What better way to raise funds for a great cause than with fashion, fanfare, and dozens of gorgeous, near-nude models artfully covered in body-paint? Yes, DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) definitely knows how to throw a party — but the at the heart of the event, and beyond the fun and fantasy, is a very real issue. The event ended up raising over $1.5 million, which goes to various HIV/AIDS service organizations in North Texas.
The “House of DIFFA: Arabesque” marked the 27th year of the annual fundraiser, this year put on by DIFFA-Dallas. 1600 people attended the sold-out event, which took place at the Omni Dallas Hotel in Texas on May 6th, and featured a theatrical fashion presentation with over 200 models and dancers. Guest speaker Eric Leonardos delivered a powerful and moving speech, sharing his own story of living with HIV, which he bravely came out publicly about on the Logo reality show Finding Prince Charming last year.
In his speech, Leonardos spoke candidly about his issues with depression before and after his initial diagnosis. Now, having lived with HIV for over a decade, he discusses how his recent birthday was a symbolic full-circle moment in his life, and how organizations like the ones that DIFFA supports helped him through these challenging times.
Today, Leonardos is happy, healthy, and a mega-successful celebrity hairstylist, and uses his status and talents to support and bring attention to a variety of causes, including HIV and women’s issues, which he is especially passionate about.
Here are some excerpts from Leonardos speech from the DIFFA-Dallas “Arabesque” fundraiser:
“May 29th marks the beginning of my life. I am the firstborn of three boys, born and raised in Houston, Texas into a conservative Baptist, God-fearing wholesome Texas family. My parents… are sweet, loving, caring parents who are still married and in love after 38 years.
When I was 18, I came out of the closet and was quickly asked to move out unless I agreed to go to ex-gay therapy. After a few sessions with a “counselor” who was about as ex-gay as RuPaul, let's just say I made a life choice to stop going.
Since that point at 18 years old, I've been surviving pretty much on my own with the assistance of services like DIFFA Dallas supports. Very early on I sought out mental health services knowing that I had some de-programming to do.”
In this section, Leonardos talks about his initial diagnosis:
“Wait...what? Huh? I am positive, I'm HIV-positive? Silence... I heard nothing; she kept talking and I entered a dark vacuum, her voice distant and garbled, like someone talking to you underwater.
In that one moment, I felt all of my dreams die. This was 2006 and a positive diagnosis felt like a very different animal than it does today. I wouldn’t go to New York and work fashion week; I wouldn’t have love in my life; I’d never have a husband; I wouldn’t be happy; I wouldn’t be able to afford treatment; I may not even live. These thoughts are irrational of course — we all know that or we wouldn’t be here. But I cannot tell you how convinced I was, in a split second, that this was going to be my future.”
After experiencing shaming from his first doctor after his diagnosis, Leonardos found support with a new doctor, and help from friends, family, and community organizations — and was able to continue to follow his dreams.
“A year later, my dreams were alive again, and I decided to move to L.A. to further my career… everything started working out, thanks to the kindness of these giving strangers. But I cannot stress this enough — these organizations restored my dreams, which has impacted people beyond just myself. The impact they make creates a ripple effect...of hope, and health, and... love, really.
Since then, my work as a makeup artist and hairdresser has been featured on magazine covers. I have a regular celebrity client that keeps me busy doing red carpet hair for events like The Emmys. And in 2016, I got an opportunity to style hair at New York City Fashion week.”
“My parents have become advocates, changed churches, changed themselves and their lives. We have experienced a miraculous transformation from shame and shunning, to unconditional love. And my parents touch other parents...and those parents touch other parents. And none of this would have been possible, without the support of organizations like those DIFFA supports.”
“So really, I am here today to say...thank you. Thank you for my life. Thank you letting me live my dreams. Thank you for my 36th birthday May 29, 1981. And thank you for the love of my mom and dad, a greater gift than I could have ever imagined.”