an American Idol semi-finalist, a Broadway star (in Kinky Boots) and a judge on RuPaul's Drag Race. He was the subject of the MTV docu-series Todrick in 2015; his album Straight Outta Oz came out in 2016; and he's even got a clothing line. Most recently, he had a cameo in his friend Taylor Swift's controversial video, "Look What You Made Me Do," a decision that he publicly defended against social media haters. Oh, and he's working on a new album. And planning a tour. On second thought, fabulous might be too small a word.

With all of his celebrity and large body of work, Hall still makes time to give back to his community and, specifically, to shine a light on HIV issues. I recently had a conversation with him on how HIV has touched his life, his feelings on how important it is for everyone to stay healthy and his partnership with Positively Fearless, an HIV awareness and empowerment campaign focused on men of color who have sex with men.

[Editor's Note: Positively Fearless is a project of the pharmaceutical company Janssen. Charles Sanchez has no conflicts of interest to report, and produced this article with complete editorial independence.]

Charles Sanchez: I met you briefly last year at the U.S. Conference on AIDS after you performed there. I actually got a selfie taken with you where you look adorable, and I look like the before picture in a cosmetic surgery ad.

Todrick Hall: Oh my gosh! (laughs) Not even! Well, next time I meet you, we have to retake that photo, and then we'll just double-check it this time!

CS: Absolutely. So, what is going on with you?

TH: I'm really excited to be a part Positively Fearless; I think it's so amazing. They reached out to me, and I looked at their campaign and their movement, and I was like, this is something I definitely want to be a part of and attach my name to. It's been a great collaboration so far.

CS: I'm really intrigued by the campaign and the fact that they are reaching out to people of color and addressing the disparity in HIV infection rates. What are you doing as part of this campaign?

TH: Well, I'm performing at Atlanta Black Gay Pride, and I'm also going to be at the booth for Positively Fearless, meeting people, talking to people, hearing their stories. I'm also hopefully going to be touching lives, inspiring them to lead healthier lives, to go get tested [for HIV] and go to to get more information about what they can do, to find resources to point them in the right direction, to just be able to increase the quality of their life and health.

CS: I love that you have used your celebrity to bring HIV awareness. What inspired you to want to be a part of the HIV landscape?

TH: HIV has been a part of my life. As a young child, I had a relative that was positive, and I was introduced to the stigma of what happens to people who are HIV positive. At a very young age, I was basically taught to be afraid, taught to be scared. Then, I had dance teachers and performers that I worked with, growing up and getting into the entertainment industry, who were positive, and, you know, a lot of people who have lost loved ones. I remember working with an amazing choreographer who was in The Wiz -- which, when I was like nine, that was the first big movie that I loved -- and she talked about how most of the dancers that were there [in The Wiz], they lost to HIV. And a lot of the people from the Broadway community we lost to HIV. Then, I became a Broadway actor and got really involved in Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, in Gypsy of the Year, just raising money for those types of programs.

I just wanted to be involved, to use my voice. You know, you get this big platform, and it's like, what do you do with it? Because HIV affects the gay community still so strongly, but specifically targets the black gay and bisexual community. I just feel that being a black YouTube and social media influencer, part of my responsibility is to educate people and give them information that not only that they need to know but also that I found very interesting -- statistics I found very shocking.

I also have been romantically involved with two people who were positive, and that was a really scary thing for me in the beginning. But I was able to find tools and information to be able to protect myself, and to be able to know that I could lead a long, healthy life. And not only as someone who's HIV negative; I could live a long, healthy life with someone who is HIV positive. That was really great information to help me to move forward and to feel confident in my relationship.

CS: People who are Latino and black have a much higher rate of HIV infection, and if they are living with HIV, a higher rate of not adhering to their medical regimen. Why do you think that is? Do you think there is an additional stigma in minority communities?

Todrick Hall

TH: I don't know. I can't put a finger on why. I just think, from my own personal experience, culturally, there were a lot of things that I was taught to brush under the rug and not speak about, to not talk about, and basically those things don't exist. I just don't think that's a healthy way for us to move forward and make sure that we're staying healthy. It's just really important for people to talk about it [HIV], for people to feel confident to go to get tested, go see the doctor, get on medication. It's important. It's equally as important, once you have the medication, to stay on the medication. In the black community [if you have HIV], we are twice as likely to miss a dose of medication. That's a crazy statistic that I have recently heard about! That is very shocking to me that that is the case.

For me, I was afraid to go get tested. I was afraid to go get tested every time. I'm nervous every time I go, even if I don't necessarily have a reason to be nervous. It's a scary feeling. But it doesn't have to be scary, if you know that, on the other side, whether you're positive or negative, there are solutions; you can get help and you can be a lot healthier. At that point, once you know [the results], and once you go and develop a relationship with a doctor that you trust, then it's a lot easier. If the outcome [of an HIV test] is something that you don't necessarily want to hear, there are so many options of things that you can do.

I also feel like it's my responsibility to protect people who I'm going to come in contact with later. If I don't continually get tested, then how can I make sure that I'm not putting someone who I love in danger? You know, you have to just be aware, and every person has to take the responsibility to do what they have to do to be safe and to be informed.

CS: Absolutely. Knowledge is power. As someone who's living with HIV, I appreciate that you are using your celebrity and your fabulousness to share this information with people and spread the word as far and wide as you can. I think that's beautiful, and I appreciate it.

TH: Thank you very much. I would just want everybody to go out and get tested, be safe, educate themselves -- continually get tested and stay on their medications and just be healthy. Everyone be healthy, because everyone is just, like, so beautiful!

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.