Famous Faces of HIV & AIDS
Celebrities With HIV and AIDS
Some were sports greats. Some were stadium-packing entertainers and rock gods. One was just a normal kid from the Midwest. The one thing they all have in common is that they put a face on HIV and AIDS, diseases that were discovered less than 30 years ago but are now well known throughout the world.
Learn about HIV/AIDS and the public faces of these conditions.
What are HIV and AIDS?
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a pathogen spread through the blood and sexual contact. HIV causes AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, an unpredictable, incurable condition that deteriorates the immune system. As AIDS progresses, the body loses its ability to fight off infection.
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates there were between 34 and nearly 36 million people living with HIV or AIDS worldwide at the end of 2011.
Click “next” to learn the famous faces of HIV and AIDS.
Ryan White was a 13-year-old Indiana teenager who was diagnosed with HIV in 1984 following a contaminated blood treatment for his hemophilia, a disease in which blood doesn’t clot properly.
Ryan was thrust into the national spotlight when parents of his classmates rallied together to bar Ryan from attending school, despite doctors saying he posed no risk to others. Ryan became a spokesman for AIDS before his death in 1990, and major HIV/AIDS legislation was passed in his name.
Rock Hudson’s tall, rugged frame made him one of Hollywood’s leading ladies men in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1985, he became one of Hollywood’s first celebrities to die from complications due to AIDS.
His disclosure of the disease in 1985 shocked the nation. It was only after his death—a few months after he announced his diagnosis—that the world learned how tightly Hudson guarded his homosexuality. However, his public disclosure of the diagnosis helped in HIV/AIDS education and funding.
Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson
Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson won five NBA championships for the LA Lakers during the 1980s, winning three MVP awards along the way. He retired in 1991 after discovering he had HIV, but came out of retirement twice before finally retiring for good after the 1996 season.
His diagnosis helped educated the public that HIV/AIDS wasn’t only a sexually transmitted disease affecting the gay community. After basketball, Johnson became an advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex through the Magic Johnson Foundation.
One of the most replayed images of the 1988 Summer Olympics was that of diver Greg Louganis striking his head on the springboard. Despite the resulting concussion, he went on to win two gold medals and ABC television’s “Athlete of the Year.”
That same year, Louganis tested positive for HIV. He documented his experience in the best-selling book Breaking the Surface. He is currently a coach and mentor with USA Diving.
Freddie Mercury’s vocals powered some of Queen’s strongest rock hits in the 1970s. His four-octave range and songwriting skills make him a staple in most lists of top-100 rock musicians of all time, and his music continues to be popular four decades after it was recorded.
While diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, Mercury kept the diagnosis as secret as possible, despite constant media reports. In November 1991, he publically announced his fight against AIDS. Two days later, he died of AIDS-related pneumonia.
As a junior in high school, Pedro Zamora learned that he was HIV positive. Forsaking college, he became an HIV/AIDS educator speaking on the importance of safe sex to schools, churches, and more. He appeared on several talk shows, including Oprah’s.
Most known for appearing on The Real World: San Francisco, Zamora became the face for HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s. He died in 1994. Several charities were created in his name, and movies and comic books that are based on his life have since been created.
In the 1950s-1970s, pianist and entertainer Liberace was the highest paid piano soloist in America. It is one of many reasons he coined the term, “I cried all the way to the bank.” He was known for his flashy outfits and flamboyant personality.
In the late 80s, as his health was failing, his publicists blamed his weight loss on a watermelon diet. However, an autopsy confirmed what Liberace’s camp wouldn’t: he had AIDS and died of related complications.
Eric Lynn Wright (Eazy-E) was a rapper in the L.A. hip hop group N.W.A., which also produced celebrities Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. He was a pioneer of the popular gangsta rap genre.
The group’s debut, Straight Outta Compton, helped launch Wright and others to fame. His and N.W.A.’s 1980s and early ‘90s albums became controversial classics.
Wright was diagnosed with AIDS in February, 1995. He released a statement within weeks announcing his shocking diagnosis. The statement implied that he often had unprotected sex. He died a month later.
Keith Haring was a visual artist who gained notoriety as a part of the 1980s New York City graffiti and mural art scene. His instantly recognizable drawings first appeared on unused advertisement panels in New York subway stations.
Haring’s line drawing style was simple, exciting, and urban. It quickly became famous and fashionable worldwide.
Haring, openly gay, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. He established the Keith Haring Foundation, which provides funding and imagery to children’s AIDS organizations. He died in 1990.
Elizabeth Glaser, wife of TV actor/director Paul Michael Glaser, gave birth to their daughter, Ariel, in 1981. Glaser needed a blood transfusion due to complications. She contracted HIV from contaminated blood and passed it unknowingly to Ariel through breastfeeding. Her second child, Jake, was born with HIV.
Despite treatment, Ariel died at the age of seven. Glaser then founded the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, a major fundraising and awareness agency for juvenile AIDS. She died as a result of HIV in 1994.
Now an adult, Jake Glaser remains a public advocate for HIV patients.
Fela Kuti was born to activist parents in Nigeria in 1938. He became famous in the 1960s and ‘70s as the inventor of “Afrobeat” music. He was also a vocal critic of oppressive regimes.
Kuti continued to write political lyrics though he was arrested 200 times. He and his family also suffered severe beatings. He produced 50 albums, among them his hit 1977 album Zombie, which heavily criticized the Nigerian military.
Kuti married 27 women. He claimed not to believe in AIDS or condoms. He died of AIDS complications in 1997 in Lagos, Nigeria. More than a million people attended his funeral.
Considered one of the first supermodels, Gia Carangi became a superstar of the fashion world in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She appeared on the covers of Vogue and Cosmopolitan and worked promotional campaigns for Armani, Christian Dior, Versace, and others.
Carangi became addicted to heroin and possibly contracted AIDS from needle use. An early victim of AIDS, Carangi died in 1986 at the age of 26.
Robert Reed was a cultural icon of the 1970s. He starred in a number of TV series, but he’ll always be best remembered as Mike Brady, the sensible and loving father in The Brady Bunch. He also guest-starred in Wonder Woman, Hawaii 5-0, and Charlie’s Angels.
Reed died of colon cancer and HIV in 1992. After his death, the public learned that he was gay and HIV positive.
Roy Cohn predicted that his obituary would read “Roy Cohn Dead; Was McCarthy Investigations Aide.” Cohn, a prosecuting lawyer of the Rosenberg Soviet espionage trial, wasn’t too far off.
He was the chief counsel to Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into American Communist activity in the 1950s. He was an instant—and instantly polarizing—celebrity. Cohn was also an attorney for Donald Trump, the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of New York, and alleged Mafia bosses.
Before his death, Cohn was suspected to be gay and have AIDS. He denied both until his death in 1986.
Arthur Ashe won three Grand Slam tennis titles and was the first African-American selected for Davis Cup play in 1963. He became the top tennis player in the world while also creating the Association of Tennis Professionals and raising awareness against South African apartheid.
Ashe learned that he was HIV positive in 1988, presumably due to an earlier blood transfusion. Ashe came forward as an HIV patient and created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He died in 1993.
Learn More About HIV/AIDS
The stories of these celebrities show that HIV and AIDS do not affect a single demographic. While infections from blood transfusions are nearly non-existent in developed nations, HIV is still a dangerous sexually transmitted disease (STD) affecting millions worldwide.
To decrease your risk of HIV and other STDs, it’s important to practice safe sex, and regularly be checked by your doctor if you are sexually active.
After all, the best sex is healthy sex.