{ Celebrity + Humanitarian = Celebritarian }

The Celebritarian of the Month is: Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth-Taylor-perfume41

The year 1985 introduced the American public to many significant moments.

The charity song, We Are the World was recorded, a 21-year-old woman from Newark, New Jersey named Whitney Houston released her first album, and award-winning actor Rock Hudson died.

Mr. Hudson’s death was significant for more than the loss of his lustrous career, as a highly respected thespian where he lit up the silver screen as one of the most handsome, talented and charismatic actors to ever work in Hollywood. It is what he died of that made his passing monumental. Rock Hudson was arguably the first celebrity to die of AIDS.

At the time of Mr. Hudson’s death, empathy and in many cases help, for people who had AIDS was difficult to come by. Tall tales about how the disease could be caught and spread gripped the nation. A change was desperately needed, in how the world not only viewed, but treated victims of the disease and in order to do that, someone with a large platform to reach millions would have to be brave enough to step into the role of their champion. To the shock of her peers and her adoring public in general, the first person with the means to take on this seemingly impossible role was Oscar winning actress, world-renowned beauty, and fashion icon Elizabeth Taylor.

In January of 1985, Elizabeth was asked by APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles) to support their very first fundraiser. She accepted and went to work making phone calls, sending letters and reaching out to anyone she believed could be useful. What happened next was disheartening and tested her resilience.

Elizabeth discovered that once someone was diagnosed, fear-based judgement set in, and many victims of this new disease found themselves shunned by family and friends. Those who could no longer provide for themselves when they became too ill to work, would often have nowhere to turn to, and became homeless. These problems, she believed, would not just go away if ignored, and had to be shared with the press to help raise support for the victims. While planning the fundraiser, Elizabeth also asked for donations to fund HIV/AIDS research, social services and money to subsidize the exorbitant medication fees which most people simply could not afford to pay.

One might think she made these calls at her leisure, while lounging in one of her stunning silk caftans at her beautiful Bel Air home. That was not the case. Right after she accepted APLA’s request to help organize their event, she rented office space, suited up and went to work. Elizabeth literally begged potential donors to see the victims as human beings in need of support, love, empathy and kindness; but few wanted to get involved. To say this led to a few heated arguments would be an understatement. Many of her phone calls asking for help from people that she assumed would be supportive, ended abruptly in the middle of her sentences; something she never experienced before – as a movie icon. Still, she was determined and marched on, even ignoring advisors that told her getting involved was bad for her career. Eight months after accepting APLA’s invitation, she saw the fruits of her labor when on September 19, 1985 at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Elizabeth presided over the first APLA fundraiser.

Earlier that night – after slipping into a beautiful black beaded evening gown, and of course her diamond jewelry, she left her home early and went to various studio lots. With the remaining unsold gala tickets in her hand, she insisted that her peers buy them, because raising the money necessary to help the cause, was more important to her than arriving at the gala on time.

When she arrived at the event, proud attendees like Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis Jr, Burt Reynolds who was the evening’s emcee, Betty Ford, Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper, Stevie Wonder and Cher, stood proudly by her side. Rock Hudson – who was too ill to attend, gave Burt Lancaster a short yet powerful note to read in his absence that evening: “I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS, but if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”

Where only months before, Elizabeth struggled to sell tickets, that night over a million dollars had been raised. Many of the guests did not want to leave when the event was over. There was a need to stay, talk and just be together as industry peers. Rock Hudson’s absence was poignant, and his words were profound…everyone knew that everything had changed.

Two weeks after the gala, Rock Hudson died of AIDS. Panic spread across the nation, and throughout the press. Though he had gone public with his illness, the shock of him actually dying was overwhelming to his peers and the nation. Hollywood, now educated about the disease because of the event, took notice that it could happen to one of their own. All eyes were on Elizabeth now, and this time — not about her personal life — but about her philanthropic work. Never happy about the amount of prying she received from the press, she now found a reason to appreciate it, and the perfect way to use it.

Reeling from the loss of Hudson, who had not only been her peer, but one of her best friends, and knowing that she finally had the attention of those who could help share her message, Elizabeth gladly became the first official celebrity spokesperson for the AIDS community.

Yet even before the gala and Mr. Hudson’s death, the LGBT community had been on the frontline fighting for support, to be heard and for funding. The very first American research organization to explore the disease was launched in 1982, as the AIDS Medical Foundation (AMF). Talented young singer, songwriter and author Michael Callen, who had the disease, was a founding member. Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, one of the first doctors to treat HIV infected patients and a widely respected researcher of the virus, and Dr. Mathilde Krim, also a medical researcher and prominent civil rights activist — joined the committee. Dr. Krim was also AMF’s first large donor, which funded their initial research. Each day, more activists were joining the movement. There were marches for the press to pay attention to, speeches in front of congressional committees imploring the government to take notice and get involved, and even arrests of some of the activists in front of the White House. The LGBT community, from the onset of the discovery of the disease in America, lifted their voices to be heard. Unfortunately, social prejudices, ignorance and fear kept many from wanting to listen.

In 1985 Dr. Mathilde Krim learned from her husband, attorney and movie studio executive Arthur B. Krim, that Elizabeth and Dr. Michael Gottlieb had recently put the $250,000 book advance  Rock Hudson received for his biography toward forming the National AIDS Research Foundation. Hudson left this advance to be put toward finding a cure for AIDS. Arthur suggested his wife reach out to Elizabeth to see how they could join forces. Their conversations proved to be the beginning of a close professional alliance.  They combined their efforts and AMFAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research) would become a leading force in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The Elizabeth Taylor Foundation
Since that first gala in 1985, the LGBT community, many new AIDS foundations, and AMFAR, continue to raise money, spread awareness, fight for change and fund research in the pursuit of a cure.

As Elizabeth grew older, her health declined, causing her to reduce the amount of personal appearances she liked to do for the foundation. It was during this time, that Barbara Walters interviewed her at her home, asking if there was anything that she still longed for, having lived such a full life. Elizabeth’s lavender eyes with the double rows of upper lashes lit up and she replied, “Oh yes! To go on feeling good and healthy and to be able to do constructive things…to be able to do things for AIDS like getting my ass out of this house and going to New York or going to Texas or whatever I have to, to raise money. I would give up movies in a second to be healthy enough and well enough to work for AIDS.”

On March 23, 2011, while admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for heart failure, Elizabeth Taylor passed away in the presence of her four loving children. The world mourned the loss of a woman that made it clear in the latter decades of her life, that she was an activist first, and an actress second.

One moment in history offers a clear example of this, when in 1986, Elizabeth sat before a congressional subcommittee to ask for funding for AIDS research. At one point, it became obvious that she wanted to make sure everyone in the room understood that they were dealing with an activist — not an actress, when she declared, “I will not be ignored and I will not go away…so help me, please.” The woman who was exceptionally pretty on the outside, also possessed a supernatural amount of compassion, love and kindness on the inside.

Elizabeth Taylor was a celebrity that used her power to make progress.

The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF)

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