Reigniting the Fight: The Celebrity Factor

As part of FCAA’s 30th Anniversary blog series, we are highlighting the contributions and involvement of celebrities in the fight against AIDS and HIV. From lending their image and voice to establishing foundations, mobilizing resources and reaching the most vulnerable, celebrities have played an important role in combating the epidemic. While the examples below are certainly not intended to be an exhaustive list, they represent excellent examples of the impact celebrities have had in the fight throughout the past three decades.

From the earliest days of the fight to end HIV and AIDS, celebrities have been key to building awareness around the epidemic, particularly at times when governments and the media remained silent. A celebrity’s name can open doors and carry power that, when harnessed properly, effects real change.

The Pioneer

Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first celebrities to speak out about the AIDS crisis, testifying in front of congress in support of the Ryan White bill. In the 1980s, Taylor used her celebrity to raise money for AIDS organizations and to build public awareness about the disease. In 1985, she co-founded amfAR, and six years later, the eponymous Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). Taylor’s reputation and brand acted as a catalyst, helping to attract well known peers to the cause and engaging the organizations, foundations, corporations and strategic global leaders needed to establish and scale up programs. Today, both organizations continue her legacy, through education, advocacy and direct programming. [1]

A Recognizable Face and a Strong Voice

Elizabeth Glaser, wife of actor Paul Glaser, contracted HIV in a blood transfusion in 1981 while giving birth to her daughter, Ariel. Later, the couple learned that Elizabeth passed the virus on to Ariel through breast milk. Their son, Jake, had contracted the virus in utero as well.

At this early point in the epidemic, the drug companies and health agencies did not understand how to prevent and treat HIV among children. After losing Ariel in 1988, Elizabeth took action to save Jake’s life. With the support of her close friends, in 1989 she founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation in her kitchen to help bring hope to children with HIV and AIDS. One of the Foundation’s first efforts included asking Congress to fund testing HIV drugs in children. The Foundation’s early efforts also focused on advocacy to hold the U.S. government accountable for its actions – or inaction. Elizabeth’s speech at the 1992 Democratic convention[2] helped draw attention to the issues facing people living with HIV.

After Elizabeth passed away in 1994, the Foundation was renamed the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF)[3], and has since gone on to change the course of pediatric HIV. Today, it is the leading global nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing pediatric HIV infection and eliminating pediatric AIDS.  Jake Glaser, Elizabeth’s son, continues his mother’s legacy by working as an EGPAF Ambassador.

In November 1991, then L.A. Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson stunned the world when he publicly announced his HIV status[4].  In fact, a driving force behind his decision to go public was the support of Elizabeth Glaser, who encouraged him to share his story, and to be the face of HIV.[5] The overwhelming public response to this announcement led to the formation of the Magic Johnson Foundation (MJF) later that year, addressing HIV and AIDS through grantmaking.

In its more than 25 years, MJF has also evolved to address other connected epidemics in urban communities, including the lack of educational opportunity and empowerment. The MJF HIV/AIDS Community Grants Programs focus on supporting the development of high quality, innovative programs that provide HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention, and treatment services to urban communities. To date, MJF has raised more than $20 million for charity.

“It would have been enough for Magic, a black, recently-married heterosexual athlete, to let the world know that he had been infected. Simply by living, he did much more, proving that an HIV infection was no longer an automatic death sentence. It is not possible to overstate how badly that message was needed in the minority communities that had been affected most severely, yet were, as always, least well served by the public-health system.”[6] – The New Yorker Magazine, 2014


Innovative Approaches

The M·A·C AIDS Fund has leveraged the support of celebrities to advance its cause. By marrying the appeal of cosmetics and fame, M·A·C AIDS Fund has partnered with celebrities since 1994 to promote the iconic Viva Glam lipstick shades. By partnering with individuals as diverse as RuPaul, KD Lang and Nicki Minaj to sell Viva Glam, the Fund has raised over $400 million.

Each celebrity with whom the Fund works develops a unique giving platform built around the AIDS-related issue on which he or she is most focused. The individual then lends his or her voice through speaking engagements and, of course, the unforgettable advertising campaign.[7] Such creative approaches have helped to make M·A·C AIDS Fund one of the top five HIV/AIDS philanthropic funders for more than a decade. Importantly, the M·A·C AIDS Fund continues to leverage their resources and leadership to support and bring attention to critical issues, such as a new initiative focused on ending HIV in Washington, DC[8], and most recently, a new public service series and documentary to improve understanding of the transgender community[9].

What Draws Celebrities to the Fight

Witnessing the impact of the epidemic first-hand — whether seeing it during their travels or encountering someone who is HIV positive — is often the catalyst, which spurs a celebrity to action. For example, it was seeing close friends in the music industry suffering from the disease that motivated musician Elton John. Realizing that thousands of gay men dying from AIDS were being shunned by their own families and “treated like they weren’t even human,”[10] he took action. He lent his voice and significant clout to the movement by starting the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Together, since their inception, the US and UK branches of the Elton John AIDS Foundation have raised more than $300 million.

