When Eric Leonardos found out he was HIV-positive at a small clinic in Austin, Texas, he was running late for a presentation at work. The then-25-year-old hair stylist was forced to pull himself together long enough to run back and deliver it, only to collapse in the hallway a little later, overcome with emotion.
Ten years later, Leonardos has become one out of a handful of reality TV stars to come out as HIV-positive on national television — something we’re sure he didn’t foresee sitting alone in that hallway. As one of the suitors on Logo’s smash hit, Finding Prince Charming, he chose to disclose his status publicly, broadening the conversation around HIV awareness in mainstream media.
In an exclusive interview with Plus, he shares even more about his experience as a gay man living with HIV, including how his mom found out about his status after finding his meds, the constant rejection from men, his opinion on hookup apps, what celebrity he thinks would make the perfect husband, and why he’s not a fan of Charlie Sheen.
What was the emotional journey you had to go through to accept your positive status, and how did you bring that to the show?
I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone. I was afraid if work found out that maybe I would get kicked off their insurance. I was afraid of how I was going to afford the doctor bills. How am I going to afford the medication? All these things started floating in my head [like], What I’m going to do now? Who’s going to love me now? Dating as a gay man is hard enough — being rejected — and sometimes trying to maneuver through who’s the right person for you. And now this?
You were in Texas, right?
I lived in little Austin, Texas and every gay man I knew knew each other, so in the beginning it was fear. Overwhelming fear came in, and my initial reaction was, Okay we got this, alright, what do I need to do now? I immediately started gong to therapy and it really began to point me in the direction of my spiritual journey and how I feel about my understanding of God, and the way the world works, and my place in it — what my purpose is. Finding out I was HIV-positive, at the beginning, I was riddled with fear. But eventually it was an awakening moment for me. And it really made me stop and say, “You know what, what do I got to lose? Let’s take a chance, let’s do something. Go big or go home.”
I had some time in the first year [of discovering his status] that I tried dating a little bit and I didn’t know how to deal with the rejection from people, you know, being honest about being positive. Every time I would date someone and we’d get to that place where it was time to tell or time to disclose, you know, the rejection and the rejection and the rejection. It was really starting to get to me. I called my friend and he was like, “Come [to L.A.]. People here are more educated. They understand what undetectable means. They’re not afraid of it, people here know how to protect themselves. They’re not ignorant. There are even more opportunities to work for you." I came to L.A. I told people I came here to better my career, but really I’m here to be accepted by the community around me.
How important is it to have HIV-positive people around you when you’re first diagnosed?
I don’t know if I would have been able to make it through if I didn’t have that and if I wasn’t able to be honest with that one particular friend. I was able to tell that person and they were able to support me and give me direction. I think I could have slipped into a really dark place because this friend, he really held my hand and took charge. He called the doctor for me, because when I found out I was almost paralyzed with not knowing what to do, just scared. At that time, 10 years ago, the main message out there was not, “You will live a long, full, happy life if you take care of yourself and take medication.” The message was, “We think you’ll be OK.”
Having a good doctor is still critical.
Even the doctor I went to was a little shaming. I ended up using a different doctor who I felt more comfortable with, and I was able to be very open about the way I lived my life. I was comfortable talking about sex and talking about anything in my life that was important to my treatment. And I think that is really important, the relationship you have with your doctor, to tell them anything, because there are so many people out there that have many different sexual practices. And being able to be open and upfront with your doctor is the best way to take care of yourself, to protect yourself, and to protect other people.
Especially nowadays, when studies have shown that one in three doctors don’t even know about PrEP. Tell me a little bit about how you came out to your family and friends. How did you prepare for it?
I was staying home for the holidays. My mother found some of my medication on the table, and she looked it up and knew what it was. When she asked me about it, I tried to beat around the bush. Several years later, I was like, OK, I have to talk about this. I need to share with my family that part of me because it’s not all of who I am, but its definitely part of what’s changed the trajectory of my life. Whenever I’d go home and see my family, it was mostly on special occasions — holidays, somebody’s birthdays, special events — and the last thing you want to do is bring a dark could over it and ruin the week. I knew it would make them feel uncomfortable, but years went on and I began educate them. I began to feel more comfortable because I was like, “OK, they’re educated about this now. Let's just be open and honest about everything in my life.”
It was also about being comfortable with myself on all levels, not just around HIV. It was more like, “OK, lets put your real self out there and just be yourself.”
That must have been a relief.
Growing up in Texas, I learned to change my behavior, to not always necessarily be myself so I can receive the acceptance of other people. There was a period in my life — becoming an adult and more comfortable at being a gay man and HIV-positive, and living in Los Angeles, where sometimes you’re image is everything — I began to not care so much about what people thought about me. This was sort of that opportunity to be a little bit more upfront and honest and clear with my family: "This is who I am, you know I am gay, I like men. I want to date them. I want to get married. I want to have children possibly. I’m HIV-positive. And I want to be free and open to talk about it, to be able to say what I mean, what I think and feel, rather than say what will make you more comfortable."
Is there a quality about yourself that helped you push through the stigma around HIV? How did you get to that point of not caring what people think?
