Equal parts Liza Minelli, Lucille Ball, and Mae West, Irene Soderberg is a force of nature. The “66 years young” cabaret performer has been an iconic fixture in the LGBTQ community for over 30 years.
Soderberg, who now lives in West Hollywood, was an HIV advocate long before discovering her own status. Though the bubbly blond is a straight cisgender woman, she has always felt at home in the LGBTQ community and still remembers the dark days of the AIDS crisis.
“I lived in Hawaii for five years, ‘82 to ‘87. I talked with my doctor friend who said, ‘See those beautiful boys on the beach? Fifteen of those are my patients.’ I was devastated!” recalls Soderberg. “Having always been a researcher, I knew about GRID [gay-related immune deficiency, as the condition was first called] and Mathilde Krim’s work and hypothesis for amfAR, and knew I had to help.”
In the 30 years since, Soderberg has raised millions for those living with HIV with her wildly entertaining and inventive stage shows. San Francisco declared April 21 “Irene Soderberg Day” in 2002 for her tireless work and contributions to HIV and AIDS causes over the years. Still, her success as a performer at the time was bittersweet.
By the late 1980s and before today’s highly effective antiretrovirals were developed, death was all around. “Three hundred close friends died in three years,” laments Soderberg. “Such tragedy — the humanity of so many incredible beings cut short in the prime of their lives. My reason for being was clear. It was my job to entertain, enlighten, and bring hope to a generation decimated by AIDS.”
Soderberg was also dealt another blow in 1990 while living in San Francisco, when she discovered she had acquired HIV from her husband. Despite her activism and support of those living with HIV, she remained quiet about her status for a long time. However, frustrated with the progress our society has made around HIV issues, she recently decided to publicly acknowledge that she is living with HIV, to help eradicate stigma and inspire others.
“I’m speaking out now because it’s important people get inspiration and validation from whatever source they can,” she told the CV Independent in 2013.
Last year proved to be another challenging one for the performer. After writing a new show, she was in a car accident, thwarting her plans to tour. But with her trademark toughness and class, the sassy survivor says she’s not letting anything slow her down.