The 1980s may be fondly remembered for bringing big hair, bad fashion trends, and MTV to the forefront of pop culture, but the decade was also marked by one of the biggest health epidemics in recorded history, AIDS.
Today, music legend Cyndi Lauper, comedian Paula Poundstone, and pop-turned-Broadway princess Debbie Gibson — three women who hit stardom at the height of the AIDS crisis — continue to raise their voices in the battle to stamp out the disease. It’s a fight they’ve proudly fought for almost 30 years and one that’s left its share of scars on their hearts as well.
Lauper, who is celebrating the 30th anniversary of her debut album, She’s So Unusual, with a summer tour of the U.S., recalls the early years when the disease first made an impact on her life. “So many people in my life and in the music industry were dying,” she says. “And not nearly enough was being done by our government at the time to help.”
Though AIDS was spreading at an alarming rate in the early ’80s, education about the disease was practically nonexistent, and President Ronald Reagan would not make a major public statement on it until 1987, the year after Lauper lost her first loved one to the epidemic. “One of my very dear friends, Gregory, passed away in 1986 from AIDS,” she says. “He lived in the apartment upstairs with his partner. We tried to help him through it all as best we could. It was a very scary time.”
As infection rates soared, the public’s lack of education about the disease only intensified its impact. “The thing about AIDS in the beginning was that it scared people,” recalls comedian Paula Poundstone, who honed her craft in San Francisco’s comedy clubs and continues entertaining audiences across the country. “It is the only disease that I can think of, in my lifetime, where people didn’t know where it was coming from. AIDS rode into town on a motorcycle, and the affliction of fear, stigma, and hysteria rode in the sidecar.”
Like the disease, the fear surrounding the epidemic affected people of all ages—a fact Poundstone remembers only too well. “I volunteered at a group home…that was specifically for children with AIDS,” she says. “We were told that these children were languishing, untouchable, in hospitals, where they would die. It was a terrible symptom of hysteria. So many children were unnecessarily brought to facilities and separated from family life because well-intended people were scared of this disease. That was debilitating.”
The disease continued claiming lives throughout the ’90s, becoming an unforgettable aspect of Debbie Gibson’s transition from pop hitmaker to Broadway performer. “It seemed like we were always losing somebody,” Gibson says. “Many times I would finish a show and find out that a former cast member passed. It was really hard. I remember I was in a production of Les Misérables with an actor who was HIV-positive. He was strong as an ox, had an amazing spirit, and played his part beautifully—he was just extraordinary. And the next thing I knew, he passed from HIV/AIDS.”
As difficult as these experiences were, they forged each of these women into advocates dedicated to ending the disease. Over the years, each of them has aligned with and performed for numerous HIV/AIDS charities, causes each of these divas continue to champion.
Most recently, Gibson took a break from writing music for her upcoming album to appear at San Francisco’s One Night Only cabaret performance, a concert benefiting both the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
One of Poundstone’s latest gigs was emceeing the spring benefit for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Midwest’s biggest private source of philanthropic support for HIV services. And while the comedian isn’t surprised we’re still battling HIV, she’s thankful for the progress that’s been made.
“It came on so big and bad, how could we have expected to win that battle any earlier?” she says. “I hope the research and prevention efforts continue as fast as they can…when people die from AIDS, it can never seem fast enough, but remember where we were. In terms of the world’s priorities, I can tell you that the money spent on research and prevention is a good investment.”
Additionally, Lauper has not only been a force of nature in the fight to end HIV, she has also been an unwavering activist for LGBT equality since the beginning of her career. She cofounded the True Colors Fund in 2008, an organization that advocates equality for all and aims to raise awareness of LGBT youth homelessness as well as bring an end to it.
“You fight fear and ignorance through education and awareness,” she says of the motivation behind her advocacy. “Having never been a person who was afraid to speak up, I knew I had to help make some noise and do whatever I could to make a difference.”
That difference has included a long list of HIV charities and organizations with which the singer has worked over the years, including 46664 (the Nelson Mandela–backed campaign to help raise global awareness of HIV and AIDS) and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. In 2010, Lauper and Lady Gaga became the faces of MAC Cosmetics’ highly publicized Viva Glam campaign benefiting the MAC AIDS Fund.
But while charities such as these helped fund the medical breakthroughs that made HIV a more manageable disease, Lauper worries there has been a dangerous shift in the general public’s attitude.
“The biggest challenge today is that people no longer think of HIV/AIDS as an issue,” she says. “But while the drug therapies have done an incredible job of keeping people with HIV alive, it is an arduous journey for people taking the drugs. The side effects are significant. We need to continue to reinvest in prevention efforts and to put all the resources we can into ending the epidemic.”