Sheryl Lee Ralph is renowned as an entertainer, having done everything from being part of the original Dreamgirls on Broadway to portraying a post-op transsexual on the TV series Barbershop. However, she is also known for being an HIV/AIDS activist—and in that capacity, she is connected with Bristol-Myers Squibb Company's ( BMS's ) second REYATAZ® "Fight HIV Your Way" Contest.
The contest involves people around the country submitting photographs with essays or videos that express how they deal with HIV/AIDS, whether they are infected or affected. ( The deadline is May 15; see www.fightHIVyourway.com for details. ) Windy City Times talked with Ralph and BMS Associate Director of Corporate & Business Communications Cristi Barnett about the contest and the disease.
Windy City Times: Sheryl, how did you come to be involved in this campaign?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: I heard about the campaign last year. I got a call asking of my interest—and I've always believed that, as [ HIV/AIDS ] changes, people have to change along with it, and any new and exciting outlet that might be involved would be welcomed. And I love the fact that this [ contest ] really challenges the artists within people to put into photographs what HIV/AIDS-infected and –affected lives look like. Often, it's not what many people have in their minds.
Cristi Barnett: There are so many public figures deeply committed to the fight against HIV/AIDS, and we're so excited that we can work with Sheryl Lee Ralph again, because she is one of those people who's so committed.
WCT: Sheryl, when did you first hear of HIV/AIDS?
SLR: It started December 1981. We had already been in rehearsals in Dreamgirls, and there was this big announcement of these five men [ who were infected ] . That following year, guys just started dropping dead; they were sick and they just died—there was no dying process.
Then, the ugly silence started. It was just horrible to witness such an ugly time—right here in America.
WCT: And Broadway has lost so many people.
SLR: AIDS blew out the flame of life on Broadway like candles on a birthday cake, one by one. It was horrible.
WCT: I remember when I was graduating from high school in 1985, and my pastor was saying how people needed to find a cure for AIDS. And here we are, almost 25 years later.
SLR: It's really difficult when you look at it. But the other day I was talking to my dad, and he said it takes 50 years for change to take place. He said, "Look how long it's taken people to [ realize ] that if you smoke a cigarette, you can take years off your life." How long have we been trying to tell people that they need to pay attention to the way they have sex? It's 100 percent preventable. That's why I'm glad there's this contest—so people can bring their own vision of the fight. Some pictures are just beautiful; there are some people who remember back in the day, and there was one woman who took pictures of her children, because that's what she was going to leave them.
WCT: It's got to be emotionally wrenching going through those photos.
SLR: If you take the time to read them, absolutely—and I hope people will take the time to read what they have to say.
WCT: During the '80s, people wore red ribbons and you constantly heard about activism. Would you say that there's more complacency now?
SLR: People don't even know what the red ribbon [ represents ] anymore! I agree so much [ with the statement that people are complacent ] that I created Red Ribbon wear, and I wear this big red crystal ribbon with "DIVA" across the chest. At first, "DIVA" just got people's attention, but they don't know that it stands for "divinely inspired, victoriously anointed," and it was designed to create conversation about what this is all about. Now people think it's about the red dress. Remember what [ the ribbon ] was created for.
We have to continue to have projects like this photo contest where you'll see red ribbons placed prominently in a lot of the work that is done. These are the folks who remember what that ribbon is for.
WCT: You're also a spokesperson for the National Minority AIDS Council. What do you think of the problem with HIV/AIDS in minority communities?
SLR: Well, it's tough being a minority, period—even if you're a woman. Then you add something on top of it that's shrouded in stigma, shame and silence? Sometimes it's too hard for some folks to take.
WCT: What can be done to educate people?
SLR: Those of us who know better can continue to do better. Speak up and speak out. Continue to come up with new and exciting ways to get people involved so they can feel what other people are feeling. I know that the word "empathy" has taken a great deal of bashing these days, but there is nothing wrong with feeling how other people feel. Tomorrow, you might need someone to feel how you feel.
WCT: I mentioned church before. I feel like I'm in it—your passion [ about HIV/AIDS ] is so obvious.
SLR: Hallelujah! [ Laughs ] There is nothing wrong with meeting up with the best that is within us. Often, so many of us have good inside of us but we think it's wrong to be good; we think it's wrong to do good because of so many images we see outside in the world. This project [ shows ] some of the good in people. What do they say—a picture [ is worth ] a thousand words? Hallelujah.
WCT: You've talked a bit about it already, but what do you hope comes out of this contest?
SLR: Oh, I say the same thing: Maybe, just maybe, one person will see something in those photographs that will make them consider the way they live their lives. What are you doing in your personal life that you can change? Are you using a condom each time? Do you talk about abstinence and then come up pregnant? Who are you, really—and how can you address it?
I ask these young women on college campuses how often they use condoms, and they say, "Sometimes." That's just not good enough! You cannot walk around with a time bomb in your vagina. Get informed; know your status. Don't play Russian roulette with your life.
WCT: Cristi, did you want to add anything?
CB: I just wanted to add that, as an organization, Bristol-Myers Squibb is very committed and dedicated to the HIV/AIDS community, and this program is just one way we're trying to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and address the stigma that surrounds the disease. The "Fight HIV Your Way" Contest was designed to raise awareness and inspire those infected and affected by the disease to continue the fight.
See www.fightHIVyourway.com about the contest.