With piercing blue eyes, a perfect pearly white smile, and great hair (of course), Eric Leonardos is every bit the image of the all-American boy next door. But the dimple-chinned dreamboat is much more than a handsome face. For many, he’s a hero.
The Los Angeles-based celebrity hairstylist and makeup artist gained fame last year when he appeared on Logo’s Finding Prince Charming, a reality competition where gay men vied to win the heart of bachelor Robert Sepulveda Jr. Leonardos won, and — more importantly — came out publicly as HIV-positive while taping the show. Ultimately, the couple’s romance didn’t last, but the impact of Leonardos’s revelation continues to be felt as he joins the small handful of reality stars who have opened up about their poz status — from Pedro Zamora of MTV’s Real World, to stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, and Big Brother.
While reality TV fame was never on his radar, Leonardos’s career as a hairstylist in Los Angeles gives him a fair dose of Hollywood exposure. He’s capitalized on his own celebrity by helping others and trying to reduce the stigma around HIV. Since his appearance on Prince Charming, he’s spent much of his time sharing his story and contributing his talents to worthy causes, like the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS and Project Angel Food.
He stars in the new Plus and Prezcobix-powered I Am a Warrior campaign, talking on camera about his battles with HIV drug resistance. He’s also developing his own nonprofit called Beauty Allies.
Leonardos says he was inspired to start his own organization (which is still in its beginning stages) after teaming up with MAC Cosmetics at a makeover event earlier this year that benefited formerly homeless women. Admittedly, he was also feeling a bit helpless and defeated after the 2016 presidential election.
“I think that young people out there are wanting to do something, to take action, and they’re looking for those opportunities,” Leonardos says. Since his vision for Beauty Allies is primarily giving makeovers to deserving individuals, all donors need to contribute is their time, skills, or space in order to make a difference.
Leonardos feels a strong connection to women and women’s causes, which he says need and deserve more attention.
“Of course for me, some of my main objectives for this organization that are important to me are people living with HIV,” he adds. “Particularly right now, I want to bring a lot of focus and attention to women living with HIV.”
“I cannot tell you how much this event means to our clients,” Terry Goddard II, executive director of Alliance for Housing and Healing, said of the MAC event. “Their joy and gratitude are immeasurable. This kind of activity helps to build self-esteem and pride. When our clients look in the mirror, they see themselves in a whole new and wonderful light.”
Leonardos says in this appearance-obsessed world, he wants to focus on inner beauty and strength in his organization, hoping that the momentary sprucing up will bring a lasting boost of self-esteem and self-worth.
“We already know these people are beautiful, but we want to make sure they know it,” says Leonardos. “The look on their face as they spin around in the chair to look at themselves in the mirror for the first time is so special to me — the confidence they walk away with is priceless.”
Leonardos’s sweet and upbeat personality is both refreshing and endearing. And despite his fresh-off-the-farm good looks, the Texas native possesses wisdom and calmness that seem beyond his years, which might partly be due to the fact that, at 36, Leonardos still looks in his early-20s. But this Prince Charming’s journey hasn’t always been a fairy tale, and some of the wisdom and zest for life he possesses today comes from surviving dark and difficult times.
In a moving speech he delivered at DIFFA-Dallas’s Dining by Design fundraising event this past June, Leonardos opened up about his past to the sold out crowd of 1,600 design VIPs.
“I definitely [told] my story in a way that has not been public yet,” he says.
The eldest of three boys, Leonardos was born and raised in the Bible belt of Houston, Texas, by “sweet, loving, caring parents who are still married and in love after 38 years.”
After coming out to them at 18, Leonardos was given a choice: go to gay conversion therapy or move out. Being fresh out of high school with no means to support himself, he initially opted for the latter, but only lasted 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.”
So, at 18 years old, he found himself alone, broke, ostracized, and depressed. Leonardos says he only survived these times due to the help of caring strangers — and by utilizing the types of community programs and services he generously gives back to today.
“Very early on, I sought out mental health services knowing that I had some de-programming to do,” says Leonardos. “News alert: when you’ve been trying to pray the gay away, and you’ve been thrown out of the house, and you’re gay in Texas in 1999 just in general, you get some issues that require a professional’s intervention,” he explains. “Also, I needed my regular STI test every three to six months, which wouldn’t have been possible without these types of organizations.”
A couple years later, Leonardos moved to the gay-friendlier and progressive Texas city of Austin, with big dreams of making it “to New York City, where I would one day become a famous makeup artist or hairdresser.” The future was indeed looking bright for Leonardos, who quickly found work at an upscale salon after completing beauty school — that is until an unexpected discovery derailed him from his dreams, and once again sent him into darkness.
In 2006, two months before his 25th birthday, Leonardos was excitedly focused on an important presentation he was giving at the salon that day. On his way to work, he stopped in for what he thought was just another routine STI test. But while the doctor continued to speak, Leonardos says he heard nothing after she told him his rapid HIV test had come back positive.
“I entered a dark vacuum, her voice distant and garbled, like someone talking to you underwater,” he recalls. “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 feeling shamed by the first doctor he saw after his diagnosis, he fortunately decided to find a new one — and ultimately met the woman who would help him reverse his hopeless and dreary outlook, Dr. Cynthia Brinson.
“This woman changed my life. She immediately helped me get on a pharmaceutical study she was administering on her off-hours at a nonprofit treatment center,” says Leonardos. “She assured me that I would be okay, that I would live a normal life…. She said, ‘Eric, keep living your dreams.’”
Leonardos has surely had his ups and downs with treating his HIV. The first regimen he was put on in the study gave him “crazy, vivid dreams” and a “loopy, stoned kind of feeling.” Then Leonardos moved to Atripla, which he was on for about 10 years, until his doctor convinced him to switch to Complera, which was then a newer drug with fewer side effects. Like many people on successful treatment, he was hesitant at first to make any changes despite the side effects. Leonardos admits he is now glad he eventually did make the switch in meds, because it had less psychotropic side effects, though he did experience mood changes and depression for a while.
“This is something that is not well known,” Leonardos says of the adjustment period that can happen after a medication switch. As an activist, he wants people to know the experience is normal, urging switchers to “hang in there.” He ended up making one more switch to Odefsey, which is an updated version of Complera with even less toxicity and fewer side effects. Leonardos says even though it can be a bit of a nuisance and disruption to your life, making occasional changes to your drug regimen is necessary because “treatment for HIV is improving every single day.”
Ultimately, Leonardos says, “I’m just a normal person, living with HIV… who just happened to end up on a reality television show,” he says with a laugh. “The real story is that I’m a hairdresser [who works] right out of West Hollywood. This is my real story.”
These days, life is but a dream for Leonardos, who now has a great relationship with his parents. “Today, I am closer to my parents than I’ve ever been,” he says. “My parents have become advocates. [They] changed churches, changed themselves, and their lives.”
Oh, and by the way, last year he ended up fulfilling his dream of styling hair at New York Fashion Week. Take that, universe! (@EricJLeo)