HIV is a virus that weakens a person’s immune system by destroying CD4 cells, a type of white blood cell. While there’s still no cure for HIV, it’s highly manageable with antiretroviral therapy. With regular treatment, a person living with HIV can expect to live as long as a person without HIV.
Despite all we know about HIV, there remains a lot of stigma surrounding it. The fact is that anyone can contract HIV — even the most rich and famous people in the world. Here’s a list of nine celebrities who’ve had the courage to make their HIV status public so they can raise awareness and help others.
Arthur Ashe was a world-renowned tennis player who was active in HIV and AIDS awareness. Ashe contracted HIV from a blood transfusion after having heart surgery in 1983. He came public with his condition after rumors were started by the press.
In 1992, The New York Times quoted him at a press conference saying, “Just as I’m sure everyone in this room has some personal matter he or she would like to keep private, so did we… There was certainly no compelling medical or physical necessity to go public with my medical condition.”
Such statements highlighted the movement for HIV and AIDS awareness at that time, when celebrities were first starting to make public their diagnosis with the condition.
Ashe died of related complications in 1993 at the age of 49.
Eric Lynn Wright, better known as Eazy-E, was a member of the Los Angeles-based hip-hop group N.W.A. Eazy-E died in 1995, one month after receiving a diagnosis of AIDS.
Before his death, Eazy-E released a statement of redemption and last wishes: “I’m not saying this because I’m looking for a soft cushion wherever I’m heading, I just feel that I’ve got thousands and thousands of young fans that have to learn about what’s real when it comes to AIDS. Like the others before me, I would like to turn my own problem into something good that will reach out to all my homeboys and their kin.”
His son, rapper Lil Eazy-E, has continued the musical legacy of his father while also becoming a well-known HIV and AIDS activist.
Magic Johnson is a hero on several levels. Not only is he a former basketball star, he’s also one of the first celebrities to inform the world that he’s HIV-positive. Johnson made his announcement in 1991 — a time when the public believed a great number of misconceptions about HIV. In a press conference, he said, “Because of the HIV virus I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers… I plan to go on living for a long time.”
Over 25 years later, Johnson has made good on his plan. While still involved in sports as a commentator, he also started the Magic Johnson Foundation, an educational organization whose aim is to prevent the spread of HIV.
Aside from being known as an Olympic diving champion in the 1980s, Louganis is also one of the most famous faces of HIV awareness. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and has since used his passion of diving as a force to keep him going.
In thinking back to his diagnosis, Louganis told ESPN in 2016, “My doctor encouraged me that the healthiest thing for me would be to continue training for the Olympics. The diving was much more of a positive thing to focus on. I did suffer from depression; if we had a day off, I couldn’t get out of bed. I would just pull the covers over my head. But as long as I had something on the calendar, I showed up.”
Today Louganis remains a regular inspiration — not just for athletes, but also for those who battle HIV stigma.
Freddie Mercury kept his HIV diagnosis private for years. The lead singer of Queen died of AIDS complications just days after he publicly announced he was HIV-positive. The Los Angeles Times reported the announcement he made shortly before his death:
“Following the enormous conjecture in the press over the last two weeks, I wish to confirm that I have tested HIV-positive and have AIDS.
“I felt it correct to keep this information private to date in order to protect the privacy of those around me.
“However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth and I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.”
He was 45 years old at the time of his death in November 1991. His melodic voice and musical talents, as well as his fight against HIV, continue to inspire people today.
This founding member and bassist of the band Styx has advocated activism on two counts: gay rights and HIV prevention. Chuck Panozzo announced in 2001 that he was diagnosed with HIV. He also wrote a memoir detailing his experiences.
In 2012, Panozzo stated that being a member of Styx was his ultimate source of support, saying, “What the band has taught me psychologically is that I need to go out and be with my band as they continue their legacy in the rock ‘n’ roll world forever… How could that not help me in my recovery process? I have a band that is willing to make sure that I stay healthy.”
Today, Panozzo is maintaining his condition with medications while staying active in the fight against HIV.
Danny Pintauro is perhaps best known for his role of Jonathan on the sitcom “Who’s the Boss?” Now Pintauro is also credited for HIV activism. In 2015, the former child star told Oprah Winfrey about his diagnosis of HIV: “I wanted to tell you this a long time ago, but I wasn’t ready. I’m ready now… I’m HIV-positive, and I have been for 12 years.”
Pintauro also acknowledges that he wasn’t ready to talk about his condition for so many years because of possible stigma.
In 2015, actor Charlie Sheen publicly announced his HIV diagnosis. Though Sheen has been HIV-positive since 2011, he decided to publicize his condition to raise awareness. Adding to the controversy is his admission that he continued to have relations with women knowing that he was HIV-positive at the time. Still, Sheen might be seeking some redemption, stating that he has to “not shun away from responsibilities and opportunities that drive me to help others… I have a responsibility now to better myself and help a lot of other people.”
Pedro Zamora made a significant impact during his short life. He was one of the cast members of MTV’s “Real World: San Francisco” reality series. He used the show as a platform for HIV and AIDS awareness as well as gay rights. Zamora was quoted saying, “As gay young people, we are marginalized. As young people who are HIV-positive and have AIDS, we are totally written off.”
He died at the age of 22 in 1994. Since then, his loved ones — including former “Real World” cast members — continue Zamora’s legacy and work to promote HIV awareness and prevention.