From Madonna to Miley: 30 Years of World AIDS Day and Celeb Advocacy

A look back at the ways stars worked with activists to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.

December 1 marks the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, a global observance to show support for people living with HIV and to remember the lives lost from the impact of the disease.

Over the last three decades, many celebrities have used their platform to work alongside activists to raise awareness and money through their involvement with organizations dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS.

Madonna, never one to shy away from controversy, showed us her rebel heart decades ago while living in New York’s Lower East Side, when the HIV epidemic was hitting gay men the hardest but widespread knowledge was still in its infancy. Madge was one of the first celebrities to speak out, even hosting an AIDS benefit concert during a time that was characterized by fear and stigma by association.

Cyndi Lauper, who had lost many friends in the beginning stages of her career, also took action to support early fundraising events through APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles). Her activism continues to this day as she often reminds fans of the ongoing need for prevention despite the benefit of today’s therapies.

Ron Galella/WireImage
Cyndi Lauper with Rod Stewart (far left)

Elizabeth Taylor was a pioneer in mobilizing other actors to help raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis and dedicated much of her estate to charities fighting AIDS.
Starting with a small group of physicians and scientists, she formed amFAR (the Foundation for AIDS Research), becoming the National Chairman and spokesperson.

LGI Stock/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Taylor, and Calvin Klein

Joan Rivers had a nearly 30-year relationship with amFAR with her performances at events bringing in major funding for research and education. She even inspired the Broadway community to form Broadway Cares, which has been an amFAR partner for years.

In the early 90s, Elton John founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation, inspired after losing two friends in the span of one year—Ryan White and Freddie Mercury. To date, the foundation has raised over $400 million to support programs in over 55 countries. Victoria Beckham, Annie Lennox, and the late George Michael have also made major contributions.

Artists like TLC were boldly outspoken about HIV prevention throughout the 90s and Salt-N-Pepa stirred up controversy with “Let’s Talk About Sex” that aimed to break the stigma of openly discussing sex and HIV prevention.

Michel Linssen/Redferns
Janet Jackson later penned “Together Again” about losing a close friend to AIDS.
Meanwhile, Broadway shows Rent and Angels in America hit the stage, shedding light on the experiences of people living with HIV and AIDS.

MAC created its Viva Glam product line in the mid-90s launched by RuPaul to support HIV/AIDS organizations globally. This was the start of an incredible string of celebrities who have touched this campaign for nearly 25 years.

With the 80s and 90s as good reminders of why the LGBTQ community continues to celebrate the advocates that stood by us throughout the early days of this “gay disease,” celebrity support in the 00s and beyond have allowed for a deeper dive into communities at greatest risk.

Beyond general awareness and prevention, more recent efforts have taken the conversation to the next level, with organizations like GMHC, Black AIDS Institute, in addition to MAC, discussing the disease through access to care, poverty, aging populations, social constructs, and misconceptions.

Sia is the current Viva Glam ambassador, joining a long roster of notable predecessors including Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Fergie, Ariana Grande, Christina Aguilera, Missy Elliott, and Lil’ Kim.

Lady Gaga focused her campaign efforts on women’s sexual empowerment whereas Rihanna tackled the rise of infections in young adults. Before collaborating with MAC, Sia’s “Free Me” video called attention to HIV and AIDS as the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide.

In 2015, Miley Cyrus used her campaign to address eliminating stigma. While her non-profit Happy Hippie partnered with the brand to help transgender people living with HIV/AIDS in L.A. and San Francisco find medical care and housing.

There is still critical work to be done on ways to reduce transmission and treat those infected. This year’s World AIDS Day theme is “Know Your Status” with HIV testing as the focus. There is also a need to continue conversations around education and fighting the stigma of HIV and AIDS. According to UNAIDS, “We are winning the fight against HIV, but we are losing the fight against ignorance.”

Today, amFAR has also grown exponentially with New York and L.A. galas that rival the Academy Awards in star-studded attendance. This year, Katy Perry was honored for her ongoing support and advocacy.

Rich Fury/Getty Images for amfAR

2019 brings the hope of a new experimental vaccine expected to be in human trials by the second half of the year. Keep your fingers crossed we’ll one day see “get your HIV shot” campaigns featuring our favorite advocates.

Jay writes about music and pop culture since us LGBT folks pretty much run these kinds of things.