Four decades on, HIV remains a frightening reality. While many are living long and healthy lives with the disease, AIDS-related diseases felled 1.2 million people in 2014. Once thought to only affect certain people, HIV and AIDS do not discriminate when it comes to income, race, or sexuality. The stories of the following 23 individuals taught many that lesson, and many of these celebrities made it their mission to inform as many as possible about HIV's universal threat.
Hudson was Hollywood's ultimate leading man throughout the 1950s and '60s, romancing some of the industry’s most beloved actresses on-screen, such as Doris Day, Julie Andrews, and longtime friend Elizabeth Taylor. He was briefly married in order to mask his homosexuality. Hudson died of AIDS-related complications in 1985. His death caused a mini-panic in Hollywood, as one of his last roles, on the prime-time soap Dynasty, required a long kiss with co-star Linda Evans (Evans was, obviously, fine and not angry at Hudson for not disclosing his HIV status). Hudson was the first major Hollywood star to die of the illness. In response to the loss of her beloved friend, Taylor cofounded the American Foundation for AIDS Research and later the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
Mercury, the front man for the widely successful British rock band Queen, was known as bisexual to many in the music industry. Shortly before his death, a very gaunt Mercury joined his band mates for one final video, “These Are the Days of Our Lives,” a song in which the singer reminiscences about his younger days. Mercury died of bronchopneumonia brought on by AIDS in 1991, only one day after he publicly acknowledged he had the disease. In 2010, Rolling Stone named him number 18 on its list of the 100 greatest singers ever.
Perkins is best known for his portrayal of Norman Bates, the cross-dressing, homicidal hotel owner in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. But by the time he played Bates, Perkins had already been nominated for a Tony and an Academy Award, and had won a Golden Globe award as New Star of the Year. Throughout his life, he was known to have close, romantic relationships with both women and men, including, reportedly, Stephen Sondheim. "There are many who believe that this disease is God's vengeance," Perkins said in a statement before his passing, "but I believe it was sent to teach people how to love and understand and have compassion for each other.” He died in 1992 of AIDS-related pneumonia, with his wife, Berry Berenson, and his two sons by his side.
Ashe was the first African-American tennis player to be selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team, and the only black man ever to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open. Ashe reportedly contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during heart surgery, and he announced his illness in 1992, before founding the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. He died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993. After Ashe’s death, President Bill Clinton honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts to eradicate HIV and AIDS, and for his battle to end discrimination in sports.
Flamboyant performer Liberace was known best for his piano prowess, virtuoso performances, and extravagant wardrobe, homes, and cars. At the height of his fame, he was the highest-paid entertainer in the business, playing for celebrities and dignitaries and headlining a very successful Las Vegas show. Throughout his career there were rumors of his affairs with men, prompting Liberace to file numerous libel suits against publications in an effort to mask his sexuality. He died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987, but he and his personal physician had tried to hide his AIDS diagnosis from the public. However, the official cause of death was confirmed on the coroner's certificate filed by the Riverside County, Calif., coroner.
Carangi has been dubbed the “World’s First Supermodel,” having appeared on the cover of four international editions of Vogue, in five editions of Cosmopolitan, and in advertisements for Armani, Versace, and Christian Dior, all before turning 23. She openly loved women, having flings with female photographers, makeup artists, and designers. Sadly, at 26, Carangi became one of the first famous women to die of AIDS-related complications, having reportedly contracted it through injection drug use. HBO Films later paid tribute with an Emmy-winning 1998 drama, Gia, starring up-and-comer Angelina Jolie.
Glaser became a leading AIDS activist after she received an HIV-contaminated blood transfusion while giving birth to her daughter Ariel. Ariel later died after contracting the illness through breast-feeding, and Glaser’s son Jake contracted it in utero. After Ariel’s death in 1988, Glaser cofounded the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation to raise awareness about HIV in children. At the time of Ariel’s death, Glaser told The New York Times, "She taught me to love when all I wanted to do was hate. She taught me to help others when all I wanted to do was help myself." Glaser died in 1994 of AIDS-related complications, but her legacy lives on. The foundation reached an estimated 20 million women worldwide, testing 17 million, and enrolling more the 2.2 million in its HIV care and support program.