There’s an organization here in L.A. called the Thrive Tribe. It’s a small community of gay men and their focus is on treatment, prevention, and connection to care. I went to the meeting. It was just a little mixer, a little gathering of guys and everybody there was HIV-positive and that was the beginning point for me where I felt I could be around other people who were HIV-positive and have a social engagement. If I wanted to talk about what I was feeling or anything, or if there were people that were newly diagnosed, I was able to share my story with them. I was able to take them to coffee, or stand in the gap at that moment. That sort of brotherhood that began with those people allowed me to feel comfortable in talking about my status with other people. Every single time I’ve ever told someone I was HIV-positive, and they were loving and accepting and treated my like a normal person, when they didn’t have sympathy with me, but maybe just some empathy, and they were compassionate, that made it easer for me to tell the next person and the next person and the next person, until it wasn’t such a big deal, until I didn’t care if they had a problem with it or not.
Over the years of being rejected by people I was dating over and over again, I began to build a thicker skin and say, “I have a choice here, I can either fold and allow this to affect me." Or I can say, "You know, they’re just not educated." A lot of times, I’d say, “Go check [this website], why don’t you get more information? You don’t need to be so afraid to date somebody or have sex with somebody who’s HIV-positive, especially if they’re on treatment they’re compliant with."
Do you remember the best advice you ever got in one of those meetings?
To really be there in support of people who are newly diagnosed. When you’re able to be there to help other people, it feeds you more than it may even feed them. It’s reciprocal, and it just continues to flow. Some of the organizations I’ve begun to do work with, like AIDS Project Los Angeles, listening to what their needs are and being like, “OK, what do you need help with? What can I bring awareness to? This is what I’m good at. I’m good at this. How can I help you?” Just being of service, seeing what people’s needs are.
The feeling many people get when they’re first diagnosed is that they’re alone, but they’re not alone. The community is there.
It’s there! In urban cities like LA, New York, Chicago, and Miami, it’s really easy to find the support and help you need. However, the smaller and more rural cities in America, that’s where people fall through the cracks. Now that we have the Internet, we have a way to connect people and help them in that way, and help to guide them so that we can answer those questions and provide that sort of connection. It’s something I’m passionate about and I think it’s what we need to work on in our community.
As someone who’s been a contestant on a dating show, what do you think is the perfect date?
I like to be surprised! I like to be picked up and taken somewhere. I like to be taken care of. It feels nice. And I like to do that for someone else also, but if somebody is going to take me on a date, then I like them to come to the door, you know, I like the surprise. I like doing something that I maybe haven’t done before, that’s really interesting for them, where I can learn more about who they are, and just have fun and have a good time.
Dates are so unsurprising nowadays, aren’t they? They tend to be cliché.
Well, sometimes the way people meet today are on the Internet. They meet through Tinder or Grindr or this app, on Facebook they see someone they like, and they meet that way and all they know is what they see on social media. I think the first thing to do is to meet for a coffee and see if you’re crazy or not. Then well take it the next level. I think that excitement on a first date can get downplayed because meeting the person is really where that romantic moment can happen, like that’s really where romance can live. Those face-to-face moments meeting in person, at the grocery store, at the gym, walking down the street, wherever. That’s really the best moments. Some of the best relationships I’ve had is when I’ve actually met this person face-to-face and was able to have that really cute moment where you have a crush on them and have that moment, which is what Finding Prince Charming was.
Dating that way can desensitize people too. I’m all for Tinder, I’m all for Grindr, but at the same time you have to understand that a person isn’t a device.
It’s a new tool that people have to date with, and they’re getting used to it. I think eventually people will get tired of it and say, "You know, this doesn’t work that well the way that I’m using it. So maybe I’ll try something different." At least I hope that’s how it works out.
I think you should have your own show and call it Prince Eric.
I love it! I think it’s a great idea.
What do you do during the bad days when you’re not feeling so fabulous? How do you pick yourself back up again?
What I do is I pray, I mediate, and I ask for help if I need help with something. If I’m having a bad day I’ll call one of those important people in my life: my mom, several close friends. Somebody that I’ve actually been talking to so much more lately is Robbie from the show. He’s become a really good friend of mine. And lately ["Prince Charming"] Robert (Sepulveda Jr.) also. What it comes down to is me coming back to my center, taking a moment to stop, take a deep breath, and really bring it back to now. If I can take a minute and go outside, look at the things around me, look at what is right in front of me, right now. If it’s a plant or a tree or the sky, that’s what is happening right now in the moment. Is everything OK right now? Do I have money in my pocket? Do I have food at home. Can I pay my bills? And something I tell myself all the time is that everything is working out … If I can believe that, if I make that truth for me, then I know everything is going to be OK and its all going to work out.
The next question is a really hard one.
Who’s your celebrity Fuck/Marry/Kill?
Oh! OK, so fuck would be Joe Manganiello.
That’s a good one!
Let’s see, I hate killing, I hate that.
Or a kiss goodbye? I like that one. Let’s see, probably Charlie Sheen. I might kiss him goodbye, don’t care for him very much. And who’d I think would make a good husband? Oh, Matt Bomer. Yeah I would totally marry him.