Though the world knows Gary Dell’Abate as Howard Stern's famous prankster producer Baba Booey, many don't realize that he's a longtime HIV/AIDS activist whose became involved with Lifebeat decades ago, after his brother died of AIDS. This week Dell'Abate is thrilled to announce Lifebeat's latest endeavor. Lifebeat: Music Fights HIV/AIDS and the MTV Staying Alive Foundation are hosting a celebration Thursday to celebrate the launch of The Arches of Hope. A stunning and inspiring interactive art installation, The Arches of Hope will be unveiled on the eve of President Obama’s second inauguration as part of a multifaceted campaign aimed at raising awareness of the rise of HIV and AIDS in young people and "calling on our national leaders on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration to help create an HIV-free generation." The installation was created and conceived by Patrick Duffy, the creative director of gay-oriented hotel The Out NYC, and designed by award-winning Italian designer and architect Antonio Pio Saracino.
The reception, to be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at The Out NYC in New York, is the kickoff to a week of celebration. From this Thursday through January 24, Lifebeat is asking people from around the country to participate in the campaign by tweeting messages that recognize the installation's message of hope for an HIV-free generation with the hashtag #ArchesofHope. Messages will then be beamed to jumbo screens in Times Square and displayed via digital ticker tape embedded in the installation, and then shared across 12 major social media sites. “We are also encouraging the public to sign a petition calling on President Obama and Congress to designate April 10 as National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day,” says Dell'Abate, who is “thrilled” that Sandra “Pepa” Denton of Salt-N-Pepa, a longtime advocate for safe sex, will be joining the reception to kickoff the campaign.
We caught up with Dell'Abate, now president of Lifebeat, to talk about his brother's legacy, getting kids to listen, and whether we'll ever have an HIV-free generation.
The Advocate: You got involved with Lifebeat after your brother died of AIDS. Were you actively searching for something to do?
Gary Dell’Abate: I was actively searching for an organization about a year after my brother died. I saw the movie Philadelphia with a friend, and after we went for a cup of coffee. We were sort of shell-shocked. It was so moving and powerful. She looked at me and said, “We have to do something.” So we actively sought an organization. There were many big ones out there that I didn't think needed my help. Lifebeat was small and I thought I could really make a difference with them.
Tell me about your brother. What was he like?
Lots of people say that someone was a great guy after they die, but my brother really was. People liked him. He was funny and could crack the right joke at the right time. He loved sports — the Knicks — and he loved the movies. Just a good guy.
Does working with Lifebeat keep you close to him?
Every time I do something with Lifebeat, it makes me think of my brother. There is no doubt that's why I got involved. It helps me remember him in a positive way as opposed to the frail guy in the hospital bed. I spoke at my son's high school on World AIDS Day and I just told his story. That makes me feel good. My son's never met my brother, so that's how I keep his memory alive.
Lifebeat is about raising awareness around prevention. Why do you think young people aren’t getting that message?
I feel so old saying this, but they didn't see what I saw. I read this amazing piece in Newsweek last week by David Ansen recounting a cover story he wrote in 1993 on AIDS and the generation of artists lost to the epidemic. He wrote, “That was almost exactly 20 years ago. A lot of deaths followed, and then, at least in the First World, there was an easing, though not an end. AIDS ceased to be an automatic death sentence, though only the foolish called it cured. A whole new generation has come of age since then, some of these kids shockingly cavalier about the dangers of unprotected sex. That era, when funerals were more common than birthdays on one’s social calendar, has, mercifully, become history.”
I saw more people die in five years than I've seen in the rest of my life. They think because people don't die that they can be cured. It's a foolish idea.
When do you think we’ll have an HIV-free generation?
I don't know that we'll ever see that, but I hope we can live in a world where, through medicine and education, the numbers become minuscule. I have my fingers crossed. That and some hard work might do it.
A lot of people know you as Baba Booey, the brash, ribald, shenanigan-prone producer of The Howard Stern Show. How much does your public image match who you really are? For some people it’s hard to think of that guy as the president of an organization that’s trying to raise awareness about a social cause.
I'm like anyone else. I do a show, but I've also experienced tragedy in my life. If my brother hadn't died, I wouldn't be here doing this and talking to you. And maybe that's why I am here. I think everyone has a cause, no matter who they are or what they do. This is mine.
Have you roped Howard Stern into helping with Lifebeat in any way?
Howard has been supportive since the day I joined. He's helped promote events on the air, and he always lets me talk about the cause. Howard was an early supporter of helping the cause. He's been great.