Ellis is best known for his casual American style of sportswear. His use of khakis, hand-knitted sweaters, and oversize jackets led The New York Times to proclaim that he “glorified the clean-cut, all-American look.” At the time, his cause of death was listed as viral encephalitis, but rumors of Ellis’s HIV-positive status made news after it came to light that his lover and business partner, Laughlin Barker, died of Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer. The Los Angeles Times ran a 1986 series on journalistic ethics and whether it was appropriate to include AIDS rumors in news stories, with Ellis serving as the focus.
The revered fashion designer’s style was known for being minimalist, and the designer often used cashmere and Ultrasuede. His most famous clients were Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, and Liza Minnelli. He was also a figure of '70s nightlife in New York and was a staple at the famed disco Studio 54. His long time love was rumored to be window dresser, Victor Hugo. Halston died in 1990 in San Francisco of Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer.
Reed was best known for his portrayal of Mike Brady, the patriarch of the beloved '70s blended family in The Brady Bunch. Throughout his career, he received three Emmy Award nominations — for his work in Medical Center, Rich Man Poor Man, and Roots. Reed died in 1992 of bowel cancer, but his doctor listed Reed’s status as HIV-positive on his death certificate. His AIDS-related death was memorably mentioned in the Gen X-defining film Reality Bites.
Most famous for his appearance in the third season of MTV’s The Real World, Zamora was diagnosed with HIV at 17. He became the first out, HIV-positive man to appear on mainstream television, as the breakout star of The Real World's 1994, San Franciscon-set season. Zamora dated AIDS educator Sean Sasser while living in the Real World house, and the two exchanged vows in the first-ever televised same-sex commitment ceremony. Sadly, Zamora died hours after the groundbreaking finale aired. Pedro, a 2008 movie written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, dramatized Zamora's life.
In the 1980s, Indiana-born Ryan White became the poster child of the AIDS epidemic. He was a hemophiliac and contracted the disease through contaminated blood. Because of mistreatment by adults in his community and bullying by peers at school, White and his family set out to educate people on the facts of the disease. In the process, White made many A-list friends, including John Cougar Mellencamp, Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Greg Louganis, and won the hearts of millions of Americans. White died at age 18 of an AIDS-related respiratory infection. The Ryan White CARE Act, the largest federally funded program for people living with HIV or AIDS, was passed by the U.S. Congress shortly after his death.
Blake was an American actress, best known for her role as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke. How she contracted HIV remains a mystery, but listed on her death certificate as a partial cause of death was CMV hepatitis (cytomegalovirus), an AIDS-related condition. Her fourth and last husband, Mark Spaeth (1944-1985), also died of AIDS-related complications.
This Soviet-born dancer was known to celebrate both classical ballet and modern dance in the same performance. He defected to France in 1961 and eventually met his longtime love, Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. The two stayed together until Bruhn’s death in 1986. According to The New York Times, “Nureyev was afraid of revealing his illness before his death because he thought it might limit his career. The dancer learned that he had H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, in 1984, when he was still much in demand around the world. He was concerned that some countries, mainly the United States, might refuse him entry if he were known to be H.I.V. positive.”
This forward-thinking British director shook up cinema in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. Jarman's gay-themed, politically driven work took on everything from the monarchy to Shakespeare classics to the scourge of AIDS. His cinematic style could be described as experimental, but it always came with a strong opinion and a definitive point. Jarman's Edward II is seen by many scholars as a modern classic, and it helped propel actress Tilda Swinton to stardom. Jarman never hid his sexuality or his HIV diagnosis, which would fell him in 1994.
