Let’s Get Real: Reality TV and HIV
BY Neal Broverman
November 13 2012 8:05 AM ET
The most famous reality HIV activist was the genre’s first: Pedro Zamora (pictured left), who starred on the third season of MTV’s The Real World in 1994. As sweet and funny as he was passionate and determined, Zamora put a face on the disease, and when he died just one day after the final episode of that season aired, it affected the nation, especially young people. Even President Bill Clinton publicly recognized Zamora’s influence.
Zamora’s boyfriend at the end of his life was Sean Sasser, who appeared frequently on The Real World—the two men even had a wedding ceremony on the show. Sasser, now a pastry chef living in Portland, Ore., says his decision to showcase his life with Zamora on The Real World was something he didn’t spend much time thinking about.
“I was just being who I was at the time,” Sasser recalls. “Those of us afforded the opportunity to be on television see that it’s easier to just be honest with everything that we are, and HIV is just one of many different things you reveal about yourself when you’re in a reality TV situation.”
Eighteen years after appearing on The Real World, Sasser says HIV stigma is still intense, so much so that even female reality stars candid about their HIV are basically nonexistent, both he and Ongina acknowledge.
Maybe it will take reality stars leading the way for HIV-positive celebrities from film and scripted TV—and female reality stars—to follow suit. One thing is certain, seeing representations of HIV-positive people living full, healthy lives can radically alter perspectives for those living with the disease.
“If everyone came out about their status, it would diminish the stigma and draw attention to the need for a cure,” Mackenroth says. “It would also help dispel the many myths of living with HIV and take away much of the fears surrounding disclosure, treatment, and testing.”