Charlize Theron had a similarly personal experience with AIDS growing up in South Africa, which is home to one of the largest HIV epidemics in the world. She has said of her experience, “AIDS definitely left a huge impact on me, I think, and how I view the quality of life and healthcare. All of those things we take for granted on this side of the world and growing up in Africa, I was so bombarded by that every single day of my life and it caused a lot of fear.”[11] Turning that fear into action, Theron founded the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP) in 2007.

For her part, Alicia Keys’ was moved by her travels to Africa where she witnessed the human impact of the AIDS crisis for the first time. “These were people! Not numbers, not different than our own brothers and sisters or nieces and nephews,” she has said, “I couldn’t pretend that my eyes hadn’t been opened, and we as a global community could not forget or neglect them. When I returned home, I co-founded Keep a Child Alive.”[12] Keys then sought out other celebrity ambassadors to amplify the efforts of Keep a Child Alive. Today, artists and sports stars including actress Taraji P. Henson, singer Janelle Monae and boxer Laila Ali work with the organization, raising awareness and funds to bring treatment, care, and support to children and families in sub-Saharan Africa and India.

How Resources are Directed

While spending part of his “gap year” in Lesotho, Britain’s Prince Harry was impressed with the work of community based workers and volunteers whose grassroots efforts were making a real impact. At the same time, he realized that they would not be able to attract the necessary level of support without a well-recognized sponsor. Not only did he use his personal platform to bring heightened awareness, but in founding the organization with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, he ensured the mission and resources of Senteble were directed toward community-based organizations because he had seen for himself how effective they can be.

Again and again as we travelled round Lesotho we saw the same thing: great work being done in the community by amazing volunteers who weren’t able to attract support, because they didn’t have professional managers or accountants to show where the money was going.”  – Prince Harry[13]

Prince Harry’s work follows in the footsteps of his mother, Princess Diana of Wales. Shortly after her death in 1997, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund[14] was established to improve the lives of disadvantaged people in the UK and around the world.  From 1997 through its closing in 2012, the Fund awarded more than £112 million to 471 organizations, including many grants in support of HIV efforts in the UK and worldwide. Further, Princess Diana’s commitment to people living with HIV/AIDS and her involvement in the hospice movement inspired the Trust to establish the Palliative Care Initiative (2000-2012) in support of people living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic conditions in Sub Saharan Africa.

Like Sentable, Theron’s CTAOP also works directly with community-based organizations. By providing tools and resources, CTAOP helps to empower young people so that they are better able to protect themselves from HIV. In addition, the organization connects community-based organizations with resources and provides capacity building to help them effectively reach young people with innovative programs.

“Experience has taught us that knowledge forms a basis to be able to make good decisions, but without addressing issues like gender disparities, self-efficacy, stigma, or the ability to negotiate safe relationships, knowledge may be rendered powerless.”[15] – Charlize Theron

In addition to working directly with communities, celebrity organizations often focus on underserved populations. Since its founding in 1992, much of the resources that the Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised has gone to fight stigma and discrimination in addition to direct care for people living with HIV/AIDS. The organization pays particular attention to groups that would otherwise be left behind in the response.[16]  The Elton John AIDS Foundation works to find groups that are serving key populations, but that may not be receiving funding from traditional HIV philanthropy.[17]  The Foundation’s Founder and Chairman, Sir Elton John and David Furnish, continually speak out to raise awareness around critical gaps in the HIV response, and to fight stigma. Most recently, Elton John received the Harvard Foundation’s 2017 Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award[18]

“I hope and pray that science will find a cure for AIDS very soon. But more than a new medical breakthrough, we need a breakthrough in our understanding of what really drives this epidemic, and how our lack of compassion for those suffering from HIV/AIDS is making the epidemic so much worse[19].” – Elton John

The Impact

Over the past 30 years celebrities have contributed their voice, time, and resources to fight HIV and AIDS. Their efforts have not only increased awareness, but have also informed policies and helped de-stigmatize the disease. Importantly, celebrities have helped to mobilize critical resources and direct them to underfunded populations and communities. In 2016 alone, the organizations highlighted above have contributed more than $63 million-  this is more than 9% of all HIV and AIDS philanthropy for the year. These individuals and organizations are more critical than ever. They have the microphone and reach necessary to ensure the world understands that AIDS is not yet over. Their powerful voices and brand recognition will be instrumental to #reignitethefight against HIV and AIDS.





[3] EGPAF is no longer tracked as part of FCAA’s resource tracking efforts as it is increasingly funded by the U.S. Government, and primarily funds its own programmatic efforts. However, the organization played a critical role in helping to bring philanthropic attention to the HIV epidemic, which is why FCAA is featuring it in this blog.















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