Rihanna is sending out an “SOS” about HIV to her fans. Last year the “Umbrella” singer partnered with MAC Cosmetics in an awareness campaign that is designed to educate young people about the virus.
As part of this campaign, Rihanna walked the red carpet at a recent Hollywood screening of It’s Not Over, a new documentary by Andrew Jenks about three young people affected by HIV in different areas of the world, which is now streaming on Netflix.
The film centers on Paige, an American teenage girl born with the virus who raises awareness of HIV issues in schools throughout the country; Sarang, a gay playwright from India who is staging a production in support of same-sex marriage; and Lucky, an educator from South Africa who is trying to prevent youths from making poor life decisions.
After standing alongside these extraordinary people at the premiere, Rihanna revealed to Plus that it was the statistics about HIV infection that shocked her into participating: People age 13 to 24 accounted for 26 percent of new infections in the U.S. in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Globally, that number is nearly 40 percent.
“That’s younger than I am!” the 26-year-old singer exclaims, looking both professional and chic in a pink gingham blazer and skirt designed by Altuzarra. “That’s how real that is. And people don’t know that, especially young people. It changes all the time, and I think the only way to stop it is to have people know what’s going on.”
Rihanna has tweeted a message to her fans to help educate them on this issue. “Check out #ItsNotOver, a film from @MACAIDSFund about young people affected by #HIV,” she wrote, along with a shareable graphic that stated, “90 percent of U.S. teens don’t think they’re at risk for contracting HIV.”
The post, which was broadcast to her nearly 39 million followers, has been shared 4,500 times and favorited 4,800 times. This proves that a tweet from the right account can translate to major real-world benefits. And by educating influencers of young people, organizations like the MAC AIDS Fund have found an ideal way to pass this lifesaving information on to this group.
“I am very close with my fans, and when MAC approached me about this, I got a whole lot of information [and] a lot of heartbreaking real statistics that I didn’t know,” Rihanna says. “They were very shocking for me, and it’s something that I felt was important for me to get the word out, to spread the word, to educate young people, educate my fans on a matter that’s really killing us and killing the youth.”
Rihanna says she jumped into HIV activism with a real concern for young people, those who are poz and those who are at risk of contracting the virus. In addition to promoting the film, the pop icon also partnered with MAC Cosmetics to be the face of the Viva Glam makeup line, from which 100 percent of sales goes to the MAC AIDS Fund, helping people affected by HIV.
The founders of MAC, Frank Angelo and Frank Toskan, started the MAC AIDS Fund in 1994 with Viva Glam lipstick, which the fund’s website dubs “the first lipstick created to directly confront and raise money and awareness for AIDS at a time when the pandemic dramatically affected the fashion makeup communities, and was greatly stigmatized as a gay disease.” Since then, spokespeople have included RuPaul, Miley Cyrus, Eve, Mary J. Blige, Lady Gaga, Ricky Martin, and Elton John.
Last year the fund, which is fully supported by Viva Glam sales, made a $2 million grant to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, which will help provide testing and treatment to millions of young people around the world as part of its UNAIDS’ Treatment 2015 initiative.
John Demsey, group president of the Estée Lauder Companies, MAC’s parent firm, praised Rihanna’s work to raise awareness and money for such an essential cause.
“MAC Cosmetics has a long history of engaging the right star power to motivate our customers and make an impact on this important cause,” he said in announcing the grant. “With UNAIDS’ resources and strategic thinking and Rihanna’s passionate support, we’re helping save lives one lipstick at a time.”
The “Diamonds” singer is following in the footsteps of one of her role models: the late actress Elizabeth Taylor, who cofounded amfAR and set up the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, and was one of the first celebrities to support people with HIV. In fact, at the 2014 amfAR Inspiration Gala in Los Angeles, Rihanna paid $100,000 for a print of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? actress, which was signed by artist Willy Rizzo.
“Everybody loves Elizabeth Taylor!” Rihanna says. “She’s very glamorous. She’s the best that’s ever done it. But it was for a good cause. I didn’t mind spending every penny on it, because it all went to charity.”
Carrying on the torch of the late public health champion, Rihanna is in the vanguard of a group of young celebrities who are raising awareness of HIV for the millennial generation, which is an at-risk group for infection. Alicia Keys, the 15-time Grammy Award–winning musician, has become one of the most visible celebrity HIV activists of her generation and has been instrumental in championing Greater Than AIDS, which runs campaigns aimed at raising awareness, fighting stigma, and encouraging prevention. Last year’s campaign, “Empowered,” had Keys trumpeting the power of women — as mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, partners, and people living with HIV — to change the course of HIV and AIDS through everyday actions. Keys stumped for the cause at festivals and events, made hearthside videos with HIV-positive women, and used her great social media outreach to get women, both poz and not, to talk about HIV.
Other world-renowned artists, such as Christina Aguilera and Nicki Minaj, have spoken out about HIV as models for the Viva Glam campaign in prior years, and superstar Miley Cyrus has taken on the role in 2015. The “Wrecking Ball” singer has become a strong LGBT supporter in recent years, so many fans hope she’ll be just as outspoken for reducing stigma around people with HIV. In 2013, Cyrus was the subject of a social media hoax that went viral, alleging she had found out she was HIV-positive and including the hashtag #CureForMiley. Fans — those who weren’t in on the “joke” — reacted with support and concern rather than prejudice, and the singer didn’t react to the hoax with hostility. In fact, both then and when it happened again in 2014, after Cyrus was hospitalized with an allergic reaction to a flu medication, the singer didn’t react publicly at all. She felt no need to defend or distance herself from people with HIV, and months later she happily took on the MAC AIDS Fund role with Viva Glam.
Both Cyrus and Rihanna walked the red carpet at the Los Angeles amfAR Inspiration Gala last fall, and both ended up contributing a ton of money to the HIV organization. In addition to bidding on and winning the Elizabeth Taylor print, Rihanna put down a winning $35,000 bid for diamond earrings designed by Harry Winston. Cyrus, who along with boyfriend Patrick Schwarzenegger was also among the attendees at the It’s Not Over screening, spent even more than the Barbadian-born singer. She bid $300,000 on a photograph shot by Ryan McGinley and then gave another $200,000 to amfAR to help support the organization’s search for a cure.
But these young stars are doing more than donating money; they’re opening the eyes of their fans to an epidemic that, as the documentary’s title states, is not over. Their participation is essential to get people caring, talking, and tweeting about a disease that affects us all, regardless of age, sexual orientation, or nationality, a virus that millions more young people are learning to manage and live with than ever before. And words from a renowned singer like Rihanna go a long way toward helping those who don’t have a voice of their own.
“I want to help reach as many young people around the world as I can,” Rihanna said in a statement released by UNAIDS and the MAC AIDS Fund last year. “While we need to begin with education, we also need to deliver HIV testing and treatment to the millions of young people who need our help, which is exactly what we plan to do.”