The German performer remains adored thanks to his highly original performances, beautiful singing voice, and trendsetting costumes. After becoming a sensation in his native country, Nomi won over the crowds at various New York City nightclubs during the end of the disco era. He sang backup for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live, influenced drag legend Joey Arias, and even appeared in films. Sadly, in 1983, Nomi became one of the first celebrities to die of AIDS complications.
This actor found fame as one of the stars of the unflinching film Midnight Express, which told the story of Americans tortured in a Turkish prison. Davis, who was straight, was respected for having the courage for taking on gay roles, specifically in Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart and the film Querelle. Before becoming sober, Davis used intravenous drugs, which he and his wife believe were responsible for his infection. Davis tested positive for HIV in 1985, but kept it quiet so he wouldn't be blacklisted in Hollywood.
This Australian import was best known for his Oscar-winning song, “Arthur’s Theme” (written in collaboration with others), and for serving as songwriter for Olivia Newton-John, Carly Simon, and Frank Sinatra, to name only a few. Allen, discovered by Judy Garland, later married her daughter, Liza Minnelli, but the couple parted ways after seven years. After their divorce, Allen came out and lived with his long-term partner, model Gregory Connell, until Connell’s death from an AIDS-related illness in 1984. Allen died in 1992 from an AIDS-related throat cancer. Hugh Jackman would later star in a musical about Allen's life, The Boy From Oz.
Loud became part of one of the world's first reality shows when PBS aired An American Family in 1973. Lance, the eldest son of the Loud family, came out to an estimated 10 million viewers during the second episode and changed the television landscape forever. Later, Loud moved from California to New York, formed a band called the Mumps, and eventually settled into his status as a gay icon. Loud died in 2001 of liver failure caused by hepatitis C and HIV. In 2011, HBO films made Cinema Verite, a film about the making of the original PBS documentary series, starring Diane Lane, Tim Robbins, James Gandolfini, and Thomas Dekker as Lance.
Brooklyn-born Rubell, along with business partner Ian Schrager, opened famed disco Studio 54 in 1977. The club was known for excess and as a place where everyday people could party with the beautiful ones. Just a few of the regulars were Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Halston, Calvin Klein, Truman Capote, Diana Ross, Madonna, and Cher. Top music stars of the '70s were also known to take the stage; the Village People, Donna Summer, and Gloria Gaynor all entertained revelers. After Rubell was convicted of tax evasion in 1979, nightclub watchers said the club scene in New York was never the same. Even though he was taking AZT, Rubell died in 1989 of AIDS complications, including hepatitis and septic shock.
Eazy-E was part of the influential rap/hip-hop group NWA, rhyming alongside Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. During the time when NWA was gaining popularity, Eazy-E invested in Ruthless Records and became known as the “Godfather of Gangsta Rap.” After a falling out, the group disbanded and Eazy went on to have a moderately successful solo career. Eazy died in 1995 of AIDS complications, only a month after his diagnosis. Shortly before he died, he released a statement to fans saying, “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. Because I want to save their asses before it's too late. I have learned in the last week that this thing is real, and it doesn't discriminate. It affects everyone.”
Fogerty and his brother John were founding members of the Southern-influenced rock band Creedence Clearwater Revivial. CCR is known for megahits like “Proud Mary,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and “Fortunate Son.” Unfortunately, the brothers had a falling out in the early 1970s, which was the beginning of the end for the band. Sadly, Fogerty’s attempts at a solo career never saw the success that Creedence achieved. He died in 1990 of AIDS-related complications, having contracted the disease during a blood transfusion. The brothers were never able to reconcile.
The work of this kind-hearted, Pennsylvania-born artist would come to represent much of the visual aesthetic of the 1980s. After moving to New York City, Haring painted his joyful, faceless creatures on the city's subways. His work began getting national attention as the decade progressed, as galleries began showcasing his work and he developed friendships with high-profile figures like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Madonna. Haring's images took on more political dimensions as he began rallying against apartheid and the ravages of AIDS, to which he eventually succumbed. Before his death in 1990, Haring shared his artwork on school buildings and hospital walls, and established a foundation devoted to providing funding for AIDS efforts.