Here TV — a division of Here Media, which publishes Plus — has premiered Mess, the semi-autobiographical account of writer/star Paul Victor’s first 6 months of living with HIV.
Directed by Jason Lee Courson and executive produced by Billy Porter and Michael J Burg, the series explores issues around what it's like being poz in the 21st century, aspects of the sex work industry, love, life, relationships, and hookup culture.
Mess stars Victor as Andy, a 20-something aspiring actor trying to navigate life in New York City after he’s thrown a major curve ball when he’s diagnosed with HIV.
Plus spoke to Victor about the series premiere on Here TV, and the transition from web to television series.
Above: Paul Victor
On Andy and his friends being total messes: "Most young people that move to a city like New York are just sort of figuring how to survive go through a period where they aren’t exactly polished. I think being a mess is part of being an adult."
On HIV Stigma: "There are assholes everywhere but generally I’ve found that when confronted with my truth in person, people tend to be supportive," Victor explains. "When you put a face to something scary or taboo or whatever, it suddenly becomes real and grounded and therefor it can’t be as scary. When I was diagnosed I was terrified and in a lot of pain, but I also remember a very palpable sense of relief. Here was this thing I was TERRIFIED of, and all of a sudden I had it and the world kept spinning and I didn’t die and the joys of life and the mundane of the day-to-day, and the craziness of being 22 and in New York and not having any money and all of that shit that I was already dealing with pre-diagnosis was still there. The only thing that really changed was my perspective. And for that I’m oddly grateful."
On the general populace’s views on HIV: "There’s still plenty of people who think it's a death sentence and a disease of only slutty people," he says. "Even in the gay community and with the [practice] of PrEP, there’s slut shaming and this idea that if you’re poz or on PrEP then you’re super promiscuous and slutty and ‘asking’ for it. and who fucking cares?! If you’re paying your own rent then fuck whoever you want! You’re an adult! I think part of that stems from the ‘it happens to other people’ defense mechanism I was talking about earlier. HIV can affect anyone."
He continues: "There’s plenty of stories of people seroconverting within monogamous relationships and everything in between. All we can do is be open and honest and tell our stories and hopefully break down stigma, person by person. I’m a believer in nudging the needle, not throwing out the meter altogether. So, we’re so much farther than we were in terms of dealing with the disease and shedding light on its truth, but we also have a long way to go. I would say you can only change a mind that wants to be changed, but I’ve certainly been surprised in the past by how willing and open people are to hearing new perspectives."
On safe sex messaging failing Millenials: "I think the biggest misstep of the messaging in the media is there’s sort of a gap in terms of HIV storytelling. Everything out there is a period piece of either the 1980s or 1990s when it was tantamount to a death sentence. So we’re brought up being terrified of this thing. Being scared leads to shame and not getting tested or being proactive about your sexual health and a host of other issues that just don’t help anyone. Where are the stories of what HIV is like in the early 2000s? Today? Hopefully Mess does something to advance the overall story of HIV and kids these days will have something to go to to say ‘hey this thing isn’t so scary after all. Getting tested isn’t scary. Questioning condom use isn’t scary. Saying no isn’t scary. HIV isn’t something to take lightly, but we’re not living in the throes of a plague anymore. It’s never been easier to prevent HIV. It’s never been easier to treat HIV. This shit should be shouted from the rooftops and yet the media remains mostly quiet."
Victor explains how the Here TV series will differ from the web version: "Well, things will be a little tighter in terms of editing and focus. Other than that, Here TV has been very supportive in allowing us to tell this story exactly how we intended to. Other than a Here TV watermark there won't really be any major changes, which is great!"
On Life after the success: "Everything that has happened regarding Mess since I first printed out the first draft of the script has been icing on the cake. The fact that anybody other than me would be interested in the project has been such a pleasant surprise. I'm an actor first. It's what I studied in school. It's how I've made a living so far after school. It's what I identify as first artistically. As an actor I feel like there's always a feeling of helplessness. How do I have any power over my career when it's all up to whether or not people behind a table like you? Writing a project for myself has been a great outlet and way to give myself some agency. For the first time it didn't matter what someone behind the table thought; I knew I was right for it because it was mine! So moving forward, it's nice to know I have the ability to do that for myself and my friends."
He continues: "One thing that's been a nice surprise already is the amount of people that have reached out and expressed feelings of being seen and heard with the show. We're telling a story that hasn't really been explored yet so people I think are ready for it. And I certainly don't consider myself an expert or anything but it's been incredibly validating to have people reach out to talk about the subject."
As far as how his views have changed: "A major issue my character, Andy, deals with is the idea that once you're poz, guys just assume that the condoms conversation doesn't need to happen. That's something I dealt with all the time when I was first diagnosed, and as someone who was used to using condoms I couldn't understand the thought process behind it. And this was before PreP. Now, at least in New York, it seems that everyone is either poz or on PreP, and condoms are, again, not really part of the conversation.
"It's a bit of a weird time to be a sexually active gay man. And there are conversations that aren't being had that I think need to be. So Andy is sort of passive when it comes to protecting himself and that stemmed directly from my experiences. I was so confused and had no idea how I really stood on the issue, and that manifested itself in irresponsibility. I now have a pretty solid stance on what I think is best, for me. Which is a nice change."