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Hairdressers Against AIDS Launches

Hairdressers Against AIDS Launches

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The December forecast calls for wind gusts, rain, and humidity, but what looks like a bad hair day in the Big Apple promises to spark millions of conversations about HIV prevention on the streets of New York City and beyond this World AIDS Day.

On Wednesday some 500 hairdressers from across the country are trading in their shears for red ribbon-themed accessories and flipcams to pound the pavement in support of the U.S. launch of Hairdressers Against AIDS, a global campaign sponsored by the L'Oreal Foundation in partnership with UNESCO and the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria. The initiative, which began in South Africa in 2001, uses the universal bond between hairdressers and their clients throughout a multibillion-dollar industry to promote dialogue about HIV prevention in nearly 30 countries in every region of the world, including China, Russia, Brazil, France, the U.K., and Indonesia.

Streaming videos and PSAs in Times Square, in taxis, and on the campaign's website and Facebook page represent the beginnings of an estimated $1 million effort that will also rely on trade shows, advertising, and educational materials to spark 110 million conversations about HIV/AIDS in the United States in 2011. The initiative will tap some 500,000 hairdressers in the L'Oreal network who speak to 20 million clients per week.

Sponsors call it perhaps the largest HIV/AIDS mobilization campaign in U.S. history and acknowledge that it took some time to prepare this global but grassroots campaign for the complex American market.

"I've not seen a program of this type, employee mobilization on this scale, for AIDS," said John Tedstrom, president and CEO of the Global Business Coalition, a group of more than 220 companies fighting the three pandemics. "It's huge."

As in other countries, educators from L'Oreal's professional products division, who see their own clients and help colleagues with career development, serve on the front lines of the campaign that urges people to "Use your voice, use your power for a beautiful world without AIDS." Their communications focus on three messages -- about reducing risk, getting tested, and talking about the disease -- for the wide audience reached by the company's many brands.

"We're very fortunate with the scope of our brands," said Christine Schuster, senior vice president of education for Redken, Pureology worldwide. "The brands all have different demographics. Across the scope of our brands, we do see many different demographics of salons, different communities, and so we believe that throughout our brands we have an opportunity to reach the African-American community, the men who have sex with men community, children, teenagers. We also see the older population."

Five hundred educators attended a pre-launch symposium Tuesday afternoon at the United Nations, where these brand ambassadors took seats in a conference room normally reserved for real diplomats. Instead of discussing nuclear proliferation and climate change, the black-clad and well-coiffed attendees may have made history by prompting Katy Perry and house music to be played in an official venue of the world body.

The message at the U.N. was serious, however, with speeches from corporate leaders and government officials highlighting the role that hairdressers can play in fighting the stigma and complacency around an epidemic that, 30 years after its manifestation in the United States, continues to rise among men who have sex with men and in communities of color.

"Love and sex and HIV and AIDS are of course very much related," said UNESCO senior program officer Christine Alfsen, who appealed to the character Figaro in the Barber of Seville opera. "You are the heart of it all."

Miguel Gomez, director of AIDS.gov in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recalled the contributions that hairdressers made in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. He spoke of his experience working against the disease in the 1980s in Washington, D.C.

"The hair salon was doing better AIDS education than we were," he said to an audience that included celebrity hairdressers such as Tracey Cunningnham, Ted Gibson, Doug Macintosh, and Johnny Wright. "They told us which shops in the neighborhood would not serve food to people living with AIDS. They also told us which funeral homes were not serving people living with families who'd lost someone to AIDS."

Gaby Miley, a global educator for Redken, agreed that she is uniquely positioned to talk about HIV given the trusting nature of her ongoing relationships with clients from all walks of life. She said she sees up to 175 unique clients every month at home in Phoenix, in addition to the thousands she helps to train through corporate events.

"It's amazing what I hear in one day," she said. "I think that's just the power of who we are and what we do for a living."

Miley and 499 other colleagues will put their people skills to work on Wednesday, when they use flipcams and photo booths in an attempt to engage 1 million New Yorkers in conversations to help launch Hairdressers Against AIDS in the U.S. In addition to the videos they create on the streets, the campaign features pre-recorded messages from celebrities and officials including Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Pete Wentz, Rosanna Arquette, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova, and city council speaker Christine Quinn.

But make no mistake, sponsors say, it is the unique platform of hairdressers across diverse cultures that gives this HIV prevention campaign its cutting edge.

"Very few people actually have the license to touch another human being," said Schuster. "A hairdresser is given that license."

For more information visit Hairdressers Against AIDS.
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