In the three decades of the HIV epidemic, many celebrities have lent their talents and support to help raise awareness and to help those who have the virus. But there are a few people who will forever stand out as the icons of HIV activism. Through their passion, commitment and support, these people have used their star power to impact the lives of millions living with HIV and will forever be remembered for their efforts to fight AIDS.
The Material Girl was anything but that when she first lent her support to HIV patients in a time when most people treated a person with AIDS like a pariah. Madonna’s dance teacher was HIV-positive and when he publically divulged that he had the virus, the two appeared together at a 1989 Dance-a-Thon to support AIDS Project LA. Her support early on, during the height the HIV epidemic, even led people to believe Madonna was HIV-positive. The rumors didn’t stop her then and they certainly aren’t stopping her now as she works with her organization, Raising Malawi, and continues to advocate for those who live with HIV in Africa and around the world.
Dame Elizabeth Taylor is a cinematic legend. But when the film phenom began her humanitarian work in the fight against HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, she became a global icon of activism. When Taylor was asked why she became involved so early on, this is what she said:
“I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything. And then I realized that I was just like them. I wasn’t doing anything to help.”
In 1985, Elizabeth Taylor joined with a group of doctors and scientists to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or what is now commonly known as amfAR. Today, she is remembered as much for the magnanimous impact she had on so many livesthrough her activism as she is for burning up the screen with her beauty and talent.
The U2 front man and rock legend founded the (RED) Foundation in 2006 with Bobby Shriver to engage millions of people from around the world in the fight against HIV and AIDS in Africa, home to an estimated two-thirds of the world’s HIV-positive population. Bono used his global appeal to tap into the private sector by working with major brands to create a steady flow of corporate giving into the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Since his foundation's inception, it has generated over $300 million for the Global Fund, which goes directly to finance HIV and AIDS programs in Africa.
Alicia Keys has stood up against HIV and AIDS through her organization Keep a Child Alive, which promotes prevention and treatment in Africa. But when the R&B songstress teamed up with the Empowered Project, she became the new voice of HIV awareness for women in the U.S.
“Talking about HIV/AIDS, you know, it’s critical and it is our generation’s issue and if we don’t talk about it now, it’s going to continue,” she told ABC News. “We tend to have a good international dialogue, like a good, healthy dialogue, but we’re not really discussing it in America. … We have to learn as much as we can and we have to share with as many people we can.”
Even though Rihanna is new to the world of HIV activism, we have a feeling she is going to bring the same passion and strength in her music to the fight against AIDS. The “Umbrella” singer has partnered with MAC Cosmetics to raise awareness and educate people about the virus. She also walked the red carpet for a new documentary called “It’s Not Over,” which is about three young people who are affected by HIV.
“I am very close with my fans, and when MAC approached me about this, I got a whole lot of information [and] a lot of heartbreaking real statistics that I didn’t know,” Rihanna told HIV Plus magazine. “They were very shocking for me, and it’s something that I felt was important for me to get the word out, to spread the word, to educate young people, educate my fans on a matter that’s really killing us and killing the youth.”
Although it may not have been his main priority while in office, President Clinton has spent much time post-presidency fighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa and around the world. He has shown almost a singular focus on raising awareness and delivering aid through the Clinton Global Initiative and has taken multiple trips to a number of countries across Africa, working to post nurses in rural clinics in various countries, deliver medicines to people who need them, and send experts to train hospital workers throughout the continent.
Annie Lennox brings passion and tenacity to everything she does, and her work in HIV activism is no different. The vocal powerhouse has championed many causes and is a celebrated social activist who has worked tirelessly to give a voice to women and children living with HIV in Africa and throughout the world. The U.N. ambassador launched the SING campaign, which works to raise support for HIV-positive women and children in Southern Africa. She also recruited 23 prominent female vocalists to contribute to the song “Sing,” which raised money and awareness for the HIV and AIDS organization Treatment Action Campaign.
Sir Elton John has always been outspoken, which is why he wasn’t afraid to fight HIV and AIDS in a time when many celebrities were afraid to be attached to the disease. In 1992 he founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which supports HIV prevention, education, and supports people living with HIV. John was inspired to start the organization by his young friend Ryan White, who died of AIDS complications in 1990 after being infected with HIV through a blood transfusion. Today, the organization is as strong as ever and has raised over $321 million in over 55 countries to date.
Joan Rivers was many things: a comedic legend, a feminist trailblazer, an uproarious fashion critic, and an unconventional but devoted mother and grandmother. But with all the zings, sling,s and punch lines that made up the persona of Joan Rivers, she was also a relentless HIV activist with a lion’s heart. Rivers began her advocacy work decades ago when she first started volunteering with God’s Love We Deliver, a nonprofit organization delivering food to HIV and AIDS patients in New York City. In 2009, when she won Celebrity Apprentice, she gave all of her earnings from the show to the organization. Her prize money bought 56,000 meals.
Miley Cyrus may have shocked the nation with some of her more wild musical endeavors, but the former Disney star is quickly proving herself as an intelligent, talented and purposeful individual with a drive for social change. When the “Wrecking Ball” singer showed up to the 2014 amfAR L.A. Inspiration Gala, her barely-there dress got people’s attention. But it was her $500,000 check to fight AIDS that left them in shock.
"It’s so important for me of all people to represent because I have a voice and I want to start an open dialogue about prevention," Cyrus told Variety. "Obviously I’m not too embarrassed to talk about these things, especially with young people."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the amount raised by the Elton John AIDS Foundation.